Early Inning Magic – Late Inning Fizzle: Variations on a Theme

Classically, they should have been finished scoring by the third inning, if not the second.  St Louis’ recent 5-13 slide has featured a very pronounced pattern of early inning offensive success, followed first by a cessation of offense, followed, finally by a late inning bullpen meltdown.  The pattern plays almost without exception through the last 18 games.

The pattern began to emerge in the first Boston game (May 16).  A three-run third gave the Cards a brief 3-2 lead.  But they were done scoring, and late inning runs against them (2 in the fifth and 2 in the eighth) sent Boston on its way to a 6-3 win.  In the next game – on May 17 – St Louis jumped out to a 4-0 lead after two innings.  There would be no more Cardinal runs that night – and it would turn out to be a long night.  Boston scored twice in the seventh and twice again in the eighth before a run in the thirteenth sent them home 5-4 victors.

The first two games of the succeeding San Francisco series didn’t show quite as much early inning magic.  On May 19 the Cards managed 1 third inning run, and didn’t score at all in regulation the next night.  The late inning heartbreak still played out on both of those evenings.  In the first game, the Giants scored 6 runs after the sixth inning to win 6-5, and then eventually erupted for 3 in the thirteenth inning the next night to secure a 3-1 win.  Even the game St Louis won in that series showed a trace of the pattern as they jumped out with 4 in the third and San Fran made a late run with 2 in the eighth – not enough this time as St Louis won 8-3.

Two of the three in Los Angeles followed form.  The middle game was what we will call “the first Rich Hill game.”  In that contest Rich couldn’t find the strike zone to save his soul, and most any competent (or semi-competent) offense could have handled him that night – the Cards did win that games 6-1.  But the offense checked out very early in the other two games.  In game one of the series (on May 23) the offense never really showed up at all, scoring only on a gift wild pitch in the ninth inning to send the game into extras.  Game three featured a 3-run first, and then, as you might expect, nothing.  The Dodgers won the first game, 2-1, scoring the decider in the thirteenth inning.  They also won the last game, 7-3, scoring 6 of the runs between the fourth and sixth innings.

Three games in Colorado featured more late inning bullpen meltdowns.  A 2-0 Colorado lead on May 26 turned into a 10-0 Colorado route when the Rockies scored 8 in the eighth.  After Adam Wainwright salvaged the second game with an impressive 3-0 win, Colorado broke open a 4-3 game with a 4-run eighth, on its way to an 8-4 win in game three.

That brought the Dodgers into town for four more games.  St Louis would earn a split by winning the last 2 games 2-1 and 2-0 – with 3 of the 4 runs scoring in either the first or second inning.  The Dodgers won the other two 5-1 (the second Rich Hill game) and 9-4 (after another 3-run Cardinal first inning led to almost no more offense).

Moving on to Wrigley, now, to face the Cubs what could happen?

Single runs in the first and second innings on Friday put St Louis up 2-0.  The Cubs would answer with single runs in the third, sixth and eighth to win, 3-2 (as St Louis was all done scoring).  Game two, very similar.  Two first-inning Cardinal runs were mostly left to stand.  Yadier Molina did provide one add-on run with a sixth-inning homer, but that was all she wrote for the Cards.  A seventh inning grand slam off Mike Leake spelled doom for the Birds in that one.

So against that backdrop, it was almost encouraging to see Chicago score the first run last night and to see St Louis answer with 4 in the fourth.  Different could only be better, right?

But if early came a little late last night, late came a little early as Chicago immediately answered with 5 in the bottom of that inning.  That game actually went tied into the seventh before the Cards blinked (again).  Chicago took the game 7-6 (box score) and swept the series.

Early Inning Offense Encouraging, But . . .

For the last 18 games, St Louis has managed 58 runs (3.22 per game).  Twenty-three of them (40%) have come in the first two innings when St Louis has a batting line of .290/.369/.406.  From the third through the seventh innings, the Cards are hitting .230/.294/.377.  From the eighth inning on over their last 18 games (including 3 13-inning games), St Louis’ offense has been dominated to the tune of .154/.213/.242.  They have scored 6 runs in a total of 45 innings after the seventh in those games.

Late Inning Bullpen Not So Great

Over these same 18 games, the pitchers (mostly the starters) have kept things tight.  Even with minimal support, Opposing teams have been held to a 3.00 ERA with a .199/.268/.335 batting line through six innings, scoring just 39 runs over 108 innings.  The Cards have thus been no worse than tied after six innings in 11 of these 18 games.

But from the seventh inning on, in 59.2 innings, Cardinal pitching has been savaged for 42 runs (40 earned) on 64 hits that includes 7 home runs.  This all translates to an unheard of late inning ERA of 6.03, and an opponent’s batting line of .279/.342/.432.

It’s a pattern that, all by itself, accounts for the skid.  Until this stops, the Cards will continue to lose ground.

Michael Wacha

Michael Wacha raised a lot of hopes during a very strong start.  Seven games into the season, Wacha had 5 quality starts, a 2-1 record and a 2.74 ERA.  Over his last three starts – against the disciplined offenses of Los Angeles and Chicago – Michael has been little more than a batting practice pitcher.  He has failed to last 5 innings in any of those starts, totaling just 11.1, during which he has been stung for 16 runs (15 earned) on 18 hits (including 3 home runs).  He has walked 9 in those innings while expending 251 pitches to navigate those innings – an exhausting 22.1 per inning and 4.25 per batter.  In his excellent start, Michael threw only 14.7 pitches per inning and 3.73 per batter.  His ERA over these last starts is a troubling 11.91 with an 0-2 record.

This game has become distressingly common for Wacha.  For the most part he has little trouble in the first and second innings.  After allowing no runs and just one hit in those innings last night, Wacha has a 1.80 ERA for each of those innings through his first 10 starts this year.  But Wacha then served up a run on a homer in the third and was popped for 5 more in the third on 2 walks and 3 hits (including another home run).  For the season, now, Wacha’s third-inning ERA sits at 5.40.  In the fourth inning, that jumps to 13.00 (13 earned runs in 9 innings) with a batting line of .429/.489/.643.

Matthew Bowman

All things considered, the beleaguered Cardinal bullpen wasn’t as bad last night as they’ve been recently.  Forced to cover 3.2 innings due to Wacha’s abbreviated start, they allowed just one run on three hits.  It was, of course, the run that lost the game.  And it was served up by the struggling Matt Bowman, who is quickly pitching himself out of high-leveraged situations.

In 7 appearances between May 9 and May 23, Bowman threw 6.1 innings, allowing no earned runs and just one hit.  Over his last 5 outings, he has been savaged for 8 runs on 10 hits over 4.2 innings.  Predominantly a ground ball pitcher, in the 7 previous games, batters hit 10 ground balls against only 5 fly balls against Matthew.  Over the last 5 games, his 8 ground balls have been answered by 12 fly balls.  This is not a mix that Bowman can succeed with.

As he earned more and more trust last year, the seventh inning was a profitable inning for Matthew.  He ended up with a 3.38 ERA in that inning.  This year he has already allowed more seventh inning runs (9) than he did all last year (6).  His seventh-inning ERA for 2017 is 4.61.

NoteBook

Happ’s first home run broke a string of five consecutive games in which the Cardinals had scored the first run.  They had won 2 of the 5.

St Louis is now 3-5 in road series and 3-5-1 in home series.  Last night was the fifth series of the season where they went into the last game facing a sweep.  They have now been swept in three of the five opportunities.

The rotation is now riding a streak of 3 consecutive non-quality starts.  They have had only two quality starts over the last 8 games.

On Albert

By the way, one-time Cardinal Albert Pujols hit his 600th career home run over the weekend.  I extend him a cordial congratulations.  It’s quite an accomplishment.

Surprisingly much has been made of Southern California’s indifference to the achievement.  How can people be surprised by that?  This is, after all, Los Angeles – where baseball fans come fashionably late, catch a couple of innings, and then head out for the more compelling elements of night life that the crown city of the left coast offers.

In Los Angeles, your sports team isn’t significant unless it wins – and the Angels don’t.  Not that he cares, but this is also part of the exchange Mr. Pujols made when he packed up and left.  He walked away from a community where baseball is everything and every achievement is wildly celebrated to land in a community where baseball is one of the lesser attractions and where 600 home runs isn’t greeted with very much more than a collective shrug.

It’s all OK, of course.  The bargain also included a whole gob of money.  And enough money makes everything OK.  Right?

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