After resisting calls both implicit and explicit to make exaggerated changes to his lineup, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt determined that the fourth game of the National League Championship Series was the right time to make an adjustment.
Dexter Fowler, who has hit leadoff in every game for St. Louis in this postseason, has been relegated to the bench, and Harrison Bader rejoins the starters after being written out following the second game of the Division Series.
“No question we’ll step up to this challenge,” Shildt said. “I was asked earlier a similar question: ‘Where’s your point of reference for your optimism?’ .... I think you live longer being an optimist and just better. But aside from that, optimism stems from this team’s work, and it’s not eye wash. We got here for a reason. This has been a team that has always believed in itself.
“It’s a team that will continue to do that.”
Fowler is 2-for-33 in the postseason with 10 strikeouts, three of which came in an 0-4 performance in the Cardinals’ 8-1 loss in Game 4. He’s being replaced in the leadoff spot by Tommy Edman, who stays at third base. José Martínez, who leads the club with four hits in the series, will stay in right field and bat second.
After watching his offense score only two runs in the first three games of the series – both on outfield misplays by Washington – Shildt is leaning into recent performance in hopes that something clicks.
“That’s the whole genesis of the lineup is getting those guys up to the top who have been taking those kinds of at-bats,” Shildt explained. “Tommy’s been in that situation. Hosey’s been in that situation. Like I said, we got here with another combination and just made an adjustment and feel comfortable that Eddie can spark plug us and Hosey and just ride from there.”
Patrick Corbin takes the ball for the Nationals on Tuesday night, becoming the fourth in a series of dominant starters that the Nationals can lean on for results. In relying heavily on so few pitchers, Washington manager Dave Martinez has bucked the trend of “bullpening” that’s been in vogue in recent playoff years.
“We believe in starting pitching,” Martinez said Monday. “That’s where it all starts. (General manager Mike Rizzo) did a great job of getting the guys we have now. They keep us in ball games. That’s how it all starts.”
Corbin represents the first lefty starter the Cardinals will see in this round. After winning both Division Series games in which Atlanta used Dallas Keuchel, Shildt leaned in part on the success of certain hitters against southpaws in making his lineup decisions.
“This is a lineup that you’ve seen that we’ve run out against lefties some,” said Shildt. “So that was a part of it. The other factor was not being able to do anything or scratch any runs across. Better at-bats last night, I thought, but not good enough.
“We also have to recognize that we have to do something different. Give it a different look and see what we can do.”
The removal of Fowler poses a unique challenge from a deeper-than-on-field perspective. Fowler’s the most recent Cardinal to win a World Series, hitting a leadoff home run for the Cubs in 2016’s decisive game. His effect on the team was summed up by then-Cubs manager Joe Maddon as “you go, we go,” and Shildt has echoed those thoughts at times this season.
With the season on the line, Fowler’s going nowhere but to the bench.
“Like all our guys, a complete pro,” Shildt said of Fowler. “Had the conversation with him prior to yesterday’s game. Just had a conversation with him, look, we’re going to mix it up. We just need to do something a little bit different. Don’t ask him to agree, but ask him to understand.
“Like all our guys, which has been such a phenomenal thing for me is you’ve got a group of guys that genuinely care about the greater good. So, he understood it and said ‘whatever you need. I appreciate the conversation, and I’ll be ready for whatever.’”
If the Cardinals extend the series to a fifth game on Wednesday night, Miles Mikolas will oppose Aníbal Sánchez.
Sánchez dominated the Cardinals over 7 2/3 innings in the first game of this series, and so changes to that lineup should be anticipated. Whether or not those changes need to be fully fleshed out will, ultimately, depend on whether the Cardinals can find an offensive spark on Tuesday that’s proved painfully elusive thus far.
“So get a lead, play, play the game, get some outs, shake some hands after the game, that’s a whole different environment, ready to go and get after it,” Shildt said. “That spark can lead to a big fire.”