John Gant Ends Season in Cardinal Rotation

The sense that I get of it is that even if these last three games had mattered John Gant would still have gotten the start last night.  Nothing against John, but I find it an interesting indictment of the condition Cardinal pitching staff as the last few days of the season dwindle away.

I am pointing this out to frame a fairly simple argument for keeping Lance Lynn.  I ask this question.  Who are your five next year, if there is no Lance Lynn?  Carlos Martinez, sure.  Luke Weaver? Yes, I think so.  Michael Wacha?  Yes, I think he showed enough to warrant a spot.

That’s three.  And then?

Adam Wainwright?  A serious health concern heading into the offseason.  Alex Reyes?  Probably not ready to shoulder a starter’s innings load.  Jack Flaherty?  Doesn’t quite look like he’s quite major league ready to me.  John Gant?

You see what I mean?  The St Louis Cardinal organization is loaded with promising pitchers.  But the crest of the wave is probably a year or two away.  With a Lance Lynn to bear up some of those innings, this team can remain competitive while they rebuild.  If Lance goes, well . . .

Ironically, Gant nearly broke the streak of non-quality Cardinal starts (which is now run to 14).  He took the mound in the sixth inning having allowed just two runs.  Alas, the only two batters he faced in that inning reached and later scored, providing the pivotal inning of Milwaukee’s 5-3 victory (box score)

The starting rotation thus stays stuck on 7 quality starts for the month (now through 27 games) with a 4.62 ERA.

Meanwhile, the offense finished with just 6 hits.  The Cardinals face the last two games of the season with a .237 team batting average for the month of September.

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty’s goals may have slid from hoping to get hot for the last month of the season to hoping to get one more hit before the season ends.  With last night’s 0 for 3, Piscotty is 0 for 16 over his last 6 games, and has now gone 16 games without driving in a run.  He is hitting .180 (9 for 50) in those games.

Meanwhile, his average for the month fades to .221 (15 for 68), and his second half average is down to .223 (25 for 112).  Of course, Randal Grichuk was 0 for 2 as well last night.  He is hitting just .222 this month (12 for 54).

NoteBook

The Cardinals end the season losing the first game of their last two series.  Of the 52 they played, they won the first game just 25 times.

In those 25 series, they were 53-25 (but only 28-25 after that first game).  The average length of those games was 3:02.6, while 2,755,380 attended them (an average of 35,325.4).  It was almost always hot when the Cards won the first game of a series – an average temperature of 80.3.  They finished 16-5-4 in those series.  When the other team forced a rubber game, though, St Louis was just 2-4.

It’s Always a Bad Sign . . .

When your team dominates the first half, but you don’t walk off the field with the lead.  That was Arizona’s story Monday night as they pushed Dallas around 152 yards to 57; 10 first downs to 5, and 20:19 of possession time – but they went into the locker room with a 7-7 tie.  When that kind of thing happens, you kind of figure you’re going to have trouble.

And they did.  Dallas took control of the second half and finished with a 28-17 victory (gamebook).

The last couple of weeks have been very different for the Cowboy offense.  They only scored 19 points in their opening win over the NY Giants, but the offense mostly operated as expected – 129 rushing yards as part of a 392 yard night of total offense.

All of a sudden, though, the vaunted Dallas running game has been at least partially derailed and the Cowboy receivers are struggling a bit to gain separation from tight man coverage.  The running yards have been 139 total over the last two games.  When the running game doesn’t work, the whole Cowboy offense looks out of kilter.

Against Denver in Week Two the Cowboys put their running game on the shelf and then unraveled in a 42-17 loss.  Monday night they kept running the ball – even though the running game never really came together.  Star running back Ezekiel Elliott finished with a modest 80 yards on 22 carries – and 50 of those yards came on just 2 carries.  But the important thing was that they kept at it.

Against Denver, quarterback Dak Prescott threw 50 times – to mostly poor effect.  Monday he threw just 18 times – to mostly spectacular effect.  A few big plays from the offense and a dominating performance from defensive end Demarcus Lawrence were enough to get by.  But if the running game continues to struggle, Dallas’ season will quickly get much tougher.

Interesting Game in Detroit

Yes, the defending NFC Champion Falcons were very lucky to escape Sunday’s game without enduring their first loss (gamebook).  What an effort by the Lion defense.  They mostly contained uber-receiver Julio Jones (91 yards on 7 catches is contained when talking about Jones) and they intercepted 3 passes off of Matt Ryan (yes, 2 of them were tipped – still).

All in all, it’s about as well as you will see the Atlanta passing attack defended.

The thing that separates the Falcons, though, is the running attack.  The Falcons finished the day with 151 rushing yards to only 71 for Detroit.  Awfully hard to overcome – although the Lions almost did.

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

I still don’t know what to make of Tyrod Taylor.  He certainly has some skills, but is he a franchise quarterback?  He is unorthodox, but frequently unorthodox is good.

Whichever, Tyrod had himself an afternoon against Denver last Sunday.  Some of his throws were letter perfect.  Some were pretty wide of the mark, but his receivers made outstanding catches of them.  One of his two touchdown passes bounced off the hands of one receiver into the hands of another.  Hey, when it’s your day, it’s your day.  He ended up with 213 passing yards and a 126.0 rating.

Significantly, Buffalo ran the ball 33 times – even though they only managed 2.3 yards per rush.  Buffalo committed themselves to balance, and let Taylor work within the structure of the game plan.  Tyrod made many, many big plays that contributed to the Buffalo victory.  He was never asked to win the game himself.

Ironically, that is exactly the general idea that Denver operates under with their quarterback Trevor Siemian.  They want to play great defense, run the ball, and let Siemian make good decisions in the passing game.  They don’t want him to have to win the game for them.

As they fell behind, though, they had to depend more and more on Siemian.  He ended up tossing two interceptions contributing to the 26-16 loss (gamebook).

It is understood that Denver is not built to come from behind.  This will almost certainly catch up with them at some critical point during the season.

Speaking of Quarterbacks

I have promised on several occasions to initiate a discussion of Giant quarterback Eli Manning.  I had intended to do this at some point when baseball season was over and the discussion here is only on football.  But Eli did that thing on Sunday that he does better than any quarterback that I can remember.

After three very unremarkable quarters of football, the Giants, trailing 14-0 at this point, seemed on their way to another bloodless loss.  Then, out of nowhere, Eli and the Giant offense flipped the switch.  They scored 24 points in the fourth quarter.  They still lost – on a last minute field goal (gamebook) – but the complexion of the game suddenly changed.

There are – of course – other fourth-quarter quarterbacks.  But none of them that I remember have the Teflon ego that Eli seems to have.  Eli can be awful for three quarters, and then play the fourth as though none of that had ever happened.

It used to puzzle me that he could do that, until a couple of seasons ago I remembered.  He’s Peyton Manning’s little brother.  Then it all made sense.

What must it be like to grow up the highly competitive little brother of the highly competitive Peyton Manning?  They must have challenged each other in every sport imaginable, from checkers to ping pong to one-on-one basketball.  And, of course, Peyton would always win.  He was older (and, frankly better) at all those things, so every time Eli followed Peyton onto the basketball court, he knew he was in for a beating.

So why would he do it?  Picture in your mind Eli, the snarky little brother, who lives for that one moment.  He’s losing 22-0, but he has that one play – he fakes a jumper, but spins around to get his one unchallenged layup.

And that is the game.  The scoreboard is now irrelevant.  In that glorious moment – that he will never let Peyton forget until the next time they take the court – Eli has completely undone all the indignities of the first part of the game.  He’d gotten him.  It was just one play, but Eli knew that it would burn in his brother’s psyche.

Fast forward about 20 years and Eli is an NFL quarterback.  But that mentality is still in there.  Inside he is still that snarky little kid who can take a beating that would shake – a least a little bit – the confidence of even established players.  This doesn’t make Eli a great quarterback.  But it gives him a very interesting ability.

As to the Eagles, I don’t know if head coach Doug Pederson reads my blog, but he certainly responded as if he did.  One week after I chided him for ignoring LeGarrette Blount and his running game, Philadelphia ran for 193 yards – 67 by Blount.  Not surprisingly, they won.

Living in a Grinders Paradise

A trend I have mentioned a few times over the last part of the season reached – I hope – its nadir last night.  A Cardinal team that seems increasingly unwilling to swing the bat watched pitch after pitch go by last night.  Of the 173 pitches delivered over 11 grueling innings in a game the Cardinals desperately needed to keep alive their faint playoff hopes, the Cards swung at only 62 (36%).  They did grind – averaging as a team 4.22 pitches per plate appearance (for context, Matt Carpenter averages 4.45 pitches per plate appearance for the season).  But 40.5% of the pitches they took were called strikes, leading to 17 strikeouts and only 4 walks.  Eight of the 17 Cardinals who struck out were called out on strikes

Meanwhile, St Louis finished the eleven-inning fiasco with 1 run and only 6 hits.  The team batting average falls to .239 for the month.

Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham was about the only offense the Cards had going for them last night.  With 2 singles and a walk, Pham added 2 stolen bases and scored the team’s only run.  Tommy is still finishing strong.  He is now up to .306 with a .444 on base percentage for the month.  Since the All-Star Break, Pham is hitting .321 (75 for 234) with a .437 on base percentage (Tommy has walked 43 times, been hit by 6 pitches, and has stolen 14 bases in 17 attempts in the season’s second half).

Of the 29 pitches tossed to Tommy last night, he only swung at 7.  All season, Pham has been one of the most selective of the Cardinal hitters.  For the season, he only swings at 38.1% of the pitches he sees.  As the season goes on, though, Tommy is getting even more selective.  This month, his swing percentage is down to 33.4%.

Matt Carpenter

Struggling with a balky shoulder off and on all year, Matt Carpenter’s season came to an ignominious end with an 0-for-4 that featured 4 strikeouts.  Matt finishes September hitting .230 (but with a .420 on base percentage as he drew his twentieth walk in his twenty-one games).

When Carpenter came to the plate in the third inning with a runner at first and one out, it would be the 97th and final opportunity for Matt to ground into a double play.  He struck out.  One thing about striking out and hitting fly balls – they keep you out of double plays.  Matt bounced into only 5 all year.  Among season-long regulars, his 5.2% was the lowest on the team.

After the game, Matt admitted to taking pitches he might otherwise have swung at.  The evidence is in the statistics.  Over the course of the season, Carpenter swung at the first pitch just 13.2% of the time.  In the second half of the season, that ratio dropped to only 9.2%.  In 82 September plate appearances, Carpenter swung at the first pitch just 3 times.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler couldn’t break out of his late season swoon in time to extend the Cardinals hopes.  He was also 0 for 4 with 3 strikeouts.  Fowler welcomes Milwaukee hitting just .185 (5 for 27) over his last 7 games.

Fowler swung the bat 13 times last night, missing on 6 of the swings.  During the month of September, Dexter is missing on a team-leading 30.6% of his swings – higher even than Randal Grichuk’s 30.1%.

Dexter also saw 29 pitches last night (5.8 per).  For the month of September he trails only Carpenter in pitches per PA with 4.24.

Stephen Piscotty

As he returned from Memphis, Piscotty expressed the hope that he could get hot coming down the stretch.  That didn’t happen.  Piscotty went hitless in 3 at bats last night, and is 0 for 13 over his last 5 games.  It has been 15 games since Stephen has driven in a run – a span during which he has hit .191 (9 for 47) with only 2 extra base hits.  His September average is down to .231, and for the second half it’s down to just .229 (25 for 109).

Piscotty also had an opportunity to bounce into a double play.  In the fourth inning he had Jedd Gyorko on first with one out.  Stephen didn’t bounce into the double play.  He struck out into it instead.  Still, this month, Piscotty has bounced into just 1 DP in 17 such opportunities.

Carson Kelly

Carson Kelly made his fourth start in the last five games last night.  He is 1 for 15 (.067), and is 0 for 11 since Yadier Molina went on concussion protocol.  Carson is the top rated catching prospect in baseball.  It would help, though, if he would get a hit once in a while.

All four first pitches to Carson last night were strikes – although he only swung at one of them.  In his 30 plate appearances, Carson is seeing first pitch strikes 76.7% of the time.  No other non-pitcher on the team is getting challenged with the first pitch as often as Kelly.

Kelly swung the bat 4 times last night, fouling a pitch off and putting the ball in play with his other swings.  Kelly has only missed on 16.2% of his swings since joining the team.  He is also putting the ball in play with an impressive 49.5% of his swings.

Lance Lynn

If this was, indeed, Lance Lynn’s last start as a Cardinal it ended on a fairly ironic note.  Noted early in his career for the consistency of run support that he received, Lance will exit seeing no runs scored for him in his last game.  Moreover, this will be the third time in his last 5 games that St Louis was kept off the scoreboard while he was the pitcher of record.  In fact, over his last 27 starts, the Cardinals averaged just 3.00 runs per start for him.

Lance, nonetheless, finishes with an excellent 3.43 ERA – which was 3.21 in 15 second half starts in his first season returned from Tommy John surgery.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil delivered a scoreless seventh in the tie game, and continues to show incremental improvement in the season’s dying days.  His September ERA drops to 2.25 in 12 innings.  He had them three-up-and-three down on 9 pitches last night.  In his September innings, Brett is only facing 3.42 batter per inning, and throwing just 12.08 pitches per inning.  Over the course of the whole season, Cecil has thrown just 3.58 pitches per batter.

Eight of his nine pitches were strikes.  He spent almost the entire first half looking for the strike zone, as only 63.5% of his pre-All-Star Game pitches were strikes.  Between the break and the beginning of September, his percentage jumped to 69.4%.  This month, 73.1% of his pitches have been strikes.

Juan Nicasio

Juan Nicasio kept them off the board in the eighth, but it took him 20 pitches to work through the inning.  Since he has been a Cardinal, Juan has averaged 17.5 pitches per inning, and 4.38 pitches per batter.  Only Tyler Lyons (18.45 and 4.41) has thrown more pitches per inning and per batter this month than Nicasio.

Sam Tuivailala

Sam Tuivailala kept the game tied through the ninth.  Sam has been having a very solid September.  He now has a 2.00 ERA in 9 innings this month.  He faced only 3 batters last night, throwing 7 strikes in just 9 pitches.  This month, Sam is averaging just 3.56 batters per inning, just 12.00 pitches thrown per inning, just 3.38 pitches per batter, while throwing strikes with 73.1% of his pitches.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia dispatched his 3 batters in the tenth (including one who struck out) on only 8 pitches.  Even though Brebbia has struck out 17 batters in 10.2 innings this month, he has done so throwing a surprisingly economical 3.36 pitches per batter.  Seven of last night’s eight pitches were strikes.  John throws strikes 68.5% of the time over the course of the season.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman faced 5 batters in last night’s decisive eleventh inning.  One of them struck out, and the other four hit ground balls.  It resulted in two hits and the run that eliminated the Cardinals from playoff contention.  That’s the way the ball bounces sometimes.

Matthew has gotten ground balls from 14 of the 21 batters he’s faced this month, and 56.2% on the year – the highest ratio of anyone on the staff with more than 20 innings pitched.

Elimination Season Almost Ended

For all their warts, the Cardinals were the second to last team to be eliminated from playoff contention this year.  Milwaukee or Colorado will be the last.  Everyone else is already in or out.

NoteBook

With the loss, the Cardinals fall to 43-35 at home.  Of the 25 home series they have played, they have won 12, lost 10, and split the other 3.

With Milwaukee having won two of three from Cincinnati, the Cards will play no more teams this season that have either lost or split their previous series.  So the final tallies on those situations are:

St Louis finished just 37-36 against teams that had lost their previous series.  Those games averaged 3:06, and drew a total attendance of 2,563,414 (an average of 35,115.3) and were played in average temperatures of 78.5 degrees.  We went 11-10-2 in those series, sweeping 3 of the 5 we had a chance to sweep, and being swept in 3 of the 4 that we were in danger of being swept in.  We were 4-5 in rubber games against teams that had lost their previous series.

We only played 6 teams this season that had split their previous series, and we beat them up in good order, going 13-4 in those games.  Those games averaged 2:58.8 and drew a total attendance of 726,554 (an average of 42,738.5).  The average temperature of those games was 79.4 degrees.  We won 5 of the 6 series, including sweeps in 3 of 4 opportunities while avoiding the sweep in the only such series lost all season.  We won the one rubber game played in these series.

Cards Can’t Add to One Run Lead, Lose Again

In many ways, last night’s games was eerily similar to the first John Lackey game about a week and a half ago.  In that game – on Friday, September 15 – Lackey served up an early run (a first inning home run off the bat of Tommy Pham).  And there it sat.  One lonely run, sitting on the scoreboard through the fourth inning.  One run, just waiting for the Cubs to bounce back.

After the Cubs did tie the game in the fourth, St Louis came back with another run in the fifth.  And there it sat.  A one run lead, just waiting.  This time it waited a shorter period of time, till the bottom of the sixth when Chicago erupted for 7 runs that decided the contest 8-2 (box score).

Fast forward to last night.  Again, Lackey serves up the early run (this time in the second inning).  And there it sat.  One lonely run.  It sat there, un-added upon, through the third, the fourth, the fifth and the sixth.  Finally, one more big inning from the Cubs (a five-run seventh) sent the Cards to defeat 5-1 (box score).

St Louis has now scored the first run in 7 of their last 8 games, but have lost 3 of the last 4.  One reason has been a consistent inability to add to a one run lead.

Last night, from the moment they pushed ahead 1-0 until they came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh trailing 5-1, St Louis was 0 for 14.  For the month of September, St Louis is hitting just .155 when clinging to a one run lead.  Since the All-Star Break the sometimes dynamic Cardinal offense (that is averaging 4.96 runs per game over its last 70 games) is scuffling along at a .209 batting average when holding a lead of one lonely run.

Delivering that knockout blow is another of the many elements lacking in the Cardinals game as they come down the stretch.

With only 5 hits on the night, the Cardinal batting average for the month of September fades to .242.

Paul DeJong

The only Cardinal hitter that showed much of a pulse last night was rookie Paul DeJong.  He was the only Cardinal with two hits, accounting for the only Cardinal extra-base hit and the only Cardinal run batted in.  Paul has two hits in each of the last two games.

DeJong’s RBI came in the second inning, breaking a 0-0 tie.  Many of Paul’s best moments have come while the game is tied.  This month, Paul is 7 for 23 (.304) and 23 for 73 (.315) in the second half when batting in tie games.  For the season, Paul is a .311 hitter (32 for 103) and a .534 slugger (5 doubles and 6 home runs) when batting in a tie game.

Dexter Fowler

After being one of the driving forces of the offense in the second half, Dexter Fowler has run into a dry stretch.  As the Cards have suffered four damaging losses in their last five games, Fowler has been 3 for 19 (.158).  He has drawn 1 walk, scored 1 run, and driven in no runs in that span.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko was another of the Cardinal bats quieted last night – he went 0 for 3.  Jedd has been hitting quite a bit better lately – and in fact, had 5 hits in the two previous games.  But his average in a disappointing second half has faded to .224.

Gyorko led off the fourth with the Cards clinging to the one run lead.  He flew out to left.  Since the All-Star Break, Jedd is now 2 for 19 (.105) when batting with that one run lead.

Another Pitching Streak Reaches Record Levels

On Thursday, August 23, 2012 Jake Westbrook went to the mound for the Cards, facing Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros.  It would not be his best start.  He lasted 5 innings, giving 5 runs on 7 hits.  It was all enough, though, to get him a 13-5 win.

More importantly, it broke a streak of 3 straight quality starts (Jaime Garcia, Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse).  And it initiated the longest stretch of games in this century without a quality start from a Cardinal pitcher.  Until last night, that is.  The 2012 streak reached 11 games in a row, until Monday September 3, when Joe Kelly pitched St Louis to a 5-4 victory against the Mets.  He gave just 2 runs over 6.2 innings.

Although Michael Wacha tossed six brilliant innings last night, the 5-run seventh denied the team not just the victory, but the streak stopping quality start.  Over the last 12 games, Cardinal starters have been saddled with a crushing 8.40 ERA.  For the month of September, the rotation has chipped in just 7 quality starts in 25 games, while registering a 4.63 ERA.  For the 70 games of the second half, the team ERA has risen to 4.03.

You will, no doubt, remember that earlier this season the Cards allowed at least five runs in 12 consecutive games.  Here, now, is a companion streak.

Michael Wacha

Of all of the Cardinal starters during this long dry spell, Wacha has been statistically the best – and that by quite a bit.  However, he still carries a 5.40 ERA and an 0-2 record over his last 3 starts.  This in spite of the fact that the batting average against has only been .246.  Over the 16.2 innings of those starts, Michael has struck out 19 and allowed just one home run (in last night’s seventh inning).

In a sense, these last three starts have been a kind of microcosm of Michael’s season.  Lots of terrific, impressive moments that somehow haven’t worked out as hoped.

All season Wacha has struggled to hold onto small leads.  In the season’s second half, Wacha has pitched 24.2 innings with a lead of less than four runs.  His ERA in those innings is 6.57 with a .300/.355/.510 batting line against.  This includes a 7.50 ERA when holding a one run lead.  For the season, in 55 innings when leading by no more than 3 runs, Wacha’s ERA is 6.38 with a .298/.355/.505 batting line against.  This includes an 8.62 ERA when pitching with a two-run lead, and a 8.10 ERA (with a .366 batting average against) when holding a three-run lead.

Matthew Bowman

For most of the season, Matthew Bowman’s specialty has been stranding runners.  Of the first 31 runners he inherited, only 5 crossed the plate.  With the one he let in last night, 10 of the last 20 have scored, including 6 of the last 11.  Bowman has been one of several Cardinals who have been given opportunities to impact these critical September games who have too often been found wanting.

Zach Duke

On the other hand, there is Zach Duke.  Off to a kind of brutal start to the season after missing spring training, Duke has been locked in of late.  Inheriting a bases-loaded jam from Bowman, Duke ended the seventh by getting Anthony Rizzo to bounce into a double play.  Duke has now stranded the last 15 base-runners that he has inherited – including three times with the bases loaded.

If the Cards are not interested in pursuing him for next year, they should be.

Sam Tuivailala

Coming into the eighth inning trailing by four runs, Sam Tuivailala delivered a clean eighth inning.  This season, Sam has pitched 25.2 innings with the Cards trailing.  His ERA is 1.05, and his batting line against is an efficient .149/.213/.184. In his 14.2 innings either tied or with his team in the lead, Sam holds a 5.52 ERA with a .344/.400/.594 batting line against.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil also delivered a clean inning – the ninth, in a low impact setting with a four-run deficit.  Cecil has had a forgettable season, but is doing better this month.  In 8 September games – comprising 11 innings – Cecil carries a 2.45 ERA and a .171 batting line against.  He has walked just 1 batter in those innings.

Brett has now pitched 18.1 innings this season with the Cardinals trailing by at least three runs.  In those innings, Brett has a 0.49 ERA with a .119/.143/.153 batting line against.  Cecil also has pitched 6.1 innings with the Cards leading by at least six runs.  He has given no runs and only 4 hits in those innings.

In between, with St Louis either leading by up to five runs, tied, or trailing but by no more than two runs, Cecil has a 6.25 ERA and a .333/.378/.548 batting line against in 40.1 innings.

It is possible that there is no statistic more descriptive of Brett’s season than that.

Cards Withstand Eighth Inning Rally

After three hours and 46 minutes – and 349 pitches – the St Louis Cardinals – clinging by their fingernails in the chase for the National League’s last playoff spot and in a death struggle against their ancient rivals – finally held on to one of the season’s most uncomfortable victories, 8-7 (box score).

Starter Carlos Martinez ground through 4.1 innings that were complicated by 4 hits, 4 walks, a hit batsman, and a batter reaching on a catcher’s interference call that wiped out a potential double play.  In all, that’s 10 base-runners.  But, in a departure from his earlier form, Carlos didn’t unravel.  Pitching under nearly constant pressure, Carlos held his stuff together, allowed only 3 of the runners to score (only two of them earned), and walked off the mound holding a 5-3 lead.

And then there was the eighth inning.  In a throwback to the thready first half when the Cardinal bullpen hemorrhaged runs in that inning, two Chicago home runs put 4 sudden runs on the board and closed St Louis’ big lead back down to a single run.  The Cubs ended the game putting the tying run in scoring position in both the eighth and ninth innings against newly ordained closer Juan Nicasio.

But – for one night, anyway – the Cardinals were the tough ones as they won enough of the tough at bats to hold off the defending world champs.

Time to exhale.

That Nettlesome Eighth Inning

Repeatedly through the first 88 games of the season, games would blow up on the Cards in the eighth inning.  They limped into the break with a 5.63 ERA in this inning, and a .281 batting average against.  Up until last night, the relative competence of the late inning relief corps was one of the marked improvements in the team.  Up until last night, the team’s second half ERA in the eighth inning was 3.44 with a .230 batting average against.

The two home runs in that inning last night bring to 12 the number of eighth inning home runs hit against the Cardinals since the All-Star Break – one more than in any other inning (there have been 11 hit in both the first and fourth innings).  For the season, now, more runs have been scored against this team in the eighth inning (91) than in any other (85 have been scored in the fifth, the next highest inning).  Their ERA in that inning is still 4.87.

Pitchers Still Struggling

Even though Martinez had some gritty moments, at the end of the day, the Cards have still gone 11 straight games without a quality start, and, surrendering 6 more earned runs, the team ERA is up to 5.87 over those games.  The last 11 Cardinal starters have managed just 44.1 innings – fractionally more than 4 per start – with an 8.53 ERA and a .308 batting average against.  If this keeps up, even a sometimes heroic offense will be unable to keep this team in playoff contention.

Carlos Martinez

While he had moments, and all ended well, Martinez is still struggling through the final playoff push.  Over his last 3 starts, Carlos has made it through just 16 innings with a 7.31 ERA and a .279 batting average against.  Through 5 starts in the month of September, Carlos is 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA.

Ironically for Carlos – considering his season long issues with the first inning – the first innings of his last three starts have been perfect.  In his 5 September starts, Carlos has allowed just 1 baserunner – a walk that didn’t score – in the first innings of those games.  Now, it’s the second inning that’s the issue.  His ERA is now 7.20 this month in the second.

Zach Duke

Zach Duke ended the messy fifth inning, and then tossed a flawless sixth.  Zach, who looks like he has finely found that mystic slider, struck out 3 of the 5 Cubs that he faced.  Over this stretch where the starters have been putting a lot on the shoulders of the bullpen, Zach has been one of the members of the pen who has stepped forward.  He holds a 1.69 ERA over the last 11 games (he’s pitched in 6 of them).  Zach has stranded his last 12 inherited runners.

Eight is Enough for the Offense

While September hasn’t been their most efficient month, the Cardinals are still putting enough runs on the board most nights to get a victory.  With the 8 last night, they are averaging 4.88 this month, and 5.01 in the second half.

Tommy Pham

The Summer of Pham isn’t quite over yet.  With 2 more hits last night – including a home run into Big Mac Land, Tommy Pham has pushed his September batting line to .303/.432/.576.  Since the All-Star Break, Tommy has been to the plate 277 times, with the following results: 46 singles, 14 doubles, 1 triple, 12 home runs, 40 walks, 6 hit-by-pitches, 2 sacrifice bunts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts – a batting line of .320/.433/.548.  In his last 65 games (59 starts), Pham has scored 50 runs.

Jedd Gyorko

With two more hits last night, Jedd Gyorko now has 5 in his last two games – including 2 home runs.  He is now hitting .350 (7 for 20) over his last 7 games (about the time he moved back into the starting lineup), with a .700 slugging percentage.  A hot Gyorko down the stretch could make a big difference.

Randal Grichuk

As September has worn on, it seems that Stephen Piscotty has claimed the top spot in the pecking order in right field.  Randal Grichuk got a spot start there last night and drove in two important runs with opposite field extra-base hits.

Grichuk has never become the superstar that Cardinal fans have hoped.  Not yet anyway.  And it certainly feels like this will be his last month as a Cardinal.  St Louis does have a glut of outfielders.  But, before Randal returns to the bench to watch the end of the season play out, it should be noted that since the All-Star Break Grichuk is a .270/.311/.556 hitter.  In 178 second half at bats, Randal has hit 12 home runs, tied for second on the team with Pham (who has hit his in 228 at bats) and trailing only Paul DeJong (who has hit 15 in 272 at bats).  As they say, these numbers will play.

My point, I guess, is to not be too hasty in unloading the talented Mr. Grichuk.  And, maybe, to give him a few more starts down the stretch.

NoteBook

Matt Carpenter’s first inning home run stood up as the game-winning hit – Carpenter’s fifth of the season.  The team leaders going into the last 5 games of the season are Dexter Fowler with 12; Yadier Molina – 11; Gyorko – 9; Carpenter, DeJong, Grichuk, and Kolten Wong all with 5.

Ten Two-Out Runs Topple the Cards

As if the mental toughness gap that separates the Cardinals and the Cubs needed any more emphasis, Chicago applied another demonstration last night, scoring 10 two-out runs in a 10-2 victory (box score).  For the game, Chicago was 8 for 17 with 2 doubles, 2 home runs and 3 walks with two-outs, a .471/.550/.941 batting line.

Starting Pitching Leads the Great Collapse

Twelve games ago, everything was on the table for the Cardinals.  Coming off a 13-4 battering of Cincinnati in the first game of that series, St Louis stood 76-68, and just two games behind Chicago.  In front of them, they had two more games with Cincinnati, and then seven shots at the Cubs over their final 12 games – with six games against bottom dwellers Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in between.

They couldn’t possibly have been anymore “in it.”

But, beginning with a 6-0 loss to Cincinnati that next day, they have skidded to a 5-7 record over the first 12 games of that crucial stretch – including 4 losses in 4 games against Chicago.  And at the forefront of the tailspin is the starting rotation that we had pinned our hopes on, both for the season and for this crucial stretch.  After last night’s 3-inning, 8-run battering of Luke Weaver, St Louis has just 1 quality start in its last 12 games.  During this stretch, the rotation has pitched fewer innings than the bullpen (50.1 to 53.2), with a 7.69 ERA and a .292 batting average against.

Even after all of this, the Cards still have an outside shot at the second Wild Card.  But at some point their starting pitching will have to give them a chance.

They are much less “in it,” now

Luke Weaver

While he is the latest contributor, Weaver is probably the least responsible for the collapse in the rotation.  He owns the only quality start over the last 12 games, and could have had a second as he led 8-2 after five innings when he was relieved after his last start.  His worst game of the season interrupted a 7-game winning streak, during which he held a 1.61 ERA in 44.2 innings.

Eight of the nine batters who reached against Luke scored yesterday.

Sam Tuivailala

Since the All-Star Break, Sam Tuivailala has been experiencing more difficulties with the first out than the last.  In his seventh inning last night, he gave a leadoff single, but got a double play and a strikeout to avoid any scoring.  Over his last 19.1 innings, batters hitting with no one out are now hitting .333 (9 for 27).  They are now 4 for 23 (.174) with two outs.

Zach Duke

The damage, of course, could have been worse.  Already ahead 10-2, the Cubs had the bases loaded with – again – two out, with Anthony Rizzo at the plate in the eighth inning.  Zach Duke was summoned to put out the fire – which he did by getting a ground out.  It was one of the few times last night that Chicago didn’t get the two-out hit, but rather par for the course for Duke.

Zach has now held batters to a .211 batting average with two outs (4 for 19) this season.  He has stranded his last 11 inherited runners – including twice with the bases loaded.

Hits Still Scarce

While the starters have been creating early deficits, the offense can’t shake its general hitting slump.  With only 6 hits last night, the Cards carry a .243 team batting average for the month – including .240 over the last 12 games.

Jedd Gyorko

With Jose Martinez still battling an injury and Matt Carpenter still slumping, the three hits from Jedd Gyorko last night were a welcomed sight.  Back in the starting lineup, Gyorko is beginning to get his timing back.  Over his last 6 games (5 of them starts), Jedd is hitting .313 (5 for 16).

Jedd’s hits included a two out single in the sixth inning.  All season, Jedd has been one of our better two-out hitters.  He is now hitting .286 this year (36 for 126) with two outs.  Twenty-six of his 66 runs batted in have come with two outs.  He ranks second on the club in two-out batting average (behind only Dexter Fowler) and in two-out runs batted in (behind Yadier Molina’s 29).

Dexter Fowler

As for Fowler, he added two more hits last night, and continues to be the most consistent offensive force on the team.  He has only played in 9 of the last 12 games, but with spectacular effect, hitting .417 (15 for 36) and slugging .750 (3 doubles and 3 home runs).  He has scored 7 runs and driven in 11 in those 9 games.  Since the All-Star break, Dexter has been a .304/.414/.506 hitter.

All of Dexter’s at bats came with two out last night.  He is now 6 for his last 13 two-out at bats – accounting for 5 two-out runs batted in.  As mentioned, Dexter has been the team’s best two-out hitter this year.  He is 38 for 114 with 7 doubles, one triple, 7 home runs and 23 walks – a .333/.449/.596 batting line.  He now has 25 two-out RBIs this season.

Tommy Pham

After hitting .286 with a .429 on base percentage in the first half when batting with two outs, Tommy Pham has struggled to extend innings in the second half – and especially this month.  With his 0-for-2 in last night’s two-out at bats, Tommy is 4 for 21 (.190) this month, and 12 for 51 (.235) in the second half with two outs.  He did, however, draw a two-out walk, his eleventh since the break, keeping his on base percentage at .391 in this situation in the second half.

Paul DeJong

In the middle of the sagging offense is rookie Paul DeJong.  Heroic for much of the season, Paul is fading at the finish.  After his 0-for-3 last night, he is hitting .163 (7 for 43) over these last 12 games.  He is down to .229 (19 for 83) for the month.

During his compelling first half, Paul was uncanny when hitting with no one out – he hit .408 with a .735 slugging percentage.  After popping out to lead off the sixth, DeJong is 1 for his last 17 (an infield hit, at that) when batting with no one out.

The Cardinals had none of their leadoff hitters reach base last night.

Yadier Molina

Yadi is another of the hitters who has struggled during the 12-game downturn.  Molina has played in 11 of the games, hitting .162 (6 for 37) after his 0-for-3 last night.  Molina is now down to .233 for the month (17 for 73).

Stephen Piscotty

Given the lion’s share of the playing time in right field, Stephen Piscotty hasn’t really taken advantage.  With the team struggling for hits and runs, Piscotty has now gone 13 games without driving in a run.  He is hitting .209 (9 for 43) in those games.

Piscotty struck out to end the sixth.  With two outs, now, Stephen is 0 for his last 6, and 1 for 17 (.059) this month.  Since the All-Star Break, Stephen is hitting .156 when hitting with two outs.

Kolten Wong

And, of course, no listing of slumping Cardinal hitters would be complete without including Kolten Wong.  He was also 0 for 3 last night.  Over the last 12 games, Kolten is scuffling along at .125 (4 for 32).  In September, Wong is hitting just .170 (9 for 53).

Wong’s struggles with two outs are very similar to Piscotty’s.  After ending the second inning with a strikeout, Wong is 0 for his last 7, 1 for 13 (.077) this month, and 12 for 61 (.197) since the All-Star Break when hitting with two outs.  He is only a .212 two-out hitter for the season.

Elimination Season Draws to Its Conclusion

As the Cardinals were officially closed out of the NL Central chase, the playoff picture has begun to take definite shape.  The Cardinal’s division is one of only two left unsettled, and that by the slimmest of margins.  Milwaukee will need St Louis to win all of the remaining games in this series to have a chance.  Boston is holding off the Yankees by 4 games in the AL East.  All other division winners have been crowned (Cleveland, Houston, Washington and the Dodgers).

Minnesota will likely be the second Wild Card in the AL – after the Yankees.  A handful of teams trail them, but none closer than 5 games.  Arizona is the top Wild card in the NL.

That second NL Wild Card is the lone remaining playoff spot that will be hotly contested over the season’s last 6 days.  Currently, Colorado holds the spot, with the Brewers 1.5 games behind and, yes, the Cardinals one game behind that.

The Hot Team Hits One of the First Two Pitches

Within five pitches.  That’s how the game account of the Cardinal’s damaging 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh read (box score).  One-time closer Seung-hwan Oh had entered the fifth inning of a 1-1 tie.  The first batter he faced – Christopher Bostick – singled on an 0-2 pitch.  Starling Marte followed by unloading on Oh’s 0-1 pitch.  Five pitches, five strikes, two runs.  And a loss.

All pitchers make mistakes, but mistakes early in the at bat are almost always more damaging.  There is a simple dynamic at play here.  Batters (most of them) are more aggressive early in the count, looking for something they can drive.  Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference) when batters hit one of the first two pitches thrown them, they hit .340 with a .573 slugging percentage.  If the pitcher survives those first two pitches, his average against tumbles to .222 with a .369 slugging percentage.  Overall, batters hit one of the first two pitches 26% of the time.  Yesterday, Cardinal pitchers – including veterans Oh and Brett Cecil – saw 11 of the 35 batters who faced them hit one of the first two pitches (31.4%).  The damage was predictable: 6 for 11, including both home runs and a triple.

In a final twist from the first game of the series, when the Cards were jumping on the first strike thrown to them, St Louis was only 1 for 9 when they hit one of the first two pitches thrown.

The hot team – apparently – hits one of the first two pitches.

Seung-hwan Oh

There is little left to say about the season that Oh is having.  The numbers do tell the story.  The last 4 times he has come into a game that was either tied or one run either way, Oh has managed just 2.1 innings, serving 3 runs on 5 hits (including 2 home runs) – this all leading to a loss, a blown save, a .455 batting average against, and a 1.000 slugging percentage against.

Over his last 13 games, Oh’s ERA is 8.31, and in 18.2 innings since the All-Star Break, Seung-hwan carries a 5.30 ERA, and a batting line against of .303/.333/.500.

I’m not sure where Mike Matheny’s continued confidence in him comes from.

Brett Cecil

Cecil is another depended-upon reliever whose season is fading to a close.  He has now allowed runs in two of his last three games, while his ERA rises to 4.79 with a .304 batting average against since the All-Star break.

“Early mistakes” is one of the trends that has helped define Brett’s disappointing season.  Fully 31.2% of the batters he has faced this season have gotten to him in the first two pitches (including Pittsburgh’s Jordan Luplow who homered off the first pitch he saw from Cecil last night).  Overall, batters who hit one of Brett’s first two pitches are hitting .420 and slugging .642.  When he survives to pitch 3, the batting line against him drops to .199/.257/.325.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia added another good inning.  He threw the seventh, giving a hit, but no runs with 2 strike outs.  This makes six straight scoreless outings for John, and leaves him with just 2 runs allowed in 9 innings this month.  Brebbia carries a 2.48 ERA in the season’s second half with 35 strikeouts in 29 innings.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons kept Pittsburgh off the board in the eighth.  Lyons’ great season continues.  He struck out two batters last night, and has fanned 7 of the last 11 to face him.  He has 37 strikeouts in 27 innings since the break (12.33 per 9 innings) and holds a 1.00 ERA during that stretch.

Lyons has faced 100 batters in the second half.  Only 15 have hit his first or second pitch.  For the season, just 20.5% hit those pitches against Tyler.  None of the 4 he faced last night managed a quick at bat against him.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals See a Lot of Pitches

When operating at peak efficiency, the Cardinals do a great job of walking that line between aggression and taking grinding at bats.  As September wears on, though, they are becoming – by degrees – more grinders than hitters.  Last night, 19 of their 36 batters (52.8%) were up there for more than 4 pitches – leading to 5 walks and a .368 on base percentage in those PAs.  For the month, 40.3% of Cardinal hitters are seeing at least 5 pitches per plate appearance – leading to 77 walks and a .391 on base percentage in those PAs.

But with all of this on base, the actual hits are starting to be few and far between.  The Cards only had 4 hits all game yesterday, and the batters who were grinding at bats were only 2 for 14.  For the month, the 40% of batters who are seeing at least 5 pitches are hitting just .202 in those at bats.  For the month overall, St Louis carries a .245 team batting average.

Tommy Pham

Among the carnage last night was the end of Tommy Pham’s latest hitting streak, a modest six-gamer during which Pham hit .444 (12 for 27) and slugged .667 (3 doubles and 1 home run).  Tommy scored 5 runs and drove in 5 other during the streak.

Jedd Gyorko

Bouncing back into the lineup after an extended absence is hard enough.  Without a few minor league games to warm up in, it’s even more difficult.  Jedd Gyorko – who was enduring a struggling second half anyway – has experienced further difficulty after returning from his hamstring injury.  Over his last 7 games, he is 2 for 15 (.133) and in the second half his average is down to .204 (29 for 142).

Jedd pushed all of his plate appearances last night past 4 pitches, and 9 of the 16 that he has had since his return.  Since the All-Star Break, 44.4% of his plate appearances have lasted at least 5 pitches.

But, again, Jedd was 0 for 2 last night.  He is also 1 for 8 this month and 12 for 54 (.222) since the break in at bats that last more than 4 pitches.

Kolten Wong

Also still struggling to regain his earlier form is Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, Wong is down to .180 (9 for 50) this month.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In spite of everything, St Louis makes it to the final homestand still moderately relevant.  A good homestand (meaning 5-2 or better) could very well eke this team into the playoffs.

That, of course, would mean that they would have to win games against Chicago and Milwaukee – tasks that they have found difficult to achieve with any consistency.  It they do sneak in, they will have done it the hard way.

NoteBook

Sunday’s game was the final road game of the season for the Cardinals.  The final road tally is: 39 wins, 42 losses, 402 runs scored, 374 runs allowed, 3:04.3 average game time, 2,537,288 total attendance (an average of 31,324.5 per game), 77.1 degrees of average temperature, 10 series won, 13 series lost, 3 series split, 4 series swept in 7 opportunities, while they were the victims of 5 sweeps in 6 opportunities.  They finished 2-7 in rubber games on the road.

The Pirate series was the twenty-fifth series this season that St Louis won the first game of the series.  With the loss, they are 16-5-4 in those series, with a 53-25 record (just 28-25 after that first game).

St Louis is now, also, 11-10-2 in series against teams that had lost their previous series.  They have been consistently unable to take advantage of teams that had been playing poorly.  They are just 37-36 in the games of those series, including just 4-5 in rubber games.

The Hot Team Hits the First Strike

The game was still scoreless in the first inning when Dexter Fowler set the tone for the evening.  With Matt Carpenter at third and one out, Dexter cuffed the first strike he saw from Pittsburgh right-hander Ivan Nova up the middle for the single that drove in the first Cardinal run.

Eight innings later – with the Cardinals now trailing 3-2 in the ninth – Stephen Piscotty slapped the first strike he saw from Pirate closer Felipe Rivero down the right-field line for the double that initiated the two-run rally that brought the Cards a gritty 4-3 win (box score).

The Pirate pitching staff made very few mistakes with their first strikes, but when you are facing the hot team, they will take advantage when you do get too close to the zone.  St Louis was 4 for 8 last night when they hit the first strike.

Conversely, the Pirates had some first-strikes to hit in important situations as well.  After Pittsburgh bounced back to tie the game at 2 in the fourth inning, Elias Diaz came to the plate with runners at first and third and just one out.  He jumped on the first strike he saw from Michael Wacha – and grounded into an inning ending double play.

With the Pirates leading 3-2 in the seventh, Adam Frazier had runners at second and third with one out.  He got a first-strike to his liking from Matthew Bowman, but only bounced it to second.

Through the eighth and ninth innings, ex-Buc Juan Nicasio faced three batters in a row (Josh Bell, David Freese and Gregory Polanco) who all jumped his first pitch.  They were 0 for 3 (two ground balls and a fly out).

For the game, Pittsburgh was only 2 for 12 when hitting the first strike.  Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), batters are hitting .348/.408/.607 when they hit the first strike.

Probably, on some other day, the Pirates might have turned most of those pitches into line drives into the gap.  But, as the season winds down – at least as long as they are not playing Chicago – St Louis is the team swinging the hot bat, and Pittsburgh is not.

Cardinal hitters were also 6 for 17 (.353) when hitting with two strikes – another hint that they are a hot team right now.  Across all of baseball, batters in two-strike counts are hitting .176/.249/.280.

Dexter Fowler

Of course, the hottest of the hot continues to be Dexter Fowler.  With 2 more hits and 2 more RBIs last night, Fowler has fashioned together a nice little six-game hitting streak, during which he is hitting a capable .520 (13 for 25) and slugging an acceptable 1.000 (he has 3 doubles and 3 home runs in those games).  Dexter has multiple hits in all but one of the games, has driven in at least 2 runs in each of the last 5 games, during which time he also has 3 game-winning hits (including last night) and 3 late, game-changing hits (also including last night).  Fowler has now wrested the team lead in game-winning-RBIs from Yadier Molina 12-11.  His 9 late, game-changing hits are more than twice as many as any other Cardinal.

Fowler is slashing .400/.478/.800 for the month of September, but a variety of injuries has limited him to just 11 of the 20 games played.  He has had 179 plate appearances since the All-Star Break, during which he has contributed 28 singles, 12 doubles, 4 triples, 4 home runs, 28 walks, 2 hit-by-pitches, and 2 sacrifice flies – a .313/.425/.531 batting line.  Last night’s win was St Louis’ 55th in its last 95 games (.579).  Fowler has been a significant spoke in the wheel, hitting .320/.421/.581 since early June.

When he’s hot, Dexter can certainly carry a club.

Both of his hits and his game-winning ground out came on the first strike thrown to him last night.  Since the break, Fowler is hitting .476 (20 for 42) when he hits the first strike in an at bat.  He is 7 for 9 this month alone.

Stephen Piscotty

Piscotty isn’t as torrid as Fowler by any stretch of the imagination.  But he does continue to show signs that he has turned things around since his refresher course in Memphis.  Piscotty (who had two hits last night) has been back for 25 games now, during which he is hitting .293 (22 for 75).

Pitching Staff Continues to Come Together

A mystery for much of the season, the Cardinal pitching staff in September has looked more like the collection of arms we thought we would see all year.  The team ERA is now down to 3.31 for the month.  Equally as important, after yielding only 5 hits last night, the team batting average against is down to .233 on the month.  For the year, teams are hitting a surprising .252 against Cardinal pitching.

Bullpen Making them Earn It

John Brebbia walked a batter in the sixth inning.  It led to nothing, but it’s noteworthy for the infrequency of the occurrence.  The St Louis bullpen has now walked just 17 batters in 63.2 innings this month (1 of those intentionally) – an average of just 2.26 unintentional walks every 9 innings.  The on base percentage against the Cardinal bullpen this month is just .293.

John Brebbia

Brebbia did give up the walk, but has settled in rather nicely as the sixth inning man.  He hasn’t allowed a run in his last 5 games, and has given just 2 over his last 8 innings.  He has pitched in 28 innings since the All-Star break, with a 2.57 ERA.

John has also been one of the steadying forces in the bullpen in the Cardinal’s turnaround.  As St Louis has played 15-over ball over the last 95 games, Brebbia has been involved in 40 of them, pitching 42 innings with a 2.14 ERA and a .192 batting average against.

In a first-pitch-fastball league, John is not afraid to throw his plus slider as a first pitch.  He’s also not afraid to throw the high fastball and challenge hitters to get on top of it.  He did a little of both last night, getting Starling Marte to fly to left on a first-pitch slider that he didn’t quite square up on, and later getting Josh Bell to hack at that too-high fastball.  He also flew to left on the first pitch.

These are two of the reasons that John has had uncanny success with batters who hit his first strike.  For the season, they are just 5 for 27 (.185) with just 2 doubles (.259 slugging percentage) and just 1 run batted in.

Ryan Sherriff

Ryan Sherriff could have been the losing pitcher last night – he gave the run that put Pittsburgh ahead 3-2 in the seventh.  Of course, he also could have gotten out of the inning without giving up a run were it not for an error on a should-have-been double play ball.  Nonetheless, Ryan has been hit a little hard lately.  He’s allowed runs in two of his last four games and three of his last seven.  He has allowed a total of 5 runs in his last 6 innings, with a batting line against of .292/.393/.583.

The culprit here has mostly been his sinker not sinking so much lately.  When it’s dropping, it’s a tough pitch to lay off of.  And once he gets you to two-strikes, you usually strike out (52.4% strike out).  This happened to Polanco leading off the seventh.

Increasingly, though, Ryan isn’t getting to strike two as his sinker rides high early in the count.  Jordy Mercer got a first-strike sinker that was up in the zone, and he slapped it into right for a single that set up the go ahead run.  The last 7 batters who have hit Ryan’s first strike are 4 for 7, and they are hitting .417 against him (5 for 12) on the year.  Ryan has made it to strike two on only 11 of the 28 batters he’s faced this month (39.3%).

Ryan, of course, has only pitched 10.1 innings in his major league career, so all of this comes with a small-sample-size warning.

NoteBook

With last night’s victory, St Louis has won the first game of 7 of its last 8 series.

Cardinal Hitters Grind Down Reds’ Young Hurlers

These are the names of the Cincinnati pitchers who worked in last night’s game: Rookie Davis, Keury Mella, Luke Farrell, Deck McGuire, and Alejandro Chacin.  I haven’t taken the time to check how many games/innings these pitchers have thrown in the major leagues, but I would guess that it’s pretty negligible – and this is understandable as Cincinnati is trying to evaluate these young pitchers for next year and beyond.

Not always – as I can think of many games this year where young pitchers with minimal experience have tied the Cards in knots – but most of the time the patient, veteran Cardinal hitters have taken advantage of inexperienced (and sometimes veteran) pitchers.  They did this last night.

For background, across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), pitchers generally prosper if they can avoid getting that first pitch swung at.  If the batter takes that first pitch – regardless of whether it’s a ball or a strike – their average drops to .249 with a .417 slugging percentage – and even lower if the first pitch they take is a strike (.223 and .357).

But last night Cardinal hitters – even with the pressure of their uphill push to the playoffs – hit comfortably after taking the first pitch from these young pitchers.

Thirty-three of the forty-four Cardinal batters watched the first pitch go by.  They went on to hit .321/.424/.714.  Even the 17 that took first pitch strikes went on to hit .313/.353/1.250.

This isn’t necessarily an isolated occurrence.  Again (according to baseball reference), the Cards rank fourth in all of baseball in team batting average (.262) after taking the first pitch, trailing only Houston (.272), Colorado (.271), and Washington (.263).  They lead all of baseball in on base percentage in those at bats (.359).  The Cubs are second at .357.  They trail only Houston in slugging percentage after taking the first pitch, .450-.443.

I think all along as we have followed this team, we have appreciated their ability to take pitches and work at bats.  Perhaps we didn’t realize that they are among the best in baseball at this.

On the other hand, last night St Louis was only 2 for 10 when they swung at the first pitch.  For the month of September, this team is only hitting .224 when they swing at that first pitch.  Over all of baseball, batters hit .270 in at bats when they swing at the first pitch thrown.

With 9 more runs, St Louis is still scoring 4.89 runs per game this month, and 5.03 runs per game in the season’s second half.

Tommy Pham

Having a breakthrough season, Tommy Pham looks like he will be finishing strong.  With 3 more hits last night, Tommy has 7 in his last 3 games.  Pham now has 250 plate appearances since the All-Star Break.  These have resulted in 42 singles, 13 doubles, 1 triple, 10 home runs, 36 walks, 5 hit-by-pitches, 1 sacrifice bunt, 1 sacrifice fly, and 10 stolen bases.  It all adds up to a convincing .319/.430/.536 batting line.  Tommy has scored 47 runs in 59 games in the season’s second half.

In both the fifth and sixth innings, Tommy took first pitch fast balls right down the middle for strikes, and came back to get hits on pitches later in the at bat that were not as good as the first one he took.  Tommy is kind of the poster child for the Cardinals proficiency in hitting after taking the first pitch.  Pham is a .328/.447/.569 hitter this season when he takes the first pitch, and only a .259/.292/.402 hitter when he comes out swinging.  He was 0 for 1 last night when he swung at the first pitch.

Kolten Wong

While Tommy Pham is finishing his breakthrough season strong, Kolten Wong is limping toward the finish line.  While it’s impossible to tell how much is his back problem and how much is just a slump, what is known is that Kolten is 0 for 15 over his last 6 games, 3 for 32 (.094) over his last 11 games, and 5 for 36 (.139) this month.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver, in winning his sixth straight start and seventh straight decision, only went 5 innings last night, leaving a 6-run lead to the bullpen. Since his return from Memphis on August 17, Luke has pitched in 7 games – 6 as a starter.  He is 6-0 with a 1.41 ERA and 50 strikeouts over 38.1 innings in those games.  In four September starts Luke is 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA and a .209/.227/.291 batting line against.  He has 29 strikeouts in 23.2 September innings.

It is clear that the Cardinals wouldn’t have the slim playoff hope that they have without the notable contribution of Mr. Weaver.

Of the 20 batters Luke faced last night, 15 took his first pitch.  Only 3 of those was called a strike.  Getting ahead 1-0, though, against Luke Weaver doesn’t necessarily ease your way.  None of the 12 walked, and only two managed hits (both singles).  For the season, batters who start out 1-0 against Luke are only hitting .230.

Luke will throw that first-pitch fastball temptingly off the corner and invite the hitter to chase it.  If not, Luke’s fastball has enough late life that even when the hitter is looking for it, it’s hard to barrel up.  Luke is increasingly able to throw his curve and changeup for strikes when behind in the count – making that running fastball all the more difficult to get a jump on.

Luke walked no one last night (no Cardinal pitcher issued a walk), and only went to three-balls on 3 batters.  Luke is armed with a fastball that runs up at about 96.  But he also has great poise and knows how to pitch.  He’s quite developed for a kid who just turned 24.

Hopeful News from the Bullpen

Bullpens don’t tend to get too much notice in a 9-2 blowout (box score) – and understandably so.  But Cincinnati can hit a bit, so shutting them out on 1 hit over the last 4 innings was no mean feat.  During the month of September, the evolving Cardinal bullpen has inched its ERA down to 3.16.  Its reason for hope, but let’s wait and see if they can hold it together against Chicago and Milwaukee.

NoteBook

Last night was the first time in seven games that the Cardinals didn’t trail at some point of the contest.

With the victory, the Cards are 10-12-3 in road series this year.  They are now 37-40 on the road this season.

Yadier Molina’s two-run double brings him to 80 runs batted in this season – tying his career high set in 2013.

Over Early

Unfortunately, a couple of the marquee matchups from Week Two of the NFL were over early.  The most surprising of these was the Dallas-Denver game.  After a 13-3 season last year, the Cowboys lost to the Packers by an eyelash in the Divisional round.  At 9-7, Denver had just missed the playoffs.  The Broncos were expected to be greatly challenged by the potent Dallas Cowboys and their elite running game.

Instead, when they looked up at halftime, the Cowboys found themselves trailing 21-10, having been outgained 246-97, out-rushed (surprisingly) 96-12, and losing the time of possession battle 18:36-11:24.  Things didn’t get any better in the second half, and Denver rolled on through to a 42-17 victory (game book).  Trevor Siemian commanded the offense, throwing the ball just 32 times, while Denver battered the Cowboy defense to the tune of 39 rushes for 178 yards.  The Bronco offense operated at peak efficiency.

For the Cowboys, the mystifying numbers were 40 yards rushing – 24 of them from quarterback Dak Prescott – and 1 lone rushing first down.

Yes, Denver stacked the box to take away the run.  Yes, when that happens it is incumbent on the passing game to take advantage of one-on-one matchups in the secondary.  (Of course, with 3 elite cornerbacks who stuck like glue to the Dallas receivers, there weren’t really any matchups to exploit).

But even granting that, the bottom line is that Dallas handed the ball to star running back Ezekiel Elliott just 4 times in the first half, and only 9 times in the entire game.

In what will be a recurring message in this edition of football notes – and may be a recurring theme this season.  You have to at least try.  Dallas conceded their most potent offensive weapon, and played – I think – right into the hands of the Broncos.

Less surprising – perhaps – was the New England Patriots 36-20 conquest of New Orleans (game book).  The Saints are still a bit of a work in progress – especially defensively – and New England was stinging from a beating they had taken in Week One.  This game was 20-3 after one quarter, and 30-13 at the half.  While most of their running came late – after the game was well in hand, New England did finish up very balanced – 39 passes, 31 runs.  Tom Brady finished his afternoon with 447 yards and 3 touchdown passes.

As for New Orleans, yes, I know the score was lopsided pretty quickly.  But still, as far as the running game goes, you have to at least try.  After carrying the ball just 6 times for 18 yards in New Orleans’ first game, former Minnesota star Adrian Peterson carried just 8 times for 26 yards.  I can’t imagine this was the plan when he came to the Saints.

Over Early – Well, Maybe Not

Headed in that same direction were the Green Bay Packers, who looked up to find themselves down 24-7 at the half in Atlanta.  Green Bay, however, didn’t roll over.

With quarterback Aaron Rodgers chucking the ball 32 times in the second half – and throwing for 258 yards and a couple of touchdowns, the Packers threatened to make a game of it, ending up on the downside of a 34-23 score (game book).  The Packers were 3 for 3 on fourth down.

Green Bay has some work to do to narrow the gap between them and the Falcons.  One aspect that doesn’t help is their running game.  With Ty Montgomery enthroned as the “feature” back, the Pack finished the game with 59 rushing yards on 15 carries – 10 of them by Montgomery – while Rodgers threw the ball 50 times.  Again, Green Bay was in comeback mode – I get that.  But my concern is that this is about what Green Bay will always get from their running game.  I just don’t see Ty Montgomery carrying the ball 20 times a game and still being healthy through Week 8.

The Packers seem to be one-dimensional by design.  And even though Rodgers is a truly great quarterback, that puts enormous strain on that passing game – even when fully healthy.  And now with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb banged up a little, the sledding will get even rougher.

Tine to File a Missing Person’s Report?

In the moments following his team’s 27-20 loss in Kansas City (game book), Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson lamented his team’s inability to get their running game going.

Well, hmm.  Let’s see.  Quarterback Carson Wentz handed the ball off all of 8 times in the first half and 13 times all day.  This in a game that Philadelphia never trailed in by more than one score until the last two minutes.

You know what, Doug, you have to at least try to run the ball.  Last week I mentioned that a lack of a running game would eventually catch up to Wentz and the Eagle offense.  So this week, Wentz accounted for 55 of Philadelphia’s 107 running yards and was sacked six times.

During all of this, LeGarrette Blount – he of the 1100 yards for New England last year – has completely vanished.  After getting 14 carries in Week One, he got zero on Sunday.  His only touch of the day was one pass thrown in his direction – which he caught for 0 yards.

If you are missing for two weeks, isn’t that the legal threshold for filing a missing person’s report?

Cards Hang On for Rare One-Run Victory

Every so often we see a glimpse of the team that the organization thought we would be this year.  We got one such glimpse last night, as a resilient offense erased two deficits – one a four-run deficit – to pull out a one-run, extra-inning victory.  These kinds of efforts, though, have been much more the exception than the rule.  St Louis is only 5-8 in extra innings, and 21-28 in one-run games (8-12 in the second half).

Although the run-scoring has slowed a little recently, the runs scored in the 8-7 victory (box score) kept the average at 4.97 since the All-Star Break.  That’s good, but increasingly this team is struggling to get hits.  They scored their 8 runs yesterday on just 8 hits through 10 innings.  During the month of September, the team batting average has fallen to just .235.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler has come back ready to hit.  He drove the team to last night’s victory, tying the game with an eighth-inning home run and giving the team the lead with a double in the tenth.  Dexter finished with 3 hits, and has had 7 in the three games since he’s returned to the lineup.  He has driven in 5 runs over the last 2 games, and almost had 3 home runs and 6 runs batted in over those games.

Fowler has only been healthy enough to play in 8 games so far this month, but is hitting .370 (10 for 27) and slugging .778 (5 extra base hits) when he has.  Fowler is hitting .340/.453/.617 in 28 games since coming off the disabled list.  After a forgettable first half, Fowler is hitting .299/.415/.500 in the second half – albeit in only 39 games.

Fowler’s tenth-inning double stood up as his tenth game-winning run batted in of the season.  He trails only Yadier Molina – who has 11 – for the team lead.  His two late, game-changing hits were his seventh and eighth such hits of the season.  No other Cardinal has more than 4.

If one-run games are considered character games – and I consider that they are – then Dexter is one of the few Cardinals who has consistently shown up in these games.  The Cards have played in 4 this month.  Fowler is 7 for 16 (.438) with a double, a triple, and 2 home runs (1.000 slugging percentage) in those games.  In those 4 games, he has scored 5 runs and driven in 6.

He has played in 13 of the Cardinals’ 20 one-run games since the break, hitting .353 (18 for 51) and slugging .588 (4 doubles, 1 triple, and the 2 home runs).  Even after his uneven first half, Fowler is hitting .277 (39 for 141) and slugging .596 in 37 one-run games this season.  Ten of his 17 home runs have come in games decided by one run.

Since most one-run games are fairly dominated by the pitchers, this kind of offense is impressive, indeed.

Kolten Wong

Troubles continued for Kolten Wong, now hitless in his last 11 at bats after his 0 for 4 last night.  Wong did get hit by a pitch, steal a base, and score the game deciding run in the tenth.  Even while struggling to hit, Kolten is still reaching base.

In his 8 games since being sidelined by a stiff back, Wong is only 3 for 20 (.150), but has 6 walks and 2 hit-by-pitches for a .393 on base percentage.  He is down to just .156 for the month (5 for 32) – although with a .341 on base percentage.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko is back in the lineup, but perhaps a little rusty from his layoff.  The hamstring injury has been just another complication in what has been trying second half.  With his 0 for 4 yesterday, Jedd is hitting .203 (27 for 133) since the All-Star Break.

Jedd has played in 40 of the Cards 49 one-run games.  He is hitting just .216 in those games (29 for 134) with 3 home runs and 16 runs batted in.

Stephen Piscotty

One-run games have come with particular difficulty for Stephen Piscotty – especially since the All-Star Break.  Overall, Stephen has hit much better since his return from Memphis.  Unless the game is decided by one run.

After his 0 for 4 last night, Piscotty is 0 for 7 in 3 one-run games this month, and .042 (1 for 24) in 9 one-run games since the break.  For the season, Piscotty has played in 34 one-run games, hitting .190 (19 for 100) with 2 home runs and just 7 runs batted in.

Brett Cecil

After two excellent innings in relief, Brett Cecil was asked to pitch a third inning when he went out for the sixth with the Cards clinging to a 5-4 lead.  A walk and a double set the stage for a couple runs to score.  With the damage, Brett’s ERA popped back over 4 for the season (4.04) and back up to an even 5.00 in 27 second half innings.

Tyler Lyons

At the end of the game, it was Tyler Lyons securing the last two outs and claiming the save.  In recent games, Lyons hasn’t been as dominant as he has been during most of the season.  Still, his ERA sits at 2.68 for the season – and 1.11 in 24.1 innings in the season’s second half.

Relief pitching is, perhaps, the most critical factor in winning one-run games.  Certainly much of the Cardinal’s futility in these games can be traced to the bullpen’s 4.10 ERA in the 49 one run games.

Lyons, however, has been one of the strongest bullpen links in these games.  He holds a 2.16 ERA and a .160 batting average against in 8.1 innings in the second half, and a 1.80 ERA with a .212 batting average against in 15 innings for the year in one-run games.

NoteBook

In falling behind 4-0, the Cardinals have gone three straight games without scoring first, and have done so only once in their last seven games (Tommy Pham’s first inning home run in the first game in Chicago).

Last night’s win gives the Cards opening game wins in 6 of their last 7 series – all except the series in Chicago.

Jack Flaherty’s abbreviated start brings to four the number of consecutive games without a quality start from the rotation.  They have only 2 in the last 8 games.  No Cardinal has thrown a quality start since Luke Weaver’s last start.

One day after I noted in passing the ongoing struggles this team has had in games where Chris Segal is calling balls and strikes, guess who will be behind the plate tonight?  He is likely to be the only umpire who will call five games for the Cards this season.

Random Stats With 13 Games Left

A random look at some broader trends that have shaped the Cardinal season.

Better Against Right-Handers

Even with losses to two right-handed starters in the last series, St Louis is still 7-4 this month against righties.  This is kind of news, because this season beating right-handers has been much more difficult than in seasons past.  With the 7-4 this month, St Louis is now 27-21 (.563) in the second half, but just 58-57 (.504) on the season overall, against right-handed starters.

While this franchise has had historic struggles against lefties, this year’s edition is 3-2 this month, 7-6 since the break, and 19-15 (.559) for the season when facing a left-handed starter.

Pitching Improves in Second Half

To this point of the month, the Cards have yet to lose a game in which they’ve scored 4 runs or more.  The bad news is that they have managed that number of runs in only half of their games.  Since the All-Star Break, they are 25-1 (.962) when they score at least 5 runs.  These numbers tell – a little bit – the story of the improvement in the pitching as the season goes along.  For the year, they are only 9-12 (.429) when they score exactly 4 runs, and just 7-9 in the 16 games where they’ve scored exactly 5 runs.

For the season, St Louis has had to score at least 6 runs before their chances of victory climb over 50%.  When scoring six or more, the Cards are 47-5 (.904).  At five runs or less, they are 30-67 (.309).

In the 16 games played so far in September, Cardinal pitching has surrendered more than four runs only 3 times.  In the 61 games since the All-Star Break, St Louis has allowed 5 runs or more just 22 times (36%).  In the season’s first 88 games, Cardinal pitching surrendered 5 or more runs 41 times (47%), including a historic streak.

Getting Better at Holding Leads

In 9 of the first 16 games played this month, St Louis has managed to get out to at least a two-run lead.  They have won all 9 of those games.  They’ve lost 4 games this month in which they never held a lead.  In three other games, they’ve taken a one-run lead, but couldn’t push the lead to two runs.  They have lost 2 of those 3 games.

Since the All-Star Break, they have already lost 4 games that they led in by as many as 2 runs, and one game (the Chris Segal game on August 16 in Boston) where they held a four-run lead.  They had coughed up 2 other four-run leads in the first half, as the team with a leaky bullpen has seen a multitude of leads vanish.  For the season, there have been 22 games where they have led by a maximum of one run.  They have lost 15 of those games (including 8 of 11 in the second half).  When the Cardinal’s greatest lead in a game is just 2 runs, the team is 12-13.  They are only 9-7 when they open up a three-run lead that they can’t push to four runs.  This has been a sore spot from the very beginning of the season.

St Louis has 38 come-from-ahead losses this year – with 13 of them coming in the second half.

Cards Can Come Back, Too

On the other hand, 6 of the 10 wins they have so far in September have been games in which they trailed at some point.  In 5 September games so far, they have fallen behind, but by no more than 1 run.  They have come back to win 4 of those games.  So far in the second half, they have come back from three-run deficits 5 times, and once they managed their own rally from four-runs down (that happened the day after the Boston game on August 17 in Pittsburgh).  On June 21, St Louis mounted a season-best five-run comeback in a 7-6 win over Philadelphia (box score).

St Louis has 33 come-from-behind victories this year – 19 of them coming after the break.

Games of a Series

St Louis still maintains a sizable advantage in the second games of their series.  Since the All Star Break, they are 15-5 (.750), and are now 30-18 (.625) for the season in game two.

During the second half, they have started to get better in game one.  They have now taken 12 of their last 20 (.600).  For the season, they have still lost more opening games of series (25) than they have won (23).  After going a modest 14-13 in third games of series in the first half, St Louis is only 5-11 (.313) in the second half when they come to game three.

Umpire Watch

St Louis has been fortunate that they haven’t seen Chris Segal since that Boston game.  149 games into the season, Chris is still the only umpire we have seen at home plate 4 times.  St Louis has lost all four of them.

On the good umpire side, Mark Carlson and John Tumpane have both been behind the plate 3 times for the Cards so far this season – with St Louis winning all 6 games.  Throughout his career, Carlson has called 46 Cardinal games.  St Louis is 26-20 (.565) in those games.  Tumpane hasn’t been around as long, but the Cards are now 7-3 all time when John has the plate.  St Louis is 1-6 lifetime with Segal calling balls and strikes.  He was behind the plate for a 6-4 win over Arizona back on May 26, 2015 (box score).

Bruce Dreckman landed behind the plate for the last game of the Cub series.  We have now seen him twice this month – in two of the most defining games of the season.  Bruce was also calling balls and strikes on September 2 in San Francisco.  That was the game where Lance Lynn carried a 1-0 lead after 8 innings of an eventual, ten-inning, 2-1 loss (box score).  Bruce usually does well by us.  We are 16-10 (.615) all time with him behind the plate.

Going Forward

I will not hold out false hope for the playoffs.  The Cards, in losing 4 of the last 5, have dug themselves a hole that will be difficult to climb out of.  The Cubs do have tough games coming up before they land in Bush next week, so the gap could narrow over the next six days.  St Louis would still be faced with the challenge of actually winning some of those games.

With the wind kicked out of their sails, St Louis now has games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh – two teams that have been out of contention for a while.  It will be interesting to see how much passion the team can generate in these games.  Will the disappointment of the lost opportunity drag them down?  Or will they be able to put the last disastrous series behind them and give the Reds and the Pirates their best games?  Even if they don’t crash this season’s post season party, I’d like to see them go down fighting.  It will speak well for the future.