WASHINGTON — The St. Louis Cardinals threw 23,884 pitches in the regular season. They threw 756 more in eliminating the Braves in the division series. It took just 33 pitches in the third inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series for their season to unravel, however, sending the Cardinals to the brink of elimination against the Washington Nationals.
Here’s how one frustrating inning, full of some bad luck and some ground balls with eyes, unfolded:
Pitch No. 4: Down two games in the series but with ace Jack Flaherty on the mound, the Cardinals are feeling confident about their chances behind a pitcher who owned a 1.12 ERA since the All-Star break. Flaherty gets ahead of No. 8 hitter Victor Robles 1-2, but Robles fouls off a 96 mph fastball.
Pitch No. 5: Robles fouls off another 96 mph heater. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt goes over to the railing, but the popup falls harmlessly into the first row of seats. There is a ramp between the railing and the seats, so he can’t reach into the stands to make a catch.
Pitch No. 6: Flaherty throws a slider. Right-handed batters hit .111 against his slider in the second half. It has become one of the best, most devastating sliders in the game, one that racks up both strikeouts and worm burners. Robles hits it up the middle — not hard, just 76.5 mph, a ball with an expected batting average, according to Statcast data, of .220. But the ball scoots past a diving Paul DeJong for a leadoff single.
“I didn’t really execute that slider to Robles,” Flaherty said. “He put a good at-bat together. He put the ball in play. Sometimes you find a hole, so he found a hole there.”
Pitch No. 8: Stephen Strasburg lays a perfect bunt down the first-base line, right on the dirt between the grass and the chalk. The Cards have no chance to get the speedy Robles at second base as Strasburg executes a sacrifice.
Pitch No. 13: After getting ahead of Trea Turner 0-2 with two two-seamers just off the plate, Flaherty fires a 96 mph four-seamer past Turner for a foul tip and strike three for the second out. At this point, it looks good for Flaherty and the Cards. He’s at 44 pitches in the game, he has recorded three strikeouts, and he’s one out from keeping the game tied at zero through three.
Pitch No. 14: Leadoff man Adam Eaton swings at the first pitch, a 94 mph sinker, and sends a two-hopper to the left of second base. The exit velocity registers 105.5 mph, but because the first bounce comes in front of home plate, it isn’t exactly a rocket up the middle. The expected batting average is just .240. Eaton is a spray hitter, so there’s no shift in play here, and Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong is shaded toward the bag. The ball bounces into center field, and Robles jogs home with the first run of the game.
Pitch No. 18: With Flaherty ahead in the count 1-2, Anthony Rendon grounds a 96 mph fastball foul past the third-base bag. In Rendon’s first at-bat, Flaherty got ahead with two quick strikes, then missed on four straight sliders low and away. After the hard foul ball, the next pitch will be …
Pitch No. 19: … a slider, low and away, bottom of the strike zone. Good pitch, good location. Rendon basically throws his bat at the ball and lofts a weak fly ball to medium-shallow left field, toward the line. Marcell Ozuna, a Gold Glove winner in 2017, hustles after it and slides feet first. He’s in position to make the catch, but the ball falls out of his glove. Eaton sprints home from first. It isn’t a routine play, but Rendon’s fly ball had a hit probability of .180. It is generously ruled a double, and the Nationals lead 2-0.
“Rendon does a good job of not punching out on what I felt was a pretty good executed pitch,” Flaherty said. “But that’s what he does. That’s why he is what he is.”
Still, Ozuna had it … and then didn’t. “A tough play, tough play,” Wong said. “Anytime you’re sliding feet first like that trying to make a play, as soon as you hit the ground, there’s going to be some kind of movement, and I think that’s what jarred the ball out of his glove. The breaks haven’t been going our way.”
The Cardinals’ defense has been rock-solid all season — a key reason they made the playoffs after a three-season drought. Ozuna’s metrics in left are very good: plus-8 defensive runs saved. “It’s a play that he’s clearly capable of making, but it’s not a play you absolutely expect somebody to make,” manager Mike Shildt said.
The inning continues.
Pitch No. 23: Juan Soto takes a slider on the inside corner for a strike. The count is 2-2.
Pitch No. 24: Soto fights off a curveball at the knees to stay alive. When you post a 0.91 ERA in the second half of the season, you’re getting everybody out: righties, lefties, superstars, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth. It doesn’t really matter. Left-handed batters hit .147 against Flaherty in the second half, including just .118 against his curveball. It was a good pitch. Credit Soto for the foul ball.
Pitch No. 25: Soto fouls off a slider.
Pitch No. 26: Fastball up in the zone. Ball three.
Pitch No. 27: Curveball below the knees. Ball four. Good, patient at-bat here by Soto, and with Rendon on second base, a walk to Soto isn’t the worst thing for St. Louis, as it sets up a righty-righty matchup against Howie Kendrick. On the other hand, Soto’s eight-pitch plate appearance runs up Flaherty’s pitch count for the inning.
Pitch No. 30: Flaherty chunks a 1-1 fastball to Kendrick in the dirt, and the ball glances off Yadier Molina‘s glove for a wild pitch. It is in the dirt, so it is scored a wild pitch, but Molina doesn’t do a good job of getting down to block the ball. The runners move to second and third.
Pitch No. 31: The next pitch is a 93.5 mph two-seamer running away from Kendrick. He lines a 105.5 mph laser into the gap in right-center, and the ball goes all the way to the wall, with both runners scoring easily to make it 4-0. While the first three hits included some bad luck, this one had a hit probability of .690 — and I’d like to see the 31% that aren’t hits.
“I didn’t execute the one to Kendrick,” Flaherty said. “That’s the one pitch I want back.”
The Cardinals are hitting a woeful .121 in this series, leaving the pitching staff no margin for error. And while the Cardinals are hitting .161 with two outs, the Nationals are hitting .350. A two-run inning becomes a four-run inning with Kendrick’s hit.
The wild pitch left a base open, and Shildt has been generous with intentional walks in the postseason. “We could have put Kendrick on right there, but you get a guy like [Ryan] Zimmerman swinging the bat well right behind him,” Shildt said. “Didn’t make a pitch right there. That was probably the biggest part of that — was that pitch at that moment.”
Pitch No. 33: Zimmerman grounds out to end the inning.
Flaherty has had nine 30-pitch innings this season, including a 33-pitch seventh inning in Game 2 of the NLDS against Atlanta. This inning, however, was much more of a slow burn, a testament to how tough the top of the Nationals lineup is, a testament to the importance of not giving an inch to the other team, a testament to how an inning can fall apart with two outs.
Rendon put a ball in play. Ozuna couldn’t quite make the catch, and that opened the door for a big, four-run rally — a rally that might have slammed the door on the Cardinals’ season.
Cardinals, Adam Wainwright reach one-year deal
Terms were not announced.
Wainwright, 38, is coming off his best season since 2014. The right-hander went 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA and 153 strikeouts. He made two starts in three postseason appearances, pitching 16 2/3 innings with 19 strikeouts and a 1.62 ERA.
The 15-year veteran — all with the Cardinals — ranked sixth in the National League in wins and ninth in walks allowed (64).
For his career, Wainwright has a 162-95 record with 1,776 strikeouts and a 3.39 ERA.
NL Central offseason preview — Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers all need refresh
With free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams?
We now turn to the NL Central, where the top three teams have each won the division once in the past three years.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals always have pitching, but how will they evolve on offense?
2019 record: 91-71
2020 World Series odds: 20-1
The Cardinals ranked 11th in OPS and 10th in runs scored in the National League in 2019 despite trading for Paul Goldschmidt last offseason. After a good power year in 2018, St. Louis reverted to some of its old ways: They led the league in stolen bases but had the fewest home runs of any playoff team.
With Marcell Ozuna expected to reject St. Louis’ qualifying offer to become a free agent, the Cardinals can embark on increasing their production at third base and in the outfield. One place they’re bound to get it is with a full season from the dynamic Tommy Edman. His .850 OPS in 92 games led the team as his play teased of what he could become: a four-plus-tool player who can wreak havoc on the opposition. Third base is more murky. Matt Carpenter will turn 34 later this month and transitioning to a super-utility role could be best for the team while it pursues a slugging third baseman. Josh Donaldson anyone? — Jesse Rogers
Milwaukee Brewers: Will the Brewers target innings-eaters?
2019 record: 89-73
2020 World Series odds: 18-1
The definition of an innings-eater has changed drastically over the years, but whatever your current parameters might be, the Brewers didn’t have one in 2019. There were four teams that didn’t have a single ERA qualifier, including the Brewers. GM David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell have done a remarkable job of piecing together staffs of “out-getters” the past couple of seasons. Their task would be so much simpler with at least three-fifths of a stable rotation, and with bloated September rosters now a thing of the past, there may no longer be another choice.
One pitcher we know isn’t the answer: Chase Anderson, who finished strong and was second in innings for Milwaukee. He’s gone, having been dealt to Toronto in one of the offseason’s first trades. However, Brandon Woodruff might be ready to become a staff anchor, a pitcher capable of putting up 180-190 above-average frames. Now it’s a matter of augmenting him. Based on Cot’s Contracts payroll projections, Milwaukee should have $40 million to $50 million to spend before reaching last season’s payroll level, plus a modest increase. You figure an increase is warranted as the Brewers look to make the most of the two years left in which they can count on having Christian Yelich around.
The Brewers won’t be a factor in the Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg chases, but they should be in play for any pitchers among the tiers beneath those stars. Milwaukee has other needs — a catcher, an infielder — but the mantra ought to be innings, innings, innings. — Bradford Doolittle
Chicago Cubs: What will the Cubs look like in 2020?
2019 record: 84-78
2020 World Series odds: 14-1
Retooled. Already, they’ve done a coaching and behind-the-scenes purge as they change things up after missing the playoffs for the first time in five years. The Cubs want their team to grow with first-year manager David Ross. He’ll likely do that with several new players as the organization continues to move further and further from its 2016 championship season.
When the Cubs take the field again in March, there may be only a handful of players left from that team, with a star or two likely to move this offseason. Theo Epstein has declared no one is untouchable, a normal sentiment expressed by executives, but one that might ring true for Chicago this winter. — Rogers
Cincinnati Reds: Will they pay the price to contend?
2019 record: 75-87
2020 World Series odds: 40-1
The Reds might have been among the unluckiest teams in baseball, winning five fewer games than expected per their run differential, but this is not a roster strong enough to rely on “positive regression.” They’re weak up the middle in every sense, offensively and defensively, and away from their homer-happy home park, their lineup was a feeble 12th in the NL in weighted on-base average (wOBA).
Their core strengths are straightforward: Four strong starting pitchers and some rotation depth behind them. Eugenio Suarez in his prime as an MVP-caliber hitter. And a good pair of young corner outfielders to believe in, Jesse Winker and Aristides Aquino, plus counting on Nick Senzel‘s growth as a hitter. That’s a strong enough group to keep the Reds in games, which is why everything else should be questioned if they want to paint themselves into the playoff picture.
One problem they can’t do much about is Joey Votto‘s decline at the plate — his $107 million due through 2023 will keep him rooted atop the payroll. Cincinnati is stuck hoping that he can bounce back while on the downslope of his 30s. Recognizing there isn’t much help to be found in center available on the market might keep Senzel there, but the right trade for a center fielder could make him a long-term answer for their hole at second. — Christina Kahrl
Pittsburgh Pirates: Can you blow up something that was already bad?
2019 record: 69-93
2020 World Series odds: 150-1
The Pirates aren’t just in the midst of a rebuild. They’ve seen their attempted retrenchment around players like Chris Archer and Gregory Polanco blow up in their faces at the same time that their reputation for a well-stocked farm system provided more than a few hiccups. Now the cream of their young pitching talent is injured, shelved and/or overrated, while the lineup lacks its former depth. Belatedly noticing a disaster exacerbated by their cheapness, the owners have fired everybody they could and need to choose a new GM, manager and sense of direction.
Whoever the Pirates hire, more than a few front-office candidates might try to sell the owners on tanking outright, but barring something really depressing — like putting Josh Bell on the block — there isn’t a lot of value to peddle that might radically alter the franchise’s fortunes. Two years of control of Starling Marte would at least find a few takers, while it will be up to the new manager’s new pitching coach to see if they can rehabilitate Archer’s performance and value.
Whoever winds up calling the shots, salvaging Archer, seeing if Kevin Newman can cut it at shortstop and enjoying Bell’s bashing might be the best-case scenario for Bucs fans in 2020. — Kahrl
Tampa Bay Rays GM Erik Neander voted MLB Executive of the Year
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Tampa Bay Rays general manager Erik Neander has been voted Major League Baseball’s Executive of the Year.
Tampa Bay was 96-66, the second-most wins in team history, despite a big league-low payroll of $66 million. The Rays beat Oakland in the American League wild-card game, then lost to Houston in a five-game AL Division Series.
Neander’s moves included acquiring outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Tyler Glasnow at the 2018 trade deadline from Pittsburgh for pitcher Chris Archer, and signing free agent pitcher Charlie Morton ahead of the 2019 season.
The 36-year-old Neander became the Rays’ general manager in November 2016 and one year later replaced Matt Silverman as the team’s top baseball official.
New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman was second in voting announced Monday night on the first day of the annual GM meetings. Oakland Athletics executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and Minnesota Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey tied for third.
Each team has one vote for the award, which began in 2018 and was won by Beane in its initial year.
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