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.”

The Inevitable Cardinals Meet the Suddenly Clutch Nationals

ST. LOUIS — His team’s hometown is a hotbed of espionage, but even by Washington standards, this is a bold surveillance operation. While the Nationals face the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, one of their top scouts will be staying at the home of the manager of a potential World Series opponent.

The scout is Bob Boone, and the manager is his son, Aaron, who guided the Yankees to the American League Championship Series. Bob Boone, a vice president and senior adviser for the Nationals, will track the Yankees’ games against the Houston Astros in the A.L.C.S. He will do it by commuting to the games in New York from Aaron’s home in Connecticut.

“I’ll ride in with him; I won’t even need a car,” Bob Boone said in Los Angeles late Wednesday night, after the Nationals had roared back to win Game 5 of their division series at Dodger Stadium. “But he never talks too much about baseball, anyway. And he’s on the stat-side, big-time — and that just starts an argument with me.”

The Nationals took a first step to the World Series on Friday, humbling the Cardinals, 2-0, in Game 1 of the N.L.C.S. at Busch Stadium. Anibal Sanchez held the Cardinals hitless until Jose Martinez’s pinch-hit single with two outs in the eighth. He left the game after that, but Sean Doolittle preserved the one-hitter.

For the first game, at least, the Nationals looked as comfortable in a new setting as Boone might have expected. Boone is 71, and a memorable series from his playing career has particular relevance to his current team.

Boone was the catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, who won the best-of-five N.L.C.S. in 1980 after losing that series in 1976, 1977 and 1978. The victory, a five-game thriller with the Astros, unburdened a roster that had come to be defined by October futility. The Phillies went on to beat Kansas City for their first World Series title.

The Nationals also seek their first championship, and the opportunity was hard-earned. They lost the best-of-five division series four times before their triumph over the Dodgers.

“It’s kind of the same thing, blowing a bunch of them,” Boone said. “We had lost three playoffs, and that Houston series was ridiculous. When we got past that, we knew we were going to beat them. We just relaxed, and we knew we’d beat these guys. We were a clutch team, just like these guys.”

The Nationals? Clutch? Until this month, they had the opposite reputation. But then came their comebacks in the wild-card game against Milwaukee and the N.L.D.S. clincher in Los Angeles. Both times, the Nationals trailed by two runs in the eighth inning while facing an All-Star left-hander. Both times, they rallied to win.

“Keep fighting,” said Anthony Rendon, the Nationals’ star third baseman. “I think that’s the story of, maybe, this organization. We have always either done really, really well and then came up short, or we had been plagued with injuries and had to continue to fight out of a hole that we dug ourselves in the beginning of the year. So we just wanted to keep believing in ourselves and not worry about what people outside of our locker room were saying.”

Rendon scored the go-ahead run off the Brewers’ Josh Hader in the wild card game, after right fielder Trent Grisham misplayed Juan Soto’s two-run single. On Wednesday, Rendon homered off Clayton Kershaw to pull the Nationals within a run, and Soto homered on the next pitch to tie it.

With one on in the 10th inning, Rendon doubled off Joe Kelly, who walked Soto intentionally before serving up the most seismic hit in Nationals’ history: Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead grand slam. Kendrick stayed hot in Game 1, doubling and scoring the Nationals’ first run, and driving in their second run with a single.

But it was fitting that Rendon and Soto helped set up Wednesday’s big blast. They were the only set of qualified teammates in the majors who both had a .400 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage in the regular season. They combined to hit .343 in the division series, and the rest of the Nationals hit .198.

“They’re tough — and they’re tough because they’re plate-disciplined more than anything,” said Matt Wieters, the Cardinals’ backup catcher and a former National, referring to Rendon and Soto. “They’re not going to help you out.”

The Cardinals’ two sluggers, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, were also at their best in their five-game division series with the Atlanta Braves, both hitting .429 with two homers. Catcher Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ emotional leader and pitching whisperer, forced the finale with tour de force in Game 4, tying it with a single in the eighth and winning it with a sacrifice fly in the 10th.

The Cardinals are playing in their 10th N.L.C.S. in the last 20 seasons, and Molina has been there for the last eight. He is seeking his fifth trip to the World Series.

“You know you have someone back there who has probably seen just about any situation you can imagine in a baseball game unfold,” said the Cardinals starter for Game 1, Miles Mikolas. “He’s been there, he’s seen it and he’s seen it from the catcher’s viewpoint, which is probably the best one to have. The whole team feeds off that.”

The Nationals did not attempt a stolen base against the Dodgers, but they tied with the Cardinals for the N.L. lead in steals in the regular season, so Molina’s arm could be an important weapon. He will work with starters Adam Wainwright in Game 2, Jack Flaherty in Game 3 and Dakota Hudson in Game 4.

The Nationals have not announced their rotation beyond Sanchez and Max Scherzer in Game 2, but they will surely lean heavily on Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, who with Scherzer have worked 36 of the team’s 54 innings this postseason. All three have also appeared in relief.

“They have three of the best starting pitchers in baseball,” said Walker Buehler, who started for the Dodgers on Wednesday. “Any time you can throw those three guys out there, you’ve got a chance.”

The Nationals have had many other chances to get to this round. They squandered all of them, but now they have broken through. With four more victories, they might be able to put a certain scout’s reconnaissance to use.

Braves Pivot from ‘Tomahawk Chop’ Chant After a Cardinal’s Criticism

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves took a significant, if limited, step away from their “tomahawk chop” chant on Wednesday ahead of Game 5 in the team’s National League division series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, had criticized the use of the chant earlier in the playoff series.

For the decisive Game 5, the Braves said in a statement that they had decided not to distribute red foam tomahawks — long a fixture at Braves games — on the seats at SunTrust Park. The team also said that the thumping backup music to the team’s chant would not be played over the park’s sound system if Helsley was in the game. The Cardinals, however, did not call on him during their 13-1 victory.

The Braves’ tomahawk logo still appeared on the park’s video screen during the presentation of Atlanta’s starting lineup, and a tomahawk was painted onto the grass behind home plate. But as first pitch approached on Wednesday evening, the team did not play the chant’s audio track, which stadium workers have used for years to prompt fans to gesture.

“We will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the overall in-game experience,” the Braves’ statement said. “We look forward to continued dialogue with those in the Native American community after this postseason concludes.”

The change in tradition came six days after Helsley, a 25-year-old rookie reliever, pitched in Atlanta for the first time. Soon after, Helsley told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he thought the cheer was “a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general.”

He also said that the chant depicted Native Americans “in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual. They are a lot more than that.”

At a news conference on Tuesday, Mike Shildt, the manager of the Cardinals, said he supported Helsley’s position on the chant.

“I don’t think he’s got anything malicious toward it,” Shildt said. “I think he was just honest about it. And I respect that completely.”

The Braves have faced years of criticism about their nickname as well as the team’s regular use of the chant, and their shift on Wednesday was striking in its swiftness.

The change came toward the end of a season in which the Cleveland Indians stopped using their Chief Wahoo logo. Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, had urged the team to abandon the caricature that Cleveland first included on its uniforms in 1948.

A spokesman for Major League Baseball did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Braves’ decision on Wednesday appeared to have a limited effect, for now, on spectators. Within the first few pitches of Game 5, fans began the chant anyway.

Cardinals Crush Braves to Reach the N.L.C.S.

ATLANTA — Ten runs. Five hits. Oddly enough, no home runs.

For the St. Louis Cardinals, that was Wednesday’s glorious first inning. For the Atlanta Braves, it was their latest contribution to this city’s collective, seemingly ceaseless sports migraine.

As for the 43,122 people who filled SunTrust Park, well, they could be forgiven for perhaps feeling as if they had tickets for St. Louis batting practice instead of the decisive Game 5 of a National League division series.

Yet most of them stayed — for a while — as the Cardinals kept scoring and the Braves kept collapsing. Eventually, the scoreboard showed that the Cardinals had won, 13-1, and clinched a berth in the National League Championship Series.

“When we scored 10 runs in the first inning, I felt pretty good about the game,” Kolten Wong, the St. Louis second baseman, said in the clubhouse after the final out. “You put pressure on these guys early, that’s our motto and we did it and these guys broke.”

While St. Louis advanced to its first N.L.C.S. since 2014, Atlanta lost its 10th consecutive playoff round, tying the Chicago Cubs, who went from 1910 to 1998 without winning a postseason series.

Strong pitching and late dramatics tended to define this series, and Wednesday’s starting pitchers — Mike Foltynewicz for the Braves and Jack Flaherty for the Cardinals, who dueled in a close Game 2 — offered the prospect for more of both.

The first inning began with the anodyne, at least by the standards of what was to come. A walk to the Cardinals’ Dexter Fowler. A sacrifice from Wong. An infield single from Paul Goldschmidt — a break for Atlanta against a hitter who entered the night with six extra-base hits in the series.

Foltynewicz, whose slider propelled the Braves to a 3-0 victory in Game 2, had gotten one out on 10 pitches and was poised for a possible double play to end the inning.

After 13 more pitches — leading to a single, an error, a walk and a double — St. Louis led, 4-0. Foltynewicz issued an intentional walk, and his fourth career playoff start was over after 14 minutes. In that time, he allowed enough base runners to push his earned run average for this postseason from perfect to 7.36.

Foltynewicz’s exit was only an intermission in the St. Louis batting order’s outburst. Max Fried entered from the bullpen and, with the bases loaded, immediately walked Flaherty to make the score 5-0.

Consecutive doubles by Fowler and Kolten Wong drove in four more runs before Fried — who had appeared in three previous games of this series without allowing a run — finally recorded his first out on a Goldschmidt liner. Then Marcell Ozuna, who would eventually set a record for most hits by a Cardinal in a division series, struck out.

Except he didn’t. The pitch was wild, Wong dashed down the third-base line for St. Louis’s 10th run, and Ozuna managed to reach first. Only when Yadier Molina grounded out did the top of the first conclude, St. Louis having tied the record for the most runs in any postseason inning.

“It was never enough runs, man,” Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt said. “Just keep eating, boys, keep going, which we did. I love the fact we added on after that.”

The Braves allowed runs in each of the first three innings. The Cardinals had a 13-run lead by the time Josh Donaldson, the Atlanta third baseman, homered in the fourth inning. And with that, the scoring for the day was done.

“Everything went wrong from the get-go,” said Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s first baseman.

“We had a really good team,” he said. “We just didn’t put it all together in the five games we needed to.”

As the Braves finished their season, they also said farewell to catcher Brian McCann, who is retiring after 15 seasons. He spent 10 of them with Atlanta — the first nine and this one, his finale.

The Cardinals will next play the winner of a later game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Nationals. The journey to the championship series was a sharp shift for a franchise that claimed a World Series title in 2011 and had 100 wins in 2015 but skidded and ended up firing its manager, Mike Matheny, last year.

Under Shildt, who had spent years in the Cardinals organization before joining the major league club in 2017, St. Louis sharply improved its fielding, lowered its team E.R.A. and won 91 games.

“People counted us out, people would never give us a chance, and we fought and we fought and we fought,” said Wong, whose team captured the N.L. Central title on the last day of the regular season. “And now we’re the frigging N.L.D.S. champions.”

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.

For Braves and Cardinals, the Managers Are Company Men

ATLANTA — For just a few moments on Thursday afternoon, in a makeshift room of microphones and klieg lights and portable air-conditioners, the baseball men’s voices seemed to catch.

How did it feel, the managers of the Braves and the Cardinals had essentially been asked, to be in a National League division series, considering all of the years of toiling and waiting and hoping for a big league chance?

“I never thought in my wildest dreams, three, four years ago, that this would ever happen,” said Brian Snitker, the 63-year-old Braves manager who only got his job in 2016 but has now reached his second consecutive postseason.

“Very blessed and very excited,” Mike Shildt, 51 and in his first full year in charge of the Cardinals’ dugout, said less than an hour later during his news conference here.

Both teams are facing formidable tests in the best-of-five series, which Atlanta evened on Friday before its shift to St. Louis for Game 3 on Sunday. And both have entrusted their lineup cards — and their ambitions to overcome sustained runs of October futility — to men with similarly rare résumés: Neither has ever moved from one organization to another, and neither played in the major leagues — the only managers in the postseason with those distinctions.

Between them, two of the three oldest managers in these playoffs, they have spent 28 seasons leading minor league teams, building careers short on employers and awfully long on jobs.

“Is it a template? I would think people are going to look at it a little bit more seriously,” said John Mozeliak, the president of baseball operations for the Cardinals. “I think where the game is today, it’s not necessarily what you did on the field, it’s how you can understand information, process information in real time.”

Major league clubs can be quick to plunder overachieving rival organizations to lead their teams. But in cities already steeped in the mythology of managers — Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa led the Cardinals to several World Series titles, and a bronze statue of Bobby Cox stands outside Atlanta’s SunTrust Park — Shildt and Snitker almost appear out to prove that steadiness can be just as much a playoff recipe as anything else.

“There’s a long history of success with the St. Louis Cardinals, and I’ve always embraced and admired and accepted that responsibility,” Shildt said. “And whatever role I’ve been in, I try to create value and try to move that forward and be a good steward.”

Most of Shildt’s current players had already been born when their major league manager was coaching high school baseball in his native North Carolina. He spent a few years working for baseball’s scouting bureau before he came into the St. Louis fold in 2004. His first managerial assignment came in 2009, at the Cardinals’ rookie affiliate in Johnson City, Tenn., and he joined the major league staff as a quality control coach in 2017.

It was during that first year around Busch Stadium, over dinner at an old-school steakhouse just west of St. Louis, that Shildt’s potential crystallized for Mozeliak. He went home and told his wife that Shildt would someday be a major league manager. “I assumed it would be for the Cardinals,” he added.

St. Louis picked Shildt as its interim manager during the next season, with the temporary tag stripped away about six weeks later — a vote of confidence for one of the few men to take charge of a major league team without having played a pitch of professional baseball.

His players were, and remain, unbothered by his lack of big league credentials. Second baseman Kolten Wong went as far as to argue that Shildt’s lack of playing time ultimately benefited players.

“Sometimes when you play the game for so long, you tend to forget how hard the game is, and when you haven’t played the game, you can really be on the guys’ level,” he said.

That can translate into more confidence for Shildt’s players.

“He’s not going to beat you down when you don’t play a good game or make an error or whatnot,” Wong said after a game in which he had recorded an error and, in the ninth inning, a two-run double. “At this level, we’re all hard enough on ourselves, so to have him be that guy to support us and knowing that he’s the manager and the head honcho, it gives you a lot more confidence going into the next ground ball or at-bat.”

Or, as Miles Mikolas, who started Game 1 for the Cardinals, put it: “How many guys get elected president that haven’t been president before?”

In Atlanta, Snitker draws his authority from even greater longevity and loyalty. He came to the Braves organization in 1977 as an undrafted free agent, playing for a few years in the minor leagues and never ascending beyond the Class AAA club. He managed throughout the Braves’ celebrated farm system and had three stints coaching with the major league team in Atlanta.

When the 2016 season opened, he was managing a minor league team in Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs. By the end of May, he was leading the Braves in their final season at Turner Field, with no certainty as to whether he’d get to keep the job. He was, though, a favorite of Atlanta’s players, seen as a link to Cox and as a quintessential company man in an industry that is not exactly overrun with them.

“He’s been through the grind more than anybody else,” said Mike Soroka, the rookie right-hander who is expected to start Game 3 for Atlanta on Sunday and who came up through the minors hearing about Snitker. “He’s someone who truly loves baseball, loves this game and respects the game, and it’s easy to play for a guy who loves it like that.”

On Thursday, not long before the men walked into a converted storage room to face reporters, word emerged that the Mets had fired Mickey Callaway, adding to the long list of managerial vacancies to be filled this off-season.

In Atlanta and St. Louis, though, those changes are just fodder for clubhouse contemplation. Their managers will stay, their clubs’ bets apparently working.

“Probably wouldn’t have worked if either of us would have went to another organization and tried this job out,” Snitker said. “But because your familiarity with the players and having a hand in their development — and they know who you are and what you’re about and your passion for the job — makes it to where we can succeed sitting in this chair.”

Cardinals Ride Big Ninth Inning to Series-Opening Victory

ATLANTA — Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals look as gritty as ever.

The Atlanta Braves also started down a familiar path.

Marcell Ozuna and Kolten Wong each hit two-run doubles in the ninth inning as the Cardinals overcame shaky defense and a wild finish to extend Atlanta’s postseason misery, holding off the Braves, 7-6, in Game 1 of their N.L. division series on Thursday night.

The Cardinals fell behind by 3-1, hurt by their normally reliable defense. But Paul Goldschmidt homered in the eighth, sparking a two-run outburst that tied it at 3-3. In the ninth, the Cardinals blew it open against Braves closer Mark Melancon.

Dexter Fowler and Tommy Edman singled before Goldschmidt walked on four pitches to load the bases with one out. Melancon got ahead of Ozuna with two quick strikes, only to give up a liner just inside the third-base bag that put St. Louis ahead for the first time.

Wong finished off Melancon with another two-run double, this one down the right-field line.

“These are fun, exciting games,” said Matt Carpenter, who came through with a pinch-hit bloop single off Melancon to tie the game in the eighth. “Every out, every pitch is important. There’s a lot of adrenaline involved, but that’s what you play for, that’s why you’re here.”

During a run of nine playoff appearances from 2004-15, the Cardinals were known for their postseason heroics, most notably rallying for a dramatic World Series win over Texas in 2011.

This team looks ready to follow in that mold.

The Braves are stuck in a nightmare that seems to repeat itself every October.

Atlanta has lost nine straight playoff series and is just one away from tying the Chicago Cubs’ record for postseason futility — 10 postseason losses in a row between 1908 and 2003. Atlanta has not won a postseason series since 2001, and hasn’t even led a series since going up two games to one on San Francisco in the 2002 N.L.D.S. The Giants won the next two games to advance.

To their credit, the Braves didn’t go quietly in their half of the ninth.

Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a two-run homer off Carlos Martinez, and Freddie Freeman added a solo shot. But Martinez got the final two outs to claim a shaky win and put the Cardinals head in the best-of-five series going into Game 2 Friday. St. Louis ace Jack Flaherty goes against Mike Foltynewicz.

“We’ve played all season expecting to win those type games,” Freeman said. “You give up that kind of lead, it’s tough to swallow.”

The Braves snapped a 1-1 tie in the sixth when Dansby Swanson slashed a wicked one-hopper that bounced off the chest of third baseman Edman. The ball deflected to shortstop Paul DeJong, who had a chance to get a force at second base for the third out. But the throw to Wong was a bouncer, the ball shooting off his glove for an error as two runs scored.

Wong also messed up an attempted backhanded toss for an error in the first, helping the Braves grab a 1-0 lead.

It was totally uncharacteristic for a Cardinals team that led the majors during the regular season with just 66 errors and a .989 fielding percentage.

In the end, it didn’t matter.

The Braves, the Cardinals and an Infamous Infield Fly: An Oral History

ATLANTA — The Braves and the Cardinals will start their National League division series on Thursday, and just about all the two teams — and baseball officials — can hope for is that the matchup will avoid the chaos and controversy of their last playoff meeting.

It was 2012, the inaugural edition of baseball’s wild-card games. The Braves had won 94 games. St. Louis, the defending World Series champion, arrived at Atlanta’s Turner Field with 88 victories.

Atlanta, which would finish the day with a dozen hits, scored two runs early. The Cardinals chiseled away at that lead and built their own as Atlanta’s defense struggled with errors. When the eighth inning arrived, St. Louis was up, 6-3.

Then came a seemingly routine pop fly, a disputed call, a storm of debris, a 19-minute delay and a rare game played under protest — a sequence that still draws bewildered chuckles in St. Louis and glowers and disgust in Atlanta.

And when the Braves and Cardinals face off again this week, Sam Holbrook, whose raised right arm invoked the infield fly rule and instantly turned him into the target of a city’s scorn, will be the crew chief for the series.

The interviews in this article, conducted separately over the last week, have been edited for length and clarity. Major League Baseball declined to make Holbrook or Joe Torre, the executive who rejected a protest related to the game, available for interviews; their remarks were made during a news conference in 2012.

ImageThe wild-card game ended up being Chipper Jones’s final major league game.

CreditKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis reliever: It really goes back to the beginning of the game.

I’m from an hour north of Atlanta, so I grew up a huge Braves fan. It was Chipper Jones’s last season, and so much had been made about that. So the Braves’ fan base for that game — that was the craziest environment I had ever been in, or ever was in, in the big leagues.

I walked Freddie Freeman to start the eighth inning, and then immediately got a double play ball from Dan Uggla. It should have been a double play, but it kind of got away from Pete Kozma. We were able to get Freddie.

Then David Ross jumps on me on the first pitch and gets a base hit.

Atlanta had runners at first and second with one out, with the Cardinals leading, 6-3. Andrelton Simmons came to the plate.

Boggs: He was a right-hander, and those were the guys I wanted to face. My only thought process was, “Just get another ground ball, get a double play.” At that point, it’s just about getting out of the inning as quickly as possible.

When he popped it up, I was thrilled because in my mind that is a routine out. In the big leagues, when a ball like that goes up in the air, that is an out because you’re talking about the best in the world at what they do. Pop-ups are outs. In my mind, there’s two outs in the bottom of the eighth, let’s get the next guy and go to the ninth.

Dan Uggla, Atlanta second baseman: I checked where Matt Holliday was playing in left, and that’s a tough ball for any shortstop to get. It’s a complete in-betweener.

I had a feeling it was going to drop when it went up.

Boggs: It never popped into my mind that it wasn’t going to be caught.

Fredi Gonzalez, Braves manager: The ball goes up in the air, and I see the shortstop going back and going back and going back, and it dropped like 10 feet from Matt Holliday, and the umpire called the infield fly rule.

(From 2012) Sam Holbrook, left-field umpire: I saw the shortstop go back and get underneath the ball where he would have had ordinary effort and would have caught the baseball, and that’s why I called the infield fly.

Uggla: He obviously saw it from a different angle. He made the best call that he could make right there. It doesn’t matter what I think.

Boggs: The ball goes to the ground. I was thinking I was in control of the moment, and suddenly I’ve got the bases loaded and one out. And Matt Carpenter walks up to me from third and says, “We’re all good, man.” I’m thinking, “You don’t have to console me,” and he says: “No, they’re going to call him out. They’re going to call the infield fly rule. I can hear them talking.”

From the moment they called him out, it didn’t take more than a few seconds for the entire field to be covered with cups and bottles and trash. I was in the mode of, just give me the ball and let me keep pitching. But I realized that was not going to be possible because there was trash from 40,000 people all over the field.


CreditScott Cunningham/Getty Images

Gonzalez: I remember going out there and going berserk, and Jeff Kellogg was the home plate umpire. And Jeff is like: “Fredi, I don’t want to throw you out of the game. I don’t want to throw you out of the game.” It was just crazy, and I remember the fans getting crazy, and Atlanta is not a place where they usually get crazy like that.

Boggs: They were upset. If you think I’m going to say a bad word about them, you’re crazy because I probably know a lot of the people who were throwing stuff. If something like that happened at a Georgia Bulldogs football game, heck, I’d probably throw something, too.

The delay was 15 to 20 minutes.

Gonzalez: I went back in the dugout and called Frank Wren, the general manager, and told him I was going to protest it. He said, “Go ahead, do it, and we’ll figure it out later.”


CreditScott Cunningham/Getty Images

Boggs: When that much is on the line, I think you want your manager to do everything he possibly can. I would have been shocked if Fredi didn’t protest it.

Play eventually resumed. Uggla and Ross had advanced to scoring position, running at their own risk. But the batter was out, because of the rule, and now there were two outs.

Uggla: It definitely takes a little bit of the wind out of the sail. We still had guys on base, still had the opportunity, still had an inning or two left. If you only had one out, you have a chance for a sacrifice fly.

Boggs: It was just: Get this game over with. We didn’t even go out and shake hands. We just immediately went into the clubhouse. The place, even after the play was over, was a zoo.

Gonzalez: It killed us. It would have been bases loaded, one out. Now, we don’t know that we would have scored three or four, but I’d take my chances with bases loaded and one out.

Someone once told me it was the furthest out a ball ever landed that was called for the infield fly rule.

Boggs: I obviously knew that for the infield fly rule to go into effect, it didn’t have to be on the infield. I thought the rule, as it was written, applied there. I obviously understand looking back on it that it looked questionable, but in my mind, they got it right. And I was thrilled to see them call it.


CreditTami Chappell/Reuters

Holbrook: It’s all judged on what the fielder does. Once that fielder establishes himself and he has ordinary effort on the ball, that’s when the call is made.

(From 2012) Joe Torre, executive vice president for baseball operations for M.L.B.: I talked to Frank Wren, and I talked to Fredi after the game. I spoke to them, asked them what they were basing their protest on, and I ruled basically to disallow the protest based on the fact that it was the umpire’s judgment call.

Gonzalez: At least I filed the protest.

Uggla: We came up short, and that play, had it gone our way, you never know.

Boggs: They were a very good team, and we knew going in there that it was going to be a fight and they were going to be charged up. We knew we had a good team, and we were used to those situations.

It was just a crazy thing that happened.

Gonzalez: Hey, thanks for ruining my day.

Alan Blinder reported from Atlanta, and David Waldstein from New York.

Mets Defeat Cardinals as Jeff McNeil Saves Bullpen From Itself

Second baseman Jeff McNeil made a game-saving throw from right field to home plate for the final out, and the Mets held off the St. Louis Cardinals, 8-7, on Saturday night at Citi Field after starter Noah Syndergaard exited with a strained right hamstring.

Pete Alonso smashed a mammoth three-run homer for the Mets off the facing of the third deck in a five-run first inning against Michael Wacha (4-3). J. D. Davis homered and had four hits. And this time, the Mets’ beleaguered bullpen finally held on — barely — after blowing late leads in the first two games of the series.

Seth Lugo struck out three in the eighth, fanning Matt Carpenter with the bases loaded to end the inning. The struggling closer Edwin Diaz gave up a two-out R.B.I. single to Yadier Molina in the ninth, and Kolten Wong lofted a blooper toward the right-field line.

McNeil sprinted a long way in pursuit and converged with outfielder Michael Conforto, but neither was able to get there in time to make the catch. Conforto tumbled to the ground, but McNeil stayed on his feet and quickly grabbed the ball as it trickled away.

He turned and made a perfect one-hop throw to the plate, easily nailing Jack Flaherty — a pitcher who was pinch-running for Molina.


Noah Syndergaard, with the trainer Brian Chicklo, leaving the game in the seventh inning with a strained hamstring.CreditMike Stobe/Getty Images

Flaherty looked back at the ball between second and third and then stumbled a bit coming around third, and it cost him.

A fired-up McNeil pumped his right arm, and the Mets celebrated after a narrow escape.

Syndergaard (5-4) reached for his right hamstring after throwing a pitch in the seventh. Mets Manager Mickey Callaway and an athletic trainer went out to check on the right-hander, who quickly walked off the field with a bit of a limp.

Robert Gsellman entered with the Mets leading by 8-3. St. Louis scored three runs before the inning was over.

Syndergaard threw 102 pitches. He was charged with five runs, four earned, and six hits in six-plus innings.

Dexter Fowler homered early and had three R.B.I. for the Cardinals, who stole six bases — their most in 20 years. The Mets bane Paul DeJong added three hits and a sacrifice fly.


Mets second baseman Robinson Cano (left quadriceps) rejoined the team and is eligible to come off the injured list on Sunday. He went 4 for 10 with three doubles in three games during a rehabilitation stint at Class AAA Syracuse. … The left-hander Justin Wilson was scheduled for a rehab appearance at Class A Brooklyn after making two with Syracuse. He has been sidelined since May 7 with a sore left elbow. … Outfielder Brandon Nimmo (neck) was returning to New York to be examined and treated after he was scratched from a scheduled rehab appearance with Syracuse with neck stiffness on Friday night. Nimmo has not played in the majors since May 20.