And Just a Dash of Memphis Magic

At its best, sports can be transcendent.  I wrote a bit about this after the last Super Bowl.  Heroic, unexpected achievements that challenge the expected limits of mortality.  It is magic of the head-shaking flavor.

In yesterday’s second inning, starting pitcher John Gant provided the head-shaking moment.  Hitless so far in his career, John walked into a pitch from Gio Gonzalez and popped it over the fence for the two-run home run that sparked the Cards on to their 6-4 win (box score).

The night before, it was Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong with eighth- and ninth-inning home runs, respectively, that brought the Cards back from a late deficit for another win.  And these have not been all.  Almost every member of the current roster – and especially the young guys – have had their moment in the hero spotlight.  The list is far too long to detail here, dating back to the big bullpen shakeup that proceeded the July 27 game against Chicago.

One noticeable trend is the contribution of the Memphis Mafia.  These are those players – Gant, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Yairo Munoz, Tyler O’Neill, Daniel Poncedeleon and Patrick Wisdom – that have been the sparkplugs.  Players, perhaps, who haven’t been around long enough to understand that it isn’t supposed to be this easy.  That, perhaps, has been part of the magic.

Since that day in July, St Louis is 14-4 (including 11-2 in August).  This brings them to an impressive 17-9 since the All-Star Break, with their last win extending their season-long winning streak to seven games, and pushing them to 10 over .500 (65-55) for the first time all year.

Offense Front and Center

Taking the lead in this series against Washington are the bats.  The rebounding Cardinal offense is now averaging 7.2 runs per game over its last 6 games.  They are scoring 5.54 runs per game this month, 5.17 runs per game over the 18-game streak, and 5.19 runs per game during the seasons’ second half.

Leading Off

In the hitting revival, there has been some talk about new approaches to situational hitting.  Two-strike hitting and two-out opportunities have been mentioned.  Less referenced is the recent success that Cardinal leadoff hitters have had.

Last night, each starter other than Gant had an opportunity to lead-off an inning.  Four of the eight (the Cards did not have an offensive ninth) reached base, and three of them scored.

So far this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters are reaching base at a .400 clip – Including 5 home runs and a .559 slugging percentage.  Prior to this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters managed just a .317 on base percentage with a .442 slugging percentage.

Kolten Wong

Other than Gant, it was second baseman Kolten Wong driving the offense.  In four plate appearances, Wong walked, singled, doubled and homered, scoring twice and driving in three runs.  Wong has been another one of the critical offensive pieces that have endured long slumps as well as significant time on the disabled list.  Wong was in the midst of his hottest streak of the season when he went down.  Since coming back, he hasn’t missed a beat.

Still hitting just .236 for the season, Kolten is hitting .400 for the month of August (12 for 30) and slugging .600 (a home run, now, to go along with his 4 doubles).  He is a .356 hitter (16 for 45) in the second half.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko didn’t contribute any hits to the victory, but he ignited the two-run fourth with a leadoff walk.  Through the season’s first half, Jedd led off in 47 different innings, reaching base only 9 times (19.1%).  He eventually scored on just 4 of those occasions.  The fourth inning last night was the fifteenth time Jedd has led off an inning in the second half.  He has now reached base in 8 of those innings (53.3%), scoring 6 times.

John Gant

Even though Gant didn’t complete 6 innings – and even though the team ended up allowing 4 runs for the game – this game featured another very strong start from the rotation.  John finished his 5.1 innings allowing just 1 run on 4 hits and no walks.  Since John has been more-or-less installed into the rotation, batters are only hitting .201 against him.

As for the rotation, now, they have held opposing hitters to a .234 batting average this month, while issuing just 14 un-intentional walks over 73 innings – 1.73 walks per 9 innings.  During the 14-4 stretch, opponents are hitting just .243 against Cardinal starters, drawing just 20 un-intentional walks (1.81 per 9 innings).

Since the All-Star Break, Cardinal starters have faced 579 batters, holding them to a .235 batting average.

Mike Mayers

Most all of the real damage done to the pitching staff came in Mike Mayers’ eventful eighth inning.  He faced 5 batters and only retired 2 – allowing hits to the other three (all of whom eventually scored – two of them on Bryce Harper’s home run).

Mike has had some good moments this year, but has been trending down as of late.  The 25 batters he has faced this month are hitting .318 against him, with a .591 slugging percentage (he has also allowed 3 doubles this month).  Since his last return from Memphis, Mike has pitched 27 innings over 26 appearances, with a 5.00 ERA to show for it.

Jordan Hicks

It took him 19 pitches, but Jordan Hicks secured the last three outs and held on to the save – his fourth.  There was a point just before the All-Star Break where Hicks looked like he was hitting the “rookie wall.”  In his last 4 appearances before the break, Jordan served up 7 runs in 3.1 innings.

Whether it was the rest or whether he did some fine tuning during the break, second-half Jordan has been as good as we’ve seen him all year.  In 12 second-half outings, Hicks has allowed 1 run on 9 hits (all singles) over 13.1 innings.  His 0.68 ERA is accompanied by a 188 batting average against.

Some Revisionist History

In a recent exchange, baseball president John Mozeliak told reporters that this current team was the team they expected that they would see all year.

Well, not exactly.

The team they expected to see all year featured Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham all over the bases with Marcell Ozuna raining home runs all over the various ballparks.  The team they expected to see had Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone muffling opposing offenses from the seventh inning on.  None of those worthy gentlemen performed remotely to expectations.

John and his fellows also expected to see Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Alex Reyes string together dominant start after dominant start, while Paul DeJong built on his stellar rookie season.  All of these critical pieces have spent considerable time on the disabled list.

The truth is, John, – bad injury luck aside – the team you constructed over the last few off seasons wasn’t very good.  Mozeliak and the rest of the front office have been bailed out as much as anyone by the magic of the Memphis Mafia.

NoteBook

Harrison Bader’s second-inning sacrifice fly gave the Cards the first run of the game for the fifth time in the last six games.  St Louis has won all five – as well as the game that they didn’t score first in.

Efficient Gant Quiets the Fish

A .500 team after 102 games, the staid St Louis Cardinals made a fairly stunning reversal of direction.  Instead of handing out many of their most prized prospects at the trading deadline in search of that lusted-for impact bat, the Cardinals decided to trust their highly-regarded system.  They cleared away a few veteran arms and bats, and infused the clubhouse with fresh young arms and bats.

The early returns on this decision have been encouraging.  With last night’s 7-1 victory in Miami (box score), the Cards have won four consecutive series for the first time this season, going 9-4 over those 13 games.

Compared to the many high-ceiling arms boasted throughout the Cardinal system, last night’s starter John Gant gets little recognition.  But John has held his own.  He has been particularly hard to hit – especially since he has settled into a mostly starting routine.  Seven of his last 9 appearances have been starts, during which opposing batters have hit just .201 (Miami had only 2 hits in 6 innings against Gant last night).  In that regard, his start was reminiscent of many of the efforts of the rotation in July, when they held opposing hitters to a .225 average.

Moreover – especially lately – John has been stingy with walks.  He walked only one last night, and over his last 3 starts has walked just 4 in 14.1 innings (2.51 walks per nine innings).

If anything could be better pitching-wise than allowing only two singles and one walk through six innings, Gant gave insight into the kind of pitcher he is evolving into as he needed only 63 pitches to navigate past 21 batters. Of those 21 batters, only Justin Bour – who led off the second drawing a six-pitch walk – extended his plate appearance past five pitches.

Over his last 3 starts, John has faced 60 batters.  Only 5 have seen more than five pitches during their plate appearances.  That is about as efficient as it gets.

The Bullpen

While the recent surge has shown the rotation, perhaps, turning a corner (they now have 4 consecutive quality starts), the heroes of the uprising have been the denizens of the bullpen.  Shredded and left for dead after a July that showed them compile a 5.98 ERA and a .306 batting average against, the Cardinal bullpen held the Marlins at bay last night until the offense could provide some late breathing room.

Their combined line last night showed 1 hit allowed over 3 walk-less, scoreless innings.  The pen has now thrown 47 innings over the last 13 games, with a 1.34 ERA and a .170 batting average against to show for their efforts.

Dakota Hudson

Speaking of efficient pitching, not-quite-24-year-old rookie Dakota Hudson pitched for the first time in the major leagues – and probably for the first time anywhere – on back-to-back days.  He pitched 1.2 innings last night after throwing a scoreless inning on Tuesday.  He needed 8 pitches to work to 4 batters on Tuesday, and just 18 pitches to face 5 more last night.

To this point, the rookie who had owned the PCL has been as advertised.  Through his first 6 major league appearances, he has worked 8.2 innings allowing no runs, two singles, and one walk.  He has already earned 2 wins and 3 holds.

Fourteen of the first 29 batters (48.3%) Dakota has faced in the major leagues have hit one of his first two pitches.  They are 0 for 14.  Over the course of the whole year, opposing batters are hitting .318 against the Cards when they hit either of the first two pitches thrown.

Mike Mayers

Mike Mayers closed out the relatively easy win with a scoreless ninth.  Mayers has had some hiccups along the way, but his season has been pretty solid – and over his last seven outings he has looked increasingly worthy of his late-inning opportunities.

During his last 7, he has allowed just 1 run over 6 innings while striking out 7 – an ability he didn’t show much of early.  In 9 games and 10 innings since the All-Star Break, Mike has a 2.70 ERA.

Some Late Inning Runs

It was also a little relieving to see the four late runs that padded the lead.  The offense that had averaged 5.04 runs per game in July had been little seen through early August.  The Birds were averaging just 4.14 runs per game through the first 7 games this month – scoring just 6 over the previous three games.  With the outburst, they are back up to 4.71 runs per game through the first 21 games of the season’s second half (they are 12-9 in those games).

Second Half Yadi

In recent years – and in spite of a surprisingly heavy workload – Yadier Molina has seen a hitting resurgence after the All-Star Break.  He was 2-for-4 last night (a double and a home run), and is now hitting .314 (27 for 86) since the break.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong was starting to heat up pretty good before he went on the disabled list.  He has returned from that list in top form.  With his 2 hits last night, Kolten is 7 for 17 (.412) since his return.

In the seventh inning, Kolten slapped Jarlin Garcia’s 1-0 pitch into center for a single.  In July, Wong was 9 for 16 (.563) when he hit the first or second pitch of an at bat.  For the season, if his at bat is two pitches or less, Wong is a .400 hitter (26 for 65).

NoteBook

The Cards are now only 6-8 in rubber games, but 5-4 when those rubber games are on the road.

Heavy Pitches Humble Cardinal Hitters

On the fourth pitch of the bottom of the first inning, Jon Gray’s slider stayed a little up and just inside enough for Matt Carpenter to get around on it.  Matty got just enough lift on the pitch to pull it over the wall in right.  One batter into the game, and the Cardinals had a quick 1-0 lead.

At the time, you wouldn’t have guessed that this would be a singular event.  Gray’s ERA coming into the event (5.16) wasn’t dazzling (take into account, of course, that he pitches his home games in Colorado), and the Cardinals – of late – have shown a little pulse at the plate (including the 5-4 comeback win from the night before).

Nonetheless, when Gray finally ran out of gas after 92 pitches with one out in the eighth, he walked off the mound with a 6-1 lead – on his way to a 6-3 victory (box score).

Not only was the Carpenter home run an anomaly in that it accounted for the only Cardinal run to that point, it also turned out to be rare because he was actually able to pull the ball in the air – something the Cards managed only 3 times all night.  Yadier Molina stroked a couple of fly ball outs to left during the game.

Velocity and location are not the only pitching factors.  Some pitchers throw what batters refer to as a “heavy” ball.  Even when left in locations and at velocities that batters can normally handle, these pitches don’t really jump off the bat.  It creates the illusion that this particular ball is made out of granite or some other weighty material.

This is who Jon Gray was for most of the evening last night.  He didn’t shy away from the strike zone with a fastball that held at about 94-mph and a slider about 10-mph slower.  But both pitches ran heavy, resulting in many groundballs – especially in key situations.

About the only time that Gray was ever in trouble during the first seven innings was the fifth, when an infield hit and a walk put two on with just one out.  But that heavy slider got the double play grounder (after a review) off the bat of Greg Garcia.

When he wasn’t getting ground balls, he was getting fly balls hit to the opposite field.  Between Gray and the two relievers – ex-Cardinal Seunghwan Oh and Wade Davis – the power-hitting Cardinals were left with 7 opposite field fly balls – several of them quite well hit – that they couldn’t get around on enough to get them over the fence.

As the Rockies walked off the field congratulating each other after the last of these opposite field fly outs (a soft fly to right by Jedd Gyorko) with a win that was more dominating than the final score suggested, the scoreboard showed 3 runs for St Louis on only 4 hits.  Other than the home run, the Cards had two infield hits, and one ground ball that snuck its way through the infield.

Gray – and the pitchers that followed – didn’t complicate things.  They threw strikes and kept their heavy pitches low and away.  They made it look easy.

Tyler O’Neill

The first opportunity to occupy the spot of the departed Tommy Pham fell to rookie Tyler O’Neill.  He finished his first game back in the majors with two infield hits.

In his 3 plate appearances, Tyler ended up in two strike counts twice, striking out once.  Power hitters in general – and rookie power hitters in particular – find themselves in this situation frequently.  O’Neill’s rookie season is now just 50 plate appearances deep, but he has ended up in two-strike situations in 64% of them – and of the 32 times that he has seen strike two, he has subsequently seen strike three 21 times (65.6%).

Yadier Molina

Molina finished a very strong July (.315/.357/.472) with a disappointing 0-for-4.  Twice during the game, Yadi put pretty good swings on the first strike he saw, but neither resulted in base hits.  Over all of baseball, batters are hitting .338/.402/.585 when they hit the first strike.  Yadi’s July ran quite contrary to that.  With his 0-for-2 last night, Molina finished July 4-for-20 (.200) when hitting the first strike.

In his first at bat of the game in the first, he fell quickly behind in the count 1-2.  But Yadi fouled off one pitch and took a ball before hitting the sixth pitch in play.  Molina continues to be difficult to strike out.  Strike two only leads to strike three 27.9% of the time with Molina at the plate.

Paul DeJong

Still feeling his way back from his injury, Paul DeJong took another 0-for-4 last night.  Paul is now hitless in his last 14 at bats, and finished July just 18 for 83 (.217) with only 6 walks (.264 on base).  Since being moved by new manager Mike Shildt into the third spot in the order, DeJong is hitting .182 (10 for 55) with only 4 walks (.230 on base).

Paul hit a couple of those “heavy” fly balls to right.  His first time up, he jumped a first pitch fastball, but the drive ran out of steam and came down well short of the fence.  Since his return from the DL, Paul is another who has had poor luck when hitting the first strike.  He is now just 2 for 18 (.111) on those pitches.

Marcell Ozuna

Among the casualties of last night’s loss was Marcell Ozuna’s six-game hitting streak.  He hit .346 (9-for-26) during the streak, with a double and 3 home runs.  He drove in 7 runs during that streak, while slugging .731.  The recent revival from Ozuna’s bat has been one of the most encouraging recent developments.

Jedd Gyorko

In general, the Cards struck out slightly less often in July than in the months leading up it – one of the reasons why the offense up ticked.  Through the season’s first three months, the Cards averaged 8.77 strikeouts per game, striking out 43.4% of the time that they found themselves in two-strike counts.  Over the last month, those numbers declined to just 7.46 strikeouts per game, and strikeouts in just 38.0% of their two-strike plate appearances.

Jedd Gyorko, in particular, is getting more and more difficult to fan.  Jedd – who didn’t strike out at all last night – struck out only 8 times in July, and on just 21.1% of his two-strike plate appearances.

Greg Garcia

Struggling lately off the bench, Garcia got a start last night to try to help his timing.  For one night, at least, the results were not quite there – Greg was 0-for-2 with that important double play.  Garcia finished July in a 2-for-20 slump.

Jack Flaherty

Last night’s starter, Jack Flaherty, didn’t make it out of the sixth inning again.  He finished July tossing just 28.2 innings over 6 starts, with a middling 1-3 record and a 4.71 ERA.  Since tossing seven innings of one-hit ball against Milwaukee on June 22, Jack has a 1-4 record and a 5.23 ERA over 7 starts.  His loss was his second in a row and fifth in his last seven decisions – although in fairness to Jack, he was twice betrayed by his bullpen, and has had more than two runs scored for him only once in his last 9 starts.

Flaherty is still not giving up a lot of his – only 5 in his 5.1 innings last night (albeit they included a home run and a double).  With that performance, the Cardinal starters finished the month of July with an opponent’s batting average of just .225.

Jack also struck out 7 batters in those innings, and is now averaging 11.06 strikeouts per nine innings.  Flaherty throws a lot of strikes, and almost always gets hitters in two-strike counts.  Last night, 14 of the 23 batters he faced ended up in two-strike counts.  For the month of July, he put 65.6% of the batters to face him (80 of 122) in two-strike counts.

Following Jack’s lead, the Cardinal pitching staff in general constantly kept Colorado in two-strike counts.  Of the 39 batters the Rockies sent to the plate, 26 (66.7%) ended their appearance with two strikes on them.  Only 4 of them got hits, although those hits included the two-run home run by Charlie Blackmon in the fifth (on a 1-2 pitch) and the very damaging double struck by Gerardo Parra (also on a 1-2 pitch) in the sixth.  That blow – from the first man faced by newly acquired Chasen Shreve – drove in a run to make it a 4-1 lead.

Speaking of the Bullpen

After an impressive series against the Cubs and a good first game against Colorado, the Cardinal bullpen ended July pretty much as they pitched through most of the month.  With Flaherty out of the game, the Rockies padded their advantage with 2 more runs on 4 more hits – including a home run – over the last 3.2 innings.  St Louis thus finished the month of July with a 5.98 ERA and a .306 batting average against from the bullpen.

John Brebbia

At one time, perhaps, the best pitcher in the Cardinal bullpen, John Brebbia finished a rough July by serving up a two-run homer in two-thirds of an inning.  He pitched 7 innings in July, allowing 6 runs on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs.  Opposing batters hit .323 against him in those innings, with a .581 slugging percentage.

With two-outs in the seventh, Brebbia started Parra off with an inviting fastball – perhaps just a little lower than Gerardo might ideally like it.  Parra jumped it, but only flew out to left.  John has had some ups and downs, but this is one thing he has managed to do pretty well – throw that first strike just slightly better than the batter expects.  For the season, batters are hitting just .160 (4 for 25) when hitting John’s first strike.  Not only are all four of the hits singles, but two of them are infield hits.

Mike Mayers

Throwing a quiet eighth inning, Mike Mayers faced three batters and got two strikes on all of them, but was unable to get a strikeout.  Mike throws the ball hard enough that one might expect more strikeouts.  Of the 19 July batters that he got two strikes on, only 4 ended up striking out (21.1%).  For the season, that percentage is a modest 35.8.