Cardinals need strong showing in Game 3 to prove they belong in NLCS

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Two games into the NLCS, the Cardinals haven’t looked much like an NLCS offense.

They’ve been no-hit into the seventh inning of both of their games against the Nationals, and they have a total of four hits and one run in 18 innings. If Michael A. Taylor had held his ground instead of charging Jose Martinez’s line drive late in Game 2, those totals would be even worse (though that’s barely even mathematically possible): three hits and zero runs.

The dozen members of the 2019 Cardinals who have stepped to the plate in the NLCS have only four more hits than Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Rogers Hornsby do in this series. 

MORE: Why the Cardinals will win the World Series | Why the Nats will win

Even giving Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson — the four Nationals pitchers who recorded all 54 outs in the first two games — copious amounts of credit and handing out a hockey assist to the Game 2 shadows at Busch Stadium, it’s been an ugly, putrid performance for the St. Louis offense. 

And, really, not just in the NLCS. The Cardinals have played seven postseason games to this point, and they’ve failed to score multiple runs in four of those seven games. They lost Game 2 of the NLDS to the Braves, 3-0, and fell in Game 3 by a score of 3-1. They’ve lost the first two games of the NLCS by a combined score of 5-1. In the three wins, they’ve scored a total of 25 runs, including the 10-run first inning of Game 5 of the NLDS that looks like an incredible aberration at this point. 

This level of feast or famine isn’t exactly the recipe for extended success in October. The offensive struggles have wasted strong pitching performances by Cardinals hurlers. Adam Wainwright, for example, has thrown 15 innings this October, striking out 19 and allowing only three runs; Cardinals hitters have only three hits and one run while Wainwright has been the pitcher of record.

The Cardinals don’t look much like a group that belongs among the final four teams remaining in the hunt for the 2019 World Series. 

Compare the Cardinals and their offense to the Yankees, Astros and Nationals and it feels very much like a “One of these things is not like the others” skit from "Sesame Street." 

They don’t see it that way, of course. The team that was one loss away from elimination in two NLDS games, the team that scuttled along at a .500 winning percentage in the first half, still sees reasons for hope. 

“This series is far from over,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said in his Game 2 postgame press conference, putting Rafael Palmeiro-levels of emphasis on the word “far” (without the finger-pointing, of course). “And we have a guy going that's one of the best guys, and really the best guy in baseball second half — undisputed — going for us on Monday (Jack Flaherty). I'm very optimistic still about this series.”

Shildt admitted in that press conference that they’d have to look at their lineup and try to figure out a way to make changes, trying to spark some sort of fire. Here are a couple of thoughts about what the Cardinals need to do.

Start Jose Martinez

There’s no question that Martinez is a defensive liability in the outfield. That’s why he’s become the leader of the group known as the “Bench Mafia.” But at this point, his offensive benefits have to outweigh the defensive shortcomings, right? 

He broke up Anibal Sanchez’s no-hit bid in the eighth inning of Game 1, lining a clean single on the seventh pitch of his at-bat. And he smoked a line drive that fooled Michael A. Taylor and went over his head, driving home the Cardinals’ lone run of the series to this point. That was on the 10th pitch of his at-bat. Look at it this way …

NLCS performance

— 2-for-2: Jose Martinez
— 2-for-55: every other Cardinals hitter, combined

“He's been great, takes a quality at-bat,” Shildt said in a phone press conference Sunday. “I do remember a time in September where I was getting questions about why he was getting big at-bats. It stayed with him, and it's paid off. He's taken good at-bats, like he's done historically, and he's been able to provide good at-bats for us this postseason, as well.”

Sit Fowler and DeJong

Dexter Fowler has 29 at-bats in the postseason, and he has two hits. That’s it. Shildt has talked about how Fowler’s making hard contact, and that’s true to a point. But the bottom line is this: You cannot win postseason games with your leadoff hitter producing an .069 batting average and .156 on-base percentage. 

Remember how Joe Maddon motivated Fowler with the slogan “You go, we go” during the Cubs’ 2016 season? Seems that’s true for the Cardinals in 2019. Sitting Fowler would give Martinez a spot in the lineup, but it would make for a challenge in the outfield. Martinez can’t play center. Tommy Edman, who’s been in right field, had never played the outfield at all, in college or in the minors, so moving him to center would be a big stretch. Marcel Ozuna played center for the Marlins, but he’s only played three games there since 2016.

Desperate times, though, call for desperate measures. 

DeJong was the Cardinals’ lone All-Star this year, but he hit just .183 in his final 50 games of the regular season, and he’s struck out 11 times in 24 at-bats in the postseason. The problem is this: DeJong bats eighth, which means the 8-9-1 hitters have been DeJong, then pitcher/pitcher’s spot, then Fowler. That’s a long stretch of little production.

Put Yario Munoz at shortstop, for at least one game, to try to get something moving.

Look, the Cardinals need both Fowler and DeJong to be their normal productive selves if they’re going to win the World Series, but right now the focus needs to be just scoring more than one run in Game 3. 

Be more disciplined at the plate

From Kolten Wong — who has two of the Cardinals’ three walks in the NLCS — after Game 2: “When guys are attacking you and not really giving you many pitches to hit — they’re really staying off the middle of the plate — you’re going to tend to chase, because you understand that you get put in holes right away on pitches you wouldn’t really chase in the regular season. But they’re strikes now, and they’re doing a really good job at it.”

They certainly are. And the Cardinals hitters are not doing a good job of doing their job, which is why they’re trailing 2-0 in the NLCS.

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