Sore winners

2019-10-10 StLouisCardinals

The Cardinals earned their coming NLCS berth . . . and their skipper earned them an image as unsportsmanlike winners with a postgame rant.

Until he was out-boxed and out-thought by Muhammad Ali in 1964, Sonny Liston was so brutal in the ring he inspired gags about knocking his opponents out before the weighing-in was finished. Forgive the Braves if they think they were stink bombed, pistol whipped, and machine-gunned before “Play ball!” finished escaping the umpire’s mouth.

In avian terms cardinals are seed-eaters by nature, not birds of prey. Don’t tell that to the Braves at any time from now until spring training. Because baseball’s Cardinals turned into glandular enough birds of prey in the top of the first Wednesday afternoon. Leaving no carrion behind.

The 13-1 final score almost didn’t matter. What the Braves incurred from the Cardinals not even Alfred Hitchcock could have conjured. Losing a tenth consecutive postseason set was bad enough. How the Braves were destroyed in Game Five of this National League division series was precedent setting.

No team in the history of division series play ever scored ten runs in a single inning until the Cardinals did it to open Game Five. They did it without one batter in Cardinals feathers hitting one into the seats. It went from small ball to medium ball. Not that the Braves cared, particularly. It hurt just as deep as if they’d been nuked.

Especially after they were four measly outs from going to the National League Championship Series themselves on Monday night. Before Yadier Molina singled home the tying run in the eighth and hit the game-ending sacrifice fly in the tenth in Game Four. Before the trip back to Atlanta. Before the early burial.

Before Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler, once a World Series-winning Cub whose St. Louis tenure hasn’t always been a joyful noise, got thatclose to striking out before wringing a game-opening seven-pitch walk out of Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz. Before the Cardinals sent ten runs across the plate without one single soul hitting one into the seats.

And before Cardinals manager Mike Shildt—who looks so prototypically like a nerd you’d think he knew no expletive stronger than deleted at first glance—delivered a postgame rant of the kind that usually comes when a team’s been battered, not the other way around.

Tommy Lasorda and Lee Elia, you’ve been upstaged. Meet Shildt, in one fateful moment he’d surely love to walk back now. Meet Shildt, the sorest winner on the planet.

Once upon a time another generation of Cardinals collapsed so thoroughly in Game Seven of the 1985 World Series after being jobbed by a blown call near the end of Game Six that they looked like unsportsmanlike chokers. Shildt made his 2019 Cardinals look like unsportsmanlike winners.

“They [the Braves] started some (excrement). We finished the (excrement),” Shildt growled. “And that’s how we roll. No one (fornicates) with us ever. Now, I don’t give a (feces) who we play. We’re gonna (fornicate) them up. We’re gonna take it right to them the whole (fornicating) way. We’re gonna kick their (fornicating) ass.”

Rookie Cardinals outfielder Randy Arozarena, a ninth-inning pinch hitter who finished Game Five playing right field, filmed Shildt’s rant and posted it to Instagram. That’ll teach him. He couldn’t delete the post or apologise fast enough once it hit the Internet flying. Too late. Way to soil your own achievement, boys.

Fowler may or may not have been lucky to survive long enough to wring that game-opening walk; on 1-2 he foul ticked a pitch by less than a hair. “Did I?” he cracked after the game. “That was so long ago I can’t even remember.”

Foltynewicz hadn’t walked a single soul in his Game Two start. Little did he know. And little did anyone in the joint know Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong would even think about sacrificing Fowler to second, never mind doing it almost immediately. “After a good at-bat by Dex,” he’d say, “I told myself, ‘Just get him scoring position’.”

The Cardinals had one goal going in: take the Braves’ home audience out of the game as soon as possible. During the National Anthem if need be. They got close enough. After that, knowing they were sending Jack Flaherty to the mound, they figured a single run might be enough for the kid who pitched the National League’s ears off in the season’s second half.

“We know what kind of a pitcher Foltynewicz is and what he did to us last time and the way this series has been,” said first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who beat out an infield hit right after Wong’s sacrifice. “We wanted to get on the board early.”

He forgot to mention the “often” part. And after left fielder Marcell Ozuna lofted a pitch that arrived around his toes into right to send Fowler home, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman—as close to Old Reliable as the Braves have had since the retirement of Hall of Famer Chipper Jones—mishandled Yadier Molina’s hard grounder to load the bases.

Having the arguable worst week of his career as it was, en route a .200 NLDS batting average on four hits (including one homer and one double), six strikeouts, and one walk in 21 plate appearances, Freeman didn’t flinch after the massacre. “They got nine more runs,” he said. “That was pretty much the game right there.”

Matt Carpenter, penciled in to start at third base for the Cardinals, walked in a run. Tommy Edman, who’d taken Carpenter’s job during the season but was penciled in to start in the Game Five outfield, tore a two-run double down the right field line and chased Foltynewicz in favour of Max Fried. The Braves ordered a free pass to Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong.

And Flaherty had the strange distinction of becoming the rarest breed of pitcher: one who gets to hit before he’s even thrown a single pitch. Not to mention facing his high school buddy and teammate Fried. And he walked Carpenter home.

“I’m laughing because Max is up there,” the righthanded boy wonder remembered after the game about approaching the plate. “I’m trying to keep a straight face. I looked up into the stands and saw my mom, which was great. She was smiling and all excited. I didn’t expect Max.” That’s nothing compared to what Fried didn’t expect.

He didn’t expect Fowler and Wong to hit back-to-back RBI doubles. He didn’t expect to throw a wild pitch to Ozuna for strike three enabling Wong to come home after Goldschmidt left Wong room enough to take third on a line out to right. You almost swore Molina grounded out to end the flood at last because he took pity on the Braves for one brief, shining moment.

Adam Wainwright, who pitched heroically enough in Game Three only to see it laid to waste late, could barely believe what he saw from his seat in the Cardinal dugout. “Have you seen anything like that?” he asked before answering after the game. “We just kept the pedal to the metal . . . I was just trying to stay in the moment, but after that inning I came in to the guys and said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that’.”

The rest of the game seemed almost ceremonial even if Flaherty didn’t exactly have an untroubled outing. He shook of first and second and one out in the first, shrugged off Josh Donaldson’s solo home run in the fourth, and survived a bases-loaded jam in the fifth when he lost control momentarily and hit Ronald Acuna, Jr. with a pitch.

Considering the testiness between Acuna and the Cardinals most of the series the easiest thought to indulge was Flaherty trying to send the Braves’ youthful center field star a message. Considering everything else by that time, there was no way Flaherty would send a message pitch with what was then a twelve-run cushion that should have felt more like a hot tub, especially since Flaherty faced Acuna in the first and walked him without so much as a thought of inside and tight.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux went out to the mound at once to settle Flaherty. He didn’t want his lad making the same mistake Foltynewicz made in that first-inning flood, crossing the line between pitching with emotion and emotionally pitching. Flaherty got the message and got rid of Freeman on a ground out to second for the side.

After the flood, the Cardinals flipped from opening with offense on the brain to pure defense. They moved Edman to third and Fowler to right and sent Harrison Bader out to center field immediately after they’d finished the ten-run opening act. As if to remind his team he knew good and bloody well he had more than a glove working for him, Edman tore one off the top of the right field wall for a one-out triple in the top of the second.

Paul DeJong didn’t give Fried a moment to breathe before he ripped the next pitch off the wall for an RBI double. And after Flaherty zipped through the Braves in order in the bottom, Luke Jackson relieved Fried. He walked Wong on a full count, struck out Goldschmidt, plunked Ozuna on the first pitch, and got a sharp grounder out of Molina.

A grounder Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson picked and shoveled to second baseman Ozzie Albies, and the ball hit Albies’s bare hand leaving all hands safe. Then Bader lined one up the middle to score Wong and, after Edman struck out, DeJong hit another first pitch right through the left side to score Ozuna.

Thirteen runs in three innings. The rest of the game felt like a plain formality. The Braves bullpen from Josh Tomlin forward kept the Cardinals so quiet the rest of the way you began to feel tempted toward asking Braves manager Brian Snitker whether he’d think about trying a purely bullpen game if he could get a Game Five do-over.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen that many guys hit in the first inning that quick in my entire life,” Snitker said. “I don’t know. It wasn’t how we drew it up, I know that. I don’t know. That thing just kept rolling and we couldn’t stop it.”

“Everyone had sky high confidence going into that game and them scoring ten runs, it’s hard to swallow,” said Freeman after the game. “Everything went wrong from the get-go.”

“You don’t expect something like that to happen,” Donaldson lamented, “especially with how well we played all season.”

Any more than you expected Shildt’s post-mortem potty-mouth.

Tony La Russa’s Cardinals beat the Dodgers in a 2004 division series and, after it ended, led his players across the field for a handshake-and-hug line with the Dodgers after the 3-1 triumph. (Effervescent Jose Lima’s Game Three shutout was the only Dodgers win.) It was a grand and entirely endearing gesture. And baseball’s then-chief of discipline Bob Watson reprimanded the Cardinals for it.

La Russa may have had his flaws, but ranting like a drunken sailor over the freshly vanquished wasn’t one of them. Where’s Joe Torre, fellow Hall of Fame manager who now has Watson’s job among his other duties out of the commissioner’s office, to reprimand Shildt?

Letting the kids play is one thing. Letting them enjoy the living daylights out of the moment when they do big things without being broiled by baseball’s Fun Police for it is another thing. But letting a manager get away with a Shildt-like rant after a win at all, never mind one as lopsided as the Cardinals’ on Wednesday? That’s [fornicating] something else entirely.

This wasn’t Yankee manager Aaron Boone going on his now-famous “savages” rant in support of his players after a couple of nasty arguments with a couple of questionable umpires. This was a manager whose team had just humiliated a worthy opponent but who couldn’t resist grinding his heel on their fallen necks.

Arozarena owned up to making a rookie mistake posting his manager’s postgame potty mouth. Shildt made his team look so juvenile that most other fan bases in baseball will forget how surreal their first inning achievement was and hope the Cardinals go down hard in the National League Championship Series.

And if they do, they’ll probably find Braves fans leading the anti-charge. With no jury in the land prepared to rule them unjustified. It’s the least they can be allowed now.

Sunday, bloody Sunday

2019 NLDS Game 3 - Atlanta Braves v. St. Louis Cardinals

Adam Wainwright’s Sunday virtuosity ended up going for naught.

Adam Wainwright had every reason on earth to feel nothing but a powerful desire to arrange Carlos Martinez’s necktie party Sunday. So did every citizen of Cardinal Country. So did every last baseball fan who prayed for and got an impeccable pitchers’ duel, with the Braves’ Mike Soroka playing Dickey Betts to Wainwright’s Duane Allman for virtuosity.

The duel that ended with Martinez’s Spike Jones sneaking explosives into the drums and the Braves standing one win from a National League Championship Series engagement. It’s a good thing for Martinez that Wainwright is a forgiving soul. He had no intention after the staggering 3-1 Braves win in Busch Stadium of doing anything but giving Martinez a big hug.

“And Carlos will be ready tomorrow,” the 38-year-old righthander who may be approaching the end of a solid if injury-compromised career. “Let’s hope one moment doesn’t define his season, because I’d like to see him get another chance.”

Unfortunately, Wainwright and Cardinals manager Mike Schildt may be the only one with that wish. “He’ll be in that spot [Monday],” the skipper said, “and I’ll have full confidence in him.” He says that now, but . . .

Even Braves closer Mark Melancon had Martinez’s back after the game. “You’re not looking to see guys fail,” he told a reporter. “You want to do it the right way, big on big and beat somebody. We’ve all been there. I can’t say that I didn’t want to win, but Carlos is an incredible pitcher. We’ve got to come back strong tomorrow because he’s going to come back, I’m sure.”

After opening with a leadoff double but two straight strikeouts Sunday afternoon, Martinez surrendering back-to-back RBI hits that broke the Cardinals’ backs and Cardinal Country’s hearts for the bottom of the ninth means nobody’s really sure. “There were some pitches that didn’t go where they were supposed to go,” the righthander said afterward. “I didn’t have the best grip on the slider. I tried to get that pitch to do what it was supposed to do and I didn’t get to it.”

The single greatest exhibition of pressure pitching of Wainwright’s life was laid to waste right there.

With an enviable enough postseason pitching record as it is—he has a lifetime 2.79 ERA and 1.03 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in October—Wainwright for seven innings couldn’t be stopped with a subpoena, never mind a S.W.A.T. team. Especially throwing the curve ball he calls King Charles, the way Mets legend Dwight Gooden’s curve was once known as Lord Charles.

If Wainwright wasn’t quite as masterly as the Astros’ Gerrit Cole the day before, he was close enough and too much so for the Braves’ discomfort. He nailed eight strikeouts, trusted his defenders just enough, didn’t let plate umpire Sam Holbrook’s microscopic strike zone faze him any more than Soroka did, didn’t let his own club’s lack of cash-in offense bother him, and made a 1-0 lead—acquired on a Marcell Ozuna double, a Yadier Molina ground out pushing Ozuna to third, and a Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly in the second inning—feel almost like a 10-0 lead.

Then, after Brian McCann popped out to the third base side near the plate to open the top of the eighth, Wainwright’s tank ran past E. Dansby Swanson shot one through the hole at short for a single. Soroka’s pinch hitter Adam Duvall lined out to third but Ronald Acuna, Jr. worked himself to a full-count walk, Wainwright’s first of the day. And Ozzie Albies walked on 3-1 to load the pads for Freddie Freeman.

Exit Wainwright, enter Andrew Miller, who hasn’t been the same as he was with the Indians thanks to their overworking him while he was hot and a couple of injuries to follow that have sapped his once-formidable repertoire if not his heart. The Cardinals needed it to be classic Miller Time in the worst way possible now.

And after a swinging strike to open, Miller got Freeman to fly out to Dexter Fowler in center field and strand the ducks on the pond.

The problem was, the Cardinals weren’t any better after pushing Soroka’s relief Max Fried in the bottom of the eighth. Fried walked Carpenter to open, with Schildt sending swift Harrison Bader out to run for the veteran. Bader distracted Fried enough to compel a walk to Tommy Edman before Paul DeJong flied out toward the right field line. Exit Fried, enter Darren O’Day.

Also enter Jose Martinez pinch hitting in Miller’s lineup slot. O’Day faked a throw over and Bader took off, only to get hung up between second and third before O’Day threw him out at third. Then Martinez hit a sinking liner to left that Duvall on his horse could only reach and trap. You could taste the RBI that wasn’t on a plate dipped in A-1 sauce.

Bader’s arrest for attempted grand theft loomed even larger after Sean Newcomb relieved Day and got Fowler to fly out to his center field counterpart Acuna for the side. Then Schildt put Bader into center field, moved Edman from right field to third base, shifted Fowler to right field, and called on Carlos Martinez.

Josh Donaldson might have ripped a double past the diving Edman at third and down the left field line into the corner for a leadoff double, but Martinez bagged Nick Markakis and pinch hitter Adeiny Hechevarria—who’d been 4-for-6 in that role since joining the Braves—back to back on swinging strikeouts.

The bad news was Donaldson’s pinch runner Billy Hamilton, whose road running on the bases is almost his only ability that enables him to play major league baseball, getting too much into Martinez’s head. So much so that when Hechevarria swung strike three Hamilton stole third without so much as a beat cop hollering “Stop, thief!”

“At the time you want to get to third with one out, so that was a bad break,” Hamilton told reporters after the game. “But getting to third even with two outs, what if Martinez bounces one in the dirt? I could score. And maybe he has to pitch the next guy differently.”

Then, after Molina and Martinez confabbed at the mound with Molina obviously upset and Schildt joining them to settle them down and get back to business, McCann—the potential go-ahead run—was awarded first on the house and Rafael Ortega assigned to pinch run for the prodigal Braves’ catcher.

Swanson checked in at the plate 0-for-6 lifetime against Martinez. Every star aligned in Martinez’s favour. “The Cardinals start doing game management,” said McCann after the game, “and then Dansby came up clutch.”

Clutch enough to send one off the left field fence and send Hamilton home to tie it at one. “God blessed me with good hand-eye coordination,” the Braves’ shortstop said after the game. “In those situations, you just try and breathe and relax. It’s easier said than done.”

And Duvall dumped a quail into short center down for a base hit, scoring Ortega readily with Bader throwing home but well off and over the third base line, enabling Swanson to score the third run.

Only after walking Acuna did Martinez escape, getting Albies to line out to right. And after Freeman made a sensational extension to hold a wide throw from shortstop and keep his toe on first base to nail Kolten Wong opening, Paul Goldschmidt banked a double off the right field side wall off Melancon. But Ozuna looked at strike three on the inside corner and Molina flied out to center.

It gave the Braves their first postseason series lead in seventeen years and gave the Cardinals a reminder of what they might have really lost when Jordan Hicks, their originally assigned closer, having a solid season to that point, went down with Tommy John surgery in late June. Might.

Maybe a healthy Hicks keeps the Braves pinned in the ninth Sunday. Maybe he doesn’t. Two days after Martinez barely survived to keep a Cardinal win a win, he didn’t survive. And the Cardinals get to host the Braves for Game Four on the fiftieth anniversary of making the trade that helped change baseball.

It was 7 October 1969 when they traded center field mainstay Curt Flood to the Phillies. The trade Flood rejected for the reserve clause challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court before losing—yet pushing open the door through which Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and then Andy Messersmith would escort free agency’s advent.

Fifty years ago, too, the Miracle Mets shocked the world with their division, pennant, and World Series triumphs. Their golden anniversary team couldn’t stay the distance even toward a wild card game spot. The Cardinals have bigger stakes to play for on the Flood trade’s golden anniversary.

And a lot to make up for to Adam Wainwright, who’d love nothing more than one more postseason start at minimum. He won’t say he’ll retire after the Cardinals’ season ends; he won’t say he won’t, either.

“(I)n my mind, I’ve got two more series to pitch through, you know?” Wainwright said Sunday evening. “We got the NLCS (and) the World Series pitch through. But first we got to win (Monday). That’s where my head’s at right now. But no, I never once felt like today was it. Either we’ve got more games to win, or I’ve got more games to pitch.”

If his injuries over the years keep him from thinking about the Hall of Fame, Wainwright at least thinks the way a Hall of Famer does. Against a group of Braves who don’t know the meaning of the word surrender just yet, that attitude needs to rub off a lot more on the Cardinals now.