If recent days were any indication, whatever decision Cardinals manager Mike Shildt came to regarding Sunday's starter would be the wrong one.
After the Cards swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field last weekend it seemed a matter of when, not if, the team would celebrate its first National League Central title since 2015. But the club went to Arizona and lost two of three to the Diamondbacks, and after losing the first two games of the regular season's final series against the same Cubs, this time in St. Louis, the Cardinals were faced with the very real prospect of being caught by the Brewers on the season's final day.
The Cardinals needed a win or a Brewers loss Sunday to ensure there wouldn't be a tiebreaker played Monday at Busch Stadium. So Shildt was faced with a choice: use de facto ace Jack Flaherty on Sunday in hopes of avoiding the tiebreaker and Wild Card Game scenarios, or hold the 23-year-old for a game that had bigger implications for the team's near future.
Shildt chose to throw Flaherty with an eye on popping bottles in the team's clubhouse Sunday afternoon, and as he's done the entire second half Flaherty delivered with a gem to send the Cardinals to a division title. The right-hander tossed seven scoreless innings, striking out six while allowing just two hits, and the Cards rolled to a 9-0 victory that ensured their date with the Braves in the NLDS beginning Thursday.
“He deserved that,” Cardinals veteran starter Adam Wainwright said of the ovation and curtain call Flaherty received after being removed Sunday. “We’re not celebrating right now if Jack doesn’t do what he did in the second half.”
It was a half that was historic in ways, with Flaherty's 0.91 ERA after the All-Star break ranking as the third-best in MLB history. He also carried a 0.71 WHIP in the second half, allowing more than one run just three times in 15 starts after the break.
The Cards now look ahead to the Braves, who will host the first two games of the NLDS after running away with the NL East. Game 1 will be Thursday with Game 2 to follow Friday -- as of now, a potential matchup between Flaherty and Rookie of the Year candidate Mike Soroka -- and the teams will travel to St. Louis for Game 3 on Sunday.
Maddon, Hurdle Cut Loose By Clubs
While the top of the NL Central jockeyed for postseason positioning, the bottom saw changes come for two veteran managers.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon and Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle both managed their last game for their respective clubs Sunday. Maddon and the Cubs parted ways after his contract was not renewed, while Hurdle was let go despite having two more years on his current deal.
Maddon's departure was the higher profile, and more expected, move of the two after he helmed the organization's first World Series-winning club in 108 years in 2016. Three years later, Maddon said "it's just time" of the decision to part ways.
"He's in a great position and I so look forward to his next chapter,” Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said before Sunday's game. “And it's going to be good for the Cubs, too. I think we're at a point where we just need a little bit of change and something new and that's natural. That's the natural way of things. Change, if you embrace it the right way, is good for all of us."
Hurdle's Pirates tenure was longer than Maddon's with the Cubs, but it featured fewer successes. In his nine seasons dating back to 2011, Hurdle guided the Bucs to the postseason three times, from 2013 to 2015, and the team never won the Central division under his leadership. He finished 735-720 in nine seasons as the Pirates' manager.
“We felt like this was a time to have a new voice, to have new leadership in that clubhouse,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said during a press conference at PNC Park. “When you compare it to where we were before him, his tenure here should be celebrated. We didn’t get deep enough. We didn’t win a World Series. But we got back to the postseason.”
Hurdle can hardly be blamed for all the Pirates' shortcomings, often hamstrung by a roster crafted with a mid-market budget and with some questionable moves made by the front office. Maddon was given more resources but also faced higher expectations.
It will be interesting to see where each team -- and even where Maddon and Hurdle -- goes from here.
National League Quick Hits: Josh Donaldson sat Sunday due to a bruised hip. Donaldson has a big welt just above his left hip after getting hit by a stray Steven Matz slider on Saturday night. It's not a serious issue and he should be fine for Game 1 of the NLDS. Adeiny Hechavarria started at third base and batted fifth in Sunday's regular-season finale against the Mets, swatting a pair of homers in doing his best Donaldson impression ... speaking of impressions, Dominic Smith did a great Pete Alonso impersonation when he hit a walk-off, three-run home run Sunday to lead the Mets to a 7-6 win over the Braves. Smith was only activated from the injured list earlier this week and didn't start Sunday's game, but he came on to replace Pete Alonso and lined a two-out Grant Dayton pitch over the wall in right field in the 11th inning to send the Mets fans home happy. It was also a nice way for Smith to go into the offseason after he missed two months due to a stress reaction in his right foot. In 90 games on the field, the 24-year-old hit .282/.355/.525 with 11 homers to re-establish some value as a major league entity. It'll be interesting to see if he draws any interest -- and if the Mets are interested in listening to it -- this winter. ... Kolten Wong (hamstring) said he was available if needed on Sunday against the Cubs. Wong hasn't appeared in a game since September 19 due to a Grade 2 hamstring strain, and while he didn't get into Sunday's rout, it sounds like he'll be good to go for the playoffs ... Lorenzo Cain (ankle) was not in the Brewers' starting lineup Sunday against the Rockies. Cain suffered a sprained ankle in a collision with Rockies catcher Tony Wolters on Saturday night. He's considered day-to-day but will surely try his hardest to give it a go for Tuesday's Wild Card Game matchup with the Nationals ... Brad Miller went 4-for-5 with a pair of home runs and three RBI in the Phillies’ loss to the Marlins on Sunday. Miller took Marlins’ starter Sandy Alcantara deep with two outs in the third inning and also belted a two-run dinger off lefty reliever Brian Moran in the seventh inning. It was his third multi-homer effort of the year. All three of those performances have occurred since September 21. The versatile 29-year-old utility man finishes the year hitting .260/.329/.565 with 26 runs scored, 13 homers, 25 RBI and two stolen bases in 170 plate appearances between Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
American League Quick Hits: Buster Olney of ESPN reports that Brad Ausmus is in jeopardy of losing his job as Angels' manager after only one season at the helm. Olney reports that his status is currently under consideration by the team's leadership and that it seems more likely than not that the Angels will choose to go in a different direction. In their first season under Ausmus, the Angels finished a disappointing 72-90, good for fourth place in the American League West -- 35 games behind the Astros ... an MRI taken Sunday on Luis Arraez's right ankle revealed a Grade 1 sprain. Arraez suffered the injury in a collision with teammate Willians Astudillo on Saturday. It's unclear whether he will be available for the Twins in the American League Division Series. He finishes the 2019 regular season with an impressive .334/.399/.439 batting line in 366 plate appearances ... Jorge Soler clobbered his American League-leading 48th home run in the Royals’ victory over the Twins on Sunday. Soler launched a towering solo homer to left field off Twins' starter Martin Perez in the opening frame. It was his lone hit in four at-bats on the afternoon. The 27-year-old slugger put together a surreal breakout campaign, hitting .265/.354/.569 with 95 runs scored, 48 homers, 117 RBI and three stolen bases in 679 plate appearances. His 48 homers is also a record for a Cuban-born player, another feather in his cap from what was a devastating year offensively ... Rays activated INF Yandy Diaz from the 60-day injured list. Diaz is finally recovered from a fracture in his left foot and was available for the Rays' regular-season finale on Sunday along with the American League Wild Card Game on Wednesday. He has produced a strong .823 OPS with 14 home runs in 78 games this season when healthy ... Gerrit Cole punched out 10 batters and allowed one run through five innings to snare his 20th win of the season against the Angels on Sunday. His performance may have sewn up the Cy Young Award. He surrendered just four hits and two walks. The only run came on a solo homer by Matt Thaiss. Cole struck out 10 or more batters for the ninth consecutive game, which is a major league record. The victory gave him 20 for the season and was his 16th in a row, which is an Astros franchise record. Cole struck out 326 batters this season, which is the most in the majors since Randy Johnson struck out 334 in 2002. Cole ends the season at 20-5 with an American League leading 2.50 ERA. His WHIP was 0.89, which was second only to Justin Verlander's 0.80 WHIP. He registered an outstanding 326:48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 212 1/3 innings ... George Springer went 4-for-4 with a home run, two RBI and three runs scored in an 8-5 victory over the Angels on Sunday. He popped a solo tater against Dillon Peters in the second inning, then laced an RBI-double in the fourth. He also singled twice. Springer missed 40 games due to injury this year but hit at an elite level when able to play. He slashed .292/.383/.591 with 39 home runs, 96 RBI and 96 runs scored in 556 plate appearances. He stole six bases in eight tries ... Lance Lynn punched out 10 and allowed only one run through 7 1/3 innings of work to earn a win over the Yankees on Sunday. He breezed through the powerful Yankee lineup with relative ease throughout the ballgame. The only mistake he made was turned into a solo home run by Aaron Judge in the third inning. Lynn yielded just two base hits and one walk in the gem outing. His record climbs to 16-11 with a 3.67 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 33 starts. His first season in Texas was a big success ... Matt Thaiss went 3-for-4 and launched two bombs while driving in four runs during Sunday's loss to the Astros. He smoked a solo shot against ace Gerrit Cole in the third inning and a two-run jack against Brad Peacock in the sixth. Thaiss put the cherry on the sundae by lacing an RBI-double that plated Andrelton Simmons in the eighth. The big game on the last day of the season boosted Thaiss' batting average over the Mendoza line. The rookie third baseman showed signs of talent in his first taste of the big leagues but he will need to make some adjustments in the offseason. He ends the campaign as the not-so-proud owner of a .211/.293/.422 slash line with eight home runs and 23 RBI in 53 games.