Standing at his locker on Tuesday afternoon, Kolten Wong did yeoman’s work as he attempted to remember details of the decisive fifth game of the 2012 Texas League semifinals between Tulsa and Springfield.
Eventually he landed on the simplest version of the truth: “Seriously, I have no idea,” Wong said with a shrug and a smile.
It was a reasonable response to an unreasonable question which may have seemed bizarre on the eve of the decisive fifth game of the 2019 National League Division Series, but the game carries a footnote. It’s the last time Cardinals manager Mike Shildt was at the helm for a do-or-die, win-or-go-home postseason game.
Asked if he could remember the contest in question, Shildt had no hesitation.
“Well, that would be against Tulsa in 2012,” he correctly recalled. “I remember vividly Boone Whiting came up, threw, whatever, six innings, fastball/changeup.”
Whiting threw seven innings in that game, but the manager otherwise deserves full marks.
SunTrust Park is a long way away from Springfield, Mo’s Hammons Field, and Shildt is a long way away from the manager he was in 2012. He’s gone from organizational project to organizational stalwart, and it will be his hand on the wheel as he attempts to guide the Cardinals through the storm of sliders sure to issue from the right arm of Atlanta starter Mike Foltynewicz, who silenced the St. Louis bats in Game 2.
That distance and time has given Shildt perspective that he brings to the ballpark each day, aspiring to treat Oct. 8, 2019 no differently from any other Tuesday.
“Outside the mound visits, the game hasn’t changed a lot,” Shildt said. “So really it’s about playing the game and being prepared just like you always are and seeing what’s in front of you and manage it.”
On the mound for the Cardinals will be Jack Flaherty, their unquestioned ace who pitched around some hard first-inning luck and kept the Cardinals close in Game 2 before Adam Duvall broke it open for Atlanta with a two-run homer. He took the podium to answer questions Tuesday in a shirt emblazoned with his hashtag-turned-motto: #DontThink
“It’s kind of how it’s been all year, especially through the second half and through every game that I’ve had so far coming down to the end,” Flaherty said. “But nothing really changes when it comes to mentality or the approach or how we go about our business. It’s just trying to treat it like another game, but go out there, get as many outs as I can.
“This is your job. This is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to get the ball in these kinds of situations. And these are situations where you turn to your guy, ‘hey, we need a win here, go take the ball, give us what you’ve got.’”
Flaherty was relaxed and breezy as he wove through his reverence for the pitchers who have come before him with the Cardinals and touched on the personality differences between him and his teammates. He laughed and smiled as the interview session dragged on for nearly a quarter of an hour — an eternity compared to so many other conversations with so many other players.
That image contrasts sharply with the Flaherty who will stride to the top of the mound on Wednesday. That Flaherty displays a fire — an anger — that he’ll readily admit even as he struggles to piece together from whence it came.
“Every time I’ve gone on the mound,” he said, “it’s kind of getting in that zone and getting into that mental state and kind of whatever it takes. We’re going into a heavyweight fight and it’s me versus the guy in the box.
“Granted I’ve got seven guys behind me and a Hall of Fame guy behind the plate, but it’s me versus you. And that’s what it is. My job is to get you out. It doesn’t matter what’s going on or who’s in my way, but my job is to get you out.”
It’s a big-league mentality for one of the big leagues’ biggest games. Before Wong arrived at this level, 13 months before he would play in his first World Series, he celebrated with his teammates in Springfield. The Tulsa team they knocked off was stacked with talent; Corey Dickerson, Nolan Arenado, and a rehabbing Troy Tulowitzki hit at the top of the order.
“It’s kind of the same situation we’re in right now,” Wong said. “Everyone counted us out of that. I remember we beat those guys and we were like, ‘dude, we just beat the freaking Colorado Rockies. Let’s go.’”
It’s the actual Atlanta Braves now, and Flaherty is ready. This is his moment. He explained that every game for him is do or die, but eventually came around to acknowledging that Wednesday ascends to the next level.
“It’s going to be fun,” Flaherty said. “It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be great. There’s a great team over there. It’s just one of those things you kind of look for and you’ve got to be excited about it.
“Come on, you got Game 5, win or go home. What’s not to be excited about?”