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St. Louis Cardinals: A one-stop guide to the National League Wild Card Game

St. Louis Cardinals' Tyler O'Neill, right, scores on a single by Edmundo Sosa as Los Angeles...
St. Louis Cardinals' Tyler O'Neill, right, scores on a single by Edmundo Sosa as Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith gestures during the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)(Mark J. Terrill | AP)
Published: Oct. 5, 2021 at 7:00 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2021 at 6:32 PM CDT
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LOS ANGELES (KY3) - Win or go home. One of these two outcomes Wednesday will determine the fate of the 2021 St. Louis Cardinals.

The St. Louis Cardinals are set to take on the reigning World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2021 National League Wild Card Game. First pitch at Dodger Stadium is set for 7:10 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 6 on TBS.

It’s a challenge that comes full-circle. Exactly one month ago, the Cardinals opened a four-game home series against the Dodgers with a record barely hovering above .500 and fading postseason odds. The opposing pitcher was none other than Max Scherzer, a St. Louis native also set to start Wednesday’s winner-take-all against the Cardinals.

While that game ended with a loss, the Cardinals eventually salvaged a series split in an appetizer of what was to come. A late-September surge, boosted by a franchise-record 17 straight wins, would lift St. Louis back to postseason for the third straight year and seventh time in the past decade.

Unlike most recent runs, the Cardinals and Dodgers are only guaranteed one game. The winner will advance to play the San Francisco Giants in a best-of-five National League Division Series matchup.

Wednesday marks a prime opportunity for two of the most storied franchises in MLB history to add to their legacy. But there is plenty to unpack for the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers ahead of the winner-take-all.

POSTSEASON HISTORY

The Cardinals and Dodgers have met five times in postseason since MLB first expanded its playoff format in 1969. Aside from one series, the head-to-head history has been kind to the Cardinals.

  • 1985: Cardinals win the National League Championship Series, 4 games to 2.
  • 2004: Cardinals win the National League Division Series, 3 games to 1.
  • 2009: Dodgers win the National League Division Series, 3 games to 0.
  • 2013: Cardinals win the National League Championship Series, 4 games to 2.
  • 2014: Cardinals win the National League Division Series, 3 games to 1.

Since the most recent Cardinals-Dodgers postseason matchup seven years ago, only a handful of players remain on both teams.

  • Dodgers: Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw (injured).
  • Cardinals: Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez (injured).

As for the National League Wild Card Game, the Dodgers will make their first appearance in this format after a run of eight-straight division titles.

The Cardinals survived the inaugural NL Wild Card Game in 2012, defeating the Atlanta Braves with help from a controversial infield fly rule.

SLOW STRETCHES

Coming off a pandemic-altered 2020 campaign, during which the Cardinals squeezed 53 games in 43 days, it was far from easy to readjust to the pace of a full 162-game season. The big-time offseason acquisition of Nolan Arenado proved to be promising, but results were mixed throughout the opening months. Despite leading the NL Central division through Memorial Day weekend, the Cardinals won only seven of 17 series heading into the holiday.

A late-May road series with the Dodgers would mark the start of a tough summer stretch. In the series opener, the Cardinals lost ace Jack Flaherty for two-plus months with an oblique strain. Two nights later, St. Louis suffered a brutal blowout loss to the Dodgers that featured a 10-run first inning.

By mid-June, the Cardinals fell to a season-worse four games below .500 and dealt with a slew of injuries to key players like Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader. The Cardinals made mild progressions in July and August, but not enough to catch a Milwaukee Brewers squad that once jumped to a 14-game lead for the NL Central.

The Dodgers also started rusty in a quest to defend last year’s World Series title. An offense of several perennial All-Stars averaged only 2.75 runs per game in April losses, as the Dodgers only produced an 18-17 record through the first five weeks. Many valuable rotation pieces, including Clayton Kershaw and Dustin May, missed significant time or were shut down for the season with various injuries.

The slow start led to some major changes. The Dodgers signed former Cardinals legend Albert Pujols to a league minimum deal following his midseason release. And a trade deadline blockbuster involving former World Series champions Max Scherzer and Trea Turner transformed their roster into arguably the deepest in baseball.

After briefly pulling ahead of the San Francisco Giants for the division lead on Sept. 1, the Dodgers dropped a series to them the ensuing weekend and couldn’t claw back to the top.

The Dodgers finished 4-3 in seven regular season games over the Cardinals. All three of the Cardinals wins in the head-to-head season series were decided by one run.

HISTORIC SEPTEMBERS!

When the Cardinals and Dodgers started a four-game series at Busch Stadium from Sept. 6-9, there weren’t many clear signs of what the final month of regular season would bring for either team. Following a series split, both teams accomplished rare feats throughout September.

The Cardinals initially followed that series with a Friday-night loss to the Cincinnati Reds. From then on out, the St. Louis Cardinals pulled away from a crowded field of National League Wild Card contenders with a franchise-best 17-game winning streak. The streak featured sweeps of four different teams and seven come-from-behind wins, many that were driven by timely hitting, heads-up defense and stout pitching.

Harrison Bader led the team with 34 hits in September, while Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill and Tommy Edman all had at least 30 in the final full month. Bader and O’Neill both took home Player of the Week honors throughout the winning streak, combining for 17 home runs, 43 runs scored and 45 RBI in the month.

Just a few days ago, MLB named O’Neill the NL Player of the Month for September. His power surge gave the Cardinals their first season with three 30-home run players since 2004.

Veterans Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester anchored the rotation through September, reaching milestones of 2,000 strikeouts and 200 wins respectively. The Cardinals pitching staff ended the final full month with a 3.77 ERA, their second-best mark of any month this season and sixth-best across baseball for September.

The September surge could have looked a lot different without the defense, which propelled the Cardinals to 82 defensive runs saved, second-best in the majors. A late-season series against the New York Mets produced two defensive play of the year candidates. One involved Paul Goldschmidt preventing a potential walk-off run from scoring on a double play. The other showcased rookie Lars Nootbaar with an over-the-wall catch to rob a three-run home run.

Nearly one week later, the Cardinals would turn one of their most memorable defensive plays in recent history. Goldschmidt led another double play against the Chicago Cubs, one in which the Cardinals caught two runners off guard in a 20-second rundown. It took six fielders to complete the highlight-reel play with a unique scorecard mark of 3-2-5-4-2-8-6.

While the Cardinals took national spotlight with the 17-game winning streak, Los Angeles also finished the season on a remarkable note. The Dodgers were the only team with an undefeated home record in September (10-0) and swept the Milwaukee Brewers in their final home series last weekend.

The run pushed the Dodgers to contention for their ninth-straight NL West title up until the final day of regular season, but the San Francisco Giants secured the division, and baseball’s best record, with 107 wins.

WAINWRIGHT VS. SCHERZER

A mound matchup of experience awaits in the National League Wild Card Game. Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer, who are a combined 77 years and 110 days old, go head-to-head in a postseason duel that statisticians say will be the eighth oldest among starting pitchers in terms of combined age. Yet, both consistently defied “Father Time” throughout the 2021 season.

Wainwright fell one start shy of the MLB lead for games started and pitched 200-plus innings for the sixth time in his career. His 17 victories were the second-most in all of baseball, while his 3.05 ERA was his best mark in seven years. Wainwright also reached a few personal milestone, including 2000 career strikeouts and 300 games started with longtime battery mate Yadier Molina.

The curveball has been Wainwright’s signature pitch throughout his career, but he mastered it to another level in 2021. According to FanGraphs, Wainwright finished with 14.1 curveball runs above average rating, a metric used to show how many projected runs he prevented from scoring throughout the season by using that pitch. Control of the curveball could lead to efficiency and soft contact, which could prove vital against a Dodgers team that finished 2021 with the highest hard-hit contact rate.

Scherzer, pitching on the final season of a seven-year contract, delivered right around career norms until the Washington Nationals traded him to the Dodgers at deadline. Since that time, he has elevated his game to another level. The Dodgers won in all 11 of Scherzer’s starts, all but one in which he completed at least five innings. Scherzer struck out 89 hitters and only issued eight walks in that stretch.

Compiling a 1.98 ERA with the Dodgers, Scherzer has particularly excelled with stranding runners. Per FanGraphs, Scherzer’s left-on-base rate of 84.3% is the best of his career, demonstrating his ability to limit big innings. It’s not often teams capitalize for a big game against Scherzer, but when they do it happens early. The three-time Cy Young winner pitched to the tune of a 1.27 ERA in all combined frames past the fourth inning.

For the sake of both pitchers and their teams, a few notable streaks are riding on the line for Wednesday’s Wild Card Game.

Wainwright and Scherzer head into the Wild Card Game with similar splits against the foes. Wainwright owns a 2.66 career ERA against the Dodgers over 14 starts. Scherzer has a 2.76 ERA over 13 starts against the Cardinals.

Scherzer went undefeated in two starts against the Cardinals this year, one which came in April with the Nationals. Wainwright also won his only start against the Dodgers in September. If the Wild Card matchup turns into a pitcher’s duel, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

PLAYING PUJOLS AGAIN

Albert Pujols, widely considered the top player in modern St. Louis Cardinals history, is preparing for his sixth career series against them as an opponent. Pujols won three MVP awards and two World Series titles in St. Louis while playing in 74 postseason games over 11 seasons with the Cardinals. Now, he takes them on for the first time in postseason.

Pujols signed a league-minimum deal with the Dodgers on May 17, joining them less than a week after being released from the Angels. He took on a reduced role, but instantly became a key piece in a core of relatively young players. Pujols started 37 games at first base and slugged 12 home runs, proving he can still perform as MLB’s oldest active position player.

Two years removed from his first St. Louis reunion tour, Pujols had another warm welcome back to Busch Stadium in September. He was treated to dozens of ovations in limited action and went deep in his first at-bat of the series. Pujols played in the final three games of the series.

It’s unclear if or when Pujols might play in the Wild Card Game given the high stakes of a winner-take-all. He has a clearer path on the postseason roster after an unfortunate injury to first baseman Max Muncy on the final day of regular season.

A ride mostly filled with nostalgia against the Cardinals takes a more serious turn. Either Pujols or his longtime team will not advance past the Wild Card Game. Pujols was playing on the final season of a 10-year deal with the Angels prior to his release, and he has not made it clear whether he will retire or pursue another opportunity in baseball at end of his season.

WILD CARD GAME ROSTERS

The Cardinals and Dodgers can roster up to 26 players for Wednesday’s winner-take-all. The victor can adjust their roster ahead of the National League Division Series matchup with the Giants.

Both teams finalized their Wild Card squads early Wednesday afternoon. Anyone on the 40-man roster for either team is eligible to play.

Here are the rosters:

Among the most notable roster developments, the Cardinals have added prospect Juan Yepez, who could make his Major League Debut in the game. Matt Carpenter, despite a reduced role and declining production in previous years, also secured a bench spot.

Jake Woodford and Walker Buehler, who started Sunday respectively for the Cardinals and Dodgers, were left off the Wild Card Game rosters.

PROJECTIONS

Oddsmakers are generally leaning with the reigning World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise after a 106-win season and dominance at home. However, a one-game setting might prove more effective for Cardinals to play spoiler as opposed to five-game series.

  • DraftKings reports the Cardinals head into the game as an underdog with a moneyline of +180.
  • FanDuel offers a similar moneyline of +188 for the Cardinals and gives the Dodgers a 61% chance of winning.
  • FiveThirtyEight, a platform that specializes in sports analytics, gives the Dodgers a 70% chance of winning.

So it may appear like a David vs. Goliath situation on paper. But with both teams rallying to strong finishes in the regular season, the Cardinals and Dodgers could be in store for a surprise finish.

ON DECK

A St. Louis Cardinals season filled with rollercoaster ups and downs, memorable milestones and an improbable run to Red October is on the line Wednesday. We’ll see what’s in store for the “Run of ‘21.” Enjoy!

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