NLDS Takeaways: Nationals, Cardinals advance in very different ways

The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate after beating the Atlanta Braves 13-1 in Game 5 of their National League Division Series. (Danny Karnik/AP)

After a pair of Game 5’s on Wednesday, one devoid of drama and the other oozing it, the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals will have only a day to regroup before they begin the National League Championship Series Friday night at Busch Stadium. Could be another coin flip series in a 2019 MLB post-season rich with uncertainty. But before we get there, let’s look back at how both teams qualified with takeaways from Wednesday’s action.

St. Louis Cardinals 13 — Atlanta Braves 1

Quick Start

If you tuned in for this one 20 minutes late, you essentially missed the ballgame. Ten of the first 11 batters St. Louis sent to the plate reached base and all of them scored, as Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz melted into the mound during a nightmare first inning.

Max Fried relieved Foltynewicz only an out into the game and didn’t fare much better, walking the opposing pitcher in his first plate appearance. He then let the Cardinals score an 11th run in the second inning, before giving way in the third to Luke Jackson, who allowed a pair of his own. The Cardinals had 13 runs before they’d recorded 9 outs. The game was, for all intents and purposes, over.

There isn’t much reason to finely pick apart what went so wrong for Foltynewicz, Fried, and Jackson. It was a combination of spotty command, the Cardinals jumping all over some poorly executed pitches, a few balls in play that ended up in perfect spots, and a couple of misplays from Atlanta’s defence.

Anything can happen in a single game of baseball, which is what makes elimination games such toss-ups no matter the relative quality of the two team’s involved. You’re bound to see a lopsided outcome like this every once and a while. Does that mean St. Louis is a better team than Atlanta? Nope. But they were better on Wednesday.

A Manager’s Decision

With his team up by a touchdown and a field goal midway through the first inning, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt had an interesting decision to make. Should he let his starter, Jack Flaherty, burn an outing in a game that may already be over? Or should he lift his ace before he even threw a pitch and save him for Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday?

On one hand, St. Louis’s win expectancy was 98 per cent after half an inning. A comeback was extremely unlikely. Why use precious pitches from Flaherty — St. Louis’s best starter — to protect a double-digit lead? Surely, they’d be much more valuable against the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals in a couple days.

On the other hand, the Braves still had 27 outs to play with and an offence that scored double-digit runs 19 times this season. And it’s the MLB playoffs — crazy things happen. Shildt could end up saving Flaherty for an NLCS his team didn’t qualify for thanks to a bullpen implosion.

Ultimately, Shildt let Flaherty pitch his outing, choosing to focus entirely on winning the game in front of him. You can see his reasoning. Flaherty gave the Cardinals the best chance to win a game they could not lose. Plus, if Shildt had lifted Flaherty, and somehow the Braves came all the way back to win, the second-year manager would have been widely lampooned.

You can also make an argument that Flaherty was going to be available for two games of the NLCS — in this case, Games 3 and 7 — regardless of whether he was left in the game or not. But the counter-argument is that Games 1 and 5, which Flaherty could have pitched if lifted from Wednesday’s start, are more important than Games 3 and 7. Winning the first game of a series is massively important, and there’s far more likely to be a Game 5 than a Game 7.

Or how about a third option: letting Flaherty throw 30-40 pitches, which should be enough to get him through at least a couple innings — probably three — then lifting him. That way you get the benefit of Flaherty’s effectiveness early on, and the added information that your team has now gone up by 13 through three innings. Having thrown only 30-40 pitches — essentially a long bullpen session — Flaherty could have come back for the second game of the NLCS, and possibly even the first.

It’s all moot anyway. Shildt left Flaherty in for six innings and 104 pitches. He was spectacular, allowing only a run while striking out eight. The Braves never sniffed a comeback. But if the Cardinals don’t get good outings from their starters in Games 1 or 2 of the NLCS, they’ll have to wonder whether or not Shlidt made the right call.

Washington Nationals 7 — Los Angeles Dodgers 3, 10 innings

Where Art Kenley?

In the name of not burying the lede, the Dodgers led this one for a while, the Nationals tied it up late to force extras, and then 36-year-old Howie Kendrick of all people vanquished a hanging Joe Kelly curveball into the shadow realm beyond the centre field fence for a game-winning 10th-inning grand slam. Sheesh.

Why Kelly was the one pitching in that spot and not the club’s closer, Kenley Jansen, is a question only Dodgers manager Dave Roberts can answer. Was Jansen hurt or otherwise unavailable? Nope, he relieved Kelly two batters after the grand slam. Is Jansen less effective currently than Kelly? The results indicate otherwise.

It’s not a good look and whatever explanation Roberts offers after the game isn’t going to do anything to quell the due criticism he’ll face in the wake of this one from his team’s fanbase. The Dodgers won 106 games this season with a plus-273 run differential. They’ve won at least 91 games each of the last seven seasons, qualifying for the playoffs every year. And this season is ending the same way as the last six — without a World Series banner.

Another Manager’s Decision

Anyway, when we were all younger the Dodgers were teeing off on Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg in the first inning Thursday, as Joc Pederson hit a 102-m.p.h. double, Max Muncy hit a 101-m.p.h. homer, and Matt Beaty hit a 105-m.p.h. single. Two runs went up on the board.

And the Dodgers picked up where they left off in the second as Kike Hernandez crushed a 106-m.p.h. homer to centre before Pederson came through with a 102-m.p.h. single. Another run. Even Strasburg’s last out of the second, a Muncy fly ball to deep centre field, was smoked, coming off the bat at 105-m.p.h.

And yet, in spite of all that solid contact in an elimination game, Nationals manager Dave Martinez stuck with his besieged starter and watched him put up zeroes through the next two innings. That says one thing about Martinez’s faith in Strasburg to figure it out, and another about his faith in his bullpen.

It’s not a good thing. Nationals relievers posted a 5.68 ERA this season, second-worst in baseball to only an abominable Baltimore Orioles outfit. And Washington’s bullpen had already allowed eight runs on 13 hits and seven walks over 9.1 innings in the NLDS. How little faith did Martinez have in that group to get him outs? So little he let Strasburg make his plate appearance in the fifth, with none out, runners on first and second, and the Nationals still down three runs.

Martinez obviously knows the situation. That was as good of an opportunity to score as the Nationals had created all game. But rather than get a reliever up and put a real hitter at the plate, Martinez sent up his starting pitcher — whose pitch count on the night was nearing 80 — with a career OPS+ of six to take the plate appearance. Buehler pounded fastballs on the outside edge against Strasburg until he ultimately bunted a third strike foul. Strasburg never stood a chance.

Strasburg ended up throwing a scoreless fifth and sixth, which is great. Martinez’s faith in him to work through some spotty command was rewarded. But without a bullpen he could trust, Martinez burned an opportunity to cut into the Dodgers lead, and maybe even tie the game with one swing of the bat.

Walker’s Gem

For the Dodgers, Walker Buehler was his usual dominant self over 6.2 innings of one-run ball. He located a fastball that sat at 97-m.p.h. all over the zone, mixing in 87-m.p.h. sliders away from right-handed batters and 82-m.p.h. knuckle curveballs into left-handed hitters. Not to mention a sneaky 93-m.p.h. cutter he didn’t go to often but used just enough to keep it in hitters’ minds.

Those four pitches all came out of Buehler’s hand the same way, but moved at very different speeds and in very different directions. The Nationals expected this, of course. But it doesn’t matter how well the opponent knows you or studies your stuff, when you’re locating your pitches as well as Buehler was you’re going to be extremely difficult to hit.

But in the seventh, Buehler finally began to tire, issuing a two-out walk with his 117th pitch to put runners on first and second. His manager, Roberts, came to get him. The Nationals had to be delighted to see Buehler finally exit the game, the bullpen door swinging open for… a future first-ballot hall-of-famer and the best pitcher of a generation.

What Could Go Wrong?

Yes, Clayton Kershaw entered the game in relief and made quick work of the situation Buehler left behind, striking out Adam Eaton on three pitches. He was a little fired up:

He was a little less fired up when he returned for the eighth and watched Anthony Rendon take his second pitch of the inning for a 381-foot ride over the left field wall. And, boy, he wasn’t fired up at all when Juan Soto absolutely obliterated his next pitch, going 449-feet (!!!) to right-centre field, tying the game.

At the time, it seemed odd that Roberts brought Kershaw back for that second inning. Turns out it was only his second most questionable decision of the night.

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