Cardinals’ Hit or Miss Offense Is Missing Again

ST. LOUIS — The baseball schedule is so unforgiving that most teams, by the end, know just who they are. The St. Louis Cardinals are still searching, and they are running out of time.

In the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals, the Cardinals lost twice and scored just one run. A pinch-hitter, Jose Martinez, was 2 for 2. The rest of the hitters were 2 for 55.

“It’s just pretty obvious,” said Paul Goldschmidt, who singled to break up Max Scherzer’s no-hitter in the seventh inning of Game 2. “You score one run, you’re not going to win many games.”

If you score 10 in the first inning, you have a much better shot. The Cardinals did that in their division series clincher in Atlanta, coasting to a 13-1 victory. But the Nationals have unplugged their offense and hidden the power cord.

“That’s kind of been the story of our season, really,” first baseman Matt Carpenter said. “Our offense, at times, has been hit or miss. We’ve had stretches where we’ve struggled to score and we’ve had stretches where we’ve just poured it on. Hopefully we can get one where we pour it on here in the next couple of days, get some confidence back and get some guys rolling.”

But the Cardinals could not solve the soft-throwing Anibal Sanchez on Friday night, or the hard-throwing Scherzer in the shadows on Saturday afternoon. Now Stephen Strasburg awaits them in Game 3 on Monday at Nationals Park, with Patrick Corbin to follow in Game 4.

Strasburg has 21 strikeouts and one walk in 15 October innings, with a 2.40 earned run average. Corbin, a two-time All-Star, was 8-2 with a 2.40 E.R.A. at home in the regular season.

“I feel like we’re road warriors,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “We’ve found our niche on the road; we know how to play on the road. We know the pitchers we’re up against, the odds we’re up against. But that’s what we’re all about. That’s what we love.”

The Cardinals are an unlikely underdog. They are playing in their 10th N.L.C.S. in the last 20 seasons, and their 11 World Series titles are second only to the Yankees’ 27. But they missed the playoffs the last three seasons as the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers took over the N.L. Central, and needed an all-around effort to return.

“This year, we have a complete team that is doing a lot of different things well that we haven’t been doing the last few years,” starter Adam Wainwright said. “This year we played much better defense, this year we ran the bases much better, this year our starting pitching was a little better, this year our bullpen was certainly much better. We have more thump in the middle of our lineup than we’ve had in years.”

The thumpers — Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong and Marcell Ozuna — combined for 94 homers this season. But the Cardinals had only 210 homers over all and 764 runs scored this season, both figures ranking last among teams with winning records.

That sets these Cardinals apart from their last championship team in 2011. Those Cardinals were a wild-card team, but they led the N.L. in runs scored and beat three Philadelphia Phillies aces — Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Roy Halladay — in a first-round upset. They battered another ace, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Zack Greinke, in the N.L.C.S., and ravaged the Texas Rangers’ bullpen in the World Series.

This time, the Nationals’ aces have dispatched the Cardinals with ease, and relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson — who returned to save Game 2 after missing the opener for the birth of his daughter — have been sharp this month.

The Cardinals have hope in Game 3 because of their starter, Jack Flaherty, a 23-year-old right-hander with a 1.13 E.R.A., postseason included, since the All-Star break. The rookie Dakota Hudson, a 16-game winner in the regular season, will start Game 4.

“This series is far from over, and we have a guy going that’s really the best guy in baseball in the second half, undisputed, going for us on Monday,” Manager Mike Shildt said, referring to Flaherty. “I’m very optimistic, still, about this series.”

This is how the Cardinals scripted it, after all, managing their young pitchers’ workloads so they would be available in October. It was a deliberate effort not to repeat the Nationals’ infamous decision to shut down Strasburg before the 2012 playoffs to protect his long-term health. The Cardinals beat Washington in the division series that fall, and it took four more tries for the Nationals to advance to the N.L.C.S.

Now that they have, they seem eager to make it a short stay. They could be just two games away from the World Series, which has not come to Washington since 1933.

“The atmosphere in the playoffs at Nationals Park has been incredible,” Scherzer said. “They come out and they go nuts from the first pitch. So I have a feeling it’s even going to be more crazy given what we have done, and really our first postseason win as an organization. I think it means a lot to everybody in D.C.”

Unless the Cardinals quickly solve Scherzer’s fellow pitchers, the District can start planning the party.

Cardinals Even Series With Braves Behind Another Late Rally

ST. LOUIS — With all of their late drama over five days — a ninth-inning rally on Sunday, nine runs in the final two innings a couple of nights before that — perhaps it was predictable that the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals would push one of their postseason duels beyond the constraints of nine innings.

It happened just in time on Monday: With the Cardinals on the brink of elimination, the teams went to the 10th inning and saw their National League division series extended when a sacrifice fly by Yadier Molina gave St. Louis a 5-4 win and forced a Game 5.

The winner in Atlanta on Wednesday will advance to the N.L. Championship Series, scheduled to start on Friday.

But Atlanta must first reckon with a game that the Braves will remember for missed opportunities and debatable decisions, and both teams must recover from an afternoon of wildly swinging emotions.

Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 Cy Young Award winner who made his name as a playoff stalwart for the Houston Astros before joining the Braves in June, got two quick outs to start the game, which he entered on just three days’ rest. Then Paul Goldschmidt, the St. Louis first baseman whose bat had already tormented Atlanta this series, stepped in. He took four pitches, and then the fifth, a changeup, became a souvenir for someone sitting just above the left-field fence.

Batting right after Goldschmidt, left fielder Marcell Ozuna took even less time, driving Keuchel’s second pitch, a cutter, even deeper into the stands. In the fourth inning, Ozuna sized up a Keuchel slider and hit it out, too, for another solo homer. Keuchel’s day was done two batters later, after 67 pitches.

Dakota Hudson, the St. Louis rookie starter who was making his first postseason appearance, lasted until the fifth inning, when Atlanta stitched together three runs from a ground ball, an error and an Ozzie Albies home run. Including a sacrifice fly from Albies in the third, the Braves now had a 4-3 lead.

It proved difficult to preserve, however, as Goldschmidt, Ozuna and Molina menaced Atlanta’s pitchers.

In the eighth inning, Goldschmidt delivered his second double of the night. With Ozuna, just the man Atlanta did not want to see in the batter’s box, approaching the plate, the Braves’ fielders played deep, the shadows by then covering almost all of the grass. Ozuna struck out, but Molina followed by lashing a drive into right.

Tied game.

Atlanta had already scuttled opportunities to build on its lead, loading the bases in consecutive innings without scoring, its run total stubbornly stuck at four.

Instead, St. Louis concocted a breakthrough in the 10th inning. After second baseman Kolten Wong doubled, the Braves opted to walk Goldschmidt intentionally. That left Atlanta’s Julio Teheran on the mound to face Ozuna, who tapped the ball into a fielder’s choice to put runners at the corners with one out.

Molina, the 37-year-old catcher who has spent his entire career in St. Louis, came to the plate and hit the first pitch he saw just shy of the warning track. Wong tagged and scored. Game over, series tied and on to Atlanta.

“He’s been doing this for a lot of years,” Ozuna said of Molina, a member of two World Series-winning teams in St. Louis whose stature seemed likely to grow even more after Monday’s game. “He knows how you play in the postseason.”

Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt said there was no limit to the situations that Molina was capable of handling.

“If he needs to just put a ball in right field, he can do it,” said Shildt, whose news conference began with a question about whether the team should begin work on a Molina statue. “If he needs to work on getting the ball in the air, he can do it.”

What he did on Monday was buy his team time.

The series opened on Thursday amid what counted as a raucous atmosphere for suburban Atlanta, but the Braves squandered an early lead as the Cardinals scored six runs in the final two innings to take a 1-0 series lead.

The Braves won Game 2 behind solid pitching, and claimed Sunday’s Game 3 with a ninth-inning rally to give themselves an opportunity to clinch the series on Monday.

But time and again any potential celebration for Atlanta, which has not won a postseason series since 2001, was postponed.

“We had the deck stacked, I thought, pretty good in our favor more than once today, and we just couldn’t get a hit,” Brian Snitker, Atlanta’s manager, said.

Now the series will run on, adding more late theatrics: a winner-take-all Game 5.

With Paul Goldschmidt, the Cardinals Try to Recreate a Formula That Worked

The St. Louis Cardinals went three long seasons without a playoff berth. To rouse themselves from this interminable slumber, they traded for a former All-Star who had played his entire career for a West division team, winning multiple Gold Gloves but never reaching the World Series. The player was facing the end of his contract, but the Cardinals hoped to persuade him to stay for many years.

This is true of Paul Goldschmidt now. Nineteen years ago, it was true for Jim Edmonds.

The latter partnership worked quite well: Edmonds, who had come up with the Angels, signed a long-term contract during his first season in St. Louis, led the Cardinals to a division title and eventually helped them win a World Series. The Gold Gloves and All-Star selections kept coming for Edmonds, who earned the coveted red sports coat last summer as a member of the team’s Hall of Fame.

“It’s Cardinal baseball, it’s the Midwest, it’s one of the best places to play in the country, and you find that out from Day 1,” said Edmonds, now a guest instructor and broadcaster for the Cardinals. “It’s a different time, a different era and I don’t know what the players are going through now, but hopefully he likes it and blends in. It’s also an organizational thing, too. Do they really want to keep him, and how does he play this year?”

The Cardinals, who last reached the postseason in 2015, very much want to keep Goldschmidt, a six-time All-Star first baseman with three Gold Gloves. They acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks last Dec. 5 for pitcher Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, infielder Andy Young and a draft pick, finally landing the high-impact slugger they’ve been missing.

“Anytime you complete a deal, there’s always some level of satisfaction, especially this magnitude of player — but, really, the excitement’s going to come when he gets introduced at Busch Stadium,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “There’s a lot leading up to that, but I think he’s going to realize that St. Louis is a very special place and ultimately one that we want him to someday call home.”

Mozeliak has not yet spoken with Goldschmidt or his agent, Casey Close, about a contract extension — “Both sides will know when the time is right,” he said — and Goldschmidt declined to comment on his future. Any answer he could give would be incomplete, because he has not yet experienced life as a Cardinal.

The team has finished second in the National League in attendance in each of the last six seasons — behind the Los Angeles Dodgers — and has a 15-year streak of drawing at least 3 million fans. The Diamondbacks have not reached 3 million fans since 2002, when Goldschmidt was a high school freshman near Houston.

“There’s a ton of support for the Cardinals organization, for the players there,” Goldschmidt said. “They love their team. There’s high expectations from the fans, and rightfully so. Hopefully we’ll play well, give them a good show and find a way to win a lot of games.”

The Cardinals last won the World Series eight years ago, a fact they emphasized on printouts taped by the clubhouse door Monday, when they held their first full-squad workout of spring training. The sheet listed a few goals — “trust, prepare, execute, celebrate” — and included three columns of championship years, with a conspicuously blank line beneath 2011.


Goldschmidt has yet to begun contract negotiations with St. Louis, but the team’s fans are already embracing him at spring training.CreditTyler Kepner/The New York Times

Only one player from that World Series roster, catcher Yadier Molina, remains on the team. The Cardinals have stayed above .500 ever since — and even won a pennant in 2013 — but rivals have passed them by.

“It’s tough, man,” said second baseman Kolten Wong, who has played six seasons in St. Louis. “For me, all I knew when I first got to the big leagues was playoffs every single year. To go from that to not making it the past three years, I’m itching to get back. Everyone deserves to get back, and our fans deserve it more.”

In the seven seasons since 2011 — Albert Pujols’s last in St. Louis before signing with the Angels as a free agent — no Cardinals player has hit 30 home runs with a .900 on-base plus slugging percentage in the same season. This has been done 67 times in those seasons by 39 different players — including four times by Goldschmidt.

Yet Goldschmidt, 31, is more than a power hitter. He has a .297 career average and five seasons of at least 15 stolen bases, plus the three Gold Gloves. Before reporting to camp, he spoke with coaches on the phone about the finer points of base running.

“He actually initiated those, and they’re not short conversations, and they’re not forced,” Manager Mike Shildt said. “He loves it, he’s a baseball guy, and he’s got the details.”

The Cardinals turned to Shildt, an organizational lifer, after firing Mike Matheny as manager last July. The players responded with a late push for a playoff spot, finishing with 88 victories and a renewed sense of identity.

As an organization well-known for attention to fundamentals, it was startling for the Cardinals to lead the majors in errors. Yet they committed in the second half to strong defenders like Wong at second and Harrison Bader in center field, and in the winter they stabilized their bullpen with a two-year, $25 million deal for Andrew Miller.

Wherever he has gone recently — Boston, Baltimore, the Yankees, Cleveland — Miller’s teams have made the playoffs. The Cardinals have their three-year drought, but Miller has a six-year streak. He believes it will continue.

“When you’re at the stage of your career that I am, that’s where you tend to find yourself,” Miller said. “The teams that seek you out, that’s their intention: ‘Not next year, not five years down the road, but this year.’”

This year — for now — is the extent of the Cardinals’ future with Goldschmidt. In time, their owners will put a value on how much they want to keep him. On opening day in St. Louis, the fans will start their effort, too.

“Talking about it is hard to sell,” Mozeliak said. “But experiencing it is different.”

Cardinals Acquire Paul Goldschmidt Hoping He Can Fill Albert Pujols’s Shoes

Paul Goldschmidt was a high school senior, watching from the upper deck in Houston, when Albert Pujols blasted a titanic home run for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2005 National League Championship Series. The Cardinals had been one out from elimination, but the great Pujols saved them. St. Louis would lose that series, but Pujols went on to lead them to two World Series titles in later years.

“I had a good view,” Goldschmidt said in an interview a few years ago. “It was crazy. I was like every fan there. I was upset.”

Goldschmidt rooted for the Astros then, and before long he would become an All-Star first baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But with one year to go before he hits free agency, the downsizing Diamondbacks traded Goldschmidt on Wednesday to the Cardinals, who finally found a fearsome slugger to replace Pujols in the middle of their lineup.

In exchange for Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks acquired starter Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, the Class AA infielder Andrew Young and a competitive-balance round B draft pick in 2019. Weaver was 7-11 with a 4.95 earned run average last season, and while Kelly has hit only .154 in the majors, he was blocked by Yadier Molina in St. Louis and has ranked among baseball’s best prospects.

The Cardinals’ last title came in 2011, Pujols’s final season before leaving for the Los Angeles Angels in free agency. The Cardinals did not suffer immediately, reaching the postseason four times after he departed and winning the National League pennant in 2013. But last season was the Cardinals’ third in a row without a playoff appearance, and they have badly needed an offensive force.

Pujols played 11 seasons for the Cardinals, always hitting at least 30 homers with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .900 or better. Since then, no Cardinal has reached those levels in the same season. Goldschmidt has done it four times, including last season, when he had 33 homers and a .922 O.P.S.


Goldschmidt, who was a fan of the Houston Astros while he was growing up, was in the crowd in 2005 when Albert Pujols extended the National League Championship series with a mammoth home run of Brad Lidge.CreditHarry Cabluck/Associated Press

Even so, the Cardinals had a fairly productive offense last season and rallied from a slow start to go 88-74, the best record of any non-playoff team in the National League. The Diamondbacks had an opposite itinerary: after leading the N.L. West at the start of September, they lost 19 of 27 games in that month to finish 82-80.

The Diamondbacks lost J.D. Martinez in free agency to the Boston Red Sox last winter, and this week lost an All-Star starter, Patrick Corbin, to the Washington Nationals as a free agent. Center fielder A.J. Pollock, a former All-Star who is also a free agent, may be the next to leave.

Diamondbacks General Manager Mike Hazen called Wednesday a bittersweet day, suggesting that Goldschmidt was “possibly the best player in the National League” and acknowledging that he was the franchise’s most visible star. He said the Cardinals’ package would help fortify a thin base of talent.

“We’ve worked pretty hard to try to build that talent infrastructure,” said Hazen, who was hired in October 2016. “We don’t feel like it’s where it needs to be. I think we’re still talking about a bottom-10 farm system in baseball. That’s something we’re working aggressively to try to improve to be able to sustain success, not just get there for any one year.”

The Diamondbacks never advanced past the division series with Goldschmidt in the lineup, despite adding the ace starter Zack Greinke for six years and $206.5 million before the 2016 season. That deal gives Greinke the highest average annual salary in the majors ($34.4 million), and while Hazen said he did not envision “a rash of trades,” it stands to reason that he will also move Greinke if he can.

As for the Cardinals, they have tried and failed in recent years to lure superstars for the long term, pursuing David Price and Jason Heyward in free agency and Giancarlo Stanton in a trade. While they could not persuade Heyward to stay after a one-season cameo, they once had a knack for retaining stars who arrived without a long-term contract, like Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds and Matt Holliday.

Keeping Goldschmidt will be their next challenge. But for next season, at least, the Cardinals should finally have the run producer they have been missing.

Tossing a Baseball to Fans Isn’t So Simple Anymore. Some Players Like That.

Before the start of a half-inning, Yankees first baseman Greg Bird routinely ends up with the infielders’ warm-up ball and a decision that has become a lot more complicated lately: Which fan will get a souvenir, and how? A soft toss to a child near the dugout is no longer an option.

That moment of connection between fan and player, one of baseball’s cherished rituals, has been disrupted by the expanded protective netting now in all 30 major league parks.

“The nets, they really just throw a wrinkle in it,” Bird said. “The people closest to you are harder to get the ball to. I get super nervous trying to throw it over those nets, especially if the kid’s in the first couple of rows. The net kind of angles, so you can get it over to them, but it just looks weird.”

He had no complaints, though. Nor did the more than a dozen other players interviewed for this article, who all praised the changes in the safety netting, which as of this season stretches to at least the far end of every dugout. (Some teams, including the Mets and the Yankees, have extended their netting down the outfield lines.)

The players had seen too many fans, including young children, hit by screaming foul balls and flying broken bats over the last few years. So they welcomed the change and gladly adapted their methods of distributing souvenir balls. Some even relished the challenge.

“There’s a lot of strategy,” Bird said with a smile, using air quotes on the word “strategy.”

There are at least 17 inning-ending, final-out balls to be handed out at every game, not to mention the ones used in warm-ups. When protective screens covered only the area behind home plate, players flipped a large share of the balls right above the dugout, a premium seating area.

Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said he used to roll the ball across the dugout roof to a first-row resident at home games, but now he walks to the far right edge of the team’s third-base dugout, where the netting ends.

Some players seek gaps in the netting, learning the variations in each stadium. Young fans learn, too, often running over to the openings between innings.

Players also loop the ball over the netting, giving fans farther back a shot. The result, players say, is a democratization in the distribution of souvenirs.

“It’s just spreading the love now,” Andrew Romine, a utility player for the Seattle Mariners, said. “Now the people a little bit farther back can get a ball between innings.”

The over-the-netting method also takes some pressure off players to choose a recipient.

“Actually it’s pretty cool — you just launch it up,” Red Sox first baseman Steve Pearce said earlier this season, when he was still with the Blue Jays. “Now you’re not singling out a single person. Now it’s like: ‘You guys want a ball? Here you go.’ ”

“You don’t look like the bad guy,” he added. “ ‘Pearce, why didn’t you throw it to me?’ ‘I tried. That guy jumped in front of you. I can’t help it.’”


Yankees first baseman Greg Bird tossing a ball over the safety netting at the end of the dugout. “There’s a lot of strategy,” he said.CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

Mets first baseman Dominic Smith echoed that sentiment, even if he usually abdicates the responsibility.

“To be honest, I hate having the ball at the end of the inning,” Smith said. “When I’m playing first, I toss it to another infielder. I just don’t like the pressure of letting some fan down. But if I do toss it to the stands, I look for the smallest person, the youngest kid, in the stands. Or whoever’s screaming the most. But mainly I look for the kids.”

Mariners first baseman Ryon Healy said he still tried to aim for certain fans, usually the ones who lobby politely.

“I like to find kids that aren’t begging so much or yelling as much,” he said, comparing the situation to the “Finding Nemo” scene “where the sea gulls are yelling: ‘Mine! Mine!’ It’s literally that.”

When Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, released a statement on Dec. 9, 2015, encouraging all clubs to install additional netting after a series of fan injuries that season, he acknowledged a “desire to preserve the interactive pregame and in-game fan experience that often centers around the dugouts, where fans can catch foul balls, see their favorite players up close and, if they are lucky, catch a tossed ball or other souvenir.”

While first basemen generally give away the warm-up balls, teams have varying rituals for the final-out balls. On third outs in the Yankees’ infield, Bird and his fellow first baseman Tyler Austin give shortstop Didi Gregorius the honor, throwing the ball to him as he returns to the dugout. Gregorius said he did not target specific fans, instead randomly throwing the ball into the stands.

Most of the players said they looked for children first. (They all bemoaned the instances when adults intercepted throws headed to children.) As a second option, they look for a fan supporting their team. And, third, they look for gloves.

Even though the netting minimizes the chance of grabbing a foul, fans have more incentive than ever to come equipped to catch a souvenir because players worry about the hazards of throwing baseballs high over nets to barehanded fans.

“Sometimes the kid’s got his glove up, and I’ll hit it,” Bird said. “That’s what I’m shooting for always, like ‘Sandlot’: Just put your glove in the air, and I’ll take care of the rest,” he added, paraphrasing a line from the 1993 movie.

The Giants’ Buster Posey, who as a catcher and first baseman gains possession of many third-out balls, said he tried to make eye contact with a fan before throwing the ball over. He doesn’t want it coming down “on somebody who isn’t paying attention,” he said, adding that fans in the first few rows behind the net “can’t be asking for a ball as vehemently as they were in previous years” because of the awkward angle of the requisite throw.

A couple of players acknowledged a few pranks — intended in good fun — in which they threw the ball into the netting directly in front of fans, who react as if they are about to catch a ball that instead is swallowed by the twine.

One thing hasn’t changed with the expansion of screens: the understanding that every ball can be someone else’s treasure.

“It’s cool when there’s a kid there or a dad with his son,” Goldschmidt said. “You give them the ball, and they give you a ‘thank you’ and you know the appreciation of the smile or the high-five. We all remember when we were those kids and got to go to games. If we had gotten a foul ball, it would have made our year. It’s pretty cool that something I get to do all the time can make someone’s day. That’s something I don’t want to forget.”