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.

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