Hours before he had to make the pivotal decision in a tense, careening ninth inning Sunday around which an entire series could turn, Mike Shildt described how he, and other modern managers, choose moves that pit numbers vs. nuance.
The analytics saturating the game are “a reference point,” the Cardinals manager said, but “don’t paint the whole picture because humans are involved.”
When he considers a strategy he does so with data on his mind — and a pulse. That is what he took Sunday in the ninth inning as he, pitcher Carlos Martinez and catcher Yadier Molina opted to walk Atlanta’s Brian McCann to face Dansby Swanson while clinging to a 1-0 lead. They favored Swanson’s numbers, hitless in six at-bats against Martinez, ahead of the nuance of Swanson’s recent swings and putting the go-ahead run on base to get him.
“We play to win,” Shildt said. “Took our shot.”
It was a crash course in the crucible Shildt detailed. He made the call. It proved costly with the game in the balance.
Now the season is.
Swanson drilled a misplaced slider for a two-out, game-tying double. Then that runner given first base scored as the Braves spoiled an epic start by Adam Wainwright and upended the Cardinals 3-1 in Game 3 of a National League Division Series. What Wainwright authored with 7 2/3 shutout innings on 120 pitches, it took five pitches in the ninth to erase. Swanson’s double and Adam Duvall’s two-run single gave the Braves a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-five NLDS. The Cardinals must win Monday at Busch Stadium to send the series back to Atlanta and into the hands of Jack Flaherty.
“Obviously we got punched in the mouth,” Cardinals infielder Kolten Wong said. “But we did the same thing to them at their place. It’s about coming in, taking care of business, doing what we can to win and go back to Atlanta. If you need any (doggone) buildup or anything, then you don’t belong here.”
The Cardinals managed only two Marcell Ozuna hits off the Braves’ dazzling rookie Mike Soroka and cobbled together a lonely run out of Ozuna’s double, a groundout, and Matt Carpenter’s sacrifice fly in the second inning.
Opposite the 22-year-old Soroka, Wainwright, 38, shepherded that 1-0 game through 7 2/3 innings in his 25th playoff appearance, the most ever by a Cardinals pitcher. Andrew Miller negotiated a bases-loaded out to conclude the eighth and present Martinez a chance to cinch a 2-1 lead in the NLDS. He gave up a leadoff double. He struck out the next two batters, including one with an 87-mph slider that snapped out of the zone.
Then came the fork in the game.
Twice already in this series, the Cardinals have targeted Swanson at a pivotal moment. In Game 1, the Cardinals could have pitched around him to force the Braves to consider lifting their closer, Mark Melancon, for a pinch-hitter. Shildt preferred the matchup, and Martinez struck out Swanson before the Cardinals tagged Melancon with four runs in the ninth inning.
The numbers favored the move again Sunday. In a small sample size, Swanson has struggled against Martinez, going hitless with the one strikeout in his first six looks. The larger data set had him as a .251 hitter who batted .194 in his 98 at-bats before this series and struck out 36 times. Recency bias told a different story. Swanson already had two hits in Game 3, including a double and what Wainwright called “all of the hardest-hit balls of the day.”
“The numbers are the numbers. The matchups are the matchups,” Shildt said before the game. “So ultimately it’s about what you see.”
Swanson saw a slider, put it to the left-field wall, and flipped the series.
“I get there’s not a lot of margin for error,” Shildt said. “But it’s not like this guy (Martinez) is out there throwing it all over the place. He made one mistake. Guy put a good swing on it. Felt really comfortable and confident in his stuff to be able to go get a guy that he’s had history with. . . . Everybody felt like that was the best matchup, including the guy on the mound.”
Siding with the stuff over the statistics had got the Cardinals to that point, one out away from needing one win to advance to the NL Championship Series. In the seventh inning, Shildt asked Wainwright how much he had left to give, and Wainwright said as much as the Cardinals needed. The righthander would be facing the Braves’ lineup for the fourth time, having struck out eight and holding Atlanta to three hits through seven innings.
To refocus himself at times during the game, Wainwright would pause and recite a Bible verse he chose for the day, 2 Timothy 1:7. It reads that "God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control."
Wainwright challenged the Braves early with his fastball and then cranked up the curve. An October chill was in the air at Busch, and fly balls liked to stay up in it — several falling shy of the homers they’d be in the heat. Wainwright pitched to the space the ballpark gave him and for the ninth time in 13 playoff starts allowed two or fewer earned runs. Nearly 50 percent of his pitches Sunday were curves because “at the end there we were flooding them.”
“That’s vintage Adam right there,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “Just going out there and leaving it all out there. He just made pitch after pitch after pitch. Never gives in.”
Wainwright beat the odds.
Shildt played the odds.
Even then it’s Atlanta that has the Cardinals’ number.
After lifting the Cardinals to a Game 1 win, the lineup has mustered one run — on a sacrifice fly. The Braves’ starters in games 2 and 3 have pitched 14 innings and not walked a Cardinal. The Redbirds have managed five hits in that span, three of them by Ozuna. Soroka muted the Cardinals with a pitch that Wong described as “mid-90s (mph) screwballs. Literally moving left to right and down at the same time.” Ozuna was the only Cardinal to get past first base against Soroka.
“He was as nasty as any pitcher I’ve faced in the postseason,” said Wainwright, who has pitched against some greats, like Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. “I liken his fastball to Derek Lowe’s fastball — where you see it the whole time and you swing and you don’t know why you missed it. That’s a good fastball.”
Atlanta presented the Cardinals a chance to widen the lead for Martinez when lefty Max Fried walked the first two batters of the eighth inning. The Cardinals opted to go for the rally, and not one run, by not having Paul DeJong bunt. He flew out. The inning ran out when Harrison Bader, a pinch-runner, tried to sneak to third on reliever Darren O’Day. The righthander’s funky, bent-over delivery shielded his pickoff move from view — and the Cardinals’ scouting had not seen him use it before.
The info they had said go. The results said no.
That cost them in the most certain stat of them all, the score.
“There’s disappointment. No question about it,” Shildt said. “That’s what I’m saying: We took what we felt was our best shot to win that game, and it didn’t work out. . . . It’s a very resilient team. While we’re disappointed, we are not down.”
They are, however, one loss from being done.