2019 NLDS games hang on managers’ pitching decisions

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 03: Brian Snitker #43 of the Atlanta Braves takes the pitcher out of the game during the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in game one of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park on October 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 03: Brian Snitker #43 of the Atlanta Braves takes the pitcher out of the game during the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in game one of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park on October 03, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Thursday’s NLDS games rise and fall on the managers’ faith in their starting pitchers vs. their relief pitchers.

If ever two games illustrated the folly of bullpen-reliant post-seasons strategies, they were Thursday’s pair of NLDS openers.

In Atlanta, the Braves lost 7-6 to the St. Louis Cardinals for the simple reason that they went away from their starting pitcher too soon, and committed too much trust in a succession of definitionally less-reliant bullpen arms.

The Cardinals, let it be known, made precisely the same error but won because the rules do not permit for there to be two losers.

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In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the Dodgers shut out Washington 6-0 in large measure because Dodger manager Dave Roberts placed his faith in his rotation. Roberts planned for – and got – all but four of the game’s 24 outs from his starting core, counting Kenta Maeda – a season-long starter who pitched in relief Thursday.

The reason why starters tend to pitch better than relievers is simple. Since they have pitched more innings, they have more extensive records, inevitably leading to more predictable performance patterns.

Relievers? With the very occasional exception of a Mariano Rivera, they are a roll of the dice.

Between Atlanta’s Brian Snitker and St. Louis’  Mike Shildt, whichever one learns that lesson first this coming week will lead his team to victory in the NLDS.

Snitker started Dallas Keuchel, who went 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA following his mid-season signing, and got four and two-thirds innings of mostly solid pitching. It was not vintage Keuchel – he walked three batters and allowed four hits – but the Cardinals only actually got to him once, and that run was fully manufactured.

To open the fifth, Keuchel jammed light-hitting Cardinal center fielder Harrison Bader, who got just enough of the pitch to chop it weakly between the mound and third, then used his abundant speed to beat it out. Pitcher Miles Mikolas bunted Bader to second, Bader stole third and Dexter Fowler brought him home with a well-placed ground out to second base.

As assaults go, it wasn’t much, but it illustrated a trait that separated the Cardinals from much of the National League this past season, their ability to produce runs without producing hits. Given the absence of an Atlanta attack on Mikolas – more on that momentarily – it also tied the NLDS game 1-1.

So when Tommy Edman followed by driving a double, Snitker went into modified panic, lifting Keuchel in favor of Darren O’Day. To that instant, Keuchel had thrown just 74 pitches, hardly an overwhelming workload, even these days.

The move worked short-term when Paul Goldschmidt drove an O’Day fastball smack into the glove of Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson. But it also committed Snitker and the Braves to employing a half dozen subsequent pitchers to extract 13 outs using a pen that has been problematic all season.

As subsequent events revealed, the strategy would have proven disastrous…except that Shildt made exactly the same mistake for exactly the same reason. Through his five innings, Mikolas had allowed just one run – facilitated by a botched infield play generously ruled a hit – and had retired 12 of the most recent 13 batters he had faced.

But when Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna touched Mikolas for a two-out fifth-inning double to the gap, Shildt got the pen going. Shildt lifted Mikolas to start the sixth because – well because that’s what the script dictated be done – staking a tie game on his own succession of relievers, who he tasked with getting a dozen outs.  Mikolas’ pitch count? It was 78.

Four innings, one blown lead and a combined 11 runs later, the Cardinals staggered home winners because their closer, Carlos Martinez, managed to protect a four-run lead for one inning … barely. After the Cardinals roughed up Braves closer Mark Melancon for four ninth-inning runs on four hits and a pair of walks, Martinez emerged victorious thanks to his limiting of the Braves to only two home runs, one with a man on base.

The comparison line, counting the combined performances of Mikolas, Keuchel and Max Fried – a Braves starter used in relief Thursday – against each team’s usual bullpen, is eloquent.

                             Innings    Hits    Runs   Earned    HR    BB     K       ERA

Starters (3)          10.2          7          2            2             0       5       4      1.68

Relievers (11)        7.1       12        11         10             2       5       9    12.33

On to Los Angeles, where managers Dave Roberts and Dave Martinez committed themselves to the revolutionary strategy of (more or less) trusting their starters. Roberts let Walker Buehler free-range through six innings during which Buehler did walk three – all in the same inning – but allowed just one hit.  And when he finally sat Buehler down to start the seventh — after a more normal 100 pitches — he entrusted most of the final three innings to another starter, Kenta Maeda. The result: A relaxing 6-0 NLDS game one win.

Martinez tried the same strategy, which at the outset sank leadenly when Corbin walked four of the first six batters he faced, handing LA its first run. But he did stabilize, holding the Dodgers two just one unearned run on just two hits through the next five innings. He had thrown 107 pitches

Then like in Atlanta, when Martinez was forced to his pen, matters quickly spiraled out of hand. The Dodgers scored twice on relievers Tyson Rainey and Fernando Rodney in the seventh, and added two more runs against Hunter Strickland in the eighth.

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Here’s the Thursday synopsis. Starters (or starters working as relievers) allowed a combined three earned runs in 24 innings. Season-long relievers allowed 14 earned runs in 11 innings. Exactly what is it in that performance line that leads post-season game planners to stake so much of the outcome on so unreliable a component?