In the St. Louis Cardinals’ two losses thus far in the National League Division Series, they have scored just four total runs. The Pittsburgh Pirates have effectively shut them down since the third inning of Game 1.

Of course, the Cardinals scored seven runs in that third inning. They got a three-run home run, a bases-loaded walk and a two-run single worsened by a Pirates error, leading to a third run on the play. That frame alone saw eight St. Louis plate appearances with runners in scoring position, and they went 2-for-5 with two walks and a hit batsman.

Around that, the Cardinals had four other at-bats with runners in scoring position in the game. They went 0-for-4. Then they went 0-for-5 in those situations on Friday, and 1-for-6 with a walk and a hit batsman on Sunday. That three-run Carlos Beltran homer remains their only extra-base hit with men on during the series.

I mention all of this, because I seem to be the last person alive who doesn’t see the Cardinals’ huge numbers this season with runners in scoring position as a legitimate skill. I’m not even thrilled about it as a conversation point, but I figure it needs to be examined.

What the Cardinals are good at, or so it seems to me, is keeping their approach professional, not getting themselves out and avoiding overeagerness, in the face of an opposing pitcher in trouble. You’ve heard, no doubt, about the hot-hand theory in basketball. A shooter who hits a few shots in a row is actually likely to be below average over his next several shots, because he will overexpect success and start shooting willy-nilly.

So it can often be with batters. When they smell blood in the water, many hitters become frenzied. They swing either too hard or too often, or (if theirs is one of several teams throughout the league who rightly prize patience at the plate and working up an opponent’s pitch total) taking too many pitches, seeking a walk. I don’t think the fact that both phenomena seem to happen means that we imagine either one. I think teams genuinely fall into bad habits when opposing pitchers start to have trouble, and bail them out with unwarranted changes in mentality or execution.

The Cardinals don’t do that. If an opponent falters, they just keep doing what they do. They take some pitches, but are generally aggressive. Yet, they’re not at all an offense predicated upon power, so they don’t swing from the heels. The Cardinals were able to knock out A.J. Burnett, and have been good at tagging even solid pitchers with crooked single-inning numbers all season, because they don’t fluctuate along with a pitcher whose performance level fluctuates. They just hit them, solidly and steadily, until the pitcher either figures things out and corrects or is removed from the action.

Maybe you can call that a runners-on-base skill. I don’t see it that way. I think that runners are more likely to reach scoring position if a pitcher is already starting to crack, and the Cardinals are a team that simply (excuse a tired cliche, because this time, it’s literally true) takes everything the other guy gives them. They don’t convert every opportunity; they just pick off the weakest in the herd and tear them apart. 

Pitchers on top of their game can attack the Cardinals without fear, even if a runner finds his way to second base. The ones who find themselves on tilt would serve their team best by feigning injury, and the sooner the better.

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