The story of the 2017 St Louis Cardinals season was very much like a drowning man continually fighting his way to the surface for, perhaps, one quick breath before sinking back down again. At the end of the story – and the season – he finally goes down and doesn’t come back up.
In spite of a thrilling opening night win against Chicago (box score), the Cardinals began the season in a free-fall, cobbling together three straight three-game losing streaks.
On Sunday, April 16, the New York Yankees completed their three-game sweep of the Cardinals with a 9-3 victory (box score). At this point, St Louis was 3-9 and quickly 4.5 games back (at that point behind the surprising Cincinnati team that was 8-5).
At this point, there weren’t many positives to hold on to. The team was hitting .212 and scoring 3.50 runs per game. Of the regulars, only Stephen Piscotty (.258) was hitting above .250 (although Jose Martinez, in limited playing time, had started off 6 for 12). Among the scarier batting averages at this point, Randal Grichuk had started off at .182 (8 for 44), Kolten Wong was at .148 (4 for 27), Dexter Fowler started at .143 (7 for 49), and Jhonny Peralta was already on his way out. The cleanup hitter on opening night, Peralta had started just 8 of the first 12, going 3 for 25 (.120).
(Peralta would hang on the Cardinal roster until June 13 when he would be released with a .204 batting average. Later that month, Boston would sign him to a minor league contract. He would play 10 games with Pawtucket in the International League, where he would hit .200 and be released again.)
The starting pitching – ironically enough – was the one aspect of the team that wasn’t terrible. They contributed a 3.80 ERA at that point, led by Mike Leake, who allowed only 1 run through his first two starts. Michael Wacha (3.00) and Carlos Martinez (3.57) had also pitched well, with Lance Lynn (5.23) and Adam Wainwright (7.24) struggling out of the gate.
The stunning development of this opening salvo was the failing of the bullpen. Twelve games into the season, closer Seung-hwan Oh had one blown save and carried a 9.64 ERA. He had served up 2 home runs in his first 4.2 innings. The bullpen as a whole hit mid-April with a 7.34 ERA in 34.1 innings.
The First Bounce Back
But, beginning with three straight 2-1 victories against Pittsburgh from April 17-19, the drowning Cardinals pulled themselves back to the surface. They would go 18-6 over their next 24 games, pulling into first place in their division for the only time all season. After a 5-0 conquest of the Cubs on May 14 (box score), the Cards stood 21-15 and 1 whole game in first place. The run included a perfect 6-0 road trip through Atlanta and Miami.
During the streak, the Cardinals showed the first glimpse of the team we thought we would see most of the season. They scored 5.13 runs per game during that stretch, hitting .285 as a team.
This run featured the last hot streak that Matt Adams would have as a member of the Cards. He played in 18 of the 24 games, hitting .435 (10 for 23) and slugging .652 (2 doubles and 1 home run). Adams, of course, was later given to Atlanta, where – finally getting consistent playing time – Matt finished the season hitting 19 home runs and hitting .271 in 100 games as a Brave.
At about this point of the season, the first two contributors from Memphis arrived in the majors and began having an impact.
Exciting rookie, Magneuris Sierra played in his first 6 major league games, hitting .375 (9 for 24). This was also the beginning of the Summer of Pham.
Cut from the big league roster in favor of Jose Martinez at the start of the season, Tommy Pham arrived from Memphis sending the clear signal that he would not be returning. In his first 9 game back, Tommy hit a scorching .371 (13 for 35) that included 4 doubles and 3 home runs. In those first 9 games, Tommy scored 8 runs, drove in 8 runs, and slugged .743.
This was also the beginning of a surprising transformation in Jedd Gyorko. Having taken over at third base, and showing a surprising willingness to drive the ball to right field, Gyorko hit .363 (29 for 80) while playing 22 of the 24 games. Thirteen of the 29 hits went for extra-bases (five of them home runs) leading to a .663 slugging percentage during this stretch.
Other hot hitters during this 24-game surge included Fowler, who slashed .295/.405/.623; Wong, who rebounded from his slow start to hit .294 and cement his place as the starting second baseman; Yadier Molina, who hit .288; and Grichuk, who showed some life with a .279 batting average and 2 home runs.
Of the prominent Cardinal hitters, the only one who really struggled during this stretch of games, was Piscotty. Stephen, whose season was just beginning to unravel, hit .229 (11 for 48) during these games.
On the pitching side, the resurgence was led by Lance Lynn. Four of his five starts in that stretch were quality starts, as he went 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA. Leake’s hot start was still continuing. He was 3-1, 2.59 while throwing 5 consecutive quality starts. Wacha continued to do well (1-0, 3.28), and Martinez did okay (3-1, 4.06). Adam Wainwright was still lagging at this point of the season. Only 1 of his 5 starts was a quality start, and while his record was 3-0, his ERA sat at 4.40.
But the biggest change – and the one causing the greatest sigh of relief – came from the bullpen. Disastrous through the first 12 games, the pen crafted a 2.58 ERA over these 24 games. Front and center were the two lynchpins who handled the end-game responsibilities.
Shrugging off his early struggles, Seung-hwan Oh allowed just 1 run over his next 14 innings (0.64 ERA) and rattled off 10 consecutive saves. Trevor Rosenthal added 3 saves and 4 holds with a 1.38 ERA while striking out 21 batters in 13 innings.
And Then Boston Came to Town
But, having finally broken the surface, the drowning man immediately went back down. Into town came the Boston Red Sox. While St Louis played some games against Milwaukee and Chicago during their surge, they primarily took advantage of lesser teams. In a pattern that would repeat itself several times during the 2017 season, the surging ceased as the better teams showed up on the schedule.
Boston threw a first dash of cold water on the Cardinal flames. They swept the two game series, with the second game serving as a template for a season full of agonizing defeats.
While Mike Leake was throwing 6 outstanding innings, the Cardinals were ready for Rick Porcello. Porcello – who would end the season leading the majors in losses – served a leadoff home run to Fowler, and then 3 more runs in the second – the biggest hit being an RBI double from Wong.
But that would be it. After two productive innings, the Cardinals would be done scoring, leaving the pitching staff to twist in the wind. Boston finally broke through for a couple of runs against Leake in the seventh, but Mike still walked off the mound after 7 handing off a 4-2 lead to his red-hot bullpen.
Up to that point, the Cards had had multiple opportunities to administer the knock-out blow. Wong had a runner at second with two-out in the third, but he struck out. Leake, himself, led off the fourth with a double, and Fowler walked. But Pham took the wind out of the sails by bouncing into a double play and Matt Carpenter struck out. After Boston closed the gap in the top of the seventh, Molina had yet another opportunity to return the momentum to the Cardinal sideline with two-on and two-out. He grounded out.
In another repeated development, the eighth inning would prove toxic to the bullpen. This time it was Rosenthal – so hot recently – serving up the tying runs, and the game went into extra-innings. Deep into extra-inning.
From the ninth inning through the twelfth, St Louis went 0 for 11 with one walk – Pham, who was promptly thrown out stealing. Boston finally scored the winning run in the top of the thirteenth. The Cards followed by putting one runner on base – Aledmys Diaz’ two out walk – in the bottom of the inning. He was stranded as St Louis concluded the game without a hit over their last five innings and without a run over their final 11 innings.
This was only one loss (box score), but all of these elements would recur again and again. The early lead not added onto. The multiple opportunities for the knockout hit that would never come. The late inning bullpen implosion – these were all the building blocks of the disappointing season ahead.
Beginning with this sweep, and continuing through a season-defining 0-7 road trip through Chicago and Cincinnati that ended on June 8, St Louis lost 17 of 22 games. The losses included two more 13-inning losses against San Francisco and Los Angeles. The San Francisco game was another signature loss (box score). Matched against Jeff Samardzija (who would end the season tied for the National League lead in losses with 15), Carlos Martinez would throw one of the best games of his career, walking off the mound after 9 innings having given only 2 hits and no runs. Unfortunately, the Cards never solved Samardzija either. They wouldn’t score until the bottom of the thirteenth, when, already trailing 3-0, Stephen Piscotty would drive in a run with a two-out single, bringing Matt Carpenter to the plate as the tying run. Seven pitches later, he would end the game with a fly-out.
Over the 22 games, the Cardinal offense disappeared again, hitting .226 and scoring just 3.05 runs per game. Kolten Wong had just begun an offensive explosion that might have made a difference – he hit .381 over 8 games – but an injury sent him to the sidelines. The disappearing bats though these games included Fowler (.214), Carpenter (.165), Jose Martinez – for the first time this season (.158), and Grichuk (.135).
On the pitching end, a lot of excellent starting pitching was wasted by the enfeebled offense and collapsing bullpen. Carlos Martinez compiled a 2.35 ERA through 4 starts, but was just 1-2. Lynn was 0-2 in spite of a 3.07 ERA in his 5 starts. Leake took on some water for the first time this season, but still managed a respectable 3.74 ERA. That, unfortunately, was good for only a 1-3 record. Adam Wainwright’s ERA improved to 3.91 during his 4 starts – and even led to a 3-1 record. Wacha hit the roughest patch from the rotation. He was 0-2, 7.79 in 4 starts.
And then, of course, the bullpen. Everyone but Oh (2.16 ERA in 8.1 innings) regressed during this stretch. Rosenthal (4.91), Brett Cecil (5.40), Kevin Siegrist (5.68), Matthew Bowman (7.20), Tyler Lyons (7.50), and Jonathan Broxton (9.64) all had prominent hands in the 6.30 bullpen ERA that helped define that stretch of games. Siegrist and Broxton would both finish the season out of the picture. Broxton would be released on May 31 with a 6.89 ERA in 15.2 innings. Once an elite late inning pitcher, Siegrist was never able to overcome recent injuries. Philadelphia claimed him off of waivers on September 2. Kevin held a 4.98 ERA with St Louis in 34.1 innings. He pitched 5 innings with Philly, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits.
For all the good of the earlier 18-6 stretch, the Cards could never pull themselves out of their dive – another pattern that would repeat all season. Fifty-eight games into the season, this team was 26-32, and back to 4.5 games behind.
Things brightened for a moment, as a visit from a bad Philadelphia team sparked a four game winning streak that narrowed the gap back to just 1.5 games, but that was just a pause. St Louis went on to lose 8 of their next 11. On the morning of June 25, they sat 33-40, 5 games behind in the division.
Not Dead Yet
Beginning with an 8-4 victory over Pittsburgh on June 25 (box score), the Cardinals began the most encouraging section of their season. Over the next 44 games, this flawed and unbalanced team went 28-16 (a .636 clip). If they could have sustained that pace through the whole season (and I am not implying that 44 games means that they could have sustained this pace through the whole season) they would have been a 103-win team.
Forty-four games is more than a quarter of the season. It is a substantial chunk of the games played, and clarifies what this team needs to looks like for it to win.
The offense hit .272 and scored 5.30 runs per game over that long stretch of the season.
Tommy Pham played in all 44 of the games, hitting .338 with a .435 on-base percentage. He scored 35 runs in those 44 games. Kolten Wong chipped in with a .310 average – although, once again a variety of injuries held him to just 29 games. Molina hit .299. Jose Martinez was still limited to just fourth outfielder status, but in his 75 plate appearances he slashed .295/.413/.508.
Important to this run of offensive production were the contributions of Matt Carpenter and Randal Grichuk. Mired in the worst season of his career, so far, Carpenter enjoyed his one sustained burst of offensive production during these games. He only hit 1 home run during the 41 games he played, but he hit .284 and drew 30 walks (remember this was just 41 games) for a .418 on base percentage.
Grichuk didn’t awe anyone with his batting average (.263), but he hit 11 home runs and drove in 25 runs in the 37 games he played. His .579 slugging percentage was second on the team during this stretch of games. Second to a middle infielder who wasn’t even on the club when they broke camp.
In the middle of all of this offense was promising rookie Paul DeJong. The best part of the Cardinal season corresponded almost exactly to that point in the proceedings when Aledmys Diaz was dispatched to Memphis and DeJong was implanted at shortstop. During this 44-game run, DeJong played in 43 of them, hitting .304 with 12 home runs, 30 runs batted in, and a .589 slugging percentage. In fact from the date that DeJong took over at short, St Louis went 48-39 to the end of the season – a .552 winning percentage that would have been good enough for a playoff berth could that have been sustained for the whole season.
Fading during this stretch of games were third baseman Jedd Gyorko (.232) and Piscotty (.178). Stephen played in only 22 of the games before being sent to Memphis.
But the offense was only half of the story. The team that would finish the season with a 4.01 overall earned run average, saw its beleaguered pitching staff rise to the occasion with a 3.17 ERA over these 44 games. The team that would end the season without a quality start in any of its last 16 games, fashioned 26 during these games.
As the Cards hit their peak, the anchor of the rotation was Lance Lynn. With 8 quality starts in 9 games, Lance was 5-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 54.2 innings during this run. Right behind him was Michael Wacha. Wacha’s season was very uneven, but very encouraging in spots. This was one of those. He threw 5 quality starts in 8 games, fashioning a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA.
This was also the part of the season where Adam Wainwright gave way to Luke Weaver in the rotation. Adam went 5-0 with a 3.89 ERA over his last 7 starts.
Starting to seriously fade at this juncture of the season was April star Mike Leake. While the rest of the team was jelling, Leake scuffled along with a 2-4 record and a 4.34 ERA. Leake, at this point, was also not far removed from his trade to Seattle. After a 9-12, 4.69 season in 2016, Mike was 7-12, 4.21 in 2017 – even after his strong start. He finished up his season going 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 5 starts for the Mariners.
Most surprising were the continued struggles of presumptive ace Carlos Martinez. During his 9 starts during this run, Carlos was just 3-3 with a 4.83 ERA.
Still, with the starters shouldering 255.2 innings over those games, the bullpen picked up only 133.1, and prospered to the tune of a 2.57 ERA. Only 9 of 44 inherited runners (20.5%) ended up scoring.
Topping the list of achievers were John Brebbia and Tyler Lyons (both with 1.53 ERAs in 17.2 innings), and Matthew Bowman (1.80 in 15 innings). Seung-hwan Oh did well (3.18 in 17 innings) but was already starting to fade.
Critical to this run of victories was Trever Rosenthal, who regained his ninth-inning job at this point of the season. He ran off 8 consecutive saves, posting a 2.21 ERA over 20.1 innings. Not, I think, coincidentally, Rosenthal’s season ended with the last game of this run. After searching all season to find their ninth-inning guy, the Cards – who had finally clambered back into a first place tie at 61-56 on August 12 – would now have to go the last 45 games of their season without him.
The 28-16 run finished off with the Cardinals’ longest winning streak of the year – an 8-game run from August 5 through August 12. In the second game of that streak, the Cards would erupt for 9 runs in the fourth inning, breaking open what had been a narrow 4-3 lead and sending them onto a comfortable 13-4 victory in Cincinnati. Through the previous 110 games, St Louis had scored in double figures just 7 times. Beginning with that game (box score), they would score in double figures 8 times over their last 52 games. St Louis scored at least 5 runs in only 48 of their first 110 games (44%). From August 6 on, they scored at least 5 runs in half of their games.
But it Wouldn’t Last
Of course, as soon as St Louis fought its way back into a first-place tie, they immediately hit the skids again. Ten losses over the next 16 games pushed them back down to .500 at 66-66. A couple of weeks before, they had been tied for first. Now they were back to 6 games out. The losses included two more to Boston, one of them won by Porcello.
For the season, the Cardinals – who always seemed to climbing out of holes – ended 152 games of the season trailing in the division. They spent 59% of the season trailing by at least 3.5 games, and were 5 or more games out for almost a quarter of the season (23.5%). Out of 162 games, they ended 2 tied for first, ended 5 others a half-game ahead, and 3 glorious games leading the division by one whole game.
Trailing again by six games, the Cards weren’t done yet. Heading to San Francisco with 30 games left, the Cards put on one last furious spurt. They would win 10 of the next 13 bringing them one last time to within reach of the division lead. On the morning of Wednesday, September 13, they sat 76-68, just 2 games behind Chicago.
That last game – a 13-4 battering of Cincinnati (box score) – completed a 71-game stretch going back to late June during which the Cards had gone 43-28 (a .606 clip) – even including the 6-10 swoon just after tying for first. Over this extended streak of games (nearly half a season) they had averaged 5.31 runs per game with a 3.56 team ERA. They hit .283 with runners in scoring position. They had gone 23-11 at home, and 20-17 on the road. They were 20-9 in games after a loss. They were 14-9 in opening games of series, and 18-4 in the second games of those series. They were 11-5 when facing a left-handed starter. They scored in double figures 12 times, and five or more runs 34 times, while allowing ten runs or more only 3 times and 5 or more just 26 times.
The stretch even included the Cards going 12-11 against winning teams.
While the final analysis of this team will focus on their very significant shortcomings, it should be remembered that this team played .600 ball for almost half of the season. This was all after they had re-invented themselves with the additions of Pham, DeJong and Weaver. And this is without, yet, fully realizing the impact Jose Martinez would have down the stretch.
Down One Final Time
After struggling for so long and so hard to make it back to the surface, the drowning man went down for the final time in the waning weeks of September. A slight stumble in the second game of the Cincinnati series sent them into Chicago 3 games down with 16 to play. Seven of those 16 would be against the Cubs, so everything was on the table.
But, beginning with that Friday afternoon contest in Chicago (box score), the Cardinals began the collapse that would leave them playing out the string at the end of the season. They would lose 10 of their last 16 games – including 6 of the 7 against Chicago. After all the ups and downs, they finished 83-79, 9 games behind.
The season ending collapse saw the sometimes dynamic offense putt to the finish. They hit just .231 down the stretch. Battling injuries all season, Dexter Fowler did what he could to lead this team. He hit .333, driving in 12 runs over his last 12 games with a .625 slugging percentage. Tommy Pham also finished strong – hitting .309/.424/.527.
But too many of the major players faded badly at the end. Stephen Piscotty finished the season as the primary right fielder, but limped to the end with a .184 average. Yadier Molina was hitting just .167 in 9 games until his season ended with him in concussion protocol. Carson Kelly took over and hit .172 the rest of the way. Kolten Wong ended his best-ever season hobbled by back issues. He played in only 9 of the last 16 games, and struggled to a .138 average when he did play.
But the struggles of the hitters paled in comparison to the melt-down going on in the rotation.
Without a quality start over the last 16 games of the season, the starting rotation pitched only 70 of the last 142 innings. The best of the lot ended up being Wacha, but at 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA over his last three starts his performance was a bit south of excellent. Behind him, Jack Flaherty was 0-1, 6.75 in 2 starts and one relief appearance; John Gant was 0-1 with a 7.00 ERA, also in 2 starts and 1 relief appearance. Carlos Martinez finished 1-1, 7.31 over his last 3 starts. And the worst of the group were the two pitchers who had been revelations for most of the year. Lance Lynn managed just 9.2 innings over his last 3 starts. He was 0-1 with an 11.17 ERA. Impressive rookie Luke Weaver – who fashioned the team’s very last quality start – finished 1-1 with an 11.37 ERA over his last 3 outings.
The last 16 Cardinal starters of the season compiled a 7.97 ERA with a .306 batting average against.
Behind them, the expanded bullpen did well enough, although Bowman gave up clutch runs in some important games. They held a 3.00 ERA over their last 72 innings of the season, but were charged with 3 of the last 10 losses. The late addition of Juan Nicasio added stability. For too many of the last 16 games, though, the issue was already decided before the bullpen could have an impact.
Although the final image was of a team almost no hit on the last day of the season – on its way to finishing 9 games behind, the truth is that the gulf wasn’t that great. In fact, if the youth movement had started a little earlier and some critical pieces of the puzzle had had just a little better luck with injuries (Wong, Fowler, Carpenter, Molina, Gyorko, Wainwright, Rosenthal, even Jose Martinez was slowed at the end by a bad thumb) this team – warts and all – would probably have made it to Arizona for the wildcard game.
Seeing them advance much farther, though, is difficult. But the issues to address are things we’ll leave for the next installment.