Nearly a decade after the most famous NLDS Game 5 in St. Louis Cardinals history, the team’s 1-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011, there has been plenty of myth-building to go around. One of those myths is the perception that the two starters that night, Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay, were comparably dominant pitchers on the whole.
Chris Carpenter was a terrific pitcher who was periodically dominant throughout his career. Had he not been hampered by injuries, he likely would have the longevity to merit Hall of Fame consideration. But, particularly by 2011, Chris Carpenter was absolutely not Roy Halladay. Chris Carpenter had a 3.45 ERA. Halladay’s was 2.35. Carpenter had a FIP of 3.06. Halladay’s was 2.20. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Carpenter ranked 18th among MLB pitchers. Roy Halladay ranked first.
In the end, Chris Carpenter outlasted Roy Halladay and got the win. But if you had given me a choice that day who I would prefer on the mound between Carpenter or Halladay, I’d have taken Roy. I’d have preferred Justin Verlander (assuming he wasn’t on short rest, at least). I’d have preferred Clayton Kershaw. Chris Carpenter was a very good option, and certainly the best option in that 2011 rotation–he wasn’t the top option in a fantasy world.
Tonight, the Cardinals will play in their first winner-take-all series finale since 2006 which wasn’t started by Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright. And there isn’t a pitcher on Earth I’d rather have going for my team than Jack Flaherty.
Maybe Jack Flaherty isn’t actually the best pitcher in baseball, though he has been for the last three months. Maybe I’m just averse to committing a Type 1 error–there’s always a chance something goes wrong, but the idea of watching Jack Flaherty supercedes whatever pitcher might be slightly better. If I opted for Max Scherzer, it might work out. But if it didn’t work out, I’d be regretting not giving the ball to Jack Flaherty forever.
Tonight, Jack Flaherty has the chance to pitch himself into Cardinals history. At 23, Flaherty is already the ninth-youngest starting pitcher in Cardinals postseason history. He will become the second-youngest pitcher in franchise history to start a winner-take-all playoff game. And unlike Joe Magrane, who allowed two runs in Game 7 of the 1987 World Series, Flaherty has a chance to become the youngest pitcher to win one.
Last Friday, Flaherty got no help, from the offense (scoring zero runs throughout the game) nor from his manager (that Flaherty continued to pitch into the seventh inning is nearly unprecedented in the modern playoffs, except for the Cardinals literally the next game). But Flaherty tossed a game worthy of a positive team result. I have complete faith in Flaherty to pitch at least as well as he did last Friday again. It’s time for the rest of the team to play to his level.
So far, the Cardinals have deployed two different lineups–the defensively-oriented one of the games in Atlanta (Edman at third, Bader in center, Fowler in right) and the offensively-geared one from the Busch Stadium games (Carpenter at third, Fowler in center, Edman in right). There is no right or wrong answer of what approach to take (nor is some compromise between the two inherently superior), but the Cardinals’ application doesn’t make a ton of sense so far. On Monday, with ground ball behemoth Dakota Hudson on the mound practically beginning for sterling infield defense, the Cardinals instead started Matt Carpenter, a defensible enough move in a vacuum if you ignore that Jack Flaherty, easily the staff’s least grounder-heavy pitcher (his strikeout rate means fewer balls in play in general), was backed up by Tommy Edman while Carpenter sat and the offense floundered. Carpenter’s Game 4 start was made all the more puzzling by the fact that the Cardinals were facing a left-handed pitcher, Dallas Keuchel.
Monday’s lineup is considerably more defensible tonight that it was on Monday. Facing Mike Foltynewicz, the righty who bested Flaherty in Game 2, the Cardinals are less likely to be burned by Carpenter’s so-so third base defense (his rough fifth inning notwithstanding, he isn’t actually a complete butcher out there) because of Jack Flaherty’s pitching style and are more likely to benefit from Carpenter’s bat than that of Harrison Bader, who struggled mightily against Foltynewicz in Game 2.
But the Cardinals’ offensive woes leave several Cardinals fair to question for the starting lineup. Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna have been excellent; Jose Martinez has been good in pinch-hitting duty (he has two singles in three plate appearances); Tommy Edman has been Decidedly Fine (4-for-14 with two doubles and two walks). Other than those guys, however, the lineup has struggled. Benching Bader, a defensive superstar who lately has looked like he’s swinging a guitar string at the plate, is one thing, but Dexter Fowler has just one single and one walk in 18 plate appearances. Paul DeJong, whose offensive numbers have been in free-fall consistently throughout 2019, has a .343 OPS in his four playoff games and has effectively become a 2013 Pete Kozma, all-glove-no-bat lineup fixture.
There is no perfect solution. You can bench Fowler for Jose Martinez, but unless you want to try Tommy Edman in center field (he’s fast so it seems possible, but how confident are you in that?), you’re creating a potential outfield disaster unless you’re going back to Bader, which arguably offsets the positives of bringing in Martinez. You could try Randy Arozarena, who can play center field but has the least MLB experience on the roster (and his one at-bat on Monday was arguably the ugliest PA of the game for the Cardinals). The most realistic route to benching Paul DeJong would require Tommy Edman, who has never played shortstop in Major League Baseball, to play shortstop in a winner-take-all playoff game and create a potential defensive calamity with Matt Carpenter at third base on that side of the infield.
No matter what lineup the Cardinals field, they need to score some runs. Jack Flaherty was left in the game too long last Friday–the lack of offense meant this didn’t matter. Carlos Martinez pitched poorly on Sunday–had the Cardinals shown signs of offensive life, this may have been approached differently. And on Monday, the offense was competent–not great, but not quite the dreadful mess of the previous two games. If the offense can repeat the whole is-able-to-score-some-runs thing, and if the bullpen can repeat its Game 4 performance (5 1/3 scoreless innings, including Ryan Helsley striking out the side and a nice little redemption inning for Carlos Martinez against the meat of the Braves lineup), the Cardinals should win. Because the Cardinals have Jack Flaherty. And that is quite the weapon to have on your side.