Much has been said about the ability of the St. Louis Cardinals’ offense, a unit that was among the highest-scoring in the major leagues this season and led all teams in on-base percentage. They have the major league-leader in hitting with runners in scoring position (Allen Craig), the heart of their order is a murderer’s row (32 home runs, 27, 22, 22 and 20) and six of their hitters posted a batting average over .290 this season.
After producing only two runs in the opening game of the National League Division Series the Cardinals crushed Nationals pitchers for 12 runs. They smashed four home runs, two by Carlos Beltran, and one each from Craig and Daniel Descalso. In four of the nine meetings between the teams this year, including the playoffs, the Cardinals have posted double-digit run totals. For Nationals reliever Michael Gonzalez, who gave up a home run to Beltran on Monday, the Cardinals’ strength is that they are a strong fastball-hitting team. But isn’t that a cliche uttered about every good hitter?
“You got to be able to but everybody can’t as consistently as like that,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone can consistently hit a good fastball. They’ve got a lot of good things going for them right now, a lot of hot hitters, they got a great middle of the lineup. You’ve just got to give credit to those guys, they’re a good fastball-hitting ball team and we throw a lot of fastballs.”
So, logic dictates that Nationals pitchers need to establish their offspeed pitches early as a counterbalance?
“Just make sure we don’t make any mistakes over the plate,” Gonzalez responded. “[Monday] we made a few mistakes over the plate including myself. You throw that change-up down the middle to Beltran and he hit a home run. You throw it down and away and it’s a different story.”
For a power-hitting team, the Cardinals don’t strike out a lot, only 18.8 percent of the time during the regular season, which is near the bottom of the majors. They’re selective: they swing at a lot of pitches inside the strike zone, but when it’s outside of it, they swing only 30.4 percent of the time, 11th best in the majors. And when they swing, they make contact: eighth-best contact percentage (81.1 percent).
“They’re just patient hitters,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. “They don’t swing at balls. They don’t really expand the strike zone very much. They don’t get out of their plan. You can tell when you face those guys that they have a plan. They don’t chase breaking balls. They don’t chase letter-high fastballs very often. They try to work and get into hitters’ counts. And they work for their pitch to hit and don’t give into that very much. When you’re pitching them, you can’t fall behind.”
Matt Holliday, for example, is the type of hitter that Mattheus is effective at getting out. The right-handed dominant Cardinals lineup can be susceptible to hard, inside fastballs, and that’s Mattheus’ plan of attack against Holliday. Any pitch over the plate or away, Holliday can extend his big, strong arms and drive, Mattheus said. Against Craig, however, Mattheus can’t do the same because he can handle the inside fastball well.
“You gotta make quality pitches early in the count, quality low fastballs on the corner somewhere or else they’re going to get in to a leverage count and they’re going to kill you,” Mattheus said. “The term the hitters try to use a lot is they keyhole you. They sit one spot, one location and if they get it, they don’t miss it. Say Matt Holliday is sitting on fastballs away and you make three pitches in, he’ll tip his hat. But if he gets that one pitch away, he’s going to make you pay. They have good approaches and good plans and don’t deviate from them very often.”
The Cardinals also thrived on first pitches during the season, hitting .364 in that situation during the regular season, second-best in the majors. On full counts, too, they led all teams with a .480 on-base percentage.
For Mattheus, Craig has been his toughest out. This season, Craig, one of baseball’s best emerging young hitters, hit a major league-leading .400 with runners in scoring position. So far in the series, the cleanup hitter is 3 for 9 with one home run and one run batted in.
“He has very good strike zone discipline,” Mattheus said. “I threw him a decent breaking [Monday] and I haven’t shown him a breaking ball probably seven, eight at-bats and I thought he would make a little more of a flinch or committed to swinging at it, and he didn’t at all. He was sitting on a pitch, the sinker in. He had a couple good passes at my sinker in, he just happened to foul them off.”
“You have to move the ball in and out,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “You can’t just stay in one spot. The big thing is you gotta get ahead. At this level, if you don’t get ahead, hitters turn into animals.”
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