Why the Cardinals Are Better Off Without Matt Holliday in NLCS Game 7

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 22, 2012

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 19:  Matt Holliday #7 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after striking out in the third inning against the San Francisco Giants in Game Five of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on October 19, 2012 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals have many good hitters, but Matt Holliday was their very best during the regular season. He led all Cardinals regulars with an .877 OPS, and he also led the club's regulars in newfangled sabermetric statistics like wOBA and wRC+, according to FanGraphs.

If he had his druthers, Cards manager Mike Matheny would no doubt prefer to have Holliday in his lineup every single night. He's by no means the most consistent hitter on the planet, but he's a guy who can have a major impact when he's swinging the bat well.

Such is life when one has tree trunks for arms. Or so I'm told.

Matheny will surely be disappointed, then, if he has to keep Holliday out of his starting nine for Game 7 of the NLCS—which, weather permitting, will kick off at 8 p.m. ET at AT&T Park on Monday night.

And right now, it's looking likely that Holliday will indeed have to miss Game 7.

Holliday was a late scratch for Game 6 after his back tightened up on him during batting practice. His status for Game 7 is still up in the air for the moment, but Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com said on Twitter on Sunday night that things aren't looking so good for St. Louis' burly left fielder:

Mike Matheny said Holliday's back tightened up more as the game progressed on Sunday. Not sure that bodes well for a Game 7 return.

— Jenifer Langosch (@LangoschMLB) October 22, 2012

Back tightness was a problem for Holliday throughout the regular season, and Matheny said before first pitch on Sunday night that Holliday's latest bout with back stiffness didn't exactly come out of nowhere.

"It's been bothering him for a while," Matheny said, via MLB.com.

If this is true, then it seems doubtful that Holliday will be able to go in Game 7 against Giants ace Matt Cain, whom Holliday has decent career numbers against.

UPDATE: Monday, Oct. 22 at 4:05 p.m. ET

Surprise, surprise. According to CBSSports.com, Holliday is in the Cardinals' lineup for Game 7 after all:

Matt Holliday will be in Cardinal lineup and batting 3rd tonight in Game 7.

— Eye on Baseball (@EyeOnBaseball) October 22, 2012

It's worth nothing that Holliday was a late scratch for Game 6, so there's still a chance that a change could be made before first pitch. For now, it seems he's going to give it a go.

[End of update]

If so, well, that's actually not such a bad thing. There's really no time like the present for the Cardinals to play a decisive Game 7 without their slugging left fielder.

Holliday's presence is expendable in this very special case because his production during the postseason has been fleeting. After homering in the National League Wild Card game against the Atlanta Braves, Holliday has collected only one extra-base hit in 10 games since.

All told, Holliday hit .190/.292/.238 in the NLDS against the Washington Nationals, and he's hitting .190/.190/.190 so far in the NLCS. There's nice symmetry to those numbers, but that's about the only compliment that can be made of them.

The last time we saw Holliday at the plate was in Game 5 at Busch Stadium, and he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. He had struck out three times in a game only three times all season before that.

Given how sharply Holliday's production has declined, you have to think that Matheny's insistence that Holliday's back problems are not a new thing has some merit. If Holliday has indeed been less than 100 percent healthy this whole time, that would actually explain a lot. 

And indeed, Holliday hasn't just been a liability at the plate against the Giants. Holliday isn't a great fielder to begin with, and it showed when he made a crucial error in Game 2 that allowed Marco Scutaro to clear the bases with what should have been a mere two-run single. That play put the Cardinals in a 5-1 hole, and the Giants went on to win easily by the final of 7-1.

If Holliday's back keeps him from playing in Game 7, it's a given that Matt Carpenter will find his way into the lineup again, most likely at first base and batting second in the order.

At this juncture, any excuse Matheny has to get Carpenter into the lineup at this point is a good excuse. Carpenter has collected a hit in each of the three games he's appeared in to this point in the NLCS, one of which was a huge home run off Cain in Game 3 that swung the momentum of the series back in favor of the Cardinals after their loss in Game 2.

Having Cain's number is nothing new for Carpenter. He was 4-for-4 against Cain in his career before the postseason, and he went 1-for-2 against him in Game 3 after coming on in relief of Carlos Beltran in the second inning.

While it's true that Carpenter is no Gold Glover at first base, neither is Allen Craig. If anything, Craig may actually be a better left fielder than he is a first baseman. The advanced defensive metrics, which you can glimpse over at FanGraphs, say so, anyway.

Anything Matheny can do to shake up his defense at this point is worth trying. Defense cost the Cardinals dearly in Game 2, and it ended up costing them dearly in Game 5 and Game 6 of the series as well.

These, of course, would be the only games in the series that the Giants have actually managed to win. The indication there is that if the Cardinals find a way to tighten up their defense in Game 7, they'll win handily.

Granted, improving the Cardinals' defense won't be a simple matter of Matheny putting Carpenter at first and stashing Craig out in left field. This didn't work in Game 6, after all, as the Cardinals coughed up three unearned runs even despite their new defensive alignment.

For that matter, slotting Carpenter into the No. 2 hole with Beltran moving down to No. 3 may not wake up an offense that has gone into a deep slumber in the last two games of the series. That's how Matheny played things in Game 6, and the Cardinals managed only one run on five hits.

Still, Carpenter does seem to have some sort of magic touch whenever he plays. Dating back to the regular season, the Cardinals are 13-5 in the last 18 games in which Carpenter has appeared. That includes a 6-3 record in the nine games he's appeared in since the postseason got underway.

Maybe it's the beard?

Whatever it is, the Cardinals really can't lose if Carpenter makes it into Matheny's Game 7 lineup over a wounded Holliday. At the very least, they won't be missing anything with Holliday on the bench given how poorly he's swung the bat in the postseason.

With Carpenter in the lineup in his stead, the Cardinals stand to capitalize on his strong track record against Cain and the weird rabbit's foot effect he has on the team in general.

If Carpenter were to come through and lead the Cardinals to a victory in Game 7 with Holliday on the bench, it would simply make too much sense. If it can be Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma doing the honors in Game 5 of the NLDS, why the heck can't it be Carpenter doing the honors in Game 7 of the NLCS?

Here's hoping Mother Nature lets us find out on Monday night.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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