Dylan Carlson Joins Rich Company In Standout Postseason Debut

Image credit: Dylan Carlson (Rob Leiter/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO—When the Cardinals sent Dylan Carlson down to the alternate site camp in early September, they described the move as a “reset.”

Carlson, the Cardinals No. 1 prospect, hit .165/.215/.243 in his first taste of the majors. He was forced up after the Cardinals’ COVID-19 outbreak wiped out their outfield and struggled against a steady diet of breaking balls and offspeed pitches. He went 1-for-18 in his final six games before being demoted, getting away from his patented patient approach as his struggles mounted.

Clearly, the reset worked. Carlson hit .278/.325/.611 after he returned to the Cardinals to finish out the regular season. On Wednesday, he continued with a historic performance in his postseason debut.

Carlson reached base four times out of the cleanup spot, and the Cardinals beat the Padres, 7-4, in Game 1 of the National League Wild Card Series. The 21-year-old switch-hitter finished 2-for-3 with a double, two walks, two runs scored and a stolen base, and made a diving catch in left field for good measure.

“I’m just trusting myself playing the game,” Carlson said. “First time around there was a lot going on, a lot of different voices. The big thing for me was to be myself and play my game, so that was a big focus. “

Carlson, the No. 7 prospect on the BA Top 100, joined Albert Pujols and Stan Musial as the only Cardinals players to bat cleanup at age 21 or younger in a playoff game. He did his predecessors proud.

Carlson doubled and scored to help facilitate a four-run first inning, singled and scored in the third inning and walked in each of his next two plate appearances. Per Major League Baseball, he is the youngest of the 15 players in MLB history to have two hits, two runs, two walks and a stolen base in his postseason debut.

“He doesn’t get fazed by anything,” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “He was a very even-keeled guy in spring training at 19, 20 years old. I remember seeing the same thing then, too.”

The fact the Cardinals put Carlson in the cleanup spot alone was notable. He hit cleanup only once in 35 games during the regular season, although it did come on the critical final day of the season. Most often he was at the bottom of the lineup, batting eighth or ninth in the order 12 times each.

But with the Cardinals offense struggling—they hit just .218 even as they went 8-4 over their final 12 games to get into the playoffs—manager Mike Shildt entrusted the rookie to hit behind Goldschmidt and in front of franchise icons Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter in their postseason opener.

“Just the fact that he’s been taking good at-bats and his demeanor is not one that’s going to make it any bigger than it is,” Shildt said. “He’s a pretty even-keeled guy. Not to say he doesn’t have emotions, that’s what makes us human. But both sides of the plate, takes a good at-bat, (and he’s) hard to game plan for if you’re going to go to the bullpen. It’s about lining up our consistent at-bats in order and Dylan has been doing that and displayed that today.”

Carlson played a central role the Cardinals’ seven-run, 13-hit performance, both well above the team’s season averages of four runs and seven hits per game. 

After Goldschmidt opened the scoring in the top of the first with a two-run homer off Chris Paddack on the sixth pitch of the game, Carlson followed with a double down the left-field line to keep the Cardinals offense rolling. He came around to score one pitch later on Molina’s single as the Cardinals jumped on Paddack for four runs in his first 14 pitches.

After the Padres halved the deficit to 4-2, Carlson got the Cardinals offense going again with a one-out single in the third. Back-to-back hits by Molina and Paul DeJong brought him home and sent Paddack from the game, extending the Cardinals lead and forcing the Padres to go to their bullpen after just 2.1 innings.

Carlson walked and stole a base in the fourth and drew another walk with two outs in the sixth. He capped his performance with a diving catch in left field to rob Manny Machado of a hit to lead off the seventh.

“I was just super excited to be out there, honestly,” Carlson said. “Once we got out there I was ready to go.”

The Cardinals tagged Paddack for eight hits and six runs in 2.1 innings and never trailed, but the Padres didn’t go quietly. Starter Kwang-Hyun Kim, the Cardinals No. 10 prospect entering the season, lasted just 3.2 innings and gave up five hits and three runs. The Padres chipped away at the lead and brought either the tying or go-ahead run to the plate in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.

Each time, the Cardinals bullpen delivered. Ryan Helsley, the Cardinals No. 5 prospect entering the year, followed Kim and stopped the bleeding with 1.1 innings and no earned runs allowed. Giovanny Gallegos, a Cardinals Top 30 prospect last year before graduating, entered in the sixth and struck out Fernando Tatis Jr. as the go-ahead run at the plate. The next inning, he got Tommy Pham to ground out with two outs and the tying run at the plate.

And Alex Reyes, the Cardinals No. 1 prospect preceding Carlson, came up with the biggest outs. He entered to face Tatis in the eighth with the Padres star once again representing the go-ahead run and got him to ground out weakly to shortstop. Reyes closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth inning, punctuating his first career postseason appearance with a 101 mph sinker on his final pitch.

“We had all the bullets today, all the weapons today,” Shildt said, “and they did a great job.”

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