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3 keys to Cards finishing off NLDS vs. Braves

@JoeTrezz
October 8, 2019

ATLANTA -- Four games into the National League Division Series between the Cardinals and Braves, things are about as deadlocked as can be. Heading into Wednesday’s winner-take-all Game 5 at SunTrust Park, three of this series’ four games have been decided in the late innings, two by one run.

ATLANTA -- Four games into the National League Division Series between the Cardinals and Braves, things are about as deadlocked as can be. Heading into Wednesday’s winner-take-all Game 5 at SunTrust Park, three of this series’ four games have been decided in the late innings, two by one run.

“We're used to it. We're battle-tested with it and wouldn't have it any other way,” Cardinals mananger Mike Shildt said. “There was an expectation that we knew we have two really good ballclubs going at each other. And there’s no surprise; it’s been very back and forth, competitive.”

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 3 STL 7, ATL 6 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 4 ATL 3, STL 0 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 6 ATL 3, STL 1 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 7 STL 5, ATL 4 (10) Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 9 STL 13, ATL 1 Watch

And now we get the rematch everyone, including the Cardinals, was hoping for. St. Louis will send ace Jack Flaherty to the mound against Mike Foltynewicz, five days after the two righties dueled their way through Game 2. The winner this time earns a trip to the NL Championship Series presented by GEICO.

“It will be about who executes for the most part, but familiarity is something that is a factor,” Shildt said.

With that as a backdrop, here are three keys for the Cardinals as they seek their first NLCS berth since 2014.

Hit Folty’s fastball

The Cardinals saw 44 percent sliders from Foltynewicz in Game 2, more than he threw in all but one of his 137 career appearances entering the outing. And they did little with it, mustering two singles on the pitch while whiffing at it 45 percent of the time. Foltynewicz, of course, outdueled Flaherty by delivering seven shutout innings.

Foltynewicz's gameplan jived with what was the main weakness of the Cardinals' offense during the regular season: hitting breaking pitches. St. Louis slugged just .346 against breaking balls in 2019, which ranked 24th in MLB and by far the lowest of any playoff team.

The Cardinals were far more potent against fastballs, posting the NL’s second-highest team batting average off elite velocity.

The Braves and Foltynewicz know this, but he will still need to establish the fastball to set up the slider. The Cardinals need to pounce on it when it comes.

“It’s almost like a chess game,” Foltynewicz said. “A lot of reading the swings, see if they’re moving up, in, out in the box. Just a lot about pitching, mixing it up.”

Said Shildt: “We'll need to be able to be patient with getting a ball we can handle.”

Be prepared to see Fried

The fact that the Cardinals need Flaherty to be Flaherty is so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning; they’ll devote more preparation to whom they’ll see when and if Foltynewicz exits from the game. And that means studying up again on Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Darren O'Day and the rest of Atlanta’s higher-leverage relievers. There is also a chance Mike Soroka is available to come out of the bullpen if necessary.

But first and foremost, it means the Cardinals have to prepare to see Max Fried, whom the Braves have repurposed into an any-situation fireman this series. Think how the Indians utilized Andrew Miller in 2016, or how the Brewers deployed Josh Hader last October. That’s the role the Braves envision for Fried, and he has already rewarded them with 2 1/3 scoreless innings over three appearances.

The Braves had originally planned for Fried to start Game 4 before Chris Martin’s oblique injury created a need in the late innings. Now, they see Fried factoring in just about anywhere, from the middle frames to the ninth, and whether Atlanta is down or holding onto a lead. His ability to go multiple innings makes Fried even more of an X-factor.

“He’ll definitely be available for that now having two days off,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think it’s definitely an all-hands-on-deck [situation], and guys are going to be excited and anxious and ready to go.”

Shildt must manage like there is no tomorrow

Because there isn’t. You can make the argument Shildt tackled his first four postseason games conservatively, leaving Flaherty in two batters after allowing the decisive blow in Game 2, pushing Adam Wainwright to 120 pitches in Game 3 and going back to embattled closer Carlos Martínez for Game 4. It was something of a departure from the flexible, non-traditional tactics he employed during the regular season, particularly with regards to the bullpen.

The postseason is a different animal. Elimination games even more so, which means the gloves could come off on Wednesday. Shildt said everyone but Dakota Hudson will be available for St. Louis if need be.

What does that look like? It could mean stretching Miller for more than a couple of outs; he has been used primarily as a lefty specialist this series, or leaning heavily again on Tyler Webb, Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley and/or John Brebbia, all of whom recorded huge outs in Game 4.

“Effectively, there's more resources to you in a game like yesterday, all the games, really, including the game tomorrow,” Shildt said. "You manage the resources you have, you manage the situation that takes place, and you put the best opportunity available for us to win."

Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.