The Cardinals were right there when it comes to playing in the postseason. How far would they have gone if they had gotten to play an extra day?
Cards v. Mets
Let’s pretend, for a moment, Cards fans, that our beloved Red Birds had indeed gotten to play another game in 2016. I know, I know, hypotheticals can hurt. But just humor me. First, lets pretend they had gotten in on the last day of the season, with the Giants, instead of sweeping the Dodgers, losing two out of three to their long time foes, while the Cardinals swept the Buccos in St. Louis, sending them to Flushing for a show down with Thor and the Mets in the Wild Card game.
Would they have won this matchup? Well, lets take a look. The most likely starter for the Cardinals in this game would’ve been either rookie Alex Reyes, on a full five days rest, or, more likely, Carlos Martinez, with just four days in between starts. Despite Reyes’s sparkling potential and staggeringly low 1.57 ERA, he has only started five games in the bigs, and I tend to think that Mike Matheny would have turned to the more experienced Carlos Martinez for the win-or-go-home Wild Card game in New York. Martinez, in 16.2 innings pitched over two years in the postseason, has a 3.24 ERA, and just above a 1.00 WHIP. While these stats would impress most baseball fans for such a young pitcher, Martinez has yet to start in the postseason, and starting in the postseason, in a hostile environment, in New York, is a completely different ordeal for such a young mind as Martinez.
Further, Martinez would be going up against flamethrower Noah Syndergaard, who is literally nicknamed after a Norse God, Thor. Syndergaard, himself, has built a status as a postseason force, albeit just over one season, but one in which he posted a 3.68 ERA, going 2-1, while picking up the Mets only win in the World Series against the Royals. He even, in game 5 of the NLDS, made a Bumgarner-esk relief appearance, pitching a scoreless 7th en route to a 3-2 win over the Dodgers. I can thus conclude that Thor’s God-like performance in Wednesday’s Wild Card game against the Giant’s, allowing just one hit and no runs over 7 innings, was indeed no fluke, and he, is indeed, a pitcher who can “step-up” in the big moment.
Well, what would’ve happened?
Would Martinez of the Cardinals have been able to match this proficiency with a “big time” performance of his own? Maybe. Who knows? After all, who am I to predict the out come of a winner take all, anything can happen type of game. Martinez, in fact, may have been able to keep up with the 6’6”, 240 lbs horse that is Noah Syndergaard. Martinez has dominated the Mets, posting a sub-one ERA against New York in three career starts. However, both Grandson and Cespedes kill the Cards, batting above .330 against them for their careers. Yet, Martinez had an impressively low 0.7 homerun/9 rate in 2016, and the Mets made a living off of hitting the long ball this season, scoring an MLB-record (since the expansion era) 53.2% of their runs on the long ball.
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Syndergaard in his career has held St. Louis to a .217 batting average, and has posted a strong 2.77 ERA against them in two career starts. Only Yadier Molina in the would-be Wild Card starting line-up has posted more than one hit against Thor, and the Cardinals line up struck out a total of 15 times against Thor in his two outings. Long story short, both pitchers have more or less dominated the would-be opposing team, however in a relatively small sample of appearances. Thus, I think the winner of this matchup would come down to experience, and the ability to “get it done” in the big situation, not the semantics of “who hits who?” Normally, I would hand this category to the Cardinals, because of their consistent brand of winning baseball. But, as I wrote about in my previous article, that aspect of their game has fallen off a little bit this year. So, I think the starters of this game need to be the focus, even more so because neither the Mets nor Cardinals possess a particularly potent offense.
While Martinez does dominate the Mets, and does have more innings pitched in the postseason, I would have to believe Thor would have out-dueled him in a hypothetical Wild Card matchup, as he has experience starting the big postseason game, and pitching in New York. As well, Wednesday’s masterpiece was not a fluke. It will happen again for Syndergaard, and I believe, on Wednesday, his opponent did not matter. He was hitting his spots with efficiency and precision I have not seen from him all year. And, oh, he was throwing 99. The Cardinals would’ve been hard pressed to score much off of him that night.
Having said all this, we are talking about a winner-take-all game, and we all know that anything can happen in those types of games. So, is it impossible that Martinez would’ve out-dueled Syndergaard? No, not at all. Syndergaard just seemed untouchable Wednesday night, on a level that Martinez wouldn’t have been able to match.
Cards v. Giants: Game 163
Now, what would’ve happened in the more probable result for the optimistic Cardinals fan: a game 163 against the Giants in St. Louis. Again, winner-take-all, for a chance to meet the Mets for another elimination game. Well, Madison Bumgarner would’ve happened. Need I say more? The “Paul Bunyan” of the MLB has now gone 23 straight postseason innings without allowing a run, yielding just a 0.79 ERA in his last nine playoff appearances, with three complete games to boot. After Wednesday, Bumgarner now has three career postseason shutouts, one shy of Christy Mathewson, who pitched over a century ago, for the MLB record. Most importantly, since if this game were to take place, it would have been played at Busch Stadium, in his last eight postseason road starts, Bumgarner is 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA. So, yes, anything can happen in the playoffs, and even more so in loser-go-home games, such as the potential game-163 that could’ve taken place between the Cards and the Giants: but really? Could we really expect the Cardinals, and rookie Alex Reyes, who would have been the likely starter for a Monday game, going on four days rest, to compete with the pitcher whom is highly considered the best postseason pitcher of all time? I don’t think so, seeing as Syndergaard’s dazzling performance wasn’t even enough to conquer this playoff Goliath.
‘Til next year
So, although the Cardinals most likely chance to advance in the postseason would’ve been to beat the Giants in a game 163, they would’ve had a slim to none chance of beating the postseason God that is Madison Bumgarner. Even if the Cardinals had managed to squeeze into the Wild Card game, with or without a game 163, and gotten to meet the Mets in New York, although it is tough to say for sure, with both pitchers posting good numbers against their potential opponents, and with the uncertainty of a winner-take-all game, my guess is that Martinez would not have been able to match Syndergaard’s proficiency and precision, which led him to a 7 inning, scoreless outing in Wednesday’s actual outcome. So, Cards fans, I know it is disappointing, I know it hurts, and I know, as a baseball fan myself, that the worst thing anyone can say is “there’s always next year.” And I know how you thirst for the postseason, the energy, the electricity. But, just relax Cards fans. It wasn’t meant to be this year. As hard as it is for me to say, as hard as it is for you to hear, it just wasn’t. You’ll get through it, it’ll all be ok, and yes, there is a next year. After all, cmon, it is an even year. What’d ya expect?
Photo credits to Jeff Curry of USA Today