Jackson settles, Freese shines as Cardinals force Game 5

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“I knew I couldn’t let the game overwhelm me,” Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson told a reporter a few minutes after the conclusion of Wednesday night’s 5-3 NLDS Game 4 victory over the Phillies.

Whether that mindset came to the right-hander in hindsight or he truly felt mentally calm after allowing a double, triple and single within his first five pitches, Jackson indeed responded and settled in. After that rough first frame, he retired 17 of the next 20 batters he faced before exiting to a three-run lead.

Cardinals third baseman David Freese hit a two-run go-ahead double in the fourth inning, then launched a towering two-run homer to the center field lawn in the bottom of the sixth. A product of the west St. Louis suburbs, he was granted a chill-inducing curtain call by the Busch Stadium faithful after his blast.

This five-game NLDS will come down to Game 5, Friday night in Philadelphia. Chris Carpenter vs. Roy Halladay. Two old friends and former teammates, both on normal rest. It should be a heck of a finish.

Notes

* The sun caused some issues in the first inning when Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay failed to get a good initial read on a leadoff hit by Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies scored two in that opening frame.

* The Phillies also experienced problems in center field during the first inning, when Shane Victorino’s front foot slipped out from under him while he was trying to throw a ball back to the infield. The outfield grass at Busch Stadium had to be completely replaced after a U2 concert in July and hasn’t fully recovered.

* Freese was 2-for-13 with six strikeouts in the series before his double and heroic home run.

* Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols made one of the best defensive plays of this postseason, picking off Chase Utley as he tried to advance from first to third during a sixth-inning infield hit by Hunter Pence.

* A squirrel dashed across home plate while Phillies starter Roy Oswalt was delivering a pitch to Skip Schumaker in the bottom of the fifth. Oswalt tried to argue for a do-over on the pitch — called a ball — but home plate umpire Angel Hernandez appeared to laugh off that suggestion. Schumaker then flied out. A squirrel (possibly the same one) also reached the playing field in Game 3 Tuesday evening.

* Phillies slugger Ryan Howard went 0-for-8 in both games back in St. Louis, his hometown.

* Placido Polanco, still being bothered by a sports hernia, is 2-for-16 so far in this five-game series.

* Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday (finger) was 1-for-3 with two runs scored in his return to the lineup.

Six of seven players decline $17.9 million qualifying offers

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Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only one of seven eligible players to accept his $17.9 million qualifying offer. Bryce Harper, A.J. Pollock, Craig Kimbrel, Patrick Corbin, Yasmani Grandal, and Dallas Keuchel each rejected his, officially making them free agents. Teams that had their QO’s rejected will recoup a draft pick once the player signs elsewhere.

That Harper rejected his QO comes as no surprise, as he is expected to strike perhaps the largest free agent contract in baseball history. Though the free agent market has been less lucrative lately than in previous years, the combination of Harper’s elite talent and his age — he’s only 26 years old — makes him a primary target for more than a handful of teams. Harper reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million contract extension offer from the Nationals, so that would seem to be a baseline.

It is also not surprising that Kimbrel, 30, turned down his QO from the Red Sox. Despite a so-so showing during a championship run, Kimbrel is still young and talented enough to land another lucrative contract on the free agent market.

Keuchel bet on himself in turning down the Astros’ QO. He’s been solid since winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2015, owning a 3.77 ERA across 83 starts over the last three seasons. However, he turns 31 years old at the beginning of 2019, and his already mediocre strikeout rate declined even further this past season, so there may be some skepticism about his ability to perform over the course of a multi-year deal. Keuchel will still get one eventually, but his market may be slower to develop.

Pollock, soon 31 as well, will be the outfielder most coveted once Harper is off the market. When he’s healthy, he’s a dynamic five-tool player. However, Pollock hasn’t played in more than 113 games in a season since 2015, so that may be a red flag. Pollock ended 2018 batting .257/.316/.484 with 21 home runs, 65 RBI, 61 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases in 460 plate appearances while playing above-average defense according to various defensive metrics.

Grandal, 30, could’ve gone either way with his QO, but ultimately chose to decline. He had a disappointing postseason, both offensively and defensively. Given how humans are prone to recency bias, it stood to reason that his October performance could have hurt his market. The catching position, however, is rather weak and Grandal stands out in a market that is otherwise focused on Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. Grandal did swat 24 home runs with an .815 OPS in 140 games for the Dodgers this past season.

Corbin, 29, was the most obvious QO decline after Harper. The lefty is coming off of a career year, finishing with a 3.15 ERA and a 246/48 K/BB ratio in exactly 200 innings. Corbin is the best free agent pitcher on the market this offseason. The Yankees have been seriously linked with Corbin even before the season ended.

Ryu likely chose to accept his QO because of his age and injury history. It would have been a gamble to pursue a multi-year deal. He did, however, make 15 starts during the regular season to the tune of a 1.97 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 15 walks in 82 1/3 innings. Those are great numbers. And most clubs would have been smart enough to look beyond his 5.21 ERA in the postseason, which has more to do with a leaky bullpen than his own personal failings. Still, it’s hard to fault Ryu for playing it safe and taking the guaranteed $17.9 million for one year.