Flaherty in Fight with First Pitch Command

There was nobody on base in the second inning, with one out in a still scoreless contest when Cincinnati’s Phil Ervin came to the plate.  Cardinal rookie right-hander Jack Flaherty challenged him with the fastball, and Ervin swung through it for strike one.

Jack would face 19 Reds on the evening in his five innings.  Ervin would be the only one who would actually swing at Jack’s first pitch (Scooter Gennett tried to bunt a first pitch fastball from Flaherty in the first inning but fouled it off).

Of the 17 batters that took Jack’s first pitch, only 4 of the saw the pitch called a strike, and 3 of those were first pitch curve balls that Jack managed to get over.  The only Cincinnati batter of the evening to take a first pitch fastball for a strike from Flaherty was pitcher Sal Romano, who led off the fifth by watching a 90.6-mph offering fly right down the middle.

Cincinnati had just seen Flaherty eleven days ago.  Jack threw five innings of 2-hit, shutout ball that day, as he threw 10 first-pitch fastballs to the 20 batters he faced.  So the Cincinnati patience with him could be seen as an adjustment.  In all honesty, though, none of those fastballs was really close enough to offer at.  Finishing off a frustrating road trip with a 7-3 loss in Cincinnati (box score), Jack struggled with his normally good fastball command the entire evening.

Jack’s normal MO is to get ahead with the fastball and then put the batter away with his hard-biting slider.  Even without his normal command, the strategy worked well enough.  Flaherty still struck out 8 in his five innings (5 of them with the slider) while allowing 4 hits.  He was essentially undone by two fastballs – among the hardest he threw on the evening – that ended up in less than ideal locations.  A first-inning fastball to Eugenio Suarez was, perhaps, not far enough away and perhaps a shade too high.  In the fourth inning, his knee-high fastball to Adam Duvall probably caught too much of the plate.  Both those pitches were slapped for opposite field home runs – something that happens a lot in Great American Small Park – accounting for the three runs that saddled Jack with the loss.

Through his five starts in July, when he could get batters to swing at that first pitch, Flaherty has held these batters to a .150 batting average (3 for 20).

This effort may also be one more evidence that Flaherty, now up to 85 major league innings (and another 31.2 in Memphis) may be hitting some kind of wall.  On June 22, Jack fired 7 innings of 1-hit ball against Milwaukee.  In now 6 starts since then, Jack has only gotten an out in the sixth inning one time.  He has served up 6 home runs in his last 27.1 innings, and has 1-3 record with a 4.94 ERA in those starts.

Again the Pen

After breaking a ten-game streak in which they had allowed multiple runs in every game, the bullpen regressed to form last night.  Entering in the sixth inning of a still competitive 3-2 game, the Cardinal relief corps once again played the role of batting practice pitchers.

In the 3 innings after Flaherty left, the bullpen yielded 4 more runs on 6 hits and 4 walks.  The six hits included 3 doubles and another home run.

The meltdown ensured the Cardinals’ eighth loss in their last twelve games, and dropped them to 9-12 in July.  All throughout, the bullpen has been at the epicenter of the disaster.  In 42.1 innings over the last 12 games they have coughed up 43 runs (41 earned) on 67 hits – including 5 home runs – an ERA of 8.72 coupled with a .360 batting average against.  They have pitched 67.2 innings through 21 games this month, surrendering 60 runs (54 earned) on 94 hits.  The starters have only surrendered 90 hits this month in 115 innings.  The July bullpen numbers are a distressing 7.18 ERA and a .328 batting average against.  Batters are hitting only .215 against the Cardinal starters this month.  In winning 2 of 3 against the Cards this week, Cincinnati only managed 6 hits in 18.1 innings against St Louis’ three rookie starters.

John Gant

In a surprise move, skipper Mike Shildt summoned John Gant from the bullpen to pitch the sixth.  It was a surprise, since John had started one of the Saturday games, and, was not only scheduled to start on Sunday, but was pitching three days after throwing 82 pitches over five innings.

Most think this was a desperation move – prompted by the overall susceptibility of the bullpen.  Whatever the thought process, it didn’t work as Gant surrendered 2 damaging runs that pushed the game a bit out of reach.

While Gant has pitched quite well in whatever role asked, his demise yesterday was due, in part, to an increasingly nettlesome aspect of his game.  John walked two more batters in his one inning – one of which (Joey Votto) scored on Tucker Barnhart’s home run.  He has now walked 7 batters in his last 10 innings, and 13 in his 21.1 innings this month.  Even though one of those walks was intentional, that is still 5.06 unintentional walks for every 9 innings.  Since he was last recalled from Memphis in late June, John has walked 18 batters in 30.1 innings.  Remarkably, his ERA over those innings is still an excellent 2.37 – due primarily to a .180 batting average against him – but it is an issue nonetheless.

An insightful note about his appearance:

In taking over the Cardinal reigns, new manager Shildt committed to playing time for struggling multi-million dollar hitters Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna.  Neither hitter has – as yet – rewarded Shildt’s confidence, although Fowler has had a few moments.

It is interesting to note that – at the same time – he made no such commitment to multi-million dollar reliever Greg Holland.  In fact, when Mike went to Gant, Holland was supposedly available in the pen and quite well rested.  But Shildt opted for a semi-tired starter on three-days’ rest rather than Holland. 

Yadier Molina

Even as the Cardinal fortunes in general have taken a downturn, Yadier Molina has remained a bright spot.  He had 3 more hits last night, and is now hitting .375 (12 for 32) since Shildt took over and moved him to the second spot in the order.  Even over the last 12 games, Yadi’s production has remained high – a .349 batting average on 15 of 43 hitting.  Molina has now hit 3 home runs this month, while going 23 for 68 – a team-leading .338 average.

Over the years, pitchers have tried to use Yadi’s aggressiveness against him.  Molina has been tempted with a great many first pitch sliders on the corner of the strike zone – or perhaps just a bit off the corner, and all too frequently this strategy has been rewarded.  Suddenly – although still aggressive – Yadi is no longer that hitter who needs to hit that first pitch to have success.  After last year’s All-Star break, Molina was 48 of 140 (a .343 batting average) when he took the first pitch of an at bat.  Those hits included 10 doubles, 1 triple, and 8 of the 9 home runs he hit in last season’s second half – a .600 slugging percentage with 32 runs batted in.

In yesterday’s fifth inning, Romano started Molina off with that slider just off the plate.  Yadi didn’t bite.  Two pitches later, he got that middle-in fastball that he ripped into left for a hit.  Then, in the seventh reliever David Hernandez threw that first-pitch slider up in the zone.  Yadi took that one for a high strike, but two pitches later landed on another fastball and snuffed it over the left-field wall for a home run. 

Molina is now 12 for his last 28 (.429) when he takes the first pitch.  For the month of July, Yadi is a .378 hitter (17 for 45) when he doesn’t bite on the first pitch.

Up Next

The Cards head home, now, after what was – in many ways – a remarkable road trip.  Its historic features included Matt Carpenter’s home run streak – not to mention his 5-5, 3 home run, 2 double performance in an 18-5 devastation of the first-place Cubs, as well as back-to-back near no-hitters from two rookie pitchers making the first starts of their major league careers.

And yet, the team comes limping back after a 3-5 trip.  This – on the heels of a 5-4 trip just before the break – means that this team has played 17 of its last 20 on the road.  Including losing 2 of 3 to Cincinnati at home, they are 9-11 during that stretch, losing 3 games in the standings.

Events that should have galvanized this team – that should spark them on to some kind of sustained spurt – don’t result in more than a one-day blip.  When Mike Matheny was fired, they rallied behind popular bench coach Shildt and won their next game, 6-4, in spirited fashion.  They then lost the next game 9-6.  After the battering of the Cubs, they were punched out 7-2 by the Northsiders in the rubber game of that series.  They lost the Daniel Poncedeleon start in spite of his 7 hitless innings, and, after Austin Gomber’s start led to a dramatic eleventh-inning win, the Cards went quietly in the rubber game against the Reds.

They are now a curiously symmetrical .500 team.  They are 24-24 at home, and 27-27 on the road.  The upcoming home stand will not be easy.  They have three more against the Cubs and four against the Rockies.  At 54-47, Colorado is another over-.500 team.

The Cards currently sit at 8.5 games out, and it’s hard to tell whether they still believe they can put together a run.  The season is starting to slip away.  If they lose any more ground during this home stand . . .

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