Cardinals walk a fine line of staying sharp vs. resting players ahead of postseason

Wednesday night’s loss in Milwaukee was the start of seven consecutive games for the St. Louis Cardinals in which the outcomes are of absolutely no consequence.

It’s difficult to say a game doesn’t matter; every game matters for whichever fan is seeing a favorite player in person for the first time, and certainly for players whose numbers help determine their pay. What the Cardinals cannot do, however, is change their lot in playoff life. That die has been cast.

St. Louis will host a best-of-three Wild Card series beginning Friday, Oct. 7, and barring a stunning collapse in San Diego, will match up with either the Philadelphia Phillies or Milwaukee Brewers. None of the last six games of the season — each against the moribund Pirates — can change anything about that, making the primary goal of that stretch simply to be ready for what comes next.

That process, however, is its own challenge. Manager Oliver Marmol visibly bristled when asked if it was fair to compare this stretch to the fine tuning of the final week of spring training.

“No,” he said past a furrowed brow. “We’re still in the regular season, and I hate losing.”

Still, Thursday’s action does provide a sort of skeleton key when it comes to understanding how games may look in the coming days. Aside from the generous provision of rest days in Thursday’s lineup — some observers may use the term “hangover lineup” — Marmol was exceedingly careful with his deployments.

José Quintana threw five strong innings and allowed only one run, but was pulled after a mere 81 pitches. With two runners in scoring position and one out in the top of the seventh, trailing by only one run, Lars Nootbaar was sent to the plate to pinch hit for Paul Goldschmidt, who was told he would receive precisely three plate appearances before calling it a night.

The desire to win is intact, but it’s inarguably tempered by circumstance.

“It’s a really good balance of keeping guys sharp and getting the rest, and you don’t want to lose the edge of winning,” Marmol explained. “There is a balance there. Keeping your edge ... can look a couple of different ways. It’s not this, like, intense deal, but it’s also still paying attention to the small details of the game.”

Some of that maintenance of sharpness will be developed through communication between players and coaches. Quintana shared Wednesday night that he expects to still have one regular season start in the last week; that, in order to keep him available for full usage in Wild Card series, will likely be an abbreviated appearance in Monday’s first game in Pittsburgh, where he started this season and has been openly appreciated as a strong influence on a young pitching staff.

St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, center, stands in the dugout during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 10. With the Cardinals playoff pole position already locked in, Marmol will try to balance keeping players sharp and getting rest while not losing the edge of winning.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, center, stands in the dugout during a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sept. 10. With the Cardinals playoff pole position already locked in, Marmol will try to balance keeping players sharp and getting rest while not losing the edge of winning.

More from Marmol

Miles Mikolas, after Tuesday’s clincher, is two outs shy of recording 200 innings pitched on the season. When a reporter raised this with Marmol, he laughed and promised, “he’ll get his two outs.” Those, it seems likely, could come in the same game in which Quintana will get his final tune up.

Some attempts at seeing sharpness, though, will be manufactured. Wednesday’s at bat for Nootbaar did not at first seem like an obvious attempt to get Goldschmidt off his feet. Rather, it was reminiscent of a strategy the manager described earlier that afternoon as the team’s braintrust makes final determinations on roles and roster spots for the postseason.

“I’d like to see certain guys in different situations that they haven’t tended to be in based on the way they’ve been used,” Marmol said, offering an example of deploying arms in the bullpen that may ordinarily be used to chase or hold deficits instead in spots to maintain leads.

He agreed younger players who would likely receive platoon postseason at bats — such as Alec Burleson or Juan Yepez — might see higher leverage pinch hit spots to simulate as best as possible the pressure of the playoffs, and what could happen if they’re forced into at bats without a distinct handedness advantage.

Don’t miss on the small details

Certainty of the schedule provides an opportunity to address uncertainty down the stretch, and can help guarantee each player is as stress tested as reasonably possible.

“Will certain lineups look different? Are we going to rest guys? Will outings look shorter? Will we use our (bullpen) a little differently? Yes to all of those, but you still don’t miss on the small details of the game.”

This weekend’s final series at Busch Stadium will be much more about big picture than small details, as the final regular season home series for Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols provides an opportunity for fans to appreciate greats of the game for, perhaps, the last time.

From the dugout, with an acknowledgment of that past, the work being done will instead be based in the present. Or, at least, the immediate future — guaranteed to be coming soon.