LOS ANGELES -- Asked repeatedly over the course of the 2021 season about the state of his club, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt pointed to the defense. Through the dark points in June, when one in-game misfortune seemed to derail the day, it was the quality of defense that kept him confident of the process in place. When that morphed into the winning ways of September, the defense was highlighted in victories, at times in a viral manner.
The defense became a litmus test for St. Louis this year; should it go awry, then it’s time to be concerned. And it may never be more important nor more magnified than on Wednesday.
That’s partly because of the circumstances, the margins razor-thin in the Wild Card Game’s do-or-die reality where one misstep can prove fatal. But it doubly is so because of who the Cardinals are facing, with the unrelenting Max Scherzer on the mound for Los Angeles.
The Cards are better suited than most when it comes to eliminating any such doubt in a one-game scenario. They led the Majors in Defensive Runs Saved (83) -- that mark led the NL by 26 -- and tallied the second-highest Outs Above Average (50) by a team in Statcast history (The 2017 Twins had +63 OAA). In the final week of the regular season, the Cards turned one of the wildest double plays of the season.
That work started in Spring Training, under the direction of defensive guru José Oquendo, and has been hammered home to the finer details they pride themselves on. It is reinforced with their day-to-day preparation and pregame work.
Just ask Nolan Arenado. Part of why the eight-time Gold Glover wanted to come to St. Louis was because he gleaned from afar the organization’s commitment to the finer points of baseball, the way its players carried themselves on the field. Now, behind the curtain, he remains impressed.
And he feels strongly in one aspect in particular.
“This is the best defense I've ever played on,” Arenado said. “ … There's no doubt our defense is the best in the game. That's going to help us in a game like this, where we've got to be able to cover ground and make some plays, because … they are going to hit the ball hard and we have to find a way to stop them and make some plays.”
It’s not a unique assessment.
“I don't think I've played on a team that's this talented on the defensive side of the ball,” said Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ starting pitcher on Wednesday.
"This is the best [Cardinals defense] I've seen,” echoed longtime infielder Matt Carpenter, who has been on the team since 2011.
It’s not an aberration. The Cardinals possess a combined 23 Gold Gloves, eight Platinum Gloves and others who are surefire finalists, if not favorites to win it this year. They have long expected their defense to carry them. It has, and they hope it can far further.
It allowed them to target bona fide strike-throwers J.A. Happ and Jon Lester at the Trade Deadline, pickups that stabilized the rotation. They can witness their opponents connect on a pitch and know it has a good chance of resulting in an out. Wainwright has long known that reality, especially this year, and will be well aware of it in his crucial start.
“We have incredible defenders,” Wainwright said. “Why would you not trust those guys?”
Arenado back home for biggest game as a Card
When the Cardinals were putting together the start of their winning ways in August and starting to inch closer to the Wild Card race, Arenado proclaimed such thrills were the reason he came to St. Louis.
He arrived back in his native Southern California ready to put action to words.
“I know when I land in California,” Arenado said. “I can tell by the air that I'm home.”
Arenado knows what it’s like to play in Dodger Stadium as a Rockie -- “Lost a lot,” he said -- hitting a home run in a Game 163 defeat in 2018. He’s also played in the intensity of a Wild Card Game twice, experiencing both its highs and lows. But now, he’ll know the sense of two of the winningest franchises in NL history going at it.
“The difference between good teams and bad teams is how steady can you stay throughout an eight-month season,” Arenado said. “The Cardinals have always done that. They always find themselves in it at the end because of how we stay steady and continue to fight.”
Odds and ends
• The Cardinals brought along four Minor Leagues -- including a few of their higher-ranked prospects -- to California as part of a taxi squad. Infielder/outfielder Juan Yepez (club’s No. 27 prospect), outfielder Nick Plummer (No. 10), third baseman Brendan Donovan (No. 18) and infielder Kramer Robertson were all wearing Cardinal red for the first time of their careers. Of the group, only Yepez (along with possible third catcher Ali Sánchez) took routine reps with players expected to be rostered against the Dodgers.
The Cardinals are expected to carry 14 position players and 12 pitchers on Wednesday.
• Jack Flaherty, who has been expected to be on the Wild Card Game roster, will indeed be so, Shildt reaffirmed on Tuesday. He will be available out of the bullpen, likely for no more than one to two innings. Quite simply, “it will be fluid,” the manager said.