On a day when an unseasonably scorching sun drove temperatures at SunTrust Park into the mid-90s, the St. Louis Cardinals managed to stay loose and keep their cool as they ran through a series of workouts in preparation for taking on the Atlanta Braves in Thursday’s first game of the National League Division Series.
“It’s just who we are,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “And it’s not Kumbaya loose — nothing wrong with that — but we also have some focus on what’s going on, too. We do want to enjoy what’s going on. We’ve talked about that all season and we’ve been able to do it and create that balance.”
He made three personnel announcements on Wednesday, confirming that Kolten Wong (left hamstring strain) would be in Thursday’s starting lineup and that ace Jack Flaherty would be the starter for Friday’s Game 2. Dakota Hudson, likely to start game four, will be available out of the bullpen for the first two games of the series in Atlanta.
Shildt opted not to comment on the rest of the roster or his planned batting order for Thursday, saying that both would be released in the morning as scheduled before the 4:02 p.m. first pitch.
Sources indicated to the News-Democrat that pitcher Genesis Cabrera is expected to be among the 25 players selected, and Shildt said he “wouldn’t rule it out” when asked about keeping Cabrera active as a third left-handed reliever.
Righty Dominic Leone, a long-shot candidate for active duty, did not travel with the team to Atlanta.
Opening Day starter Miles Mikolas will take the ball for the Redbirds in the series’s first game, opposed by Atlanta lefty Dallas Keuchel.
Mikolas finished the season at 9-14 with a 4.16 earned run average, though that number dropped to 3.34 in five September starts. Mikolas also had a strong start against the Braves in May, taking a hard luck loss as he allowed three runs — two via solo home runs — in seven innings pitched.
“I can look to see if their hitters have changed any tendencies,” Mikolas said of his prior start. “I’ll go back and watch that game again. Who knows how many times I’ll watch it between today and tomorrow? But I’ll watch it. I’ll watch what I did well, what I didn’t do well, make sure I’m not predictable, things like that.”
The Cardinals spent their time on the field Wednesday running through various defensive scenarios before taking batting practice.
Atlanta was fourth in the National League and eighth in Major League Baseball this season with 249 home runs, which is 10% higher than league average and forces the Cardinals to minimize mistakes in the field.
“Try not to give them extra outs because that’s when they put big runs on the board,” outfielder and Atlanta native Dexter Fowler said. “Execute and go at it like that.”
If Wednesday’s environment is a fair precursor of Thursday’s ballgame, the risk of home runs will be high. Several Cardinals seemed to drive the ball over the wall to the opposite field with little resistance, and the park’s tight dimensions and uncomplicated angles play well for teams willing to sell out to their offensive prowess.
That strategy could lead the Cardinals to leave speedy and superlative defender Harrison Bader on the bench.
Bader struck out 39 times in 106 September plate appearances, batting just .191 with a .274 on base percentage.
With Wong healthy and Tommy Edman leading the Cardinal offense for most of the season’s last month, the lineup decision is likely to come down to a choice between Bader’s defense and Matt Carpenter’s resurgent bat. A more offensive lineup would see Carpenter at third base, Wong at his familiar second, Edman in right field, and Fowler in center.
“Matt had a really good month and has done a really nice job in multiple roles,” Shildt said. “I’m excited about him being able to participate depending on whatever that role looks like.”
Shildt is entering his first postseason as a Major League manager, and with that exposure comes extra scrutiny.
Last week, in his office at Busch Stadium, he spoke of a conversation with Cardinals Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa in which LaRussa insisted that the only difference between the minor league and Major League postseasons was that the Major League version had a bigger audience.
It’s a sentiment he echoed as he expressed confidence on Wednesday afternoon.
“It really gets down to playing the game, playing the game the right way,” Shildt said, “and being prepared to make the right decisions and putting people in the right spots from my chair, and the guys going out and just playing and playing the game.
“We talked about this all year and we’ve normalized it. Just don’t make it any bigger than it is. And when something is bigger, then make sure you’re clear about keeping it simple and just keeping your focus in a present state of mind. Ultimately it’s just a game.”