Whatever gaze Jose Quintana gave manager Oliver Marmol during that start for the Cardinals in August radiated with such a “sense of purpose” that the manager returned again and again to that look as his way to describe the lefty’s mentality with his new team.
“He is,” Marmol said, “on a mission.”
“Since starting to pitch for the Cardinals, I feel like — an energy,” Quintana said.
The Cardinals’ most successful starter of September got the nod to lead them into October with the Game 1 assignment Friday as the National League Wild Card round opens against Philadelphia at Busch Stadium. Quintana did not allow more than two earned runs in any of his dozen starts for the Cardinals and had a 0.81 ERA in 33 1/3 innings spread over six starts in September. Giving Quintana the opener for the best-of-three series allows the Cardinals to start right-hander Miles Mikolas in Game 2 and separate lefties Quintana and Jordan Montgomery if a Game 3 is necessary and Montgomery is the starter.
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That also gives Mikolas, the Cardinals’ All-Star and steadiest starter, the pivotal appearance in Game 2, which will either be a clinching game or an elimination game.
“Knowing the importance of Game 2, one way or the other, (Miles) loved the thought,” Marmol said, “and the accountability of shouldering that.”
For both the Phillies and the Cardinals, the Game 1 starter is crystal ball into what almost was, or what could have been. The Phillies will face Quintana, who they aggressively attempted to trade for at the deadline before the Cardinals finalized a deal with Pittsburgh. The Phillies acquired power right-hander Noah Syndergaard soon after. The Cardinals can empathize. Philadelphia’s Game 1 starter Zack Wheeler was a trade target for the Cardinals at the deadline in 2019. But Wheeler’s team at the time, the New York Mets, wanted either outfielder Tyler O’Neill or Harrison Bader as the centerpiece of any deal.
The Cardinals passed.
“You definitely heard those rumors swirling around,” Wheeler said. “I felt like my name was always part of some kind of trade possibly. I don’t know how serious it really got, but it sounds like it was pretty serious. I’m happy where I’m at now. Obviously.”
Wheeler held the Cardinals scoreless through two starts and 14 innings this past season, and as a team they’ve had minimal success against the right-hander. Going into a start against the power-packed Phillies lineup, Quintana has allowed only one home run in 62 2/3 innings for the Cardinals this season. Two prominent All-Stars atop the Phillies lineup, left-handed hitters Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper, are a combined one-for-12 with five strikeouts in their careers against Quintana.
The Cardinals will have the three other starters — Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, and Adam Wainwright — on the roster and in the bullpen for Game 1 to throw a different look at the Phillies when needed. Marmol said they’re available and “we can use however we please, and we will.”
Quintana, in his second postseason appearance and first since 2017 with the Cubs, gets the first chance to shape how his peers are used.
“It is really important to me to take this opportunity,” Quintana said.
Helsley cleared to close
Two days after jamming the middle finger on his pitching hand, closer Ryan Helsley tested his grip and ability to control pitches for the first time Thursday. He felt no additional pain and was able to apply pressure on his fastball without an issue. While some rigidness remained in the injured finger and he did not snap off many, if any, breaking balls, the Cardinals are confident enough in his improvement to put him on the active roster for the best-of-three series.
“Little stiff but with no pain, which is awesome,” Marmol said.
Gorman, Naughton make roster
Second baseman Nolan Gorman, who was dispatched to Class AAA Memphis in September amid a rash of strikeouts only to strike out at a feverish clip there, too, will be on the 26-man wild-card roster. There will be 14 position players and 12 pitchers, Marmol said, who gave glimpses of the roster to reporters late Thursday but did not detail all of it.
Marmol said he chose Gorman over fellow left-handed batter Alec Burleson because of Gorman’s power potential off the bench and his versatility in the field, where Gorman could play as many as five positions. Gorman hit 14 homers, all off right-handed pitchers, and the Phillies have several right-handers in their bullpen.
“There’s pluses and minuses to how you want to chop up that decision between him and Burleson,” Marmol said. “I thought Burleson actually took really good at-bats. The last several games, he showed the ability to drive the ball to all fields. Although there wasn’t a high level of production, he showed good contact.”
Packy Naughton would be a third left-hander in the bullpen rather than Genesis Cabrera “for performance,” according to Marmol. Naughton held left-handed hitters to a .163 batting average and .212 on-base percentage. Cabrera was good in that he held left-handed batters to a .214 batting average but wildness contributed to a high .343 on-base percentage for lefty swingers.
“It would be very difficult to say that performance matters all year and then leave a guy off the roster that has performed well against left-handers all year,” Marmol said.
In other roster decisions, Marmol said there was a “good chance” that shortstop Paul DeJong and center fielder Ben DeLuzio both likely would be on the club for defensive purposes. Juan Yepez and Andrew Knizner would complete a five-man bench.
O’Neill (hamstring) did not make the roster but will continue his rehab with an eye on being active later in the playoffs. … The Phillies had not decided on shortstop Edmundo Sosa (hamstring) and his availability for the weekend as of their workout Thursday afternoon at Busch Stadium. Sosa, acquired from the Cardinals in a July trade, traveled from Philadelphia to meet the team in St. Louis and go through tests for his readiness to play. In 25 games with the Phillies, Sosa hit .315 with a .593 slugging percentage that included 10 extra-base hits. … With Jeff Nelson as the crew chief, D.J. Reyburn will be umpiring home plate on Friday, with Vic Carapazza on Saturday and Mike Muchlinski slated for a potential third game on Sunday. Nelson would work third, second and first, with Laz Diaz and John Libka as the other umpires on the six-man crew. This is Libka’s first postseason assignment. … Wheeler has given up just two homers to all the hitters on the Cardinals’ roster. Both have been hit by DeJong, who won’t be playing but, earlier in his career, beat up Wheeler to the tune of .444 average and 1.222 slugging percentage.