In some ways, the Cardinals are better off than most. They don’t lose much at first base with Matt Adams filling in for Allen Craig, and they’re still fine in the ninth since Trevor Rosenthal replaced the sore-shouldered Edward Mujica in the closer’s role. But the truth is that both injuries played huge roles in Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Pirates.
With Adams filling in for Craig, here’s the Cardinals’ current bench: Adron Chambers, Tony Cruz, Daniel Descalso/Pete Kozma, Shane Robinson and Kolten Wong. There isn’t even one decent pinch-hitting option there. Wong, a rookie second baseman, is the talent in the bunch, but he hit just .153 in 59 at-bats after arriving in the majors. The Cardinals are down enough on him that he was left on the bench while both Kozma and Descalso hit against Jason Grilli in the ninth today.
Chambers is in the roster spot that would have gone to Craig. He went 4-for-26 in the majors this year.
And, of course, while Adams is probably a better hitter than Craig against righties, he was a far lesser option today against Francisco Liriano. He’s also the weaker defender, which played a role in Kozma’s throwing error in the two-run first inning today.
As for Mujica, well, he’s on the roster and available, but the Cardinals don’t trust him right now. That’s why Rosenthal wasn’t out there in a tie game in the eighth when the Pirates scored two runs today. That almost certainly would have been Rosenthal’s assignment a few weeks ago. Since he’s now the closer, he was held in reserve.
The Cardinals are also going it without Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Jason Motte and Rafael Furcal, but those are injuries from several months ago. Had they known they’d be without Craig, they probably would have brought in some bench help prior to Aug. 31.
In my postseason preview at the end of September, I listed the Nationals’ starting rotation as a strength and their bullpen as a weakness. Anyone who had followed the club this season could have told you that. Even the Nats are aware of it as manager Dave Martinez has leaned on his rotation to hide his sometimes unreliable ‘pen.
In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, Martinez was burned by his bullpen as Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland combined to allow six base runners and four runs. Martinez used ace Max Scherzer in relief in Game 2, sandwiched by Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Starter Patrick Corbin pitched in relief in Game 3 and it backfired, but the bullpen after Corbin continued to allow more runs — three officially, but Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score on a three-run homer by Max Muncy. Martinez only had to rely on Doolittle and Hudson in Game 4 and he again went to Corbin in relief in Game 5.
The strategy was clear: use the actual bullpen as little as possible. If Martinez absolutely has to, Doolittle and Hudson get top priory by a country mile, followed by a starter, then the rest of the bullpen.
Thankfully for Martinez and the Nationals, the starting pitching has done yeoman’s work in the NLCS, jumping out to a three games to none series lead over the Cardinals. Aníbal Sánchez famously brought a no-hit bid into the eighth inning of Game 1, finally relenting a two-out single to José Martínez before his night was over. Doolittle got the final four outs in the 2-0 win. Max Scherzer flirted with a no-hitter in his Game 2 start as well, losing it when Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single. He was erased on an inning-ending double play. Doolittle, Corbin, and Hudson got the final six outs in the 3-1 victory.
It was more of the same in Game 3. While Stephen Strasburg didn’t flirt with a no-hitter, he was dominant over seven innings, yielding one unearned run on seven hits with no walks and 12 strikeouts. The Nats’ offense woke up, amassing eight runs through seven innings which allowed Martinez to give his main relief guys a night off. Rodney and Rainey each pitched a perfect inning of relief with two strikeouts in low-leverage situations, their first appearances in the NLCS.
The Nationals starting pitching has been outstanding by itself, but it has also had the secondary effect of allowing Martinez to hide his team’s biggest weakness. Now Martinez just has to hope for more of the same for one more game, then at least four more in the World Series.