ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Cardinals moved closer to claiming a spot in the postseason Friday night, blowing out the Washington Nationals 12-2 and reducing their magic number to three to clinch a wild card berth. So, with the playoffs starting in less than a week, it stands to reason that Cards manager Mike Matheny would be figuring out which of his pitchers would start the wild card game against the Atlanta Braves.
But if Matheny is planning ahead, he won't admit it. And if he's leaning toward one pitcher or another — Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia, Chris Carpenter or even Lance Lynn (don't laugh) — he's certainly not saying.
"We're just going to enjoy this one right now," Matheny said coyly.
Of course. To do any differently would violate baseball's sacred "play it one game at a time" covenant. But the Cardinals must be thinking ahead (or they should be) because they might know they're in the playoffs as soon as tomorrow. Plus, it's a tough decision, picking a starting pitcher for the sudden death, sudden victory, winner-take-all, play-in, play-off, play-out, No. 163, wildest wild card, Bud Selig Legacy Game.
"Yeah, what do we call that game?" Wainwright asked.
You call it the end of your season if you mess it up. There's no second chance, no best of three or best of five. It's won, or it's done. So what should the Cardinals do?
Waino would be bueno: Wainwright, eager to get back into the postseason groove after missing the Cardinals' World Series run in 2011 because he was recuperating from Tommy John surgery, would seem suited for it. His next scheduled start comes Wednesday, in the final game of the regular season. But if the Cardinals have clinched the second wild card spot by then, he won't be needed for a meaningless regular-season game. For no reason other than timing, and there are worse reasons, he should start against the Braves.
"I'd more than welcome the opportunity, if we go ahead and clinch this thing soon, to sit back and be ready for whatever game they need me for," Wainwright said. "But what can I do about that except be prepared to pitch whenever they tell me to?"
In a moment of candor, Wainwright expressed relief that his ERA dipped to 3.94. After what he called a "horrible" start to his season, Wainwright has a 3.18 ERA in 16 starts since July 1 (just to pick an endpoint). And his fancy stats — 3.11 Fielding Independent Pitching, 3.24 xFIP and 4.4 fWAR — are better than Lohse's.
"I would think they'd want me to be ready for 163," Wainwright said. "So I'd be ready for that, or the next one."
If there is a next one.
"But I think, as it stands now, Kyle Lohse gets that start. And he's very deserving of it, too."
Rub the Lohse on the skin: Lohse picked a great time for a career season, in a contract year before he hits free agency. His 2.77 ERA is sixth in the major leagues. His 16-3 record just looks great. His 1.62 walk rate per nine innings is impressive. His .258 BABIP seems unsustainable — and yet, here he is, sustaining it after surpassing 200 innings. Lohse has been the Cardinals "ace" this season, so it would not be surprising if Matheny used him to start the first (and possibly only) playoff game. And he pitches Saturday night against the Nationals, so his schedule is practically interchangeable with Carpenter's.
Looks like LaMarr Hoyt to me: A dark horse for the Braves game (baseball gods willing) is Lynn, who has rebounded in recent weeks after cratering midseason around the time he was named to the All-Star team. A funny thing about the Cardinals: They've been horrible against the Braves, winning once in six meetings, and getting very few worthy outings from their pitchers. Lynn is the exception. It's a small sample size to be sure, but there's no smaller sample possible than a one-game playoff. (A one-inning playoff?)
Don't harp for Carp: Carpenter's comeback has been amazing and wonderful, but no, not unless the Cardinals choke away their wild-card lead on the Dodgers in the next few days. Carpenter and Garcia will be needed for the playoffs, though. If.