NLDS Takeaways: Cardinals, Nationals on brink after pivotal gambits fail

Watch as Russell Martin connects for a two-run home run in Game 3 of the NLDS.

There can be a reluctance to deviate from accepted norms, even with the game more open-minded than ever, because baseball orthodoxy is so deeply ingrained. So, shoutout to St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt and the Washington Nationals for bucking convention, and in the post-season no less. That takes courage and conviction, which should count for something.

Never mind that the Cardinals’ decision to put the go-ahead run on base in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game backfired, setting up a riveting 3-1 Atlanta Braves victory that has St. Louis facing elimination Monday. Or that the Nationals are on the brink, too, having scrapped plans to start Max Scherzer in favour of the slop-tossing Anibal Sanchez, only to be undone by some sketchy relief work from Patrick Corbin in a 10-4 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Got to play to win the game,” is how Shildt put it, and he’s absolutely right. Sometimes, the so-called right decisions don’t work, so all a manager, a team can do is make the best decision it can in the moment and live with the results, even if in both cases they were hard to stomach.

The ninth inning at Busch Stadium

Playoff pitching duels are awesome, with Canadian Mike Soroka and Adam Wainwright offering the latest example of why they’re so compelling. More on that later, but both men were finished for the night when Carlos Martinez came out for the top of the ninth to protect a 1-0 Cardinals lead.

Now, you may recall how Martinez nearly coughed up a four-run lead in Game 1 of the series before holding on in a 7-6 win, and things started inauspiciously for him again when Josh Donaldson opened the inning with a double and was pinch-run for by Billy Hamilton.

Martinez quickly bounced back to strike out both Nick Markakis and pinch-hitter Adeiny Hechavarria, which brought out Shildt for a chat on the mound. The next batter was Brian McCann, the veteran, left-handed hitting catcher, while behind him was shortstop Dansby Swanson, a righty-handed batter whose .187 batting average (23-for-123) with runners in scoring position was the lowest among qualified hitters this season.

Convention is that you never put the go-ahead run on base, but the Cardinals needed only one out. Swanson certainly seemed to be the likelier candidate to make it.

Shildt ordered McCann walked intentionally bringing up Swanson, who swatted a game-tying double. Adam Duvall, whose two-run homer in the seventh inning of Game 2 sealed a 3-0 victory, then delivered a go-ahead, two-run double off Martinez.

Game over.

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Afterwards, Shildt found himself on the defensive for both the decision to walk McCann, and sticking too long with Martinez.

“Everybody felt like that was the best matchup, including the guy on the mound. Took our shot. Didn’t make a pitch, and made him pay,” said Shildt, who was later asked if the Cardinals needed to reconsider things in the ninth inning. “We’ll continue to evaluate it. It’s a final, I get it. Now we’re in a do-or-die situation, and really looking forward to (Monday’s) game, quite honestly. But guys have gotten us here. It’s hard to look at them and say, ‘Oh, you didn’t do something well.’ The proverbial ‘I’ve got your back until things don’t go well.’

“But we’ve also got to recognize and evaluate what we see as well, and compete in the moment. And had complete confidence that he was going to be able to make a pitch there to Swanson, and didn’t happen.”

That’s a good answer, even if the fans in St. Louis won’t want to hear it.

Mad Max and the Nationals pitching staff

Manager Davey Martinez essentially has five pitchers he trusts right now — Scherzer, Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson — and the Nationals are trying to find ways for them to cover as many innings of this series as possible. Who can blame them? Would you give the ball to Fernando Rodney or Hunter Strickland in leverage if you could avoid it?

So, they’ve gotten creative, using Strasburg behind Scherzer in the wild-card game and then flipping things in a 4-2 win over the Dodgers in Game 2, although the feasibility of such an approach is doubtful in a five-game series, let alone a seven-gamer should they advance.

Anyway, Scherzer’s inning Friday wasn’t supposed to keep him from starting Sunday, but when the Nationals talked things over, they decided “an extra day would probably be the best thing for me and for the team,” explained the right-hander. “That was Davey’s decision and it’s Davey’s call.”

Enter Sanchez, who slopped his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the first unscathed, and then mixed and matched his six pitches through the next four innings, striking out nine — NINE! — batters while allowing only a Max Muncy solo shot. It was a dream outing for the Nationals, who wisely pulled him while holding a 2-1 lead and before the Dodgers really unloaded on him.

Still, for their plan to work, Corbin had to be nails and he wasn’t. Canadian Russell Martin opened the floodgates with a two-run double that pushed the Dodgers ahead. Kiké Hernández then delievered another two-run double that extended the lead, before Justin Turner put things away with a three-run homer off Wander Suero, who reinforced why the Nationals shouldn’t trust their bullpen.

All is not lost for Washington, although it needs Scherzer to save the season in Game 4 and force Strasburg into pitching a deciding Game 5.

O Canada

Listen, we get the mania around Bianca Andreescu. She’s more than earned it and she’ll be a deserving winner of the Lou Marsh Award as Canadian athlete of the year. But Mike Soroka’s phenomenal season has been shamefully underappreciated in this country, and to a certain degree across baseball, too.

Consider that the 22-year-old from Calgary posted a 2.68 ERA and 1.111 WHIP over 174.2 innings, producing a substantial 5.6 WAR while earning an all-star nod. It was legit ace stuff, and he looked the part every step along the way, with the poise of someone 10 years his senior.

Little surprise then that he shoved in his post-season debut, allowing only a run on two hits over seven brilliant innings, striking out seven while throwing only 90 pitches. He retired a Braves post-season record 17 straight batters from the second to the seventh innings.

Only Wainwright kept him from getting a win, holding the Braves scoreless for 7.2 innings on four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts.

O Canada Part Deux

Good for Russell Martin, in what may be his final stretch as a player. The 36-year-old started the 58th post-season game of his career Sunday because Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu had a 1.52 ERA in 20 games when paired with the Toronto-born, Montreal-raised backstop, and he guided the left-hander through five traffic-filled innings of two-run ball while also delivering a pivotal two-run double and later adding a two-run homer.

A World Series is all that’s missing from his resume, and he helped move the Dodgers a step closer to that goal.

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