Padres’ Pen Shuts Out Cardinals, Wins First Playoff Series Since 1998

The 0-0 score in the middle of the fifth inning in Friday’s decisive Wild Card series Game 3 between the Padres and Cardinals was, technically speaking, accurate. It was true that neither team had tallied a run to that point in the contest. But the thing about scores is that they hide things, details that influence the way a fan actually feels while watching the game. In this case, the score conveyed a tie — a situation in which neither team had yet gained the upper hand. It probably would have been difficult to find a Padres fan who agreed, however. St. Louis had their ace on the mound going strong, and had yet to even warm up a second pitcher. San Diego, meanwhile, had already used up five pitchers in the game. Even without allowing a run, it felt the team was playing from behind. It had been that way ever since they lost their two best starters the final weekend of the regular season, and when they lost Game 1 of the series, and when they literally named Craig Stammen their starter in a win-or-go-home playoff game.

I’m not sure when it is that feeling went away. Maybe it was when the Padres scored their first run in the bottom of the fifth, or when they added two more in a seventh inning full of defensive miscues from St. Louis. Maybe it wasn’t until the end of the game that it finally set in that the Padres had accomplished something stunning — a 4-0 win carried out by nine bullpen pitchers that advanced the team to an NLDS standoff with the rival Los Angeles Dodgers next week. It is the most pitchers ever used in a shutout during the live-ball era, and the first playoff series win for San Diego in 22 years.

It was the second-straight day the Padres used nine pitchers, after doing so in the team’s 11-9 victory in Game 2 on Thursday. The day before that, the team had used eight pitchers. In both of those games, however, the conga line marching in from the bullpen was the result of starting pitchers who allowed the game to slip away from them early. In Game 1, Chris Paddack only made it 2.1 innings before allowing six runs on eight hits. In Game 2, Zach Davies went just two innings and allowed four runs on five hits. With Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger already ruled out of the series because of injuries suffered last weekend, the Padres’ options for Game 3 were limited. It wasn’t until just a few hours before first pitch that the team announced Stammen — who last started a game in 2010, and held a 5.63 ERA in 24 innings this season — would get the ball in the first inning.

But Stammen got the first five outs of the game while allowing just a single hit, and each arm that followed simply continued to put up zeroes. Padres pitchers allowed just four hits and three walks, striking out eight and enjoying stellar defensive work from the infield behind them.

The exhausted Padres bullpen somehow outperformed Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty, despite the ace delivering precisely the kind of game his team needed. He allowed just one run on six hits and two walks and struck out eight in his six innings of work, dancing out of trouble multiple times thanks largely to his always-excellent slider. He threw 33 of them out of 110 pitches, and of the 14 swings taken against it by Padres hitters, nine of them missed.

Unfortunately for Flaherty, when he did allow contact, the ball was too often hit squarely. Seven of the 16 balls put in play against him were hit 95 mph or harder, a startling number for someone who fell in the 79th percentile in hard hit rate allowed this season, according to Statcast. Despite that, Flaherty was still able to hold the Padres in check. He stranded the bases loaded in the second, and stranded two more runners in the fourth.

In the fifth, however, he finally got burned. Fernando Tatis Jr. — the hero of Game 2 with two homers — doubled down the third base line with one out, and scored two batters later when Eric Hosmer smacked another double to left center.

St. Louis attempted to counter in the top of the sixth when Yadier Molina ripped a double with one out and Matt Carpenter worked a walk, but a long fly out to center by Dexter Fowler ended the threat.

With another zero posted in the seventh, Alex Reyes was called upon to keep the deficit where it was, and on a normal day for the typically impeccable Cardinals defense, he may have. After a single by Jake Cronenworth began the inning, Reyes got Trent Grisham to hit a groundball to second baseman Kolten Wong. Having to move quickly, however, Wong misfired his throw to the second base bag. Cronenworth and Grisham advanced to second and third, after which Tatis was intentionally walked to set up a bases-loaded, no-out situation for Manny Machado.

That’s when the Cardinals committed their second miscue of the inning. Machado hit a high chopper to Tommy Edman right in front of the third base bag, giving Edman a chance at two plays — he could turn and step on the bag behind him to get a force out, or make a clean throw home to get the force at the plate. On another day, perhaps he’s able to do both. This time, he did neither.

Now four batters into the inning with nobody out, Reyes did his best to not let things get out of control. He issued a bases-loaded walk to Hosmer to force home a second run, but then got Tommy Pham to hit a grounder to Wong, who this time made a clean throw to home plate to start a 4-2-6 double play. A strikeout of Moreland ended the inning with the game still in reach, so long as the Cardinals bats could get something going.

But they never did. Drew Pomeranz worked a scoreless eighth inning, punctuated with a dazzling diving stop by Tatis behind second base. In the bottom half, Cronenworth launched a homer to center that served as the final blow of the game, before Trevor Rosenthal struck out the side in order in the ninth.

For the Cardinals, the loss ends a season that managed to be both short and grueling. A COVID-19 outbreak kept the club out of games from July 30 through August 14, after which it played 23 games over the next 19 days without any days off. In total, they played their final 53 games in a span of just 44 days, yet somehow managed to avoid any major slumps over that span. The lowest their playoff odds dropped after returning was 48% on August 29, meaning they were never really any worse than a toss-up in terms of their chances of making the postseason. It took until the final day of the regular season for them to clinch a spot, but unlike two of their fellow playoff contenders in the NL Central, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, they were always a significant factor in the playoff picture.

The Padres, meanwhile, have lived to see another day, and will spend the time between now and Tuesday hoping for reinforcements to arrive before they take on the top-seeded Dodgers. So far, the status of Lamet and Clevinger sounds similar to what it did before the Wild Card Series — both have been active in throwing, giving reason for hope on the team, but neither has been given a formal all-clear:

It can’t be overstated how much the return of both would mean for San Diego. As inspiring as the bullpen’s performance was on Friday, asking for that many pitchers to come through at once is an incredibly dangerous game to play. Things only get more difficult in the NLDS, during which there will be as many as five consecutive games with no days off instead of three, and instead of having to face the Cardinals — who had baseball’s 19th-best wRC+ this year — they’ll be facing the Dodgers, who had the major’s best wRC+. Clevinger didn’t face Los Angeles this season, but Lamet did twice, throwing a total of 12.2 innings and allowing just three runs on five hits, four walks and 13 strikeouts. The Dodgers won six of the teams’ 10 matchups this season.

Regardless of whether San Diego has two ace-level pitchers returning to the rotation or they’re holding seances in the clubhouse to conjure the ghost of 2007 Jake Peavy, it’s an impressive feat by the team that we’ll even get to have that conversation. Take your pick of things that could have squashed this team — losing the two most important pitchers on the staff less than a week before the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 14 years; a Game 1 loss in which a first-time manager ate through nearly his entire bullpen and the 21-year-old face of the franchise left three runners in scoring position with two outs; a 4-0 deficit in Game 2, or actually, really starting Craig Stammen on the mound in Game 3. If none of that doomed the Padres, the Dodgers might have quite a challenge ahead of them.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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1 year ago

Thank you, Tony, for a great writeup. As a playoff-starved Padres fan, I am extremely grateful for how the team resourcefully pulled out Game 3 vs. the Cardinals. It’s going to be extremely difficult to get past the Dodgers, and I wonder who will take the mound for the Padres.

1 year ago
Reply to  Hoplarsko

As a Cards’ fan I was bummed by the outcome, but I have to admit the Padres winning was objectively better for baseball. They’re a younger, more exciting team that hasn’t been in the winner’s circle as often. Good luck in the next round(s)!