September 21, 2023

The time is now—NL Wild Card Series Preview: Phillies at Cardinals, October 6 – 8


It’s been a long time since Phillies faithful has seen a game past number one-sixty-two. We’ve waited over 1,000 days and over 11 years, and the matchup couldn’t hit home any more.

The Phillies’ playoff drought is over, and it could possibly end the way it started: heartbreak against the birds on the bat. Or, the Phillies could be en route to Atlanta to meet the NL East champion Braves at the end of the weekend. For good or bad, only time will tell.

But as these postseason dreams come to fruition, it’s time to focus on beating the same team, and even some of the same players, that ended one of the best eras in Phillies’ history.

In the highly-anticipated Wild Card game one, the Phillies will send ace Zack Wheeler to the mound to take on take on the 93-win St. Louis Cardinals. With the new Wild Card format, the series will be best out of three, and the winner will take on the NL division winner with the second-best regular-season record.

This will mark the second time these two squads meet at Busch Stadium this season. In the regular season, the Cards came back to split the four-game set after two losses to open the series, but the Phillies won the season series by a mere one game.

Now, both teams are stronger, and both are more hungry.

The Cardinals’ playoff exit will also be the exit for Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols, who both announced that 2022 will be the final season of their careers. Every player, coach, front office employee, and fan associated with the Cardinals has expressed their desire to win one more championship before the two future Hall-of-Famers hang up their cleats. And they only have one shot.

As for the Phillies, the simple feeling of relief has fired them up, as they snapped the longest active playoff drought in the National League. The Phillies have suffered through many managerial changes and many end-of-season collapses. Finally, the team played the right cards and checked off the box that has stayed unfilled for the past eleven seasons—getting back to playing baseball in October.

Assessing the running game

Many things shifted when Rob Thomson took over as manager, but the Phillies’ newfound aggressiveness on the base paths was noticed immediately.

The Phillies’ 105 stolen bases in the regular season ranked second in the National League, and it’s also the second-most swiped bags of any team in the playoffs (The Guardians stole 119 bases). Dusty Wathan has shown that he’s more than willing to take risks at third base. While some of his decisions have cost the Phillies runs, others have won them important games.

Luckily, the Phillies might get some opportunities to steal bags with 40-year-old catcher Yadier Molina behind the dish. Though he is still firing out runners at a rate above league average, the veteran backstop has a lingering knee injury which has increased his pop time.

St. Louis is also known to be speedy on the base paths, but they’ll have to deal with J.T. Realmuto, who’s been the best offensive and defensive catcher in 2022. Realmuto’s pop time is in the one-hundredth percentile, and he has shown improvement in pitch calling and framing as his stint in Philadelphia continues. Realmuto threw out 30 of the 68 runners that attempted to steal a base off him, which was the best caught-stealing percentage in the league.

The influence of defense

Everyone expected the defense to be a problem for the 2022 Phillies, and to many people’s surprise, it has not been bad at all. The Phillies have the fifth-best team fielding percentage in baseball, and a lot of that is thanks to the youngsters.

Brandon Marsh, a defensively-focused player traded to the Phillies at the deadline, locked down centerfield for the majority of August and September. Matt Vierling was serviceable wherever he was put, and the acquisition of Edmundo Sosa further improved the strong defensive options the Phillies had on the bench. Bryson Stott, Jean Segura, and Didi Gregorius (Remember him?) exceeded their expectations in the middle infield, and Alec Bohm had an incredible turnaround after a historically bad start at the hot corner.

The Cardinals, though, are on a different level. They led baseball with a .989 team fielding percentage in the regular season, and they have 8 former Gold Glovers on their 40-man roster.

With a groundball-prone pitcher in Jose Quintana on the mound in game one, the Cardinals will be forced to rely on their defense—especially in the infield—to keep Quintana working efficiently.

Platooning centerfield

On Thursday, Rob Thomson told the media that Matt Vierling would start in centerfield for game one of the three-game Wild Card series in St. Louis. Thomson reasoned this decision based on the Cardinals throwing a left-handed pitcher, and he also considered Vierling’s recent hot streak. He hit .295 against left-handed pitching in the regular season and had a .318/.333/.500 slash line in the final 15 games of 2022. Vierling limited the strikeouts and hit a few balls into the gap for extra-base hits, something he was unable to do consistently throughout the season.

Brandon Marsh didn’t have much success against lefties, as he posted a weak .188 average in 96 at-bats in regular-season matchups against left-handed pitching.

Despite Vierling getting the nod for game one, Marsh is expected to play against Miles Mikolas in the second game of the series on Saturday.

Pitching matchups

Game 1: Zack Wheeler (RHP, 12-7, 2.82 ERA) vs. Jose Quintana (LHP, 6-7, 2.93 ERA)

Game 2: Aaron Nola (RHP, 11-13, 3.25 ERA) vs. Miles Mikolas (RHP, 12-13, 3.29 ERA)

Game 3 (if necessary): Ranger Suarez (LHP, 10-7, 3.65 ERA) vs. TBD

Note that the above statistics are from the 2022 regular season.

The numbers

  • Run Differential:
  • Phillies: 62
  • Cardinals: 135
  • Runs Scored Per Game:
  • Phillies: 4.61
  • Cardinals: 4.77
  • Runs Allowed Per Game:
  • Phillies: 4.23
  • Cardinals: 3.93

Note that the above values are from the 2022 regular season.

Game times and broadcasts

  • Friday, October 7, at 2:07pm ET on ABC, WTTM 1680, 94.1 WIP, ESPN Radio
  • Saturday, October 8, at 8:37pm ET on ESPN2, WTTM 1680, 94.1 WIP, ESPN Radio
  • (If necessary) Sunday, October 9, at 8:37pm ET on ESPN, WTTM 1680, 94.1 WIP, ESPN Radio

Game coverage will be available on Philly Sports Reports’ Twitter page, and a live pregame show will be hosted on Philly Sports Reports’ YouTube channel 37 minutes prior to first pitch of a each Wild Card series game.

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