A New Quarterback in Kansas City

There was a surreal moment at the end of first quarter in Heinz Field last Sunday.  With 54 seconds left, the Steelers – trying desperately to get their bearings – faced third-and-ten on their own 19.  As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston got his right hand under right tackle Marcus Gilbert and drove him back into Roethlisberger.

Ben, wedged into the pocket, tried to lift the ball to get rid of it, but the play resulted in disaster.  As Houston pushed Gilbert into Roethlisberger, the ball popped loose.  Chief defensive end Chris Jones scooped up the ball at about the five-yard line and stepped it into the end zone.

And suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 40 seconds still left in the first quarter, playing at home, trailed the Chiefs 27-0.

In the moments that followed that disaster, the game pivoted 180 degrees.  A holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick nullified the sack and the score, setting the Steelers back up with a first-down on their own 24.

Four plays later, Ben pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James.  The Kansas City lead was reduced to 21-7, and the teams would go into the locker room at the half tied at 21.

It was an impressive comeback from a proud Pittsburgh team.  In the end, though, it would prove fruitless.  While the Steeler defense was able to muffle the Kansas City offense long enough to get them back in the game, by the end of the day it was clear they were overmatched.

On a day when the Steeler running game (minus holdout Le’Veon Bell) could manage just 33 yards, Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 60 times, completing 39 of those passes for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading Pittsburgh to a usually sufficient 37 points.

But the day belonged to the first-year quarterback standing on the other sideline.

How much the football universe knew about Patrick Mahomes before this year is uncertain.  After his first two games under center in KC, they can no longer afford to ignore him.

He opened up with a four touchdown pass performance against the Chargers in Week One.  It was impressive, but the offensive plan against Los Angeles was more cute that dominating.  There were a lot of dinky flip passes to wide receivers running in front of Mahomes while still behind the line of scrimmage.

The beast that slayed the Steelers was a very different animal.  Whatever misgivings one might have had after the Charger game, Mahomes’ dissection of the Steelers was all any observer could desire.  He read every defense that Pittsburgh threw at him.  He stood tall in the pocket when he could and escaped easily from trouble when he needed to.  He threw terrific touch passes and fired laser shots down field – all with impressive accuracy.  Watching him run the offense was even more impressive than reading his numbers – and that is saying quite a bit as the numbers themselves are more than a little eye-popping.

Pat finished his game against Pittsburgh throwing 28 passes – of which he completed 23 for 326 yards.  And 6 touchdowns (giving him 10 for the first two games of the season).  As he threw no interceptions, his passer rating for the day was an acceptable 154.8.

I have long admired Kanas City coach Andy Reid.  I have always been under the impression, though, that he would probably never win a title.  There are some coaches that can just never find that quarterback that can get them there.

It is a long, long way from Week Two to the playoffs, and young Mr Mahomes still has a lot to prove.  I do think it’s a little early to start casting his bust for Canton.

But, to this point, it looks like Andy just might have found his quarterback.

And in Jacksonville, Too

The backbreaking play – when it came – came with more of a whimper than a bang.  It wasn’t a rifle shot down the field or a snazzy trick play like the one Philadelphia used in the Super Bowl.  The dagger came on a simple shallow cross, assisted greatly by a grinding kind of effort from a player who is usually a little more visible.

The reigning AFC Champs spent last Sunday afternoon in sunny (it was 97 degrees) Jacksonville Florida.  Last January, these New England Patriots staged one of their patented comebacks to keep the Jaguars out of the Super Bowl.

On this Sunday in September, however, the Patriots ran into the same kind of buzz saw that the Steelers did. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and then added a field goal on their fifth.  That field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed the first 7:10 of the second half.  As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Patriots found themselves behind (again) by a 24-3 score with just a quarter and a half remaining.

Of course, it would not end like that.

A touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan in the waning moments of the third quarter made the score 24-10.  Early in the fourth quarter, a field goal inched the Patriots closer.  When Kyle Van Noy intercepted a pass in Jacksonville territory with still 13:30 left in the game, the crushing blow from the defending conference champs seemed imminent.

But the Jags came up with a turnover of their own, and managed to stop New England on their next series – using a challenge to overturn what would have been a Patriot first down.

Now there was 7:48 left in the game.  Jacksonville had first-down on their own 39 yard line.  Quarterback Blake Bortles found Dede Westbrook open on a shallow crossing pattern.  Westbrook, running from the offensive right to the left found the sideline and turned up field. 

Already a substantial gain, the play turned into the game-breaker as receiver Keelan Cole cleared the sidelines with a critical block.

In the first quarter, Cole made a remarkable one-handed catch up that same sideline (relatively speaking) on a pass that was considerably behind him.  That reception set up his own 24-yard touchdown grab.  These were the highlight catches of Keelan’s impactful first half – which saw him collect 4 passes for 77 yards.

Now, however, he was Keelan Cole – the blocker.  He was Keelan Cole – the football player.

Had he not thrown the key block, it’s anyone’s guess how the game might have turned out.  Given a reprieve, the Patriots might very well have held the Jags to a field goal – or perhaps forced another turnover.  Keelan’s block may have been the most critical play of the game.

It did open the way for the touchdown that New England never recovered from.

Who is BlakeBorltes?

The quarterback in the spotlight that afternoon was Bortles.  The Patriots challenged him to beat them through the air and up the sidelines, and Blake kept doing that all afternoon.  He finished his day’s work shredding New England for 377 yards on 29 of 45 passing.  Along with his 1 interception, Blake tossed 4 touchdowns.  His passer rating ending up as an excellent 111.1.

In its own way Blake’s day was as impressive as Mahomes.  In that he humbled the sometimes invincible Patriots.  That he always kept his cool whether secure in the pocket or on the run.  That he unerringly diagnosed everything New England’s defense tried to do to him.  That he threw the ball with great accuracy and never made that critical mistake that quarterbacks so often make against New England – in all these areas, Blake’s day was as laudable as any quarterback in Week Two – even if his game was more contained and less aggressively athletic than Mahomes’.

In an earlier title, I hinted at a new quarterback in Jacksonville.  It is, of course, still Blake Bortles.  But maybe a new Blake Bortles.  Certainly different than the Blake Bortles that threw only one pass in the second half of his Week Five game last year in Pittsburgh.

Just watching him play and looking at his history it is easy to overlook Blake Bortles.  Maybe it’s time we stop doing that.

And in Tampa Bay

With Jameis Winston missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, the Buccaneers had a need for a stop-gap quarterback.  Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed a perfect fit.  Now, all of a sudden, there is a potential quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.

Fitzpatrick – the stopgap – has led Tampa Bay to two compelling victories against teams (New Orleans and Philadelphia) that were in the playoffs a year ago.  And he has done so in about as perfect a fashion as one could hope.

His combined line against the Saints and Eagles reads 46 of 61 (78.7%) for 819 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.  This adds up to a not-too-shabby 151.5 passer rating.  Fitz will get the Monday night game this week against Pittsburgh, and then Winston will be eligible to return.  Whether he returns to hold the clipboard or not remains to be seen.

Ready for Week Three

As Week Three is beginning to kick off around the football universe, the season is already beginning to suggest the surprise stories that might play out for the rest of the season.

There is, of course, a long way to go.

Position Wars with 9 Games Left

Let’s take one final look at the impact the defensive alignments have had on the 2018 edition of the St Louis Cardinals.

Catcher

Yadier Molina has been less indestructible this season than he has been in the past.  A couple of injuries have forced him into extended periods of “rest.”  His reputation as the most irreplaceable Cardinal has been heightened by his absence.

In the 112 games that Yadi has started, the Cards are 63-49.  When Yadi doesn’t start, they are 21-20.

Of the backups, Francisco Pena has acquitted himself well.  The team is 15-14 in his 29 starts, and the team ERA when Pena starts (3.53) is actually slightly lower than when Molina starts (3.83).

First Base

The infield has been in a state of flux most of the year, but since the All-Star Break, the Cards have played their best baseball with Matt Carpenter starting at first.  Carp has made 36 of the 59 second-half starts at third, with the team responding with a 23-13 record. 

They haven’t been terrible without him at first, though – 13-10 since the break.

Since he was rescued from Washington, Matt Adams has seen more work than I would have anticipated.  He has started 12 games at first, with the team going 6-6 in those starts.

Although he has been the predominant starter since the break, Carpenter still does not lead the team in starts at first base for the season.  That honor still belongs to Jose Martinez, who was supposed to be the first baseman all year.  He has made 84 starts there this year, against 53, now, for Carpenter.  The team record with Jose at first is an effective 45-39 (.536), but much better with Carpenter – 31-22 (.585).

Second Base

As the season winds down, keeping Kolten Wong healthy and in the lineup becomes increasingly important.  Kolten has only been available for 11 of the first 18 games this month, and the difference shows.  With Wong at second, the team is 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA while scoring 5.55 runs per game.  They are 2-5 with a 5.06 ERA and 5.00 runs per game in the 7 that he has missed.

This importance is even more graphically portrayed when the whole of the second half is considered.  Since the break, Wong has started 31 games at second, with Yairo Munoz starting 17 times and Greg Garcia making 11 starts.  The team is 22-9 in Wong’s starts, 9-8 with Munoz, and 5-6 with Garcia.

Over the course of the season, five different Cardinals have started at second base – all of them starting at least 11 games there.  Wong has more than 5 times as many starts (94) as the next closest participant – the 18 starts that Munoz has made.  The records overwhelmingly favor Wong.  St Louis is 55-39 when he starts at second, 9-9 with Munoz, 8-8 with Garcia, 6-8 with Jedd Gyorko, and 6-5 in Carpenter’s 11 starts at second.

Shortstop

In retrospect, one of the glaring challenges the Cardinals have faced this year has been the long absences from the lineup of their starting middle infielders.  The drop-off has been just as notable during Paul DeJong’s absences.  Although he has not had the offensive consistency that he displayed in his rookie season, St Louis is still 59-43 (.578) when DeJong starts and 25-26 when he doesn’t.

Third Base

Much of the reason that the Cardinal record is so good with Matt Carpenter at first is that it allows Jedd Gyorko to start at third.  Since the break, Gyorko has made 31 starts at third – with a corresponding 22-9 record.  In Carpenter’s 17 second-half starts at third, St Louis is only 9-8.  They are 5-6 in the second half when anyone else starts there.

Since Carpenter began the year at third, he still has the most starts there with 74 to only 63 for Gyorko.  St Louis is 39-35 when Matt starts at third, and 37-26 with Gyorko.

Left Field

The single most stable position in the Cardinal lineup is left field where Marcell Ozuna starts every time he is healthy.  Marcell has started 17 of 18 this month, 50 of 59 since the break, and 138 of the first 153 games of the season.  Tellingly, in those few games when Ozuna has not made the start, the team record doesn’t suffer from his loss.  This season, the birds are 74-64 when Marcell starts in left, and 10-5 when he doesn’t.

Center Field

While left field has remained eerily stable, both center field and right field have undergone major revisions from the offseason plan.

As the Cards head down the stretch fighting for that last playoff spot, center field remains firmly in the grip of rookie defensive specialist Harrison Bader.  The team’s fourth outfielder (when the season began), Harrison has started 16 of 18 games this month in center.

Tommy Pham, of course, began the season in center.  His surprise trade to Tampa shortly after the All-Star break opened the way for Bader to play fulltime.  In his 10 second half starts in center, Pham led the team to a 5-5 record.  Harrison has had 44 post-break starts in center, with the team going 28-16 in those starts.

For the season, Bader still trails Pham in starts in center, 90-56.  St Louis was 45-45 in Pham’s starts.  They are 35-21 (.625) when Bader starts in center.

Right Field

Right field has also undergone a major shift.  This spot of turf was supposed to belong to Dexter Fowler.  Even though a season long slump threatened his grip on the position, new manager Mike Shildt re-committed to Fowler shortly after his ascension.  How that would have played out, we will never know.  A broken foot sidelined Fowler early in the second half.

His loss opened a spot for deposed first-baseman Jose Martinez – whose defense in right isn’t nearly as shaky as at first base.  Still not fully committed to Martinez as a fulltime answer in right, Jose has started only 12 of the month’s first 18 games there.  St Louis is 7-5 in those games.  They are 1-5 in the other 6 games. 

In the 14 second half games that Fowler started before his injury, St Louis was just 6-8.  When Martinez has stated. The team has been 23-8.

As the season heads into the home stretch, the elements that have shaped the Cardinals’ resurgence are fairly obvious.  First and foremost is the bullpen.  The team thrived during the bullpen’s exceptional August and has scuffled as the relievers have reverted during most of September. 

But the lineup adjustments and the return to health of the middle infield have had a great deal to so with it as well.

Cards on Fire When Runners on Base

The game had been taut and tense all along.  After two-and-a-half scoreless innings, Atlanta rookie sensation Ronald Acuna gave the Braves an early lead with a home run.  In the top of the fourth, resurgent Cardinal shortstop Paul DeJong one-upped the Atlanta rookie.  His home run came with a runner on base (a recurring theme lately).

Now it’s the eighth inning, score still 2-1 Cards. But now St Louis is rising against the Atlanta bullpen.  A walk and a double put two runners on base ahead of an RBI single off the bat of DeJong (again).  Now its 3-1, but the inning isn’t over yet.  Another walk loads the bases and brings ex-Cardinal Sam Freeman out of the bullpen.  Sam got his first man – striking out rookie Patrick Wisdom.  He wouldn’t survive the next batter.

Catcher Yadier Molina smoked a grounder past diving shortstop Charlie Culberson.  Two runners scored on the hit, with the third also crossing the plate after the ball eluded Acuna (who at first glance looks more polished in the batter’s box than in left field).  Suddenly, it was a 6-1 Cardinal lead, and St Louis was on its way to a deceptively easy 8-1 victory (box score).  

For the game, the Cards were only 4-for-21 (.190) when they hit with no one on base.  But, lately runners on base have had the same effect on them that blood in the water has on sharks.

Over the last ten games, the Cards have pushed 62 runs across the plate in spite of the fact that they have only hit .245 as a team.  The difference has been that as a team they have hit .358/.424/.562 once a runner reaches base.  During that same span, they are hitting just .167/.233/.258 with the bases empty.

Last night, they were 7 for 16 (.438).

In no situation have they been more deadly than the situation that Molina found himself in – hitting with the bases loaded.  Over the last ten games, the Cards are 5-for-11 (.455) with the bases loaded.  In the 58 games since the All-Star Break (during which they have been scoring 5.24 runs per game) the Cards are 22 for 67 (.328) with the bases loaded.

It has been impressive to see.  Last night, doubly so as Atlanta has as many damaging opportunities.  Of their 40 plate appearances last night, 18 of them came with at least one runner on base – 5 of them with at least 2 runners on base.  The Braves finished the game 0-5 with runners in scoring position, and 2-for-15 (.133) with no runs batted in with any runners on base.

This last achievement was quite a relief compared to recent efforts.  For the month of September, opponents are hitting .286 (79-for-276) against Cardinal pitchers when batting with one or more runners on base.

A lot of times, it isn’t so much how many hits you manage, but when you do or don’t get them.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez was one of the Cardinal’s most proficient bats in the second half of last season, and is following along much of those same lines this year.  With a single and a double last night, Martinez is leading the team in batting average after the All-Star Break.  Jose is hitting .313 (56-for-179) over his last 54 games.

In his only opportunity to hit with a runner on base, Martinez set the big eighth inning in motion with a double.  Jose is now 6 of his last 14 (.429) and 33 for 89 (.371) since the break with at least one runner on base.

DeJong

More than a little lost for most of the season, Paul DeJong has been much of the driving force behind the recent offensive upsurge.  DeJong has two hits in each of his last two games, and has hit safely in 10 of his last 11, hitting .317 (13-for-41) in those games.  His hits include 2 doubles and 3 home runs.  Paul has 11 runs batted in and a .585 slugging percentage through those last 11 games.

DeJong could well serve as the poster child for the Cardinals’ recent split-personality with runners on base.  He was 0-for-2 last night with the bases empty and 2-for-3 with runners on.  Over the Cardinals’ last ten games, DeJong is just 3 for 19 (.158) with 1 extra-base hit (a double) when batting with the bases empty.  He is 9 for 18 (.500) with a double, 2 home runs, and 10 runs batted in in those games when batting with one or more runners on base – an .889 slugging percentage.

Wong on the Rise

Another element of the second half offensive revival is Kolten Wong.  Wong had two singles, a walk and a hit by pitch last night – bringing his season average back up to the .250 mark.  Wong is hitting .330 (35 for 106) in the second half.

Included in that second half resurgence is a .438 on base percentage when batting with the bases empty (21 hits in 57 at bats – a .368 batting average – 6 walks, and a hit by pitch).  He reached all three times he was up with the bases empty last night.  On a team that frequently doesn’t do much until someone gets on base, Kolten is a welcomed table setter.

Matt Carpenter

It was the fifth inning of the September 13 game against the Dodgers.  Facing nasty left-hander Clayton Kershaw, Matt Carpenter, the National League’s leading home run hitter, dropped down a bunt, beating it out for a hit.

He hasn’t had a hit since.

Carpenter – after his 0-for-4 last night – is now hitless in his last 17 at bats.  He has struck out in 8 of those 17 at bats, and is now hitting .169 for the month of September with no home runs.  Matt’s last home run came off of Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey in the second inning of the August 31 game.  That was 62 at bats, 77 plate appearances, and 332 pitches ago.  At one time in the MVP discussion, Carpenter has fallen back into the pack.

Time to Talk About Batting the Pitcher Eighth?

I’m not a big fan of batting the pitcher eighth.  All things considered, I think it handicaps the offense as much as it helps.  But there are some situations where it is worth the discussion.  In spite of his recent slump, Matt Carpenter still lists as the Cardinals’ most dangerous hitter.  But he can’t hit anywhere but leadoff.  Would it surprise you if I pointed out that Carp leads all Cardinal hitters in percent of plate appearances with the bases empty at 66.0%?  If he can only hit leadoff, maybe batting Wong ninth might get him at least a few at bats with a duck or two on the pond?

More Good Starting Pitching

Rookie starter Austin Gomber worked in and out of trouble all night.  His 5 innings cost him 98 pitches – too many.  But at the end of the day he had allowed just 1 run.  With the second half of the season now 58 games old, Cardinal starters have consistently given the team a chance.  With Gomber’s effort, Cardinal starters hold a 3.37 ERA in the season’s second half.

Throughout what has been a somewhat struggling month of September (and Austin has a 7.07 ERA after 3 starts this month), Gomber has had persistent trouble in keeping the bases clean.  Last night, the Braves were 5 for 10 with a double and a home run when hitting with the bases empty.  For the month, now, the 29 batters that have had their shot at Austin with the bases empty are hitting .385 with a .448 on base percentage.

John Brebbia

Earlier this season, John Brebbia went on a streak where he started to look like a top-echelon reliever.  I pointed that out in a post, and he immediately started to get hit.  At the risk of jinxing him again, I will note that Mr. Brebbia is once again stringing together quality bullpen innings.  Since the All-Star Break, John has thrown 13.1 innings over 14 appearances with a 1.98 ERA and a .191 batting average against.

He threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning last night, striking out 2.  He has 20 strikeouts, now, over his last 13.1 innings – an impressive 13.17 per 9 innings.

Jordan Hicks

In spite of apparent over-use, Jordan Hicks has been one of the bright spots in the second half bullpen.  He threw a 1-2-3 seventh last night.  In 26 innings over 25 second half games, Hicks holds a 2.08 ERA, a .227 batting average against, and a .268 slugging percentage against.  With his strikeout last night, Jordan has struck out 18 over his last 11.2 innings.

Mike Mayers

Mike Mayers pitched the ninth inning last night in a mop up role.  He ran into trouble (again) but worked his way out of it.  Mayers’ recent efforts haven’t filled anyone with overwhelming confidence, but the hard-thrower is starting to miss some bats – an encouraging sign.  With his 2 strikeouts last night, Mike has 19 in his last 11.1 innings.

After striking out the first two batters, Mike surrendered a walk, bringing Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis to the plate with a runner on.  This has been a sore spot recently for Mayers.  He would get Markakis on a pop fly to center, but not until Freeman had put two runners in scoring position with a double.

In the season’s second half, batters are hitting .371 (13 for 35) against Mayers when hitting with runners on base.  They are now 6 for 11 (.545) against him this month in those opportunities.

Offense, Bullpen Continue to Fade

It was, in many way, the kind of game that Mike Matheny would have felt right at home in.  It was, in fact, a microcosm of the season’s first half.  The blueprint went like this: a more than credible effort from the starting pitcher, undermined by an overmatched offense that spent the game waving at breaking pitches out of the strike zone, with any hope of victory dashed at the end by bullpen shenanigans.

In particular, Jack Flaherty gave the Cardinals – struggling to cling to a playoff spot – all that the team could ask for.  After six excellent innings, Jack left the game having allowed just one run.

It would be more than his offense would manage all night – and almost more hits that his offense would garner in the game.  The close game then slipped away as two more runs scored over the last three innings, and the Dodgers finished erasing St Louis’ wildcard lead with a 3-0 victory (box score).  The game featured two Cardinal singles and 10 Cardinal strikeouts.

Throughout the amazing month of August (during which the bullpen posted a 2.82 ERA and a .214 batting average against), Cardinal relievers worked a total of 92.2 innings, allowing a total of 30 runs and 6 home runs.  The two runs allowed by the pen last night, bring their September total to 31 runs allowed, and the home run launched by Yasiel Puig off of Tyler Webb was the eighth allowed already by the bullpen this month in just 50.1 innings.

The St Louis bullpen now boasts an ERA of 5.01 in September, with a .289/.374/.489 slash line  If you are looking for the biggest difference between the 22-6 Cardinals of August and the 5-8 Cardinals of early September, the bullpen would be where you would start.

Flaherty

The inadequacies of the team, though, cannot dim another excellent performance by young Jack Flaherty.  Not quite to his 23rd birthday, Flaherty, at least, has come down the stretch pitching like a champion.  With 6 more innings of 4-hit, 8-strikeout ball, Jack has reduced his second half ERA to 2.42 over 63.1 innings in 11 starts.  Opponents have hit .167 against him since the break, while he has piled up 81 strikeouts – 11.51 per 9 innings.  While the Cardinals seem to be fading fast, the future is still very bright for this organization – and nowhere more bright than the right arm and competitive nature of Jack Flaherty.

With those strikeouts, it should come as no surprise that Jack has the team’s best swing-and-miss ratio.  Last night, the Dodgers missed on 18 of the 47 swings they took against him (38.3%).  Since the All-Star break, batters miss 32.8% of the time that they swing against him, and 30.3% of the time this season.

A point of improvement for the young right-hander could certainly be pitch efficiency.  As good as Jack has been, he has managed quality starts only 10 times in his 25 starts, mostly because his pitch counts haven’t allowed him to work past the fifth inning in many of these games.  Even as Flaherty finished six last night, he did it at the cost of 103 pitches – a hefty 4.48 per batter faced.  For the season, Jack is throwing 4.22 pitches per batter.  Of Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 100 batters, only Daniel Poncedeleon (4.37) throws more.  The team average is just 3.88 pitches per batter.

Dominic Leone

When Dominic Leone walked Justin Turner with one out in the eighth inning, Manny Machado came to the plate in a double-play opportunity.  It was the twenty-third time this season that Leone faced a batter with an opportunity to get a double play.  He is still looking for his first – although this one was close.  Dominic got the ground ball he needed, but could only get the out at first.

Leone also threw first-pitch strikes to all four batters he faced – in spite of the fact that he walked two of them.  Walks are a rarity from Dominic, who has walked just 7 (3 intentional) in 21 innings this year.  A lot of this is due to the fact that Leone isn’t afraid to throw strike one.  Since his return from the DL, 63.2% of the batters Dominic has faced have seen first-pitch strikes.

In general, batters have been willing to play along with Leone.  Last night, 2 of the 4 he faced offered at that first pitch.  For the season, 37.6% of the batters that Leone has faced have chased after that first pitch.  It is the highest ratio of any pitcher on the team that has faced at least 50 batters.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris was called on in the eighth to face Yasmani Grandal with a couple runners on.  His first pitch was a fastball – up but just a bit away.  Grandal took it (for a strike).  Increasingly, batters are not offering at Bud’s first pitch.  During the season’s first half, 35.5% of the batters to face Norris chased after his first pitch.  Since the break, that ratio has dropped to 27.4%.

Of the 5 swings he took, Grandal only missed once.  This has been another notable drop-off for Norris as the season has worn along.  In the first half, batters missed connections on 30.4% of their swings.  That number is down to 17.8% swung-and-missed since then. (Only 15.6% in September, as Bud has only 5 swinging strikes all month.)  Since the break – among Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 20 batters – only Tyson Ross (16.3%) has missed fewer bats.

Tyler Webb

The first 29 batters that Tyler Webb faced as a Cardinal saw 19 first-pitch strikes (65.5%).  This includes 11 who swung at the pitch (37.9%).  Last night, none of the 5 Dodgers he faced offered at his first pitch, and only 2 of the 5 were called strikes.  Through the month of September, so far, Webb has now faced 22 batters, throwing only 10 first-pitch strikes (45.5%) and having only 4 batters swing at them (18.2%).

Did I Mention the Cards Had Only Two Hits?

After pushing all year to get the team batting average up to .250, the Cardinals are working hard to get it to fall from there.  They are still hitting .250 as a team (.249503 to be precise, which is about as narrow as you can still be hitting .250), but have put that mark in jeopardy hitting just .229 (99 for 433) this month.

Matt Carpenter

The league’s leading home run hitter, Matt Carpenter is fighting through a harsh September.  After 4 hitless at bats (during which he struck out 3 times), Carpenter is hitting .208 for the month (10 of 48).  He has just 2 doubles and is still trying for his first September home run.  Carpenter has 2 home runs over his last 29 games.

Matt Adams

In his second tour wearing the birds on the bat, Matt Adams has had some nice moments – most recently a big home run against Pittsburgh.  Overall, though, Matt has been less than torrid in his return.  With his 0-for-4 last night, Adams is hitting .167 (8 for 48) as a Cardinal.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the casualties of last night’s loss was the end of Marcell Ozuna’s impressive 9-game hitting streak.  While this has not been the season envisioned, in Marcell’s previous 9 games he was every bit the offensive force the Cardinals were hoping for.  He had multiple hits in 5 of the 9, hitting .410 (16 for 39) during the streak.  It wasn’t a quiet .410 either, as Ozuna’s 16 hits included 2 doubles and 5 home runs.  He drove in 13 runs during the streak, while slugging .846.

Kolten Wong

Amidst the recent offensive struggles, Kolten Wong has returned to the lineup from the disabled list.  He has yet to re-discover his stroke.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Wong is hitting .211 (4 for 19) since his return with 1 run batted in and 1 extra-base hit.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina’s September has been interrupted by an elbow injury, and he has yet to find the range either this month.  He was hitless in 3 at bats last night, falling to .235 (4 for 17) for the month.

Lost Opportunity

As I was finishing this up, the Dodgers were wrapping up the Saturday afternoon contest against the Cardinals with a message-sending, 17-4 humiliation of the home-town team.

While starting pitcher John Gant didn’t deliver his best game, the game (once again) got away when manager Mike Shildt went to the bullpen.  St Louis actually held a 4-3 lead at that point (one out in the fifth), but LA had the bases loaded, and Gant was scuffling – having made 75 pitches already.  So Mike played the bullpen card.

In addition to allowing all 3 of Gant’s inherited runners to score, the bullpen outdid themselves the rest of the afternoon, finishing their 4.2 inning adventure allowing 11 runs of their own (7 earned) on 10 hits – including 3 home runs.

September’s bullpen line now reads 11 home runs allowed in 55 innings, a 5.73 ERA, accompanied by a .305/.394/.531 batting line.

This tumble (and the Cards have now lost 4 straight – tying their longest losing streak of the season) represents a sizeable lost opportunity.

Back on September 5, the Cards had just overcome Washington by a 7-6 score.  At that point, they were 78-62.  They were a manageable 4.5 games behind Chicago for the division lead (considering there were 22 games to go).  They held the second wild-card spot over the Dodgers by 2 games, and were only a half-game behind Milwaukee for the top spot.

And the 22 games before them couldn’t set up any better.  They started with 3 in Detroit against a Tiger team that had already lost 83 games and sat 22.5 game out in their division.  Following that, the Cards would play 13 of their next 16 at home, ending the season with 3 in Chicago against the Cubs.  If during the preceding 19 games they could manage to strike a couple of games off the Cubs’ lead, those last three might well be for the division title.

To this point, the Cards have done their best to waste that opportunity.  Including today’s loss, the Cards have lost 6 of the first 9 of those games.  They have lost their entire lead over LA –and in fact now trail them – also losing 2 games to Chicago, and 4 games (at the moment, pending the result of their game) to the Brewers.

Since management removed the “interim” tag from Shidt’s title, the Cards are 8-10 and fading fast – being dragged down by the same flaw that doomed Matheny – an ineffective bullpen.

Carlos Martinez as Closer?

It was not quite a week ago that the Cardinals wrapped up one of the most successful months in their storied history.  With last Friday’s 12-5 conquest of Cincinnati, St Louis put the cherry on a 22-6 month.  The surprise feature of the historic month was the emergence of the bullpen.

An early-season disaster area, the relief corps contributed a 2.82 ERA to the August effort. Opposing hitters managed just a .214 average against these talented but young arms.  In 92.2 innings the bullpen allowed just 6 home runs, 13 doubles and no triples – a .307 slugging percentage against.

And then the calendar flipped to September.

Through the first four games of the season’s ultimate month, the bullpen suffered at least a hiccup, if not a major regression.  Through the first 21 bullpen innings of September, the relief corps surrendered 13 runs (12 earned) on 21 hits and 14 walks.  The hits included 4 home runs – three off the fingertips of presumptive closer Bud Norris – in just 1.1 innings.

Looking for just their second win in five games this month, the Cardinals thought they might breathe a little.  A 3-run first (courtesy of Matt Adams’ first Cardinal home run in a couple of years) – followed by 2 more runs in the second – gave them an early cushion.  A fifth-inning run (courtesy of Adams’ second home run of the night) made it 6-0 Cardinals.

But then, leading 7-2 in the seventh, starter Miles Mikolas ran into a spot of two-out trouble.  A Bryce Harper single and a double off the bat of Anthony Rendon brought Juan Soto to the plate with two runners in scoring position.  With 107 pitches thrown and 12 hits given up, Mikolas was certainly a candidate for relief.  Whatever misgivings manager Mike Shildt may have had toward his bullpen, they were not in evidence here.  Into the game came the usually reliable Dakota Hudson.

Dakota did get that final out of the inning – seventeen pitches later when Pedro Severino slashed a sharp line drive into right-center that the ever-quick Harrison Bader caught up to.  In between, a walk, a double, a single and a wild pitch had turned an early laugher into a tense 7-6 games.

What now?

The usual eighth- and ninth inning duo has been Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris.  But Hicks had pitched in both of the previous games (and warmed up several times).  With his work-load already approaching 70 innings (with a month left in the season), the 22-year-old (as of today) fire-baller has increasingly shown the strain of the season.  And Norris – of course – had suddenly sprung a leak.

At this point, the September bullpen had pitched to a 5.91 ERA.  They had thrown only 57% of their pitches for strikes – walking 15 batters in 21.1 innings – with a distressing opponent’s batting line of .288/.392/.588.

The ending tonight would be different.

On this night, the hero of the bullpen would be erstwhile starter Carlos Martinez.  The last six outs would belong to him.  He would get them, but – as has been true for most of this early month – it would not be easy.  After 40 more pitches – which included two singles, a runner reaching on an error, and 4 strikeouts, Carlos finally got Michael Taylor to chase a slider running out of the strike zone for the last out in a tenser-than-desired 7-6 victory (box score).

Carlos the Closer?

The two innings and 40 pitches preclude Martinez from being used again anytime soon, but does raise the intriguing concept of Carlos Martinez as Cardinal closer.  Norris has done an admirable job through most of the season, and a couple of bad outings in a row doesn’t necessarily mean that he is collapsing.  So any continued faith that Shildt has in him would not be unjustified.

At the same time, Bud has never been a closer in September for a team in the hunt.  This is unknown territory for him.  It is also so for Martinez, who did pitch out of the bullpen in September and the playoffs during his first two years (2013-2014) – but not as closer.

Since the All-Star Break, Norris is 6-for-6 in save opportunities when entering with a 3-run lead, allowing no runs and just 2 singles in 6 innings in those games.  He is only 5-for-8 when he has less than those three runs.  In the 6.2 innings he’s lasted in these contests, Bud holds an 8.10 ERA, with a .355/.487/.581 batting line against.

For the season, Norris is 14-of-14 with a 1.84 ERA and a .152/.200/.152 batting line against in save opportunities of 3-or-more runs.  When brought in to protect a 1- or 2-run lead, he is a much more pedestrian 14-of-19, with a 4.82 ERA and a .286 batting average against.  He has walked 9 batters and hit another in those 18.2 innings.

Carlos has only made 7 relief appearances – only once as the closer – but so far so good.  He has allowed just 1 run in 8.1 relief innings.

Should Martinez get more of these late-game opportunities, it raises an intriguing possibility.  Carlos was the team’s opening day starter in New York, where he threw the first pitch of the Cardinal season.  The Cardinal second half began on the road in Chicago, where Martinez again threw the first pitch of the second half.  St Louis’ season will end in Chicago, giving Carlos the opportunity to throw the last pitch of the Cardinal season.  I’m sure it’s been done before, but that would be a curious trifecta.

Miles Mikolas

Having already surpassed his career-high in innings (at least at the major league level – he threw 188 in Japan last year) Mikolas has struggled some, recently.  Although he missed by one out last night, Miles has only 1 quality start in his last 5 outings, while pitching to a 4.60 ERA over 29.1 innings.

This was the second time in three starts that Miles has served up 12 hits (Colorado had that many in 4.2 innings on August 24).  Over the 16.1 innings covered by those last three starts, Mikolas has served up 32 hits, with a .421 batting average against.

That being said, Miles hasn’t shown much signs of prospering on extra-rest.  He was pitching on six-days rest last night.  Since the break, he has pitched on extra rest 5 times.  In those games, he has worked 29.1 innings with a 4.91 ERA and a .336 batting average against.  His ERA is just 2.16 in the 4 games this half he has pitched on four-days of rest.

He has a 2.35 ERA this season when starting on four-days.

Fireworks from the Offense

After driving 40 home runs and averaging 5.29 runs per game in 28 games through that exciting August, the offense took a little breather during the first three games of September – all loses.  In those games, they totaled 7 runs and 1 home run.

Frankly, the only reason St Louis isn’t off to an 0-5 start this month is the return the last two games of the August offense.  Over their last 18 innings, Cardinal batsmen have smacked 8 home runs and piled up 18 runs – in both cases, barely enough to survive short starts and shaky bullpen efforts.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the things the offense could really use is a return to 2017 form for Marcell Ozuna.  Hitless in his first 8 at bats after a short DL stint, Ozuna has been one of the heroes of the last two games.  Marcell drilled two home runs on Tuesday night, and followed with 4 singles last night.

Ozuna – whose second-half average is up to .298 (45 for 151) with 8 home runs – was starting to turn things around noticeably in August before his injury.  In 20 August games, he hit .321 (26 for 81).

Jose Martinez

After leading the team with a .389 batting average in August, Jose Martinez began September in a mini-swoon (one single in his first 15 at bats).  He looked more like the old Jose last night, as he contributed 3 singles.  Martinez is now hitting .336 (48 for 143) in the second half.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter didn’t contribute as loudly as he usually does in a Cardinal victory, but he still added a single, a double, a run batted in and 2 runs scored.  Since the break, Matt is a .290/.418/.639 hitter with 16 home runs, 36 runs scored, and 33 runs batted in in 46 games (and those kind of RBIs are tough to achieve when you hit leadoff).  Matt has also been intentionally walked 13 times over his last 46 games.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong hit one of the home runs in Tuesday’s game, but can’t seem to keep anything sustained.  After his 0-for-5 last night, Paul is still hitting just .200 in the second half (34 for 170) – albeit, now, with 8 home runs.

NoteBook

Up next is a three-game set in Detroit.  After that St Louis plays 13 of its next 16 at home.  If this team can figure out its own home park (they are 37-31 at home) they could have an opportunity to open up some ground in the wild-card race.  And, since they then close the season with three games in Wrigley, if they can pick up a couple of games on Chicago in the process (they are currently 4.5 games behind), that could make for a very interesting closing series.

First, though, they will have to resolve – again – that bullpen.

Wither Jose Martinez

It was the bottom of first inning of last night’s game – still scoreless.  Matt Carpenter had reached on an infield hit, and had advanced himself to third on a wild pitch and a groundout.  Now Jose Martinez was up.  Pittsburgh starter Ivan Nova buried a fastball down and in – well off the plate.  It’s the kind of pitch that a pitcher hopes the batter will swing at.  The kind of pitch that will usually tie up a batter, resulting in weak contact – if, indeed, the batter even makes contact.

In that regard, I suppose you could say that Nova got his wish.  Jose did swing at the pitch.  The result, though, was somewhat less than Ivan might have hoped for, as Martinez sent the pitch soaring into the Pirate bullpen just beyond the left-field wall.  Up quickly 2-0, the Cardinals were on their way to a 5-2 victory (box score).  The win was their fourth in a row, their twentieth in 25 August games, their twenty-third in the last 30 games, and their twenty-sixth in 38 second half games.

The Cardinals are playing hot baseball – with no one hotter than Jose Martinez.

With two more hits last night, Martinez has now hit safely in 15 of his last 17 games, and it hasn’t been a quiet hitting streak.

Jose is hitting .400 (26 for 65) in those games, getting multiple hits in 8 of them.  The hits include 4 doubles and 3 home runs.  He has driven in 12 runs over his last 17 games, while slugging .600.

This hot streak has carried him to the top of the team’s batting chart for the month – and for the second half.  Martinez is now hitting .372 (32 for 86) in August and .342 (39 for 114) since the All-Star Break.

What a lucky thing he is still in the lineup.

Back in the beginning, the plan was that Jose would be the everyday first baseman.  While his offense was pretty much all that they had hoped for (Jose is hitting .309 overall on the season), his defense – and, remember, Martinez was learning to play first at the major league level – was untenable.

This put then-manager Mike Matheny in quite a bind.  One of his most potent offensive players couldn’t play his position.  Being a National League team, Matheny didn’t have a designated hitter option available (at least not on a regular basis), so Jose spent some games coming off the bench and sometimes working into right-field in place of the struggling Dexter Fowler.

This led to consistent chatter regarding a trade of Martinez to an American League team.  This picked up steam after Mike Shildt replaced Matheny as manager.  Although Fowler was scuffling along with a batting average in the .170s, Shildt committed the team to giving him everyday at bats as the right fielder.  This worked out about as well as it had all season.  Fowler played in all of the first 17 games of the Shildt regime – starting 15.  Dexter hit .204 in those games, and the team went 9-8.

Fowler might still be in right field, except that his seventeenth game under Shildt would be his last for awhile – he was sidelined after breaking his foot.  It opened an outfield spot for Jose, who hasn’t stopped hitting since.  And the team hasn’t stopped winning.

The future is still a little murky for one of the Cardinals’ driving offensive forces.  At some point – probably before the 2019 season starts – a decision is going to have to be made about the future of Fowler.  In Dexter’s defense, his career suggests that he is a much better player than he has shown this year.  Furthermore, I always remind people that at the end of last year – in those important September games – Fowler was one of the few Cardinals still getting big hits in high-leverage situations.

Still, the thought of St Louis parting ways with Martinez (whose outfield defense is more than passable) in favor of Fowler doesn’t sit terribly well with me.

With his first-inning home run, Jose drove in Carpenter who had reached third with less than two outs.  Martinez has now delivered that runner (runner on third with less than two outs) in 4 of 5 opportunities this month, in 6 of 8 such chances in the second half, and, now, 63% of the time this year (15 of 24).

Jose did strikeout last night – his seventy-fifth strikeout of the season.  Of course, he went down swinging.  Martinez has only taken a called third strike 12 times this season.  With just 16% of his strikeouts being called third strikes, Martinez has the lowest such percentage of any Cardinal with at least 100 plate appearances.

Of the seven swings he took last night, that strikeout was his only miss.  For a guy whose swing is quite healthy – and produces notable power – Martinez rarely swings and misses.  While the entire team is missing on 22.3% of their swings this month, Martinez is missing on just 16.5%.  For the season, the team as a whole is missing on 23.7% of their swings, while Jose misses just 18.8% of the time.

Jose was the only Cardinal hitter last night that didn’t take at least one called strike during the course of the game.

More Good Offense

A battling overall offense, that ended the game fouling off 30 pitches and forcing 152 pitches (4.11 per plate appearance) from the Pirate staff ended up with 5 more runs on 10 hits.  They have now scored at least 5 runs in 16 of their 25 games this month – averaging 5.24 runs per game – while hitting .275 as a team in August.

Matt Carpenter

On the heels of his 4 double game in Colorado, Matt Carpenter added two more hits last night.  Carpenter is hitting .299 (43 for 144) in the second half.

When Matt came to the plate in the third after Jack Flaherty led off the inning with a single, it was the seventy-fifth time this season that Carpenter was up in a double play situation.  He has yet to ground into one – Carpenter lined out to center.

As always, Matt is very discriminating in the batter’s box.  Of the 24 pitches he saw last night, he took 10 of them for balls.  So far this month, 42.9% of the pitches thrown to Carpenter have been taken for balls.  His season percentage of 41.7% balls leads all Cardinal regulars.  Fowler is next at 40.4%.

This patience allows Carpenter to see more pitches than any other Cardinal.  With 24 pitches in 5 plate appearances last night, Matt is up to a team-leading 4.21 per plate appearance.  Young Harrison Bader is actually right behind at 4.20.

Paul DeJong

Amid the team’s offensive resurgence, Paul DeJong is still stuck in neutral.  He went hitless in three at bats last night – with two strikeouts.  Over his last 7 games, Paul is just 3 for 27 (.111) with 15 strikeouts.  In the season’s second half, DeJong is hitting just .196 (27 for 138).

Along with the decrease in his average, Paul has experienced an increase in his foul balls.  He fouled the ball off on 3 of his 6 swings last night.  Throughout the season’s first half, DeJong only hit foul balls with 32.9% of his swings.  Since the break, 43.0% of his swings have resulted in fouls.

The obvious tangent to this is fewer balls hit into play.  From his 6 swings last night, DeJong only managed 1 ball put into play.  Over the last 30 games, Paul is getting the ball into play with only 31.4% of his swings.

His recent struggles seem to be more of a timing issue.

While it is commonly thought that Matt Carpenter is the Cardinal least likely to swing at the first pitch of an at bat, that is actually no longer true.  Paul DeJong has taken that title from him.  Paul took all four first pitches thrown to him last night, and for the season is swinging at that pitch only 15.6% of the time.  Carpenter swings at the first pitch 18% of the time.  Perhaps this is too much passivity, as 3 of those 4 first pitches he took last night were strikes.

If tentative to swing at the first pitch, Paul shows little inhibition toward swinging at the last pitch.  On both of his strikeouts, he went down swinging.

Over the last 30 team games, Paul has struck out 34 times – 28 of them swinging.  Previous to that, 19 of his first 60 strikeouts (31.7%) had come on called third strikes.

Jack Flaherty

With each start, Jack Flaherty solidifies his place in this rotation now and for years to come.  With 7 terrific innings last night – during which he allowed just 1 run on 4 hits (3 singles and a double) and no walks, Jack wrapped up a dominating month. 

Entering the month not having thrown a quality start in any of his previous 7 starts – during which he lasted as many as 6 innings only once – Jack exploded through August.  He tossed 5 consecutive quality starts, finishing 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA over 32 innings.  He allowed only 14 hits in those innings, and only 5 of those for extra-bases (2 home runs and 3 doubles).  His batting average against for the month was a microscopic .136 and his slugging percentage against just .223.

Not too many pitchers of any age and experience cobbled together a better month than that.

As part of this new-found dominance, opposing teams have lost the ability to create complicated innings against Jack.  Through the season’s first four months, Jack pitched to 4.13 batters per inning.  After facing just 23 batters in his seven innings last night, Flaherty finished the month facing just 3.56 batters per inning.  No one else in the rotation faced fewer than Miles Mikolas’ 4.07 batters per inning.

Jack has also enjoyed enviable run support recently.  His 5 runs of support last night reduced his second-half average to just 6.27 runs per 9 innings.

Rotation Still Flying High

With the outing, Flaherty sustained the recent run of excellent starting pitching.  The rotation’s August ERA is now down to 2.79, and since the break, opposing hitters are batting just .237 in over 200 innings against the Cardinal starters.

Overall, the team ERA for the month is an enviable 2.80, with a .227 batting average against.

Control Issues from the Pen

So solid for most of the month, the bullpen flinched a little last night, allowing a run in a complicated eighth.  As per usual, when the bullpen leaks a bit there are control issues behind it.  Last night, Cardinal relievers walked 2 and hit another batter in just two innings.  In 83.1 innings this month, Cardinal relievers have walked 43 batters.  Even though 2 of those walks were intentional, that still makes 4.43 unintentional walks for every 9 innings.

There are an awful lot of very young relievers out there, so this might just take some time.

On the other hand, while the bullpen has allowed walks, extra-base hits have been exceedingly rare against this group.  After allowing none last night, the Cardinal bullpen has been touched for just 5 home runs and 12 doubles over their 83.1 August innings – a .299 slugging percentage.

Jordan Hicks

In the middle of the one ugly inning the bullpen endured last night was outstanding rookie Jordan Hicks.  Throwing his sixty-sixth inning of the year already (at this pace the 22-year-old will pitch 81 innings this year) Jordan gave the run on 2 hits and 2 walks, leaving a 2-on, 2-out situation to Dakota Hudson.  Over his last 5 appearances, Jordan has made it through just 4.2 innings, walking 7 and giving 7 hits.

The walks have been a recurring issue with Jordan, but the hits are unusual.  The last 27 batters he has faced are hitting .350 against him, with a .519 on base percentage.  He has thrown 111 pitches over those 4.2 innings – with only 57% of them going for strikes.  After throwing just 6 strikes last night, Hicks is down to 59.2% strikes for the second half.

The workload for Jordan may be a concern.

As the season reaches August, Jordan’s innings are becoming increasingly complicated.  Through his first 54.2 innings this year, he faced an average of 4.19 batters per inning – not bad considering he has always had a propensity for walks.  In his 11.1 August innings, he is facing a very high 4.85 batters per inning.  His pitches per inning have also risen from 15.2 throughout the season’s first 4 months to 18.79 in August.  His two-thirds of an inning last night cost him 15 pitches.

Still, for all of this, Hicks almost never gives up an extra base hit.  He has allowed just 7 all season, and none since serving up a triple to the White Sox’ Yoan Moncada back on July 11 – 95 batters ago.

Always a predominant ground-ball pitcher, Jordan got groundball from all 3 batters who put the ball in play against him.  In the season’s second half, he gets that groundball 64.8% of the time.

Dakota Hudson

Presented with a dangerous situation in the eighth, Hudson diffused the inning, getting Adam Frazier to ground out to end it.  Over his brief 14.2 inning career, the first 60 batters to face him are hitting just .173 and slugging only .212.  He has allowed just 2 doubles to those batters.

Dakota has also been a little bit of a good-luck charm for the offense.  When they scored in the bottom of the eighth for him, it was Hudson’s ninth support run in 12.2 innings this month – one reason why the rookie already has 4 relief wins.

Hudson may be the only pitcher on the staff more ground oriented than Hicks.  After getting Frazier to ground out, Dakota is getting 72.5% of the batters who have hit the ball against him this month to hit it on the ground.

That ground ball came on Hudson’s fourth and final pitch.  One thing about groundball pitchers – they keep their pitch count low.  In spite of the fact that he walks a few batters, too, Hudson is throwing just 14.45 pitches per inning.  Since he got here, that is the lowest figure on the staff.

Bud Norris

Continuing to get the job done, Bud Norris closed things out in the ninth for his sixth consecutive save. 

Good all year, Norris may be in the midst of his best stretch of the season.  He is unscored on over his last 6 games (6 IP), allowing just 2 hits and 1 walk.  Over his last 15 games (13.2 IP), Bud has saved 10 of 11 with a 1.32 ERA, a .170 batting average against, and a .191 slugging percentage against.  This has reduced his second-half ERA to 2.35.

NoteBook

In search of their tenth straight series victory, St Louis has won the opening game of their sixth consecutive series.  That’s a good first step.

Lineup Notes for the Second Half Surge

The Cardinals are undefeated this month when Austin Gomber (5 starts), Miles Mikolas (5 starts) and Jack Flaherty (4 starts) are the starting pitchers.  All of their August losses have come when either John Gant (2-3) or Luke Weaver (1-2) have started.

For the season, the Cardinals are 19-7 (.731) when Mikolas starts.  They are 54-51 (.514) when someone else starts.

The Cards are 17-2 (.895) so far this month when Jose Martinez starts, scoring 5.53 runs per game.  There have only been 5 August games so far where Martinez was not in the starting lineup.  The Cards are 2-3 in those games, scoring just 21 runs.

In fact, since the All-Star Break, Jose has started 26 of the Cardinals’ 37 games.  St Louis is 21-5 (.808) in those games.  St Louis is just 4-7 (.364) in the other 11 games.

Dexter Fowler made 14 second-half starts.  St Louis was 6-8 (.429) in those games, averaging 4.93 runs per game.  With Dexter out of the lineup, St Louis has been 19-4 (.826) since the break.

I should point out that immediately after he took over as manager, Mike Shildt made a public commitment to playing Fowler every day – a commitment that he, no doubt, would have kept had Fowler not broken his foot.

Conversely, St Louis is 5-4, scoring just 46 runs this month when Tyler O’Neill is in the starting lineup.  They are 14-1 (.933) scoring 5.33 runs per game when he doesn’t start.

Other notables in the Cardinals’ second half surge are Harrison Bader (20-5), Kolten Wong (16-4), and Jedd Gyorko (18-6).

For the season, the Cardinals are 48-33 (.593) when Paul DeJong starts, and 49-34 (.590) when Wong starts.  Both of these very important pieces of the Cardinal puzzle have missed about 50 games this season due to injury – with Wong set to miss a few more.

In spite of the fact that Wong is a left-handed batter, St Louis is 7-0 in the second half, and 12-4 (.750) for the season, averaging 6.19 runs per game when Kolten get the start against a left-handed pitcher.  They are 12-11 (.522) scoring 4.70 runs per game when they face a lefty without Kolten in the lineup.

St Louis is 13-2 (.867) against left-handed starters since the All-Star Break.

By Batting Order Position

Leadoff

Matt Carpenter has firmly, finally and irrevocably claimed the leadoff spot in the Cardinal batting order.  He has hit first in 23 of the 24 August games, and 35 of the 37 second half games.

For the season, Matt has hit leadoff in 86 of the 131 games.  St Louis is about the same with him (48-38, .558 winning percentage, 4.63 runs per game) as without him there (25-20, .556, 4.53 runs per game).

Of the other two players who hit leadoff at least 10 times, the Cards were 13-9 (.591) when Tommy Pham hit leadoff, and 9-8 (.529) when Fowler hit leadoff.

Batting Second

Since Shildt took over, Yadier Molina has been entrenched in the second slot.  He has hit there in 23 of 24 August games, and 35 of the first 37 second half games.

For the season, they are 26-12 (.684) scoring 5.18 runs per game when Yadi hits second.  Carpenter has hit here 15 times so far this season, with the team going 9-6 (.600) in those games.

Although he is no longer with the club, Pham leads the team by hitting second in 46 games in 2018.  The Cards were only 21-25 (.457) in those games.

Batting Third

While the rest of the batting slots are not as automatic as the first two under Shildt, Jose Martinez has gotten the bulk of the at bats in the three hole.  In his 15 August starts batting third, the Cards are 13-2 (.867).

The only other player to hit third at least ten times in the second half is DeJong, although the team is just 9-8 in his 17 starts there.

For the season, St Louis is 42-31 (.575) when Martinez bats third; 11-10 (.524) with DeJong there (although they score 4.90 runs per game in those games); and 9-8 (.529) with Carpenter.

Cleanup

Until he went down with an injury, Marcell Ozuna held down the fourth spot in the order.  In his 20 August games in this spot, St Louis was 16-4 (.800).  St Louis was also 20-11 (.645) in his 31 second half starts there.

For the season, St Louis is 64-54 (.542) when Ozuna bats cleanup.  They are 9-4 (.692) scoring 5.23 runs per game when he doesn’t.

Batting Fifth

As with Martinez in the third slot, the Cardinals have flourished this month with Paul DeJong hitting fifth.  They are 13-2 (.867) with him there, scoring an average of 6.07 runs per game.

Over the course of the whole season, St Louis is 15-2 (.882) when DeJong hits fifth.  Of the others who have hit there, Molina has made the most starts – 41 (21-20, .512), followed by Jedd Gyorko’s 28 starts (12-16, .429), and Jose Martinez’ 21 starts (10-11, .476).  The only other Cardinal who has hit fifth at least 10 times with a record at least two games over .500 is Fowler.  The Cards are 7-3 the 10 times Dexter has hit fifth.

Batting Sixth

Once again, Jedd Gyorko has emerged from a bench role to claim an everyday spot in the season’s second half.  This month, Jedd is batting sixth (14 times) with the team winning 12 of those games (.857).  They are scoring 6.50 runs per game with Jedd batting sixth.

His 36 starts batting sixth lead the team this year.  The team’s 22-14 record (.611) and run production per game (5.11) are also substantially better than everyone else who has hit there at least a dozen times.  The team is 12-11 (.522) when Fowler hits sixth, 7-7 with both Molina and DeJong in this spot, and 6-7 with Wong.

Of note is rookie utility man Yairo Munoz, who has hit sixth 11 times this year.  The team is 10-1 (.909), scoring 6.18 runs per game in those games.

Batting Seventh

Bader has hit here the most this month (11 games, with the team going 7-4 in those games), but they have done the best (8-0) when Wong hits here.

For the season, St Louis is 20-5 (.800) when Wong hits seventh.

Batting Eighth

No Cardinal hitter has yet hit eighth in as many as ten games this month.  Bader has come close – he has hit there 9 times, and Wong has the second most with 5.  The Cards have been undefeated in all 14 of those games.

The Cards are 10-1 in the second half with Bader batting eighth, and 15-4 (.789) for the season when Harrison hits there.

All Things are Possible at Coors

Pitchers, as you know, rarely hit home runs.  And when they do, they are rarely 426-foot moon shots.  And if a pitcher should launch one that far, it would almost never be to the opposite field.

Conversely, if one team only scores in one of the nine innings, and the other team only scores in two of those innings, the game’s final score rarely reaches double figures.

And, of course, seven-run leads rarely disappear.  In modern baseball, usually any lead of five or more runs is nearly impossible to overcome.

And yet – in the rarefied air of Coors Field Colorado, all feats are possible.  On a balmy evening last night in the heart of the Rockies, the red-hot Cardinals erupted for 4 second-inning runs – highlighted by pitcher Miles Mikolas’ opposite-field, 426-foot, two-run homer.  They would not score again until adding 3 more runs in the fifth inning – and that would be all they would get.

Still, with a seven-run lead going into the bottom of the fifth, the Cardinals and their fans were probably feeling fairly comfortable.

Until Colorado stormed back with 5 of their own in the bottom of that inning – driving Mikolas (who had been awarded the seven-run lead) from the game before he could qualify for the win.

Now trailing just 7-5, the denizens of Coors Field put the tying run on base in three of the last four innings – even getting that tying run as close as second base once.  But the resilient – and re-born Cardinal bullpen was equal to every challenge as the Cards held on for a hard-fought 7-5 victory (box score).  At Coors Field, it seems like every game ends like this.

The win gives St Louis its fourth straight victory, its eighteenth in 22 August games, 21 wins in 27 games since the bullpen was re-invented, and a 24-11 record since the All-Star Break.  All this good enough to push this team into the WildCard lead.  Where once the Cards trailed the Cubs by 8.5 games, they have now trimmed that lead to just 3 with still 33 games left to play.

Things have suddenly gotten very interesting in St Louis.

The Bullpen’s New Norm

Earlier this year, a “typical” bullpen performance would have featured a heart-breaking late-inning comeback by whoever we happened to be playing.  Since the Great Bullpen Flush of July 26-27, the new “typical” bullpen performance has featured a starter leaving the game way early, only to have a group of electric arms shut the other team down the rest of the way.

In Colorado last night, a quartet of Cardinal relievers quieted the Rockies (in Coors, no less), allowing no runs and just 3 hits over the last 4.1 innings.

Through the month of August, so far, the Cardinal bullpen holds a 1.86 ERA over 77.1 innings.  This features a .181 batting average against, and a .258 slugging percentage against.  Only 5 home runs have been hit against the Cardinal pen in those 77.1 innings. 

These numbers are eerily consistent with the bullpen’s performance overall since the late-July facelift.  Over the last 27 games, Cardinal relievers have thrown 97 innings with a 1.86 ERA, a .190 batting average against, and a .280 slugging percentage against.

Even though – in once sense – these were dominant innings, they weren’t without their drama.  Four walks in those 4.1 innings kept the bullpen one pitch away from disaster.  This, too, I’m afraid has been somewhat typical.  With many very young arms throwing many important innings, the walks continue to allow teams back into games.

Throughout the month of August, Cardinal relievers have walked 40 batters.  Even though 2 of those walks have been intentional, that is still 4.42 un-intentional walks every 9 innings.

In the hitter friendly environment of Coors Field, 4 walks in 4 innings will almost always spell disaster.  But again, in Coors, you never know what will happen.

Second-Half Hicks on Point

Continuing his second-half resurgence, Jordan Hicks kept Colorado off the scoreboard in the eighth.  In 16 appearances since the All-Star break, Hicks has allowed just 3 runs in 17.1 innings (1.56 ERA).  Two walks complicated the inning – and, in fact, provided the Rockies their best opportunity to win the game.  Jordan made the crucial pitch that got Carlos Gonzalez to end the inning on a ground ball, but this is a recurring issue for the hard-throwing right hander.  Jordan has walked 7 batters in his 10.2 innings this month.

It will be interesting to see – as he matures as a pitcher – if he will need to trade any of that velocity for increased command.

Jordan came in to preserve a two-run lead.  He has now pitched 28.2 innings this season with a lead of at least two runs – posting a 1.26 ERA, a .168 batting average against, and a .178 slugging percentage against.  His ERA is only 4.42 in the 36.2 innings in which he has pitched with less than a two-run lead.  This includes allowing 7 runs over the 11 innings he has pitched trying to preserve a one-run lead (5.73 ERA).

Bud Norris

On, again, in the ninth, Bud Norris seems to be getting better as the season winds down.  He is now unscored on over his last 5 games, and holds a 1.42 ERA over his last 12.2 innings.  During those innings, opponents are managing just a .178 batting average and a .200 slugging percentage against him.

Offense Still On Track

Although they only scored in two innings, the offense enjoyed its first look at the hitter’s palace that is Coors Field.  Finishing with 7 runs on 11 hits, the Cards are now averaging 5.14 runs per game this month, and 5.03 runs per game since the All-Star Break.  They have hit 49 home runs since the break, and 32 in 22 games this month.

Kolten Wong

Among the offensive heroes was Kolten Wong – who finished with 3 singles and drove in a run with a fly ball.  Since his return from the DL, Kolten has played in 18 games – making 16 starts.  He has hits in 13 of those 16 starts- getting multiple hits in 5 of them.  He has contributed a .368 batting average (21 for 57) during those games.

Kolten was 2-for-2 while the Cardinal lead was less than three runs, and 3-for-3 while the lead was less than five runs.  Since the All-Star Break, Wong is 11-for-21 (.524) when the Cards are ahead by one or two runs, and 17-for-36 (.427) if the lead is between one and four runs.

Jose Martinez and Tyler ONeill

When things are going well for your team, sometimes even injuries work out for you.  While Mike Matheny held the reigns, all of the injury luck was bad – Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, Michael Wacha, Wong, almost his entire bullpen, etc.

As Mike Shildt has taken over, not only have many of these missing pieces returned, but he has also benefited from a timely injury or two.  Just days after publicly committing to Dexter Fowler as an everyday presence in right field, Fowler goes down with a broken foot.  This injury opened a lineup spot for Jose Martinez.

Jose had two hits last night, and has now hit safely in 11 of his last 12 starts, and 12 of his last 14 games – 6 of those being multi-hit games.  During that stretch, Martinez is hitting .404 (21 of 52), raising his average for the month of August to .370 (27 for 73).

Similarly, a recent injury to Marcell Ozuna – who, in fairness was starting to come around with the bat – has opened playing time for another very promising youngster.  Tyler O’Neill added two hits to the Cardinal attack last night – including the second-inning home run that got things off and running.

Since his last call-up, O’Neill has been hitting .375 (12 for 32) with 2 doubles and 2 home runs (.625 slugging percentage).

That second-inning home run (in his first plate appearance at Coors) makes Tyler 8 for 16 (.500) in the second half with the Cards either even in the game or trailing by a run.  For the season, Tyler is 13 for 35 (.371) either even in the game or trailing by one.  Three of those hits are now home runs – giving him a .629 slugging percentage in that situation.

Matt Carpenter

So torrid for most of the summer, gravity has caught up with Matt Carpenter a bit this month.  His 0-for-5 last night makes him 0-for-10 with 6 strikeouts over the last 3 games.  He has hit 8 home runs this month, but is hitting just .217 (18 for 83) while doing so

Paul DeJong

Although he has teased at times, Paul DeJong has never managed to shake his post injury slump.  His power has come back somewhat.  He has hit 6 home runs in 34 second-half games.  But after his 0-for-4 last night, Paul is hitting just .198 (26 for 131) since the break.

And Just a Dash of Memphis Magic

At its best, sports can be transcendent.  I wrote a bit about this after the last Super Bowl.  Heroic, unexpected achievements that challenge the expected limits of mortality.  It is magic of the head-shaking flavor.

In yesterday’s second inning, starting pitcher John Gant provided the head-shaking moment.  Hitless so far in his career, John walked into a pitch from Gio Gonzalez and popped it over the fence for the two-run home run that sparked the Cards on to their 6-4 win (box score).

The night before, it was Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong with eighth- and ninth-inning home runs, respectively, that brought the Cards back from a late deficit for another win.  And these have not been all.  Almost every member of the current roster – and especially the young guys – have had their moment in the hero spotlight.  The list is far too long to detail here, dating back to the big bullpen shakeup that proceeded the July 27 game against Chicago.

One noticeable trend is the contribution of the Memphis Mafia.  These are those players – Gant, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Yairo Munoz, Tyler O’Neill, Daniel Poncedeleon and Patrick Wisdom – that have been the sparkplugs.  Players, perhaps, who haven’t been around long enough to understand that it isn’t supposed to be this easy.  That, perhaps, has been part of the magic.

Since that day in July, St Louis is 14-4 (including 11-2 in August).  This brings them to an impressive 17-9 since the All-Star Break, with their last win extending their season-long winning streak to seven games, and pushing them to 10 over .500 (65-55) for the first time all year.

Offense Front and Center

Taking the lead in this series against Washington are the bats.  The rebounding Cardinal offense is now averaging 7.2 runs per game over its last 6 games.  They are scoring 5.54 runs per game this month, 5.17 runs per game over the 18-game streak, and 5.19 runs per game during the seasons’ second half.

Leading Off

In the hitting revival, there has been some talk about new approaches to situational hitting.  Two-strike hitting and two-out opportunities have been mentioned.  Less referenced is the recent success that Cardinal leadoff hitters have had.

Last night, each starter other than Gant had an opportunity to lead-off an inning.  Four of the eight (the Cards did not have an offensive ninth) reached base, and three of them scored.

So far this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters are reaching base at a .400 clip – Including 5 home runs and a .559 slugging percentage.  Prior to this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters managed just a .317 on base percentage with a .442 slugging percentage.

Kolten Wong

Other than Gant, it was second baseman Kolten Wong driving the offense.  In four plate appearances, Wong walked, singled, doubled and homered, scoring twice and driving in three runs.  Wong has been another one of the critical offensive pieces that have endured long slumps as well as significant time on the disabled list.  Wong was in the midst of his hottest streak of the season when he went down.  Since coming back, he hasn’t missed a beat.

Still hitting just .236 for the season, Kolten is hitting .400 for the month of August (12 for 30) and slugging .600 (a home run, now, to go along with his 4 doubles).  He is a .356 hitter (16 for 45) in the second half.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko didn’t contribute any hits to the victory, but he ignited the two-run fourth with a leadoff walk.  Through the season’s first half, Jedd led off in 47 different innings, reaching base only 9 times (19.1%).  He eventually scored on just 4 of those occasions.  The fourth inning last night was the fifteenth time Jedd has led off an inning in the second half.  He has now reached base in 8 of those innings (53.3%), scoring 6 times.

John Gant

Even though Gant didn’t complete 6 innings – and even though the team ended up allowing 4 runs for the game – this game featured another very strong start from the rotation.  John finished his 5.1 innings allowing just 1 run on 4 hits and no walks.  Since John has been more-or-less installed into the rotation, batters are only hitting .201 against him.

As for the rotation, now, they have held opposing hitters to a .234 batting average this month, while issuing just 14 un-intentional walks over 73 innings – 1.73 walks per 9 innings.  During the 14-4 stretch, opponents are hitting just .243 against Cardinal starters, drawing just 20 un-intentional walks (1.81 per 9 innings).

Since the All-Star Break, Cardinal starters have faced 579 batters, holding them to a .235 batting average.

Mike Mayers

Most all of the real damage done to the pitching staff came in Mike Mayers’ eventful eighth inning.  He faced 5 batters and only retired 2 – allowing hits to the other three (all of whom eventually scored – two of them on Bryce Harper’s home run).

Mike has had some good moments this year, but has been trending down as of late.  The 25 batters he has faced this month are hitting .318 against him, with a .591 slugging percentage (he has also allowed 3 doubles this month).  Since his last return from Memphis, Mike has pitched 27 innings over 26 appearances, with a 5.00 ERA to show for it.

Jordan Hicks

It took him 19 pitches, but Jordan Hicks secured the last three outs and held on to the save – his fourth.  There was a point just before the All-Star Break where Hicks looked like he was hitting the “rookie wall.”  In his last 4 appearances before the break, Jordan served up 7 runs in 3.1 innings.

Whether it was the rest or whether he did some fine tuning during the break, second-half Jordan has been as good as we’ve seen him all year.  In 12 second-half outings, Hicks has allowed 1 run on 9 hits (all singles) over 13.1 innings.  His 0.68 ERA is accompanied by a 188 batting average against.

Some Revisionist History

In a recent exchange, baseball president John Mozeliak told reporters that this current team was the team they expected that they would see all year.

Well, not exactly.

The team they expected to see all year featured Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham all over the bases with Marcell Ozuna raining home runs all over the various ballparks.  The team they expected to see had Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone muffling opposing offenses from the seventh inning on.  None of those worthy gentlemen performed remotely to expectations.

John and his fellows also expected to see Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Alex Reyes string together dominant start after dominant start, while Paul DeJong built on his stellar rookie season.  All of these critical pieces have spent considerable time on the disabled list.

The truth is, John, – bad injury luck aside – the team you constructed over the last few off seasons wasn’t very good.  Mozeliak and the rest of the front office have been bailed out as much as anyone by the magic of the Memphis Mafia.

NoteBook

Harrison Bader’s second-inning sacrifice fly gave the Cards the first run of the game for the fifth time in the last six games.  St Louis has won all five – as well as the game that they didn’t score first in.

Efficient Gant Quiets the Fish

A .500 team after 102 games, the staid St Louis Cardinals made a fairly stunning reversal of direction.  Instead of handing out many of their most prized prospects at the trading deadline in search of that lusted-for impact bat, the Cardinals decided to trust their highly-regarded system.  They cleared away a few veteran arms and bats, and infused the clubhouse with fresh young arms and bats.

The early returns on this decision have been encouraging.  With last night’s 7-1 victory in Miami (box score), the Cards have won four consecutive series for the first time this season, going 9-4 over those 13 games.

Compared to the many high-ceiling arms boasted throughout the Cardinal system, last night’s starter John Gant gets little recognition.  But John has held his own.  He has been particularly hard to hit – especially since he has settled into a mostly starting routine.  Seven of his last 9 appearances have been starts, during which opposing batters have hit just .201 (Miami had only 2 hits in 6 innings against Gant last night).  In that regard, his start was reminiscent of many of the efforts of the rotation in July, when they held opposing hitters to a .225 average.

Moreover – especially lately – John has been stingy with walks.  He walked only one last night, and over his last 3 starts has walked just 4 in 14.1 innings (2.51 walks per nine innings).

If anything could be better pitching-wise than allowing only two singles and one walk through six innings, Gant gave insight into the kind of pitcher he is evolving into as he needed only 63 pitches to navigate past 21 batters. Of those 21 batters, only Justin Bour – who led off the second drawing a six-pitch walk – extended his plate appearance past five pitches.

Over his last 3 starts, John has faced 60 batters.  Only 5 have seen more than five pitches during their plate appearances.  That is about as efficient as it gets.

The Bullpen

While the recent surge has shown the rotation, perhaps, turning a corner (they now have 4 consecutive quality starts), the heroes of the uprising have been the denizens of the bullpen.  Shredded and left for dead after a July that showed them compile a 5.98 ERA and a .306 batting average against, the Cardinal bullpen held the Marlins at bay last night until the offense could provide some late breathing room.

Their combined line last night showed 1 hit allowed over 3 walk-less, scoreless innings.  The pen has now thrown 47 innings over the last 13 games, with a 1.34 ERA and a .170 batting average against to show for their efforts.

Dakota Hudson

Speaking of efficient pitching, not-quite-24-year-old rookie Dakota Hudson pitched for the first time in the major leagues – and probably for the first time anywhere – on back-to-back days.  He pitched 1.2 innings last night after throwing a scoreless inning on Tuesday.  He needed 8 pitches to work to 4 batters on Tuesday, and just 18 pitches to face 5 more last night.

To this point, the rookie who had owned the PCL has been as advertised.  Through his first 6 major league appearances, he has worked 8.2 innings allowing no runs, two singles, and one walk.  He has already earned 2 wins and 3 holds.

Fourteen of the first 29 batters (48.3%) Dakota has faced in the major leagues have hit one of his first two pitches.  They are 0 for 14.  Over the course of the whole year, opposing batters are hitting .318 against the Cards when they hit either of the first two pitches thrown.

Mike Mayers

Mike Mayers closed out the relatively easy win with a scoreless ninth.  Mayers has had some hiccups along the way, but his season has been pretty solid – and over his last seven outings he has looked increasingly worthy of his late-inning opportunities.

During his last 7, he has allowed just 1 run over 6 innings while striking out 7 – an ability he didn’t show much of early.  In 9 games and 10 innings since the All-Star Break, Mike has a 2.70 ERA.

Some Late Inning Runs

It was also a little relieving to see the four late runs that padded the lead.  The offense that had averaged 5.04 runs per game in July had been little seen through early August.  The Birds were averaging just 4.14 runs per game through the first 7 games this month – scoring just 6 over the previous three games.  With the outburst, they are back up to 4.71 runs per game through the first 21 games of the season’s second half (they are 12-9 in those games).

Second Half Yadi

In recent years – and in spite of a surprisingly heavy workload – Yadier Molina has seen a hitting resurgence after the All-Star Break.  He was 2-for-4 last night (a double and a home run), and is now hitting .314 (27 for 86) since the break.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong was starting to heat up pretty good before he went on the disabled list.  He has returned from that list in top form.  With his 2 hits last night, Kolten is 7 for 17 (.412) since his return.

In the seventh inning, Kolten slapped Jarlin Garcia’s 1-0 pitch into center for a single.  In July, Wong was 9 for 16 (.563) when he hit the first or second pitch of an at bat.  For the season, if his at bat is two pitches or less, Wong is a .400 hitter (26 for 65).

NoteBook

The Cards are now only 6-8 in rubber games, but 5-4 when those rubber games are on the road.