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.

Nationals Pitching Puts an Old-School Tactic on the Cutting Edge

ST. LOUIS — For all the new wisdom in baseball, some theories stay timeless. One in particular guides Mike Rizzo in building annual contenders for the Washington Nationals.

“I was taught early in my scouting and G.M. career that once you have starting pitching, anything is possible,” said Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, “and if you don’t have it, nothing is possible.”

In the first two games of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium, even no-hitters seemed possible from the Nationals’ starters. Anibal Sanchez carried one into the eighth inning of Game 1 and Max Scherzer into the seventh inning of Game 2. After Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nationals headed home with a two-games-to-none lead and a chance to clinch their first trip to the World Series in Washington.

Sanchez blanked the Cardinals for seven and two-thirds innings in Game 1, and Scherzer for seven innings in Game 2. Both allowed only one hit. The Cardinals will not get much of a break in the next two games, when the Nationals will start Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, who combined to go 32-13 this season.

“Starting pitching is absolutely our biggest strength,” reliever Sean Doolittle said on Friday, adding that Sanchez’s aggressive approach had a calming influence on the bullpen. “They absolutely set the tone for this team.”

That is just how Rizzo likes it. He started his professional career as a minor league infielder in 1982, a year in which 90 major leaguers threw the minimum 162 innings required for the earned-run average title. This season — in a league with four more teams — that total had dropped to 61.

But four of those pitchers are members of the Nationals. Another four pitch for the Cardinals and four others for the Houston Astros.

The Yankees had just one qualified pitcher this season (Masahiro Tanaka), but still: With three of the four remaining teams built around sturdy rotations, is it fair to spot a trend? Could durable starters working deep into playoff games be the new — old — way to win in October?

“I don’t know; I think it was just the guys that are doing it,” Scherzer said. “Next year it will be the bullpens. The year after that it will be starters. There’s just so many ways to win baseball games through pitching, and we have seen it over the years.”

We may never again see a series like the 2005 American League Championship Series, when the Chicago White Sox got four complete games and used their bullpen for only two outs in a five-game series en route to a World Series title. But on consecutive days in these playoffs, Walker Buehler threw a career-high 117 pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gerrit Cole worked eight innings for the Astros and Sanchez and Scherzer flirted with no-hitters.

Through two games of the N.L.C.S. — even before the opener of the A.L.C.S. — starters had already lasted at least seven innings 11 times this postseason. That was two more times than the total for the entire 2018 postseason, and one more than in 2017.

“When you’ve got incredible pitchers out on the mound — Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and those guys — if you have an ability like that, you want to get those guys out there as much as you can,” said the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright, who lost to Scherzer on Saturday but has worked 15 innings in his two starts this month. “When you’re just looking at one month to live forever, you’re talking about every game as a must-win. That’s kind of how teams are approaching it, and they’re putting their best athletes on the field.”

The Nationals have already used Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin in relief this postseason, as the Red Sox did with all five of their starters in their championship run last October. That can be risky for the long-term — most of those Boston starters fell apart this season — but in the moment, it is probably the smart play, with plenty of historical support.

Using starters as relievers is nothing new in the postseason. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn did it long before baseball added layers of playoffs ahead of the World Series, and many modern starters have done it, from Verlander to Noah Syndergaard to Cole Hamels.

The strategy can backfire — as it did with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in the division series finale against Washington on Wednesday — but the possibility of seeing the best pitchers more often adds extra sizzle to October.

“In the five-game series, you’ve got to get creative and you’ve got to take the ball at every single chance you can get,” Scherzer said. “In the seven-game series, the way you’re set up, this is more like the regular season.”

The Nationals and the Cardinals both plan to use four starters in this series, as most teams do in the best-of-seven format. For Washington, that means three pitchers in Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin whose combined salaries total $525 million — and Sanchez, who signed last December for two years and $19 million.

Sanchez, 35, has been in the majors since 2006, when he threw a no-hitter as a rookie for the Marlins. Friday’s effort was not even the first time he had allowed no hits when starting a L.C.S. opener: He also did it in 2013, for Detroit in Boston, but he lasted only six innings. Sanchez threw 116 pitches that night, and the Tigers’ bullpen lost the no-hitter in the ninth.

This time Sanchez nearly took care of things on his own, baffling the Cardinals with an array of off-speed pitches — including one type of changeup his teammates call “the Butterfly” — and a fastball that rarely tops 91 miles an hour. When first baseman Ryan Zimmerman made a diving catch on a liner to start the eighth, Sanchez expected to finish the gem.

“I think that I had it, for sure,” he said, adding that a similar highlight had preserved his no-hitter for the Marlins. “Zimmerman, he caught that ball and I said: ‘O.K., always behind a no-hitter, a good play has to happen.’ And I said, ‘O.K., I had it.’”

Alas, two batters later, Jose Martinez ruined the script by lining a 1-2 changeup to center for a clean hit. Paul Goldschmidt ended Scherzer’s bid on Saturday with a line-drive single to left to start the seventh. But the games emphatically illustrated why the Nationals invested in Scherzer in free agency in 2015 and in Sanchez last winter.

“When he’s on, he’s carving people up,” Rizzo said of Sanchez. “He’s hitting four quadrants of the strike zone with three or four pitches. He’ll invent a pitch if he has to during the game. His dexterity on the mound, that allows him, with finger pressure, to make different movements on fastballs. I saw him pitch so many times, we knew him intimately. It was a pretty easy choice to go after him when we needed another starter.”

Perhaps veteran starters will command more attention in free agency this winter, after pitchers from last year’s frigid market like Sanchez, Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, Texas’ Lance Lynn and Houston’s Wade Miley all pitched well on contracts that each totaled $30 million or less.

Rizzo, for his part, only knows that it works for his team, which stood two victories from its first World Series after Sanchez’s magic act.

“My job isn’t to show the industry anything — it’s just to put together the team that fits for us,” Rizzo said. “Over the years we’ve put together quality clubs that compete for championships each year, and starting pitching has been our backbone.”