Everyone Makes Mistakes, but the Phillies Sent Pujols, Molina, and the Cardinals Home

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

On ESPN2’s Phillies-Cardinals broadcast, Michael Kay and Alex Rodriguez — like everyone has at some point this postseason — explained why baseball has become a Three True Outcome-driven sport. You know the gist: Pitchers have become so good it’s hard to string together sequential offense. Better to wait for a mistake and swing like hell when it comes.

For the first time since 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies have won a playoff series, and Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina have taken part in a meaningful professional game for the last time. These things are so because of mistakes: Who made them, which ones went unpunished, and which ones decided a tense 2-0 game.

There were heroic performances: Bryce Harper homered; Alec Bohm built on a great game Friday by reaching base three times, scoring, and robbing Nolan Arenado of extra bases in the fourth; Aaron Nola put to bed for good any doubts about his fortitude with 6 2/3 innings of scoreless baseball. Even in defeat this is true — the quality of Arenado’s contact this weekend merited more than the 1-for-8 he came away with. Miles Mikolas and Jordan Montgomery pitched well enough for St. Louis to win, only for their offense to leave them hanging.

But both teams made enough mistakes to lose this game. The first was ultimately the decisive one, and came on the eighth play of the game.

From September 15 through Game 1, Bryce Harper had appeared in 20 games and gone 14-for-74 with just six unintentional walks and four extra-base hits, three of them doubles. Harper hasn’t played the outfield in six months thanks to a partially torn UCL in his right elbow. (That’s the Tommy John injury.) He missed two more months this season with a broken left thumb. He’s looked like a shell of himself since returning, and when the Phillies’ season is over, he will probably reveal a Bergeronian list of nagging injuries he’s struggled through. But you can’t throw him this:

A 76 mph curveball middle-in, at the part of the thigh where a trendy pair of swim trunks ends. Harper’s ice cold, but he’s not dead.

Even after the Phillies tacked on a second run in the fifth, they had opportunity after opportunity to put the Cardinals to the sword, but they just didn’t. The Cardinals couldn’t scratch out a run off three Phillies pitchers because they were hitting bullets right at infielders, or Paul Goldschmidt kept swinging through fastballs over the heart of the plate. (If Goldschmidt wins the NL MVP award, he will deserve it, but it bears mentioning that he went 0-for-3 on Friday. Then on Saturday he had the highest average leverage of any batter in the game, and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Three of those outs came with runners on base.)

The Phillies, by contrast, didn’t add to their lead because they kept running into outs. In the sixth, Harper dumped a single into short left-center field, and when J.T. Realmuto made a heads-up play to take an extra base, Harper tried to advance on the throw and was beaten to the bag by a body length. Replay showed that Brendan Donovan might have missed the tag, but the call stood. And fair enough — anyone not at least a full grade of speed faster than Harper deserved to be out for taking such a risk. Two batters later, Bohm walked to put runners on the corners with two out.

Then came a particularly unflattering matchup for the Phillies: Montgomery vs. Brandon Marsh. Seeing as how Marsh is near-useless against lefties, the Phillies usually platoon him with Matt Vierling:

2022 Platoon Data, Key Players
wOBA vs. LHB wOBA vs. RHB
Jordan Montgomery .210 .306
wOBA vs. LHP wOBA vs. RHP
Brandon Marsh .217 .319
Matt Vierling .327 .260

But manager Rob Thomson chose to leave Vierling on the bench, perhaps because his team was winning and Marsh is the superior defender. Not only that, the Phillies tried to score Realmuto using the perpetual rundown play, with a left-handed pitcher on the mound, Molina behind the plate, and Bohm — who has many strengths but couldn’t outrun the growing of grass — as the rundown bait. Shockingly, it didn’t work.

An inning later, Marsh hit a leadoff double, and Thomson called for Jean Segura to bunt. This not only gave up an out, it took the bat out of the hands of a superior right-handed hitter with an inferior left-handed hitter (Bryson Stott) on deck. Like Realmuto an inning before, Marsh was left at third.

But these tactical mistakes went uncapitalized-upon, as no St. Louis hitter ever punished Nola for a mistake the way Harper did Mikolas. And manager Oliver Marmol got away with a few of his own: hitting Pujols second in a series where he never saw a left-handed pitcher, and letting Molina (.233 OBP in the regular season) hit not once but three times with runners on base while the Cardinals were trailing in the second half of the game.

The baseball gods were kind enough to allow Pujols to reach in his last two plate appearances, and to grant Molina a two-out, two-strike single off Zach Eflin in the ninth. These hits gave both players the curtain call they deserved, as each was lifted in turn for a pinch runner. (Congratulations to Ben DeLuzio and Dylan Carlson for becoming the answers to trivia questions.)

But they were not kind enough to grant Pujols and Molina a reprieve. The slow-motion disaster of Game 1 never came. The threat of such a calamity always looms large over playoff baseball, but it doesn’t always happen.

All night, the fate of the series seemed to wobble on a knife’s edge. Time and again, the Phillies failed to put St. Louis away, and time and again the Cardinals failed to make them pay for leaving the door open. In a postseason where something unprecedented seems to happen every few innings, Game 2 between the Phillies and Cardinals was no different. But the lack of a decisive blow gave the game a nervy atmosphere in which the historical import of the evening — the end of the road for two likely first-ballot Hall of Famers, obviously, but also a watershed moment for Nola, Harper, and the Phillies as a franchise — never generated the fulsome catharsis it should have.

Instead, the Phillies will be relieved to leave St. Louis with a sweep, and the Cardinals, as much as they’ll begin to feel the absence of two franchise icons, will regret the opportunities they missed.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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lesmashmember
3 months ago

Thank you for the excellent write-up, Michael. I largely watched the Mets-Padres game so I appreciate the insights you provided into how the game was played and the questionable tactics used by both sides.