Category Archives: Baseball

And Just a Dash of Memphis Magic

At its best, sports can be transcendent.  I wrote a bit about this after the last Super Bowl.  Heroic, unexpected achievements that challenge the expected limits of mortality.  It is magic of the head-shaking flavor.

In yesterday’s second inning, starting pitcher John Gant provided the head-shaking moment.  Hitless so far in his career, John walked into a pitch from Gio Gonzalez and popped it over the fence for the two-run home run that sparked the Cards on to their 6-4 win (box score).

The night before, it was Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong with eighth- and ninth-inning home runs, respectively, that brought the Cards back from a late deficit for another win.  And these have not been all.  Almost every member of the current roster – and especially the young guys – have had their moment in the hero spotlight.  The list is far too long to detail here, dating back to the big bullpen shakeup that proceeded the July 27 game against Chicago.

One noticeable trend is the contribution of the Memphis Mafia.  These are those players – Gant, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Yairo Munoz, Tyler O’Neill, Daniel Poncedeleon and Patrick Wisdom – that have been the sparkplugs.  Players, perhaps, who haven’t been around long enough to understand that it isn’t supposed to be this easy.  That, perhaps, has been part of the magic.

Since that day in July, St Louis is 14-4 (including 11-2 in August).  This brings them to an impressive 17-9 since the All-Star Break, with their last win extending their season-long winning streak to seven games, and pushing them to 10 over .500 (65-55) for the first time all year.

Offense Front and Center

Taking the lead in this series against Washington are the bats.  The rebounding Cardinal offense is now averaging 7.2 runs per game over its last 6 games.  They are scoring 5.54 runs per game this month, 5.17 runs per game over the 18-game streak, and 5.19 runs per game during the seasons’ second half.

Leading Off

In the hitting revival, there has been some talk about new approaches to situational hitting.  Two-strike hitting and two-out opportunities have been mentioned.  Less referenced is the recent success that Cardinal leadoff hitters have had.

Last night, each starter other than Gant had an opportunity to lead-off an inning.  Four of the eight (the Cards did not have an offensive ninth) reached base, and three of them scored.

So far this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters are reaching base at a .400 clip – Including 5 home runs and a .559 slugging percentage.  Prior to this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters managed just a .317 on base percentage with a .442 slugging percentage.

Kolten Wong

Other than Gant, it was second baseman Kolten Wong driving the offense.  In four plate appearances, Wong walked, singled, doubled and homered, scoring twice and driving in three runs.  Wong has been another one of the critical offensive pieces that have endured long slumps as well as significant time on the disabled list.  Wong was in the midst of his hottest streak of the season when he went down.  Since coming back, he hasn’t missed a beat.

Still hitting just .236 for the season, Kolten is hitting .400 for the month of August (12 for 30) and slugging .600 (a home run, now, to go along with his 4 doubles).  He is a .356 hitter (16 for 45) in the second half.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko didn’t contribute any hits to the victory, but he ignited the two-run fourth with a leadoff walk.  Through the season’s first half, Jedd led off in 47 different innings, reaching base only 9 times (19.1%).  He eventually scored on just 4 of those occasions.  The fourth inning last night was the fifteenth time Jedd has led off an inning in the second half.  He has now reached base in 8 of those innings (53.3%), scoring 6 times.

John Gant

Even though Gant didn’t complete 6 innings – and even though the team ended up allowing 4 runs for the game – this game featured another very strong start from the rotation.  John finished his 5.1 innings allowing just 1 run on 4 hits and no walks.  Since John has been more-or-less installed into the rotation, batters are only hitting .201 against him.

As for the rotation, now, they have held opposing hitters to a .234 batting average this month, while issuing just 14 un-intentional walks over 73 innings – 1.73 walks per 9 innings.  During the 14-4 stretch, opponents are hitting just .243 against Cardinal starters, drawing just 20 un-intentional walks (1.81 per 9 innings).

Since the All-Star Break, Cardinal starters have faced 579 batters, holding them to a .235 batting average.

Mike Mayers

Most all of the real damage done to the pitching staff came in Mike Mayers’ eventful eighth inning.  He faced 5 batters and only retired 2 – allowing hits to the other three (all of whom eventually scored – two of them on Bryce Harper’s home run).

Mike has had some good moments this year, but has been trending down as of late.  The 25 batters he has faced this month are hitting .318 against him, with a .591 slugging percentage (he has also allowed 3 doubles this month).  Since his last return from Memphis, Mike has pitched 27 innings over 26 appearances, with a 5.00 ERA to show for it.

Jordan Hicks

It took him 19 pitches, but Jordan Hicks secured the last three outs and held on to the save – his fourth.  There was a point just before the All-Star Break where Hicks looked like he was hitting the “rookie wall.”  In his last 4 appearances before the break, Jordan served up 7 runs in 3.1 innings.

Whether it was the rest or whether he did some fine tuning during the break, second-half Jordan has been as good as we’ve seen him all year.  In 12 second-half outings, Hicks has allowed 1 run on 9 hits (all singles) over 13.1 innings.  His 0.68 ERA is accompanied by a 188 batting average against.

Some Revisionist History

In a recent exchange, baseball president John Mozeliak told reporters that this current team was the team they expected that they would see all year.

Well, not exactly.

The team they expected to see all year featured Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham all over the bases with Marcell Ozuna raining home runs all over the various ballparks.  The team they expected to see had Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone muffling opposing offenses from the seventh inning on.  None of those worthy gentlemen performed remotely to expectations.

John and his fellows also expected to see Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Alex Reyes string together dominant start after dominant start, while Paul DeJong built on his stellar rookie season.  All of these critical pieces have spent considerable time on the disabled list.

The truth is, John, – bad injury luck aside – the team you constructed over the last few off seasons wasn’t very good.  Mozeliak and the rest of the front office have been bailed out as much as anyone by the magic of the Memphis Mafia.

NoteBook

Harrison Bader’s second-inning sacrifice fly gave the Cards the first run of the game for the fifth time in the last six games.  St Louis has won all five – as well as the game that they didn’t score first in.

Efficient Gant Quiets the Fish

A .500 team after 102 games, the staid St Louis Cardinals made a fairly stunning reversal of direction.  Instead of handing out many of their most prized prospects at the trading deadline in search of that lusted-for impact bat, the Cardinals decided to trust their highly-regarded system.  They cleared away a few veteran arms and bats, and infused the clubhouse with fresh young arms and bats.

The early returns on this decision have been encouraging.  With last night’s 7-1 victory in Miami (box score), the Cards have won four consecutive series for the first time this season, going 9-4 over those 13 games.

Compared to the many high-ceiling arms boasted throughout the Cardinal system, last night’s starter John Gant gets little recognition.  But John has held his own.  He has been particularly hard to hit – especially since he has settled into a mostly starting routine.  Seven of his last 9 appearances have been starts, during which opposing batters have hit just .201 (Miami had only 2 hits in 6 innings against Gant last night).  In that regard, his start was reminiscent of many of the efforts of the rotation in July, when they held opposing hitters to a .225 average.

Moreover – especially lately – John has been stingy with walks.  He walked only one last night, and over his last 3 starts has walked just 4 in 14.1 innings (2.51 walks per nine innings).

If anything could be better pitching-wise than allowing only two singles and one walk through six innings, Gant gave insight into the kind of pitcher he is evolving into as he needed only 63 pitches to navigate past 21 batters. Of those 21 batters, only Justin Bour – who led off the second drawing a six-pitch walk – extended his plate appearance past five pitches.

Over his last 3 starts, John has faced 60 batters.  Only 5 have seen more than five pitches during their plate appearances.  That is about as efficient as it gets.

The Bullpen

While the recent surge has shown the rotation, perhaps, turning a corner (they now have 4 consecutive quality starts), the heroes of the uprising have been the denizens of the bullpen.  Shredded and left for dead after a July that showed them compile a 5.98 ERA and a .306 batting average against, the Cardinal bullpen held the Marlins at bay last night until the offense could provide some late breathing room.

Their combined line last night showed 1 hit allowed over 3 walk-less, scoreless innings.  The pen has now thrown 47 innings over the last 13 games, with a 1.34 ERA and a .170 batting average against to show for their efforts.

Dakota Hudson

Speaking of efficient pitching, not-quite-24-year-old rookie Dakota Hudson pitched for the first time in the major leagues – and probably for the first time anywhere – on back-to-back days.  He pitched 1.2 innings last night after throwing a scoreless inning on Tuesday.  He needed 8 pitches to work to 4 batters on Tuesday, and just 18 pitches to face 5 more last night.

To this point, the rookie who had owned the PCL has been as advertised.  Through his first 6 major league appearances, he has worked 8.2 innings allowing no runs, two singles, and one walk.  He has already earned 2 wins and 3 holds.

Fourteen of the first 29 batters (48.3%) Dakota has faced in the major leagues have hit one of his first two pitches.  They are 0 for 14.  Over the course of the whole year, opposing batters are hitting .318 against the Cards when they hit either of the first two pitches thrown.

Mike Mayers

Mike Mayers closed out the relatively easy win with a scoreless ninth.  Mayers has had some hiccups along the way, but his season has been pretty solid – and over his last seven outings he has looked increasingly worthy of his late-inning opportunities.

During his last 7, he has allowed just 1 run over 6 innings while striking out 7 – an ability he didn’t show much of early.  In 9 games and 10 innings since the All-Star Break, Mike has a 2.70 ERA.

Some Late Inning Runs

It was also a little relieving to see the four late runs that padded the lead.  The offense that had averaged 5.04 runs per game in July had been little seen through early August.  The Birds were averaging just 4.14 runs per game through the first 7 games this month – scoring just 6 over the previous three games.  With the outburst, they are back up to 4.71 runs per game through the first 21 games of the season’s second half (they are 12-9 in those games).

Second Half Yadi

In recent years – and in spite of a surprisingly heavy workload – Yadier Molina has seen a hitting resurgence after the All-Star Break.  He was 2-for-4 last night (a double and a home run), and is now hitting .314 (27 for 86) since the break.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong was starting to heat up pretty good before he went on the disabled list.  He has returned from that list in top form.  With his 2 hits last night, Kolten is 7 for 17 (.412) since his return.

In the seventh inning, Kolten slapped Jarlin Garcia’s 1-0 pitch into center for a single.  In July, Wong was 9 for 16 (.563) when he hit the first or second pitch of an at bat.  For the season, if his at bat is two pitches or less, Wong is a .400 hitter (26 for 65).

NoteBook

The Cards are now only 6-8 in rubber games, but 5-4 when those rubber games are on the road.

Heavy Pitches Humble Cardinal Hitters

On the fourth pitch of the bottom of the first inning, Jon Gray’s slider stayed a little up and just inside enough for Matt Carpenter to get around on it.  Matty got just enough lift on the pitch to pull it over the wall in right.  One batter into the game, and the Cardinals had a quick 1-0 lead.

At the time, you wouldn’t have guessed that this would be a singular event.  Gray’s ERA coming into the event (5.16) wasn’t dazzling (take into account, of course, that he pitches his home games in Colorado), and the Cardinals – of late – have shown a little pulse at the plate (including the 5-4 comeback win from the night before).

Nonetheless, when Gray finally ran out of gas after 92 pitches with one out in the eighth, he walked off the mound with a 6-1 lead – on his way to a 6-3 victory (box score).

Not only was the Carpenter home run an anomaly in that it accounted for the only Cardinal run to that point, it also turned out to be rare because he was actually able to pull the ball in the air – something the Cards managed only 3 times all night.  Yadier Molina stroked a couple of fly ball outs to left during the game.

Velocity and location are not the only pitching factors.  Some pitchers throw what batters refer to as a “heavy” ball.  Even when left in locations and at velocities that batters can normally handle, these pitches don’t really jump off the bat.  It creates the illusion that this particular ball is made out of granite or some other weighty material.

This is who Jon Gray was for most of the evening last night.  He didn’t shy away from the strike zone with a fastball that held at about 94-mph and a slider about 10-mph slower.  But both pitches ran heavy, resulting in many groundballs – especially in key situations.

About the only time that Gray was ever in trouble during the first seven innings was the fifth, when an infield hit and a walk put two on with just one out.  But that heavy slider got the double play grounder (after a review) off the bat of Greg Garcia.

When he wasn’t getting ground balls, he was getting fly balls hit to the opposite field.  Between Gray and the two relievers – ex-Cardinal Seunghwan Oh and Wade Davis – the power-hitting Cardinals were left with 7 opposite field fly balls – several of them quite well hit – that they couldn’t get around on enough to get them over the fence.

As the Rockies walked off the field congratulating each other after the last of these opposite field fly outs (a soft fly to right by Jedd Gyorko) with a win that was more dominating than the final score suggested, the scoreboard showed 3 runs for St Louis on only 4 hits.  Other than the home run, the Cards had two infield hits, and one ground ball that snuck its way through the infield.

Gray – and the pitchers that followed – didn’t complicate things.  They threw strikes and kept their heavy pitches low and away.  They made it look easy.

Tyler O’Neill

The first opportunity to occupy the spot of the departed Tommy Pham fell to rookie Tyler O’Neill.  He finished his first game back in the majors with two infield hits.

In his 3 plate appearances, Tyler ended up in two strike counts twice, striking out once.  Power hitters in general – and rookie power hitters in particular – find themselves in this situation frequently.  O’Neill’s rookie season is now just 50 plate appearances deep, but he has ended up in two-strike situations in 64% of them – and of the 32 times that he has seen strike two, he has subsequently seen strike three 21 times (65.6%).

Yadier Molina

Molina finished a very strong July (.315/.357/.472) with a disappointing 0-for-4.  Twice during the game, Yadi put pretty good swings on the first strike he saw, but neither resulted in base hits.  Over all of baseball, batters are hitting .338/.402/.585 when they hit the first strike.  Yadi’s July ran quite contrary to that.  With his 0-for-2 last night, Molina finished July 4-for-20 (.200) when hitting the first strike.

In his first at bat of the game in the first, he fell quickly behind in the count 1-2.  But Yadi fouled off one pitch and took a ball before hitting the sixth pitch in play.  Molina continues to be difficult to strike out.  Strike two only leads to strike three 27.9% of the time with Molina at the plate.

Paul DeJong

Still feeling his way back from his injury, Paul DeJong took another 0-for-4 last night.  Paul is now hitless in his last 14 at bats, and finished July just 18 for 83 (.217) with only 6 walks (.264 on base).  Since being moved by new manager Mike Shildt into the third spot in the order, DeJong is hitting .182 (10 for 55) with only 4 walks (.230 on base).

Paul hit a couple of those “heavy” fly balls to right.  His first time up, he jumped a first pitch fastball, but the drive ran out of steam and came down well short of the fence.  Since his return from the DL, Paul is another who has had poor luck when hitting the first strike.  He is now just 2 for 18 (.111) on those pitches.

Marcell Ozuna

Among the casualties of last night’s loss was Marcell Ozuna’s six-game hitting streak.  He hit .346 (9-for-26) during the streak, with a double and 3 home runs.  He drove in 7 runs during that streak, while slugging .731.  The recent revival from Ozuna’s bat has been one of the most encouraging recent developments.

Jedd Gyorko

In general, the Cards struck out slightly less often in July than in the months leading up it – one of the reasons why the offense up ticked.  Through the season’s first three months, the Cards averaged 8.77 strikeouts per game, striking out 43.4% of the time that they found themselves in two-strike counts.  Over the last month, those numbers declined to just 7.46 strikeouts per game, and strikeouts in just 38.0% of their two-strike plate appearances.

Jedd Gyorko, in particular, is getting more and more difficult to fan.  Jedd – who didn’t strike out at all last night – struck out only 8 times in July, and on just 21.1% of his two-strike plate appearances.

Greg Garcia

Struggling lately off the bench, Garcia got a start last night to try to help his timing.  For one night, at least, the results were not quite there – Greg was 0-for-2 with that important double play.  Garcia finished July in a 2-for-20 slump.

Jack Flaherty

Last night’s starter, Jack Flaherty, didn’t make it out of the sixth inning again.  He finished July tossing just 28.2 innings over 6 starts, with a middling 1-3 record and a 4.71 ERA.  Since tossing seven innings of one-hit ball against Milwaukee on June 22, Jack has a 1-4 record and a 5.23 ERA over 7 starts.  His loss was his second in a row and fifth in his last seven decisions – although in fairness to Jack, he was twice betrayed by his bullpen, and has had more than two runs scored for him only once in his last 9 starts.

Flaherty is still not giving up a lot of his – only 5 in his 5.1 innings last night (albeit they included a home run and a double).  With that performance, the Cardinal starters finished the month of July with an opponent’s batting average of just .225.

Jack also struck out 7 batters in those innings, and is now averaging 11.06 strikeouts per nine innings.  Flaherty throws a lot of strikes, and almost always gets hitters in two-strike counts.  Last night, 14 of the 23 batters he faced ended up in two-strike counts.  For the month of July, he put 65.6% of the batters to face him (80 of 122) in two-strike counts.

Following Jack’s lead, the Cardinal pitching staff in general constantly kept Colorado in two-strike counts.  Of the 39 batters the Rockies sent to the plate, 26 (66.7%) ended their appearance with two strikes on them.  Only 4 of them got hits, although those hits included the two-run home run by Charlie Blackmon in the fifth (on a 1-2 pitch) and the very damaging double struck by Gerardo Parra (also on a 1-2 pitch) in the sixth.  That blow – from the first man faced by newly acquired Chasen Shreve – drove in a run to make it a 4-1 lead.

Speaking of the Bullpen

After an impressive series against the Cubs and a good first game against Colorado, the Cardinal bullpen ended July pretty much as they pitched through most of the month.  With Flaherty out of the game, the Rockies padded their advantage with 2 more runs on 4 more hits – including a home run – over the last 3.2 innings.  St Louis thus finished the month of July with a 5.98 ERA and a .306 batting average against from the bullpen.

John Brebbia

At one time, perhaps, the best pitcher in the Cardinal bullpen, John Brebbia finished a rough July by serving up a two-run homer in two-thirds of an inning.  He pitched 7 innings in July, allowing 6 runs on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs.  Opposing batters hit .323 against him in those innings, with a .581 slugging percentage.

With two-outs in the seventh, Brebbia started Parra off with an inviting fastball – perhaps just a little lower than Gerardo might ideally like it.  Parra jumped it, but only flew out to left.  John has had some ups and downs, but this is one thing he has managed to do pretty well – throw that first strike just slightly better than the batter expects.  For the season, batters are hitting just .160 (4 for 25) when hitting John’s first strike.  Not only are all four of the hits singles, but two of them are infield hits.

Mike Mayers

Throwing a quiet eighth inning, Mike Mayers faced three batters and got two strikes on all of them, but was unable to get a strikeout.  Mike throws the ball hard enough that one might expect more strikeouts.  Of the 19 July batters that he got two strikes on, only 4 ended up striking out (21.1%).  For the season, that percentage is a modest 35.8.

Flaherty in Fight with First Pitch Command

There was nobody on base in the second inning, with one out in a still scoreless contest when Cincinnati’s Phil Ervin came to the plate.  Cardinal rookie right-hander Jack Flaherty challenged him with the fastball, and Ervin swung through it for strike one.

Jack would face 19 Reds on the evening in his five innings.  Ervin would be the only one who would actually swing at Jack’s first pitch (Scooter Gennett tried to bunt a first pitch fastball from Flaherty in the first inning but fouled it off).

Of the 17 batters that took Jack’s first pitch, only 4 of the saw the pitch called a strike, and 3 of those were first pitch curve balls that Jack managed to get over.  The only Cincinnati batter of the evening to take a first pitch fastball for a strike from Flaherty was pitcher Sal Romano, who led off the fifth by watching a 90.6-mph offering fly right down the middle.

Cincinnati had just seen Flaherty eleven days ago.  Jack threw five innings of 2-hit, shutout ball that day, as he threw 10 first-pitch fastballs to the 20 batters he faced.  So the Cincinnati patience with him could be seen as an adjustment.  In all honesty, though, none of those fastballs was really close enough to offer at.  Finishing off a frustrating road trip with a 7-3 loss in Cincinnati (box score), Jack struggled with his normally good fastball command the entire evening.

Jack’s normal MO is to get ahead with the fastball and then put the batter away with his hard-biting slider.  Even without his normal command, the strategy worked well enough.  Flaherty still struck out 8 in his five innings (5 of them with the slider) while allowing 4 hits.  He was essentially undone by two fastballs – among the hardest he threw on the evening – that ended up in less than ideal locations.  A first-inning fastball to Eugenio Suarez was, perhaps, not far enough away and perhaps a shade too high.  In the fourth inning, his knee-high fastball to Adam Duvall probably caught too much of the plate.  Both those pitches were slapped for opposite field home runs – something that happens a lot in Great American Small Park – accounting for the three runs that saddled Jack with the loss.

Through his five starts in July, when he could get batters to swing at that first pitch, Flaherty has held these batters to a .150 batting average (3 for 20).

This effort may also be one more evidence that Flaherty, now up to 85 major league innings (and another 31.2 in Memphis) may be hitting some kind of wall.  On June 22, Jack fired 7 innings of 1-hit ball against Milwaukee.  In now 6 starts since then, Jack has only gotten an out in the sixth inning one time.  He has served up 6 home runs in his last 27.1 innings, and has 1-3 record with a 4.94 ERA in those starts.

Again the Pen

After breaking a ten-game streak in which they had allowed multiple runs in every game, the bullpen regressed to form last night.  Entering in the sixth inning of a still competitive 3-2 game, the Cardinal relief corps once again played the role of batting practice pitchers.

In the 3 innings after Flaherty left, the bullpen yielded 4 more runs on 6 hits and 4 walks.  The six hits included 3 doubles and another home run.

The meltdown ensured the Cardinals’ eighth loss in their last twelve games, and dropped them to 9-12 in July.  All throughout, the bullpen has been at the epicenter of the disaster.  In 42.1 innings over the last 12 games they have coughed up 43 runs (41 earned) on 67 hits – including 5 home runs – an ERA of 8.72 coupled with a .360 batting average against.  They have pitched 67.2 innings through 21 games this month, surrendering 60 runs (54 earned) on 94 hits.  The starters have only surrendered 90 hits this month in 115 innings.  The July bullpen numbers are a distressing 7.18 ERA and a .328 batting average against.  Batters are hitting only .215 against the Cardinal starters this month.  In winning 2 of 3 against the Cards this week, Cincinnati only managed 6 hits in 18.1 innings against St Louis’ three rookie starters.

John Gant

In a surprise move, skipper Mike Shildt summoned John Gant from the bullpen to pitch the sixth.  It was a surprise, since John had started one of the Saturday games, and, was not only scheduled to start on Sunday, but was pitching three days after throwing 82 pitches over five innings.

Most think this was a desperation move – prompted by the overall susceptibility of the bullpen.  Whatever the thought process, it didn’t work as Gant surrendered 2 damaging runs that pushed the game a bit out of reach.

While Gant has pitched quite well in whatever role asked, his demise yesterday was due, in part, to an increasingly nettlesome aspect of his game.  John walked two more batters in his one inning – one of which (Joey Votto) scored on Tucker Barnhart’s home run.  He has now walked 7 batters in his last 10 innings, and 13 in his 21.1 innings this month.  Even though one of those walks was intentional, that is still 5.06 unintentional walks for every 9 innings.  Since he was last recalled from Memphis in late June, John has walked 18 batters in 30.1 innings.  Remarkably, his ERA over those innings is still an excellent 2.37 – due primarily to a .180 batting average against him – but it is an issue nonetheless.

An insightful note about his appearance:

In taking over the Cardinal reigns, new manager Shildt committed to playing time for struggling multi-million dollar hitters Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna.  Neither hitter has – as yet – rewarded Shildt’s confidence, although Fowler has had a few moments.

It is interesting to note that – at the same time – he made no such commitment to multi-million dollar reliever Greg Holland.  In fact, when Mike went to Gant, Holland was supposedly available in the pen and quite well rested.  But Shildt opted for a semi-tired starter on three-days’ rest rather than Holland. 

Yadier Molina

Even as the Cardinal fortunes in general have taken a downturn, Yadier Molina has remained a bright spot.  He had 3 more hits last night, and is now hitting .375 (12 for 32) since Shildt took over and moved him to the second spot in the order.  Even over the last 12 games, Yadi’s production has remained high – a .349 batting average on 15 of 43 hitting.  Molina has now hit 3 home runs this month, while going 23 for 68 – a team-leading .338 average.

Over the years, pitchers have tried to use Yadi’s aggressiveness against him.  Molina has been tempted with a great many first pitch sliders on the corner of the strike zone – or perhaps just a bit off the corner, and all too frequently this strategy has been rewarded.  Suddenly – although still aggressive – Yadi is no longer that hitter who needs to hit that first pitch to have success.  After last year’s All-Star break, Molina was 48 of 140 (a .343 batting average) when he took the first pitch of an at bat.  Those hits included 10 doubles, 1 triple, and 8 of the 9 home runs he hit in last season’s second half – a .600 slugging percentage with 32 runs batted in.

In yesterday’s fifth inning, Romano started Molina off with that slider just off the plate.  Yadi didn’t bite.  Two pitches later, he got that middle-in fastball that he ripped into left for a hit.  Then, in the seventh reliever David Hernandez threw that first-pitch slider up in the zone.  Yadi took that one for a high strike, but two pitches later landed on another fastball and snuffed it over the left-field wall for a home run. 

Molina is now 12 for his last 28 (.429) when he takes the first pitch.  For the month of July, Yadi is a .378 hitter (17 for 45) when he doesn’t bite on the first pitch.

Up Next

The Cards head home, now, after what was – in many ways – a remarkable road trip.  Its historic features included Matt Carpenter’s home run streak – not to mention his 5-5, 3 home run, 2 double performance in an 18-5 devastation of the first-place Cubs, as well as back-to-back near no-hitters from two rookie pitchers making the first starts of their major league careers.

And yet, the team comes limping back after a 3-5 trip.  This – on the heels of a 5-4 trip just before the break – means that this team has played 17 of its last 20 on the road.  Including losing 2 of 3 to Cincinnati at home, they are 9-11 during that stretch, losing 3 games in the standings.

Events that should have galvanized this team – that should spark them on to some kind of sustained spurt – don’t result in more than a one-day blip.  When Mike Matheny was fired, they rallied behind popular bench coach Shildt and won their next game, 6-4, in spirited fashion.  They then lost the next game 9-6.  After the battering of the Cubs, they were punched out 7-2 by the Northsiders in the rubber game of that series.  They lost the Daniel Poncedeleon start in spite of his 7 hitless innings, and, after Austin Gomber’s start led to a dramatic eleventh-inning win, the Cards went quietly in the rubber game against the Reds.

They are now a curiously symmetrical .500 team.  They are 24-24 at home, and 27-27 on the road.  The upcoming home stand will not be easy.  They have three more against the Cubs and four against the Rockies.  At 54-47, Colorado is another over-.500 team.

The Cards currently sit at 8.5 games out, and it’s hard to tell whether they still believe they can put together a run.  The season is starting to slip away.  If they lose any more ground during this home stand . . .

Rookies’ Breaking Pitches Quiet the Reds

Over the last several years, the Cardinal farm system has been collecting elite arms.  They have become a breeding ground for the 100-mph fastball.  All of the names to conjure with coming up through the ranks are associated with almost overpowering heat.

Last night in Cincinnati, an intriguing 24-year-old left-handed prospect named Austin Gomber made the case for the breaking ball.

Setting the Reds up with a fastball that “only” sits around 93-94 mph, Gomber dominated Cincinnati with an array of explosive breaking pitches.  Sliders that circumnavigated the strike zone before diving in at the last minute.  Changes that started a foot outside and raced all the way across the strike zone.  Heavy curveballs that darted toward the middle of the plate and then dropped as though they had suddenly turned to cast iron.  You would have to ask the batters that faced him, but every pitch out of his hand looked like a fastball.  All of his breaking pitches looked like they got on the batters very quickly.

One night after fellow rookie Daniel Poncedeleon threw seven hitless innings (ending a streak of 8 consecutive games without a quality start from the Cardinal rotation), Austin carried his no-hitter through 6.1 innings.  It was a commanding performance for another very young, high-ceiling Cardinal pitching prospect.

No St Louis pitcher has thrown a no-hitter since Bud Smith threw one against San Diego back in 2001.  But, in the first 101 games of 2018, the Cards have already had six different pitchers have a serious flirtation with that elusive no-hitter – and none of them are named Carlos Martinez or Alex Reyes.

On June 3, Michael Wacha threw 8 hitless inning against Pittsburgh, before allowing a leadoff single to Colin Moran in the ninth.  On June 22, Jack Flaherty took his no-hitter through one out in the seventh before serving up a game-tying home run to Jesus Aguilar (the Cards 2-1 loss to Milwaukee that night was very reminiscent of the Monday night loss).  On June 25, unheralded John Gant gave up his only hit early – an infield hit in the second.  He finished seven innings of one-hit ball against Cleveland.  It was Luke Weaver’s turn on July 5 in San Francisco.  He got one out in the sixth before allowing his first hit – an infield hit off the bat of Gorkys Hernandez.  He finished 8 innings of 2-hit ball.  These all preceded the efforts of Poncedeleon and Gomber.

Adding to the excitement of the Cardinal future is that fact that of these pitchers, only Wacha figured to be a prominent member of the rotation.  All of these other were starters in reserve – arms they could turn to if needed.  Remembering that we have only seen the best of Martinez in flashes, that we have barely seen anything from Reyes, and that we haven’t yet even had a major league glimpse of AAA dynamo Dakota Hudson, the Cardinal future seems every bit as promising as we have been told.

Now if management can only resist the urge to give them all away.

Austin Will Only Get Better

While his game last night was outstanding, there was – mixed in with all the success – the reminders of the growth necessary for Austin to be a consistently dominating starter.  While his stuff – including his fastball – is explosive, his command is less than magnificent.  This was the issue that led to his earlier inconsistency out of the pen.

Of the 22 batters he faced, only 10 saw first pitch strikes – and only that many because he got many of the Reds to chase his breaking pitches.  Of his 22 first-pitches, probably only about 7 actually ended up in the strike zone.

That being said, down strike one to Austin and his array of breaking balls is not a place you want to be.  The 10 batters who saw strike one, were 0 for 9 with 1 walk and 4 strikeouts.  In his rookie season, Austin has so far faced 81 batters.  He has only managed to throw strike one to 42 of those – but those 42 didn’t fare too well.  They have managed 4 singles, 2 doubles, 4 runs batted in, 2 walks, 12 strikeouts, 2 sacrifice hits, 1 sacrifice fly, and 3 double plays – a .162/.200/.216 batting line.  The 39 batters who have seen ball one from Gomber are only hitting .241, but with a .436 on base percentage and a .483 slugging percentage.

Austin spent a good chunk of the early summer in the Cardinal bullpen, perhaps affecting his late-game endurance.  As the innings mounted and his pitch count climbed toward 90, his mid-90s fastball of the first inning faded to a high-80’s fastball by about the fifth inning.  When Eugenio Suarez hit the game-tying home run in the seventh, he jumped on a flat change-up that, at 83 mph, was only slightly slower than the 88.6 mph fastball he had seen the pitch before.

Bud Norris

Having allowed runs in ten consecutive games, the Cardinal bullpen invited some jeopardy over its 4.2 inning, game-ending tightrope walk.  A single and a hit-by-pitch put the first two runners on in the tenth, but the Cards wiggled out of it.

With a two-run lead in the bottom of the eleventh the Cards turned to closer Bud Norris.  Bud, of course, was the victim of Monday’s two-run ninth-inning rally.  Things quickly got scary again.  Jose Peraza’s leadoff single meant that Norris would have to face Scooter Gennett, and Joey Votto as the tying runs.  Then – after intentionally passing Suarez – he faced Adam Duvall as the winning run.  Adam’s soft liner looked – for a moment – like it was going to make it over Paul DeJong’s head, but the shortstop was able to backpedal enough to haul it in, giving the Cards a hard-earned 4-2 win (box score).

Matt Carpenter

Another longish streak that ended last night was Matt Carpenter’s very destructive eight-game hitting streak – a streak that included Matt’s six-game home run streak.  Carpenter had hit .500 (14 for 28) during the streak with 8 home runs and 12 runs batted in.  He slugged 1.500 during the streak, before his 0-for-5 last night.

One is Not Enough

One run.

For five innings of last night’s tight, intense contest in Cincinnati – as the zeros filled up the scoreboard – the Cardinal faithful kept hoping for one run.

In the sixth inning, the prayer was quickly answered.  A Matt Carpenter double, followed by a single from Yadier Molina produced the game’s only run to that point.  But with Molina on second (he advanced on the throw home) and no one out, the opportunity – nay, the necessity – to score at least one more run lay before the Cards with their three-four-five batters up.

Paul DeJong and Marcell Ozuna flew out, and Jose Martinez struck out.  The Cards were left with one run – one lonely run.

Behind all of this, of course, was a remarkable debut by rookie right-hander Daniel Poncedeleon.  Almost killed by a line drive a year ago, Poncedeleon was spinning hitless inning after hitless inning – four, five, six – the anticipation mounted each time Daniel walked off the mound having yet to surrender a hit.

At yet, if you have watched this team all year, you knew that this was all going to end badly.  With the innings, the pitch count also mounted for the youngster.  Daniel added a hitless seventh – but at the cost of 26 more pitches.  That inning raised his game total to 116.  Enough.  Daniel would not go out for the eighth.  Manager Mike Shildt would now have to turn to the bullpen – that same ragged collection that had surrendered runs – multiple runs – in nine consecutive games.

And so we looked at the one run on the scoreboard, and we knew.

Marshalling their most reliable arms (such as they are) the relief corps tried desperately to hang onto that slim lead.  Jordan Hicks gave a hit, but no runs in the eighth.  Now it was Bud Norris.

The tension mounted as Scooter Gennett was called out on strikes.  Two outs to go.  Then Joey Votto crushed a liner to left that Ozuna made a remarkable catch on.

Now the Cards were one out away.  That would be as close as they would get.

Norris’ second pitch to Cincinnati slugger Eugenio Suarez was crushed deep over the left field wall, and with that the score was tied.  Poncedeleon’s win was deleted.  And the bullpen surrendered a run in its tenth consecutive game.

Not content there, the Reds then continued the rally against Norris with three more hits and a walk – the last hit by Dilson Herrera driving in the winning run in Cincinnati’s 2-1 victory (box score).

For Herrera, it was just his second hit of the year.  His other hit this year was a three-run home run off of Sam Tuivailala in the seventh inning of an eventual 9-1 rout of the Cardinals back on July 13.

The Long Slow Decline

Sixty-nine games ago, a two-run, fourteenth-inning home run off the bat of Dexter Fowler gave St Louis a 4-3 conquest of the hated Cubs.  At that point, St Louis was 20-12, and in first place by 1.5 games.  That home run gave the Cards a 15-5 record over their previous 20 games.

Since then, the re-tooled Cardinals embarked on a 68-game regression to absolute mediocrity.  After losing, now, 38 of those last 68 games, the Cardinals hit the 100-game mark of the season at 50-50.  They are now 8-11 in July.

When Fowler hit his home run, it pushed the Cardinal record in one run games to 7-5.  Last night’s defeat dropped them to 13-14 in such games – including losses in 3 of the 4 played in the month of July.

Clearly, the bullpen continues to be a big chunk of the issue.  Nineteen games into July, Cardinal starters are clicking along with a 3.39 ERA and a .220 batting average against.  Meanwhile’ the bullpen’s ERA has risen to 7.50 this month, with a .332 batting average against.  Over the last 68 games, the starters ERA of 3.58 has been completely undone by a 5.40 ERA over 226.2 innings from the bullpen.

In the four one run games this month, Cardinal starters have contributed 3 quality starts, a 2.49 ERA and a .165 batting average against.  They have allowed 7 runs in the 25.1 innings that they have pitched in these games.  In 9.1 innings in this month’s one run games, the bullpen has allowed 6 runs.

One Run Struggles

But if the angst of the loss falls chiefly on the pen, the offense has to share equally in the blame.  Cincinnati starter Luis Castillo is not regarded as an untouchable star.  He entered the game with a 5-8 record and a 5.49 ERA – hardly All-Star numbers.  But last night he was more than enough for the off-and-on Cardinal offense.

In fact, these one-run games reveal the Cardinal offense at its worst.  While one-run games strongly tend to be lower scoring, your St Louis Cardinals have pushed that trend to an exaggerated low.  While they have scored in double figures 7 times already this year – including routs of quality pitchers like Jake Arrieta, Corey Kluber, Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester, they have vanished almost completely in the tightest games the Cards have played this year.

In the four one-run games played this month, the Cards have totaled just 11 runs while batting just .190 and slugging .286.  They have hit .197 in their one-run games since the Fowler home run.

It’s a combination that leads to heart-breakers like last night.

Matt Carpenter

While the team looks like it may be circling the drain, Matt Carpenter continues to be a beacon of excellence.  While his home run streak has been stopped, Carpenter’s hitting streak has reached 8 games with his two hits last night.  He is now 14 for his last 28 (.500).  Twelve of the hits are for extra bases (8 home runs and 4 doubles).  He is slugging 1.500 during the streak, driving in 12 runs and scoring 11 – he has scored at least one run in each of the eight games.

This torrid stretch brings Matt’s batting line to an outstanding .364/.481/.939 through 62 July plate appearances.  He has 10 home runs, 20 runs scored, and 17 runs batted in in 19 games this month.  He has hit 22 home runs and 25 doubles in his last 242 at bats – batting .326 and slugging .702 over his last 65 games.

Paul DeJong

One of the missing bats that the Cards are hoping will show up soon, is that of shortstop Paul DeJong.  Paul has never really regained the pop in his bat from before his broken wrist, and has struggled particularly since Shildt took over and installed him in the third slot in the order.  In 7 games as the number-three hitter, DeJong is 4 for 27 with 2 doubles.  His batting line – after his 0-for-4 last night – is just .148/.167/.222.

Since his return, DeJong is hitting .218/.250/.273 in 60 plate appearances.  He hasn’t walked in 4 games, and his last home run came in the second inning of the May 11 game against San Diego, 76 at bats ago.

Marcell Ozuna

The surprising disappearance of Marcell Ozuna also continues.  He was hitless in three at bats last night.  Marcell’s July now consists of 81 plate appearances, during which he has managed 12 singles, 1 double (his only extra-base hit this month), 7 runs scored, 7 runs batted in, 5 walks (1 intentional), 15 strikeouts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 2 double plays.  After hitting 37 home runs last year, Ozuna holds a .173/.222/.187 batting line this month.  His last home run came in the first inning on June 16 – 128 at bats ago.

Dexter Fowler

Yes, Dexter Fowler went hitless again last night (0-for-3).  He is now hitting .205 (9-for-44) this month.  Dexter has walked only 1 time during the month of July, while striking out 13 times.  Since his big home run against the Cubs, he is 28 for 148 (.189), with only 9 extra-base hits (7 doubles and 2 home runs).

Dexter has the second lowest batting average of all Cardinal regulars in one-run games this year.  He is hitting .167 (14 for 84) in those games.

Greg Garcia

With his 0-for-2 last night, Greg Garcia is just 6 for 34 (.176) in one-run games this year,

Jordan Hicks

After a spectacular start, Jordan Hicks’ rookie season has hit some recent bumps.  Overall, though, Jordan has been one of our best performers under the pressure of one-run games.  With his scoreless inning last night, Hicks has a 1.65 ERA and a .148 batting average against in one-run games this season.

Bud Norris

At the end of the day, the game slipped away with Norris on the mound.  Bud has been mostly good this season.  One-run games, however, have proved a struggle for him – not a good sign for your closer.  Bud has pitched in 17 of the 27 one-run games St Louis has played.  He has only brought home 6 of 9 save opportunities with a 4.96 ERA.  He has allowed 4 home runs in just 16.1 innings in those games.

St Louis’ “Other” Streaks Alive and Well

It was one of those great “agonizing” decisions that you sign up for as a manager.

It’s the top of the sixth of a 2-2 game.  Cardinal starter, Miles Mikolas, has pitched five respectable innings in the midst of two fairly nasty streaks.  The Cardinal bullpen has surrendered runs in eight straight games.  It has been seven games since the Cards last had a quality start – a distinction that Mikolas was one inning away from.

But, Miles was up to bat with two outs and runners at first and second, and the quandary was right before rookie interim manager Mike Shildt.  If Mikolas hits, the scoring chance may go down the drain.  But, Miles had only thrown 74 pitches.  He might be good for one or two more innings.

On the other hand, even if Miles does throw two more innings, you will still have to turn to the bullpen at some point – and at that point, every run you can get your hands on will be worth its weight in gold.

So, Mike went for the run.  He sent Jedd Gyorko to pinch hit.  After Jedd grounded out, out came the bullpen.

Four innings later, Yadier Molina’s flyball to right ended the 7-2 Chicago victory (box score).  The bullpen’s evening read 3 innings pitched, 5 runs on 6 hits (including a game-changing home run), 3 walks, 1 hit batsman, 2 strikeouts, and 1 wild pitch.

Basically, par for the course.

After a very encouraging 14-2 drubbing of the White Sox on July 10, the Cards have now lost 6 of the last 9 games, due in no small part to a collapsing bullpen.  The numbers give context to the atrocious state of things.

Over the last 9 games, St Louis relievers have thrown 33 eventful innings.  Those innings have seen opposing hitters pile up 37 runs (35 earned) on 53 hits (that is not a misprint) and 20 walks.  The bullpen ERA over these innings is a horrific 9.55 (the starters have managed a more-than-decent 3.68 ERA in those same games).  The batting line against this august group is a disturbing .366/.450/.510.

Eighteen games into the month of July, the Cardinal team ERA has swollen to 5.05.  In 96.2 innings this month, the Cardinal starters have accounted for a 3.63 ERA and a .233/.317/.341 batting line against.

In 58.1 innings, the bullpen has mostly negated all of that fine effort.  Their ERA over the course of the whole month is 7.41, with a .325/.401/.443 batting line against.

Mike Shildt – all things considered – hasn’t done too bad at the helm of this team.  His team is decisively in his corner – and he might even have the makings of a fine, fine manager.

Mike’s biggest problem right now is that he has inherited the same fading team that got his predecessor fired.  When they brought Shildt in, the management group defended the move by saying that the team needed to hear “a different message.”  If this organization has a “bullpen whisperer” somewhere, they would be well advised to locate him quickly.

Yes, Matt Carpenter’s home run streak came to an end.  The two streaks that threaten to define the rest of the Cardinal season roll merrily on.

Mike Mayers

It had been 366 pitches delivered to 90 batters over 23.1 innings since the last time Mike Mayers had allowed a home run.  Four pitches into that 91st plate appearance – with the score still tied at 2 and Kyle Schwarber up – Mike served up the home run that decided the contest.

Mayers has now allowed runs in 4 of his last 7 games – surrendering a total of 7 runs over his last 9.1 innings.

Brett Cecil

Heading into the Cub series, Brett Cecil had allowed just 1 earned run in his previous 11 innings, with a .184 batting average against.

He appeared twice against Chicago, with eerily similar results – 3 runs allowed in one-third of an inning.  The first time no one cared – Brett was just mopping up in the 18-5 victory on Friday.  Last night, his collapse allowed a still-close game to spin away.

Yadier Molina

In the increasing rubble of the Cardinal season, Yadier Molina continues to be a beacon.  Since being moved into the second spot in the lineup, Yadi – who had two hits last night – is hitting .389 (7 for 18).  He is hitting .333 so far in July.

Yairo Munoz

With Kolten Wong headed to the disabled list, Yairo Munoz is in line to get more playing time.  And he looks ready.

With a single and a double last night, Yairo has hit safely in each of the last 10 games in which he has had an at bat.  Yairo is 13 for 34 in those games (.389).  The hits include 2 doubles and 3 home runs (.706 slugging).  He has 11 RBIs in those 34 at bats.

NoteBook

The Cards open their seventeenth road series tonight in Cincinnati.  As befits a team with a 26-25 road record, the Cards are 5-5-6 in their previous 16 road series.

This is also the seventh time this season that the Cards have lost the first game of a series before pushing the series to a rubber game.  They are now 2-5 in those rubber games.

This was the sixth time this season that St Louis has played a rubber game against a team that had won its previous series.  The Cards have now lost 5 of the 6.

Strikes a Rarity

One never knows what one will get the day after a game like Friday’s.  Highlighted by Matt Carpenter’s career day, the Cardinals waltzed away with an 18-5 win (box score).  When the next day features a double-header, it’s even harder to predict.

As it turned out a long day of baseball turned even longer as both pitching staffs showed a strange aversion to throwing strikes. 

The umpires played a part.  Both Lance Barksdale and Will Little might have been more generous with the outside corners, but any part they might have played in the outcome was minor indeed.  There weren’t a whole lot of narrow misses.

The 18 innings saw a total of 589 pitches.  Of the 351 pitches that were taken by both teams, 252 (71.8%) were called balls.  Of the 161 batters that came to the plate, 68 (42.2%) ended their at bat ahead in the count.  The pitching staffs combined to issue 28 total walks (3 of them intentional).

The two games totaled 6 hours and 51 minutes.

For all that – as neither side took full advantage of their opportunities – the final scores were not all that extreme.  The Cubs took the opener, 7-2 (box score), with the Cards salvaging (barely) the night-cap, 6-3 (box score).  After racking up 18 runs on 18 hits in the Friday game, the Cards were just 2 for 20 (.100) in the double-header when they were ahead in the count.

Matt Carpenter

The story of the weekend was Cardinal first-baseman Matt Carpenter.  With home runs in each game of the double-header, Carpenter extended his historic home run streak to six games.  While the decision not to start Matt in the second game was a little questionable (how do you bench someone who has home runs in five straight games?) Carpenter did provide a seventh-inning home run that helped bring the Cards back late.

During the streak, Carpenter is 11 for 20 (.550) with all the hits being for extra-bases (3 doubles and 8 home runs) – resulting in a video-gamesque slugging percentage of 1.900.

Matt has 12 runs batted in during the six games, but he only has 1 game with multiple RBIs – the Friday game in which he drove in 7.  The home runs in the other five games were all solo shots – one of the residual complications of having your most consistent power hitter who can only hit in the lead-off spot.

At the double-header’s conclusion, Carpenter now has 72 plate appearances in the month of July.  They have resulted in 4 singles, 7 doubles, 10 home runs, 17 runs batted in, 13 walks (2 of them intentional) 10 strikeouts, 1 hit-by-pitch, and 0 double plays.  Matt’s July batting line is a satisfactory .362/.486/1.000.

Tommy Pham

While Carpenter has grabbed the headlines, Tommy Pham – whose first half was deeply marred by an epic slump – has bounced back recently with a vengeance.  In many ways, his recent production is almost as noteworthy as Carpenter’s.

Since Mike Shildt took over as manager, Pham has gone 10 of 17 (.588) including a double and a home run.  He has 8 runs batted in over those last 17 at bats – a span during which he is slugging an impressive .824.

After a fairly brutal start, Tommy is now hitting .316 with 15 runs batted in in 16 July games.  He has had 5 multi-RBI games already this month, including three, 3-RBI games.

When Tommy is seeing the ball well, he is almost always ahead in the count. In his 9 plate appearances over the double-header, Pham was ahead in the count 4 times.  In 65 July plate appearances, he has ended the at bat ahead 47.7% of the time.

Yairo Munoz

Yairo Munoz didn’t start the first game, but he came off the bench to get only the Cardinals’ second (and last) hit of that game – later scoring St Louis’ last run.  He did start game two, driving in the game-tying run in the eighth.

Playing time for Munoz has been less plentiful since Paul DeJong returned to the lineup.  Nonetheless, the rookie continues to produce when the opportunity presents itself.  Munoz is now 11 for his last 31 (.355), with 3 home runs and a double (a .677 slugging percentage) in spite of the fact that he has played in only 11 of the last 16 games – making just 7 starts.

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna, on the other hand, just keeps starting.  Forty-four consecutive starts in left field for the former All-Star.  He was 1-for-7 in the double-header.  In 17 July games, Marcell has 73 plate appearances, resulting in 12 singles, 1 double, 7 runs batted in, 4 walks (1 intentional), 14 strikeouts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 1 double play.  It’s only a .191/.233/.206 batting line.

DexterFowler

The embattled Dexter Fowler is one of the players that Shildt has made a commitment to.  Dex has played in all five games played under the new regime – starting 4.  He was 0-for-5 in the double-header, and is now 3-for-19 (.158) for Shildt.  For the month of July, Fowler is 7 for 38 (.184).

Among the many puzzling aspects of Fowler’s season is his persistent inability to hit when ahead in the count.  He was ahead in 3 of his 5 appearances in the double-header, going 0-for-3 in those opportunities.  For the season – even though Fowler has found himself ahead in the count 40% of the time – he is still hitting just .186 (16 for 86) when he has the count in his favor.

John Gant

John Gant is not one of the major pitching prospects that people rave about in the Cardinal system, but since he was last recalled from Memphis, it has to be acknowledged that he has been the Cardinals’ best pitcher.  He made the start in the second game, throwing 5 innings of shutout baseball at the Cubs.  In his last 6 games (four of them starts), Gant is 2-1 with a 1.84 ERA and a .160 batting average against. 

Johnny doesn’t give in to hitters – even when behind.  Gant fell behind 7 of the 22 he faced yesterday.  He walked 3 but the others went 0-for-4 against him.  For the season, batters are hitting just .180 (9 for 50) when they are ahead of Gant in the count.

Greg Holland

After Gant’s five great innings, Greg Holland entered and promptly served up the lead.  Yes, an error on a double play ball could have gotten Greg out of the mess, but he still walked two in the inning (including one with the bases loaded).

A note to Mike Shildt.  One of the factors that cost your predecessor his job was that he kept allowing Holland to pitch in important situations.  I advise caution with his usage.

Jordan Hicks

While Holland set up the mess and was charged with the 3 Chicago runs in the sixth, they mostly scored with Jordan Hicks on the mound.  Jordan allowed 2 of the 3 inherited runners to score.  He has now allowed 6 of his last 8 to cross the plate.

There is much more to say about the bullpen, but I think that will be the focus of tomorrow’s post.

Pitchers and Front Offices Under Stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stress – as they say – can be a killer.

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

Paul DeJong

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

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

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

Jedd Gyorko

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

Miles Mikolas

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

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

John Gant

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

Jordan Hicks

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

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

On the Dismissal of Mike Matheny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would go a long way to reducing my stress.

Bullpen Battered Again

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

Then the bullpen took over.

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

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

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

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

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

Tommy Pham

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

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

NoteBook

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

Recent Scoring Changes

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