The date was Thursday, April 12, and the Cardinals – 3-2 losers the previous evening against Milwaukee – were clinging to a 5-4 lead in the sixth inning in Cincinnati. With Dexter Fowler coming to the plate, a runner on first, and one out, Cincinnati brought in the lefty Amir Garrett. Fowler bounced his third pitch through the hole into left.
Twenty games into the season, that is the switch-hitting Fowler’s only hit in 18 at bats against a left-handed pitcher (.056).
Earlier in the season – on April 1 – Paul DeJong came to the plate in the second inning in New York to face Met lefty Steven Matz. It would be the first time DeJong would face a left-handed pitcher this season. It was a good battle, but on the seventh pitch of that at bat DeJong lofted a home run over the left-field wall. He has not had a hit against a left-hander since (0 for his last 13).
Last year, Fowler hit an ok .252 against lefties (27 for 107), and then-rookie DeJong hit .288 against them (23 for 80) with 6 home runs and a .600 slugging percentage
So far, this year, Fowler and DeJong are among many Cardinal hitters who have gone missing when opponents trot left-handers out to the mound.
Last Thursday afternoon, as Chicago left-hander Jon Lester toyed with the Cardinals (he allowed just 1 un-earned run on 2 hits over 6 dominant innings, striking out 7), I reflected again on this franchise’s historical challenge in hitting left-handed pitching. After going 0-4 against Garret and Wandy Rodriguez (two lefties out of the Cincinnati bullpen) on Saturday afternoon, the Cards are now hitting .199 (30 for 151) against lefthanders this season – and the malaise seems general. A surprising turn of events for a team furnished with a wealth of impact right-handed bats.
Marcell Ozuna last had a hit against a left-hander back in the sixth inning of the April 10 game against Milwaukee. He was 3 for 8 against them at that point, but has gone 0 for 9 against them since. Matt Carpenter is a left-handed batter, but he plays every day. He is 2 for 17 (.118) against lefties.
Yes, it is exceedingly early – far too early to be concerned about such things. But – given our struggling history – this is always one of the early trends that I check.
While the malaise is general, it is not absolute. Jose Martinez – another impact right-handed bat – began the season 0-for-5 against lefties, but has gone 3 for 5 against them since (all those hits coming in his last three at bats against Cincinnati’s Brandon Finnegan). Harrison Bader got one of the few hits against Lester on Thursday, and another hit against Finnegan on Saturday – he is 3 for his first 9 against left-handers. In the early going, Tommy Pham had been the most consistent hammer against left-handed pitching. He is 7 for his first 14 against them with a home run and 5 walks (a .500/.632/.714 batting line). He missed the Lester game, and has been day-to-day with a groin issue. The Cardinals sorely miss his production.
Lefty Batters Bedevil the Team as Well
One thing that has distinguished this pitching staff through its early hot start has been its ability to control left-handed hitters – especially with right-handed pitching. But, in spite of the fact that the Cards have won two of the last three, they have struggled recently against left-handed hitters.
Nowhere was this more evident than that Thursday afternoon in Chicago. Through his first three starts, Luke Weaver had little trouble dispatching lefty hitters. At the point when he took the mound that Thursday, left-handed hitters were only 6 for 28 (.214) against him – with only one of those hits going for extra-bases. But the Cub lefties (Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward) peppered him to the tune of a combined 5 for 6 – all singles.
Similarly, Michael Wacha mostly had his way with left-handers through his first three starts. They were only 5 for 30 (.167) with only one of those hits for extra-bases (a double). He also fared poorly his last time out. Over 6.2 very sharp innings, Michael allowed only 1 run on 6 hits – but 5 of those hits came off of left-handed bats. Again, they were all singles and Wacha was able to minimize the damage.
A couple of relievers have also taken some damage against lefties. When Matthew Bowman retired Schwarber on a ground ball to lead off the sixth-inning Thursday afternoon, it marked the eighth straight left-handed better that he’d set down. But before he could get out of the inning, he surrendered a game-icing, two-run homer to Heyward, and followed that up by allowing a single to Lester.
Perhaps the most concerning is left-hander Tyler Lyons. Counted on to be a late-inning contributor, Lyons allowed a potential victory for Carlos Martinez to slip away on Saturday when all four batters to face him in the seventh reached base – with two of them scoring. Three of those batters were left-handed – Jesse Winker (who walked), Joey Votto (who also walked), and Scooter Gennett (who tied the game with a two-run single). Lefties are now hitting .333 (7 for 21) against our main lefty in the bullpen.
As I look at these numbers, I keep repeating “it’s early, it’s early.”
Maintaining his dominance against everyone is Saturday’s starter Martinez. Cincinnati’s lefties were 2 for 11 against him, and their righties just 1 for 7. For the early season, left-handers are just 10 for 62 (.161) against Carlos, and right-handers just 9 for 47 (.191). Martinez is having one of the most encouraging Aprils on the team. Over 4 starts since his chippy opening day in New York, Carlos has surrendered 1 run in 27.1 innings – a 0.33 ERA.
Bullpen Takes on a Little Water
After being tagged for 15 runs during the season’s first two games, the Cardinal pitching staff had been one of baseball’s best. Over their last 18 games, they hold a 2.97 ERA. Even so, this team has been subjected to intermittent spottiness from its bullpen. This was in evidence, of course, during the Thursday loss in Chicago (when Bowman served up the home run), but also in the two wins against Cincinnati. Bud Norris saved his fifth on Friday, but not until he had allowed a ninth-inning run on a walk and two singles. And then, on Saturday as mentioned, Lyons couldn’t hold a 3-run lead.
Over their last 9.1 innings heading into Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, the Cardinal bullpen had been tagged for 12 hits (a .324 batting average), 6 walks, 2 hit batsmen (a .444 on base percentage), and 6 runs (a 5.79 ERA). The bullpen has done little to alleviate my concerns.
Although I do have to say this for them. When Jordan Hicks escaped his first bases-loaded threat (in the seventh) it meant that only 3 of the last 33 runners inherited by the Cardinal bullpen have come home to score – a number we are going to have to start keeping an eye on.
Hicks, by-the-way, is still at 0.00 through his first 11.2 major league innings. His command is still a concern, but this is one of the most promising young talents on the team.
Still Waiting on the Offense.
After a significant off-season overhaul, we are still waiting to see the newly potent offense. After beating the Reds on Saturday on just 7 hits, the Cards are hitting .239 as a team. They are scoring enough runs to win games – although the offense has become decidedly inventive to make that happen.
In the 8-5 loss to Chicago, they managed just 5 hits, but scored runs on a wild pitch, a bases-loaded walk, a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch and an RBI groundout that turned into two runs on a throwing error.
On Saturday, 3 of the 7 hits were home runs, accounting for all the runs – and just enough of them in their 4-3 win. It all adds up to 13 runs over their last 3 games, in spite of a .221 team batting average.
Most caught under the wheels of the stalling offense is projected starting second baseman Kolten Wong. Kolten’s break-out 2017 gave the entire organization hope that this talented player had finally turned the corner. But Wong has struggled out of the gate. With his 0-for4 on Saturday, Wong’s average sunk to .133. I do not believe that there is any loss of confidence in Kolten by the organization. April is too early to give up on anyone. But his slump has cost him at bats – first to Greg Garcia and now to the returning Jedd Gyorko – a situation that will make it even harder for Kolten to find his rhythm. Gyorko has gone 2 for 4 with 3 walks since his return, and will prove difficult to keep out of the lineup.
At the top of the order, Fowler (.181) and Carpenter (.182) are also scuffling. As these players are more established, they will continue to get their at bats. But the offense will not get healthy until these three players start to return to form.
Again, far too early to worry.
Paul DeJong’s second-inning home run on Saturday meant that St Louis has now scored first in 8 straight games – something they never achieved last year. They have won 7 of them.
Yadier Molina – whose seventh-inning home run proved decisive – has now started 19 of the first 20 games of the season. Quite a pace for a 15-year veteran.
Saturday’s attendance total of 42,382 pushed the home average to 40,000.1. The first 8 home games have drawn just 320,001 fans.