Category Archives: Baseball

Fixing the Brand

As the 2017 playoffs begin to crank up in earnest, the St Louis Cardinals will be relegated to watching.  A proud franchise who – not too long ago played in four consecutive Championship Series –  will be bristling over their second straight exclusion from the post-season dance.

All over Cardinal Nation, a host of voices will be raised to give guidance and counsel to the St Louis management.  I understand that mine will be a lonely voice, lost – no doubt – amidst the throngs clamoring for truckloads of money to be thrown at some high profile free agent or other.  I am not terribly concerned about these voices, because (usually) Cardinal management has a much clearer grasp on the needs of their team than the common fan.

This year, however, from their early comments I am concerned that John Mozeliak and his councilors may have missed the many loud messages that his team has been sending him.  So, as I acknowledge the fact that my singular plea for reason is liable to vanish into the great void of the blogosphere, I will nonetheless send forth my diagnosis of the club’s current issues and – as far as I am able – to at least hint at some sensible prescriptions.

It is important to note that none of this is as cut and dried as most fans (and bloggers) seem to think.  Contrary to many opinions, giving Miami whatever they want for Giancarlo Stanton is not really a prescription for success, either in 2018 or beyond.

This is, in fact, both a critical and challenging offseason.  St Louis has a handful of gifted players who must be added to the 40-man roster or be lost.  They, therefore, will be challenged with making critical decisions about the futures of the players already on that roster.  In many of these cases, the cases for and against these players is anything but clear.  The organizational challenge is to be right in deciding which young talents to embrace and which to part with.

None of this will be easy at all, as I will attempt to point out.

First Off, This is a Team in Transition

Most followers of the Cardinals are already aware that this team is transitioning from the veterans of the teams that went to all of those championship series.  For years, the organization has been stockpiling talent throughout its minor league system.  Now, that rich resource is beginning to re-shape the major league team.

Twenty-three percent of all plate appearances taken by the 2017 Cardinals belonged to players who opened the season in Memphis.  That percentage rose to 34% in the second half.  The pitching staff was less influenced, but still 16% of the innings pitched came from Memphis arms.  That figure also rose to 25% in the second half.

Make no mistake.  The youth movement is underway.  There had been similar displacement the year before, with the emergences of Aledmys Diaz and Alex Reyes.  St Louis is clearly rebuilding, and trying to remain competitive while doing so.

The answer to getting this team back into the playoffs – for all of the rebuilding – is actually comparatively simple.  They need to guess correctly on a closer.

Get Thyself a Closer

For as uneven as the Cardinals have been the last two years, they would have made the playoffs both years if they could have successfully filled one position – the closer.  With more stability in the ninth inning, this teams could easily have made up the one game they lacked in 2016 and the four they fell short of this year.  Cardinal pitchers appearing as closers finished 2017 with a 3.75 ERA – the worst showing for Cardinal closers since the fourth-place 2008 team finished with a 6.27 ERA from its closers.

It has become axiomatic throughout baseball – probably on all levels.  If you don’t pitch the ninth, you will not succeed.  This organization believed it had the ninth inning covered at the start of both of the last two seasons.  They had no reasons to anticipate the struggles Trevor Rosenthal would have in 2016 or the problems that Seung-hwan Oh would run into this year.

Swing the net out to include the eighth inning, and the story becomes even more compelling.  They lost 6 games this year when leading after 7 innings.  Even more telling, in games the Cards were tied after 7 innings, they were only 3-12 – by percentage the worst performance by a Cardinal team in this century

But the Cardinals already know they have bullpen issues.  And solving the eighth and ninth innings may well get them back into the playoffs, but won’t address the issues that will keep them from advancing once there.

It’s from this point on that I don’t think the organization is seeing clearly.

The Magical Impact Bat?

Among the primary targets this offseason, an “impact bat” seems to be high on the list.  Really?  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t mind seeing an established bat in the middle of the lineup.  But who?  And at what cost.

The least intrusive path would be free agency.  But who would that be?  J.D. Martinez is probably the most established of the free-agents to be.  Would he come to St Louis?  Given the Cardinals’ track record of wooing elite free agents (not to mention the spacious ballpark), I’ll have to remain skeptical on this one.

What concerns me most is that they will go out and trade a whole bunch of promising players for a slightly upgraded version of Brandon Moss.  Is Josh Donaldson, for example, really worth surrendering the future of an Alex Reyes or a Sandy Alcantara?  Are you really sure we don’t already have that impact bat?  Can you say for certainty that the three-four-five spots in the Cardinal order come next July (or perhaps even June) won’t be Paul DeJong, Patrick Wisdom and Tyler O’Neill?  Look at some of the players on the team this year that got less than full-time at bats.

DeJong hit 25 home runs in 417 at bats.  Give him 500 at bats (around the norm for a starter) and Paul would have been a 30 home run man with a .285/.325/.532 batting line.  And he was a rookie this year.  There is a fairly good chance we haven’t seen the best of Paul yet.

Tommy Pham only made 128 starts, but finished with 23 home runs and a .306/.411/.520 batting line.  A .931 OPS sounds pretty “impact” to me.

Jose Martinez got only 272 at bats, but hit 14 home runs.  That would project to 26 home runs in a 500 at bat season to go along with his .309/.379/.518 batting line.  Are we really, truly sure that Jose couldn’t be a fulltime player.

Moreover, I think the “impact bat” is an over-rated concept, unless you’re running a Whitey-ball offense and your lineup is 7 jack-rabbits and one bopper.  Far more important is the depth of the lineup.

Consider:  in the offensively unimpressive first half, four of the eight Cardinal batsmen with the most plate appearances hit below .250.  Dexter Fowler finished at .248, Stephen Piscotty hit .240, Matt Carpenter scuffled in at .237, and Randal Grichuk hit the break at .215.  That’s a lot of outs sprinkled regularly through the lineup.  A “bopper” in the middle would certainly help, but with that many struggling bats, one “impact bat” won’t cure the problem.

Now consider: for the 44 games from August 6 through September 23, St Louis averaged 5.77 runs per game – an adequate offensive production, by anyone’s standard.  During that span – of the eight players getting the most plate appearances – only Carpenter (.244) was under .250 – and that just barely.  Nobody hit more than the 9 home runs that came off the bat of DeJong, but almost everybody hit some.  Most importantly, they weren’t making outs.  In almost all cases, a deep lineup is better for your offense than a concentrated one.

There is considerable pressure in the team to do something dramatic to push the team back into the playoffs.  Again, I am just one voice.  But if I had one of the best farm systems in baseball, I would trust it more.  I would give this system every opportunity to prove to me that the pieces I need are already at my disposal.  I’m not saying never trade from any of this surplus.  But I am saying don’t trade the future for a mess of pottage (no offense, Josh).

Wither Lance Lynn

In this post, I made most of my case for keeping Lance Lynn.  Since one of the comments made by the brain trust had something to do with shoring up the rotation (a goal I approve of), I have to wonder where they think they will get better value than Lance?  Remembering that he was in his first year coming off elbow reconstruction (the infamous Tommy John surgery), Lance’s 33 starts, 17 quality starts, 186.1 innings pitched and 3.43 ERA are quite impressive.

More than the numbers, though, Lance was a bulldog.  He even got hit in the head with a line drive and kept on pitching.  As the next generation of pitchers graduate to the majors, Lance would be a terrific mentor.

Yes, he faded at the end – which was disappointing.  Still, I am not at all convinced that, for the money and the years it would take to sign Lynn, they will find a better bargain out there.

Here’s a final note.  In a down year for free-agent pitchers, Lance will be a likely target for a certain division rival who is always scrambling for pitching.  He would be just what the doctor ordered for them.

My prediction here is that if they let Lance walk, they will regret it.

These are all important considerations, but the single most important failing of the 2017 team is one that I don’t think they are even aware of.

A Matter of Character

Throughout the course of the entire season, manager Mike Matheny would intone sentiments similar to this: time and time again, this team has shown me its character and its toughness; one thing I will never ever doubt is the toughness and character of this team.

The character of the team and its much-envied clubhouse was the foundation upon which the belief in the Cardinals’ eventual triumph was forged.  It is organizational bedrock.  The foundational doctrine upon which all decisions are based.

And it’s complete mythology.

In every way possible, the 2017 Cardinals tried to send this message to their manager’s office – and to their front office, too for that matter.  Character wins were almost non-existent in 2017.

They were 4-7 in walk-off victories, 5-9 in extra-innings, 24-29 in one-run games.  And two measures that I am fond of as revealers of character: they were 39-39 after losing their previous game, and 27-44 against teams with winning records – including losing 6 of their last 7 must-win games against Chicago.

As a point of reference, the 39-39 in games after a loss is the worst record for a Cardinal team in this century.  The 2007 team that finished 78-84 was 43-41 after a loss.  The 2006 team that snuck into the playoffs and won the whole thing after an 83-78 regular season was 43-40 after a loss (counting the playoffs).

By contrast, the 100-win 2005 team went 50-15 after a loss (counting the playoffs).  In fact, the three 100-win versions in this century (2004, 2005, 2015) combined to go 128-65 (.663) after losing their previous game.  There have been seven 90-win teams in this century so far.  After losing their previous game, those teams have combined to go 301-209 (.591).  There have also been seven 80-win teams in St Louis in this century.  Even they have managed to go 294-251 (.539) in games after a loss.

The utility of this metric is that it reveals precisely one of the principle failings of this year’s club – a frustrating inability to break out of losing streaks.  In my season wrap-up post, I documented several extended losing spells.  In most of them, St Louis needed to wait for a series against a pretty bad team (like Philadelphia) before they could pull themselves out of their tailspin.

As to the record against winning teams, think about 27-44.  That is a .380 winning percentage.  If you took a fairly good AAA team and had them play 71 games against average major league teams, this is about the record you would expect them to compile.  In fact, this winning percentage is also the lowest of any Cardinal team in this century, breaking the one-year-old record of the 2016 team that floundered along at 24-35 (.407) against teams that won at least as many as they lost.

I promise you that the talent gap isn’t that great between the Cardinals and the other winning teams in the league.  This points strictly to toughness.

Over the course of the entire century, St Louis is 766-566 (.575) after a loss, and 713-688 (.509) against winning teams.

So, who are the players who have routinely fallen short in these character games?  It’s time, I suppose, to name names.

Stephen Piscotty

Enduring the worst season of his career, Piscotty also routinely came up short in tough situations.  He hit .213 against winning teams (29 for 136) with 3 home runs.  This included a .179 average (5 for 28 – all singles) after the All-Star Break.  During the season’s second half he was also 10 for 57 (.175) in games after a loss, and just 3 for 24 with runners in scoring position.  Renowned for his prowess with runners in scoring position through the first two seasons of his career, Piscotty hit just .125 in the second half this year with ducks on the pond.

I don’t think anyone in the organization believes that 2017 will be a representative year in the career of Stephen Piscotty.  A combination of things conspired to derail his season early, and he never found his way back.  But, with talented outfielders rising through the system, the organization will now be forced to re-evaluate their commitment to Piscotty.  Further complicating the issue is that, should they decide to trade Stephen, they are unlikely to get full trade value.

Piscotty is a very cerebral player, and very likely to figure things out.  Whatever his future with the organization, Stephen is one player who could profit greatly by hitting the ground running next season.

Luke Weaver

This, I suppose, should be expected.  Rookie right-hander Luke Weaver was mostly a revelation during the last part of the second half.  But the young man still has some lessons to learn that the league’s better clubs are all too willing to teach.

Luke made 5 starts against winning teams, culling just 1 quality start.  He served up 6 home runs in 24.2 innings, compiling a 2-2 record with an 8.03 ERA and a .321/.381/.547 batting line against.  It will be interesting to see how quickly he learns and adapts.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman was a bit exposed – especially late in the season – by the better teams.  In 35 games (26.2 innings) against higher quality opponents, Matthew was pushed around a bit to the tune of a 5.06 ERA and a .284 batting average against.

Not So Cut and Dried

A few of the players on the team, though, defy an easy label.  In this difficult off-season, these will be the hardest decisions the organization will have to make, as guessing wrong will come with consequences.

Randal Grichuk

For the last two seasons, Randal has been the almost-emergent superstar.  In each of the last two seasons, his final numbers have disappointed.  But in both seasons he has shown enough hint of promise to earn another chance.

Grichuk finished 2017 with much the same totals as 2016.  The batting average fell a couple of notches to .238 (from .240) and the home runs dipped from 24 to 22.  He ended 2017 slugging .473 after slugging .480 the year before.  Overall, less than compelling.

But, he did hit .265/.303/.550 with 13 of his home runs in 189 at bats after the break.  So now, the organization has to decide if that was just a tease?  Or is it real progress?

He ended the year at just .218 (43 of 197) against winning teams, but hit 11 of his 22 home runs against them.  In the second half, he was 20 of 83 (.241) when playing winning teams, but with a .542 slugging percentage as half of those 20 hits went for extra bases – including 7 home runs.

In games after a loss, Randal checked in with a disappointing .201 average (36 of 179), including just .188 (15 for 80) in the second half – but again, with a .438 slugging percentage.

Randal mostly split right field with Piscotty in the season’s second half.  In Grichuk’s 34 starts the team was 22-12.  They were 13-18 in Piscotty’s 31 starts.

There is no question that Randal was productive in the second half.  His 13 home runs were only 3 behind team-leader Paul DeJong in 100 fewer at bats.  If the Grichuk of the second half had had a 500 at bat season he would have hit 34 home runs with his .265 batting average and .550 slugging percentage.

With Randal’s potential, you would hope for more than that.  But, if the Randal they saw in the second half is the Randal that they can count on seeing all of next year, I think they could accept that.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter’s entire season is tough to get a handle on.  On the one hand, he drew a career high 109 walks, leading to the second-highest on-base percentage of his career (.384).  On the other hand, his batting average continued to sink – down to .241 (30 points lower than his previous worst average).  On the other hand, he was apparently battling shoulder issues all season – perhaps accounting for much of that loss of production.  On the other hand, after playing in at least 154 games a year from 2013 through 2015, Matt has followed with two injury plagued seasons.  He also hit 23 home runs (his third consecutive 20-homer season) and slugged a solid .451.  His final OPS of .835 is still well above league average, but below either of his previous two seasons.

In his games against winning teams, Matt hit just .221 (49 of 222), but drew 38 walks, helping him to a .341 on base percentage.  He made 141 starts this year, with the team going 70-71 (.496) when he was in the lineup, and 13-8 (.619) when he wasn’t.

So did Matt have a good year or not? With the home runs and the on base, I suppose that I would have to call it good, but troubling.  By degrees, Matt is becoming more valuable for his ability to walk than for his ability to hit the ball.  And, by degrees, the team is starting to feel the loss of that big hit.

Carpenter is one of the team’s core members, and he will be on the field somewhere on opening day (barring another injury).  But a lot of elements in his career trajectory concern me.

Michael Wacha

While this was – in many ways – a triumphal season for Michael Wacha, he is still coming up short in these character games.  After suffering through three injury plagued seasons, an offseason workout regimen kept Michael on the field for 30 starts and 165.2 innings.  The anticipation is that his 12-9 record and 4.13 ERA will be marks to build on going forward.

It may, indeed, play out that way.  It is, nonetheless, true, that Wacha (who excelled against good teams and in stopper situations early in his career) continues to trend down in these games.

From 2013 through 2015, Wacha pitched in 40 games (35 starts) against teams that boasted winning records for the season.  He was 15-9 in those games with a 3.08 ERA and a .217 batting average against.

In 2013 and 2014, Wacha pitched in 12 games (10 starts) after a Cardinal loss.  He was 5-3 with a 2.88 ERA in those situations, holding batters to a .195 batting average.

In 2017, Wacha was only 2-6 in 12 starts against winning teams.  His 5.90 ERA was accompanied by a .296/.365/.502 batting line against.  He was 5-4 in 13 starts following a Cardinal loss, but with a 4.76 ERA.  Since 2015, Wacha is 4-10 against winning teams with a 5.70 ERA, and since 2014 he is 15-9, but with a 4.64 ERA in games after a loss.

Wacha is yet another enigma on this team.  Beyond the physical issues, there has been a palpable loss of mojo.  The spectacular hero of the 2013 playoffs has lost that big game feel.  Wacha is one of the players who could make a huge difference next year if he can channel his earlier self.

Carlos Martinez

In spite of the fact that he tossed his first two complete-game shutouts and crossed over both the 200-inning and 200-strikeout plateaus for the first time in his career, Carlos Martinez regressed noticeably in 2017.  After going 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA in 2015 (his first year in the rotation), and 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year, Carlos saw those numbers sink to 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA.  And the core difficulty that he had was with winning teams.

In his first two seasons in the rotation, Martinez had gone 12-9 with a 3.35 ERA against winning teams.  He had put together quality starts in 17 of his 26 starts against them.

He made 15 starts against winning teams this year.  Only 7 of those fulfilled the standards for a quality start.  Even though he has “stuff” the equal of any pitcher in the game, he was only 4-7 with a 4.28 ERA in those games.  He was just 1-3 with a 6.12 ERA with a .301 batting average against them in the second half of the season.  After allowing just 12 home runs in 166.2 innings against winning teams his first two years in the rotation, he served up 11 in 90.1 innings against them last year.

In all likelihood, this is just a bump in the road for Carlos.  But there were a couple of concerning developments that I noticed that need to be solved somehow, or Martinez will never realize his potential.

For one thing, Martinez continually tries to do too much.  His anointing as the ace of the staff this year may have fed into this tendency.  Especially in big games, he tries too much to give extra effort.  In a game that rewards players that learn to play within themselves, this will usually be counterproductive.

It was noted that Carlos complicated three consecutive late-season starts by throwing away routine double-play balls.  More than this, though, Martinez’ need to do too much affected his fielding for much of the season.  He dove, scrambled, and lunged for every near-by ground ball.  He probably caused nearly a dozen infield hits by deflecting grounders that would have been right to his infielders.

On several occasions, he even kicked at ground balls to his right, like a hockey goalie trying to make a skate save.  Now, I ask you, what good could come of that?  Who in the world could make a play on a ball that Carlos has deflected with his foot?

It’s all part and parcel of a young pitcher losing control of himself.

The other issue is even more concerning.  There sometimes – especially in big games – seems to be an emotional fragility to Martinez.  Something in his confidence seems to drain if the opposing team has early success against him.  He hasn’t fully mastered the ability to gather himself after bad things happen and continue to pitch within himself.

There is no better example of this than the game that sent the Cardinal season spinning toward its final destination (box score).

For ten batters on a beautiful Friday afternoon in Wrigley, Carlos Martinez was untouchable.  His 100-mph fast ball jumped and ran like a thing alive, and his slider was about eleven different flavors of filthy.  The defending champion Cubs – possessors of one of the most potent lineups in baseball – couldn’t touch him.  Five of the ten batters struck out, and four of the others hit groundouts.  Of his first 43 pitches, 30 were strikes.

Then Kris Bryant – the eleventh batter to face him – looped a fly ball to right on a 2-0 pitch.  It wasn’t hit terribly well or terribly far.  If this incident had happened at Busch, Piscotty would have probably been about a step on the track as he made the catch.  But in Wrigley it was just far enough to creep over that overhanging basket for a game-tying home run.

And with that, the air went out of Carlos Martinez.

The first 10 batters he faced got no hits.  Six of the last 16 he faced got hits.  After striking out 5 of the first 10, he didn’t strike out another batter.  While 30 of his first 43 pitches were strikes, only 31 of his final 57 made it to the strike zone.  None of the first 10 batters walked.  Carlos walked 3 of the last 16 and hit another as his once dominating slider flew wildly all over the place.

Carlos ended the affair lasting just 5.1 innings.  On a day that he started with devastating stuff, he ended serving up 7 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks.

Being “the man” requires uncommon mental and emotional discipline.  The next level for Martinez lies just beyond that barrier.

Let it be noted that in three years in the rotation, Carlos is 17-8 with a 2.96 ERA in games after a loss.  That includes his 4-3, 2.61 mark this year in those situations.

Better Than the Numbers Suggest

One player deserves mention in a better category.  His contribution was greater than his numbers might suggest.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler was the big free agent acquisition after being one of the drivers of Chicago’s championship the year before.  His final numbers were sort of ordinary (.264 batting average with 18 home runs).  He also hit just .225 (42 for 187) against winning teams, and .237 (52 of 219) in games following a loss.  Not overly impressive.

But Fowler’s season was a story of two halves.  Hobbled by a variety of injuries in the first half (mostly his feet), Dexter limped to a .248 average (albeit with 14 home runs).  He had hit .199 (27 of 136) against winning teams, and .201 (28 of 139) in games after a loss.

As his health improved, Fowler became a decided force for good throughout the second half.  He hit .288/.400/.488 after the break, including .294 with a .400 on base percentage against winning teams, and .300 with a .402 on base percentage in games after a loss.

The guy I saw at the end of the season is the guy I’m excited to see all year next year.

Setting the Bar

The Cardinals did have a few players who consistently rose to the challenge of the games against the better teams.  They should get a notice as well.

Tommy Pham

Tommy’s break-through season wasn’t limited to beating up on lesser teams.  Tommy hit .287 against over .500 teams with a .391 on base percentage.  He also hit .330/.451/.558 in games after a loss.  He also hit .305/.420/.514 with runners in scoring position.  Tommy had himself a year.

Lance Lynn

It’s probably fitting that I spend the last few paragraphs that I am likely to devote to the 2017 baseball season to Lance Lynn.  While the Cardinals repeatedly fell short against winning teams, Lance was 4-3 against them, with 4 other potential wins lost in the bullpen.  He posted a 3.09 ERA against these teams in 78.2 innings, with a .196 batting average against him.

Are we really, really sure we want to cut ties with him?

Final Word

Again, I am just one voice.  But the message clearly sent from the 2017 season is that this team’s greatest need is not some aging slugger to bat fourth.  The greatest gap between the Cards and the Cubs – and the other good teams in the majors – is the character gap.  If this were my team, this is the area that I would focus on first.

The Cardinals’ 2017 Season in Review

The story of the 2017 St Louis Cardinals season was very much like a drowning man continually fighting his way to the surface for, perhaps, one quick breath before sinking back down again.  At the end of the story – and the season – he finally goes down and doesn’t come back up.

In spite of a thrilling opening night win against Chicago (box score), the Cardinals began the season in a free-fall, cobbling together three straight three-game losing streaks.

On Sunday, April 16, the New York Yankees completed their three-game sweep of the Cardinals with a 9-3 victory (box score).  At this point, St Louis was 3-9 and quickly 4.5 games back (at that point behind the surprising Cincinnati team that was 8-5).

At this point, there weren’t many positives to hold on to.  The team was hitting .212 and scoring 3.50 runs per game.  Of the regulars, only Stephen Piscotty (.258) was hitting above .250 (although Jose Martinez, in limited playing time, had started off 6 for 12).  Among the scarier batting averages at this point, Randal Grichuk had started off at .182 (8 for 44), Kolten Wong was at .148 (4 for 27), Dexter Fowler started at .143 (7 for 49), and Jhonny Peralta was already on his way out.  The cleanup hitter on opening night, Peralta had started just 8 of the first 12, going 3 for 25 (.120).

(Peralta would hang on the Cardinal roster until June 13 when he would be released with a .204 batting average.  Later that month, Boston would sign him to a minor league contract.  He would play 10 games with Pawtucket in the International League, where he would hit .200 and be released again.)

The starting pitching – ironically enough – was the one aspect of the team that wasn’t terrible.  They contributed a 3.80 ERA at that point, led by Mike Leake, who allowed only 1 run through his first two starts.  Michael Wacha (3.00) and Carlos Martinez (3.57) had also pitched well, with Lance Lynn (5.23) and Adam Wainwright (7.24) struggling out of the gate.

The stunning development of this opening salvo was the failing of the bullpen.  Twelve games into the season, closer Seung-hwan Oh had one blown save and carried a 9.64 ERA.  He had served up 2 home runs in his first 4.2 innings.  The bullpen as a whole hit mid-April with a 7.34 ERA in 34.1 innings.

The First Bounce Back

But, beginning with three straight 2-1 victories against Pittsburgh from April 17-19, the drowning Cardinals pulled themselves back to the surface.  They would go 18-6 over their next 24 games, pulling into first place in their division for the only time all season.  After a 5-0 conquest of the Cubs on May 14 (box score), the Cards stood 21-15 and 1 whole game in first place. The run included a perfect 6-0 road trip through Atlanta and Miami.

During the streak, the Cardinals showed the first glimpse of the team we thought we would see most of the season.  They scored 5.13 runs per game during that stretch, hitting .285 as a team.

This run featured the last hot streak that Matt Adams would have as a member of the Cards.  He played in 18 of the 24 games, hitting .435 (10 for 23) and slugging .652 (2 doubles and 1 home run). Adams, of course, was later given to Atlanta, where – finally getting consistent playing time – Matt finished the season hitting 19 home runs and hitting .271 in 100 games as a Brave.

At about this point of the season, the first two contributors from Memphis arrived in the majors and began having an impact.

Exciting rookie, Magneuris Sierra played in his first 6 major league games, hitting .375 (9 for 24).  This was also the beginning of the Summer of Pham.

Cut from the big league roster in favor of Jose Martinez at the start of the season, Tommy Pham arrived from Memphis sending the clear signal that he would not be returning.  In his first 9 game back, Tommy hit a scorching .371 (13 for 35) that included 4 doubles and 3 home runs.  In those first 9 games, Tommy scored 8 runs, drove in 8 runs, and slugged .743.

This was also the beginning of a surprising transformation in Jedd Gyorko.  Having taken over at third base, and showing a surprising willingness to drive the ball to right field, Gyorko hit .363 (29 for 80) while playing 22 of the 24 games.  Thirteen of the 29 hits went for extra-bases (five of them home runs) leading to a .663 slugging percentage during this stretch.

Other hot hitters during this 24-game surge included Fowler, who slashed .295/.405/.623; Wong, who rebounded from his slow start to hit .294 and cement his place as the starting second baseman; Yadier Molina, who hit .288; and Grichuk, who showed some life with a .279 batting average and 2 home runs.

Of the prominent Cardinal hitters, the only one who really struggled during this stretch of games, was Piscotty.  Stephen, whose season was just beginning to unravel, hit .229 (11 for 48) during these games.

On the pitching side, the resurgence was led by Lance Lynn.  Four of his five starts in that stretch were quality starts, as he went 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA.  Leake’s hot start was still continuing.  He was 3-1, 2.59 while throwing 5 consecutive quality starts.  Wacha continued to do well (1-0, 3.28), and Martinez did okay (3-1, 4.06).  Adam Wainwright was still lagging at this point of the season.  Only 1 of his 5 starts was a quality start, and while his record was 3-0, his ERA sat at 4.40.

But the biggest change – and the one causing the greatest sigh of relief – came from the bullpen.  Disastrous through the first 12 games, the pen crafted a 2.58 ERA over these 24 games.  Front and center were the two lynchpins who handled the end-game responsibilities.

Shrugging off his early struggles, Seung-hwan Oh allowed just 1 run over his next 14 innings (0.64 ERA) and rattled off 10 consecutive saves.  Trevor Rosenthal added 3 saves and 4 holds with a 1.38 ERA while striking out 21 batters in 13 innings.

And Then Boston Came to Town

But, having finally broken the surface, the drowning man immediately went back down.  Into town came the Boston Red Sox.  While St Louis played some games against Milwaukee and Chicago during their surge, they primarily took advantage of lesser teams.  In a pattern that would repeat itself several times during the 2017 season, the surging ceased as the better teams showed up on the schedule.

Boston threw a first dash of cold water on the Cardinal flames.  They swept the two game series, with the second game serving as a template for a season full of agonizing defeats.

While Mike Leake was throwing 6 outstanding innings, the Cardinals were ready for Rick Porcello.  Porcello – who would end the season leading the majors in losses – served a leadoff home run to Fowler, and then 3 more runs in the second – the biggest hit being an RBI double from Wong.

But that would be it.  After two productive innings, the Cardinals would be done scoring, leaving the pitching staff to twist in the wind.  Boston finally broke through for a couple of runs against Leake in the seventh, but Mike still walked off the mound after 7 handing off a 4-2 lead to his red-hot bullpen.

Up to that point, the Cards had had multiple opportunities to administer the knock-out blow.  Wong had a runner at second with two-out in the third, but he struck out.  Leake, himself, led off the fourth with a double, and Fowler walked.  But Pham took the wind out of the sails by bouncing into a double play and Matt Carpenter struck out.  After Boston closed the gap in the top of the seventh, Molina had yet another opportunity to return the momentum to the Cardinal sideline with two-on and two-out.  He grounded out.

In another repeated development, the eighth inning would prove toxic to the bullpen.  This time it was Rosenthal – so hot recently – serving up the tying runs, and the game went into extra-innings.  Deep into extra-inning.

From the ninth inning through the twelfth, St Louis went 0 for 11 with one walk – Pham, who was promptly thrown out stealing.  Boston finally scored the winning run in the top of the thirteenth.  The Cards followed by putting one runner on base – Aledmys Diaz’ two out walk – in the bottom of the inning.  He was stranded as St Louis concluded the game without a hit over their last five innings and without a run over their final 11 innings.

This was only one loss (box score), but all of these elements would recur again and again.  The early lead not added onto.  The multiple opportunities for the knockout hit that would never come.  The late inning bullpen implosion – these were all the building blocks of the disappointing season ahead.

Beginning with this sweep, and continuing through a season-defining 0-7 road trip through Chicago and Cincinnati that ended on June 8, St Louis lost 17 of 22 games.  The losses included two more 13-inning losses against San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The San Francisco game was another signature loss (box score).  Matched against Jeff Samardzija (who would end the season tied for the National League lead in losses with 15), Carlos Martinez would throw one of the best games of his career, walking off the mound after 9 innings having given only 2 hits and no runs.  Unfortunately, the Cards never solved Samardzija either.  They wouldn’t score until the bottom of the thirteenth, when, already trailing 3-0, Stephen Piscotty would drive in a run with a two-out single, bringing Matt Carpenter to the plate as the tying run.  Seven pitches later, he would end the game with a fly-out.

Over the 22 games, the Cardinal offense disappeared again, hitting .226 and scoring just 3.05 runs per game.  Kolten Wong had just begun an offensive explosion that might have made a difference – he hit .381 over 8 games – but an injury sent him to the sidelines.  The disappearing bats though these games included Fowler (.214), Carpenter (.165), Jose Martinez – for the first time this season (.158), and Grichuk (.135).

On the pitching end, a lot of excellent starting pitching was wasted by the enfeebled offense and collapsing bullpen.  Carlos Martinez compiled a 2.35 ERA through 4 starts, but was just 1-2.  Lynn was 0-2 in spite of a 3.07 ERA in his 5 starts.  Leake took on some water for the first time this season, but still managed a respectable 3.74 ERA.  That, unfortunately, was good for only a 1-3 record.  Adam Wainwright’s ERA improved to 3.91 during his 4 starts – and even led to a 3-1 record.  Wacha hit the roughest patch from the rotation.  He was 0-2, 7.79 in 4 starts.

And then, of course, the bullpen.  Everyone but Oh (2.16 ERA in 8.1 innings) regressed during this stretch.  Rosenthal (4.91), Brett Cecil (5.40), Kevin Siegrist (5.68), Matthew Bowman (7.20), Tyler Lyons (7.50), and Jonathan Broxton (9.64) all had prominent hands in the 6.30 bullpen ERA that helped define that stretch of games.  Siegrist and Broxton would both finish the season out of the picture.  Broxton would be released on May 31 with a 6.89 ERA in 15.2 innings.  Once an elite late inning pitcher, Siegrist was never able to overcome recent injuries.  Philadelphia claimed him off of waivers on September 2.  Kevin held a 4.98 ERA with St Louis in 34.1 innings.  He pitched 5 innings with Philly, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits.

For all the good of the earlier 18-6 stretch, the Cards could never pull themselves out of their dive – another pattern that would repeat all season.  Fifty-eight games into the season, this team was 26-32, and back to 4.5 games behind.

Things brightened for a moment, as a visit from a bad Philadelphia team sparked a four game winning streak that narrowed the gap back to just 1.5 games, but that was just a pause.  St Louis went on to lose 8 of their next 11.  On the morning of June 25, they sat 33-40, 5 games behind in the division.

Not Dead Yet

Beginning with an 8-4 victory over Pittsburgh on June 25 (box score), the Cardinals began the most encouraging section of their season.  Over the next 44 games, this flawed and unbalanced team went 28-16 (a .636 clip).  If they could have sustained that pace through the whole season (and I am not implying that 44 games means that they could have sustained this pace through the whole season) they would have been a 103-win team.

Forty-four games is more than a quarter of the season.  It is a substantial chunk of the games played, and clarifies what this team needs to looks like for it to win.

The offense hit .272 and scored 5.30 runs per game over that long stretch of the season.

Tommy Pham played in all 44 of the games, hitting .338 with a .435 on-base percentage.  He scored 35 runs in those 44 games.  Kolten Wong chipped in with a .310 average – although, once again a variety of injuries held him to just 29 games.  Molina hit .299.  Jose Martinez was still limited to just fourth outfielder status, but in his 75 plate appearances he slashed .295/.413/.508.

Important to this run of offensive production were the contributions of Matt Carpenter and Randal Grichuk.  Mired in the worst season of his career, so far, Carpenter enjoyed his one sustained burst of offensive production during these games.  He only hit 1 home run during the 41 games he played, but he hit .284 and drew 30 walks (remember this was just 41 games) for a .418 on base percentage.

Grichuk didn’t awe anyone with his batting average (.263), but he hit 11 home runs and drove in 25 runs in the 37 games he played.  His .579 slugging percentage was second on the team during this stretch of games.  Second to a middle infielder who wasn’t even on the club when they broke camp.

In the middle of all of this offense was promising rookie Paul DeJong.  The best part of the Cardinal season corresponded almost exactly to that point in the proceedings when Aledmys Diaz was dispatched to Memphis and DeJong was implanted at shortstop.  During this 44-game run, DeJong played in 43 of them, hitting .304 with 12 home runs, 30 runs batted in, and a .589 slugging percentage.  In fact from the date that DeJong took over at short, St Louis went 48-39 to the end of the season – a .552 winning percentage that would have been good enough for a playoff berth could that have been sustained for the whole season.

Fading during this stretch of games were third baseman Jedd Gyorko (.232) and Piscotty (.178).  Stephen played in only 22 of the games before being sent to Memphis.

But the offense was only half of the story.  The team that would finish the season with a 4.01 overall earned run average, saw its beleaguered pitching staff rise to the occasion with a 3.17 ERA over these 44 games.  The team that would end the season without a quality start in any of its last 16 games, fashioned 26 during these games.

As the Cards hit their peak, the anchor of the rotation was Lance Lynn.  With 8 quality starts in 9 games, Lance was 5-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 54.2 innings during this run.  Right behind him was Michael Wacha.  Wacha’s season was very uneven, but very encouraging in spots.  This was one of those.  He threw 5 quality starts in 8 games, fashioning a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA.

This was also the part of the season where Adam Wainwright gave way to Luke Weaver in the rotation.  Adam went 5-0 with a 3.89 ERA over his last 7 starts.

Starting to seriously fade at this juncture of the season was April star Mike Leake.  While the rest of the team was jelling, Leake scuffled along with a 2-4 record and a 4.34 ERA.  Leake, at this point, was also not far removed from his trade to Seattle.  After a 9-12, 4.69 season in 2016, Mike was 7-12, 4.21 in 2017 – even after his strong start.  He finished up his season going 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 5 starts for the Mariners.

Most surprising were the continued struggles of presumptive ace Carlos Martinez.  During his 9 starts during this run, Carlos was just 3-3 with a 4.83 ERA.

Still, with the starters shouldering 255.2 innings over those games, the bullpen picked up only 133.1, and prospered to the tune of a 2.57 ERA.  Only 9 of 44 inherited runners (20.5%) ended up scoring.

Topping the list of achievers were John Brebbia and Tyler Lyons (both with 1.53 ERAs in 17.2 innings), and Matthew Bowman (1.80 in 15 innings).  Seung-hwan Oh did well (3.18 in 17 innings) but was already starting to fade.

Critical to this run of victories was Trever Rosenthal, who regained his ninth-inning job at this point of the season.  He ran off 8 consecutive saves, posting a 2.21 ERA over 20.1 innings.  Not, I think, coincidentally, Rosenthal’s season ended with the last game of this run.  After searching all season to find their ninth-inning guy, the Cards – who had finally clambered back into a first place tie at 61-56 on August 12 – would now have to go the last 45 games of their season without him.

The 28-16 run finished off with the Cardinals’ longest winning streak of the year – an 8-game run from August 5 through August 12.  In the second game of that streak, the Cards would erupt for 9 runs in the fourth inning, breaking open what had been a narrow 4-3 lead and sending them onto a comfortable 13-4 victory in Cincinnati.  Through the previous 110 games, St Louis had scored in double figures just 7 times.  Beginning with that game (box score), they would score in double figures 8 times over their last 52 games.  St Louis scored at least 5 runs in only 48 of their first 110 games (44%).  From August 6 on, they scored at least 5 runs in half of their games.

But it Wouldn’t Last

Of course, as soon as St Louis fought its way back into a first-place tie, they immediately hit the skids again.  Ten losses over the next 16 games pushed them back down to .500 at 66-66.  A couple of weeks before, they had been tied for first.  Now they were back to 6 games out.  The losses included two more to Boston, one of them won by Porcello.

For the season, the Cardinals – who always seemed to climbing out of holes – ended 152 games of the season trailing in the division.  They spent 59% of the season trailing by at least 3.5 games, and were 5 or more games out for almost a quarter of the season (23.5%).  Out of 162 games, they ended 2 tied for first, ended 5 others a half-game ahead, and 3 glorious games leading the division by one whole game.

Trailing again by six games, the Cards weren’t done yet.  Heading to San Francisco with 30 games left, the Cards put on one last furious spurt.  They would win 10 of the next 13 bringing them one last time to within reach of the division lead.  On the morning of Wednesday, September 13, they sat 76-68, just 2 games behind Chicago.

That last game – a 13-4 battering of Cincinnati (box score) – completed a 71-game stretch going back to late June during which the Cards had gone 43-28 (a .606 clip) – even including the 6-10 swoon just after tying for first.  Over this extended streak of games (nearly half a season) they had averaged 5.31 runs per game with a 3.56 team ERA.  They hit .283 with runners in scoring position.  They had gone 23-11 at home, and 20-17 on the road.  They were 20-9 in games after a loss.  They were 14-9 in opening games of series, and 18-4 in the second games of those series.  They were 11-5 when facing a left-handed starter.  They scored in double figures 12 times, and five or more runs 34 times, while allowing ten runs or more only 3 times and 5 or more just 26 times.

The stretch even included the Cards going 12-11 against winning teams.

While the final analysis of this team will focus on their very significant shortcomings, it should be remembered that this team played .600 ball for almost half of the season.  This was all after they had re-invented themselves with the additions of Pham, DeJong and Weaver.  And this is without, yet, fully realizing the impact Jose Martinez would have down the stretch.

Down One Final Time

After struggling for so long and so hard to make it back to the surface, the drowning man went down for the final time in the waning weeks of September.  A slight stumble in the second game of the Cincinnati series sent them into Chicago 3 games down with 16 to play.  Seven of those 16 would be against the Cubs, so everything was on the table.

But, beginning with that Friday afternoon contest in Chicago (box score), the Cardinals began the collapse that would leave them playing out the string at the end of the season.  They would lose 10 of their last 16 games – including 6 of the 7 against Chicago.  After all the ups and downs, they finished 83-79, 9 games behind.

The season ending collapse saw the sometimes dynamic offense putt to the finish.  They hit just .231 down the stretch.  Battling injuries all season, Dexter Fowler did what he could to lead this team.  He hit .333, driving in 12 runs over his last 12 games with a .625 slugging percentage.  Tommy Pham also finished strong – hitting .309/.424/.527.

But too many of the major players faded badly at the end.  Stephen Piscotty finished the season as the primary right fielder, but limped to the end with a .184 average.  Yadier Molina was hitting just .167 in 9 games until his season ended with him in concussion protocol.  Carson Kelly took over and hit .172 the rest of the way.  Kolten Wong ended his best-ever season hobbled by back issues.  He played in only 9 of the last 16 games, and struggled to a .138 average when he did play.

But the struggles of the hitters paled in comparison to the melt-down going on in the rotation.

Without a quality start over the last 16 games of the season, the starting rotation pitched only 70 of the last 142 innings.  The best of the lot ended up being Wacha, but at 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA over his last three starts his performance was a bit south of excellent.  Behind him, Jack Flaherty was 0-1, 6.75 in 2 starts and one relief appearance; John Gant was 0-1 with a 7.00 ERA, also in 2 starts and 1 relief appearance.  Carlos Martinez finished 1-1, 7.31 over his last 3 starts.  And the worst of the group were the two pitchers who had been revelations for most of the year.  Lance Lynn managed just 9.2 innings over his last 3 starts.  He was 0-1 with an 11.17 ERA.  Impressive rookie Luke Weaver – who fashioned the team’s very last quality start – finished 1-1 with an 11.37 ERA over his last 3 outings.

The last 16 Cardinal starters of the season compiled a 7.97 ERA with a .306 batting average against.

Behind them, the expanded bullpen did well enough, although Bowman gave up clutch runs in some important games.  They held a 3.00 ERA over their last 72 innings of the season, but were charged with 3 of the last 10 losses.  The late addition of Juan Nicasio added stability.  For too many of the last 16 games, though, the issue was already decided before the bullpen could have an impact.

Although the final image was of a team almost no hit on the last day of the season – on its way to finishing 9 games behind, the truth is that the gulf wasn’t that great.  In fact, if the youth movement had started a little earlier and some critical pieces of the puzzle had had just a little better luck with injuries (Wong, Fowler, Carpenter, Molina, Gyorko, Wainwright, Rosenthal, even Jose Martinez was slowed at the end by a bad thumb) this team – warts and all – would probably have made it to Arizona for the wildcard game.

Seeing them advance much farther, though, is difficult.  But the issues to address are things we’ll leave for the next installment.

Season Ends Quietly With Home Loss

The Cardinals’ last two home wins of the season were as thrilling as any they won the entire year.  Last Tuesday, they jumped all over Jake Arrieta and held on for an 8-7 win over the Cubs.  Then on Saturday, they spotted Milwaukee 6 runs and came racing from behind to win 7-6.

But, in something of a microcosm of the entire season, those flashes of brilliance were swallowed up by the fact they ended losing 5 of the 7 in their do-or-die final home stand.  This followed on the heels of a critical 4-5 road trip.  The team that arrived in Chicago on September 15 just 3 games out with 16 games to play limped to a 6-10 finish, including losses in 7 of the final 9 games – consigning themselves to a well-earned elimination from playoff contention.

In the middle of the catastrophic finish was a starting rotation that finished the season with 16 consecutive non-quality starts – 5 games longer than any previous such streak in this century.  That rotation finished the home stand with an 8.18 ERA, covering only 33 of the 65 innings.  Over the last 16 games, St Louis got only 70 innings from the starters (leaving 72 for the bullpen) with a 7.97 ERA.  After a great start, the rotation finished September/October with a 4.92 ERA.

The team finished the season’s second half with a 4.06 ERA, which pushed the final season ERA up to 4.01.

Brett Cecil

Pitching out the string in mostly meaningless games, Brett Cecil did finish his season strong.  Pitching 3 times during the home stand, Brett retired all 9 batters he faced – 4 on strikeouts.  In 13 innings in September/October Brett finished off with a 2.08 ERA and a .146/.159/.317 batting line against.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia finished up a very solid rookie season with another scoreless inning yesterday.  He finished the season with a 2.44 overall ERA in 50 appearances.  He finished at 1.95 at home.

Not with a Bang but with a Whimper

While the pitching staff scuffled down the stretch, the hitters didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory.  Without a baserunner until the sixth inning, the Cards ended their season with 1 run on 3 hits (box score).  During the last-ditch home stand, St Louis hit just .197 (44 for 223) and scored just 23 runs (3.29 per game).  They thus finished the decisive month of September/October with a .234 team batting average, hitting .211 in their 13 home games that month.

Alex Mejia

The last-game, Memphis-inspired lineup featured Alex Mejia at shortstop.  Alex fell to just 2 for 32 (.063) this month with his 0 for 4 afternoon.  Alex’s month included going 0 for 13 at Busch.

Luke Voit

Life as a pinch-hitter/spot starter did seem to catch up with Luke Voit as the season progressed.  He was also 0 for 4 yesterday, finishing the season’s second half with just a .211 batting average (16 for 76), and a .303 slugging percentage (4 doubles and just 1 second half home run).

He was only 4 for his last 22 (.182) at home.

Harrison Bader

Impressive earlier in the season, Harrison Bader also finished his rookie season mired in a palpable slump.  With a final day 0 for 4, Bader skidded through his last 19 games hitting just .128 (5 for 39) with just 1 extra-base hit.  This includes going just 1 for 11 (.091) during that last home stand.  Harrison didn’t score a run in any of his last 8 games.

Bader finished September/October with a .219 average (14 for 64).

Harrison finished the season just 4 for his last 31 (.129) in his home ballpark.  A .303/.333/.576 hitter in 33 road at bats, Harrison finished his rookie part-season hitting just .192 (10 for 52) at home.

Magneuris Sierra

Hitless in 3 at bats yesterday, Magneuris Sierra ended his first partial season in the majors with an 0-for-12 skid.  So good was his beginning that he still finished with a .317 batting average.

Up Next

Baseball season is, of course, over now – at least as far as we are concerned.  So we will begin transitioning into a football blog.  I will be taking the next few days to assess the season just ended and give my sage advice for the coming offseason.  I hope to have that by Friday, but it might take till Saturday.

Stay tuned.

NoteBook

Randal Grichuk hit the Cardinal’s final home run of the season in the seventh inning yesterday.  He had also hit the Cardinal’s first home run in the eighth-inning of the opening game against Chicago.

With the poor home-stand, St Louis finished 44-37 at home.  The games at Busch lasted an average of just 3:02.9, and were played in an average temperature of 78.5 degrees.  The attendance finished at 3,445,386 – an average of 42,535.6.  They won just 12 series at home, losing 11 and splitting 3 others.  In 7 opportunities to sweep a team at home, they pulled off the sweep 5 times.  They were only faced with being swept at home 3 times, and only 1 team – the Boston Red Sox in the two-game series that turned the season around on May 16 and 17 – managed to finish off the sweep.  With last night’s loss, they fell to 5-6 in rubber games at home.

They also finished 30-54 in series where they lost the first game – although 30-27 after that first loss.  They finished 6-19-2 in those series.  Those games took an average of 3:04.6, were played in average temperatures of 75.5 degrees, and were attended by 3,227,294 fans – and average of 38,420.2.  When St Louis lost the first game of a series, and then forced a rubber game, they were only 5-9 in those games.

They also played 22 series against teams that had won its previous series.  They finished just 6-12-4 in those series, with a 32-37 won-lost record.  Those games averaged 3:02.1 in temperatures of 77.3 degrees.  Attending those games were 2,557,292 fans (an average of 37,062.2).  St Louis had 5 opportunities to sweep a team that had won its previous series, and did so 3 times.  They were also faced with a sweep 4 times by these teams, succumbing 3 times.  They finished just 2-7 in rubber games against teams that had won its previous series.

The overall tally reads 83-79, resulting in 22 series wins, 24 series losses and 6 splits.  All Cardinal games totaled to 29,743 minutes.  If you had watched every minute of every game, you would have spent almost 496 hours – a little more than 20.6 days – watching Cardinal baseball.  That averages out 3:03.6 per game.  The total attendance of all Cardinal games was 5,982,674 (an average of 36,930.1), and the average temperature ended up at 77.8 degrees.

St Louis finished sweeping 9 series in 14 opportunities, and were swept 6 times in 9 chances.  They finished 7-13 in rubber games.

John Gant Ends Season in Cardinal Rotation

The sense that I get of it is that even if these last three games had mattered John Gant would still have gotten the start last night.  Nothing against John, but I find it an interesting indictment of the condition Cardinal pitching staff as the last few days of the season dwindle away.

I am pointing this out to frame a fairly simple argument for keeping Lance Lynn.  I ask this question.  Who are your five next year, if there is no Lance Lynn?  Carlos Martinez, sure.  Luke Weaver? Yes, I think so.  Michael Wacha?  Yes, I think he showed enough to warrant a spot.

That’s three.  And then?

Adam Wainwright?  A serious health concern heading into the offseason.  Alex Reyes?  Probably not ready to shoulder a starter’s innings load.  Jack Flaherty?  Doesn’t quite look like he’s quite major league ready to me.  John Gant?

You see what I mean?  The St Louis Cardinal organization is loaded with promising pitchers.  But the crest of the wave is probably a year or two away.  With a Lance Lynn to bear up some of those innings, this team can remain competitive while they rebuild.  If Lance goes, well . . .

Ironically, Gant nearly broke the streak of non-quality Cardinal starts (which is now run to 14).  He took the mound in the sixth inning having allowed just two runs.  Alas, the only two batters he faced in that inning reached and later scored, providing the pivotal inning of Milwaukee’s 5-3 victory (box score)

The starting rotation thus stays stuck on 7 quality starts for the month (now through 27 games) with a 4.62 ERA.

Meanwhile, the offense finished with just 6 hits.  The Cardinals face the last two games of the season with a .237 team batting average for the month of September.

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty’s goals may have slid from hoping to get hot for the last month of the season to hoping to get one more hit before the season ends.  With last night’s 0 for 3, Piscotty is 0 for 16 over his last 6 games, and has now gone 16 games without driving in a run.  He is hitting .180 (9 for 50) in those games.

Meanwhile, his average for the month fades to .221 (15 for 68), and his second half average is down to .223 (25 for 112).  Of course, Randal Grichuk was 0 for 2 as well last night.  He is hitting just .222 this month (12 for 54).

NoteBook

The Cardinals end the season losing the first game of their last two series.  Of the 52 they played, they won the first game just 25 times.

In those 25 series, they were 53-25 (but only 28-25 after that first game).  The average length of those games was 3:02.6, while 2,755,380 attended them (an average of 35,325.4).  It was almost always hot when the Cards won the first game of a series – an average temperature of 80.3.  They finished 16-5-4 in those series.  When the other team forced a rubber game, though, St Louis was just 2-4.

It’s Always a Bad Sign . . .

When your team dominates the first half, but you don’t walk off the field with the lead.  That was Arizona’s story Monday night as they pushed Dallas around 152 yards to 57; 10 first downs to 5, and 20:19 of possession time – but they went into the locker room with a 7-7 tie.  When that kind of thing happens, you kind of figure you’re going to have trouble.

And they did.  Dallas took control of the second half and finished with a 28-17 victory (gamebook).

The last couple of weeks have been very different for the Cowboy offense.  They only scored 19 points in their opening win over the NY Giants, but the offense mostly operated as expected – 129 rushing yards as part of a 392 yard night of total offense.

All of a sudden, though, the vaunted Dallas running game has been at least partially derailed and the Cowboy receivers are struggling a bit to gain separation from tight man coverage.  The running yards have been 139 total over the last two games.  When the running game doesn’t work, the whole Cowboy offense looks out of kilter.

Against Denver in Week Two the Cowboys put their running game on the shelf and then unraveled in a 42-17 loss.  Monday night they kept running the ball – even though the running game never really came together.  Star running back Ezekiel Elliott finished with a modest 80 yards on 22 carries – and 50 of those yards came on just 2 carries.  But the important thing was that they kept at it.

Against Denver, quarterback Dak Prescott threw 50 times – to mostly poor effect.  Monday he threw just 18 times – to mostly spectacular effect.  A few big plays from the offense and a dominating performance from defensive end Demarcus Lawrence were enough to get by.  But if the running game continues to struggle, Dallas’ season will quickly get much tougher.

Interesting Game in Detroit

Yes, the defending NFC Champion Falcons were very lucky to escape Sunday’s game without enduring their first loss (gamebook).  What an effort by the Lion defense.  They mostly contained uber-receiver Julio Jones (91 yards on 7 catches is contained when talking about Jones) and they intercepted 3 passes off of Matt Ryan (yes, 2 of them were tipped – still).

All in all, it’s about as well as you will see the Atlanta passing attack defended.

The thing that separates the Falcons, though, is the running attack.  The Falcons finished the day with 151 rushing yards to only 71 for Detroit.  Awfully hard to overcome – although the Lions almost did.

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

I still don’t know what to make of Tyrod Taylor.  He certainly has some skills, but is he a franchise quarterback?  He is unorthodox, but frequently unorthodox is good.

Whichever, Tyrod had himself an afternoon against Denver last Sunday.  Some of his throws were letter perfect.  Some were pretty wide of the mark, but his receivers made outstanding catches of them.  One of his two touchdown passes bounced off the hands of one receiver into the hands of another.  Hey, when it’s your day, it’s your day.  He ended up with 213 passing yards and a 126.0 rating.

Significantly, Buffalo ran the ball 33 times – even though they only managed 2.3 yards per rush.  Buffalo committed themselves to balance, and let Taylor work within the structure of the game plan.  Tyrod made many, many big plays that contributed to the Buffalo victory.  He was never asked to win the game himself.

Ironically, that is exactly the general idea that Denver operates under with their quarterback Trevor Siemian.  They want to play great defense, run the ball, and let Siemian make good decisions in the passing game.  They don’t want him to have to win the game for them.

As they fell behind, though, they had to depend more and more on Siemian.  He ended up tossing two interceptions contributing to the 26-16 loss (gamebook).

It is understood that Denver is not built to come from behind.  This will almost certainly catch up with them at some critical point during the season.

Speaking of Quarterbacks

I have promised on several occasions to initiate a discussion of Giant quarterback Eli Manning.  I had intended to do this at some point when baseball season was over and the discussion here is only on football.  But Eli did that thing on Sunday that he does better than any quarterback that I can remember.

After three very unremarkable quarters of football, the Giants, trailing 14-0 at this point, seemed on their way to another bloodless loss.  Then, out of nowhere, Eli and the Giant offense flipped the switch.  They scored 24 points in the fourth quarter.  They still lost – on a last minute field goal (gamebook) – but the complexion of the game suddenly changed.

There are – of course – other fourth-quarter quarterbacks.  But none of them that I remember have the Teflon ego that Eli seems to have.  Eli can be awful for three quarters, and then play the fourth as though none of that had ever happened.

It used to puzzle me that he could do that, until a couple of seasons ago I remembered.  He’s Peyton Manning’s little brother.  Then it all made sense.

What must it be like to grow up the highly competitive little brother of the highly competitive Peyton Manning?  They must have challenged each other in every sport imaginable, from checkers to ping pong to one-on-one basketball.  And, of course, Peyton would always win.  He was older (and, frankly better) at all those things, so every time Eli followed Peyton onto the basketball court, he knew he was in for a beating.

So why would he do it?  Picture in your mind Eli, the snarky little brother, who lives for that one moment.  He’s losing 22-0, but he has that one play – he fakes a jumper, but spins around to get his one unchallenged layup.

And that is the game.  The scoreboard is now irrelevant.  In that glorious moment – that he will never let Peyton forget until the next time they take the court – Eli has completely undone all the indignities of the first part of the game.  He’d gotten him.  It was just one play, but Eli knew that it would burn in his brother’s psyche.

Fast forward about 20 years and Eli is an NFL quarterback.  But that mentality is still in there.  Inside he is still that snarky little kid who can take a beating that would shake – a least a little bit – the confidence of even established players.  This doesn’t make Eli a great quarterback.  But it gives him a very interesting ability.

As to the Eagles, I don’t know if head coach Doug Pederson reads my blog, but he certainly responded as if he did.  One week after I chided him for ignoring LeGarrette Blount and his running game, Philadelphia ran for 193 yards – 67 by Blount.  Not surprisingly, they won.

Living in a Grinders Paradise

A trend I have mentioned a few times over the last part of the season reached – I hope – its nadir last night.  A Cardinal team that seems increasingly unwilling to swing the bat watched pitch after pitch go by last night.  Of the 173 pitches delivered over 11 grueling innings in a game the Cardinals desperately needed to keep alive their faint playoff hopes, the Cards swung at only 62 (36%).  They did grind – averaging as a team 4.22 pitches per plate appearance (for context, Matt Carpenter averages 4.45 pitches per plate appearance for the season).  But 40.5% of the pitches they took were called strikes, leading to 17 strikeouts and only 4 walks.  Eight of the 17 Cardinals who struck out were called out on strikes

Meanwhile, St Louis finished the eleven-inning fiasco with 1 run and only 6 hits.  The team batting average falls to .239 for the month.

Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham was about the only offense the Cards had going for them last night.  With 2 singles and a walk, Pham added 2 stolen bases and scored the team’s only run.  Tommy is still finishing strong.  He is now up to .306 with a .444 on base percentage for the month.  Since the All-Star Break, Pham is hitting .321 (75 for 234) with a .437 on base percentage (Tommy has walked 43 times, been hit by 6 pitches, and has stolen 14 bases in 17 attempts in the season’s second half).

Of the 29 pitches tossed to Tommy last night, he only swung at 7.  All season, Pham has been one of the most selective of the Cardinal hitters.  For the season, he only swings at 38.1% of the pitches he sees.  As the season goes on, though, Tommy is getting even more selective.  This month, his swing percentage is down to 33.4%.

Matt Carpenter

Struggling with a balky shoulder off and on all year, Matt Carpenter’s season came to an ignominious end with an 0-for-4 that featured 4 strikeouts.  Matt finishes September hitting .230 (but with a .420 on base percentage as he drew his twentieth walk in his twenty-one games).

When Carpenter came to the plate in the third inning with a runner at first and one out, it would be the 97th and final opportunity for Matt to ground into a double play.  He struck out.  One thing about striking out and hitting fly balls – they keep you out of double plays.  Matt bounced into only 5 all year.  Among season-long regulars, his 5.2% was the lowest on the team.

After the game, Matt admitted to taking pitches he might otherwise have swung at.  The evidence is in the statistics.  Over the course of the season, Carpenter swung at the first pitch just 13.2% of the time.  In the second half of the season, that ratio dropped to only 9.2%.  In 82 September plate appearances, Carpenter swung at the first pitch just 3 times.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler couldn’t break out of his late season swoon in time to extend the Cardinals hopes.  He was also 0 for 4 with 3 strikeouts.  Fowler welcomes Milwaukee hitting just .185 (5 for 27) over his last 7 games.

Fowler swung the bat 13 times last night, missing on 6 of the swings.  During the month of September, Dexter is missing on a team-leading 30.6% of his swings – higher even than Randal Grichuk’s 30.1%.

Dexter also saw 29 pitches last night (5.8 per).  For the month of September he trails only Carpenter in pitches per PA with 4.24.

Stephen Piscotty

As he returned from Memphis, Piscotty expressed the hope that he could get hot coming down the stretch.  That didn’t happen.  Piscotty went hitless in 3 at bats last night, and is 0 for 13 over his last 5 games.  It has been 15 games since Stephen has driven in a run – a span during which he has hit .191 (9 for 47) with only 2 extra base hits.  His September average is down to .231, and for the second half it’s down to just .229 (25 for 109).

Piscotty also had an opportunity to bounce into a double play.  In the fourth inning he had Jedd Gyorko on first with one out.  Stephen didn’t bounce into the double play.  He struck out into it instead.  Still, this month, Piscotty has bounced into just 1 DP in 17 such opportunities.

Carson Kelly

Carson Kelly made his fourth start in the last five games last night.  He is 1 for 15 (.067), and is 0 for 11 since Yadier Molina went on concussion protocol.  Carson is the top rated catching prospect in baseball.  It would help, though, if he would get a hit once in a while.

All four first pitches to Carson last night were strikes – although he only swung at one of them.  In his 30 plate appearances, Carson is seeing first pitch strikes 76.7% of the time.  No other non-pitcher on the team is getting challenged with the first pitch as often as Kelly.

Kelly swung the bat 4 times last night, fouling a pitch off and putting the ball in play with his other swings.  Kelly has only missed on 16.2% of his swings since joining the team.  He is also putting the ball in play with an impressive 49.5% of his swings.

Lance Lynn

If this was, indeed, Lance Lynn’s last start as a Cardinal it ended on a fairly ironic note.  Noted early in his career for the consistency of run support that he received, Lance will exit seeing no runs scored for him in his last game.  Moreover, this will be the third time in his last 5 games that St Louis was kept off the scoreboard while he was the pitcher of record.  In fact, over his last 27 starts, the Cardinals averaged just 3.00 runs per start for him.

Lance, nonetheless, finishes with an excellent 3.43 ERA – which was 3.21 in 15 second half starts in his first season returned from Tommy John surgery.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil delivered a scoreless seventh in the tie game, and continues to show incremental improvement in the season’s dying days.  His September ERA drops to 2.25 in 12 innings.  He had them three-up-and-three down on 9 pitches last night.  In his September innings, Brett is only facing 3.42 batter per inning, and throwing just 12.08 pitches per inning.  Over the course of the whole season, Cecil has thrown just 3.58 pitches per batter.

Eight of his nine pitches were strikes.  He spent almost the entire first half looking for the strike zone, as only 63.5% of his pre-All-Star Game pitches were strikes.  Between the break and the beginning of September, his percentage jumped to 69.4%.  This month, 73.1% of his pitches have been strikes.

Juan Nicasio

Juan Nicasio kept them off the board in the eighth, but it took him 20 pitches to work through the inning.  Since he has been a Cardinal, Juan has averaged 17.5 pitches per inning, and 4.38 pitches per batter.  Only Tyler Lyons (18.45 and 4.41) has thrown more pitches per inning and per batter this month than Nicasio.

Sam Tuivailala

Sam Tuivailala kept the game tied through the ninth.  Sam has been having a very solid September.  He now has a 2.00 ERA in 9 innings this month.  He faced only 3 batters last night, throwing 7 strikes in just 9 pitches.  This month, Sam is averaging just 3.56 batters per inning, just 12.00 pitches thrown per inning, just 3.38 pitches per batter, while throwing strikes with 73.1% of his pitches.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia dispatched his 3 batters in the tenth (including one who struck out) on only 8 pitches.  Even though Brebbia has struck out 17 batters in 10.2 innings this month, he has done so throwing a surprisingly economical 3.36 pitches per batter.  Seven of last night’s eight pitches were strikes.  John throws strikes 68.5% of the time over the course of the season.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman faced 5 batters in last night’s decisive eleventh inning.  One of them struck out, and the other four hit ground balls.  It resulted in two hits and the run that eliminated the Cardinals from playoff contention.  That’s the way the ball bounces sometimes.

Matthew has gotten ground balls from 14 of the 21 batters he’s faced this month, and 56.2% on the year – the highest ratio of anyone on the staff with more than 20 innings pitched.

Elimination Season Almost Ended

For all their warts, the Cardinals were the second to last team to be eliminated from playoff contention this year.  Milwaukee or Colorado will be the last.  Everyone else is already in or out.

NoteBook

With the loss, the Cardinals fall to 43-35 at home.  Of the 25 home series they have played, they have won 12, lost 10, and split the other 3.

With Milwaukee having won two of three from Cincinnati, the Cards will play no more teams this season that have either lost or split their previous series.  So the final tallies on those situations are:

St Louis finished just 37-36 against teams that had lost their previous series.  Those games averaged 3:06, and drew a total attendance of 2,563,414 (an average of 35,115.3) and were played in average temperatures of 78.5 degrees.  We went 11-10-2 in those series, sweeping 3 of the 5 we had a chance to sweep, and being swept in 3 of the 4 that we were in danger of being swept in.  We were 4-5 in rubber games against teams that had lost their previous series.

We only played 6 teams this season that had split their previous series, and we beat them up in good order, going 13-4 in those games.  Those games averaged 2:58.8 and drew a total attendance of 726,554 (an average of 42,738.5).  The average temperature of those games was 79.4 degrees.  We won 5 of the 6 series, including sweeps in 3 of 4 opportunities while avoiding the sweep in the only such series lost all season.  We won the one rubber game played in these series.

Cards Can’t Add to One Run Lead, Lose Again

In many ways, last night’s games was eerily similar to the first John Lackey game about a week and a half ago.  In that game – on Friday, September 15 – Lackey served up an early run (a first inning home run off the bat of Tommy Pham).  And there it sat.  One lonely run, sitting on the scoreboard through the fourth inning.  One run, just waiting for the Cubs to bounce back.

After the Cubs did tie the game in the fourth, St Louis came back with another run in the fifth.  And there it sat.  A one run lead, just waiting.  This time it waited a shorter period of time, till the bottom of the sixth when Chicago erupted for 7 runs that decided the contest 8-2 (box score).

Fast forward to last night.  Again, Lackey serves up the early run (this time in the second inning).  And there it sat.  One lonely run.  It sat there, un-added upon, through the third, the fourth, the fifth and the sixth.  Finally, one more big inning from the Cubs (a five-run seventh) sent the Cards to defeat 5-1 (box score).

St Louis has now scored the first run in 7 of their last 8 games, but have lost 3 of the last 4.  One reason has been a consistent inability to add to a one run lead.

Last night, from the moment they pushed ahead 1-0 until they came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh trailing 5-1, St Louis was 0 for 14.  For the month of September, St Louis is hitting just .155 when clinging to a one run lead.  Since the All-Star Break the sometimes dynamic Cardinal offense (that is averaging 4.96 runs per game over its last 70 games) is scuffling along at a .209 batting average when holding a lead of one lonely run.

Delivering that knockout blow is another of the many elements lacking in the Cardinals game as they come down the stretch.

With only 5 hits on the night, the Cardinal batting average for the month of September fades to .242.

Paul DeJong

The only Cardinal hitter that showed much of a pulse last night was rookie Paul DeJong.  He was the only Cardinal with two hits, accounting for the only Cardinal extra-base hit and the only Cardinal run batted in.  Paul has two hits in each of the last two games.

DeJong’s RBI came in the second inning, breaking a 0-0 tie.  Many of Paul’s best moments have come while the game is tied.  This month, Paul is 7 for 23 (.304) and 23 for 73 (.315) in the second half when batting in tie games.  For the season, Paul is a .311 hitter (32 for 103) and a .534 slugger (5 doubles and 6 home runs) when batting in a tie game.

Dexter Fowler

After being one of the driving forces of the offense in the second half, Dexter Fowler has run into a dry stretch.  As the Cards have suffered four damaging losses in their last five games, Fowler has been 3 for 19 (.158).  He has drawn 1 walk, scored 1 run, and driven in no runs in that span.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko was another of the Cardinal bats quieted last night – he went 0 for 3.  Jedd has been hitting quite a bit better lately – and in fact, had 5 hits in the two previous games.  But his average in a disappointing second half has faded to .224.

Gyorko led off the fourth with the Cards clinging to the one run lead.  He flew out to left.  Since the All-Star Break, Jedd is now 2 for 19 (.105) when batting with that one run lead.

Another Pitching Streak Reaches Record Levels

On Thursday, August 23, 2012 Jake Westbrook went to the mound for the Cards, facing Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros.  It would not be his best start.  He lasted 5 innings, giving 5 runs on 7 hits.  It was all enough, though, to get him a 13-5 win.

More importantly, it broke a streak of 3 straight quality starts (Jaime Garcia, Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse).  And it initiated the longest stretch of games in this century without a quality start from a Cardinal pitcher.  Until last night, that is.  The 2012 streak reached 11 games in a row, until Monday September 3, when Joe Kelly pitched St Louis to a 5-4 victory against the Mets.  He gave just 2 runs over 6.2 innings.

Although Michael Wacha tossed six brilliant innings last night, the 5-run seventh denied the team not just the victory, but the streak stopping quality start.  Over the last 12 games, Cardinal starters have been saddled with a crushing 8.40 ERA.  For the month of September, the rotation has chipped in just 7 quality starts in 25 games, while registering a 4.63 ERA.  For the 70 games of the second half, the team ERA has risen to 4.03.

You will, no doubt, remember that earlier this season the Cards allowed at least five runs in 12 consecutive games.  Here, now, is a companion streak.

Michael Wacha

Of all of the Cardinal starters during this long dry spell, Wacha has been statistically the best – and that by quite a bit.  However, he still carries a 5.40 ERA and an 0-2 record over his last 3 starts.  This in spite of the fact that the batting average against has only been .246.  Over the 16.2 innings of those starts, Michael has struck out 19 and allowed just one home run (in last night’s seventh inning).

In a sense, these last three starts have been a kind of microcosm of Michael’s season.  Lots of terrific, impressive moments that somehow haven’t worked out as hoped.

All season Wacha has struggled to hold onto small leads.  In the season’s second half, Wacha has pitched 24.2 innings with a lead of less than four runs.  His ERA in those innings is 6.57 with a .300/.355/.510 batting line against.  This includes a 7.50 ERA when holding a one run lead.  For the season, in 55 innings when leading by no more than 3 runs, Wacha’s ERA is 6.38 with a .298/.355/.505 batting line against.  This includes an 8.62 ERA when pitching with a two-run lead, and a 8.10 ERA (with a .366 batting average against) when holding a three-run lead.

Matthew Bowman

For most of the season, Matthew Bowman’s specialty has been stranding runners.  Of the first 31 runners he inherited, only 5 crossed the plate.  With the one he let in last night, 10 of the last 20 have scored, including 6 of the last 11.  Bowman has been one of several Cardinals who have been given opportunities to impact these critical September games who have too often been found wanting.

Zach Duke

On the other hand, there is Zach Duke.  Off to a kind of brutal start to the season after missing spring training, Duke has been locked in of late.  Inheriting a bases-loaded jam from Bowman, Duke ended the seventh by getting Anthony Rizzo to bounce into a double play.  Duke has now stranded the last 15 base-runners that he has inherited – including three times with the bases loaded.

If the Cards are not interested in pursuing him for next year, they should be.

Sam Tuivailala

Coming into the eighth inning trailing by four runs, Sam Tuivailala delivered a clean eighth inning.  This season, Sam has pitched 25.2 innings with the Cards trailing.  His ERA is 1.05, and his batting line against is an efficient .149/.213/.184. In his 14.2 innings either tied or with his team in the lead, Sam holds a 5.52 ERA with a .344/.400/.594 batting line against.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil also delivered a clean inning – the ninth, in a low impact setting with a four-run deficit.  Cecil has had a forgettable season, but is doing better this month.  In 8 September games – comprising 11 innings – Cecil carries a 2.45 ERA and a .171 batting line against.  He has walked just 1 batter in those innings.

Brett has now pitched 18.1 innings this season with the Cardinals trailing by at least three runs.  In those innings, Brett has a 0.49 ERA with a .119/.143/.153 batting line against.  Cecil also has pitched 6.1 innings with the Cards leading by at least six runs.  He has given no runs and only 4 hits in those innings.

In between, with St Louis either leading by up to five runs, tied, or trailing but by no more than two runs, Cecil has a 6.25 ERA and a .333/.378/.548 batting line against in 40.1 innings.

It is possible that there is no statistic more descriptive of Brett’s season than that.

Cards Withstand Eighth Inning Rally

After three hours and 46 minutes – and 349 pitches – the St Louis Cardinals – clinging by their fingernails in the chase for the National League’s last playoff spot and in a death struggle against their ancient rivals – finally held on to one of the season’s most uncomfortable victories, 8-7 (box score).

Starter Carlos Martinez ground through 4.1 innings that were complicated by 4 hits, 4 walks, a hit batsman, and a batter reaching on a catcher’s interference call that wiped out a potential double play.  In all, that’s 10 base-runners.  But, in a departure from his earlier form, Carlos didn’t unravel.  Pitching under nearly constant pressure, Carlos held his stuff together, allowed only 3 of the runners to score (only two of them earned), and walked off the mound holding a 5-3 lead.

And then there was the eighth inning.  In a throwback to the thready first half when the Cardinal bullpen hemorrhaged runs in that inning, two Chicago home runs put 4 sudden runs on the board and closed St Louis’ big lead back down to a single run.  The Cubs ended the game putting the tying run in scoring position in both the eighth and ninth innings against newly ordained closer Juan Nicasio.

But – for one night, anyway – the Cardinals were the tough ones as they won enough of the tough at bats to hold off the defending world champs.

Time to exhale.

That Nettlesome Eighth Inning

Repeatedly through the first 88 games of the season, games would blow up on the Cards in the eighth inning.  They limped into the break with a 5.63 ERA in this inning, and a .281 batting average against.  Up until last night, the relative competence of the late inning relief corps was one of the marked improvements in the team.  Up until last night, the team’s second half ERA in the eighth inning was 3.44 with a .230 batting average against.

The two home runs in that inning last night bring to 12 the number of eighth inning home runs hit against the Cardinals since the All-Star Break – one more than in any other inning (there have been 11 hit in both the first and fourth innings).  For the season, now, more runs have been scored against this team in the eighth inning (91) than in any other (85 have been scored in the fifth, the next highest inning).  Their ERA in that inning is still 4.87.

Pitchers Still Struggling

Even though Martinez had some gritty moments, at the end of the day, the Cards have still gone 11 straight games without a quality start, and, surrendering 6 more earned runs, the team ERA is up to 5.87 over those games.  The last 11 Cardinal starters have managed just 44.1 innings – fractionally more than 4 per start – with an 8.53 ERA and a .308 batting average against.  If this keeps up, even a sometimes heroic offense will be unable to keep this team in playoff contention.

Carlos Martinez

While he had moments, and all ended well, Martinez is still struggling through the final playoff push.  Over his last 3 starts, Carlos has made it through just 16 innings with a 7.31 ERA and a .279 batting average against.  Through 5 starts in the month of September, Carlos is 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA.

Ironically for Carlos – considering his season long issues with the first inning – the first innings of his last three starts have been perfect.  In his 5 September starts, Carlos has allowed just 1 baserunner – a walk that didn’t score – in the first innings of those games.  Now, it’s the second inning that’s the issue.  His ERA is now 7.20 this month in the second.

Zach Duke

Zach Duke ended the messy fifth inning, and then tossed a flawless sixth.  Zach, who looks like he has finely found that mystic slider, struck out 3 of the 5 Cubs that he faced.  Over this stretch where the starters have been putting a lot on the shoulders of the bullpen, Zach has been one of the members of the pen who has stepped forward.  He holds a 1.69 ERA over the last 11 games (he’s pitched in 6 of them).  Zach has stranded his last 12 inherited runners.

Eight is Enough for the Offense

While September hasn’t been their most efficient month, the Cardinals are still putting enough runs on the board most nights to get a victory.  With the 8 last night, they are averaging 4.88 this month, and 5.01 in the second half.

Tommy Pham

The Summer of Pham isn’t quite over yet.  With 2 more hits last night – including a home run into Big Mac Land, Tommy Pham has pushed his September batting line to .303/.432/.576.  Since the All-Star Break, Tommy has been to the plate 277 times, with the following results: 46 singles, 14 doubles, 1 triple, 12 home runs, 40 walks, 6 hit-by-pitches, 2 sacrifice bunts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts – a batting line of .320/.433/.548.  In his last 65 games (59 starts), Pham has scored 50 runs.

Jedd Gyorko

With two more hits last night, Jedd Gyorko now has 5 in his last two games – including 2 home runs.  He is now hitting .350 (7 for 20) over his last 7 games (about the time he moved back into the starting lineup), with a .700 slugging percentage.  A hot Gyorko down the stretch could make a big difference.

Randal Grichuk

As September has worn on, it seems that Stephen Piscotty has claimed the top spot in the pecking order in right field.  Randal Grichuk got a spot start there last night and drove in two important runs with opposite field extra-base hits.

Grichuk has never become the superstar that Cardinal fans have hoped.  Not yet anyway.  And it certainly feels like this will be his last month as a Cardinal.  St Louis does have a glut of outfielders.  But, before Randal returns to the bench to watch the end of the season play out, it should be noted that since the All-Star Break Grichuk is a .270/.311/.556 hitter.  In 178 second half at bats, Randal has hit 12 home runs, tied for second on the team with Pham (who has hit his in 228 at bats) and trailing only Paul DeJong (who has hit 15 in 272 at bats).  As they say, these numbers will play.

My point, I guess, is to not be too hasty in unloading the talented Mr. Grichuk.  And, maybe, to give him a few more starts down the stretch.

NoteBook

Matt Carpenter’s first inning home run stood up as the game-winning hit – Carpenter’s fifth of the season.  The team leaders going into the last 5 games of the season are Dexter Fowler with 12; Yadier Molina – 11; Gyorko – 9; Carpenter, DeJong, Grichuk, and Kolten Wong all with 5.

Ten Two-Out Runs Topple the Cards

As if the mental toughness gap that separates the Cardinals and the Cubs needed any more emphasis, Chicago applied another demonstration last night, scoring 10 two-out runs in a 10-2 victory (box score).  For the game, Chicago was 8 for 17 with 2 doubles, 2 home runs and 3 walks with two-outs, a .471/.550/.941 batting line.

Starting Pitching Leads the Great Collapse

Twelve games ago, everything was on the table for the Cardinals.  Coming off a 13-4 battering of Cincinnati in the first game of that series, St Louis stood 76-68, and just two games behind Chicago.  In front of them, they had two more games with Cincinnati, and then seven shots at the Cubs over their final 12 games – with six games against bottom dwellers Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in between.

They couldn’t possibly have been anymore “in it.”

But, beginning with a 6-0 loss to Cincinnati that next day, they have skidded to a 5-7 record over the first 12 games of that crucial stretch – including 4 losses in 4 games against Chicago.  And at the forefront of the tailspin is the starting rotation that we had pinned our hopes on, both for the season and for this crucial stretch.  After last night’s 3-inning, 8-run battering of Luke Weaver, St Louis has just 1 quality start in its last 12 games.  During this stretch, the rotation has pitched fewer innings than the bullpen (50.1 to 53.2), with a 7.69 ERA and a .292 batting average against.

Even after all of this, the Cards still have an outside shot at the second Wild Card.  But at some point their starting pitching will have to give them a chance.

They are much less “in it,” now

Luke Weaver

While he is the latest contributor, Weaver is probably the least responsible for the collapse in the rotation.  He owns the only quality start over the last 12 games, and could have had a second as he led 8-2 after five innings when he was relieved after his last start.  His worst game of the season interrupted a 7-game winning streak, during which he held a 1.61 ERA in 44.2 innings.

Eight of the nine batters who reached against Luke scored yesterday.

Sam Tuivailala

Since the All-Star Break, Sam Tuivailala has been experiencing more difficulties with the first out than the last.  In his seventh inning last night, he gave a leadoff single, but got a double play and a strikeout to avoid any scoring.  Over his last 19.1 innings, batters hitting with no one out are now hitting .333 (9 for 27).  They are now 4 for 23 (.174) with two outs.

Zach Duke

The damage, of course, could have been worse.  Already ahead 10-2, the Cubs had the bases loaded with – again – two out, with Anthony Rizzo at the plate in the eighth inning.  Zach Duke was summoned to put out the fire – which he did by getting a ground out.  It was one of the few times last night that Chicago didn’t get the two-out hit, but rather par for the course for Duke.

Zach has now held batters to a .211 batting average with two outs (4 for 19) this season.  He has stranded his last 11 inherited runners – including twice with the bases loaded.

Hits Still Scarce

While the starters have been creating early deficits, the offense can’t shake its general hitting slump.  With only 6 hits last night, the Cards carry a .243 team batting average for the month – including .240 over the last 12 games.

Jedd Gyorko

With Jose Martinez still battling an injury and Matt Carpenter still slumping, the three hits from Jedd Gyorko last night were a welcomed sight.  Back in the starting lineup, Gyorko is beginning to get his timing back.  Over his last 6 games (5 of them starts), Jedd is hitting .313 (5 for 16).

Jedd’s hits included a two out single in the sixth inning.  All season, Jedd has been one of our better two-out hitters.  He is now hitting .286 this year (36 for 126) with two outs.  Twenty-six of his 66 runs batted in have come with two outs.  He ranks second on the club in two-out batting average (behind only Dexter Fowler) and in two-out runs batted in (behind Yadier Molina’s 29).

Dexter Fowler

As for Fowler, he added two more hits last night, and continues to be the most consistent offensive force on the team.  He has only played in 9 of the last 12 games, but with spectacular effect, hitting .417 (15 for 36) and slugging .750 (3 doubles and 3 home runs).  He has scored 7 runs and driven in 11 in those 9 games.  Since the All-Star break, Dexter has been a .304/.414/.506 hitter.

All of Dexter’s at bats came with two out last night.  He is now 6 for his last 13 two-out at bats – accounting for 5 two-out runs batted in.  As mentioned, Dexter has been the team’s best two-out hitter this year.  He is 38 for 114 with 7 doubles, one triple, 7 home runs and 23 walks – a .333/.449/.596 batting line.  He now has 25 two-out RBIs this season.

Tommy Pham

After hitting .286 with a .429 on base percentage in the first half when batting with two outs, Tommy Pham has struggled to extend innings in the second half – and especially this month.  With his 0-for-2 in last night’s two-out at bats, Tommy is 4 for 21 (.190) this month, and 12 for 51 (.235) in the second half with two outs.  He did, however, draw a two-out walk, his eleventh since the break, keeping his on base percentage at .391 in this situation in the second half.

Paul DeJong

In the middle of the sagging offense is rookie Paul DeJong.  Heroic for much of the season, Paul is fading at the finish.  After his 0-for-3 last night, he is hitting .163 (7 for 43) over these last 12 games.  He is down to .229 (19 for 83) for the month.

During his compelling first half, Paul was uncanny when hitting with no one out – he hit .408 with a .735 slugging percentage.  After popping out to lead off the sixth, DeJong is 1 for his last 17 (an infield hit, at that) when batting with no one out.

The Cardinals had none of their leadoff hitters reach base last night.

Yadier Molina

Yadi is another of the hitters who has struggled during the 12-game downturn.  Molina has played in 11 of the games, hitting .162 (6 for 37) after his 0-for-3 last night.  Molina is now down to .233 for the month (17 for 73).

Stephen Piscotty

Given the lion’s share of the playing time in right field, Stephen Piscotty hasn’t really taken advantage.  With the team struggling for hits and runs, Piscotty has now gone 13 games without driving in a run.  He is hitting .209 (9 for 43) in those games.

Piscotty struck out to end the sixth.  With two outs, now, Stephen is 0 for his last 6, and 1 for 17 (.059) this month.  Since the All-Star Break, Stephen is hitting .156 when hitting with two outs.

Kolten Wong

And, of course, no listing of slumping Cardinal hitters would be complete without including Kolten Wong.  He was also 0 for 3 last night.  Over the last 12 games, Kolten is scuffling along at .125 (4 for 32).  In September, Wong is hitting just .170 (9 for 53).

Wong’s struggles with two outs are very similar to Piscotty’s.  After ending the second inning with a strikeout, Wong is 0 for his last 7, 1 for 13 (.077) this month, and 12 for 61 (.197) since the All-Star Break when hitting with two outs.  He is only a .212 two-out hitter for the season.

Elimination Season Draws to Its Conclusion

As the Cardinals were officially closed out of the NL Central chase, the playoff picture has begun to take definite shape.  The Cardinal’s division is one of only two left unsettled, and that by the slimmest of margins.  Milwaukee will need St Louis to win all of the remaining games in this series to have a chance.  Boston is holding off the Yankees by 4 games in the AL East.  All other division winners have been crowned (Cleveland, Houston, Washington and the Dodgers).

Minnesota will likely be the second Wild Card in the AL – after the Yankees.  A handful of teams trail them, but none closer than 5 games.  Arizona is the top Wild card in the NL.

That second NL Wild Card is the lone remaining playoff spot that will be hotly contested over the season’s last 6 days.  Currently, Colorado holds the spot, with the Brewers 1.5 games behind and, yes, the Cardinals one game behind that.

The Hot Team Hits One of the First Two Pitches

Within five pitches.  That’s how the game account of the Cardinal’s damaging 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh read (box score).  One-time closer Seung-hwan Oh had entered the fifth inning of a 1-1 tie.  The first batter he faced – Christopher Bostick – singled on an 0-2 pitch.  Starling Marte followed by unloading on Oh’s 0-1 pitch.  Five pitches, five strikes, two runs.  And a loss.

All pitchers make mistakes, but mistakes early in the at bat are almost always more damaging.  There is a simple dynamic at play here.  Batters (most of them) are more aggressive early in the count, looking for something they can drive.  Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference) when batters hit one of the first two pitches thrown them, they hit .340 with a .573 slugging percentage.  If the pitcher survives those first two pitches, his average against tumbles to .222 with a .369 slugging percentage.  Overall, batters hit one of the first two pitches 26% of the time.  Yesterday, Cardinal pitchers – including veterans Oh and Brett Cecil – saw 11 of the 35 batters who faced them hit one of the first two pitches (31.4%).  The damage was predictable: 6 for 11, including both home runs and a triple.

In a final twist from the first game of the series, when the Cards were jumping on the first strike thrown to them, St Louis was only 1 for 9 when they hit one of the first two pitches thrown.

The hot team – apparently – hits one of the first two pitches.

Seung-hwan Oh

There is little left to say about the season that Oh is having.  The numbers do tell the story.  The last 4 times he has come into a game that was either tied or one run either way, Oh has managed just 2.1 innings, serving 3 runs on 5 hits (including 2 home runs) – this all leading to a loss, a blown save, a .455 batting average against, and a 1.000 slugging percentage against.

Over his last 13 games, Oh’s ERA is 8.31, and in 18.2 innings since the All-Star Break, Seung-hwan carries a 5.30 ERA, and a batting line against of .303/.333/.500.

I’m not sure where Mike Matheny’s continued confidence in him comes from.

Brett Cecil

Cecil is another depended-upon reliever whose season is fading to a close.  He has now allowed runs in two of his last three games, while his ERA rises to 4.79 with a .304 batting average against since the All-Star break.

“Early mistakes” is one of the trends that has helped define Brett’s disappointing season.  Fully 31.2% of the batters he has faced this season have gotten to him in the first two pitches (including Pittsburgh’s Jordan Luplow who homered off the first pitch he saw from Cecil last night).  Overall, batters who hit one of Brett’s first two pitches are hitting .420 and slugging .642.  When he survives to pitch 3, the batting line against him drops to .199/.257/.325.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia added another good inning.  He threw the seventh, giving a hit, but no runs with 2 strike outs.  This makes six straight scoreless outings for John, and leaves him with just 2 runs allowed in 9 innings this month.  Brebbia carries a 2.48 ERA in the season’s second half with 35 strikeouts in 29 innings.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons kept Pittsburgh off the board in the eighth.  Lyons’ great season continues.  He struck out two batters last night, and has fanned 7 of the last 11 to face him.  He has 37 strikeouts in 27 innings since the break (12.33 per 9 innings) and holds a 1.00 ERA during that stretch.

Lyons has faced 100 batters in the second half.  Only 15 have hit his first or second pitch.  For the season, just 20.5% hit those pitches against Tyler.  None of the 4 he faced last night managed a quick at bat against him.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals See a Lot of Pitches

When operating at peak efficiency, the Cardinals do a great job of walking that line between aggression and taking grinding at bats.  As September wears on, though, they are becoming – by degrees – more grinders than hitters.  Last night, 19 of their 36 batters (52.8%) were up there for more than 4 pitches – leading to 5 walks and a .368 on base percentage in those PAs.  For the month, 40.3% of Cardinal hitters are seeing at least 5 pitches per plate appearance – leading to 77 walks and a .391 on base percentage in those PAs.

But with all of this on base, the actual hits are starting to be few and far between.  The Cards only had 4 hits all game yesterday, and the batters who were grinding at bats were only 2 for 14.  For the month, the 40% of batters who are seeing at least 5 pitches are hitting just .202 in those at bats.  For the month overall, St Louis carries a .245 team batting average.

Tommy Pham

Among the carnage last night was the end of Tommy Pham’s latest hitting streak, a modest six-gamer during which Pham hit .444 (12 for 27) and slugged .667 (3 doubles and 1 home run).  Tommy scored 5 runs and drove in 5 other during the streak.

Jedd Gyorko

Bouncing back into the lineup after an extended absence is hard enough.  Without a few minor league games to warm up in, it’s even more difficult.  Jedd Gyorko – who was enduring a struggling second half anyway – has experienced further difficulty after returning from his hamstring injury.  Over his last 7 games, he is 2 for 15 (.133) and in the second half his average is down to .204 (29 for 142).

Jedd pushed all of his plate appearances last night past 4 pitches, and 9 of the 16 that he has had since his return.  Since the All-Star Break, 44.4% of his plate appearances have lasted at least 5 pitches.

But, again, Jedd was 0 for 2 last night.  He is also 1 for 8 this month and 12 for 54 (.222) since the break in at bats that last more than 4 pitches.

Kolten Wong

Also still struggling to regain his earlier form is Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, Wong is down to .180 (9 for 50) this month.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In spite of everything, St Louis makes it to the final homestand still moderately relevant.  A good homestand (meaning 5-2 or better) could very well eke this team into the playoffs.

That, of course, would mean that they would have to win games against Chicago and Milwaukee – tasks that they have found difficult to achieve with any consistency.  It they do sneak in, they will have done it the hard way.

NoteBook

Sunday’s game was the final road game of the season for the Cardinals.  The final road tally is: 39 wins, 42 losses, 402 runs scored, 374 runs allowed, 3:04.3 average game time, 2,537,288 total attendance (an average of 31,324.5 per game), 77.1 degrees of average temperature, 10 series won, 13 series lost, 3 series split, 4 series swept in 7 opportunities, while they were the victims of 5 sweeps in 6 opportunities.  They finished 2-7 in rubber games on the road.

The Pirate series was the twenty-fifth series this season that St Louis won the first game of the series.  With the loss, they are 16-5-4 in those series, with a 53-25 record (just 28-25 after that first game).

St Louis is now, also, 11-10-2 in series against teams that had lost their previous series.  They have been consistently unable to take advantage of teams that had been playing poorly.  They are just 37-36 in the games of those series, including just 4-5 in rubber games.

The Hot Team Hits the First Strike

The game was still scoreless in the first inning when Dexter Fowler set the tone for the evening.  With Matt Carpenter at third and one out, Dexter cuffed the first strike he saw from Pittsburgh right-hander Ivan Nova up the middle for the single that drove in the first Cardinal run.

Eight innings later – with the Cardinals now trailing 3-2 in the ninth – Stephen Piscotty slapped the first strike he saw from Pirate closer Felipe Rivero down the right-field line for the double that initiated the two-run rally that brought the Cards a gritty 4-3 win (box score).

The Pirate pitching staff made very few mistakes with their first strikes, but when you are facing the hot team, they will take advantage when you do get too close to the zone.  St Louis was 4 for 8 last night when they hit the first strike.

Conversely, the Pirates had some first-strikes to hit in important situations as well.  After Pittsburgh bounced back to tie the game at 2 in the fourth inning, Elias Diaz came to the plate with runners at first and third and just one out.  He jumped on the first strike he saw from Michael Wacha – and grounded into an inning ending double play.

With the Pirates leading 3-2 in the seventh, Adam Frazier had runners at second and third with one out.  He got a first-strike to his liking from Matthew Bowman, but only bounced it to second.

Through the eighth and ninth innings, ex-Buc Juan Nicasio faced three batters in a row (Josh Bell, David Freese and Gregory Polanco) who all jumped his first pitch.  They were 0 for 3 (two ground balls and a fly out).

For the game, Pittsburgh was only 2 for 12 when hitting the first strike.  Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), batters are hitting .348/.408/.607 when they hit the first strike.

Probably, on some other day, the Pirates might have turned most of those pitches into line drives into the gap.  But, as the season winds down – at least as long as they are not playing Chicago – St Louis is the team swinging the hot bat, and Pittsburgh is not.

Cardinal hitters were also 6 for 17 (.353) when hitting with two strikes – another hint that they are a hot team right now.  Across all of baseball, batters in two-strike counts are hitting .176/.249/.280.

Dexter Fowler

Of course, the hottest of the hot continues to be Dexter Fowler.  With 2 more hits and 2 more RBIs last night, Fowler has fashioned together a nice little six-game hitting streak, during which he is hitting a capable .520 (13 for 25) and slugging an acceptable 1.000 (he has 3 doubles and 3 home runs in those games).  Dexter has multiple hits in all but one of the games, has driven in at least 2 runs in each of the last 5 games, during which time he also has 3 game-winning hits (including last night) and 3 late, game-changing hits (also including last night).  Fowler has now wrested the team lead in game-winning-RBIs from Yadier Molina 12-11.  His 9 late, game-changing hits are more than twice as many as any other Cardinal.

Fowler is slashing .400/.478/.800 for the month of September, but a variety of injuries has limited him to just 11 of the 20 games played.  He has had 179 plate appearances since the All-Star Break, during which he has contributed 28 singles, 12 doubles, 4 triples, 4 home runs, 28 walks, 2 hit-by-pitches, and 2 sacrifice flies – a .313/.425/.531 batting line.  Last night’s win was St Louis’ 55th in its last 95 games (.579).  Fowler has been a significant spoke in the wheel, hitting .320/.421/.581 since early June.

When he’s hot, Dexter can certainly carry a club.

Both of his hits and his game-winning ground out came on the first strike thrown to him last night.  Since the break, Fowler is hitting .476 (20 for 42) when he hits the first strike in an at bat.  He is 7 for 9 this month alone.

Stephen Piscotty

Piscotty isn’t as torrid as Fowler by any stretch of the imagination.  But he does continue to show signs that he has turned things around since his refresher course in Memphis.  Piscotty (who had two hits last night) has been back for 25 games now, during which he is hitting .293 (22 for 75).

Pitching Staff Continues to Come Together

A mystery for much of the season, the Cardinal pitching staff in September has looked more like the collection of arms we thought we would see all year.  The team ERA is now down to 3.31 for the month.  Equally as important, after yielding only 5 hits last night, the team batting average against is down to .233 on the month.  For the year, teams are hitting a surprising .252 against Cardinal pitching.

Bullpen Making them Earn It

John Brebbia walked a batter in the sixth inning.  It led to nothing, but it’s noteworthy for the infrequency of the occurrence.  The St Louis bullpen has now walked just 17 batters in 63.2 innings this month (1 of those intentionally) – an average of just 2.26 unintentional walks every 9 innings.  The on base percentage against the Cardinal bullpen this month is just .293.

John Brebbia

Brebbia did give up the walk, but has settled in rather nicely as the sixth inning man.  He hasn’t allowed a run in his last 5 games, and has given just 2 over his last 8 innings.  He has pitched in 28 innings since the All-Star break, with a 2.57 ERA.

John has also been one of the steadying forces in the bullpen in the Cardinal’s turnaround.  As St Louis has played 15-over ball over the last 95 games, Brebbia has been involved in 40 of them, pitching 42 innings with a 2.14 ERA and a .192 batting average against.

In a first-pitch-fastball league, John is not afraid to throw his plus slider as a first pitch.  He’s also not afraid to throw the high fastball and challenge hitters to get on top of it.  He did a little of both last night, getting Starling Marte to fly to left on a first-pitch slider that he didn’t quite square up on, and later getting Josh Bell to hack at that too-high fastball.  He also flew to left on the first pitch.

These are two of the reasons that John has had uncanny success with batters who hit his first strike.  For the season, they are just 5 for 27 (.185) with just 2 doubles (.259 slugging percentage) and just 1 run batted in.

Ryan Sherriff

Ryan Sherriff could have been the losing pitcher last night – he gave the run that put Pittsburgh ahead 3-2 in the seventh.  Of course, he also could have gotten out of the inning without giving up a run were it not for an error on a should-have-been double play ball.  Nonetheless, Ryan has been hit a little hard lately.  He’s allowed runs in two of his last four games and three of his last seven.  He has allowed a total of 5 runs in his last 6 innings, with a batting line against of .292/.393/.583.

The culprit here has mostly been his sinker not sinking so much lately.  When it’s dropping, it’s a tough pitch to lay off of.  And once he gets you to two-strikes, you usually strike out (52.4% strike out).  This happened to Polanco leading off the seventh.

Increasingly, though, Ryan isn’t getting to strike two as his sinker rides high early in the count.  Jordy Mercer got a first-strike sinker that was up in the zone, and he slapped it into right for a single that set up the go ahead run.  The last 7 batters who have hit Ryan’s first strike are 4 for 7, and they are hitting .417 against him (5 for 12) on the year.  Ryan has made it to strike two on only 11 of the 28 batters he’s faced this month (39.3%).

Ryan, of course, has only pitched 10.1 innings in his major league career, so all of this comes with a small-sample-size warning.

NoteBook

With last night’s victory, St Louis has won the first game of 7 of its last 8 series.