Cards change up lineup for Game 3
WASHINGTON -- Mike Shildt understands the emotion. He gets the concern. And he respects the questions coming his way. But still, every time he’s been asked over the last two days about how the Cardinals might change their lineup heading into Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Nationals, he can’t help but take a step back and look at the big picture.
“Gosh,” Shildt said Sunday afternoon, “we set a Major League playoff record just three games ago.”
The first inning of Game 5 of the NL Division Series might feel like ancient history now, considering the Cardinals managed only one run and four hits while losing the first two games of the NLCS at Busch Stadium. A 22-inning scoreless streak separated their outburst in Atlanta and the lone run they’ve scored in this series.
But Shildt’s point underscores the trust he has in the hitters who brought St. Louis to this critical juncture. It’s why the Cardinals are confident that they can break out of this slump as soon as Monday night.
“As far as doing anything different, we just need to get back. We've had the skills -- the lineup is in place to provide that,” Shildt said after the Cardinals’ optional workout at Nationals Park. “We've demonstrated that with this lineup for 169 games. As it happened, for a couple of games when we haven't been able to get as many guys on, we just haven't had as many opportunities, but the skillset and the understanding and the game planning are all in place.”
Shildt admitted that it’s “possible” the Cardinals could tweak their batting order against Stephen Strasburg in Game 3, and sure enough, St. Louis decided to start José Martínez, who's delivered half of the Cards' NLCS hits off the bench, in right field on Monday night. The Cards shifted Tommy Edman to third base, with Matt Carpenter now available off the bench. The most important thing they can do, however, is maximize the run-production potential of Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, who drove the lineup through the NLDS.
Goldschmidt and Ozuna are the only Cardinals hitters to go deep during this postseason, with each player launching two homers against the Braves. As a team, the Cardinals’ .737 OPS in the NLDS was identical to their regular-season mark that ranked 21st in the Majors. It wasn’t an elite offense, but it was far better than the group that’s gone 4-for-57 with one double, three walks and 18 strikeouts against Washington.
“We’ve just got a lot of thump in the middle of our lineup, a lot of guys who can get on base. We have more speed on this roster than we’ve had in a long time,” starter Adam Wainwright said after Game 2. “We’ve got a lot of different ways to beat you. We’ve just got to start getting on base and making those pitchers over there sweat a little bit. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about it when the pitchers are locked in like those guys have been.”
The Cardinals reinforced Wainwright’s final point on Sunday in a variety of ways. Leadoff man Dexter Fowler stated simply, “Sometimes, you’ve just got to tip your hat.” The way Max Scherzer was pitching on Saturday, especially with the ball flying out of the Busch Stadium shadows, Shildt argued that he could have constructed a lineup with eight Hall of Fame hitters who wouldn’t have fared much better than the Cardinals did.
“A-plus stuff in A-plus pitching conditions,” Shildt said. “Go get ‘em, kid.”
It’s not as if the Cardinals were taking wild swings outside the strike zone, which is the equivalent of a flashing neon sign pointing to hitters who are either lost or putting too much pressure on themselves at the plate.
In Game 1, they recorded four swinging strikes outside the zone. In Game 2, they whiffed on only eight pitches outside the zone. In both cases, they were getting beat by starters pounding the strike zone with unpredictable arsenals.
“When you see not a ton of chase but you see not a lot of offense,” Shildt said, “it’s a sign of a lot of quality pitching.”
Here’s the problem: It’s not going to get any easier with Strasburg taking the mound in Game 3 and Patrick Corbin lined up to start Game 4 in front of a home crowd trying to will its team to the World Series.
“This is a good-pitching team that we faced. That narrative isn’t going to change,” Carpenter said after Game 2. “Hopefully, I’m standing here after the next one talking about how great we did against their starter, but so far they’ve beat us.”
Kolten Wong said the Cardinals could draw upon their success on the road in Game 5 of the NLDS. Fowler pointed out that the Cardinals beat the Nationals at Busch Stadium on Sept. 16, when Strasburg gave up two runs on four walks and exited after working only five innings. If the Cardinals can force the Nationals' bullpen to work four innings the next two nights, they’ll have a better chance of sending the series back to St. Louis.
Make no mistake, Shildt said, the Cardinals’ clubhouse was not happy on Saturday night. But they were no less confident than they were after that record-setting game in Atlanta less than a week ago.
“This isn’t an overreaction group,” Shildt said. “When you can trust what you do, when you trust each other, when you trust your work, when you trust your process, there’s a peace that’s required with all the other distractions and all the other things that come with it.”