Six players to watch in the National League wild-card round

St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols follows through on a swing. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Still pining for pitchers hitting, National League fans? Upset that the adoption of the designated hitter has sullied the purity of the game?

The St. Louis Cardinals – of all teams – would like a word.

The third-oldest team in the Majors, a member of the NL since 1900 and the most successful NL franchise of all time with 11 World Series … a franchise whose go-go clubs of the 1980s still bring tears to the eyes of small-ball aficionados … the most NL of all NL clubs? Don’t tell them the DH is a sacrilege, because without it Albert Pujols‘ 2022 doesn’t happen.

And what a shame that would have been.

Pujols, the most dominant right-handed hitter of his era, didn’t bother going quietly into the night in his final season, and how cool would it be to see him get a crack at another World Series ring?

Pujols and the Cardinals must be favoured to move on from their NL wild-card series against a Philadelphia Phillies team with huge defensive and bullpen issues, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the 42-year-old Pujols doesn’t provide us with a moment or two.

Far from being a passenger, Pujols clubbed 18 of his 24 home runs after the All-Star Break – among a group of players second only to Aaron Judge – and saw his peripheral power numbers increase. Pujols’ second-half OPS was 1.092 and his average was a team-high .321. His 48 runs batted in tied with Most Valuable Player candidate Paul Goldschmidt for the team lead, despite having 86 fewer at-bats. No Cardinals player hit more homers after the break.

Perhaps more telling, Pujols slashed .284/.348/.578 against right-handed pitching in the second half, putting paid to the idea that he would only DH against lefthanders.

Pujols, of course, joined the 700-homer club on Sept. 24 and finished the regular season with 703 career homers. Only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth have hit more. Pujols’ 2,218 career RBIs are second to Aaron’s 2,297.

His second half was quite the renaissance, coming as it did after a first half that saw him hit .215 with six homers and 29 runs batted in, leading some observers to wonder whether his ‘return’ from the place where great careers go to disappear – the Los Angeles Angels – was little more than a vanity play.

In fact, in an interview with MLB.com on Thursday, Pujols acknowledged that he considered walking away in June.

The key, Pujols told ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez, was a decision to lower the starting point of his hands and hold the bat more upright, shortening the path through the strike zone. He also added a leg kick.

Keep in mind that Pujols has been a remarkable post-season performer, with a career playoff OPS of 1.007. He’s had OPS over .900 in nine different series – his 1.563 in the 2004 NL Championship Series against the Houston Astros was his career-best – and is a career .351 playoff hitter with 19 homers and 50 walks in 86 games. He’s walked more than he’s struck out (45) and even last year, at 41, was five-for-17 in the playoffs with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said: “There’s no way we’re in this position without Albert going off. He made adjustments … and now we’re here talking about him carrying the offence for weeks at a time.”

Marmol’s also talking about hitting Pujols second, the ultimate testament to how valuable he’s become. Again.

SIX TO WATCH

Yu Darvish, RHP, Padres

Between the Los Angeles Dodgers running away and hiding in the NL West, Fernando Tatis Jr.’s suspension for PED use and Juan Soto’s stutter-step performance after one of the biggest trade deadline deals in baseball history … well, let’s just say it’s been some kind of season for the Padres.

Thankfully, Yu Darvish has been a rock in the starting rotation, making 23 consecutive starts of at least six innings, and he’ll be part of a marquee matchup in Game 1 against Mets ace Max Scherzer.

Darvish was named NL pitcher of the month for September, with a 1.85 ERA over 39 innings, a .168 opponent batting average and 0.79 WHIP, and had his best season in a decade, finishing fourth in strikeout-to-walk differential while being effective with all six pitches.

Healthy, Darvish has said he believes he’s been able to get better extension on all his pitches. Darvish also continued a trend of producing reverse splits, while posting a 0.950 WHIP.

If he gives the Padres a leg up, it’s going to force Mets manager Buck Showalter to make a call on using Jacob deGrom in Game 2 – and we all know how much trouble ol’ Buck has with knowing when and when not to use pitchers in the post-season…

Zach Eflin, RHP, Phillies

This three-game series is going to come at teams fast and furious, with little time for tinkering or too much deep-thinking. The Phillies’ two biggest issues are their ham-handed defence (eight of their nine regulars graded out negatively) and a bullpen that imploded in the month of September, putting up a 5.04 ERA.

Eflin is a converted starter who was put into the bullpen because the team didn’t have enough time to build him up after a chronic knee issue had kept him out for 10 weeks, and he was on the mound when the Phillies clinched their first post-season berth in 11 years.

In seven relief appearances, Eflin struck out nine, allowed four hits and gave up one earned run over 7 2/3 innings. If the Phillies can parlay their edge in starting pitching into a late lead, manager Rob Thomson might rely on him as much as Jose Alvarado or the scuffling David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez.

Eflin admitted to reporters after the clinching game that he wasn’t certain how to celebrate as a closer because, well, it was his first career save. True, that: Eflin became the third pitcher to pick up his first career save on the day his team clinched a post-season berth, joining the Los Angeles Dodgers Orel Hershiser (Sept. 30, 1983) and Dave Leonhard of the 1969 Baltimore Orioles.

Rhys Hoskins, 1B, Phillies

He has the numbers, coming off his second 30-HR season – multiple 30-HR seasons being something he and Bryce Harper are the only Phillies to do since 2011 – and a .333 average and 1,060 OPS with runners in scoring position since the All-Star Break.

But it’s Hoskins’ spot in the lineup that makes him so strategically important in this series: a righty hitter between lefties Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper, not to mention a righty hitter who finished second in the NL in pitches per plate appearance (4.29) at a time when Harper is following him by swinging at the first pitch more than any time in his career.

The game is all about finding ‘pockets’ for relievers given the three-minimum batter rule, and Hoskins’ turn in the order will figure prominently in the Cardinals’ bullpen management …

Francisco Lindor, SS, Mets

If the Mets want to be taken as seriously as the Yankees – and a payroll of $282 million suggests they do – then it’s time to start adding silverware, or at least demanding that October becomes the month in which a player’s worth is determined and their reputation is made.

Get to that point and fans will stop remembering things such as the fact your team spent 175 of 182 games leading the NL East before spitting out the bit on the final weekend of the regular season.

The Mets aren’t there yet – and, frankly, I don’t like their chances of getting there – but it could be that after a 2021 season that was wholly unsatisfying for the Mets and Lindor, his bounce-back 2022 which saw him drive in a career-high 107 RBIs while turning in a premier defensive effort (+13 outs above average) augers well for the post-season.

The Mets will need Lindor and, of course, Pete Alonso to carry the load because with Starling Marte’s uncertain status, there’s precious little power in this lineup – and the numbers suggest power plays in the post-season. Lindor and Alonso drove in a third of the Mets’ runs during the regular season and will be key in a series involving the two most top-heavy lineups in the post-season …

Jose Quintana, LHP, Cardinals

Yeah, I know. Goldschmidt flirted with a Triple Crown, Nolan Arenado is the best third baseman in the game, Pujols is ‘The Machine’ once again and closer Ryan Helsley is a flame-throwing closer. But somebody must pitch according to the rules of the game, and the Cardinals have issues – certainly compared to the Phillies, who will run out Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola.

Adam Wainwright gave up 23 runs in September which makes him a long-shot candidate for a start. Miles Mikolas will go in Game 2, but then it’s Wainwright, Jack Flaherty and/or Jordan Montgomery in Game 3 (Montgomery could be used creatively out of the bullpen, given the Phillies lefty hitters.)

Quintana, acquired from the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline, has morphed from a strikeout pitcher to one relying on getting opposing hitters to chase outside the zone. He posted a 2.01 ERA for the Cardinals and had a WHIP of 1.117, his best run of performance since 2018.

If Quintana can keep body and soul together in Game 1 against some tough lefty hitters and the Cardinals’ superior position players step up, St. Louis might be able to piece the series together…

Juan Soto, RF, Padres

Never mind the 38 players the Padres sent to the Washington Nationals for Soto at the trade deadline: what about the bazillion words that were wasted online, over the airwaves and in print in the lead-up to and fall-out from the trade?

I mean … is that really all there is? A .236 average and six homers in 52 games following the trade, en route to a .242 season average that is 45 points below his career average?

Here’s the thing: Soto still led the Majors with 135 walks and his wRC_+ was still 10th, ahead of the likes of Mookie Betts. And he’s had a bit of a finishing kick, slashing .309/.424/.545 in the past two weeks. Soto was a beast in the Nationals’ World series run in 2019 and he’s done some damage in his career off Mets pitching …

BLAIR’S PICKS

Padres def. Mets in 3

Cardinals def. Phillies in 2.

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