Clearly, whether to pull Flaherty before he threw a single pitch was not a decision the Cardinals had planned for in advance. But they also could not have imagined that by that point, Flaherty already would have batted, drawn a walk and scored a run — the ninth of the 10 runs the Cardinals would score against the Atlanta Braves in a stunning, dizzying, this-can’t-be-happening eruption in the first at Atlanta’s SunTrust Park.
So, seriously: After being gifted the biggest first-inning cushion in the history of baseball’s postseason, why not go ahead and yank Flaherty on the spot, saving him for Game 1 of the NL Championship Series against the Washington Nationals on Friday?
Sure, it would have been an unconventional move. But as we have seen at length this month, with bold move after bold move in the ever-evolving deployment of pitching in the postseason, these are unconventional times.
And the circumstances of Wednesday’s first inning — well, they were nothing if not unconventional.
By the time the Cardinals’ half of the first was over, 26 minutes after it had begun, they had sent 14 batters to the plate, laced five hits (all of them with runners in scoring position), sent Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz to the showers having retired only one batter and plated a staggering 10 runs — the most first-inning runs by any team in postseason history. And somehow, in the Year of the Homer, the Cardinals’ 10-spot came without benefit of a single round-tripper.
From there, it was only a matter of how lopsided the final score would be, and it turned out to be 13-1. The NL Central champion Cardinals are thus back in the NLCS for the first time since 2014, when they lost in five games to the San Francisco Giants, while the Braves, champions of the NL East, saw their season end in the division series for the second straight season and the eighth time since they last won a postseason series in 2001.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Cardinals’ 10-run first inning was the fact it began with them playing for one run — a tacit show of confidence in Flaherty’s ability to shut down the Braves. After leadoff man Dexter Fowler drew a walk off Foltynewicz, Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt called for a sacrifice bunt — an old-school move nearing extinction in the era of analytics and home run supremacy.
As the next nine Cardinals batters circled the bases against Foltynewicz and emergency reliever Max Fried, the only out the Braves had recorded was that one the Cardinals had gifted them.
As exhilarating and cathartic as the inning was for the Cardinals, it was just as deflating and humiliating for the Braves. They walked four batters in the inning, including the pitcher. Gold Glove-winning first baseman Freddie Freeman made an error. And in perhaps the ugliest moment of an ugly inning, catcher Brian McCann allowed a third strike to get away from him, then slipped trying to recover and fell on his rear end — allowing Marcell Ozuna to reach first base and extend the inning, with the Cardinals’ 10th run crossing the plate.
The benefit to the Cardinals of pulling Flaherty on the spot was obvious: It could have saved him for Game 1 of the NLCS, thus giving them the upper hand in that series against the Nationals, who had to use their best pitchers just to survive and advance.
The drawbacks were subtler and not as clear-cut. For beginners, Flaherty already had gone through his full pre-start warmup, with its meticulous program of stretching and loosening, plus an extensive bullpen session. Because this is not a scenario often encountered, we can assume no one knows exactly what sort of toll that warmup alone, and the subsequent cooldown, would have placed on Flaherty’s arm. Would it be safe for him to do it again in two days?
Also, the Braves, though understandably demoralized at that moment, did score the third-most runs in the NL this season — including 19 games in which they scored at least 10 — and the Cardinals, despite having one of the best bullpens in the league, clearly wanted to take no chances. Pulling Flaherty would have required an extensive and taxing deployment of relievers for nine full innings — although the Cardinals would have had the option of adding a couple of fresher arms for the NLCS.
But more than that, Flaherty is a mere 23 years old — not an age when teams typically take chances with their aces’ health. Whether he started Game 1, Game 2 or Game 3, he was likely to pitch only twice in the NLCS — because no matter which game he got, any more than that would require him to pitch on short rest. Saving Flaherty for Game 3 — which he will pitch on full rest — means that, as long as the Cardinals stay on rotation, he also would get the ball in a potential Game 7, also on full rest.
And so the Cardinals went ahead and sent Flaherty out there. It wasn’t the wrong move.
Few things are guaranteed in baseball these days, with the home run explosion being what it is, and few leads are truly safe — but Jack Flaherty with a 10-run lead is a pretty good bet. So maybe the Cardinals would let him pitch a couple of low-stress innings, pat him on the back and let him get an early start on the champagne that was sitting on ice in their clubhouse?
Not quite. Flaherty pitched the first. He pitched the second, now with an 11-0 lead. He pitched the third, up 13-0. In the fifth, he loaded the bases with two outs — drilling Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. with a fastball in the back and touching off a tense staredown — before getting Freeman to ground into a forceout to end the inning.
Surely that would spell the end of Flaherty’s night, with his pitch count sitting at 94? Um, no. After a brief discussion in the Cardinals’ dugout, Flaherty was allowed to hit for himself — inviting retaliation for the Acuña plunking, which, thankfully, the Braves passed on — and pitch the sixth.
In the end, given the unexpected gift of a blowout win that afforded them the luxury of looking ahead to the NLCS a few hours early, the Cardinals chose saving their bullpen over saving Flaherty. The logic was sound, as far as it went. But when Flaherty was finally lifted after the sixth, he had thrown 104 pitches — slightly more than his season average of 96.3.
Even if the Cardinals didn’t need to save Flaherty for Game 1 of the NLCS, did they really need to empty his tank in what was, by the end, a 12-run game? Perhaps the answer will come the next time he’s on a mound, five days down the road.