ST. LOUIS -- Three games into Carlos Martínez's tenure as the Cardinals’ postseason closer, St. Louis is one game away from elimination. But at least for now, they aren’t wavering from Martínez as their go-to ninth-inning option.
“He's bent, but he hasn't broke a lot,” manager Mike Shildt said. “He's been able to demonstrate it all year. No reason to get knee-jerked without a guy having any setback. So no real thought about not sending him out there at all.”
Those were Shildt’s words after he watched Game 3 of the National League Division Series devolve into a gut-wrenching, series-swinging 3-1 defeat to the Braves on Sunday behind Martínez, who unraveled in his first career playoff save opportunity. Three days after allowing three runs in a non-save situation in Game 1, Martínez coughed up three more to spoil a sensational Adam Wainwright start and put St. Louis down two games to one heading into Monday’s must-win Game 4 at Busch Stadium.
Of the 12 runs Cardinal pitchers have allowed over the first three games of the series, six have come with Martínez on the mound.
“It’s tough for me not to be able to close that game,” Martínez said through team translator Carlos Villoria. “Everybody has a bad day and today was my turn. I’m going to keep moving forward and get back tomorrow.”
Sunday’s lead slipped away quickly thanks to Martínez’s pitching, as well as some help from a managerial decision that turned out poorly. Cradling a one-run lead in the ninth, Martínez allowed Josh Donaldson's leadoff double before striking out the next two hitters. That brought up left-handed-hitting Brian McCann, representing the go-ahead run. After a conference with Shildt on the mound, the Cardinals opted to intentionally walk McCann and pitch to Dansby Swanson, who entered play hitless in six career at-bats against Martínez.
“The consensus was that [he would] rather take a shot at Swanson,” Shildt said. “But you have two outs, and we play to win. Gotta play to win the game. Everybody felt like that was the best matchup, including the guy on the mound. Took our shot. Didn't make a pitch, and [Swanson] made him pay.”
“We can always look to bring in another guy,” Shildt said. “But, again, you've got your closer out there. And I feel like if you start pulling guys that have been doing jobs prematurely, then I think that's a sign of panic and lack of trust.”
Afterwards, Martínez defended the strategy while his teammates expressed confidence in him. From Wainwright to Matt Carpenter and beyond, they were uniform in saying they hope Martínez gets another chance. Shildt echoed their sentiment, calling Martínez “one of the big reasons that I'm sitting here and we're playing.”
Shildt cited the success Martínez has enjoyed since assuming ninth-inning duties, converting 24 of 26 save chances and posting a 2.98 overall ERA since the beginning of June.
“You feel for Carlos because he’s been so great all year,” Wainwright said. “We had a chance in the 9th there to put a couple insurance runs out there, and their guys did a great job. A guy like Carlos, man, you feel for him. He’s so talented and he’s been so great for us all year. Let’s hope one moment doesn’t define his season, because I’d like to see him get another chance.”
Should they decide to pivot, the Cardinals could turn to Giovanny Gallegos, who Shildt had warming in the ninth, or perhaps Andrew Miller, who recorded one huge out on Sunday (with the bases loaded and two outs in the 8th) and boasts significant high-leverage October experience. Miles Mikolas will also be available out of the bullpen in what will be an all-hands-on-deck effort for Game 4.
Martínez said “In any moment that manager calls me, I have the confidence that I’ll be ready to get the job done.”
“I feel great when Carlos gets the ball,” Carpenter said. “We know what kind of stuff he has, what kind of competitor he is. Sometimes you go out there without your best stuff and give up hits. But from a confidence standpoint, I got a ton of confidence in Carlos and I expect him to shut it down every time he takes the mound. I hope he gets another chance.”