Cardinals Clutch Hitting Woes More Damaging Than Shaky Bullpen
It’s easy to say that St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny’s usage of his bullpen was the main reason that the his team lost in just five games to the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series.
In many ways, it’s a fair argument – Matheny made several questionable decisions when it came to his bullpen, and he saw the immediate results when his relievers either lost the lead or lost the game in four of the five games against the Giants. Matheny’s misuse of his bullpen was capped off by the series-winning three-run home run that Travis Ishikawa launched into the right field stands off of Michael Wacha, who entered the ninth inning of the a must-win game for the Cardinals having not pitched in over three weeks. Standing in the Cardinal bullpen just beyond first base ready to go were lefty Randy Choate (who could have faced lefties Ishikawa and shortstop Brandon Crawford) as well as righty Seth Maness (whose uncanny ability to induce double plays has been invaluable to the Cardinals the last two years). Instead, Matheny chose to stick with Wacha, who ultimately gave up the series-clinching home run.
Throw in a couple of other poor choices – leaving Choate in after walking Crawford in the tenth inning of Game 3, and Matheny’s quick hook of both Maness and All-Star Pat Neshek, and there’s no doubt that the bullpen played a large part of the untimely demise of the Cards’ World Series hopes.
But don’t pin this all on Matheny. The Cardinals offense failed to put their team in a position to win without unnecessary drama from the Matheny and the bullpen.
This was made clear in two key areas throughout the series: batting with runners in scoring position (RISP) and their newfound love of the home run ball.
One of the most telling numbers anyone can look at to evaluate a postseason series is a team’s average with RISP. In general, if a team gets a hit with a runner on 2nd or 3rd base, good things will happen. Failing to do so will likely result in fewer runs crossing the plate, and a smaller chance of winning the game/series. The Cardinals weren’t necessarily bad with RISP against the Giants – in five games the Redbirds went seven for 27 (.259), which was actually better than the .254 mark they put up in the regular season. However, what made this aspect stand out was the horrendous timing of some of those 20 outs with RISP. Some examples:
– Game 1: Tony Cruz strikes out with runners on second and third down 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh. Giants starter Madison Bumgarner was in trouble for the first time all game, and the Cardinals had a golden opportunity to claw their way back into contention with two innings to go.
– Game 2: Up 2-0 in the fourth inning against Jake Peavy, Lance Lynn and Matt Carpenter can’t generate an RBI with the bases loaded. Lynn is more understandable here, but Carpenter had the chance to put his team up by four or five, but mustered a soft fly ball to center to end the inning.
– Game 3: After falling behind 4-0 in the first inning, Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong triples in two runs with two outs to cut the Giants lead in half. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski, filling in for the injured Yadier Molina, can’t bring in Wong from third to make it a one-run game. The Cardinals would eventually tie the game, but lose in extras on Choate’s throwing error.
– Game 4: Jhonny Peralta grounds into two double plays in the first three innings, ending a threat in the first and minimizing the Cardinals damage to just one run in the third. His lineout double play in Game 5 also came with Jon Jay at second, but chalk that up to good defense by Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval.
– Game 5: In maybe the most demoralizing example, Cruz and pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras failed to drive Daniel Descalso in from third with two outs in the top of the ninth after the Giants had tied the game a half inning earlier. Their inability to plate the go-ahead run kept the crowd in the game, the Giants’ momentum alive, and set the stage for Ishikawa’s pennant-winning blast.
It’s obviously impossible to tell how any of those five games would have played out if Cardinal hitters had driven in those runs in scoring position. But there’s no doubting the effect that scoring two against Bumgarner in Game 1 or re-claiming the lead late in Game 5 would have had – maybe we’re watching Game 7 in St. Louis on Sunday night or preparing for an I-70 showdown with the Kansas City Royals.
Aside from their inability to drive in runs at the most crucial times, the Cardinals offense developed a strange addiction to the home run ball that went unseen for the entirely of the regular season. Cardinal batters hit eight homers in five games against the Giants after hitting just 105 in six months – stretch that over the course of a full season, and the Cardinals would’ve hit 260 home runs as a team averaging eight every five games.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what didn’t help the Cardinals was that all eight of their home runs against the Giants were solo shots. Think of how devastating Matt Holiday and Matt Adams’ three-run homers against the Los Angeles Dodgers were in Games 1 and 4 of the NLDS, respectively. Holiday’s blast capped off a seven-run inning that knocked Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw out of the game, and Adams’ homer put the Cardinals up for the first time after again struggling to muster any offense in the first six innings against Kershaw.
Put a runner or two on base for any of the eight solo shots that the Cardinals hit in the NLCS and the landscape of the game changes dramatically. The eight homers were a welcome sight for the Cardinals and their fans, but aside from Wong’s walk-off homer in Game 2, the Cardinals failed to deliver any fatal blows to the Giants with their inability to put additional runners on base.
The case against the bullpen and Matheny’s misuse of many of his relievers is certainly valid, but when the lineup can’t produce in the most essential of situations, it’s hard to win any playoff series this late in October. Timely hitting has been a staple of so many World Series winning teams – Cards fans need look no further than David Freese’s heroics in the 2011 World Series – and the Cardinals’ five-game series loss to the Giants clearly showed that the Redbirds could not produce the offense they needed in the most crucial of situations that can make or break a season.
Until next season, Cardinals.