As a woebegone St. Louis Cardinals offense searches for traction against an Atlanta Braves pitching staff, which has refused to yield any ground, their best – and perhaps last – hope could come in the form of a lineup decision by Braves manager Brian Snitker.
Lefty Dallas Keuchel, Atlanta’s Game 1 starter, will take the hill in Game 4 after just three days’ rest.
It’s the second time in his career, postseason included, that Keuchel has followed one start with another after fewer than four days. Its announcement also came with its fair share of drama, as official Major League Baseball channels did not update to confirm that Keuchel had the assignment until minutes before Cardinals manager Mike Shildt’s press availability on Monday morning.
“We set the lineup,” Shildt said. “We had a pretty good sense of what was going on regardless of who they were going to start, what our lineup will look like.”
Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said that the Cardinals were informed of Keuchel’s start on Sunday evening, as the Braves did not finalize their pitching plans until discussing the options with their staff shortly after Atlanta’s 3-1, Game 3 victory.
“I wasn’t aware of a delay and there wasn’t any reasoning, wasn’t any gaming,” Snitker said. “Just didn’t get out there, I guess.”
Regardless of the timing, the Cardinals were likely glad to see the news when it came. Keuchel was chased after only 4 1/3 innings pitched in Game 1, and St. Louis was able to feast on an Atlanta bullpen that lacks a heavy intimidation factor, save for starter-turned-stopper Max Fried.
The Cardinals put up six serious runs against Atlanta’s relievers in that game. They have only two other runs scored total in the three games which have been played so far.
“I think our approach has been really good,” said Shildt. “And it’s hard to sit there and say that and feel good about it — we talked about it this morning. We didn’t chase a ton yesterday on Soroka. We mostly got pitches we could hit, not a ton of them.”
Keuchel’s short rest numbers, limited though they are, should also give the Cardinals confidence.
Including relief appearances, he’s allowed 18 runs (14 earned) in 21 innings spread across six outings when pitching on fewer than four days’ rest. That’s good for an ERA of 6.00.
His most recent short rest appearance in the playoffs was a struggle – three runs allowed in one relief inning pitched for the Houston Astros in a decisive Game 5 loss to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 American League Division Series.
His short rest starts have been somewhat better. May 10th, 2013 saw him allow two runs in six innings after throwing 1 2/3 innings in relief two days prior. In the 2015 American League Wild Card Game, he threw six shutout innings as the Astros beat the Yankees. Those mixed results leave Shildt with a moderated strategy.
“All year, that whole debate, we’ve been in multiple times where we sit there like, ‘oh, man, we’re going to wait this guy out, wait this guy out,’ and we get the guy to a high pitch count in the fifth but we really haven’t done any damage,” Shildt said. “And then we’ve done some things where ultimately it gets down to a philosophy that I don’t think is uncommon, but it’s definitely ours and we want to get good pitches. And if we get a good pitch early in the count, put a good swing on it, we’ve had a good at-bat, if that happens to be later in the count.”
Despite temptation, the Cardinals don’t feel as though they’re able to wait to get a jump start. Early runs could create confidence that the team is able to build on and could help sew uncertainty in an Atlanta group that finds itself on the cusp of winning the franchise’s first postseason series since 2001.
“I think it could be a mistake to try to wait a guy out — especially a guy that’s a pitch-maker like Keuchel — and sit out and try to find a way to get his pitch count up and be in counts that aren’t favorable and then get to a situation where you’re starting to have to put his pitch in play.
“You get late in the count, you may have to do that. But we don’t want to do that early in the count just for the sake of trying to worry about getting him out of the game or affecting anything on short rest.”
Keuchel had warning if not rest, and Snitker took precautions to ensure his pitcher wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
“We asked him because we had talked to him yesterday — the possibilities just as they’re preparing, and things like that in their daily routine — but we didn’t lock it down until yesterday evening after the game,” Shildt said.
Even if the two managers aren’t engaged in gamesmanship, it will be Snitker’s gamble on Keuchel that determines, in part, whether these two teams will return to Atlanta for a decisive game five on Wednesday.
The Cardinals have already announced righty Jack Flaherty as their starter for that game – confident it will come, and certain that there’s no need for delay.