All posts by Joe Wegescheide

Pitchers and Front Offices Under Stress

While victories haven’t been plentiful in the month that cost the Cardinals the services of their manager, there has been plenty of excitement.  The Cards have scored 68 runs during July’s first 13 games (5.23 per), and they have surrendered 64 runs in those games (4.92 runs per game).

During these mostly offensive contests, there have been many moments of fine pitching.  The difference lately has been pitchers on both sides handling the stress of having multiple runners on base.

In the last game before the All-Star break, Cardinal pitchers held Cincinnati batters to a .188/.350/.250 batting line with no one on base.  For the month so far, Cardinal pitchers are performing well with the bases empty – a .215/.280/.297 batting line.

Similarly, the Cardinal hitters did little against the Cincinnati pitchers with no one on base – the .217/.217/.478 batting line was improved by the two solo home runs.  This month, so far, Cardinal hitters have been less than dominant with the bases empty – .237/.295/.381.

But when the heat was on, both pitching staffs struggled under the added stress.

With two or more runners on, Cincinnati went 4-for-7 in Sunday’s game – including Adam Duvall’s two-run single and Jose Peraza’s RBI single, both with the bases loaded in the fourth.  Opposing batters are hitting .368/.417/.513 this month with multiple runners on base.  This includes 8-for-21 (.381) with the bases loaded.

For their part, the Cardinal hitters have returned the favor.  They only had 5 at bats on Sunday with multiple runners on base, but came through with two very clutch hits – Tommy Pham’s two-run single with the bases loaded, and Yadier Molina’s RBI single with runners at first and second in the decisive four-run Cardinal fourth.  They are hitting .368/.413/.632 this month with more than one runner on base. 

Stress – as they say – can be a killer.

On Sunday, it was just enough heroics to give the Cards a squeaky 6-4 victory in Mike Shildt’s managerial debut (box score).  Even with the win, the Cards begin the second half of the season tomorrow night just 48-46 and 6-7 for July.

Paul DeJong

One of the casualties of the managerial change was the end of Paul DeJong’s hitting streak.  Stretching back to before his injury, Paul was riding a nine-game hitting streak.  Granted, it wasn’t the world’s most destructive hitting streak.  He hit only .286 during the streak (10 for 35), with only 2 doubles and 1 run batted in.  Paul has only one extra-base hit since returning from his broken wrist – so his power stroke hasn’t completely returned just yet.  But he does look like he’s getting closer.

Before his injury, DeJong was a better ignitor than he has been since his return.  Presented with bases empty situations, Paul was 24 for his first 86 – a .279 batting average.  He was 0-for-3 with the bases empty on Sunday, leaving him 4-for-18 (.222) with the bases empty after his injury.  Not only are all the hits singles, but two of those hits were infield hits.  Paul has only walked once in his last 19 plate appearances with the bases empty.  Through all of this, I have gotten the distinct impression that Paul just isn’t comfortable yet.  It will come.

Paul did have an opportunity to put the game out of reach in the fourth.  He was up with runners at first and second and two out – Cards holding a 6-3 lead.  He lined out to end the inning.  Throughout the beginning of his young career, Paul has done a lot of impressive things.  Hitting with multiple runners on base has not yet been an area of excellence.  He is only 6 of 32 so far this season (.188) with two or more runners on – although three of those hits have been three-run home runs.  Last year, he had 65 plate appearances with ducks (plural) on the pond.  He responded with 10 singles (2 of the infield variety), 5 doubles, 2 walks (1 intentional), 17 strikeouts, one hit-by-pitch, and one sacrifice fly – a .246/.277/.328 batting line.  He is now 21 for 93 (.226) in these situations for his young career.

Jedd Gyorko

Inheriting a spot in the every-day lineup due to Jose Martinez’ defensive inconsistencies (or, perhaps consistencies), Jedd Gyorko limped to the end of the first half.  Hitless in 3 at bats on Sunday, Gyorko is 1 for 14 (.071) over his last 4 games.

Nobody responds to multiple baserunners better than Jedd.  His hitless at bats on Sunday all came with less than two runners on.  He is now hitting .218 (41 for 188) this season in those situations.  He is a .524 hitter (11 for 21) when he gets to hit with multiple runners on base.

Kolten Wong

Also limping to the end of the first half was Kolten Wong.  Torrid through most of the month, Wong finished 0-for-3 on Sunday and finished the half 1 for 13 over his last 4 games (.077).

Speaking of bases-empty situations, Wong – who has re-invented himself as an ignitor – has never warmed this year to these opportunities.  All of his at bats Sunday were in bases empty situations.  He is now a .176 hitter this year (23 for 131) in his opportunities to get things started.

Miles Mikolas

Miles Mikolas finished a very strong first half on a less than spectacular note.  He finished only 4 innings, giving 3 runs on 6 hits.  He had produced quality starts in 7 of his previous 8 starts, going 4-3 in those games.  His 2.76 ERA over those starts was complimented by a .224/.273/.301 batting line.

All of Cincinnati’s opportunities with multiple base-runners on Sunday came during Miles abbreviated start.  This has been something of an enduring problem for Mikolas.  In those high-stress situations, Miles has allowed 15 hits in 44 at bats – a .341 batting average.

John Gant

Perhaps earning a larger role in the season’s second half is John Gant.  He got the win in Shildt’s first game with 4 scoreless innings of relief.  He has pitched in 5 games since his last recall from AAA – three starts and two relief appearances.  In the combined 24.1 innings represented by those games, John holds a 2.22 ERA and a .149 opponent’s batting average (he has surrendered just 13 hits in those innings).

Jordan Hicks

Is it the innings?  The Cardinal’s talented 21-year-old rookie ended the first half with 48 innings pitched.  Has the league adjusted on him?  Is the fact that his command has never been stellar finally catching up with him?

Whatever the reason, the formerly untouchable Mr. Hicks is now one of the team’s most hittable relievers.  Trying to reel in Sunday’s win, Jordan Hicks held on for the save – but not until he surrendered another run on 2 more hits.  This is now four consecutive games in which Jordan has surrendered runs – a total of 7 runs over his last 3.1 innings.  In addition, he has allowed 4 of his last 5 inherited runners to cross the plate.  The last 21 batters he has faced are hitting .474 against the flame-throwing Hicks.  He has thrown strikes with just 59% of his last 80 pitches.

On the Dismissal of Mike Matheny

Speaking of performance under stress, one game before the end of the first half, the Cardinal front office announced that manager Mike Matheny (and two of his coaches) would serve as scapegoats for the team’s struggling start.

This happens all the time in baseball, and no one should be too surprised when it shakes out this way.  Clearly, though, this is just a cosmetic move on the part of what has become a questionable Cardinal management group.

Far from being the problem, Matheny’s performance under the stress of the 2018 season has been – I think – admirable.

Let’s begin with the injuries.  First and foremost, the bullpen.  A suspect area from the beginning of the season, such arms as Matheny was given to face an increasingly challenging division went down in droves.  Matthew Bowman, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Greg Holland, Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons and Ryan Sherriff – all of whom were counted on to play prominent roles in the Cardinal pen – have missed significant time due to injuries.

If that weren’t bad enough, many of these pitchers have tried to compete in spite of their compromised health – resulting in more than a few damaging performances.

In addition, Matheny had to battle with most of his anticipated starting rotation missing much of the first half.  Alex Reyes and Adam Wainwright have missed virtually the entire season, while Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha have each missed substantial parts.

He also had to deal with the loss of perhaps the most indispensable Cardinal – Yadier Molina – for about a month.

But this was only the tip of the adversity of the first half.

In addition to the loss of the guts of his pitching staff, Matheny’s Cardinals endured horrific slumps from most of his most needed bats.  Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong all spent most of the first half hitting below .200.  After a torrid start, Tommy Pham joined the slumping hitters.  Marcell Ozuna has never settled in – he hit the All-Star break with a very pedestrian .268/.309/.385 batting line, and promising shortstop DeJong joined most of the pitching staff and Molina on the disabled list for about half of the first half.

And in spite of all of this, Matheny’s Cards hung in the race at 47-46.  In my mind an impressive feat in and of itself.  Even more impressive to me is that his team never gave in to the adversity.  At no point did they blame injuries.  At no time did they divide.  The pitchers never pointed at the hitters, the starters never faulted the bullpen.  To a man, every player on that team – through the end of Matheny’s tenure – believed that they would overcome all of this and make the playoffs.  In spite of mounds of statistical evidence that paints this team as a mediocre collection, the team itself never bought into that.

In fact, Matheny stayed with his struggling hitters until all of them (except Fowler) eventually worked their way out of their slumps.  Against the outside pressure on him to give up on these players – especially Fowler and Wong – Mike maintained his belief in them.  That is a hard thing to do.

In fact, if anyone’s feet should be held to the fire over the Cardinals’ tepid start this season, it should be that management group.  They are, essentially, coming off three or four pretty bad off seasons in a row.  Over the last couple in particular, these guys have brought Fowler, Ozuna and Holland to the team with great fanfare.  To this point, it is clear that all of these big “gets” were significantly over-rated by the front office – which also truly failed to fix the bullpen problem that they knew they would enter the season with.  In the case of Marcell Ozuna, his acquisition cost the Cardinals the career of the electric Sandy Alcantara – a decision I fear the franchise will regret for quite a few years to come.

Interestingly, another of the big “gets” over the last winter was pitching coach Mike Maddux.  While Matheny paid with his head for the team-wide struggles, hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller suffered similar fates for the team hitting struggles.  But although the tepid bullpen (they finished the first half with a woeful 4.48 ERA) is as responsible for the team’s stagnant start as the inconsistent hitting, apparently Mr. Maddux gets a pass.  In the end, Mike Matheny pays for the consistent failures on John Mozeliak and the management group.

The upshot here is not devastating for the Cardinals.  There are other very fine managers out there – and Mike Shildt may prove to be one of those.  In temperament he seems similar to Matheny.  (Matheny – by the way – becomes the first Cardinal manager to be dismissed during the season since Joe Torre in 1995.  Things worked out well enough for Mr. Torre, and I have no doubt that if Mike Matheny wants to continue managing, he will enjoy great success elsewhere.)  I hope that – if this management group can find another fine manager, they will support him with a better cast of players.

The thing, ultimately, that I find most disturbing about this is that the Cardinals have now become “that” organization.  A team whose recent past has been governed by long-term value, has now become that franchise that reacts – and even over-reacts – to short term pressures.  With one of the most promising farm systems in baseball about to send a great many exciting players to the majors, I am increasingly concerned that management will continue to give them away in their insatiable lust for that “impact bat” for the middle of the lineup.

It is here hoped that the ownership group will keep a close eye on them and make some kind of intervention before this would be allowed to happen.

That would go a long way to reducing my stress.

Bullpen Battered Again

It’s hard to say for sure what would have happened.  It’s true that the Cardinal offense was nowhere near solving Cincinnati starter Matt Harvey, and while Cardinal starter Carlos Martinez wasn’t dominating, he was at least holding the game close.  When he walked off the mound after getting Tucker Barnhart to end the fifth inning with a ground out, the Cincinnati lead was a manageable 3-1.

Then the bullpen took over.

Five pitchers, four innings, and 90 pitches later, the Reds had poured on 6 additional runs on 8 more hits – including four doubles and one crushing three-run homer – and 2 walks.  Any hint of a comeback never materialized, and the Cardinals began their final brief home stand before the All-Star break with a telling 9-1 loss (box score).

The story of July is quickly becoming the rapidly dissolving bullpen.  A sore spot all year, the recent spiral is fairly frightening.  Through their first 31.1 innings of this month, the St Louis bullpen has hemorrhaged 26 runs (22 of them earned) on 39 hits.  It works out to a 6.32 earned run average, coupled with a .302 opponents’ batting average.

Stretching back to early May, this team has lost 33 of its last 60 games – in large part due to a bullpen that has been saddled with a 4.91 ERA.

As the season slips away from them, the Cardinal bullpen still holds far more questions than answers.

This team last showed a spark of life with a four-game winning streak against Milwaukee and Cleveland from June 23 through June 26.  At that point they were 42-36 and just 4 games behind the Brewers.  Since then, they are 5-9 and are now 6.5 games back.

Tommy Pham

While a great many Cardinal hitters were dominated last night, Tommy Pham’s struggles continue to draw special attention.  Only recently removed from an 0-31 streak, Tommy – after his 0-3 last night – is more than half-way to tying that streak.  He is now hitless in his last 17 at bats.

Pham is now back down to .240 for the season, and back down to .201 (42 for 209) over his last 55 games.

NoteBook

With no extra-base hits last night, the team slugging percentage has slipped back below .400 (again).  They are back down to .399

Recent Scoring Changes

In the first inning of the July 2 game against Arizona, ex-Cardinal Jon Jay reached base on a grounder to third.  Originally ruled a hit, this has now been called an error by Jedd Gyorko.  So add an error for Gyorko, remove a hit from Carlos Martinez’ record, and make the subsequent run scored by Jay unearned.

Random Trends for the First Half

Some trends, highlights and lowlights from the first half:

The Cardinals have opened three series so far this month – in Arizona and San Francisco and home against the White Sox.  In each series they have won the first game and lost the second.  They are 2-1 this month in game three’s and 0-1 (a 13-8 loss in San Francisco) in fourth games.

For the season – as befits their status as a nearly .500 team – they are 15-15 in the opening games of their series, and 15-15 in the second games as well.  They are 13-12 when we reach game three, and have won 4 of their 6 fourth games.

They have scored at least 5 runs in 6 of their first 10 games this month – although they are only 4-2 in those games.  Prior to this month, they had scored 5 or more runs only 36 times in 81 games (44%).

They have played 25 games already this year where they have scored less than three runs.  They have lost 24 of them.

Nearly half the time this year (41 in 91 games) Cardinal pitchers have held opposing teams to fewer than 4 runs.  The Cards have won 35 of those games.

Twenty-three times this season, the Cards have taken a one-run lead in a game, but have not been able to stretch their lead to two runs.  They have lost 18 of those games.

Once they get at least a two run lead, they are 42-5. 

One of those 5 losses was one of the low points of the season. 

On April 27, St Louis paid their first visit of the season to Pittsburgh.  With Miles Mikolas shutting down the Pirate offense, the Redbird bats gave him an early lead.  A Jedd Gyorko home run sparked a 3-run third, and single runs in the fourth and fifth gave Mikolas and the Cards a 5-0 lead after five.  It isn’t very often that a team loses a game after leading by five, but this team can manage the improbable.

First of all, the offense dried up.  From the point that Marcell Ozuna’s single made it a 5-0 games, the Cards managed only two more hits the rest of the night.

Meanwhile, the Pirates chipped at Mikolas for a couple of sixth-inning runs (one of them on a home run from Gregory Polanco), but that would be all the damage they would manage off of Miles in his seven innings.  In fact, this game went into the bottom of the ninth with the Cards still holding a 5-2 lead.

A lead they trusted to Greg Holland.

Greg faced four batters.  He retired none.  A double and a single set up the inning.  The first run scored when Jose Martinez booted Colin Moran’s grounder (Martinez’ errors always seemed to come at the worst times), and Jordy Mercer drilled the two-run double that tied the game.

Starling Marte’s eleventh-inning single provided the walk-off win (box score).

If there is one loss that could serve as a microcosm of the Cardinal’s early season, it would be this one.

The biggest deficit the Cards have overcome so far this year is four runs – and that was fairly spectacular, too.

One week and one day after the meltdown in Pittsburgh, St Louis was playing the Cubs at home.  The Cubs stunned Cardinal starter Luke Weaver with 4 second-inning runs, but St Louis answered with four of their own in the bottom of the fourth.  A home run by Javier Baez in the sixth put the Cubs back in front, and the next inning, Anthony Rizzo hit the home run that made it 6-4 Cubs.

Chicago had opportunities to add to their lead in both the eighth and ninth innings, but Holland and Jordan Hicks wiggled out of further damage.  Still, the Cards trailed by two going into the bottom of the ninth against Brandon Morrow.

A walk to Harrison Bader and a Martinez single set the stage for what was probably Ozuna’s finest Cardinal moment so far – a game-tying, two-run double.

After the Cubs stranded yet another runner at third, the Cards took the game with a blunt rally in the bottom of the tenth against Luke FarrellPaul DeJong led off the inning with a walk, and then Kolten Wong drove Farrell’s third pitch to him over the right-field wall (box score).

Say this for them, St Louis has been a troubled team so far, but they have more spunk this year than they had last year.

The Cards have never trailed in 29 of their wins.  They have trailed at some point in their other 18 wins.  The Cards also have 21 losses in which they never led.  They have 23 losses in games that they held a lead in at some point.

Umpires Angel Hernandez, Bill Miller, Todd Tichenor and Hunter Wendelstedt have each had home plate in three Cardinal games this year.  St Louis has won all of those games.

Gabe Morales and Tim Timmons have also called three Cardinal games already this year.  St Louis has lost all of those.

Nine-Game Road Trip Ends With a Whimper

The first two months of the season followed an eerily familiar script.  Game after game, the Cards received sterling efforts from their starting pitching.  But far too often that effort would be undermined by a largely impotent offense and a struggling bullpen.

Even though the team finished with a losing record in June, it could point with relief to the improvement in its relief.  After being scorched to the tune of a 5.27 ERA in May, the Cardinal bullpen seemed to right itself in June.  They put together a 3.51 ERA and held opponents to just a .230 batting average.

Meanwhile as the calendar flipped to July, the long-dormant offense seemed to spring to life.  Through the first nine games of this month, the Cards were scoring at a (for them) unheard of rate of 6.56 runs per game.

Last night, the season’s longest road trip ended with a vintage mid-May style loss.  Luke Weaver stood tall on the mound, allowing just 1 run on 3 hits over his 6 innings.  He took the loss.  After scoring 14 runs the night before, the Cardinal offense limped off the field with no runs on just 4 hits.  Meanwhile, the bullpen allowed a close game to unravel – allowing 3 final runs over the last two innings.

The nine-game road trip ended with an un-inspiring 5-4 record, courtesy of last night’s very quiet 4-0 loss (box score).  They return home for a brief three-game series against Cincinnati before they will welcome the All-Star break.  Ninety-one games into the season, they sit at 47-44; 23-22 at home and 24-22 on the road.

Considering that the trip began in Arizona followed by a visit to San Francisco, I think the Cardinals and their fans have to be mostly satisfied with 5-4.  Even so, the quiet way that they were dominated last night brings us home with a feeling of unfinished business.  The 5-4 trip could have been quite a bit better with just a little more consistency.

Tommy Pham

On July 1, Tommy Pham called a halt to a 31 at bat hitless streak.  With 8 hits in his subsequent 18 at bats, it looked like Pham was back.  Since the last of those hits (a sixth-inning RBI single off of San Francisco’s Ty Blach on July 5) Tommy is riding another long hitless streak – 14 at bats.  His four strikeouts last night leave him with strikeouts in all of his last 6 plate appearances, and 8 in the 14 at bats.

The skid drops Tommy to just .235 (8 for 34) this month, with 12 strikeouts.  He finished this last road trip with a .200 average (6 for 30) with only one extra-base hit and 11 strikeouts.

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna – one of the few offensive heroes of June – finished an un-inspiring road trip with an 0-for-4 evening.  Marcell – who has started 37 consecutive games – had 40 plate appearances on the road trip.  These resulted in 5 singles, 1 double, 1 walk, 10 strikeouts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 1 double play grounded into.  This calculates to a batting line of .158/.175/.184.

This fairly dismal road trip continues a strange trend in Ozuna’s season.  While most of the team hits better on the road than at home, the consistent story of Marcell’s season has been the reverse.  The Cardinals are scoring 4.74 runs per game on the road, hitting a home run for every 23.4 road at bats.  They score just 4.13 runs per game at home, with a home run every 31.9 at bats.

But Ozuna has thrived in spacious Busch.  He is hitting .313 (50 for 160) at home with 6 home runs.  He is now hitting just .233 (42 for 180) with 4 home runs and 11 walks away from home.  Marcell’s road on base percentage is just .273.

Ozuna – who hit 37 homeruns last year – hasn’t hit one since the first inning of a June 16 game against the Cubs.  That was 95 at bats ago.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler was one of the heroes of the 14-2 rout the night before.  He drove in 5 runs with a single and a grand slam.  He was 0-for-4 last night.  He is 2-for-14 for the month of July (.143).  While both Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong have recovered from dismal starts, Fowler’s batting average still sits at .170 for the season.

Luke Weaver

The Cardinal’s tough-luck loser was the bright spot of the evening.  His six strong innings provided his second consecutive mostly dominant performance (he pitched 8 innings of the 11-2 win in San Francisco no July 5).  Over his last 14 innings, Luke holds a 1.93 ERA and an opponents’ batting line of .109/.146/.174.

Weaver also finished off a road trip that saw the starting pitching come to the fore.  Cardinal starters threw 7 quality starts in the 9 games, and finished with a cumulative 3.04 ERA.

Too Bad the Same Thing Can’t Be Said For the Bullpen

Even as the rotation regained its footing after a little slide, the Cardinal relief corps started regressing back to its May standard.  They surrendered 3 more runs over the last 2 innings last night and finished the road trip with a combined 5.32 ERA and a .299 batting average against.

Mike Mayers

Just at the point where Mike Mayers was starting to be trusted with more critical situations, he has backtracked a bit.  His seventh inning last night turned a 1-0 White Sox lead into a 3-0 lead.  Over his last 4.1 innings, Mike has allowed 4 runs on 7 hits.  The last 19 batters he has faced are hitting .389 against him.

Jordan Hicks

Almost untouchable in the early days of his rookie season, Jordan Hicks gave up the last run in the eighth inning last night.  Jordan has now allowed runs in 3 of his last 5 games – giving a total of 5 runs in 6.1 innings (along with allowing both of his last two inherited runners to score).

It is no longer surprising to see runs score while Hicks is on the mound.

Next

The Cardinals are off today as they prepare for Cincinnati on Friday.  The Cards are 9-1 against the Reds this year, encouraging predictions of entering the break on a bit of a streak.  Let me caution you.  The Reds have won 19 of their last 28 games.  While it is true that they are still just 41-52, it is also true that St Louis has never managed a 28 game span with 19 wins.  No one should suppose that these games will be easy.

NoteBook

Last night’s loss snapped a five-game streak in which the Cards had scored the game’s first run.  It also ended an eight-game streak in which the Cardinals held a lead at some point in the game.

Cards Win in Highest Scoring Game of the Season

To say this was not the White Sox’ finest hour would be a significant understatement.  The final score (14-2 Cardinals) was indicative enough (box score).  Worse was the fact that much of the damage came at their own hands.  With 8 walks and an error added to the 16 Cardinal hits, St Louis didn’t lack for scoring opportunities. Five of the Cardinal runs – including 4 of the 7 they scored in the decisive sixth – reached base with walks.  St Louis scored runs on a passed ball, a wild pitch, and a bases loaded walk.

In truth, the route could have been even worse, as the Cardinals – very torrid recently with runners in scoring position – were only 4 for 17 in those circumstances.

And, of course, when the young White Sox’ pitchers did throw the ball over the plate, the Cards hit it with authority – their hits including 3 doubles and 2 home runs.  As a result of the outburst, the Cards are now hitting .291 as a team this month, scoring 59 runs in the 9 games so far.

It has been their most sustained offensive show since April.

In this one, everyone in the lineup made a contribution.

Kolten Wong

After spending almost all of the season’s first half hitting below .200, Kolten Wong is suddenly a man on fire.  He has hit safely in all of his last 5 starts, getting multiple hits in the last 4.  After his 4-for-5 effort last night (which included a double and a home run) Wong is hitting .579 (11-for-19) in those last 5 starts, with a .947 slugging percentage. 

Jose Martinez

Slumping a bit when the calendar turned to July, Jose Martinez (3-for-4 last night) now has consecutive 3-hit games.  These have pushed his July average back up to .321 (9 for 28).

Jose was 1-for-2 with runners in scoring position last night – his single driving home Matt Carpenter in the third.  Martinez leads all Cardinal regulars in batting average with runners in scoring position at .322 (28 for 87).

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter pushed his average into the rarefied air of the .260s with two more hits last night.  Even so, he is still missing opportunities with runners in scoring position. 

He ended the fourth by striking out with Wong at second base (the lead was only 3-2 at that point).  In the sixth he walked with runners at first and second and no one out – a walk that helped set the stage for the 7-run inning.

Carpenter is now 13 for 55 (.236) on the season with runners in scoring position – although he now has 20 walks and a .429 no base percentage in those situations.

Paul DeJong

With 2 hits last night, Paul DeJong now has a small six-game hitting streak, going back to the last two games before his injury.  It hasn’t been a terribly loud hitting streak, but he is hitting .292 (7 for 24).  Last night was the only multi-hit game in the streak.

DeJong also had RISP chances, but went 0-for-2.  For the season, DeJong is hitting just .238 (10 for 42) when he’s had RBI opportunities.

Good News From the Rotation

While the 14 runs and 16 hits grabbed the attention, there has also been an encouraging trend in the rotation.  After a struggling June which saw the rotation endure an eight-start stretch without a quality start, Miles Mikolas’ 6 efficient innings last night provided the Cards with their sixth quality start in the last eight outings.  Over the last 8 games, the rotation has provided a 3.23 combined ERA.

Mikolas now has 13 quality starts in his last 16 games.  He is 9-3 with a 2.26 ERA over those games.

Brett Cecil

Still not entrusted with important moments, Brett Cecil entered in the seventh with a 9-run lead.  He threw another fine inning.  He has now not allowed an earned run over his last 9 games (9.1 innings). He has allowed just one extra-base hit (a double) to the last 38 batters he’s faced.

Greg Holland and John Brebbia

In a footnote to the game, both Greg Holland and John Brebbia threw scoreless innings.  For both it broke a string of three consecutive games in which they had allowed runs – they were jointly responsible for 5 of the 13 runs San Francisco scored in the last game of that series.

For both, it must have been a relief.

Reviewing 23 Consecutive Games Against Winning Teams

Even as I’m typing this, the Cardinals are in Chicago’s south side playing the White Sox (the game is currently tied at 2-2).  This contest must seem very different to the Cardinals and their fans for many reasons.  Playing in an American League stadium, St Louis will be using the designated hitter tonight.  After what has seemed an eternity on the West Coast, the Cards are finally back in their own time zone.

And, of course, they are playing a losing team.  Starting the game with a 30-60 record (and 19.5 games behind), the Sox are in full rebuilding mode.  This is a situation your St Louis Cardinals haven’t been in since June 13 when they lost a 4-2 game against the now 39-54 San Diego Padres.

For the last 23 games, this team has gone toe-to-toe with some of baseball’s better teams.  They have been tested by the Chicago Cubs (currently 51-37), Philadelphia (50-39), Milwaukee (54-37), Cleveland (49-40), Atlanta (50-39), Arizona (50-41) and San Francisco (48-45).  Milwaukee, Cleveland, Atlanta and Arizona are all currently first place teams.

If you consider (as I do) that games against winning teams are a significant litmus test, then the results of this 23-game gauntlet will prove to be quite informative.  The overall results – the 10-13 record – are a bit disappointing, but not devastating.  To a large extent this club (that is still trying to understand itself while contending with an array of important injuries) acquitted itself reasonably well during this stretch of games – showing themselves impressively resilient at times.

While this challenging string of games exposed some notable weaknesses, there were also a handful of positives to take away from these contests.

Is That the Long Lost Cardinal Offense?

It has been far from a consistent presence, but the team that welcomed the Cubs to Busch on June 15 was scuffling along at 4.26 runs per game.  They then averaged a surprising 4.74 runs per game over their next 23 games.  In their 4-4 start to July, the birds have been even better.  They have scored 45 runs in those games (5.63 per) while hitting .278 as a team (this from a team that has been struggling to push away from the .240 mark).

Jedd Gyorko

Emerging from the jetsam of May and June is Jedd Gyorko.  Nearly buried on the bench at one point earlier this spring, Jedd is now wielding his impact bat against all comers.  Jedd has made 7 starts this month, going 11 for 27 (.407) with 2 doubles, a triple, and 2 home runs (.778 slugging percentage).  He has 7 runs batted in already this month.

Still considered a part-time player, Jedd has nonetheless played in 35 of the 44 games this season that St Louis has played against winning teams – starting 24 of them.  Jedd is hitting .304 (31 for 102) in those games.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina has also provided some offensive lift during the early games in July.  He has 8 hits (in 22 at bats) through his first 6 games of the month.  Those hits include 2 early home runs.  Yadi is hitting .364 so far in July with a .636 slugging percentage and 6 runs batted in.

Yadi has started 20 of the last 23 games, and his bat has done more than his share to fuel the offense.  Looking very much like he is in the prime of his career, Molina has 22 hits in his last 69 at bats – a .319 average.  Ten of those hits have been for extra-bases (3 doubles and 7 home runs).  Yadi has 15 runs batted in over his last 21 games, and is slugging .667.

Kolten Wong

Add the bat of Kolten Wong to the list of recently re-claimed hitters.  The intimidating opposition hasn’t impacted Wong.  He is 8 for 22 this month (.364) and has hit .276 (16 for 58) over the last 23.  Four of Kolten’s six home runs have come against winning opponents.

Yairo Munoz

Another versatile piece that manager Mike Matheny is trying to invent opportunities for, Yairo Munoz has also made important contributions to the resurgent Cardinal offense.  He has earned 24 plate appearances this month, turning them into 4 singles, 1 double, 2 home runs, 6 runs batted in, 3 walks, a hit-by-pitch, and a stolen base.  Yairo’s July batting line currently sits at .350/.458/.700.  Really hard to take him out of the lineup.

Over the last 23 games, Munoz is hitting .351 (20 for 57).  In fact, no Cardinal carries a higher batting average this season against winning teams than Munoz.  Yairo is 25 of 79 (.316) this season against teams that have at least won as many as they have lost.

HarrisonBader

More than just defense, Harrison Bader’s offense has also been a part of the equation in the early going this month.  Bader is 6 for his last 20 (.300) with half of those hits for extra-bases (2 doubles and a home run) – a .550 slugging percentage.  This spurt brings Bader’s average to .279 (17 for 61) over the last 23.

For the season, Bader is hitting a more-than-respectable .280 (28 for 100) against quality opponents, hitting 3 home runs.

Matt Carpenter

If there is one batter who might be considered the team MVP during this recent run against these winning teams, it would have to be Matt Carpenter.  Left for dead by many fans early this year, Carpenter has been dominant during this 10-13 run.  Playing in all of the games (starting 22), Carpenter has been to the plate 99 times in those games –with notable production.  He has 9 singles, 9 doubles and 9 home runs during the 99 plate appearances.  He has scored 23 runs in the 23 games, driving in 18 runs during that span.  He has also drawn 17 walks – leading to a .329/.444/.768 batting line.

Matt is a .303/.428/.638 hitter this season in 187 plate appearances against winning teams.  Twelve of his 17 home runs have come against these guys.

The fact that these hitters are doing this against some of baseball’s best teams certainly validates their performances, and supports management’s hopes for these players as the second half of the season approaches.

And Then

But if several pieces of the lineup are starting to heat up, some others have mostly disappeared against the better competition. 

Big gun Marcell Ozuna carries a .182/.176/.212 batting line so far this month.  He has hit .244/.279/.327 this season against the better teams.

Jose Martinez hit only .214 over these last 23 games.  He is a .243 hitter this year against winning teams.

Tommy Pham hit just .177 over the last 23 games.  He is a .199 hitter this year against winning teams.

And, of course, the embattled Dexter Fowler is a .147 hitter over the last 23, and a .176 hitter this year against winning teams.

To this point, these are some of the pieces found wanting against stiffer competition.

Pitching Woes

Against this improving offense, the Cardinal pitching staff has struggled to take advantage.  The starters have only 10 quality starts in the last 23, sporting a 4.58 ERA during those games.

For the season, St Louis is 21-23 against winning teams with a 3.86 team ERA.  Struggling most have been starter Luke Weaver (2-4 with a 5.55 ERA in 9 starts) and relievers John Brebbia (6.75 ERA in 13.1 innings) and Greg Holland (7.30 ERA in 12.1 innings).

Even here, though, there are quite a few encouraging performances.  Carlos Martinez is 4-1 in 7 starts against winning teams, with a 2.98 ERA.  Jack Flaherty has a 3.16 ERA in 7 starts against them, and Miles Mikolas is 4-1 with a 3.56 ERA in 7 starts against these teams.

Among the relievers, Bud Norris is 7-for-7 in saves against these guys with a 2.08 ERA in 17.1 innings.  Sam Tuivailala holds a 2.16 ERA in 16.2 innings against winning teams.

These last 23 games can be a glass half-full/half-empty kind of exercise.  If you look for causes for alarm, you will find them.  But there are enough positives coming out of this to give encouragement for the second half.

PS – while I have been working through all of this, the Cards have been pulling away from the White Sox – they now lead Chicago 14-2 in the bottom of the ninth.  Certainly a different experience.

Recent Scoring Changes

In the 8-4 victory over Arizona on July 4, Greg Holland entered in the seventh and allowed both batters he faced to reach (Jake Lamb walked and David Peralta singled).  After he left the game, both runners eventually scored.  As a throwing error by Jose Martinez figured prominently in the scoring, one of the runs was originally scored as unearned.  As the inning has been re-contemplated, the scorers have decided to mark both of the runs scored against Greg as unearned.

Trickles of Hope Against Lefties

As May faded into June, the Cardinal playoff hopes seemed to fade with the month.  Finishing May with four wins in six games, St Louis began June with a 30-24 record 

Twenty-seven games later (15 of them losses) they staggered out of the month with a 42-39 record.

Certainly the starting pitching buckled that month, but there were many aspects of the Cardinal’s game that slipped significantly during June.  One of the most disappointing was the relapse against left-handed pitching.

An eternal thorn in the Cardinals’ collective side, April and May showed signs of real progress against lefties.  They finished those first two months 8-5 against them, and, during that month of May, even hit an unheard of .254 against lefties as a team.

But in June, the troubles began again.  The Cards found themselves baffled last month by lightly-regarded lefties like Wei-Yin Chen (2-6, 6.14), Eric Lauer (4-5, 4.84), and Max Fried (1-3, 3.92).  For the month of June, they were 1-6 when lefties started, hitting .202 as a team against them.

In the 4-4 start to July – which includes yesterday’s head-shaking 13-8 loss to San Francisco (box score), there have been an equal supply of positives and negatives.  Among the positives is a noticeable upturn against left-handed pitchers.  After averaging just 3.43 runs per game when lefties started against them in June, the Cards have scored at least 6 runs in each of the three games lefties have faced them this month.  They beat Arizona 6-3 on July 2 in a game started by Robbie Ray; they battered Patrick Corbin 8-4; and then – in spite of the presence of the usually dominant Madison Bumgarner, they finished yesterday’s game with 8 runs.  True, they didn’t exactly drive him from the mound.  But Madison didn’t finished the sixth inning – surrendering 4 runs on 7 hits in his 5.1 innings.

A hint of progress, indeed.

Jedd Gyorko

While not doing as much damaged against the Giant lefties as he usually does, Jedd Gyorko nonetheless added two more hits (both singles) in four at bats against left-handed pitching.  Jedd is pretty much the one right-handed bat that consistently takes advantage of left-handed pitching.  With yesterday’s hits, Gyorko is hitting .358 (19 for 53) against lefties this season.  It’s hard to justify not starting him against lefties.

Frankly, the turning of the calendar has brought the return of Jedd Gyorko against all pitchers.  Almost invisible in June (hitting .159 with just 1 walk for the month), Gyorko has been dynamic so far in July.  Starting seven of the eight games, Jedd has hits in all of them (getting multiple hits in 4 of those games).  Jedd is 11 for 27 (.407) through the early part of the month.  His 11 hits include 2 doubles, a triple, and 2 home runs – a .778 slugging percentage.

Jose Martinez

Also encouraging in the loss were the three hits off the bat of Jose Martinez.  Jose put together a terrific June (.314/.372/.640) with 8 home runs.  Largely struggling in the early days of July (and fighting for playing time because of his leaky defense), Martinez is certain to get some at bats at DH in the upcoming series against the White Sox.  This would be an excellent time for him to go on a bit of a tear.

Yairo Munoz

Yairo Munoz also continued his recent hot streak.  With 2 hits and 2 walks, Munoz has hit in 8 consecutive starts, during which he is hitting .345 (10 for 29) and slugging .621 (2 doubles and 2 home runs).  Yairo has 7 RBIs in his last 8 starts.

Francisco Pena

Francisco Pena struck out against Bumgarner in the second, and then grounded into a double play against him in the fourth.  Even granting that Madison is tougher than your typical lefthander, this still leaves Pena just 2 for 22 (.091) against left-handers this season.

Jack Flaherty

Back on June 22, Jack Flaherty flirted with a no-hitter, finishing up allowing one hit over seven innings.  Last night, he didn’t make it out of the third inning.  Through his three starts since that near no-hitter, Jack has lasted a total of 12.1 innings, going 0-2 with a 7.30 ERA.

While yesterday wasn’t his best game, Jack nonetheless continued his mastery of left-handed batters.  Giant left-handed hitters – who feasted on the Cardinal bullpen – had only Brandon Belt’s soft flyball single in the second to show for their 7 at bats against him.

For the season, lefties are hitting just .214 (28 for 11) against Jack.  In June, they hit only .189 (10 for 53) against him.

Mike Mayers

In what was an otherwise horrific effort from the bullpen, Mike Mayers almost brought sanity to the game.  He wriggled out of the bases-loaded situation in the third, and then added a scoreless fourth.  Along the way, Mike faced three left-handed batters (Pablo Sandoval – who flew out; Alen Hanson – who popped out; and Steven Duggar – who struck out).  He also faced three right-handed batters (Gorkys Hernandez – who fouled out; Buster Posey – who flew out; and Madison Bumgarner –who singled).

In that small sample size, was a little microcosm of Mike’s season.  The right-hander has been surprisingly good against lefties so far this year, holding them to a .200/.233/.309 batting line in 60 plate appearances.  He has had surprising struggles against right-handers.  They are hitting .286/.322/.500 in 60 plate appearances.

John Brebbia

Even since I bragged on him last week, John Brebbia has been relentlessly pummeled.  His fifth-inning struggle turned yesterday’s game around and sent San Fran off with the victory.  Since finishing a string of 13 appearances during which he was only scored off once, Brebbia had allowed runs in three consecutive outings, serving up 6 altogether in 3.1 innings.  During this stretch, opponents have hit .529 and slugged .882 against him.

Greg Holland

In his first 6 games since returning from the disabled list, Greg Holland fanned the hopes of Cardinal Nation.  In those 6 games, he tossed 5.2 scoreless innings, allowing just 2 hits and no walks while striking out 8.  He threw 77% of his pitches for strikes, and held opposing batters to a .105/.105/.105 batting line.

Over his last three appearances, Greg has lasted just 1.2 innings, with 8 runs of damage (6 earned) on 7 hits and 3 walks (1 intentional) against 1 strikeout.  Only 55% of his last 53 pitches have been strikes, and opponents have hit .583/.667/.667 against him.

Hmmm.

Among the Holland mysteries has been his inability to retire right-handed hitters.  They were 1 for 2 last night, and are now 17 for 43 (.395) against Greg for the season.

Brett Cecil

Starting to figure things out (perhaps) is lefty Brett Cecil.  After the game was largely decided, he finished the sixth and tossed a scoreless seventh.  Brett has allowed just 1 run (unearned) over his last 8 games (totaling 8.1 innings).  He had a 2.25 ERA in 12 innings in June.

NoteBook

In 14 road series, so far, the Cards have now won 5, lost 4, and split 5.  They are currently 23-21 overall away from home.

Position Wars on July 4

The season’s statistical half-way point has come and gone, and we have not yet done a position wars post.  This concept simply compares how the team does depending on who is starting at which position.

Catcher

Catcher, of course, for more than a decade in St Louis has belonged to Yadier Molina – who will likely tie Ted Simmons for fifteenth on the all-time games played list at this position tonight.  More than just a tradition, Molina is also having one of his best seasons.

That being said, St Louis (43-41 overall) is only 28-26 in Yadi’s starts so far this year, with a 3.90 team ERA.  Interestingly, Molina missed 26 games earlier with a medical issue – an absence that allowed a regular opportunity to some of the team’s other catchers.  The team was 13-13 in his absence.  Of the other catchers, Francisco Pena got the lion’s share of the starts, leading the Cards to a 9-8 record in his 17 starts.

For the season, so far, St Louis is 11-10 when Francisco starts.  The pitching staff also has enjoyed its most productive stretch with Pena behind the plate.  The starters have contributed 14 quality starts in Francisco’s 21 starts (they have only 21 in Yadi’s 54 starts) with a 3.20 team ERA.

To suggest from this that the team is better off without Molina would be a reckless reading of the data.  I do think, though, that this suggests that Pena is a more than capable backup who does a more than respectable job at handling the pitching staff.

Oh, and the team scores 4.48 runs per game when Yadi starts, against only 3.83 runs per game when Pena starts.

First Base

The off-season plan was to establish Jose Martinez at first base in an effort to keep his bat in the lineup.  And this they have mostly done – despite several defensive hiccups.  With the season 84 games gone, Martinez has started 72 of them at first base.  The only other Cardinal in double figures at first is Matt Carpenter – who started his tenth game of the season at first last night.  The numbers – to this point – tilt toward Martinez.  St Louis is 37-35 when Jose starts at first, and just 5-5 with Matt.  The scoring is up with Jose’s bat in the lineup (4.38 pg – 3.58).  Surprisingly, the team ERA is also noticeably better with Martinez at first (3.67) than without him (4.12).

Second Base

Kolten Wong’s continued batting struggles have made second base a much more fluid situation than planned going into the season.  Wong has only been able to keep himself in the lineup for 55 of the first 84 games. His ragged season has opened the door for Jedd Gyorko (13 starts) and Carpenter (11).

The half-season numbers mostly support Kolten’s continued presence in the lineup.  The team’s record with him at second is 29-26.  They are 6-5 with Carpenter and 5-8 with Gyorko.  Surprisingly, the offense performs better with Wong at second. The Cards average 4.40 runs in his games.  They score 3.85 runs per game when Gyorko starts at second and 3.82 when Carpenter starts there.

Also, surprisingly, the team ERA (3.27) is better when Carpenter plays second.  The team ERA is 3.53 when Wong starts, and 4.94 with Gyorko.

ShortStop

In the injury-plagued first-half, perhaps one of the most significant losses was to starting shortstop Paul DeJong.  After a break-out rookie season, DeJong was the reason that St Louis moved Aledmys Diaz.  Up until the pitch that broke his wrist, DeJong’s second season was going well enough.  If his average was an uninspiring .260, he had hit 8 home runs in his first 150 at bats, and managed an .824 OPS.

At the time, the fact that the Cards were 22-17 in the games that DeJong had started didn’t seem all that compelling – but in his absence the team has certainly struggled.  Last night’s game was the forty-fifth the Cards have played this season with someone else at short.  They are now 21-24 without DeJong.  Offensive production hasn’t been radically different.  St Louis scored 4.31 runs per game when DeJong started, and are still averaging 4.22 without him.  The surprising difference has been defensive.  In Paul’s 39 starts, the team allowed just 3.53 earned runs per nine innings.  The team ERA is 3.92 without him.

In DeJong’s absence, Yairo Munoz has gotten the lion’s share of the starts – 30 of them.  St Louis has responded with a 14-16 record.  Less flashy is Greg Garcia, but he has managed 11 starts this season at short.  The team is 6-5 in those games.  They have averaged only 3.55 runs per game when he starts, but the team ERA with Garcia at short is an impressive 2.51.

The Cards are about one game away from getting DeJong back, but Garcia is making a strong case to be the primary backup at this position.

Third Base

While it’s anyone’s guess where on the diamond Matt Carpenter will appear, he has mostly started (55 games) at third base.  When he moves around, that position is usually manned by Gyorko (24 games).  With neither having the kind of season that they are used to having, the numbers don’t show a lot of difference between the two.  When Matt starts at third, St Louis is 28-27, scoring 4.44 runs per game against a 3.97 team ERA.  The record with Jedd is 12-12, with the team scoring 4.00 runs per game and a maintaining 3.41 ERA.

Left Field

There really isn’t room for any discussion at this position.  Marcell Ozuna has started here for 78 of the 84 games so far this season.  For the record, in the six games started by other players, St Louis is 4-2 (they are 39-39 with Ozuna out there), and the ERA is better without Ozuna (2.83 v 3.80).  And, yes, the offense picks up, too (5.17 runs per game v 4.19).

Remember, though, it’s only 6 games.

Center Field

Tommy Pham has almost been as automatic in center field as Ozuna has been in left.  Last night was Tommy’s seventy-second start in center.  Harrison Bader, though, has gotten his name in the lineup here for 11 games.  Considering the difference in opportunity, the results are fairly similar.  The Cards are 37-35 with Pham in center, and 6-5 with Bader.  The offensive advantage goes to Pham, 4.38 runs per game to just 3.82.  Interestingly, the team ERA is only 3.12 with Harrison in center.  In Tommy’s starts, the team ERA is 3.81.

Right Field

As the season cruises into its second half, right field is drawing increasing attention.  As with Wong, Dexter Fowler’s worst season ever has him trying to fend off the challenge from Bader.  Since the perception has been that Harrison has been a significant upgrade both offensively and defensively over the struggling Fowler, it’s a little surprising to note how much better this team has played with Dexter in right than with Harrison.

St Louis is 32-23 when Dexter starts in right (a .581 winning percentage that is better than any other Cardinal in any other position).  They are 8-16 when Bader starts.  In spite of Dexter’s offensive inconsistencies, the Cards are scoring 4.35 runs per game with Fowler in right, and only 3.88 when Bader starts.  And, in spite of Harrison’s highlight-reel defensive play, the team ERA is actually lower when Dexter starts 3.50 – 4.42.

A better second half from Fowler is one of the principle beliefs that the Cards are pinning their second half hopes on.  His entire career strongly suggests that he is better than he’s shown.

About Last Night

Yes, it was Zack Greinke on the mound against them last night, but the floundering St Louis offense is making everyone in baseball look like Zack Greinke.

In going down 4-2 (box score) the Cards have now dropped 5 of their last 6.  They have scored, now, just 19 runs in those 6 games (3.17 per) with a .217/283/.323 team batting line.  They are coming off a 12-15 May during which they hit .239 and scored 4.00 runs per game.

Tommy Pham

A couple games ago, Tommy Pham broke his 0-for34 streak.  To this point, it has yet to turn his season around.  He was hitless again last night in 4 at bats.  Over the last 6 games, Pham is hitting just .150 (3 for 20) – although the quality of his at bats have gotten better.  He has drawn 5 walks in the last 6 games – leading to a .320 on base percentage.

Pham is coming off a miserable May that saw him get 102 plate appearances over 26 games.  His totals for those plate appearances were just 16 singles, 3 home runs, 5 runs batted in, 6 walks, 25 strikeouts and 3 double plays.  Tommy’s batting line for the month just ended was .198/.245/.292.  He has gone 34 games without a double.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the bright spots in May, Marcell Ozuna is one of the bats that have faded of late.  During the struggles of the last six games, Ozuna has been to the plate 23 times.  Those results have been 3 singles, no runs batted in and 9 strikeouts – a batting line of .130/.130/.130.

Marcell has gone 7 games without a run batted in, and 16 games without a home run.

Jack Flaherty

One of the features of the recent losing skid has been shaky starting pitching.  Over the last 6 games, the starters have managed just 32.1 innings, during which they have served up 6 home runs and a .282/.343/.496 batting line.  One mis-located slider thrown to Paul Goldschmidt turned Jack Flaherty’s potential quality start into another loss.  Jack has started 2 of the last 6 games.  He has thrown a combined 10 innings in the two games, serving up 3 home runs and 8 runs.  Over his last 7 starts, Jack has lost 3 of 4 decisions, with a 3.99 ERA.

Sam Tuivailala

Although Austin Gomber almost cost him a run, Sam Tuivailala worked through a scoreless 1.1 innings last night.  Encouraging to see him keep teams off the scoreboard.  Sam has had a few rough outings lately, but his ERA is still 3.16 for the season, and 2.91 over his last 21.2 innings.

Things Turning Around for Cardinal Bullpen

Austin Gomber, Sam Tuivailala and John Brebbia were not supposed to be the big names out of the Cardinal bullpen when management cobbled the team together over the offseason.  But (focusing on the positive) those three hurlers continued a very encouraging trend at the tail end of last night’s 5-1 loss to Cleveland (box score).

Those pitchers combined to navigate the last 5 innings of the game, allowing just 1 run on 3 hits.  They walked 1 while striking out 4.  Through the first two months of the season, the narrative was the gallant starting pitching being consistently undone by poor offensive support and a surprisingly bad bullpen. 

The June narrative, however, has been much different. 

While the rotation has shown a little resurgence recently, they just recently went 8 straight games without a quality start.  They have still contributed just 9 quality starts through the month’s first 25 games.  After Jack Flaherty’s shaky four innings last night, the rotation sits 8-8 in June with a 4.20 ERA.  They are allowing 1.20 home runs and 4.00 unintentional walks for every 9 innings pitched.

Meanwhile – after last night’s solid performance – the bullpen enters the last few days of June with a combined 3.27 ERA and a .224 batting average against.  By comparison, opposing batters are averaging just 0.92 home runs per 9 innings and 2.86 unintentional walks against this reviving bullpen – which has added 95 strikeouts over its 88 innings this month.

Emblematic of the renewed confidence of this unit was the fact that 14 of the 20 batters the bullpen faced last night saw first-pitch strikes (70%).  During the season’s first two months (that featured frequent control issues from the pen), they threw first-pitch strikes just 58% of the time.  This month, the relief corps is bringing strike one with 66% of their first-pitches.

While the recent four-game winning streak against two first-place teams was plenty encouraging – potentially the most important development to come out of a very hit-and-miss June might well be the re-emergent bullpen.

Jack Flaherty

The most disappointing aspect of last night’s loss was the return to earth of stellar rookie Jack Flaherty.  Even when the rotation was struggling this month, Flaherty was the one dependable anchor.  Through his three previous starts he had been particularly dominant.  During those previous 18.1 innings, he had allowed just 2 runs on only 6 hits.  Along the way, he struck out 26 batters.  His 0.98 ERA over those innings was matched by an .098 batting average against.  Batters missed on 36% of their swings against him in those games.

One of the few issues that Flaherty has had during his rookie season has been getting deep into games.  Last night’s game continued a couple of trends that have prevented Jack from lasting longer.

First, of the 20 batters he faced, only 12 (60%) saw first-pitch strikes.  For the month of June, he is throwing first-pitch strikes just 58.6% of the time.  For the season, that rate is just 55.0%.  At bats that begin with strike one are usually shorter.  At 4.20 pitches per batter faced, Flaherty throws more pitches per batter than anyone else who has pitched for the Cardinals this season except Alex Reyes – who threw 4.87 pitches per batter in his one injury-shortened start.

Jack also had a couple batters up in double play situations during that fateful third inning last night.  After Francisco Lindor led off with a walk, a double-play ball off the bat of Michael Brantley would likely have diffused the situation.  But Brantley’s double set up the damage to follow.  After a ground ball and an intentional walk loaded the bases, Jack was still in position to wriggle out of the inning with no damage done if he could get that ground ball.  As it turns out, he did get the grounder, but too softly hit.  Second baseman Kolten Wong got the force at second, but Lonnie Chisenhall was just quick enough to beat the return throw.  A run scored on that play, and another followed when Jason Kipnis’ flyball landed in front of Tommy Pham.

Even though there was considerable bad luck as a part of that inning, it still leaves Flaherty with just one ground ball double play this month in, now, 15 such opportunities.  Sometimes, there is just no substitute for that quick two outs.

Austin Gomber

First out of the bullpen last night – and the only Cardinal reliever to be scored against – was Austin Gomber.  Gomber is one of the young pitchers that I believe has a fine future.  His adjustment to the majors is – at the moment – just a little rocky.  He has now been scored on in 2 of his last 4 appearances, yielding 3 runs over his last 3.1 innings.  His season ERA climbs to 4.26.

During his major league stint, Gomber has been the easiest of the Cardinal pitchers to put the ball in play against.  Last night, of the 14 swings taken against Austin, 6 pitches were hit into play (42.9%).  This has been consistent with the rest of his brief career.  Of the 80 swings taken against him so far, 35 of them have put the ball into play (43.8%).  The overall team average this month is a more normal 35.3%.  The only two Cardinals to take the mound this month who have been put into play more frequently are infielders Jedd Gyorko (83.3%) and Greg Garcia (60%).

John Brebbia

One of the great “under-the-radar” stories in the Cardinal bullpen is John Brebbia, who I believe is deserving of more high-leveraged opportunities than he is getting.  He pitched the ninth inning last night, trailing by four runs.  He responded with another scoreless outing.  Twelve of his last thirteen outings have been scoreless.  Over the 13.1 innings represented by those games, John holds an 0.68 ERA with a .188 batting average against.  Of the last 53 batters he has faced, only two have managed extra-base hits (both doubles) – contributing to an opponents’ slugging percentage of .229.  He has 15 strikeouts over his last 11.2 innings – a span during which batters have missed on one third of their swings.

Brebbia is finding great success as a strike thrower.  Last night, he threw 9 of 12 pitches for strikes.  For the month, he is throwing strikes 69.1% of the time.  Of pitchers who have faced at least 20 batters this month, only Miles Mikolas (70%) is throwing more strikes.  Of pitchers who have logged significant time, Brebbia’s season-long average of 67.2% strikes is, again, second to Mikolas’ 69.3%.

John threw first-pitch strikes to 3 of the 4 batters he faced last night.  This month, he is throwing first-pitch strikes 84.4% of the time (38 out of 45).  He leads all Cardinal pitchers – regardless of number of batters faced – in first-pitch strike percentage for the season.  87 of the 115 he’s faced (75.7%) have seen strike one from John.

Major league batters are beginning to show a strong preference not to swing at John’s slider – even when it cuts through the middle of the strike zone.  Last night, the Cleveland hitters took 7 of John’s pitches – in spite of the fact that 4 of them were clear strikes.  Three of the four taken strikes were sliders – all pretty much in the middle of the zone.  For the month of June, 41.7% of the pitches that have been taken against Brebbia have been called strikes – the highest percentage of anyone on the staff who has faced at least 20 batters this month.  For the season, 39.5% of Brebbia’s pitches that are not swung at are called strikes – the highest on the staff for anyone who has faced at least 30 batters.  On average, less than a third of pitches taken are called strikes.

John gets very little attention, but he is starting to make this league look easy.

More Offensive Troubles

The hit and miss offensive show continued last night.  While there have been moments recently – and especially during the four-game winning streak – when it seemed that St Louis was on the verge of turning around the offense, June has still been a struggle.  Twenty-five games into the month, St Louis is still scuffling along with a .242 batting average for the month, and – in spite of the fact that they have hit 36 home runs in the 25 games – they are still averaging just 4.12 runs per game.  They finished last night with 1 run on 6 hits.

Jose Martinez

One of the curious aspects of the Cards’ recent offensive struggles is that they boast three legitimate player of the month candidates.  Jose Martinez continued his strong June with two more hits last night and St Louis’ only run batted in – he has 7 of those over his last four games.  He is now hitting .333 (26 for 78) his month with 4 doubles and 7 home runs.  In 21 June games, Jose has 20 runs batted in (he has 51 for the year) and a .654 slugging percentage.  Matt Carpenter (.319/.407/.660) and Marcell Ozuna (.347/.388/.611) are also having superlative Junes.

Tommy Pham

The well-publicized struggles of Tommy Pham (now hitless in 24 at bats) continued last night.  His latest 0-for-4 brought his season average down to .248.  For the month of June, Pham has now been 94 times to the plate.  All he has to show for those efforts is 16 singles, 3 home runs, 5 runs batted in, 3 walks, 23 strikeouts and 2 double-play grounders – a .209/.234/.308 slash line.  Tommy – who never struggled like this last year – is convinced that the problem is mechanical.

Dexter Fowler

Tommy has little on Dexter Fowler – whose entire season has been an anthem of frustration.  After his 0-for-4 last night, Fowler is hitting .167 for the season, and .130 for the month (7-for-54).  His hits are 5 singles and 2 doubles (a .167 slugging percentage).  In 60 June plate appearances, Fowler has no runs batted in.

Jedd Gyorko

And then there is the continuing question of Jedd Gyorko.  Reduced to part-time play – at least partially because that is how Mike Matheny feels he is best used, Jedd hasn’t been flourishing in any role.  After his 0-for-2 off the bench last night, Jedd has now played in 24 of the 25 June games – 12 as a starter and 12 off the bench.  He is slashing .170/.170/.298 as a starter and .167/.231/.250 from the bench this month.  Gyorko hasn’t gotten the press that Fowler, Wong, and now Pham are getting, but his missing bat is an important piece of the Cardinal puzzle.

Rotation Continues to Spiral

After the game, Michael Wacha described it “like a little stitch or a cramp or something in my left side.”  What the long-term effects of this injury will be remain to be seen – both for Wacha and the Cardinal rotation.  As for last night, it prompted an early exit for Wacha after only 75 pitches and 3.2 innings of a not terribly effective start.  He had already allowed 3 runs (1 earned) on 6 hits (including a home run) and two walks.  He wouldn’t figure in the decision in a game the Cards eventually lost 4-3 (box score), their sixth loss in their last eight games.

For Wacha (who is now headed to the disabled list) this is an added concern as this effort came on the heels of what was arguably the worst start of his career.  In 4 innings against the Cubs his previous time out, he was battered for 9 runs (8 earned).  He allowed 7 hits (3 of them home runs) and 4 walks.

Through his first 13 mostly excellent starts, Michael fashioned an 8-1 record and a 2.47 ERA.  Batters were hitting just .201 against him.  In 76.2 innings he had allowed just 5 home runs and 9 doubles – leading to just a .288 slugging percentage.

In the 7.2 innings he’s managed over his last two starts, he has served up 4 home runs while being hit at a .382 clip with a .794 slugging percentage against.  His ERA over these last two starts sits at 10.57 (with three more un-earned runs allowed).

Diagnosed, now, with an oblique strain, it is anyone’s guess what the future holds for the talented Michael Wacha.

This stumble comes in the midst of the rotation’s worst stretch of the season.  They have now gone 7 games without a quality start.  During these contests, Cardinal starters have made it through just 33 innings, allowing 27 runs on 43 hits and 21 walks.  The rotation’s ERA through those games has risen to 6.55 with a .316/.417/.544 batting line against.  For most of the season, the rotation has been the one reliable element in the equation.

Through the first 18 games this month, the Cardinal rotation has cobbled together just 5 quality starts, posting a 4-6 record and a 4.47 ERA.

Given the inexperience of the current rotation – especially given the uncertainty now surrounding Wacha – it is impossible to say how soon – or even if – the rotation will regain its footing.

Mike Mayers

Leading off a decent bullpen performance last night was Mike Mayers.  An impressive arm in spring training, Mayers has been back and forth to AAA several time already.  In many ways, he seems to be getting better every time he returns. 

Last night, he allowed no hits in his 1.1 innings.  Since his latest recall, he is holding batters to a .174 batting average.  He allowed no home runs.  He served up 3 in his first 10.2 innings this season.  He has now allowed none over his last 13 innings.  He struck out only 6 batters through his first 11.2 innings.  With his three strike outs last night, Mayers has 16 over his last 12 innings.  Mike has a live arm.  With each outing, Mayers suggests that he might be one of the answers in what has been a struggling bullpen.

Mike is also one of the Cardinal relievers who is proving that he can work multiple innings.  Last night was the ninth game this season that Mike has finished an inning and gone out to start the next inning.  In the 10.2 additional innings he has worked, he has 12 strikeouts, a .158 batting average against, and a 1.69 ERA.  Mayers – you will remember – did a lot of starting in the minors.

It is also interesting that the Cards tied the game with two runs while Mayers was the pitcher of record.  In the 14 innings he has pitched this month, his offense has now scored him 12 runs (7.71 per nine innings).

Brett Cecil

The good news for struggling left-hander Brett Cecil is that he allowed no runs for the first time in his last four outings.  Even so, a few reminders of his season-long struggle remained.

For one thing, it was another high-effort outing for Brett.  By the time he had finished his inning, he had thrown 19 more pitches.  In his 7 June innings, he has averaged 20.14 pitches per inning.  For the season, his 12.2 major league innings have cost him 231 pitches – an elevated average of 18.24 per.

Additionally, the one hit he surrendered was another double.  Six of the 16 hits he has allowed this year have been for extra-bases – leading to a .531 slugging percentage against him.

One of the factors tilting against Brett, now, is the infrequency of his appearances.  No longer trusted with many important situations, Cecil almost always pitches on three or four days’ rest.  In those games, he averages 20.14 pitches per inning.

Sam Tuivailala

Heading in the opposite direction from Mayers is last night’s losing pitcher, Sam Tuivailala.  It was his hanging slider to Odubel Herrera that accounted for the difference in the game.  Through his first 12.2 innings this season, Sam held a 2.13 ERA.  He has now allowed runs in 5 of his last 9 appearances, totaling 9.1 innings.  During this span, he holds a 5.79 ERA and a .308 opponent’s batting average.

The early returns on Sam’ season seem to suggest that he (unlike Cecil) prospers with more rest.  Last night was the eleventh time this season that Tuivailala has pitched with less than two days’ rest.  In those 11.2 innings, Sam holds a 5.56 ERA, with a .348 batting average against.  With at least two days (over only 7.2 innings I grant), his ERA is just 1.17 with a .258 batting average against.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina was the offensive spark last night.  He hit two home runs and drove in three.  The rest of the team combined for 5 hits and no runs batted in.

Yadi has now played (and started) 14 games since his return from surgery.  He is hitting a respectable .277 in those games (13 for 47), but 6 of those hits have now been for extra-bases (3 doubles and 3 home runs) adding up to a .532 slugging percentage.

Greg Garcia

Greg Garcia has been making a recent bid to earn more playing time – especially as Yairo Munoz’ bat has cooled a bit.  Greg had 2 hits last night and is 6 for 18 (.333) this month, and hitting .304 (14 for 46) over his last 29 games (9 starts). Only one of those hits is for extra-bases, but Greg holds a .377 on base percentage over his last 53 plate appearances.

Tommy Pham

Among the casualties of last night’s loss (along with Wacha) was Tommy Pham’s very quiet 13-game hitting streak.  Tommy went 0-for-5 last night, grounding out to end the game with the tying run at second.

During the streak, Pham had only 3 multi-hit games, and hit a modest .291 (16 for 55).  He only drove in 3 runs during those games – all on solo home runs.

Pham has walked just 3 times this month, during which he holds a .289 on base percentage.

Dexter Fowler

The season’s highlight, so far, came on Sunday night May 6.  Trailing by one run in the bottom of the fourteenth inning, Dexter Fowler served a walk-off, two-run home run that sent St Louis on to a 4-3 conquest of the Chicago Cubs.  That blow gave the Birds a season-long five-game winning streak (a feat they have subsequently matched) and put them a season-high eight games over .500 (20-12), a mark they have also reached since.  It also pushed their lead in the division to 1.5 games – rarified air that they haven’t seen since.

It was also significant because it was Fowler swinging the bat.  Dexter – enduring a miserable start to the season – could well have used that swing as advance notice that things were about to turn around.

That was now 40 games ago.  Last night’s loss was the twenty-second in that 40 game span, dropping the Cards back down to 4.5 games behind the Cubs and Brewers who are in a virtual tie for first.

And, of course, it was virtually the last noise heard off the bat of Fowler.  Since that singular moment, Fowler has 15 hits (12 singles and 3 doubles) with 4 runs batted in in 87 at bats – a .172 batting average, coupled with a .207 slugging percentage.

Amazingly, Fowler’s season seems to be getting even worse.  His 0-for-4 last night drops him to just 1 for his last 23 (.043).

Kolten Wong

The night before Fowler’s home run sent the Cards home victorious, it was Kolten Wong’s two-run tenth-inning home run that gave St Louis the walk-off win.  Wong – also off to a terrible start – had been a notable contributor to the May 6 victory as well.  He had 3 hits (including a triple) and a run batted in.

Kolten also looked like he was about to turn his season around.  He was hitless in four at bats last night, and is only 14 for 88 (.159) over the team’s last 40 games.

Over the last 40 games, Fowler and Wong have combined to strike out 42 times in 175 at bats.  Their unending struggles continue to hamstring an offense that still believes itself to be among baseball’s best.

Recent Scoring Changes

In the 5-1 loss to Kansas City on May 22, Jose Martinez and Marcell Ozuna were originally credited with a double steal of home and second respectively.  That has since been reversed.  Martinez has actually now been charged with a caught stealing at home, and safe on an error – with Ozuna advancing on the throw.

In the May 28 loss to Milwaukee, Brewer pitcher Brent Suter was originally credited with a 2-run double when his fourth-inning ground ball eluded Martinez at first.  That was changed to an error for Martinez, and two unearned runs against Luke Weaver.