Category Archives: Baseball

Cardinal Hitters Grind Down Reds’ Young Hurlers

These are the names of the Cincinnati pitchers who worked in last night’s game: Rookie Davis, Keury Mella, Luke Farrell, Deck McGuire, and Alejandro Chacin.  I haven’t taken the time to check how many games/innings these pitchers have thrown in the major leagues, but I would guess that it’s pretty negligible – and this is understandable as Cincinnati is trying to evaluate these young pitchers for next year and beyond.

Not always – as I can think of many games this year where young pitchers with minimal experience have tied the Cards in knots – but most of the time the patient, veteran Cardinal hitters have taken advantage of inexperienced (and sometimes veteran) pitchers.  They did this last night.

For background, across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), pitchers generally prosper if they can avoid getting that first pitch swung at.  If the batter takes that first pitch – regardless of whether it’s a ball or a strike – their average drops to .249 with a .417 slugging percentage – and even lower if the first pitch they take is a strike (.223 and .357).

But last night Cardinal hitters – even with the pressure of their uphill push to the playoffs – hit comfortably after taking the first pitch from these young pitchers.

Thirty-three of the forty-four Cardinal batters watched the first pitch go by.  They went on to hit .321/.424/.714.  Even the 17 that took first pitch strikes went on to hit .313/.353/1.250.

This isn’t necessarily an isolated occurrence.  Again (according to baseball reference), the Cards rank fourth in all of baseball in team batting average (.262) after taking the first pitch, trailing only Houston (.272), Colorado (.271), and Washington (.263).  They lead all of baseball in on base percentage in those at bats (.359).  The Cubs are second at .357.  They trail only Houston in slugging percentage after taking the first pitch, .450-.443.

I think all along as we have followed this team, we have appreciated their ability to take pitches and work at bats.  Perhaps we didn’t realize that they are among the best in baseball at this.

On the other hand, last night St Louis was only 2 for 10 when they swung at the first pitch.  For the month of September, this team is only hitting .224 when they swing at that first pitch.  Over all of baseball, batters hit .270 in at bats when they swing at the first pitch thrown.

With 9 more runs, St Louis is still scoring 4.89 runs per game this month, and 5.03 runs per game in the season’s second half.

Tommy Pham

Having a breakthrough season, Tommy Pham looks like he will be finishing strong.  With 3 more hits last night, Tommy has 7 in his last 3 games.  Pham now has 250 plate appearances since the All-Star Break.  These have resulted in 42 singles, 13 doubles, 1 triple, 10 home runs, 36 walks, 5 hit-by-pitches, 1 sacrifice bunt, 1 sacrifice fly, and 10 stolen bases.  It all adds up to a convincing .319/.430/.536 batting line.  Tommy has scored 47 runs in 59 games in the season’s second half.

In both the fifth and sixth innings, Tommy took first pitch fast balls right down the middle for strikes, and came back to get hits on pitches later in the at bat that were not as good as the first one he took.  Tommy is kind of the poster child for the Cardinals proficiency in hitting after taking the first pitch.  Pham is a .328/.447/.569 hitter this season when he takes the first pitch, and only a .259/.292/.402 hitter when he comes out swinging.  He was 0 for 1 last night when he swung at the first pitch.

Kolten Wong

While Tommy Pham is finishing his breakthrough season strong, Kolten Wong is limping toward the finish line.  While it’s impossible to tell how much is his back problem and how much is just a slump, what is known is that Kolten is 0 for 15 over his last 6 games, 3 for 32 (.094) over his last 11 games, and 5 for 36 (.139) this month.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver, in winning his sixth straight start and seventh straight decision, only went 5 innings last night, leaving a 6-run lead to the bullpen. Since his return from Memphis on August 17, Luke has pitched in 7 games – 6 as a starter.  He is 6-0 with a 1.41 ERA and 50 strikeouts over 38.1 innings in those games.  In four September starts Luke is 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA and a .209/.227/.291 batting line against.  He has 29 strikeouts in 23.2 September innings.

It is clear that the Cardinals wouldn’t have the slim playoff hope that they have without the notable contribution of Mr. Weaver.

Of the 20 batters Luke faced last night, 15 took his first pitch.  Only 3 of those was called a strike.  Getting ahead 1-0, though, against Luke Weaver doesn’t necessarily ease your way.  None of the 12 walked, and only two managed hits (both singles).  For the season, batters who start out 1-0 against Luke are only hitting .230.

Luke will throw that first-pitch fastball temptingly off the corner and invite the hitter to chase it.  If not, Luke’s fastball has enough late life that even when the hitter is looking for it, it’s hard to barrel up.  Luke is increasingly able to throw his curve and changeup for strikes when behind in the count – making that running fastball all the more difficult to get a jump on.

Luke walked no one last night (no Cardinal pitcher issued a walk), and only went to three-balls on 3 batters.  Luke is armed with a fastball that runs up at about 96.  But he also has great poise and knows how to pitch.  He’s quite developed for a kid who just turned 24.

Hopeful News from the Bullpen

Bullpens don’t tend to get too much notice in a 9-2 blowout (box score) – and understandably so.  But Cincinnati can hit a bit, so shutting them out on 1 hit over the last 4 innings was no mean feat.  During the month of September, the evolving Cardinal bullpen has inched its ERA down to 3.16.  Its reason for hope, but let’s wait and see if they can hold it together against Chicago and Milwaukee.

NoteBook

Last night was the first time in seven games that the Cardinals didn’t trail at some point of the contest.

With the victory, the Cards are 10-12-3 in road series this year.  They are now 37-40 on the road this season.

Yadier Molina’s two-run double brings him to 80 runs batted in this season – tying his career high set in 2013.

Over Early

Unfortunately, a couple of the marquee matchups from Week Two of the NFL were over early.  The most surprising of these was the Dallas-Denver game.  After a 13-3 season last year, the Cowboys lost to the Packers by an eyelash in the Divisional round.  At 9-7, Denver had just missed the playoffs.  The Broncos were expected to be greatly challenged by the potent Dallas Cowboys and their elite running game.

Instead, when they looked up at halftime, the Cowboys found themselves trailing 21-10, having been outgained 246-97, out-rushed (surprisingly) 96-12, and losing the time of possession battle 18:36-11:24.  Things didn’t get any better in the second half, and Denver rolled on through to a 42-17 victory (game book).  Trevor Siemian commanded the offense, throwing the ball just 32 times, while Denver battered the Cowboy defense to the tune of 39 rushes for 178 yards.  The Bronco offense operated at peak efficiency.

For the Cowboys, the mystifying numbers were 40 yards rushing – 24 of them from quarterback Dak Prescott – and 1 lone rushing first down.

Yes, Denver stacked the box to take away the run.  Yes, when that happens it is incumbent on the passing game to take advantage of one-on-one matchups in the secondary.  (Of course, with 3 elite cornerbacks who stuck like glue to the Dallas receivers, there weren’t really any matchups to exploit).

But even granting that, the bottom line is that Dallas handed the ball to star running back Ezekiel Elliott just 4 times in the first half, and only 9 times in the entire game.

In what will be a recurring message in this edition of football notes – and may be a recurring theme this season.  You have to at least try.  Dallas conceded their most potent offensive weapon, and played – I think – right into the hands of the Broncos.

Less surprising – perhaps – was the New England Patriots 36-20 conquest of New Orleans (game book).  The Saints are still a bit of a work in progress – especially defensively – and New England was stinging from a beating they had taken in Week One.  This game was 20-3 after one quarter, and 30-13 at the half.  While most of their running came late – after the game was well in hand, New England did finish up very balanced – 39 passes, 31 runs.  Tom Brady finished his afternoon with 447 yards and 3 touchdown passes.

As for New Orleans, yes, I know the score was lopsided pretty quickly.  But still, as far as the running game goes, you have to at least try.  After carrying the ball just 6 times for 18 yards in New Orleans’ first game, former Minnesota star Adrian Peterson carried just 8 times for 26 yards.  I can’t imagine this was the plan when he came to the Saints.

Over Early – Well, Maybe Not

Headed in that same direction were the Green Bay Packers, who looked up to find themselves down 24-7 at the half in Atlanta.  Green Bay, however, didn’t roll over.

With quarterback Aaron Rodgers chucking the ball 32 times in the second half – and throwing for 258 yards and a couple of touchdowns, the Packers threatened to make a game of it, ending up on the downside of a 34-23 score (game book).  The Packers were 3 for 3 on fourth down.

Green Bay has some work to do to narrow the gap between them and the Falcons.  One aspect that doesn’t help is their running game.  With Ty Montgomery enthroned as the “feature” back, the Pack finished the game with 59 rushing yards on 15 carries – 10 of them by Montgomery – while Rodgers threw the ball 50 times.  Again, Green Bay was in comeback mode – I get that.  But my concern is that this is about what Green Bay will always get from their running game.  I just don’t see Ty Montgomery carrying the ball 20 times a game and still being healthy through Week 8.

The Packers seem to be one-dimensional by design.  And even though Rodgers is a truly great quarterback, that puts enormous strain on that passing game – even when fully healthy.  And now with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb banged up a little, the sledding will get even rougher.

Tine to File a Missing Person’s Report?

In the moments following his team’s 27-20 loss in Kansas City (game book), Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson lamented his team’s inability to get their running game going.

Well, hmm.  Let’s see.  Quarterback Carson Wentz handed the ball off all of 8 times in the first half and 13 times all day.  This in a game that Philadelphia never trailed in by more than one score until the last two minutes.

You know what, Doug, you have to at least try to run the ball.  Last week I mentioned that a lack of a running game would eventually catch up to Wentz and the Eagle offense.  So this week, Wentz accounted for 55 of Philadelphia’s 107 running yards and was sacked six times.

During all of this, LeGarrette Blount – he of the 1100 yards for New England last year – has completely vanished.  After getting 14 carries in Week One, he got zero on Sunday.  His only touch of the day was one pass thrown in his direction – which he caught for 0 yards.

If you are missing for two weeks, isn’t that the legal threshold for filing a missing person’s report?

Cards Hang On for Rare One-Run Victory

Every so often we see a glimpse of the team that the organization thought we would be this year.  We got one such glimpse last night, as a resilient offense erased two deficits – one a four-run deficit – to pull out a one-run, extra-inning victory.  These kinds of efforts, though, have been much more the exception than the rule.  St Louis is only 5-8 in extra innings, and 21-28 in one-run games (8-12 in the second half).

Although the run-scoring has slowed a little recently, the runs scored in the 8-7 victory (box score) kept the average at 4.97 since the All-Star Break.  That’s good, but increasingly this team is struggling to get hits.  They scored their 8 runs yesterday on just 8 hits through 10 innings.  During the month of September, the team batting average has fallen to just .235.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler has come back ready to hit.  He drove the team to last night’s victory, tying the game with an eighth-inning home run and giving the team the lead with a double in the tenth.  Dexter finished with 3 hits, and has had 7 in the three games since he’s returned to the lineup.  He has driven in 5 runs over the last 2 games, and almost had 3 home runs and 6 runs batted in over those games.

Fowler has only been healthy enough to play in 8 games so far this month, but is hitting .370 (10 for 27) and slugging .778 (5 extra base hits) when he has.  Fowler is hitting .340/.453/.617 in 28 games since coming off the disabled list.  After a forgettable first half, Fowler is hitting .299/.415/.500 in the second half – albeit in only 39 games.

Fowler’s tenth-inning double stood up as his tenth game-winning run batted in of the season.  He trails only Yadier Molina – who has 11 – for the team lead.  His two late, game-changing hits were his seventh and eighth such hits of the season.  No other Cardinal has more than 4.

If one-run games are considered character games – and I consider that they are – then Dexter is one of the few Cardinals who has consistently shown up in these games.  The Cards have played in 4 this month.  Fowler is 7 for 16 (.438) with a double, a triple, and 2 home runs (1.000 slugging percentage) in those games.  In those 4 games, he has scored 5 runs and driven in 6.

He has played in 13 of the Cardinals’ 20 one-run games since the break, hitting .353 (18 for 51) and slugging .588 (4 doubles, 1 triple, and the 2 home runs).  Even after his uneven first half, Fowler is hitting .277 (39 for 141) and slugging .596 in 37 one-run games this season.  Ten of his 17 home runs have come in games decided by one run.

Since most one-run games are fairly dominated by the pitchers, this kind of offense is impressive, indeed.

Kolten Wong

Troubles continued for Kolten Wong, now hitless in his last 11 at bats after his 0 for 4 last night.  Wong did get hit by a pitch, steal a base, and score the game deciding run in the tenth.  Even while struggling to hit, Kolten is still reaching base.

In his 8 games since being sidelined by a stiff back, Wong is only 3 for 20 (.150), but has 6 walks and 2 hit-by-pitches for a .393 on base percentage.  He is down to just .156 for the month (5 for 32) – although with a .341 on base percentage.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko is back in the lineup, but perhaps a little rusty from his layoff.  The hamstring injury has been just another complication in what has been trying second half.  With his 0 for 4 yesterday, Jedd is hitting .203 (27 for 133) since the All-Star Break.

Jedd has played in 40 of the Cards 49 one-run games.  He is hitting just .216 in those games (29 for 134) with 3 home runs and 16 runs batted in.

Stephen Piscotty

One-run games have come with particular difficulty for Stephen Piscotty – especially since the All-Star Break.  Overall, Stephen has hit much better since his return from Memphis.  Unless the game is decided by one run.

After his 0 for 4 last night, Piscotty is 0 for 7 in 3 one-run games this month, and .042 (1 for 24) in 9 one-run games since the break.  For the season, Piscotty has played in 34 one-run games, hitting .190 (19 for 100) with 2 home runs and just 7 runs batted in.

Brett Cecil

After two excellent innings in relief, Brett Cecil was asked to pitch a third inning when he went out for the sixth with the Cards clinging to a 5-4 lead.  A walk and a double set the stage for a couple runs to score.  With the damage, Brett’s ERA popped back over 4 for the season (4.04) and back up to an even 5.00 in 27 second half innings.

Tyler Lyons

At the end of the game, it was Tyler Lyons securing the last two outs and claiming the save.  In recent games, Lyons hasn’t been as dominant as he has been during most of the season.  Still, his ERA sits at 2.68 for the season – and 1.11 in 24.1 innings in the season’s second half.

Relief pitching is, perhaps, the most critical factor in winning one-run games.  Certainly much of the Cardinal’s futility in these games can be traced to the bullpen’s 4.10 ERA in the 49 one run games.

Lyons, however, has been one of the strongest bullpen links in these games.  He holds a 2.16 ERA and a .160 batting average against in 8.1 innings in the second half, and a 1.80 ERA with a .212 batting average against in 15 innings for the year in one-run games.

NoteBook

In falling behind 4-0, the Cardinals have gone three straight games without scoring first, and have done so only once in their last seven games (Tommy Pham’s first inning home run in the first game in Chicago).

Last night’s win gives the Cards opening game wins in 6 of their last 7 series – all except the series in Chicago.

Jack Flaherty’s abbreviated start brings to four the number of consecutive games without a quality start from the rotation.  They have only 2 in the last 8 games.  No Cardinal has thrown a quality start since Luke Weaver’s last start.

One day after I noted in passing the ongoing struggles this team has had in games where Chris Segal is calling balls and strikes, guess who will be behind the plate tonight?  He is likely to be the only umpire who will call five games for the Cards this season.

Random Stats With 13 Games Left

A random look at some broader trends that have shaped the Cardinal season.

Better Against Right-Handers

Even with losses to two right-handed starters in the last series, St Louis is still 7-4 this month against righties.  This is kind of news, because this season beating right-handers has been much more difficult than in seasons past.  With the 7-4 this month, St Louis is now 27-21 (.563) in the second half, but just 58-57 (.504) on the season overall, against right-handed starters.

While this franchise has had historic struggles against lefties, this year’s edition is 3-2 this month, 7-6 since the break, and 19-15 (.559) for the season when facing a left-handed starter.

Pitching Improves in Second Half

To this point of the month, the Cards have yet to lose a game in which they’ve scored 4 runs or more.  The bad news is that they have managed that number of runs in only half of their games.  Since the All-Star Break, they are 25-1 (.962) when they score at least 5 runs.  These numbers tell – a little bit – the story of the improvement in the pitching as the season goes along.  For the year, they are only 9-12 (.429) when they score exactly 4 runs, and just 7-9 in the 16 games where they’ve scored exactly 5 runs.

For the season, St Louis has had to score at least 6 runs before their chances of victory climb over 50%.  When scoring six or more, the Cards are 47-5 (.904).  At five runs or less, they are 30-67 (.309).

In the 16 games played so far in September, Cardinal pitching has surrendered more than four runs only 3 times.  In the 61 games since the All-Star Break, St Louis has allowed 5 runs or more just 22 times (36%).  In the season’s first 88 games, Cardinal pitching surrendered 5 or more runs 41 times (47%), including a historic streak.

Getting Better at Holding Leads

In 9 of the first 16 games played this month, St Louis has managed to get out to at least a two-run lead.  They have won all 9 of those games.  They’ve lost 4 games this month in which they never held a lead.  In three other games, they’ve taken a one-run lead, but couldn’t push the lead to two runs.  They have lost 2 of those 3 games.

Since the All-Star Break, they have already lost 4 games that they led in by as many as 2 runs, and one game (the Chris Segal game on August 16 in Boston) where they held a four-run lead.  They had coughed up 2 other four-run leads in the first half, as the team with a leaky bullpen has seen a multitude of leads vanish.  For the season, there have been 22 games where they have led by a maximum of one run.  They have lost 15 of those games (including 8 of 11 in the second half).  When the Cardinal’s greatest lead in a game is just 2 runs, the team is 12-13.  They are only 9-7 when they open up a three-run lead that they can’t push to four runs.  This has been a sore spot from the very beginning of the season.

St Louis has 38 come-from-ahead losses this year – with 13 of them coming in the second half.

Cards Can Come Back, Too

On the other hand, 6 of the 10 wins they have so far in September have been games in which they trailed at some point.  In 5 September games so far, they have fallen behind, but by no more than 1 run.  They have come back to win 4 of those games.  So far in the second half, they have come back from three-run deficits 5 times, and once they managed their own rally from four-runs down (that happened the day after the Boston game on August 17 in Pittsburgh).  On June 21, St Louis mounted a season-best five-run comeback in a 7-6 win over Philadelphia (box score).

St Louis has 33 come-from-behind victories this year – 19 of them coming after the break.

Games of a Series

St Louis still maintains a sizable advantage in the second games of their series.  Since the All Star Break, they are 15-5 (.750), and are now 30-18 (.625) for the season in game two.

During the second half, they have started to get better in game one.  They have now taken 12 of their last 20 (.600).  For the season, they have still lost more opening games of series (25) than they have won (23).  After going a modest 14-13 in third games of series in the first half, St Louis is only 5-11 (.313) in the second half when they come to game three.

Umpire Watch

St Louis has been fortunate that they haven’t seen Chris Segal since that Boston game.  149 games into the season, Chris is still the only umpire we have seen at home plate 4 times.  St Louis has lost all four of them.

On the good umpire side, Mark Carlson and John Tumpane have both been behind the plate 3 times for the Cards so far this season – with St Louis winning all 6 games.  Throughout his career, Carlson has called 46 Cardinal games.  St Louis is 26-20 (.565) in those games.  Tumpane hasn’t been around as long, but the Cards are now 7-3 all time when John has the plate.  St Louis is 1-6 lifetime with Segal calling balls and strikes.  He was behind the plate for a 6-4 win over Arizona back on May 26, 2015 (box score).

Bruce Dreckman landed behind the plate for the last game of the Cub series.  We have now seen him twice this month – in two of the most defining games of the season.  Bruce was also calling balls and strikes on September 2 in San Francisco.  That was the game where Lance Lynn carried a 1-0 lead after 8 innings of an eventual, ten-inning, 2-1 loss (box score).  Bruce usually does well by us.  We are 16-10 (.615) all time with him behind the plate.

Going Forward

I will not hold out false hope for the playoffs.  The Cards, in losing 4 of the last 5, have dug themselves a hole that will be difficult to climb out of.  The Cubs do have tough games coming up before they land in Bush next week, so the gap could narrow over the next six days.  St Louis would still be faced with the challenge of actually winning some of those games.

With the wind kicked out of their sails, St Louis now has games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh – two teams that have been out of contention for a while.  It will be interesting to see how much passion the team can generate in these games.  Will the disappointment of the lost opportunity drag them down?  Or will they be able to put the last disastrous series behind them and give the Reds and the Pirates their best games?  Even if they don’t crash this season’s post season party, I’d like to see them go down fighting.  It will speak well for the future.

Cards Exposed Again by Winning Teams

One of the beautiful things about the 162-game marathon that is the major league baseball season, is that by the time it has run its course it will answer all questions.  Heading into the big series in Wrigley, I asked some questions about the mental edge the Cubs have had over the Cards for the last couple of years.  In three sunny afternoons in Chicago’s Northside, those questions were resoundingly answered.

While the Cardinals will continue to fight for a playoff spot – as they should – the three-game sweep by the Cubs that culminated with yesterday’s 4-3 loss (box score) has left their playoff hopes mostly untenable.  Left for the Cardinals is to sift through the pieces and begin to plan for next season.

One of the glaring realities of the Cardinal season is that they are decidedly lacking when faced with teams that win more than they lose.  They are now 25-39 for the season, and 8-12 since the All-Star Break, against winning teams.

Since the point where a 10-2 run positioned them just 2 games behind (with 18 to play at that time) they have lost 4 of 5 games.  The Cards have scored just 11 runs in their last 5 games.

Offensive Deficiencies

One of the constants in the Cardinals’ matchups with winning teams has been scarcity of runs.  They scored all of 6 in the 3 games in Wrigley.  They have averaged 3.95 runs per game in the 20 second half games they’ve played against winning teams, and are averaging 3.92 against them for the season.  They average 5.31 runs per game against sub-.500 teams.

Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham certainly had opportunities to do more damage, but you couldn’t have realistically asked much more from him.  With 3 hits yesterday, Tommy kept giving the Cards opportunities to fight their way back into the game.  During the 5 games during which the Cardinal season has mostly faded away, Pham has been one of the few beacons.  Over his last 22 plate appearances, Tommy has 3 singles, a double, 2 home runs, 3 walks, and a hit-by-pitch – a .333/.455/.722 batting line.  In 57 games in the season’s second half, Pham is hitting .315/.431/.533 with 10 home runs, 10 stolen bases, and 44 runs scored.

Tommy has also been one of the few driving forces against winning teams, as well.  After finishing the Cub series 4 for 12, Tommy is up to .295 on the season (46 for 156) against winning teams, with 7 home runs.  Since the All-Star Break, he is 25 for 73 (.342) with a .548 slugging percentage.

Tommy’s breakthrough season withstands all levels of scrutiny.

Dexter Fowler

It’s good to have Dexter Fowler back.  Only activated before the Saturday game, Dexter was 4 for 8 in his two games, tying yesterday’s game once with a three-run homer and almost hitting another game-tying home run in the ninth.  Dex has only played in 7 games this month, but he’s hitting .304 (7 for 23) and slugging .609 (2 triples to go with yesterday’s home run).

In 27 games since his most recent return from the disabled list, Fowler is hitting .322/.438/.567.   He has only been healthy enough to play in 38 of St Louis’ 61 second half game, but he is hitting .285 (37 for 130) with a .403 on base percentage.

With the home run, Fowler set a new career high in runs batted in.  He now has 55 for the year, even though he has only been healthy enough to play in 108 of the 149 games so far.  His previous high was the 53 he drove in with Colorado in 143 games in 2012.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong did draw a walk and was hit by a pitch.  But hits have been few and far between for Kolten.  Having the best season of his career, Wong’s last 16 games have seen him go 9 for 50 (.180).  Recurring back issues may very well be part of the cause.

In the season’s second half, Wong has played in 19 of the 20 games St Louis has played against winning teams.  He is hitting .206 in those games (13 for 63).

Pitching Falters

With 11 more hits – including 5 against starter Lance Lynn in just 4 innings – The Cubs wrapped up the series hitting .296 against what had been a sturdy Cardinal staff coming into the series.  Especially vulnerable were Cardinal starters, who managed to survive only 15 innings through the 3 games, being stung for 13 runs (a 7.80 ERA).  They also walked 12 Cubs during the 15 innings – leading to a .411 on base percentage.

Needless to say, the Cardinals were hoping for better.

Starters Against Winning Teams

Even though his afternoon was disappointing, Lynn continues to be the best of the Cardinal starters facing winning teams.  He is 4-3 with a 3.18 ERA for the season, including 1-0 with a 2.86 ERA against these teams in the second half.

Michael Wacha is only 2-5 with a 5.73 ERA in 11 starts against winning teams for the year.  However, in 4 such second half games, Wacha has been much better (1-2, 3.74).

Luke Weaver’s closing starts against the Cubs and Brewers will be instructive.  To this point he has started against only 3 winning teams.  He is 2-1 in those games, but with a 4.24 ERA.

Carlos Martinez is 4-7 in 14 starts against winning teams with 4.29 ERA.  He is 1-3 with a 6.43 ERA since the All-Star Break

Before going down with an injury, long-time ace Adam Wainwright had made 10 starts against winning teams, throwing 5 quality starts against them.  He is 5-3 with a 3.28 ERA in those games.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia is still getting pretty highly-leveraged opportunities, and is doing mostly well with them.  He was given the sixth inning yesterday in a tied game – giving a hit, but no runs.  John’s season long ERA still sits at 2.35, including 2.67 in 27 second-half innings.  He has 13 strikeouts in 7 innings this month.

Intriguing with Brebbia is that he is one of the few Cardinals who has been much better against winning teams.  He pitched 2 scoreless innings in the Cub series – stranding all 3 runners he inherited.  Since the All-Star Break, he has allowed just 2 runs over 8.2 innings, and holds a 1.20 ERA in 16 innings against winning teams for the season.  He has done this with a .196/.237/.339 batting line against.

Tyler Lyons

After being so good for so much of the season, Tyler Lyons is starting to return to earth a bit.  He allowed runs in both games against the Cubs, and has allowed runs in 3 of his last 7 games (5.2 innings).  He was lucky not to give up a run against Cincinnati in the game before that.  The last 25 batters he has faced are hitting .409 with a .636 slugging percentage.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman allowed only 9 of the first 40 runners he inherited this season to score.  Four of the five that he inherited in the Cub series came home to roost.

Bowman may be one of those bullpen links that is being exposed against the better competition.  Matthew carries a 4.97 ERA in 25.1 innings against winning teams.

NoteBook

The Cardinals took the field Sunday needing a win to avoid a sweep.  This was the sixth different road series this year where the Cards needed a last game win to avoid a sweep.  They have now managed to dodge the sweep only once.  That lone exception occurred in the Cardinals’ very first road series of the year (April 10-12).  After losing their first two games in Washington, they won the series finale 6-1 behind the arm of Mike Leake and the bat of Stephen Piscotty (how long ago April must seem to those two).

The Cubs were also the nineteenth team St Louis has faced this year that won its previous series (Cincinnati will be the twentieth).  With the loss, St Louis is 5-10-4 in those series, going 27-32 against teams coming off series victories.

Pitching From Behind Not an Issue for Lackey and the Cubs

During the offensive surge that characterized the Cardinals for most of the second half of the season, the one thing that opposing pitchers didn’t want to do was fall behind in the count to them.  From the All-Star Break through the end of August, Cardinal at bats that began with a 1-0 count ended up with the Cards hitting .333/.460/.573.  Twenty-nine of those 672 plate appearances ended with the Cardinal batter hitting a home run.

As August has faded into September, however, this has ceased to be the case.  Whether the team is feeling the pressure of the pennant race, or whether many of the young players are running out of gas, falling behind the Cardinal hitters is now where you want to be.  During the month of September so far, 196 Cardinal hitters have watched the first pitch miss the zone for ball one.  Those batters have gone on to hit just .232/.385/.464.  While the .385 on base percentage looks healthy, throughout all of major league baseball (courtesy of baseball reference) the average on base percentage for all at bats that begin with ball one is .388.

Yesterday afternoon – in an abbreviated appearance – Chicago veteran John Lackey schooled the Cardinal hitters (young and old).  He threw only 46 strikes among his 74 pitches, and only half of the 18 batters he faced saw first-pitch strikes.  He spent the 4.2 innings that he worked yesterday delivering pitches on the corners of the strike zone, and showing little concern – for the most part – whether the pitch resulted in a ball or a strike.  (The spectacular exception to this, of course, was the 2-2 pitch that John thought that he had struck Carlos Martinez out on.  This was the pitch that led to the bruhaha that got Lackey and his catcher tossed from the game).

Up until that point, what Lackey did that was sort of spectacular in its own right, was that he almost never gave in to the hitter.  Even behind in the count, he kept pitching to the black.  The middle-of-the-plate cutter that Martinez singled on was about the only timed all afternoon that Lackey gave in to a hitter.  The 9 batters who saw ball one from John finished 0 for 7 with 2 walks (one intentional).  His effort set the tone for the rest of the game, as St Louis finished just 1 for 14 (.071) in at bats that began 1-0.  Lackey wouldn’t be around long enough to get the decision, but the Cubs would shortly take advantage of a lack of composure on the part of Martinez to cruise past the Cards, 8-2 (box score).

The afternoon continued the sudden cooling overall of the Cardinal offense.  They finished the day with just 7 hits, and are now hitting .236 overall this month.  September, in the midst of a playoff push, is an inopportune time for a team to go into a batting slump.

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty did have another misadventure on the bases, but this one was mostly bad luck.  His ground ball shot past third, headed for the corner.  But, as Piscotty was turning around first and chugging toward second, the ball caromed off the jutting corner of the left field stands and shot all the way back to the infield, where Javier Baez retrieved it and threw Piscotty out at second.  It was that kind of day at Wrigley.

Even so, Stephen finished with 2 of the Cardinal hits, and continues to re-establish himself.  Piscotty is now up to .289 (11 for 38) for the month of September, and .295 (18 for 61) since his return from Memphis.

Yadier Molina

From the break through the end of August, Yadi was a .396 hitter (19 for 48) when the pitcher fell behind him 1-0.  Chicago reliever Pedro Strop did that in the seventh inning yesterday, but Yadi ended the at bat flying out on a 1-2 pitch.  For September, Yadi is now 3 for 15 (.200) after getting ahead in the count 1-0.

Kolten Wong

A September mostly dominated by back issues is beginning to drag down what has been to this point a breakthrough season for Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 2 at bats yesterday, Kolten is now down to .192 for the month (5 for 26).

Harrison Bader

In a year of rookie firsts, Harrison Bader has hit his first real dry patch as a big leaguer.  After yesterday’s 0 for 3, Harrison his hitting .130 (3 for 23) over his last 7 games.  He has gone 8 games without driving in a run.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil is pitching almost exclusively now in low leveraged situations.  Yesterday he pitched the seventh trailing by 6 runs.  Still, it was a very crisp inning – he set down all three batters faced (two on strikeouts) on only 13 pitches.  Cecil has now strung together 5 consecutive scoreless outings (covering 6 innings) during which he has allowed just 4 hits.  He has generated 18 swinging strikes from the last 59 swings taken against him – a healthy 31%.

Where in the World is LeGarrette Blount

As we open our first NFL discussion of the season, it didn’t escape my notice that LeGarrette Blount is no longer lining up in the New England backfield.  Those who may remember, I considered Blount last year to be one of the great under-utilized weapons in football.  He surprisingly finished with 1161 yards last year – surprising because his opportunities were so irregular.

He had four different games last year where he rushed for over 100 yards.  He had 4 other games where he had less than 15 carries.  LeGarrette is the sledge-hammer back that wears down a defense as the game goes along.  Fifteen carries isn’t enough to even get him warmed up.  If he had played in an offense that would feature him – the way that Dallas features Ezekiel Elliott – his numbers would be comparable.

If you are the New England Patriots, however, and you have an embarrassment of offensive talent, then it’s understandable that Blount may not get a featured role every game.  If you are the Philadelphia Eagles – the team whose uniform Blount now wears – it might be a little less defensible.

In his Philadelphia debut last Sunday, LeGarrette finished with 46 yards on 14 carries.  I know the Eagles are extremely high on young QB Carson Wentz, but even if Wentz is the next Tom Brady, a more balanced offense would be a substantial boon to Carson’s development.

Carson, by the way, had a big day on Sunday (26 of 39 for 307 yards and 2 touchdowns) leading the Eagles to a 30-17 win over Washington (GameBook).  He made more highlight reels, though, for his backfield elusiveness than for his pocket passing.  If Carson spends the entire season getting chased around like he was on Sunday, the Eagles season will probably fall far short of expectations.  All the more reason to balance the attack.

Speaking of New England

The Patriots have given Blount’s role to a former Buffalo Bill named Mike Gillislee.  He ran for all three touchdowns that New England scored on Thursday night.  Mike is a tough and intelligent runner, who can certainly get low at the goal line.  But he is not the weapon that Blunt was.  As the season wears on, I think the Patriots will miss having that dominating presence.

Speaking of a dominating presence, Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt lit up the defending champions for 148 rushing yards (101 of them on 10 second half carries).  Alex Smith and Tyreek Hill looked pretty dominant, too in Kansas City’s 42-27 dumping of the Patriots (GameBook).  The Patriot defense will be a work in progress.  My strong recommendation to the Saints and everyone else who will face New England in the early going is to take advantage while you may.

Some Love for Some Weary Defenses

Both Seattle and the New York Giants lost tough first week matches, and both offenses have issues.  A lot of the defensive numbers were nothing to write home about, but both were impressive in their own right.

In their 17-9 loss to Green Bay (GameBook), the Seattle defense was on the field for 39 minutes and 13 seconds as the Packers ran 74 offensive plays to only 48 for the Seahawks, and outgained Seattle 370 yards to 225.  Yet, Green Bay’s only touchdowns came on a 6-yard drive after Seattle turned the ball over deep in its own territory, and a 32-yard touchdown strike from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson when Green Bay quick-snapped, catching Seattle trying to run in substitutions.

For as dominating as the Packers were in the game, kudos to the Seahawk defense for keeping it as close as it was.

In Dallas, the Cowboys were on their way to dealing the Giants a similar dose of domination.  They held the ball for 20:33 of the first half, out gaining New York 265-49.  At that point, Dallas had 87 rushing yards on 18 carries, and QB Dak Prescott had thrown for 183 more, with a 91.8 passer rating.  They led 16-0 at the half.

Now, the way this script normally plays out is that the weary defense collapses as the fourth quarter wears on, and he Cowboys break the game open.  None of that happened this time. The bloodied Giant’s defense held Dallas to just 127 second half yards.  Elliott had 11 second half carries for only 43 yards (3.9 per), and the Giants actually held a time-of-possession advantage of 16:19 to 13:41 after the intermission. Dallas cruised on to its 19-3 win (GameBook), but the Giant defense made a statement.

So did the Giant offense.  That was the problem.

Football is back.  Week One is in the books.  The long journey has begun.

Cards to Live or Die on the Road

Luke Weaver was front and center again, as the Cards bounced back from a disappointing loss on Wednesday – the only blemish on a 5-1 home stand.  Weaver was excellent, again, with 6 innings of 2-hit ball during which he allowed just 1 run – unearned.  Weaver, thus dropped his season ERA to just 1.89, and picked up his one-hundredth career strikeout in just his eighty-first career inning when he got Jose Peraza swinging to end the third.  The Cards are now 16-8 at home since the All-Star Break.

Weaver – with the help of his bullpen – continues a stellar streak of Cardinal pitching.  Over the last 17 games, St Louis checks in with a 2.49 ERA and a .228 batting average against.  If they can continue this run over the last 16 games, we should be OK.

Next up will be a defining 9-game road trip – 3 games each in Chicago, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.  Pitching away from home has been a concern the entire year.  They did check in with a 2.56 ERA in their last 10-game road trip – but 8 of those games were in San Francisco and San Diego.  Still, the improvement on the road has been noteworthy in the season’s second half.  This team hit the All-Star Break with a 17-21 road record and a 4.92 road ERA.  Since then, they are 18-16 with a 3.62 ERA away from Busch.

Over the next ten days, the pitching staff’s ability to contend with the smaller ballparks in Chicago, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will simply decide the Cardinal’s season.  No pressure.

Luke Weaver

Luke has been more than “as advertised” his last 5 times out of the gate.  The same guy who dominated AAA for the last couple of seasons has looked like that guy up here.  He is 5-0 with a 1.15 ERA over his last 31.1 innings (which includes 42 strikeouts).  He is 3-0 in September with a 0.96 ERA and a batting line against of .197/.221/.288.  If the rotation stays the same, Weaver will be scheduled to open the last home stand against Chicago on September 25 and the next to last game of the regular season against Milwaukee.  If Luke is the real deal, he will have his opportunity to show that in two of the season’s more crucial games.

Luke has allowed 0 earned runs over his last 11.2 innings at Busch.

Weaver hasn’t been as dominant on the road, but he is still 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA there.

Home/Road Splits of Other Starters.

With all the chatter about the young arms, let’s not forget Lance Lynn, who is establishing himself game-by-game as the ace of the staff.  He made two starts in the last 10-game road trip, posting a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings – but was only 0-1 as he saw no run support to speak of.  In 6 road starts since the break, Lance is 2-1 with a 0.94 ERA.  He has made 16 road starts this season, going 5-4 with a 2.99 ERA.  He is 6-3, 3.02 at home.

Carlos Martinez – who opens the big road trip this afternoon in Chicago – is one of those pitchers who have turned things around on the road in the season’s second half.  Martinez hit the break just 2-5 with a 4.13 ERA in 8 starts and 48 innings away from Busch.  Over his last 7 road starts (47.2 innings), he has thrown 5 quality starts, going 3-2 with a 2.83 ERA.  Carlos is 6-3, 3.18 at home this season.

Michael Wacha had 5 mostly terrible road starts during the season’s first half.  He lasted just 24.1 innings in those games, serving up 5 home runs, losing both of his decisions with a 7.03 ERA and a .346/.409/.529 batting line against.  He has been better in the second half, but still up and down with a 4-2 record and a 3.95 ERA in his last 7 road starts (during which opposing batters have hit just .245).  Wacha is 8-3 with a 3.12 ERA at Busch.

Michael and rookie Jack Flaherty are the wild cards in the deck as we head down the stretch – and especially during the upcoming road trip.  Good starts from them will be crucial.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons pitched the seventh, and was lucky not to give up a run when Joey Votto was thrown out at the plate.  If Votto had been safe, that would have been the only run scored against Lyons in the season’s second half that he would have been on the mound for.  In his 22.1 post All-Star Break innings he has only been charged with one run (0.40 ERA) when he left an inherited runner that ended up scoring.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia tossed a scoreless eighth inning – striking out two along the way.  John has suddenly become a strikeout pitcher.  He has fanned 10 over his last 5 innings, and 30 in his 25 innings since the break.

Tommy Pham

After going through a small slide recently, Tommy Pham walked, stole two bases, doubled and homered yesterday.  He scored twice and drove in two runs, becoming a critical part of the 5-2 victory (box score).  Tommy is still leading all regulars in the season’s second half in runs scored (43), stolen bases (10), batting average (.314), on base percentage (.434), and slugging percentage (.530).

A veteran, now, of 249 major league games and 703 major league at bats, Tommy now has 34 career home runs among 196 career hits.  His walk and two RBIs yesterday bring his career totals in both categories to 100.  His career batting line is now .279/.376/.491.

Fifteen of Tommy’s 20 home runs this season have come on the road, where he has hit .338 and slugged .614 this year.  He is finding his stroke at just the right time.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez chipped in 2 hits for the third game in a row.  He has hit, now, in 14 of his last 15 games, hitting .440 during the streak (22 for 50).  Jose heads into the final 16 games of the season hitting .361 (39 for 108) in the season’s second half.

Like many of the Cardinal hitters, Jose has been a road terror all year, but especially in the second half.  Over his last 76 road plate appearances, Jose has hit 5 home runs with a .349/.461/.667 batting line.

Up Coming

My number one axiom of the baseball season is that it’s always early until it’s not.  That means, of course, that “critical” (in terms of games or series’) is a term to be used sparingly.  Now, of course, it is late and the 16 games remaining are justly regarded as critical, beginning with an impactful three days in Chicago.

Since the end of last season, local writers referred constantly to the 17.5 game gulf that separates the Cards from the defending world champions.  Such a thing, of course, never existed.  It’s one of those ridiculous straw men that betray a writer’s misunderstanding of the nature of baseball.  Whatever you’ve read this year, that is not a thing.

What is a very real thing, though, is the mental edge that Chicago has held over this team since the 2015 playoffs.  It isn’t anything that I can point to or quantify with any number of statistics, but it is real nonetheless.  You can see it in their (Chicago’s) bearing and attitude when they play against us.  They know that they are the tougher team, and they play with that confidence.

Well, that’s all well and good.  What has been very concerning over the last two years is that the Cardinals have bought into that as well.  Even though we have been sometimes competitive against the Cubs over these last two seasons, it has been evident in their play that they expected to lose the tough games.  It’s a perceptible sense that you get watching these games – a sense that the Cardinals know that Chicago is the better team.

Over the last few weeks, this team has re-invented itself.  It’s a team of fearless kids (Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Weaver) and guys who have been counted out their whole lives who are taking, perhaps, their one stab at glory (Pham and Jose Martinez), with a sprinkling of great veterans (Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright) added in.

Winning these games will be critical – there’s that word – for the team’s post-season chances.  But as important as the games themselves will be the moxie that this young team will carry with them to the field.  Will they fight for these games?  Will they win the tough at bats?  Do they really know that they are the better team?  Whether they win or lose, these are the signs that will tell us how great the gap between these teams truly is.

NoteBook

With yesterday’s win, the Cards are now 5-5 in rubber games played at home.

This was also the twenty-third series this season in which St Louis had won the first game.  They have now gone on to win 15 of those series, losing 4 and splitting 4 others.

Elimination Season Continues

Entering the day with a magic number of 1, either a Cub win or a Cincinnati loss would have mathematically eliminated the Reds from the division race.  Both happened.  With 80 wins, the worst the Cubs could finish is 80-82.  With 84 losses, the best the Reds could finish is 78-84.

Inches Betray Cardinals as Winning Streak Ends

The inches were spectacularly against the St Louis Cardinals through the first five innings of last night’s game, where – unlike the Indians – the Cards winning streak (a modest four games) came to a sour end, 6-0 (box score).  Jesse Winker’s leadoff home run was just barely fair down the right field line.  In the bottom of the first, Yadier Molina had runners at first and third with two out, when he floated a fly ball into short right-center that had just enough carry on it to allow Winker to make an excellent catch that both saved a run and ended the inning.

Then there was the fifth inning.  Jose Peraza just barely safe at first on an infield hit.  The ground ball back to the mound that just oozed out of Jack Flaherty’s grip.  Tyler Mahle just fractionally safe at second on another infield dribbler.  Things unraveled from there.  It’s baseball.

More concerning is the fact that St Louis finished the night with only 5 hits – all singles.  The offense has been pretty consistently good at putting runs on the board (last night excepted) but the hits are becoming more scare.  Twelve games into September, and the Cards have only 94 hits.  They are still scoring 5.00 runs per game, but are hitting just .239.

Jose Martinez

Among the shards of good news from last night was 2 more hits from Jose Martinez.  Jose has now hit in 13 of his last 14 games, hitting .435 (20 for 46) during the streak.  His average is up to .356 in the second half 37 for 104).

Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham contributed a walk and a hit by pitch – so he is still getting on base.  But his is one of the batting averages that is starting to fade in September.  Pham is just 1 for 12 over his last 6 games, and is down to .158 (3 for 19) for the month – albeit with a .407 on base percentage.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong has also seen a noticeable dip in September. A stiff back during the early days of the month didn’t help, but Wong hasn’t been really hot since getting back on the field.  He was 0 for 2 last night, and is now just 5 for 23 (.217) this month.  Like Pham, though, Wong has still been getting on base.  He drew his fifth walk of the month last night, pushing his on base percentage to .357.

Harrison Bader

Gravity may also be catching up with touted prospect Harrison Bader.  His 0-for-4 yesterday leaves him just 2 for 17 (.118) over his last 5 games.

Sam Tuivailala

At this time of year, relief innings can be a little hard to come by.  With a bullpen crowded with September call-ups, the middle relievers may have to wait for a while before their number comes up.

That is what is happening to Sam Tuivailala.  Sam has made it into only 3 of the first 12 games this month, and has had 5 days in between each of his last two games.  Rather than get rusty, though, Sam has become hyper-efficient.  He retired 3 batters last night on four pitches – all strikes.  Each batter he faced swung the bat once, and got himself out.

It’s an exceedingly small sample size – just the 11 batters he has faced this month – but 7 of those batters never saw a pitch out of the strike zone, and all 11 combined have only cost Tui 31 pitches (2.8 pitches per).  Along the way, Sam has thrown 25 of the pitches for strikes (81%!) with only one of those strikes being a swing and a miss.  On September first in San Francisco, Sam was finishing up the ninth inning of an 11-6 Cardinal win.  With two-out, Brandon Crawford swung through Tuivailala’s 1-1 pitch.  He ended the game by grounding out on the next pitch.

It’s too few batters and too few pitches to mean anything, but this is pitching to contact on steroids.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is another arm that seems to be profiting from extra rest in September.  Having pitched in 65 games through the end of August, Bowman looked a little frayed.  He has been better of late.  He is unscored on over his last six games (4.2 innings), during which he has allowed just one hit.  He has had at least four days of rest in between 3 of the 6 games.

Twenty At Bats with Runners in Scoring Position Highlights Cardinal Win

It was April 17, 2014, and the Cardinals were in Washington to play the Nationals.  The headliner that day would be Adam Wainwright, who fired a complete-game, 2-hit shutout in an 8-0 win (box score).  The less remembered story is the offense that finished with their 8 runs on 15 hits, 5 walks, a hit batsman, and three other runners that reached on errors.  From that total of 24 baserunners, the Cardinals amassed 23 at bats with runners in scoring position (they were 8 for 23).

That is how far back in Cardinal history you have to go to find the last time the Cards had more at bats with runners in scoring position (RISP) than they had last night.  The offense highlighted last night’s 13-4 conquest of Cincinnati (box score) going 6 for 20 (including 2 doubles and a triple), 4 walks and a sacrifice fly with runners in scoring position – a .300/.400/550 batting line.

With the outburst, the Cards continued a couple of encouraging trends.  The team batting average with runners in scoring position has now risen to .277 in the second half, and up to .288 over the last 86 games.  The run-scoring pace continues to be healthy – 5.45 runs per game in September, 5.16 runs per game since the All-Star Break, and 5.34 runs per game over the last 86 games.

Eighty-six games ago, the Cardinals limped home after losing all seven games of a road trip through Chicago and Cincinnati.  At that point, this team was just 26-32 and fading.  Since then, they have won 50 games – a .581 winning percentage.

Paul DeJong

Yes, that was Paul DeJong with another three-hit night – including a double and a home run.  The rookie, who spotted the rest of the team 46 games before he even made it out of Memphis, is the team leader in home runs with 22.  And he now has multiple hits in 3 of his last 4 games.

Paul has started off his September with a .300 batting average (12 for 40) and a .550 slugging percentage (4 doubles and 2 home runs).  Since the break, DeJong is a .280 hitter (63 for 255) and a .516 slugger.  Over his last 54 games DeJong has hit 13 home runs and driven in 37.

Of the rookie’s 22 home runs, 21 have come over the Cards last 86 games.  DeJong is hitting .298 (93 for 312) over that span.

Jose Martinez

Because he doesn’t carry a starters number of at bats, I think that much of Cardinal Nation – much less the baseball world in general – doesn’t really grasp the remarkable season that Jose Martinez is having.  It isn’t impossible that Jose will go from being fourth outfielder in April to player of the month in September.  Eleven games into the season’s make-or-break month, Jose is hitting .421 (16 for 38), and slugging .763 (4 doubles and 3 home runs).  Jose has driven in 10 runs in the first 11 games of the month.

He has been even better since inheriting the cleanup spot 9 games ago.  While the organization is (apparently) pondering where they can find a “middle-of-the-order” bat for next season, Jose has noisily gone about the business of hitting .424/500/.818 in the cleanup spot.  For those concerned that the sample size might be too small, consider that in 118 plate appearances in the season’s second half, Martinez is hitting .350/.441/.650, and over the last 86 team games – in 186 plate appearances spread irregularly back to the end of June – Jose’s batting line is .329/.407/.620.  In his last 158 at bats, Jose has hit 12 home runs and driven in 32.

He, by the way, added a single, a double and a walk while driving in two more runs last night.

Yadier Molina

And, once again, Yadier Molina was the straw that stirred the drink with two more hits and 3 more runs batted in.  This included his second consecutive game-winning RBI – his team-leading eleventh of the season.

Where to begin with Molina?  First, Yadi now has three-consecutive two-hit games.  His September average rises to .306 (11 for 36).  He has 15 runs batted in already this month (8 of those over the last 2 games).  Since the All-Star Break, Yadi has hit .302 (55 for 182) with surprising power.  He has 8 home runs and a .505 slugging percentage in the second half.  Stretching back to late June, Yadi is a .300 hitter (81 for 270) over his last 73 games.

Age, apparently, really is just a number.

Yadi has been the Cards best hitter with runners in scoring position all season, but he has been especially torrid of late.  He was 2 for 3 in RISP opportunities last night.  He is 7 for 13 (.538) this month in those at bats.  In the season’s second half, Yadi is hitting .353 (18 for 51) with the ducks on the pond.  During St Louis’ 86-game turnaround, Molina is 29 for 77 – a .377 batting average with runners in scoring position.

His season RISP average is .327 (37 for 113).

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong is back in the lineup and swinging the bat freely again – good news, indeed.  With 2 more hits last night, Wong is now hitting .302 in the second half (51 for 169), and since the end of June, Kolten carries a .317 average.  He has 60 hits in his last 189 at bats.

Wong was 1 for 3 in RISP opportunities last night.  He has been second on the team all year behind Yadi in that stat, and has been even more torrid since the end of June, hitting .381 (16 or 42) with runners at second and/or third.

Progress of the Bullpen

After a shorter-than-usual five innings from starter Lance Lynn, the Cardinal bullpen quieted Cincinnati over the last 4 innings.  The bullpen has hit September with a 2.54 ERA that features a .245 batting average against and a .287 on base percentage against.  They have walked only 6 in their last 28.1 innings.  Still to be seen is how they will hold up in high leverage situations.  It remains one of the more intriguing mysteries of the rest of the season.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil – who tossed two scoreless innings last night – is trying (again) to recover his season.  He is pitching now in mostly low leveraged situations.  Brett, though, was one of the positive forces that led the season’s turnaround back in June and July.  He has pitched 37.2 innings in the last 86 games, walking just 5 batters (2 of those intentionally) with a 3.11 ERA.

NoteBook

The Cardinals ended their most recent road-trip winning 3 of 4 in San Diego.  They scored 13 runs in the four games combined – as many as they scored last night alone against Cincinnati.

Conversely, they opened their current home stand by sweeping three games from Pittsburgh.  They allowed a total of 4 runs in those three games – as many as they surrendered last night alone to Cincinnati.

A pronounced problem earlier in the season, St Louis has now won the first game of five consecutive series and 9 of their last 12.  They are 21-12 in the games of these series.

Elimination Season Continues

With last night’s loss, Cincinnati was officially eliminated from the Wild Card race.  They become the first NL Central team to be eliminated from anything. While they are now 16.5 games behind the Cubs, they are still mathematically alive for the division title – albeit just barely.  Their magic number is down to 2.

Position Wars After 143 Games

Probably the last time during the regular season that we will compare results with different players at each position.  And, actually, a great time to do this, as a new set of daily injuries forces almost hourly shuffles to the lineup.  Still, the suddenly deep Cardinals – with their infusion of talent from Memphis – are not looking back.  Whether they will actually survive into October remains to be seen, but it should nonetheless make for a fascinating last 19 games.

Catcher

As I watched Yadier Molina circle the bases after hitting his three-run homer Sunday afternoon, I wondered if we in St Louis have taken Mr. Molina more for granted than we are aware.  I deal with numbers here a lot, but I don’t really have any way to quantify what Molina means to this team and this organization.

One thing the numbers do suggest is that Yadi starts almost all the time – about 85% of the games, which is pretty unheard of for catchers of any age – much less a substantial veteran like Molina.  The numbers also suggest that this is a good thing, because St Louis is still struggling to win when Yadi isn’t on the field.

Since the All-Star Break, Yadi has caught 47 of the 55 games, leading his team to a 29-18 record.  They are 3-4 when Carson Kelly starts, and were 0-1 in Eric Fryer’s last start.  For the season, Molina has been behind the plate for 121 of the 143 games so far.  They are 63-58 in Yadi’s starts.  All of Kelly’s starts have come in the second half.  St Louis was 9-6 in Fryers’ 15 starts.  Both last year and this year, Eric Fryer may not have been impressive to look at, but he has been the Cardinal’s only back-up catcher who has had a winning record.

First Base

After playing almost the entire season with their spring training plan in effect – that being Matt Carpenter playing first base – the Cardinals are sprinting through September with their fourth outfielder – Jose Martinez – now fairly firmly ensconced as the starting first baseman.

Jose made 6 first-half starts there, but looked out of place defensively, and the club lost 4 of the 6 games.  Jose has obviously been doing some work there, because he looks very smooth and confident at first.  St Louis is 8-2 in the second half – and 7-2 in September – with Martinez playing first base.

With Carpenter at first, the Cardinal record is 51-54 (18-17 in the second half).

Lost, now, in the shuffle is Luke Voit – the midseason backup at first base.  As much of a supporter as I am of Martinez, let us not forget that St Louis is 11-6 in Voit’s 17 starts at first base.

Second Base

In the midst of his breakthrough season, Kolten Wong is having all kinds of trouble staying on the field.  His most recent difficulty – a stiff back – has had him playing in just 5 of the first 10 September games.  Other injuries have held him to 45 of the 55 second half games, and just 88 of the first 143 games of the season.

With Wong in the lineup, St Louis is 49-39 (.557).  They are scoring 5.02 runs per game, with a team ERA of 3.78.  Without Wong, the record fades to 26-29 (.473).  The run-scoring dips to 4.29, while the ERA rises to 4.00.

Some of that has been with Paul DeJong at second.  Enthroned, now, as the everyday shortstop, DeJong’s first appearances for the Cards were as a replacement for Wong at second.  He played 19 games at second, during which time the team went only 6-13.

The other substitutes for Wong have fared a bit better.  Carpenter has played there for 11 games, with a 6-5 record; 4.55 runs scored per game; and a 2.49 team ERA.  The best backup, though, is still Greg Garcia.  Probably a player that I don’t appreciate as much as I should, St Louis is 10-7 in Greg’s 17 starts at second.

Shortstop

The transformation of the Cardinal season really traces to June 27.  That was the day that then-starting shortstop Aledmys Diaz was returned to Memphis and wunderkind Paul DeJong took over the position.

Sunday’s game was DeJong’s sixty-seventh start at short – one more, now, than Diaz had.  St Louis is 39-28 (.582) in DeJong’s starts and 29-37 (.439) with Diaz.  The Cards have been scoring 5.19 runs per game with DeJong at short.  They averaged only 4.47 with Diaz.  The team ERA is also slightly better with DeJong (3.81 v 4.05).

Third Base

A hamstring injury to Jedd Gyorko initiated the chain of events that opened up first base for Jose Martinez.  Jedd is some time away from being able to return, and as the team continues to win with Martinez, it has to be raising some questions as to what happens when Gyorko is ready to come back.  In between injuries of his own, Matt Carpenter has played 4 games at third this month, leading the team to a 4-0 record in those games.  Matt has started at third 7 times this season, with the team winning 6 of the 7.

For the season, the Cardinals are a good 50-44 (.532) with Jedd at third.  Garcia has been the primary backup there, although not with the level of success he has had a second base.  St Louis is 12-11 when Garcia plays third.

Of all the position wars, the logjam that Gyorko’s return will create at first and third base will be the most compelling of the decisions that manager Mike Matheny will have to make.  And possibly the most critical as well (along with the backend of the bullpen).

Left Field

Recent physical issues have scrambled the outfield positions, as well.  A knee contusion has starting centerfielder Dexter Fowler out of action for a while, and a reaction to his eye drops has pushed starting left fielder Tommy Pham out of the lineup for much of September so far (Pham has started just 4 of the 10 games).

Pham has made it virtually impossible to evict him from the lineup when healthy.  He has been the starting left fielder for 68 games.  St Louis is 38-30 in his starts.  His presence has been even more impactful since the All-Star Break.  He has made only 35 starts in left (he has been in center for 10 other games) with the Cards going 21-14 in those starts.  The offense has averaged 5.29 runs per game in his starts. St Louis is just 11-9 in the other games.

When it hasn’t been Pham, it has usually been Randal Grichuk.  Grichuk has made 48 starts in left, with the team 24-24 in those games – albeit with an excellent 3.55 ERA.  Martinez has made 20 starts there, with the team going 10-10 in those games.

Center Field

Among the players finding opportunity in Fowler’s injury is another wonder rookie – Harrison Bader.  The sample size is still way too small, but it is nonetheless eye-opening.  With Fowler out, St Louis is 5-0 this month with Bader in center.  In his 11 starts this year, St Louis is 9-2, scoring 4.82 runs per game with a team ERA of 2.91

The reason this small-sample-size showing becomes intriguing is that St Louis has never really taken to Dexter in center field.  This month, they are 2-2 when Fowler plays in center and 6-0 when he doesn’t.  Since the All-Star Break, they are 18-16 with Fowler starting in center, and 14-7 with anyone else.

For the season, Fowler has been the centerfielder for 96 games and has been on the shelf for 47 games.  With Fowler in the lineup, St Louis is 43-53 (.448), scoring 4.46 runs per game with an ERA of 4.17.  In the 47 he has missed, St Louis is 32-15 (.681) scoring 5.32 runs per game with an ERA of 3.24.

So, look.  This hasn’t been Dexter’s best season.  He hasn’t really been healthy throughout, and that has been part of the issue.  But the difference in the performance of the team without him as opposed to with him is pretty stunning.

Pham has been the most frequent replacement in center.  St Louis is 16-13 in his 29 starts.

Right Field

The season began with Stephen Piscotty in right field, and seems to have circled back to him.  After spending some time in Memphis, Piscotty has started 8 of the 10 games played so far this month.

This had been Grichuk’s position until Piscotty returned – and one could make a pretty strong case that Randal should still have it.  Since the break, Randal has made 27 starts in right and Stephen has been there for 19 games.  The Cards are 18-9 in Grichuk’s starts, and 9-10 in Piscotty’s.  They are scoring 5.96 runs per game with an ERA of 3.92 in Grichuk’s starts.  With Piscotty, they are scoring 4.00 runs per game with a 3.63 ERA.

Stretched out to the season, Piscotty has been the right-fielder for 80 games, with Grichuk getting 42 starts there.  The records: with Piscotty – 37-43 (.463), 4.36 runs per game, 3.79 team ERA; with Grichuk – 26-16 (.619) 5.55 runs per game, 4.06 team ERA.

As with Fowler, this hasn’t been Piscotty’s best season either – for lots of reasons.  And, frankly, Randal is inconsistent enough that I can understand Matheny’s wanting Piscotty to take charge of the position.  But that hasn’t happened yet.

Jose Martinez is also in the conversation in right.  The team is 8-3 in his 11 starts there.

Outlook

The lineup – if Kolten Wong stays healthy – is most solid and secure up the middle of the infield.  Wong and Paul DeJong could be the double play combination here for quite a while to come.  Yadier Molina is still driving the team from catcher, and – again, when healthy – Tommy Pham is the man in left.

After that, things are very murky.  Once Jedd Gyorko heals, there will be a four-way logjam (Gyorko, Matt Carpenter, Jose Martinez and Luke Voit) for two positions (first and third).  Center and right fields are also jammed with talented players.  The fear here is that the preferred starters (Dexter Fowler and Stephen Piscotty) may not be the ones that give the team the best chance to win.

That being said, remember that baseball is a very funny game.  It wouldn’t be outside the range of probability for both Fowler and Piscotty to catch fire and lead the charge to a playoff berth.

How it all plays out should be a compelling show.

Recent Scoring Changes

In the fourth inning of the September 5 game in San Diego, Randal Grichuk was on third with two out and Jose Martinez at the plate.  Ball four to Martinez eluded the catcher briefly, and Grichuk made a half-hearted move toward home.  The catcher retrieved the ball and fired to third, getting Randal in a rundown.  Originally scored as a caught stealing, this has been changed to just out trying to advance on a ball in the dirt.  Randal is still out, but remove a caught stealing from his ledger.

Michael Wacha – Throwing Strikes and Taking Names

Quick quiz: How do you make it through 8 innings on only 95 pitches?  You throw strikes.

For eight marvelous innings yesterday afternoon, sometimes superstar Michael Wacha was a strike-throwing machine.  Of the 95 pitches he tossed, 68 were strikes (71.6%), while 19 of the 28 batters he faced (67.9%) saw first pitch strikes.  Of the 9 batters that saw Wacha miss with his first pitch, all 9 got a strike on the next pitch.  Only David Freese, batting in the fourth inning, saw balls on consecutive pitches.  He ended that at bat as the only full count that Michael faced on the afternoon.  He struck out.

Meanwhile, 9 other batters never saw even one pitch out of the zone during their at bat, and only 7 saw more than one.  Other than Freese, only 4 other Pirate hitters ended their at bat ahead in the count – all of them hitting the second pitch in 1-0 counts.

Michael’s commanding performance and a re-engaged offense sent the Cardinals on to a 7-0 win (box score), and a three-game sweep of the Pirates that pushed the Cards to within 2 games of the division lead.  Along the way, they continued the run of strong pitching that has defined the 8-2 start to September.  The Cards now have a team ERA of 2.22 with a .219 batting average against this month.  The starters this month have done even better, at 1.95 and .207.  In Wacha’s two September starts, he has faced 54 batters.  Only 11 have ended their plate appearance ahead in the count.

With the sweep, St Louis has now gone 49-36 since their seven-game losing streak in early June left them 26-32.  It hasn’t been without its hiccups, but the Cards have played .577 baseball over their last 85 games.  Michael Wacha has 10 of those 49 wins – the most on the staff.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong has been a significant part of the improvement in the team over the last 85 games.  Paul has played in 77 of the 85, starting 75 of them.  With his two hits yesterday, Paul has hit .292 (90 for 308), with 18 doubles, a triple, and 20 home runs – remember, this is in just 77 games.  DeJong has slugged .552 since early June.

Paul helped set up the three-run third with a single on a first-pitch fastball from Pirate starter Ivan Nova that didn’t get quite inside enough.  Like all good hitters in this league, Paul can hit that first pitch if it’s to his liking.  He is now hitting .400 (14 for 35) this year when hitting that first pitch.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina is beginning to feel the playoff chase energy.  He had two hits including a home run in both of the last two games of the series.  After seeing his second half batting average dip below .300, Yadi now has pushed it back up to .296 (53 for 179) with a .497 slugging percentage.  He has 8 home runs and 32 runs batted in in 49 games since the All-Star Break.

Molina’s home run came on a 1-1 pitch.  If you get Yadi backed up in the count, he will chase for you.  But since the All-Star Break, you better be careful with Yadi when he’s even in the count.  Yadi is hitting .394 (26 for 66) and slugging .606 (5 doubles and 3 home runs) when the count is either 0-0, 1-1 or 2-2.

Yadi’s first-inning RBI stood up as the game winner.  He now leads the team with 10 game-winning RBIs.

Matt Carpenter

The cortisone shot that Matt Carpenter took for his ailing shoulder hasn’t shown many benefits just yet.  Matt was 0 for 3 yesterday, and is now 1 for 14 this month.

Even though the hits aren’t falling, Matt is still grinding at bats.  He ended up in two more 3-2 counts yesterday, and has now been at 3-2 in 120 plate appearances this year – 21.4% of his plate appearances.

NoteBook

In sweeping the series, St Louis allowed only 4 runs to be scored against them.  It’s the fewest runs scored against this team in a series since April 17-19, when the Cards won three consecutive 2-1 games – also against Pittsburgh.

Yesterday was also the seventh chance the Cards had to sweep a series at home, and the fifth of those potential sweeps that they have finished off.  The Cards have only won 11 series at home – almost half of them with sweeps.

The Pirates – fresh off a split of their previous series with the Cubs – were only the sixth team St Louis has played this year that had split its previous series.  The Cards have now won 5 of those 6 series, going 13-4 against those teams.

With last night’s crowd of 44,683, the Cardinals home attendance swelled past 3 million for the fourteenth consecutive season, and the nineteenth time in the last twenty seasons.  With 10 home games left, the Cards home attendance sits at 3,023,530 (by my count – baseball-reference places it at 3,026,081).