ATLANTA — These next two sentences would make you think the Cardinals are a lock to win Wednesday’s Game 5:
They are starting the guy who won the National League’s award for pitcher of the month in September . . . and August, too. And in this National League Division Series, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna are a combined 15 for 33 (.454) with four homers.
But then, consider these two sentences:
The Braves are starting the guy who pitched seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals in Game 2, and had a 2.65 ERA in his previous 11 starts. And all the other Cardinals hitters this series are 18 for 103 (.174) without any homers.
So, yeah, Game 5 is about as fascinating as it is confounding.
But the idea that Goldschmidt and Ozuna are mashing — mercifully simultaneously — gives the Cardinals this asset they seldom had, yet still managed to win the Central Division title.
“We’ve kind of been waiting for them to take over this whole year, man,” second baseman Kolten Wong said Tuesday at the Cardinals’ optional workout. “They’ve obviously had their moments. But to see them both come together and do it at the same time? It makes this team look dangerous. If they keep doing what they’re doing, a lot of us who are on the edge, if we can get clicking with them, you never know what’s going to happen. That’s the cool thing about the playoffs — all you need is a couple guys to get going and the team to catch on.”
On Tuesday afternoon at SunTrust Park, in the hallway outside the visitor’s clubhouse, the Cardinals’ red travel bat bags were sardined next to one another. To think that inside them, one or some of those wooden wands could make magic. Whose bag would it be? Who would be the hero? Would there even be a hero?
Because that’s the thing: Even with Ozuna and Goldschmidt hitting the heck out of the baseballs, the Cards still are in a precarious road Game 5. They were shut out in Game 2 and scored a lone run in Game 3 (both, naturally, losses). In Monday’s Game 4, Goldschmidt homered and Ozuna did so twice, and where did that put the Cardinals? With three runs on the board. Three solo shots.
They needed someone, anyone to be an additional offensive contributor. They would’ve lost otherwise — they wouldn’t have even been in Atlanta on Tuesday if it wasn’t for Yadier Molina’s heroics on Monday (and don’t forget Wong’s, too).
The Cardinals are not a good hitting team. But at least with Goldschmidt and Ozuna going, they have back-to-back bats that can swing open a game with a swing. That gives St. Louis some punch. But the Cards need jabs, too. A key to winning Game 5 is somehow rattling Atlanta pitcher Mike Foltynewicz, and to do that, it’ll take two things St. Louis didn’t do in Game 2.
Drawing walks (or even a walk).
Hitting his slider.
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While Jack Flaherty has been the pitching story of the second half of the season, Foltynewicz’s ascension has been similarly extraordinary. The Braves sent the former All-Star to the minors mid-season. He did some reassessing, retooling and rejuvenating to a pitch that had become unfamiliar out of his right hand.
“The main focus in the meetings and all that — go down there, get your slider back,” he said Tuesday. “I was just a little hesitant. But when I went down there I realized we’re going to throw the heck out of this thing, we’re really going to execute it. We’re really going to get my mechanics in line and just really drive through this pitch as best we can. We wanted to get it in a certain location. Results didn’t really matter (in minor-league games), though you’re still wanting to compete down there. . . . It’s just one pitch I knew I needed. It was a breakout pitch last year. It got me to where I am today.”
Where he’ll be Wednesday is on the mound to win a playoff round.
“Folty” got “Goldy” to strike out swinging on a slider in Game 2’s first inning. Of the Cards Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, only Ozuna mustered a hit off him, and it was a muscled single to center on a fastball. And that’s the thing: In Game 5, the Cards must identify the fastball and maximize it, because they likely won’t see it a lot.
One difference between Games 2 and 5 is the Cards will have lefty-hitting Matt Carpenter in against “Folty.” Carpenter didn’t bat in Game 2, and his approach to hitting, and drawing walks, gives the Cardinals another weapon in there against the big righty.
“We’ll need to be patient with getting a ball we can handle,” Cards manager Mike Shildt said.
These things sneak up on you, but Ozuna could be playing his final game as a Cardinal on Wednesday. He’s a free agent, you might have heard. And while it would make sense for the Redbirds to give him a qualifying offer — though Ozuna would want a long-term offer — that’s a conversation for another day. Though that day could be Thursday, if Ozuna and the Cards can’t hit Wednesday. But the left fielder has been whacking baseballs lately.
Following a deplorable September, he put on his garish green compression sleeve for Game 162 and notched two hits. And Ozuna has two hits in each of the four games against Atlanta. He called the green sleeve his “catalyst.” Asked about its powers, Flaherty laughed big and said, “I believe whatever works for him, he just needs to keep doing it.”
Wednesday would be the day to do so.