Cards End Home Season with a Whimper

The Cardinals’ post season chances were not completely extinguished during their disappointing 2-1 loss to Milwaukee last night (box score).  But if, in fact, St Louis does miss the post season for a third straight year – and that is more likely than not – this game (and, in fact, this series) will linger in the memory.

In particular, history will remember the stumble.  Headed around third with the potential tying run with two outs in the eighth inning, pinch runner Adolis Garcia fell and was easily out at home.  The throw was off line enough that it is fairly certain that Garcia would have scored.

Most of the post-game conversation centered on the stumble, but the bigger story was right on the scoreboard, under the “Hits” column, where the Cardinals totaled two for the night.

St Louis finished the Brewer series with just 9 runs on 18 hits, hitting just .189 for the series.  This continues a month-long trend that has seen the Cards fade in the batting average category.  They have now hit .237 in 24 games this month.  After working so hard all season to climb back up to the .250 mark in team batting average, after last night’s game the team has slipped back down to .249 on the season.

But the result is even more microcosmic – if you will – as it ended the home season (at least the regular season portion of it).  Cardinal hitters weren’t really as dominated as it seemed.  I counted 9 line drives hit by Cardinal batters, only one of which turned into a hit (Paul DeJong’s fourth-inning double). There are days you hit 9 line drives and only one of them ends as an out.  Factor in the stumble and the fact that Milwaukee’s game-winning hit was a flare over third, and, well, it was one of those games.

Nonetheless, the one run on two hits is the kind of result that is becoming increasingly common at Busch.

Home Not So Sweet Home

Old Cardinal fans – and I now qualify as one of those – will speak reverently about the mid-80’s and the Whitey Ball era.  The Whitey Herzog Cardinals had great success as a team perfectly tailored to its ballpark.  The spacious dimensions bothered them not at all, as few of them were truly long-ball  threats.  These were the Cardinals of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith that raced across the steaming mid-summer AstroTurf stealing hits of all varieties, while slashing line drives into the spacious gaps (which were even more spacious at old Busch) and flying around the bases with reckless abandon.

In recent years, as the Cardinals have assembled a collection of talented hitters – almost all of whom are home run threats – Busch Stadium is starting to work against them.

Finishing September 6-9 at home, the Cards hit just .231 at Busch.  They hit 11 home runs in those 15 home games.  With three road games left (this weekend in Wrigley) St Louis has hit 19 road home runs this month in just 9 games.  They have averaged 6.00 runs per game on the road this month and just 4.67 at home.

Since the All-Star Break, the Cards have played 32 road games and 33 home games.  They have hit 54 home runs in those 32 road games, hit .268 as a team, and scored 5.59 runs per game.  In the 33 games at Busch they have hit 33 home runs, hit .244, and scored 4.73 runs per game.

The full season totals reveal that these trends have lasted for the full 159 games so far.  With the home season over, the 81 game totals read 351 runs scored (4.33 per game) 83 home runs hit, and a .245 team batting average.  With three games left in the road season, St Louis has already scored 397 runs (5.09 per game and 46 more than they’ve scored at home), hit 122 home runs (39 more than at Busch) and carry a .254 team batting average.

They finished the season with a 43-38 record at home.  They already have 44 road wins with three games left.  Even though last year’s team had a better record at home than on the road, they still scored more runs away from home (402) than at home (359).  The home run differential was smaller, but still indicative – they hit 106 on the road and 90 at home.  In 2016 the numbers were 424 runs and 121 home runs on the road to 355 runs and 104 home runs at home.  You have to go back to 2014 to find the last time the Cards scored more runs (332-287) and hit more home runs (57-48) at Busch than they did on the road.  That was a very different team, featuring only two players with 20 or more homers.  Jhonny Peralta hit 21 and Matt Holliday hit 20 that year.

While I know this reads like a call to move the fences in, that is not my intent.  What these numbers truly portend is the Cardinal’s increasing reliance on the home run for offense.  All I’m really saying is that a team that plays in a spacious home park needs to diversify.  Situational hitting.  Better base running.  Maybe more contact and less strikeouts.  That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Otherwise the Busch will continue to be a disadvantage to the Cards.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter drew two walks and came around to score the only Cardinal run of the evening.  He was otherwise 0-for-2 on the night including a strikeout.  In 23 September games, Carpenter has drawn 18 walks.  But in 82 at bats now has only 14 hits – 10 singles, 3 doubles and 1 home run.  His September average fades to .171, with a .244 slugging percentage.

Carpenter is one of those Cardinals who has struggled most notably at his home ballpark.  During what has generally been a break-out second half for Carp, he has managed just 4 home runs at Busch, while hitting 13 on the road. 

For the season, the National League’s leading home run hitter has hit 13 home runs in his home ballpark – while hitting .240.  Away from Busch, Matt Carpenter has had 329 plate appearances, resulting in 27 singles, 26 doubles, 23 home runs, 57 runs, 50 runs batted in, 52 walks (10 intentional), and a .278/.395/.626 batting line.

Yadier Molina

St Louis is also still waiting for Yadier Molina to lock in again.  Hitless in 3 at bats last night, Yadi is hitting just .200 (9 for 45) since returning from his elbow injury 13 games ago.  Yadi has now gone 6 games without drawing a walk, and has only 1 walk in his last 12 games.

Add Yadi’s name to the list of hitters who might very well be glad to be done with Busch.  Molina finished his home season with 239 plate appearances in his home ballpark.  They achieved just 36 singles, 12 doubles, 3 home runs, 23 runs batted in, 12 walks, 35 strikeouts, 1 hit-by-pitch, 2 sacrifice flies, and 7 double plays grounded into – a .228/.268/.321 batting line.

Yadi has been a different hitter on the road.  He is 69 for 228 in his road games (.303), his hits including 8 doubles and 17 home runs. He has 51 runs batted in in 59 road games, where he slugs .561.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong was also 0-for-3 in last night’s game.  He is now 4 for 17 (.235) over his last 6 games with no extra-base hits.

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader’s September average has also fallen to .227 (17 for 75) after his 0-for-3 last night.  Bader hasn’t drawn a walk, now, in 5 games, and hasn’t stolen a base in 13 games.

Bader finished his first full season at home hitting .250 (49 for 196) with 2 home runs.  Away from home, Harrison is 49 for 172 (.285) with 7 doubles, a triple, and 10 home runs – a .512 slugging percentage.

John Gant

Ever eager to get his bullpen in the game, Mike Shildt ran out to get John Gant after he had secured the first out in the fifth.  Although he walked 3 – a recurring issue – he finished (possibly) his season on a pretty strong note, allowing only 1 run.  In the most significant start of his young career, Johnny did well enough.

His previous two starts could have gone better.  He was blown out in a damaging loss to Los Angeles in mid-September, and lasted less than three innings his last time out against San Francisco – a game the Cards came back to win.

These struggles in September have weakened his position in the Cardinals’ long-range plans, but his year has – overall – been a success.  Since his last return from Memphis, John pitched in 19 games – 16 as a starter – going 6-4 with a 3.12 ERA.  He did walk 48 batters in those 89.1 innings.

Walks From the Bullpen

The walks from the bullpen are starting to pile up, now.  Cardinal relievers walked 5 more in 4.2 innings last night.  Amazingly, only one of those walks scored – but it was the run that beat them.

The Cardinal bullpen has now issued 62 walks in 95 innings this month.  Even allowing for the fact that 10 of those were intentional, that is still 4.93 un-intentional walks every 9 innings.  In the season’s second half, the bullpen has walked more batters (138) than the rotation (122), even though they have pitched more than 100 fewer innings.  They have averaged 4.72 un-intentional walks every nine innings.

Chasen Shreve

Chasen Shreve’s entire evening focused on facing one left-handed batter – Christian Yelich.  Shreve threw 5 pitches, 4 of them balls, and then watched from the dugout as Yelich scored the winning run.  Shreve has now walked 9 batters in his 13.1 Cardinal innings – 6.08 per game.  His on-base percentage against is now risen to .367.

Dakota Hudson

Dakota Hudson pitched through 1.2 innings without allowing a run of his own.  He did, however, surrender the Texas Leaguer that plated Shreve’s run.  With that, 8 of the last 11 runners that Hudson has inherited have come home to score.

Dakota also walked a batter in the next inning.  In his first 27 major league innings, Hudson has a 2.67 ERA and a .191 batting average against.  But Dakota has now walked 17 batters in those innings (5.67 per nine innings).

Hudson’s style does seem to adapt well to Busch.  In his rookie season, Dakota finished allowing no runs in his 14.1 home innings with a .149 batting average against.

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez also walked two batters in his two innings at the end of the game.  Martinez has pitched 17.1 innings in 14 relief appearances.  He has now walked 11 in those innings, but is also 4-4 in save opportunities with a 1.56 ERA, a .186 batting average against, and 19 strikeouts.

NoteBook

At 3:16, last night’s game was the fifteenth consecutive Cardinal game to last at least three hours.  The streak includes one game that checked in at exactly three hours (a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh on September 12).  The longest of the streak was the 3:49 that it took the Cards to lose the first game of this series to Milwaukee on Monday night.  The 15 games have averaged 3:20:12.

How Will Cards Respond After Bruising Loss?

As the St Louis Cardinals set up for their final home game of the season (at least of the regular season), the home stretch can only be looked back on with a sense of loss.

On September 5, the Cards had just finished taking 2 of 3 from Washington – with Carlos Martinez earning his first save as the new Cardinal closer.  They were 78-62 at that point, they trailed the Chicago Cubs by just 4.5 games, and held the second Wild Card spot, trailing Milwaukee by just a half game.

Ahead of them were 3 road games against a downtrodden Detroit club.  Following that, the Cards had 13 of their next 16 at home, finishing the season with three potentially meaningful games in Chicago against the Cubs.  Everything was set up before them.

The reality failed to match the anticipation.  They began by losing 2 of 3 in Detroit and then lost 4 of 7 in the first home stand.  Their chances swelled when they won 2 of 3 in Atlanta, but faded again as the team went only 3-2 in the first 5 games of their final home stand.  The losses were especially stinging – losses to Milwaukee in the first two games of a critical series – the last one, last night’s 12-4 battering (box score).

They have responded, so far, going 9-9 with this opportunity.  They are still 4.5 games behind the Cubs, but with only 4 games left, there is not enough season left to catch them.  They have fallen, now 4 games behind the Brewers for that first WildCard spot, and have slipped a half-game behind Colorado for the last playoff spot.

The question, for tonight and for the last three games in Wrigley, is how will this young team respond?  With an opportunity still before them and four difficult games left, how will this young team respond to this latest adversity?

Loss Leads to Loss

One of the most glaring differences between the September Cardinals and the Post-All-Star-Break Cardinals is their ability to respond to a loss.

From the beginning of the season’s second half until September 1, the Cardinals lost consecutive games just once (July 22 in Chicago and July 23 in Cincinnati).  They lost a total of 13 games during that span, and were 12-1 the next game.

September began with a 3-game losing streak, and the trend hasn’t stopped.  The current streak is the fourth losing streak of at least 2 games this month.  The Cards – who have already lost twice as many games as they did in all of August – are just 4-7 this month following a loss.

At the center of the slide has been the pitching staff.  After leading the charge through August, the pitchers have struggled greatly in the season’s final month.  After last night’s melt down, the team’s September ERA sits at 4.82.  The starters have been bad enough – they have thrown just 6 quality starts in 23 games with a 4.69 ERA.  The bullpen has been even worse.  They have served up more home runs (14) than the starters (13) even though they have pitched 26.2 fewer innings.  The September bullpen ERA is now 4.98 with a .282 batting average against.

Instead of responding after a loss, the pitching staff has performed worse in their opportunities to halt a losing streak.  In 11 after-loss games in September, the pitching staff boasts a 5.22 ERA.  In their last 100 such innings, Cardinal pitchers have served up 17 home runs, 23 doubles and 2 triples.  Opposing hitters, in games after a Cardinal loss, are slugging .469 against St Louis.

As with the month in general, bad starting pitching (only 3 quality starts and a 4.97 ERA) has been trumped by worse relief pitching (5.47 ERA and an opponent’s batting line of .275/.387/.519).  In games after a loss this month, Cardinal relievers are walking 5.66 and allowing 2.01 home runs per nine innings.  In these games the bullpen has accounted for almost as many innings (49.1) as the starters (50.2).

As much, perhaps, as any other number set, these numbers tell the story of the disappointing month.

Austin Gomber

While I remain very high on the future of left-handed curveballer Austin Gomber, the truth remains that in these critical September games, he hasn’t been a part of the answer.  After his struggles last night, Austin hasn’t seen the fifth inning in two of his last three starts.

Gomber has had particular difficulty in the stopper role.  He has a 5.68 ERA this season in games after a loss.  In the second half, Austin is 2-2 in 7 games (6 starts) after a loss with a 6.52 ERA and a .302 batting average against.

John Brebbia

In a season of turmoil in the Cardinal bullpen, John Brebbia has emerged as a significant – if under the radar – contributor.  He helped hold the team semi-close last night with 1.2 innings of scoreless, hitless relief.  Over his last 13 appearances, John has pitched 13 innings, allowing just 1 run (0.69 ERA) on only 7 hits while striking out 19.  The last 48 batters to face John are hitting just .159 with a .250 slugging percentage.

For the season, Brebbia has appeared in 20 games after a Cardinal loss, totaling 24.1 innings.  He has a 2.59 ERA in those games, and a .222 batting average against.

Last night was also the tenth time this season the Cards asked John for more than one inning.  To this point he has proved himself capable of multiple innings.  In his 10.1 “additional” innings, Brebbia has allowed 3 runs (2.61 ERA) and only 8 hits (.205 batting average).  A slight decline in strikeouts (9 in those 10.1 innings) is the only evidence of increased difficulty.

Mike Mayers

The game began to seriously spin out of reach once Mike Mayers came into the game.  Mike’s season just will not turn around.  In the course of just 14 pitches, Mike gave up two more runs on a single and a home run, extending a 7-4 deficit into a 9-4 deficit.

In his last 8 appearances (totaling 5 innings) Mayers has taken damage to the tune of 8 runs on 15 hits including 2 home runs.  The last 33 batters he has faced hold a batting line of .500/.531/.833.  His second-half ERA has now risen to 6.41, as batters have hit .321 and slugged .556 against him with 4 home runs in just 19.2 innings.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil then one-upped Mayers by serving up a three-run home run in the eighth.  This has been another lost season for Cecil.  His second half has been particularly devastating.  In 15 games since the break, Brett has pitched 9.2 eventful innings that have seen 16 runs on 17 hits including 4 home runs.  He has also walked 10 batters in those innings.  The batting line against him in the second half is a sobering .370/.482/.674.

Marcell Ozuna

With three singles last night, Marcell Ozuna pushed his second half batting average up to .300 (66 for 220).  He is hitting .310 this month (27 for 87).

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez stayed hot.  With a single and a double, Jose now has three consecutive two-hit games.  He has hit in 6 of his last 7, getting two hits in 5 of the six.  He is 11 for his last 27 (.407).  Five of the hits are for extra-bases (4 doubles and a home run), so Martinez is slugging .667 during the streak.

Since the break, Jose is hitting .322 (65 for 202).

Matt Carpenter

For all the hope that Matt Carpenter would go on another hitting tear, it hasn’t materialized yet.  Hitless in three at bats last night, Carp is hitting .175 in September (14 for 80).  He has 1 home run and a .250 slugging percentage this month.

Paul DeJong

Among the casualties last night was Paul DeJong’s 8-game hitting streak.  Paul was 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly, and is still hitting just .223 for the second half.  But he hit .324 (11 for 34) during the eight games, with 3 doubles and 2 home runs.  He drove in 7 runs and slugged .588 in those 8 games.  He had also hit safely in 15 of his previous 16 games, hitting .306 in those games.  Very encouraging signs.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko had a tough night.  His 0-for-3 included a strikeout and a double-play grounder.  Games after a loss have not been his specialty.  He has played in 54 of them, now, with a .234 average (36 for 154).

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader also had a nice hitting streak stopped – his had been a seven-game streak, during which he hit .381 (8 for 21) with 3 doubles and 2 home runs – an .810 slugging percentage.

Six Walks Make Things Easy for Milwaukee

After five excellent innings last night, Jack Flaherty carried a 1-1 tie into the sixth inning against Milwaukee.  With the season hanging in the balance, Jack’s command suddenly abandoned him.  After he retired Lorenzo Cain on a ground ball, he walked Christian Yelich, hit Jesus Aguilar with a pitch, and then walked Travis Shaw – loading the bases.  Big boy hitters Ryan Braun and Mike Moustakas were due up.  Flaherty had struggled a bit in this inning, but had still pitched a strong game.  He had thrown 93 pitches to this point, and could legitimately been given the chance to work his way out of the mess.

But manager Mike Shildt, who believes fervently in his bullpen – despite the recent results – hustled to get his relievers into the fray.

Eighty pitches and 3.2 innings later, the pen had not only allowed 2 of the 3 runners that Flaherty left, they surrendered 3 more on top of that on 5 hits and 4 more walks.  It made things easy enough for Milwaukee as they took the important opener of this three game set, 6-4 (box score).

In relief of Flaherty came fellow rookie Dakota Hudson.  Dakota has shown great promise, but control has not been his greatest strength.  Hudson walked the first batter he faced – forcing in a run.  Hudson has now walked 16 batters in 25.1 innings (5.68 per 9 innings).

After him came yet another rookie – Jordan Hicks.  The Brewers added another run off him in the seventh, set up by two more walks.  Jordan has walked 42 in 76 innings (already).  He is averaging 4.74 walks per 9 innings.

Winning is difficult enough when the pitching staff walks six batters.  When 5 of the 6 walks (as well as a hit batter) all happen in the span of two innings, it adds another layer of difficulty to the task.  In Flaherty, Hudson and Hicks, the Cards have three dynamic arms that will form part of a great foundation for years to come.

Last night, they were not equal to the moment.  The opportunity to eclipse Milwaukee has all but vanished, and St Louis’ grip on the last playoff spot is very tenuous.

The sixth walk was intentional from veteran Bud Norris.  That would be the walk that was at the center of the throwing error that sent home Milwaukee’s winning run.

The Cards have been a very scrappy team over the season’s second half.  Coming down the stretch, certain aspects of the team are proving to be less than reliable.  Especially unreliable has been the bullpen.  During the month of September, Cardinal relievers are walking 4.76 batters unintentionally every nine innings, while scuffling to a 4.55 ERA.  The batting average against them this month has been a distressing .281.

Truthfully, the starting pitching this month hasn’t been notably better than the ‘pen.  After Flaherty’s game, St Louis has gotten just 6 quality starts in the 22 games played so far this month, with the rotation struggling to a 4.45 ERA.

Still, I sometimes find myself wishing that Mike wasn’t quite so eager to get his relievers into the game.

Jack Flaherty

Young Flaherty entered the month on a major roll, having tossed 5 consecutive quality starts.  Jack’s regression this month is symptomatic of the entire staff.  In his 5 September starts, Flaherty has 1 quality start and a 4.50 ERA.  In his 26 September innings, Jack has walked 15 batters and hit 2 others – leading to a .325 on base percentage.

Among the many impressive aspects of Flaherty’s game is his ability to get hitters out when behind in the count.  Of the 22 batters he faced last night, he finished behind in the count to 8 of them.  A couple walked, but the other six managed just 1 hit (Cain’s single on a 3-2 pitch in the third), with 1 strikeout (Moustakas on a 3-2 pitch in the fifth) and one ground-ball double play (Yelich in the first on a 2-1 pitch).

In the season’s second half, Flaherty has allowed batters just a .194 batting average (12 for 62) when he has been behind in the count.

Dakota Hudson

Hudson walked in a run when he gave a 4-pitch walk to Braun.  Until September, Hudson had never issued a 4-pitch walk.  He has done so 3 times in 9.2 innings so far this month.

Hudson has also allowed 7 of the 10 runners he’s inherited this month to score.

Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks hasn’t had the best September.  He has now given up runs in two straight games – blowing saves in both games.  In 8.2 innings this month he has given 5 runs on 7 hits and 6 walks.

Bud Norris

Back on the mound after seven days, Bud Norris was more unlucky than bad.  The triple he allowed could have been better played, and his errant throw was trying to pick off a batter that he had intentionally walked.  Even so the downward trend continues for Norris.

The loss was his fifth in a row.  Even more concerning, in his 7 appearances since his last save, Bud has lasted just 4 innings while being lit up for 7 runs (6 earned) on 6 hits and 8 walks (albeit 2 were intentional).  He has thrown only 54% of his pitches for strikes this month, while the last 27 batters to face him hold a batting line of .333/.538/.944.  It has not been a pretty month for Mr Norris.

Mike Mayers

Seeing that, you might think no pitcher on the staff has had a worse 7-game stretch than Bud Norris.  You would only think that, though, because you haven’t considered Mike Mayers’ last 7 games – a stretch during which he has only managed 4.1 innings while serving up 6 runs on 13 hits (including 4 doubles and a home run).  The last 28 batters to face Mayers hold a .520/.556/.800 batting line.

Many, many month ago as the team was wrapping up spring training, Mike had generated considerable buzz during an excellent camp.  Spring training was a long time ago.

Jose Martinez

His misplay in right was a pivotal moment in the game, but Jose Martinez continues to swing a hot bat.  He had 2 hits last night (including a home run) for the fourth time in the last 6 games.  During that stretch, Jose is hitting .391 (9 for 23) with a .652 slugging percentage (he has 3 doubles to go with the home run).

Martinez leads the club in second half batting average at .318 (63 for 198).

Jose’s home run off of Josh Hader came on a 2-0 pitch.  Deep behind in the count is a place you do not want to be against Jose Martinez.  This season, when Jose is ahead in the count 2-0, 3-0, or 3-1 he is a .410 hitter (16 for 39).  In the second half, he has been hitting .563 (9 for 16) on those pitches.

Yadier Molina

Although St Louis only had 8 hits on the night, they were mostly well distributed.  Only Jedd Gyorko and Yadier Molina (among the starters) were held off the hit sheet.  The team is now hitting just .243 for the month.  Yadi is now hitting .211 (8 for 38) since his return from his elbow injury.

Another Late-Game Big Inning Leads to a Cardinal Victory

It was a 2-0 Cardinal lead as last night’s game turned into the sixth inning.  A walk, a hit, a squeeze bunt, and another single pushed another two runs across, building the Cardinal lead to 4-0.

After a bunt and a foul out, the inning threatened to end there.  Then, suddenly, Jose Martinez drove a two-run double and Paul DeJong scored Martinez with a single.  And with that, St Louis had put up 5 runs in the sixth – cushioning their 9-2 victory over San Francisco (box score).

The Cardinal offense hasn’t always been a work of art of late.  Through the month of September, they are hitting .244 as a team, with just a .399 slugging percentage.  But they are still scoring 5.48 runs per game this month.  They have had a knack for the big inning.

So far this season, St Louis has just 15 innings in which they have scored 5 or more runs.  Three of those have come in the last 14 games.  They have had 4 more 4-run innings in those games, and 3 three-run innings.  In the first 142 games of the season, St Louis totaled 72 innings of three-runs or more – about one every other game.  Over the last 14 games, St Louis has fashioned 10 such innings – nearly three every four games.  They have averaged right at 6 runs a game in those 14 games – although they have hit just .257 and slugged .398 in those contests

They have shown, of late, an impressive killer instinct – something this team hasn’t had a lot of in recent years.  They have had games where they have been dominated early but have roused themselves with a breakthrough inning later on.  Of their three 5-run innings referenced above, one came in the sixth, another was the seventh, and the third was a 6-run eighth.  Of the four recent 4-run innings, two of those came in the eighth inning.  So did one of those three-run innings.

A club that can be consistently dangerous late in games could make quite a run in the playoffs.  If they can get there.

Martinez

Jose Martinez was in the middle of the offense again.  With two doubles and two runs batted in, Jose has now had three 2-hit games in his last five.  Since the All-Star Break, Martinez is hitting .316 (61 for 193).

Jose’s game-breaking double came off of right-hander Pierce Johnson.  One might wish that the right-handed Martinez might do a bit more damage against lefthanders, but you certainly can’t complain about his ability to hit righties.  With that double, Jose is hitting .324 (45 for 139) since the break, and .311 (123 for 395) for the season against right-handers.  Those numbers lead the team in those time frames.

Yadier Molina

Does where you bat matter?  Probably not.  Still Yadier Molina – with his two hits last night – is hitting .296 (8 for 27) since he took over the seventh spot in the order 7 games ago.

One of Yadi’s two hits last night came off Andrew Suarez – the lefty that started the game for San Francisco.  Yadi is now 19 for 57 (.333) against lefties since the break.

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader now has a little hitting streak going.  With his 2-for-3 last night, Bader has hits in 6 straight games, batting .412 (7 for 17) with 2 doubles and 5 runs batted in during the streak.  He is slugging .882 in those 17 at bats.

Bader’s double came off the lefty Suarez.  Organizationally, the Cards have had trouble finding right-handed hitters who could really hit left-handers.  Bader might be one of those guys.  Since the break, Harrison is hitting .326 (15 for 46) against them, with a .587 slugging percentage (6 doubles and 2 home runs).  He is a .306/.383/.541 hitter against them with 5 home runs and 14 runs batted in in 111 at bats for the season.

Yairo Munoz

Yairo Munoz drove in the game’s first run with a second-inning single off the lefty.  Although he doesn’t play regularly, Munoz has hit lefties as well as anyone on the team since the break.  He is 13 for his last 37 (.351) against them with 7 walks (a .455 on base percentage).

Miles Mikolas

On the pitching end, it was Miles Mikolas again.  Miles has been the beacon of stability in an otherwise tempest-tossed pitching staff.  Mikolas tied for the league lead in wins with his 17th, and there was nothing scuffling about it.  Miles tossed 7 innings allowing 1 earned run on just 2 hits, no walks, and 8 strikeouts.

Over Miles last 4 starts, he has twice as many wins (4) as he does walks allowed (2).  He has thrown 71% of his last 407 pitches for strikes, and holds a 2.81 ERA and a .230 batting average against in those outings.

Miles is 7-1 in the second half, with a 3.19 ERA.  The starting pitching in general has been top-notch in the second half.  They have combined to go 24-15 with a 3.46 ERA and a .246 batting average against.

Right-handed batters were only 1 for 9 against Miles last night, and 2 for 13 against all Cardinal pitchers.  All season, the Cardinal staff has been one of baseball’s best against right-handers, holding them to a .239 batting average, with Mikolas leading the way holding them to a .198 average.

John Brebbia

John Brebbiaa allowed a couple of hits, but no runs.  He has allowed 1 run over his last 11.1 innings (an 0.79 ERA).  In 15.2 innings since the break, John’s ERA is 1.72.

A New Quarterback in Kansas City

There was a surreal moment at the end of first quarter in Heinz Field last Sunday.  With 54 seconds left, the Steelers – trying desperately to get their bearings – faced third-and-ten on their own 19.  As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston got his right hand under right tackle Marcus Gilbert and drove him back into Roethlisberger.

Ben, wedged into the pocket, tried to lift the ball to get rid of it, but the play resulted in disaster.  As Houston pushed Gilbert into Roethlisberger, the ball popped loose.  Chief defensive end Chris Jones scooped up the ball at about the five-yard line and stepped it into the end zone.

And suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 40 seconds still left in the first quarter, playing at home, trailed the Chiefs 27-0.

In the moments that followed that disaster, the game pivoted 180 degrees.  A holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick nullified the sack and the score, setting the Steelers back up with a first-down on their own 24.

Four plays later, Ben pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James.  The Kansas City lead was reduced to 21-7, and the teams would go into the locker room at the half tied at 21.

It was an impressive comeback from a proud Pittsburgh team.  In the end, though, it would prove fruitless.  While the Steeler defense was able to muffle the Kansas City offense long enough to get them back in the game, by the end of the day it was clear they were overmatched.

On a day when the Steeler running game (minus holdout Le’Veon Bell) could manage just 33 yards, Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 60 times, completing 39 of those passes for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading Pittsburgh to a usually sufficient 37 points.

But the day belonged to the first-year quarterback standing on the other sideline.

How much the football universe knew about Patrick Mahomes before this year is uncertain.  After his first two games under center in KC, they can no longer afford to ignore him.

He opened up with a four touchdown pass performance against the Chargers in Week One.  It was impressive, but the offensive plan against Los Angeles was more cute that dominating.  There were a lot of dinky flip passes to wide receivers running in front of Mahomes while still behind the line of scrimmage.

The beast that slayed the Steelers was a very different animal.  Whatever misgivings one might have had after the Charger game, Mahomes’ dissection of the Steelers was all any observer could desire.  He read every defense that Pittsburgh threw at him.  He stood tall in the pocket when he could and escaped easily from trouble when he needed to.  He threw terrific touch passes and fired laser shots down field – all with impressive accuracy.  Watching him run the offense was even more impressive than reading his numbers – and that is saying quite a bit as the numbers themselves are more than a little eye-popping.

Pat finished his game against Pittsburgh throwing 28 passes – of which he completed 23 for 326 yards.  And 6 touchdowns (giving him 10 for the first two games of the season).  As he threw no interceptions, his passer rating for the day was an acceptable 154.8.

I have long admired Kanas City coach Andy Reid.  I have always been under the impression, though, that he would probably never win a title.  There are some coaches that can just never find that quarterback that can get them there.

It is a long, long way from Week Two to the playoffs, and young Mr Mahomes still has a lot to prove.  I do think it’s a little early to start casting his bust for Canton.

But, to this point, it looks like Andy just might have found his quarterback.

And in Jacksonville, Too

The backbreaking play – when it came – came with more of a whimper than a bang.  It wasn’t a rifle shot down the field or a snazzy trick play like the one Philadelphia used in the Super Bowl.  The dagger came on a simple shallow cross, assisted greatly by a grinding kind of effort from a player who is usually a little more visible.

The reigning AFC Champs spent last Sunday afternoon in sunny (it was 97 degrees) Jacksonville Florida.  Last January, these New England Patriots staged one of their patented comebacks to keep the Jaguars out of the Super Bowl.

On this Sunday in September, however, the Patriots ran into the same kind of buzz saw that the Steelers did. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and then added a field goal on their fifth.  That field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed the first 7:10 of the second half.  As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Patriots found themselves behind (again) by a 24-3 score with just a quarter and a half remaining.

Of course, it would not end like that.

A touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan in the waning moments of the third quarter made the score 24-10.  Early in the fourth quarter, a field goal inched the Patriots closer.  When Kyle Van Noy intercepted a pass in Jacksonville territory with still 13:30 left in the game, the crushing blow from the defending conference champs seemed imminent.

But the Jags came up with a turnover of their own, and managed to stop New England on their next series – using a challenge to overturn what would have been a Patriot first down.

Now there was 7:48 left in the game.  Jacksonville had first-down on their own 39 yard line.  Quarterback Blake Bortles found Dede Westbrook open on a shallow crossing pattern.  Westbrook, running from the offensive right to the left found the sideline and turned up field. 

Already a substantial gain, the play turned into the game-breaker as receiver Keelan Cole cleared the sidelines with a critical block.

In the first quarter, Cole made a remarkable one-handed catch up that same sideline (relatively speaking) on a pass that was considerably behind him.  That reception set up his own 24-yard touchdown grab.  These were the highlight catches of Keelan’s impactful first half – which saw him collect 4 passes for 77 yards.

Now, however, he was Keelan Cole – the blocker.  He was Keelan Cole – the football player.

Had he not thrown the key block, it’s anyone’s guess how the game might have turned out.  Given a reprieve, the Patriots might very well have held the Jags to a field goal – or perhaps forced another turnover.  Keelan’s block may have been the most critical play of the game.

It did open the way for the touchdown that New England never recovered from.

Who is BlakeBorltes?

The quarterback in the spotlight that afternoon was Bortles.  The Patriots challenged him to beat them through the air and up the sidelines, and Blake kept doing that all afternoon.  He finished his day’s work shredding New England for 377 yards on 29 of 45 passing.  Along with his 1 interception, Blake tossed 4 touchdowns.  His passer rating ending up as an excellent 111.1.

In its own way Blake’s day was as impressive as Mahomes.  In that he humbled the sometimes invincible Patriots.  That he always kept his cool whether secure in the pocket or on the run.  That he unerringly diagnosed everything New England’s defense tried to do to him.  That he threw the ball with great accuracy and never made that critical mistake that quarterbacks so often make against New England – in all these areas, Blake’s day was as laudable as any quarterback in Week Two – even if his game was more contained and less aggressively athletic than Mahomes’.

In an earlier title, I hinted at a new quarterback in Jacksonville.  It is, of course, still Blake Bortles.  But maybe a new Blake Bortles.  Certainly different than the Blake Bortles that threw only one pass in the second half of his Week Five game last year in Pittsburgh.

Just watching him play and looking at his history it is easy to overlook Blake Bortles.  Maybe it’s time we stop doing that.

And in Tampa Bay

With Jameis Winston missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, the Buccaneers had a need for a stop-gap quarterback.  Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed a perfect fit.  Now, all of a sudden, there is a potential quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.

Fitzpatrick – the stopgap – has led Tampa Bay to two compelling victories against teams (New Orleans and Philadelphia) that were in the playoffs a year ago.  And he has done so in about as perfect a fashion as one could hope.

His combined line against the Saints and Eagles reads 46 of 61 (78.7%) for 819 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.  This adds up to a not-too-shabby 151.5 passer rating.  Fitz will get the Monday night game this week against Pittsburgh, and then Winston will be eligible to return.  Whether he returns to hold the clipboard or not remains to be seen.

Ready for Week Three

As Week Three is beginning to kick off around the football universe, the season is already beginning to suggest the surprise stories that might play out for the rest of the season.

There is, of course, a long way to go.

Position Wars with 9 Games Left

Let’s take one final look at the impact the defensive alignments have had on the 2018 edition of the St Louis Cardinals.

Catcher

Yadier Molina has been less indestructible this season than he has been in the past.  A couple of injuries have forced him into extended periods of “rest.”  His reputation as the most irreplaceable Cardinal has been heightened by his absence.

In the 112 games that Yadi has started, the Cards are 63-49.  When Yadi doesn’t start, they are 21-20.

Of the backups, Francisco Pena has acquitted himself well.  The team is 15-14 in his 29 starts, and the team ERA when Pena starts (3.53) is actually slightly lower than when Molina starts (3.83).

First Base

The infield has been in a state of flux most of the year, but since the All-Star Break, the Cards have played their best baseball with Matt Carpenter starting at first.  Carp has made 36 of the 59 second-half starts at third, with the team responding with a 23-13 record. 

They haven’t been terrible without him at first, though – 13-10 since the break.

Since he was rescued from Washington, Matt Adams has seen more work than I would have anticipated.  He has started 12 games at first, with the team going 6-6 in those starts.

Although he has been the predominant starter since the break, Carpenter still does not lead the team in starts at first base for the season.  That honor still belongs to Jose Martinez, who was supposed to be the first baseman all year.  He has made 84 starts there this year, against 53, now, for Carpenter.  The team record with Jose at first is an effective 45-39 (.536), but much better with Carpenter – 31-22 (.585).

Second Base

As the season winds down, keeping Kolten Wong healthy and in the lineup becomes increasingly important.  Kolten has only been available for 11 of the first 18 games this month, and the difference shows.  With Wong at second, the team is 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA while scoring 5.55 runs per game.  They are 2-5 with a 5.06 ERA and 5.00 runs per game in the 7 that he has missed.

This importance is even more graphically portrayed when the whole of the second half is considered.  Since the break, Wong has started 31 games at second, with Yairo Munoz starting 17 times and Greg Garcia making 11 starts.  The team is 22-9 in Wong’s starts, 9-8 with Munoz, and 5-6 with Garcia.

Over the course of the season, five different Cardinals have started at second base – all of them starting at least 11 games there.  Wong has more than 5 times as many starts (94) as the next closest participant – the 18 starts that Munoz has made.  The records overwhelmingly favor Wong.  St Louis is 55-39 when he starts at second, 9-9 with Munoz, 8-8 with Garcia, 6-8 with Jedd Gyorko, and 6-5 in Carpenter’s 11 starts at second.

Shortstop

In retrospect, one of the glaring challenges the Cardinals have faced this year has been the long absences from the lineup of their starting middle infielders.  The drop-off has been just as notable during Paul DeJong’s absences.  Although he has not had the offensive consistency that he displayed in his rookie season, St Louis is still 59-43 (.578) when DeJong starts and 25-26 when he doesn’t.

Third Base

Much of the reason that the Cardinal record is so good with Matt Carpenter at first is that it allows Jedd Gyorko to start at third.  Since the break, Gyorko has made 31 starts at third – with a corresponding 22-9 record.  In Carpenter’s 17 second-half starts at third, St Louis is only 9-8.  They are 5-6 in the second half when anyone else starts there.

Since Carpenter began the year at third, he still has the most starts there with 74 to only 63 for Gyorko.  St Louis is 39-35 when Matt starts at third, and 37-26 with Gyorko.

Left Field

The single most stable position in the Cardinal lineup is left field where Marcell Ozuna starts every time he is healthy.  Marcell has started 17 of 18 this month, 50 of 59 since the break, and 138 of the first 153 games of the season.  Tellingly, in those few games when Ozuna has not made the start, the team record doesn’t suffer from his loss.  This season, the birds are 74-64 when Marcell starts in left, and 10-5 when he doesn’t.

Center Field

While left field has remained eerily stable, both center field and right field have undergone major revisions from the offseason plan.

As the Cards head down the stretch fighting for that last playoff spot, center field remains firmly in the grip of rookie defensive specialist Harrison Bader.  The team’s fourth outfielder (when the season began), Harrison has started 16 of 18 games this month in center.

Tommy Pham, of course, began the season in center.  His surprise trade to Tampa shortly after the All-Star break opened the way for Bader to play fulltime.  In his 10 second half starts in center, Pham led the team to a 5-5 record.  Harrison has had 44 post-break starts in center, with the team going 28-16 in those starts.

For the season, Bader still trails Pham in starts in center, 90-56.  St Louis was 45-45 in Pham’s starts.  They are 35-21 (.625) when Bader starts in center.

Right Field

Right field has also undergone a major shift.  This spot of turf was supposed to belong to Dexter Fowler.  Even though a season long slump threatened his grip on the position, new manager Mike Shildt re-committed to Fowler shortly after his ascension.  How that would have played out, we will never know.  A broken foot sidelined Fowler early in the second half.

His loss opened a spot for deposed first-baseman Jose Martinez – whose defense in right isn’t nearly as shaky as at first base.  Still not fully committed to Martinez as a fulltime answer in right, Jose has started only 12 of the month’s first 18 games there.  St Louis is 7-5 in those games.  They are 1-5 in the other 6 games. 

In the 14 second half games that Fowler started before his injury, St Louis was just 6-8.  When Martinez has stated. The team has been 23-8.

As the season heads into the home stretch, the elements that have shaped the Cardinals’ resurgence are fairly obvious.  First and foremost is the bullpen.  The team thrived during the bullpen’s exceptional August and has scuffled as the relievers have reverted during most of September. 

But the lineup adjustments and the return to health of the middle infield have had a great deal to so with it as well.

Cards on Fire When Runners on Base

The game had been taut and tense all along.  After two-and-a-half scoreless innings, Atlanta rookie sensation Ronald Acuna gave the Braves an early lead with a home run.  In the top of the fourth, resurgent Cardinal shortstop Paul DeJong one-upped the Atlanta rookie.  His home run came with a runner on base (a recurring theme lately).

Now it’s the eighth inning, score still 2-1 Cards. But now St Louis is rising against the Atlanta bullpen.  A walk and a double put two runners on base ahead of an RBI single off the bat of DeJong (again).  Now its 3-1, but the inning isn’t over yet.  Another walk loads the bases and brings ex-Cardinal Sam Freeman out of the bullpen.  Sam got his first man – striking out rookie Patrick Wisdom.  He wouldn’t survive the next batter.

Catcher Yadier Molina smoked a grounder past diving shortstop Charlie Culberson.  Two runners scored on the hit, with the third also crossing the plate after the ball eluded Acuna (who at first glance looks more polished in the batter’s box than in left field).  Suddenly, it was a 6-1 Cardinal lead, and St Louis was on its way to a deceptively easy 8-1 victory (box score).  

For the game, the Cards were only 4-for-21 (.190) when they hit with no one on base.  But, lately runners on base have had the same effect on them that blood in the water has on sharks.

Over the last ten games, the Cards have pushed 62 runs across the plate in spite of the fact that they have only hit .245 as a team.  The difference has been that as a team they have hit .358/.424/.562 once a runner reaches base.  During that same span, they are hitting just .167/.233/.258 with the bases empty.

Last night, they were 7 for 16 (.438).

In no situation have they been more deadly than the situation that Molina found himself in – hitting with the bases loaded.  Over the last ten games, the Cards are 5-for-11 (.455) with the bases loaded.  In the 58 games since the All-Star Break (during which they have been scoring 5.24 runs per game) the Cards are 22 for 67 (.328) with the bases loaded.

It has been impressive to see.  Last night, doubly so as Atlanta has as many damaging opportunities.  Of their 40 plate appearances last night, 18 of them came with at least one runner on base – 5 of them with at least 2 runners on base.  The Braves finished the game 0-5 with runners in scoring position, and 2-for-15 (.133) with no runs batted in with any runners on base.

This last achievement was quite a relief compared to recent efforts.  For the month of September, opponents are hitting .286 (79-for-276) against Cardinal pitchers when batting with one or more runners on base.

A lot of times, it isn’t so much how many hits you manage, but when you do or don’t get them.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez was one of the Cardinal’s most proficient bats in the second half of last season, and is following along much of those same lines this year.  With a single and a double last night, Martinez is leading the team in batting average after the All-Star Break.  Jose is hitting .313 (56-for-179) over his last 54 games.

In his only opportunity to hit with a runner on base, Martinez set the big eighth inning in motion with a double.  Jose is now 6 of his last 14 (.429) and 33 for 89 (.371) since the break with at least one runner on base.

DeJong

More than a little lost for most of the season, Paul DeJong has been much of the driving force behind the recent offensive upsurge.  DeJong has two hits in each of his last two games, and has hit safely in 10 of his last 11, hitting .317 (13-for-41) in those games.  His hits include 2 doubles and 3 home runs.  Paul has 11 runs batted in and a .585 slugging percentage through those last 11 games.

DeJong could well serve as the poster child for the Cardinals’ recent split-personality with runners on base.  He was 0-for-2 last night with the bases empty and 2-for-3 with runners on.  Over the Cardinals’ last ten games, DeJong is just 3 for 19 (.158) with 1 extra-base hit (a double) when batting with the bases empty.  He is 9 for 18 (.500) with a double, 2 home runs, and 10 runs batted in in those games when batting with one or more runners on base – an .889 slugging percentage.

Wong on the Rise

Another element of the second half offensive revival is Kolten Wong.  Wong had two singles, a walk and a hit by pitch last night – bringing his season average back up to the .250 mark.  Wong is hitting .330 (35 for 106) in the second half.

Included in that second half resurgence is a .438 on base percentage when batting with the bases empty (21 hits in 57 at bats – a .368 batting average – 6 walks, and a hit by pitch).  He reached all three times he was up with the bases empty last night.  On a team that frequently doesn’t do much until someone gets on base, Kolten is a welcomed table setter.

Matt Carpenter

It was the fifth inning of the September 13 game against the Dodgers.  Facing nasty left-hander Clayton Kershaw, Matt Carpenter, the National League’s leading home run hitter, dropped down a bunt, beating it out for a hit.

He hasn’t had a hit since.

Carpenter – after his 0-for-4 last night – is now hitless in his last 17 at bats.  He has struck out in 8 of those 17 at bats, and is now hitting .169 for the month of September with no home runs.  Matt’s last home run came off of Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey in the second inning of the August 31 game.  That was 62 at bats, 77 plate appearances, and 332 pitches ago.  At one time in the MVP discussion, Carpenter has fallen back into the pack.

Time to Talk About Batting the Pitcher Eighth?

I’m not a big fan of batting the pitcher eighth.  All things considered, I think it handicaps the offense as much as it helps.  But there are some situations where it is worth the discussion.  In spite of his recent slump, Matt Carpenter still lists as the Cardinals’ most dangerous hitter.  But he can’t hit anywhere but leadoff.  Would it surprise you if I pointed out that Carp leads all Cardinal hitters in percent of plate appearances with the bases empty at 66.0%?  If he can only hit leadoff, maybe batting Wong ninth might get him at least a few at bats with a duck or two on the pond?

More Good Starting Pitching

Rookie starter Austin Gomber worked in and out of trouble all night.  His 5 innings cost him 98 pitches – too many.  But at the end of the day he had allowed just 1 run.  With the second half of the season now 58 games old, Cardinal starters have consistently given the team a chance.  With Gomber’s effort, Cardinal starters hold a 3.37 ERA in the season’s second half.

Throughout what has been a somewhat struggling month of September (and Austin has a 7.07 ERA after 3 starts this month), Gomber has had persistent trouble in keeping the bases clean.  Last night, the Braves were 5 for 10 with a double and a home run when hitting with the bases empty.  For the month, now, the 29 batters that have had their shot at Austin with the bases empty are hitting .385 with a .448 on base percentage.

John Brebbia

Earlier this season, John Brebbia went on a streak where he started to look like a top-echelon reliever.  I pointed that out in a post, and he immediately started to get hit.  At the risk of jinxing him again, I will note that Mr. Brebbia is once again stringing together quality bullpen innings.  Since the All-Star Break, John has thrown 13.1 innings over 14 appearances with a 1.98 ERA and a .191 batting average against.

He threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning last night, striking out 2.  He has 20 strikeouts, now, over his last 13.1 innings – an impressive 13.17 per 9 innings.

Jordan Hicks

In spite of apparent over-use, Jordan Hicks has been one of the bright spots in the second half bullpen.  He threw a 1-2-3 seventh last night.  In 26 innings over 25 second half games, Hicks holds a 2.08 ERA, a .227 batting average against, and a .268 slugging percentage against.  With his strikeout last night, Jordan has struck out 18 over his last 11.2 innings.

Mike Mayers

Mike Mayers pitched the ninth inning last night in a mop up role.  He ran into trouble (again) but worked his way out of it.  Mayers’ recent efforts haven’t filled anyone with overwhelming confidence, but the hard-thrower is starting to miss some bats – an encouraging sign.  With his 2 strikeouts last night, Mike has 19 in his last 11.1 innings.

After striking out the first two batters, Mike surrendered a walk, bringing Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis to the plate with a runner on.  This has been a sore spot recently for Mayers.  He would get Markakis on a pop fly to center, but not until Freeman had put two runners in scoring position with a double.

In the season’s second half, batters are hitting .371 (13 for 35) against Mayers when hitting with runners on base.  They are now 6 for 11 (.545) against him this month in those opportunities.

Offense, Bullpen Continue to Fade

It was, in many way, the kind of game that Mike Matheny would have felt right at home in.  It was, in fact, a microcosm of the season’s first half.  The blueprint went like this: a more than credible effort from the starting pitcher, undermined by an overmatched offense that spent the game waving at breaking pitches out of the strike zone, with any hope of victory dashed at the end by bullpen shenanigans.

In particular, Jack Flaherty gave the Cardinals – struggling to cling to a playoff spot – all that the team could ask for.  After six excellent innings, Jack left the game having allowed just one run.

It would be more than his offense would manage all night – and almost more hits that his offense would garner in the game.  The close game then slipped away as two more runs scored over the last three innings, and the Dodgers finished erasing St Louis’ wildcard lead with a 3-0 victory (box score).  The game featured two Cardinal singles and 10 Cardinal strikeouts.

Throughout the amazing month of August (during which the bullpen posted a 2.82 ERA and a .214 batting average against), Cardinal relievers worked a total of 92.2 innings, allowing a total of 30 runs and 6 home runs.  The two runs allowed by the pen last night, bring their September total to 31 runs allowed, and the home run launched by Yasiel Puig off of Tyler Webb was the eighth allowed already by the bullpen this month in just 50.1 innings.

The St Louis bullpen now boasts an ERA of 5.01 in September, with a .289/.374/.489 slash line  If you are looking for the biggest difference between the 22-6 Cardinals of August and the 5-8 Cardinals of early September, the bullpen would be where you would start.

Flaherty

The inadequacies of the team, though, cannot dim another excellent performance by young Jack Flaherty.  Not quite to his 23rd birthday, Flaherty, at least, has come down the stretch pitching like a champion.  With 6 more innings of 4-hit, 8-strikeout ball, Jack has reduced his second half ERA to 2.42 over 63.1 innings in 11 starts.  Opponents have hit .167 against him since the break, while he has piled up 81 strikeouts – 11.51 per 9 innings.  While the Cardinals seem to be fading fast, the future is still very bright for this organization – and nowhere more bright than the right arm and competitive nature of Jack Flaherty.

With those strikeouts, it should come as no surprise that Jack has the team’s best swing-and-miss ratio.  Last night, the Dodgers missed on 18 of the 47 swings they took against him (38.3%).  Since the All-Star break, batters miss 32.8% of the time that they swing against him, and 30.3% of the time this season.

A point of improvement for the young right-hander could certainly be pitch efficiency.  As good as Jack has been, he has managed quality starts only 10 times in his 25 starts, mostly because his pitch counts haven’t allowed him to work past the fifth inning in many of these games.  Even as Flaherty finished six last night, he did it at the cost of 103 pitches – a hefty 4.48 per batter faced.  For the season, Jack is throwing 4.22 pitches per batter.  Of Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 100 batters, only Daniel Poncedeleon (4.37) throws more.  The team average is just 3.88 pitches per batter.

Dominic Leone

When Dominic Leone walked Justin Turner with one out in the eighth inning, Manny Machado came to the plate in a double-play opportunity.  It was the twenty-third time this season that Leone faced a batter with an opportunity to get a double play.  He is still looking for his first – although this one was close.  Dominic got the ground ball he needed, but could only get the out at first.

Leone also threw first-pitch strikes to all four batters he faced – in spite of the fact that he walked two of them.  Walks are a rarity from Dominic, who has walked just 7 (3 intentional) in 21 innings this year.  A lot of this is due to the fact that Leone isn’t afraid to throw strike one.  Since his return from the DL, 63.2% of the batters Dominic has faced have seen first-pitch strikes.

In general, batters have been willing to play along with Leone.  Last night, 2 of the 4 he faced offered at that first pitch.  For the season, 37.6% of the batters that Leone has faced have chased after that first pitch.  It is the highest ratio of any pitcher on the team that has faced at least 50 batters.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris was called on in the eighth to face Yasmani Grandal with a couple runners on.  His first pitch was a fastball – up but just a bit away.  Grandal took it (for a strike).  Increasingly, batters are not offering at Bud’s first pitch.  During the season’s first half, 35.5% of the batters to face Norris chased after his first pitch.  Since the break, that ratio has dropped to 27.4%.

Of the 5 swings he took, Grandal only missed once.  This has been another notable drop-off for Norris as the season has worn along.  In the first half, batters missed connections on 30.4% of their swings.  That number is down to 17.8% swung-and-missed since then. (Only 15.6% in September, as Bud has only 5 swinging strikes all month.)  Since the break – among Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 20 batters – only Tyson Ross (16.3%) has missed fewer bats.

Tyler Webb

The first 29 batters that Tyler Webb faced as a Cardinal saw 19 first-pitch strikes (65.5%).  This includes 11 who swung at the pitch (37.9%).  Last night, none of the 5 Dodgers he faced offered at his first pitch, and only 2 of the 5 were called strikes.  Through the month of September, so far, Webb has now faced 22 batters, throwing only 10 first-pitch strikes (45.5%) and having only 4 batters swing at them (18.2%).

Did I Mention the Cards Had Only Two Hits?

After pushing all year to get the team batting average up to .250, the Cardinals are working hard to get it to fall from there.  They are still hitting .250 as a team (.249503 to be precise, which is about as narrow as you can still be hitting .250), but have put that mark in jeopardy hitting just .229 (99 for 433) this month.

Matt Carpenter

The league’s leading home run hitter, Matt Carpenter is fighting through a harsh September.  After 4 hitless at bats (during which he struck out 3 times), Carpenter is hitting .208 for the month (10 of 48).  He has just 2 doubles and is still trying for his first September home run.  Carpenter has 2 home runs over his last 29 games.

Matt Adams

In his second tour wearing the birds on the bat, Matt Adams has had some nice moments – most recently a big home run against Pittsburgh.  Overall, though, Matt has been less than torrid in his return.  With his 0-for-4 last night, Adams is hitting .167 (8 for 48) as a Cardinal.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the casualties of last night’s loss was the end of Marcell Ozuna’s impressive 9-game hitting streak.  While this has not been the season envisioned, in Marcell’s previous 9 games he was every bit the offensive force the Cardinals were hoping for.  He had multiple hits in 5 of the 9, hitting .410 (16 for 39) during the streak.  It wasn’t a quiet .410 either, as Ozuna’s 16 hits included 2 doubles and 5 home runs.  He drove in 13 runs during the streak, while slugging .846.

Kolten Wong

Amidst the recent offensive struggles, Kolten Wong has returned to the lineup from the disabled list.  He has yet to re-discover his stroke.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Wong is hitting .211 (4 for 19) since his return with 1 run batted in and 1 extra-base hit.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina’s September has been interrupted by an elbow injury, and he has yet to find the range either this month.  He was hitless in 3 at bats last night, falling to .235 (4 for 17) for the month.

Lost Opportunity

As I was finishing this up, the Dodgers were wrapping up the Saturday afternoon contest against the Cardinals with a message-sending, 17-4 humiliation of the home-town team.

While starting pitcher John Gant didn’t deliver his best game, the game (once again) got away when manager Mike Shildt went to the bullpen.  St Louis actually held a 4-3 lead at that point (one out in the fifth), but LA had the bases loaded, and Gant was scuffling – having made 75 pitches already.  So Mike played the bullpen card.

In addition to allowing all 3 of Gant’s inherited runners to score, the bullpen outdid themselves the rest of the afternoon, finishing their 4.2 inning adventure allowing 11 runs of their own (7 earned) on 10 hits – including 3 home runs.

September’s bullpen line now reads 11 home runs allowed in 55 innings, a 5.73 ERA, accompanied by a .305/.394/.531 batting line.

This tumble (and the Cards have now lost 4 straight – tying their longest losing streak of the season) represents a sizeable lost opportunity.

Back on September 5, the Cards had just overcome Washington by a 7-6 score.  At that point, they were 78-62.  They were a manageable 4.5 games behind Chicago for the division lead (considering there were 22 games to go).  They held the second wild-card spot over the Dodgers by 2 games, and were only a half-game behind Milwaukee for the top spot.

And the 22 games before them couldn’t set up any better.  They started with 3 in Detroit against a Tiger team that had already lost 83 games and sat 22.5 game out in their division.  Following that, the Cards would play 13 of their next 16 at home, ending the season with 3 in Chicago against the Cubs.  If during the preceding 19 games they could manage to strike a couple of games off the Cubs’ lead, those last three might well be for the division title.

To this point, the Cards have done their best to waste that opportunity.  Including today’s loss, the Cards have lost 6 of the first 9 of those games.  They have lost their entire lead over LA –and in fact now trail them – also losing 2 games to Chicago, and 4 games (at the moment, pending the result of their game) to the Brewers.

Since management removed the “interim” tag from Shidt’s title, the Cards are 8-10 and fading fast – being dragged down by the same flaw that doomed Matheny – an ineffective bullpen.

Carlos Martinez as Closer?

It was not quite a week ago that the Cardinals wrapped up one of the most successful months in their storied history.  With last Friday’s 12-5 conquest of Cincinnati, St Louis put the cherry on a 22-6 month.  The surprise feature of the historic month was the emergence of the bullpen.

An early-season disaster area, the relief corps contributed a 2.82 ERA to the August effort. Opposing hitters managed just a .214 average against these talented but young arms.  In 92.2 innings the bullpen allowed just 6 home runs, 13 doubles and no triples – a .307 slugging percentage against.

And then the calendar flipped to September.

Through the first four games of the season’s ultimate month, the bullpen suffered at least a hiccup, if not a major regression.  Through the first 21 bullpen innings of September, the relief corps surrendered 13 runs (12 earned) on 21 hits and 14 walks.  The hits included 4 home runs – three off the fingertips of presumptive closer Bud Norris – in just 1.1 innings.

Looking for just their second win in five games this month, the Cardinals thought they might breathe a little.  A 3-run first (courtesy of Matt Adams’ first Cardinal home run in a couple of years) – followed by 2 more runs in the second – gave them an early cushion.  A fifth-inning run (courtesy of Adams’ second home run of the night) made it 6-0 Cardinals.

But then, leading 7-2 in the seventh, starter Miles Mikolas ran into a spot of two-out trouble.  A Bryce Harper single and a double off the bat of Anthony Rendon brought Juan Soto to the plate with two runners in scoring position.  With 107 pitches thrown and 12 hits given up, Mikolas was certainly a candidate for relief.  Whatever misgivings manager Mike Shildt may have had toward his bullpen, they were not in evidence here.  Into the game came the usually reliable Dakota Hudson.

Dakota did get that final out of the inning – seventeen pitches later when Pedro Severino slashed a sharp line drive into right-center that the ever-quick Harrison Bader caught up to.  In between, a walk, a double, a single and a wild pitch had turned an early laugher into a tense 7-6 games.

What now?

The usual eighth- and ninth inning duo has been Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris.  But Hicks had pitched in both of the previous games (and warmed up several times).  With his work-load already approaching 70 innings (with a month left in the season), the 22-year-old (as of today) fire-baller has increasingly shown the strain of the season.  And Norris – of course – had suddenly sprung a leak.

At this point, the September bullpen had pitched to a 5.91 ERA.  They had thrown only 57% of their pitches for strikes – walking 15 batters in 21.1 innings – with a distressing opponent’s batting line of .288/.392/.588.

The ending tonight would be different.

On this night, the hero of the bullpen would be erstwhile starter Carlos Martinez.  The last six outs would belong to him.  He would get them, but – as has been true for most of this early month – it would not be easy.  After 40 more pitches – which included two singles, a runner reaching on an error, and 4 strikeouts, Carlos finally got Michael Taylor to chase a slider running out of the strike zone for the last out in a tenser-than-desired 7-6 victory (box score).

Carlos the Closer?

The two innings and 40 pitches preclude Martinez from being used again anytime soon, but does raise the intriguing concept of Carlos Martinez as Cardinal closer.  Norris has done an admirable job through most of the season, and a couple of bad outings in a row doesn’t necessarily mean that he is collapsing.  So any continued faith that Shildt has in him would not be unjustified.

At the same time, Bud has never been a closer in September for a team in the hunt.  This is unknown territory for him.  It is also so for Martinez, who did pitch out of the bullpen in September and the playoffs during his first two years (2013-2014) – but not as closer.

Since the All-Star Break, Norris is 6-for-6 in save opportunities when entering with a 3-run lead, allowing no runs and just 2 singles in 6 innings in those games.  He is only 5-for-8 when he has less than those three runs.  In the 6.2 innings he’s lasted in these contests, Bud holds an 8.10 ERA, with a .355/.487/.581 batting line against.

For the season, Norris is 14-of-14 with a 1.84 ERA and a .152/.200/.152 batting line against in save opportunities of 3-or-more runs.  When brought in to protect a 1- or 2-run lead, he is a much more pedestrian 14-of-19, with a 4.82 ERA and a .286 batting average against.  He has walked 9 batters and hit another in those 18.2 innings.

Carlos has only made 7 relief appearances – only once as the closer – but so far so good.  He has allowed just 1 run in 8.1 relief innings.

Should Martinez get more of these late-game opportunities, it raises an intriguing possibility.  Carlos was the team’s opening day starter in New York, where he threw the first pitch of the Cardinal season.  The Cardinal second half began on the road in Chicago, where Martinez again threw the first pitch of the second half.  St Louis’ season will end in Chicago, giving Carlos the opportunity to throw the last pitch of the Cardinal season.  I’m sure it’s been done before, but that would be a curious trifecta.

Miles Mikolas

Having already surpassed his career-high in innings (at least at the major league level – he threw 188 in Japan last year) Mikolas has struggled some, recently.  Although he missed by one out last night, Miles has only 1 quality start in his last 5 outings, while pitching to a 4.60 ERA over 29.1 innings.

This was the second time in three starts that Miles has served up 12 hits (Colorado had that many in 4.2 innings on August 24).  Over the 16.1 innings covered by those last three starts, Mikolas has served up 32 hits, with a .421 batting average against.

That being said, Miles hasn’t shown much signs of prospering on extra-rest.  He was pitching on six-days rest last night.  Since the break, he has pitched on extra rest 5 times.  In those games, he has worked 29.1 innings with a 4.91 ERA and a .336 batting average against.  His ERA is just 2.16 in the 4 games this half he has pitched on four-days of rest.

He has a 2.35 ERA this season when starting on four-days.

Fireworks from the Offense

After driving 40 home runs and averaging 5.29 runs per game in 28 games through that exciting August, the offense took a little breather during the first three games of September – all loses.  In those games, they totaled 7 runs and 1 home run.

Frankly, the only reason St Louis isn’t off to an 0-5 start this month is the return the last two games of the August offense.  Over their last 18 innings, Cardinal batsmen have smacked 8 home runs and piled up 18 runs – in both cases, barely enough to survive short starts and shaky bullpen efforts.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the things the offense could really use is a return to 2017 form for Marcell Ozuna.  Hitless in his first 8 at bats after a short DL stint, Ozuna has been one of the heroes of the last two games.  Marcell drilled two home runs on Tuesday night, and followed with 4 singles last night.

Ozuna – whose second-half average is up to .298 (45 for 151) with 8 home runs – was starting to turn things around noticeably in August before his injury.  In 20 August games, he hit .321 (26 for 81).

Jose Martinez

After leading the team with a .389 batting average in August, Jose Martinez began September in a mini-swoon (one single in his first 15 at bats).  He looked more like the old Jose last night, as he contributed 3 singles.  Martinez is now hitting .336 (48 for 143) in the second half.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter didn’t contribute as loudly as he usually does in a Cardinal victory, but he still added a single, a double, a run batted in and 2 runs scored.  Since the break, Matt is a .290/.418/.639 hitter with 16 home runs, 36 runs scored, and 33 runs batted in in 46 games (and those kind of RBIs are tough to achieve when you hit leadoff).  Matt has also been intentionally walked 13 times over his last 46 games.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong hit one of the home runs in Tuesday’s game, but can’t seem to keep anything sustained.  After his 0-for-5 last night, Paul is still hitting just .200 in the second half (34 for 170) – albeit, now, with 8 home runs.

NoteBook

Up next is a three-game set in Detroit.  After that St Louis plays 13 of its next 16 at home.  If this team can figure out its own home park (they are 37-31 at home) they could have an opportunity to open up some ground in the wild-card race.  And, since they then close the season with three games in Wrigley, if they can pick up a couple of games on Chicago in the process (they are currently 4.5 games behind), that could make for a very interesting closing series.

First, though, they will have to resolve – again – that bullpen.