The St. Louis Cardinals are headed to the NLCS for the first time since 2014 after a 13-1 bludgeoning of the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Two days ago, the season for the St. Louis Cardinals came down to the tip of a glove. Yadier Molina’s bloop single just out of the reach of Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman with two outs in the eighth kept St. Louis alive. On Wednesday, riding the momentum of that come-from-behind victory, they beat Atlanta 13-1 in the fifth and deciding game of the NLDS to advance to the National League Championship Series.
These Cardinals, though, have overcome bigger odds this season than being down to their final four outs. At the All-Star break, this team was muddling along at .500. They lost their first game after the break to fall to 44-45, a worse record at the time than the Padres and Rockies for 10th-best in the National League. Something clicked for manager Mike Shildt’s club, though, or rather, in the right arm of 23-year-old starting pitcher Jack Flaherty.
Flaherty’s stats in the second half of the season read like something out of a video game: 15 starts, a 7-2 record, 0.91 ERA. He gave up as many runs after the break (10) as the Cardinals scored in the first inning against the Braves on Wednesday. His ERA was the third-lowest mark since the first All-Star game was played in 1934. He held opposing hitters to a .142 batting average, the lowest since Nolan Ryan in 1986. With six innings of one-run ball on Wednesday, he became the youngest pitcher to earn the win in a winner-take-all game since the Indians’ Jaret Wright beat the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1997 ALDS.
Behind Flaherty, the Cardinals won 47 games after July 12, the most in the NL. His emergence as a shutdown starting pitcher is the reason the Cardinals, who will be underdogs against either the Dodgers or Nationals when the NLCS begins on Friday, shouldn’t be counted out. Any team would gladly take an almost guaranteed win every fifth day, especially over the course of a short series.
The Cardinals are off to the NLCS for the fifth time since 2011, but first since 2014. Their roster now barely resembles that team, with a few exceptions — Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez and Matt Carpenter. And then there’s Adam Wainwright and Molina, two pillars of the Cardinals franchise that have been around since the club’s World Series title in 2006.
The 38-year-old Wainwright showed this season there is still something left in that wily right arm of his. Relying mostly on a steady stream of curveballs, he flummoxed the Braves lineup for 7.2 innings in Game 3, giving up four hits and no runs. A day later, it was Molina who not only tied the game in the eighth but got the game-winning sacrifice fly in the 10th to force Game 5. It was the last bit of suspense the series would see.
Dakota Hudson will take the mound for the first game of the NLCS on Friday. When he pitches, Cardinals outfielders can have the day off. The 25-year-old right-hander, in his first season as a starter, led all of baseball with a 56.9 percent groundball rate this season and went 16-7 with a 3.35 ERA. The Cardinals, though, have never really found a replacement for closer Jordan Hicks, who underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this season.
They thought they found one in starter-turned-reliever Martinez, who led the club with 24 saves, but Martinez has been too prone to the big inning. He gave up the lead in Game 3 on three earned runs in the ninth and surrendered two ninth-inning home runs in Game 1 to make a four-run Cardinals lead dwindle to one and make a victory look closer than it should have been.
The Cardinals play a brand of baseball that could best be described as old-school pitching and defense. They were the lowest-scoring team among all the playoff contenders, ranking 19th in the league. They were 24th in home runs. Marcell Ozuna saw his average plummet nearly 40 points in his second season in a Cardinals uniform but still hit 29 home runs. He rebounded in the postseason with nine hits against the Braves and five RBI. Paul Goldschmidt, the team leader with 34 home runs in the regular season, matched Ozuna by hitting .429 in the NLDS but only .260 in the regular season, his lowest mark since his rookie season in 2011.
But when they began to win in the summer, the pitching staff more than made up for it. The Cardinals were the only team in baseball in the second half to give up less than a home run per game. Their team ERA was the third-lowest in the league, 0.05 behind the Dodgers. They led the league with the fewest number of errors (66) and the highest fielding percentage, .989, a new franchise record.
The Cardinals don’t beat themselves, so the Dodgers or Nationals are going to have to figure out a way to beat them. They didn’t do it more often than not in the regular season. The Cardinals had a winning record against both clubs (4-3 vs. Los Angeles, 5-2 against Washington). Against Flaherty, the Dodgers’ three top hitters — Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Justin Turner — are a combined 4-28 in their careers. The last time they played the Dodgers, though, a three-game series at Dodger Stadium back in August, the Dodgers held them to two runs in the series and won all three games.
It’s a blueprint for how to beat them — score a few runs off their pitchers and you’re usually good — but now that Ozuna and Goldschmidt are starting to hit again, it might not work the next time. And with Flaherty at the top of his game, this Cardinals squad are underdogs to nobody.