A long season of baseball is full of ups and downs.
In the internet age, it seems every day of the year one fan moans that the latest loss is officially The End (1, 2, 3) of their team’s playoff aspirations. But it’s difficult to imagine how things might change a month — or even a week down the line. There’s always hope until a team is mathematically eliminated from contention.
There is no such gray area for the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday.
A total of 166 games later, the Cardinals are in an all-or-nothing playoff game against the Atlanta Braves that will either justify the skepticism of St. Louis fans who chose not to buy postseason tickets to Game 4 on Monday — or it will suddenly smash all doubts about the home team as the Cardinals suddenly find themselves in the National League Championship Series, just one step short of the World Series. It’s rare that we ever get such a black-and-white answer about whether it was a good season or a bad one. But this is a chance to do just that.
Sure, just making the playoffs is pretty good. But it can be reasoned that the Cardinals are playing in October because the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers offered less competition than what was originally expected. After all, the Cubs were so disappointed by the way their 2019 campaign turned out that they turned their back on the guy who led their club to its first World Series win in more than a century, firing Joe Maddon. Taking things a step farther and actually defeating a playoff quality team, in my book, is a much more impressive feat than just showing up at the dance and then leaving without
To make a finer point, Game 5 of the NLDS will give us a uniquely definitive answer on whether the Cardinals were correct to pass on trying to find a front of the rotation starting pitcher, instead relying on youngster Jack Flaherty to pitch what is undeniably the most important game of the year. I’d be deathly concerned about having a guy who is playing in his first postseason series being counted on to win or lose the season for his team. But Flaherty has been so incredible in the second half of 2019 that I am interested to see if we’re witnessing the baptism of a new ace — or if the St. Louis gamble could cost the Birds a chance to make a deep run into the playoffs.
Flaherty seemed completely unbothered by his assignment to handle the second game of the series. He pitched well enough to win but got absolutely no support from his teammates. We’ll see if he can turn in a performance as good or better in his second go-round. High-end pitchers are made for big moments. And this is as big as a moment as any St. Louis pitcher has faced this year.
Can the Cardinals get to the World Series?
As bleak as things have seemed at times this year, should the Cardinals win Wednesday, their path to the World Series could suddenly become much more passable.
No disrespect to the Washington Nationals, but the Los Angeles Dodgers have undeniably been the best team in the National League from wire to wire this season. Washington, as hot as it has been in the second half of 2019, is still a wild card team with a less celebrated roster than its current playoff competitor. Still, LA is in a do-or-die Game 5 against the Nats and Max Scherzer. Not only do the Cardinals match up better against D.C. than the Dodgers, but if Washington wins in the first round, four of the seven potential NLCS games would be at Busch Stadium instead of on the road. The Cardinals are much, much better at home than they are on the road.
I’m not going to be shocked, no matter which way things go for the Cardinals in Game 5. But I’m excited by the fact that they have earned the opportunity to move on. And I am never going to count them out when a highly-motivated Yadier Molina is ready to play.
Molina was a beast in Game 4, tying the contest in the eighth inning and then winning it in the 10th. He made it clear as St. Louis celebrated on the field that he didn’t take kindly to some of the antics of the Braves when they won Game 3. Molina is incredibly successful when the games matter the most. So I am expecting big things from him in a win or go home situation.