ST. LOUIS — At this point, it’s hard to imagine Carlos Martinez pitching another important inning for the Cardinals in the NLDS. And after his disastrous ninth inning in Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Braves, if Game 4 on Monday afternoon starts poorly for St. Louis, there might not even be any more important innings left for him not to pitch.
Martinez has thrown 2 1/3 innings through three games against the Braves, and he’s allowed six runs in those two appearances. Six runs, five hits, three walks, two home runs, if you want the extended totals. Another way to look at it: Of the 15 batters he’s faced, eight reached base safely and six have scored.
It’s not been pretty.
The first three runs weren’t costly — he was working with a four-run lead in Game 1 and the Cardinals still won — but Sunday’s trio of tallies has put St. Louis in a precarious situation. Martinez and his teammates now trail 2-1 in the best-of-five series. One more loss and their season is finished.
“You’re not looking to see guys fail,” Braves closer Mark Melancon told SN after the game. “You want to do it the right way, big on big and beat somebody. We’ve all been there. I can’t say that I didn’t want to win, but Carlos is an incredible pitcher. We’ve got to come back strong tomorrow because he’s going to come back, I’m sure.”
Let’s stop for a minute and be clear: It’s far from solely Martinez’s fault that the Cardinals are in this situation. The St. Louis offense has scored a total of one run in the past two games. In Game 2, Mike Foltynewicz shut the Cardinals down. On Sunday, Mike Soroka was brilliant.
And in both contests, the Atlanta bullpen made big plays when needed. Like Sunday evening, when a two-on and no-out situation in the eighth inning disappeared with a pop-out, pick-off (technically caught stealing, but a great move by Darren O’Day to get Harrison Bader) and, after a single, a fly out.
It’s hard to win games without scoring multiple runs. But on Sunday, the Cardinals had a chance to do just that. Adam Wainwright was brilliant into the eighth inning, and Andrew Miller came in to make sure Atlanta was shut out into the final frame.
Which put the spotlight on Martinez to nail down the 1-0 victory. That didn’t happen. Dansby Swanson tied the game with a two-out RBI double, and Adam Duvall provided insurance with a two-run single. Three runs with two outs.
And now the Cardinals have decisions to make. Manager Mike Shildt was asked about Martinez’s role going forward.
“We’ll continue to evaluate it. It’s a fine line, I get it,” he said. “Now we’re in a do-or-die situation, and really looking forward to tomorrow’s game, quite honestly. But guys have gotten us here, it’s hard to look at them and say, oh, you didn’t do something well. The proverbial, ‘I’ve got your back until things don’t go well.’ But we’ve also got to recognize and evaluate what we see as well and compete in the moment. And had complete confidence that he was going to be able to make a pitch there to Swanson and didn’t happen.”
A decision by Shildt backfired, but we’ll come back to that in a moment. First, this: He has caught criticism for going to Martinez in that situation in Game 3 because of what had happened in Game 1, but that’s hindsight speaking. Martinez was 24 of 27 in save opportunities this year after taking over for injured Jordan Hicks. He allowed runs in only one of his final 17 appearances during the regular season. That’s not a guy you ditch after one miscue in the postseason, in a game where he still got the final out.
The 27th out is a tough out, says someone who knows about getting the 27th out.
“Hardest out there is. Hardest out there is to get,” Wainwright said. “Anybody who thinks anybody can go out there and get the last out, they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s a different deal, getting those last three. Unless you experience that, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Back to Shildt. After Josh Donaldson led off the ninth with a double off Martinez, the right-hander actually struck out the next two batters he faced, making Nick Markakis look silly swinging at Strike 3 and fanning Adeiny Hechavarria on an awkward attempt to check his swing. Instead of letting Martinez face Brian McCann — Martinez struck out McCann the only time he faced him, in 2014 — Shildt intentionally walked the veteran catcher.
“Consensus was that rather take a shot at Swanson, 0 for 6 at that point with Carlos, clearly that’s the go-ahead run you’re putting on,” Shildt said after the game, explaining the decision. “But you have two outs, and we play to win. Gotta play to win the game. Everybody felt like that was the best matchup, including the guy on the mound. Took our shot.”
Not for nothing, but 0 for 6 isn’t exactly a large sample size. Especially when two of those plate appearances were in 2017. A larger sample size might have been McCann’s last two months of the season, a span that produced a .183 batting average in 83 plate appearances.
Regardless, Shildt made his decision and Swanson — who had two of Atlanta’s four hits against Wainwright, both smoked line drives — made them pay. He jumped on Martinez’s first pitch, which brought home the tying run, and Duvall’s single scored Rafael Ortega — the pinch-runner for McCann — and Swanson to put the Braves up 3-1.
“I just feel for Carlos, because he’s been so great all year,” Wainwright said. “We had a chance in the (eighth) there to get a couple of insurance runs out there, and their guys did a great job. But a guy like Carlos, I feel for him, because he’s so talented, he’s so good and he’s been great for us all year. Let’s hope one moment doesn’t define a season because I’d like to see him get another chance.”
If the Cardinals somehow advance to the NLCS, that could happen. But it seems doubtful the rest of this series against the Braves.
Author: Ryan Fagan