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BenFred: Quintana gives Cardinals best chance against Phillies in Game 1, and other series thoughts

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Chicago Cubs vs St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jose Quintana (63) pitches in the sixth inning during a game between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

I'd go with Q for Game 1.

Jose Quintana, the veteran left-hander who emerged as one of the Cardinals' steadiest and most efficient arms down the stretch, would be my pick to start off this wild-card series against the Phillies.

The Phillies have been a hair more powerful against southpaws like Quintana (.774 on-base plus slugging percentage) than against right-handers (.731 OPS) but not enough to keep you from starting a seasoned starter who since his trade-deadline arrival from Pittsburgh has produced a 2.01 ERA in 12 starts and 62.2 innings pitched. That’s lower than all but six qualified major league starters during that span, and better than guys like Shane Bieber (2.10), Blake Snell (2.42) and should-be National League Cy Young Award winner and former Cardinal Sandy Alcantara (2.84). And Quintana has been even better since September. In his last six starts he has limited opponents to a .183 average, a .217 on-base percentage and a .226 slugging percentage. During that span his ERA is 0.81, with 28 strikeouts in 33.1 innings, and just four walks.

The 33-year-old Quintana has allowed just one home run while wearing the Cardinals uniform, and that feels like an important thing to note considering the power that can be found in this Phillies lineup. Philadelphia (205 homers) was one of four National League clubs to sock 200-plus home runs this season. Quintana and his 48.9 percent groundball rate as a Cardinal have his chance to keep the Phillies grounded. Quintana has allowed no more than two earned runs in any of the five games he's started as a Cardinal at Busch Stadium, and he surrendered one or fewer in three. He experienced the pressure of the postseason with the Cubs in 2017. He's well rested after pitching three sharp tune-up innings (38 pitches) on Monday. Is he going to go seven innings? Probably not. Is he going to go eight or nine? No chance Newsflash: No starter in this rotation is. Especially not with this manager. But Quintana can give the Cardinals their best chance to win Game 1, and their best chance and perplexing the Phillies as the series evolves.

By starting Quintana first, the Cardinals could prepare All-Star right-hander Miles Mikolas to start game two, which could prepare left-hander Jordan Montgomery, or a collection of starters and relievers, to start Game 3 if it's needed. Don't be shocked if things get weird and nontraditional in this series. Steven Matz, Jack Flaherty and perhaps even Adam Wainwright could find themselves in big spots, even if they don’t start. Or maybe there's an opener angle Cardinals manager Oli Marmol decides to play. Marmol has used an opener before, in hard-throwing right-hander Jordan Hicks. That’s worth remembering, too, now that Hicks is back. I like the idea of Jack Flaherty starting Game 3, but it seems like Marmol could like the idea of using him before then, as soon as Game 1 even, out of the bullpen. Makes sense. Saving Flaherty and not getting a chance to use him would seem like a mistake, so better to use him early than wait for a chance that could not come.

Breaking up the handedness of the starters – left, right, left – could make things a little more difficult on the Phillies. Most hitters would rather face consecutive righties or lefties instead of seesawing back and forth during a series. So, take the parity of this current Cardinals staff and plan accordingly if there is a potential advantage to be maximized. The Phillies have obvious picks for Game 1 and Game 2 starters. The Cardinals have mystery and depth. Weaponize it.

Just one Phillies hitter has more than 10 career at-bats against Quintana. Nick Castellanos is 11-for-40 with two homers, two walks and seven strikeouts. Rhys Hoskins homered against Quintana once. Kyle Schwarber has one hit, a single, in six at-bats. Bryce Harper is hitless against Quintana in six attempts. Quintana is mostly a mystery to the Phillies, and since September he's been dang good.

We’ll find out soon enough which way Marmol goes after hours and hours of workshopping with his coaches and the analytics squad. The Cardinals were adamant as the trade-deadline dust settled that both Quintana and Montgomery were acquired with the postseason in mind. Q would be my pick.

Some other thoughts on the wild-card series that starts Friday afternoon at Busch Stadium . . .

• Does home-field advantage matter? For some series, probably not. For this one, it should. And not just because Cardinals ownership will enjoy the hard-earned postseason gate revenue the big-spending Phillies sure would like to split. (Imagine if that staggering Phillies payroll doesn't produce a home playoff game!)

The Cardinals’ regular-season ending loss at Pittsburgh on Wednesday afternoon meant they finished with a losing road record (40-41) for the first time since 2017. You know who else finished 40-41 on the road this season? The Phillies.

The Cardinals are an impressive 53-28 at home, where they have brewed a .654 winning percentage at Busch. The Phillies went 47-34 at home, but unless they win a best-of-three series in St. Louis, they won’t play there again.

On the road, Cardinals pitchers have produced a staff ERA of 4.30. That ranks 10th in the National League. At home, the same staff drops its ERA to 3.31, which ranks fourth in the NL.

On the road, the Cardinals offense produces a .742 OPS. At home, it jumps up a tick to .750.

What about the Phillies?

They have produced a 3.47 ERA at home along with a .765 OPS.

On the road, the ERA lifts to 4.21 and the OPS drops to .713.

I’d say that’s a home-field advantage for Marmol's club.

The Cardinals got the short end of the stick by being the lone NL division winner who did not get a first-round bye. Those are the breaks of this expanded playoff. But they’re fortunate in this way. This is a series where playing every game at home should help.

• We saw it coming. We sounded the alarm. Here come the postseason-worthy right-handers. Can the Cardinals pass a pass-fail test?

The Cardinals finished the regular season with baseball’s best on-base plus slugging percentage against left-handed pitching (.808) Against right-handed pitching, though, their OPS drops to .727. That’s the fifth-lowest among the six NL clubs to make this expanded postseason.

And now, in the first two games of a best-of-three wild-card series, they will face dominant right-handers in Zack Wheeler (game one) and Aaron Nola (game two). And the Phillies’ bullpen leans right, too.

Three Cardinals not named Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Albert Pujols – they are going to be in every lineup no matter what – have an OPS above .750 against right-handers in major league at-bats this season: Juan Yepez (.756), Lars Nootbaar (.772) and Brendan Donovan (.777).

The young guys who hit righties well continuing to do that in this series seems like a big factor in the Cardinals advancing to face the Braves in the National League Division Series.

• Let’s have some small sample size fun. Don’t freak out, please. Promise? Here goes.

Corey Dickerson is 5-for-14 against Nola with a double and a homer.

Embattled shortstop Paul DeJong is 4-for-9 against Wheeler with two homers and a double. DeJong is the only active Cards hitter who has homered against Wheeler, and he’s homered once against Nola, too. Does that matter to Marmol? We're about to find out. The manager has made it pretty clear he expects DeJong to be on the wild-card roster. 

Marmol suggested recently that Andrew Knizner could potentially start with Mikolas in the postseason, as the two have paired well together. If that lines up as the second game, it could be a good spot against Nola. Knizner is 3-for-5 against Nola with no strikeouts. Yadier Molina is three-for-11 against Nola.

But if the Cardinals lose game one, and Mikolas starts game two, you can’t not start Molina in what could be his last game with the Cardinals, right?

Enjoy the series.

Ben Frederickson and Daniel Guerrero preview the best-of-three series, from slumping Paul Goldschmidt to the Phillies' shaky defense.

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