ST. LOUIS -- It has been a week now since Tony La Russa has been able to write the name of Matt Holliday, the heart of the heart of the Cardinals' batting order, into his lineup.
Holliday is St. Louis' regular cleanup hitter, the centerpiece -- he hits behind Albert Pujols and ahead of Lance Berkman -- of one of baseball's most productive triumvirates, as in the National League only the Brewers had three hitters who combined to hit more home runs. But the tendon at the base of Holliday's right middle finger is inflamed, a small issue that can have serious consequences for a baseball player, in that it makes swinging a bat excruciating and throwing a ball essentially impossible.
Three of the games St. Louis played in the past week, of course, have been in the NLDS against Philadelphia, but the impact of Holliday's absence wasn't much felt in the first two. In Game 1, Philadelphia had an 11-3 lead in the ninth (they won 11-6), and Holliday's bat likely wouldn't have changed much. In Game 2, a 5-4 St. Louis win, the Cardinals produced 13 hits even without him.
Tuesday afternoon's pivotal Game 3 was different. It was a tense affair, one in which the Cardinals almost succeeded in rallying from a 3-0, seventh-inning deficit, ultimately losing 3-2.
"The heart and guts that this club has demonstrated rallying like they did is just off the charts," La Russa would say.
La Russa would never say it, but the inescapable feeling was that the difference for his club between a 2-1 series lead and a 1-2 deficit was on the Cardinals' bench, relegated to a pinch-hitting opportunity here or there, due to his malfunctioning digit.
Hearing a baseball manager talk about what his club would have done were it entirely healthy is approximately as interesting as listening to someone fret about what has befallen his fantasy football team, and La Russa is too experienced and too smart to engage in that sort of discussion.
"It's more fun to be half full than half empty," the manager said Monday, of Holliday's not especially heartening prognosis.
On Tuesday, though, the impact of Holliday's absence was underscored time and again, as Phillies starter Cole Hamels repeatedly worked himself into and then out of trouble. Pujols was his usual brilliant self, as he went 4-for-5 with three doubles. Without Holliday behind him, though, he scored just once -- on a ninth-inning single by Yadier Molina -- and, overall, the Cardinals left 14 men on base, six of them in scoring position, all of them hoping for a key hit that never came.
Holliday's status has also significantly impacted La Russa's strategy, in Game 3 to St. Louis's detriment. The Cardinals do not want to replace him on the roster, as that would force him to sit out a potential NLCS as well, but that means that La Russa has been forced to operate with a severely limited bench.
In the sixth inning, with the game scoreless, the Cardinals had men on first and second with two outs, and the hitter was their starting pitcher, Jaime Garcia, the owner of a .097 batting average of this season. Garcia had, at that point, thrown just 74 pitches over six scoreless frames, but La Russa had in Game 2 demonstrated his willingness to pull a starter early in order to try to capitalize on an offensive chance.
But Holliday's status meant that Allen Craig -- a very good hitter of left-handed pitchers like Hamels (Craig's OPS against southpaws this season was 1.000) -- was not on the bench but in the lineup, and that meant that the four fully healthy bats on La Russa's bench were a trio of unintimidating lefties, Adron Chambers, Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker, and the switch-hitter Nick Punto, who is Nick Punto. La Russa left Garcia in to hit. He struck out swinging. The next inning, Garcia allowed a three-run homer to Ben Francisco, which would prove to be all the runs the Phillies would need.
"Well, it didn't work, so that's bad managing," said La Russa of his decision not to pinch-hit for Garcia.
It wasn't really, though. It was the managing of a manager who was presented with no good options. It is easy, in retrospect, to say that La Russa should have pinch-hit for Garcia with Holliday in the sixth, particularly after Holliday lashed a hard single against Brad Lidge in a pinch-hit at-bat in the eighth, his second at-bat of the series. But La Russa had little way of knowing if Holliday would have been up to the challenge of facing Hamels, as just two days ago he wasn't even available to pinch hit, and even had Holliday received an at-bat he wouldn't have been able to play in the outfield, necessitating the further depletion of the St. Louis bench at a point that was barely more than midway through a scoreless game.
Holliday spoke very quietly in the Cardinals clubhouse after the game. "He was great -- made one mistake, guy hit a home run," he said of Garcia. "I don't know, I don't know," he said of whether he might be in Wednesday's lineup for Game 4, scheduled to begin at 6:07 p.m. Eastern time. "I did not throw today, but I might try tomorrow," he said.
Tomorrow might well be the last chance for the heart of the heart of the Cardinals' lineup to attempt to throw, or to play a full game, this season. If he can't, and if the Cardinals lose, he and they will be left wondering just how tantalizingly close they might have been to a surprising NLCS appearance. The length of a middle finger, perhaps.