Tag Archives: Carpenter

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.

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.

When Weaver Can Pitch Ahead

Gordon may have been looking for the four-seamer.

Batting with one out in the second inning, Alex Gordon would have seen young Cardinal right-hander Luke Weaver start three of the four batters who faced him in the first inning with that four-seam fastball.

Whether he was, in fact, expecting it, Alex jumped Luke’s first-pitch four-seamer and lofted it into the grass over the center field wall.  That tied the game at one, and spurred Kansas City on to their 5-1 decision over St Louis (box score) last night.

It was about the only time all night that Weaver fell into a somewhat discernable pattern.  For the game, he threw about the same number of changes, fastballs and cutters – and threw them confidently in all counts.  Of the 28 batters he faced, 10 of them saw first-pitch fastballs, 7 each saw change-ups and cutters as the first pitch.  The other four saw first-pitch curves – still a growing pitch for Luke.

In all, Weaver threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 28 he faced in a game where he pitched better than the record showed.  As Luke settles into his first full season in the rotation, the numbers suggest how important it is for him to pitch ahead in the count.

Luke finished his evening ahead in the count to 16 of the 28 batters he faced.  Those batters managed just 3 singles (.188) and struck out 6 times.  It is these batters – the ones backed up in the count – that are most susceptible to his excellent change.

In fact, in a game where Weaver struck out 8 in 7 innings, his best inning may well have been his third-inning – an inning where he threw only 6 pitches (no fastballs) and registered no strikeouts.  That inning began with Jon Jay taking a curve for a strike and then grounding out on that change.  It continued with Ryan Goins also taking a curve for a strike and then lining out on another curve.  The inning ended with another first-pitch curve to Mike Moustakas, who fouled it off before flying out on a change-up. Three very short, mostly uncomfortable at bats by the top of the line-up.

The problems for Luke come when he can’t get consistently get ahead of batters.  In 4 mostly good starts this month (and Luke holds a 3.13 ERA in 23 innings in May) batters are just 5 for 29 (.172 – all singles) when batting behind in the count.  When batting ahead in the count, they are hitting .353/.476/.647.

Luke’s reaching his potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter will hinge on his developing ability to consistently throw first-pitch strikes with his secondary pitches.

Greg Holland

The disintegration of Greg Holland continued last night.  Brought into the ninth-inning, trailing just 3-1, Greg faced four batters. He fell behind all four, and ended his night allowing 2 runs on 3 singles and a walk.  Holland has given multiple runs in 3 straight games. Eleven of the last 14 batters he has faced have reached, and he has walked at least one batter in 5 straight appearances.  Only 46 of his last 86 pitches have gone for strikes.  The 29 batters that Greg has been behind this season are slashing .538/.786/.846 against him.  Last night they were sitting on that once-dominant slider that has lost almost all of its bite.

The Cardinals remain convinced that Holland (whose season ERA is now back up to 8.76) will yet be a positive force in the Cardinal bullpen – even though this is precisely how he ended last season with Colorado.  Greg, of course, has flatly rejected the idea of working through his problems in the minors.  This is a hard thing for a decorated veteran to accept.  It is unfortunate, in that Holland needs to pitch, and Mike Matheny can no longer afford to bring him into important situations.

A footnote – through 19 games in May, the Cardinal rotation has a 2.53 ERA.  The bullpen – which has served up more home runs (10) in 67.2 innings than the starters have surrendered (7) in 110.1 innings – carries a 4.92 ERA this month.

Dexter Fowler

Things still not getting any better for Dexter Fowler.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, he is down to .155 through 148 at bats this year.  In May, Dex is down to .130 (7 for 54) – although with 10 walks.

Matt Carpenter

In the Cardinal’s unusual 11-hit 0-RBI game (all 11 hits were singles, and the team was 0-6 with runners in scoring position), one of the casualties was Matt Carpenter’s very loud six-game hitting streak.  Struggling at-bat for at-bat with Fowler for most of the season, Carpenter has erupted recently.

In the six games prior to last night’s 0-4, Carpenter amassed 13 hits in 24 at bats (.542 average).  His streak included 3 three-hit games, and another two-hit game.  Eight of the 13 hits were for extra-bases (one of them a home run) leading to a .958 slugging percentage for the streak.

Going Forward

The recent buzz around town is the return of Alex Reyes (and to the rotation, no less).  This latest wave of young talent is a hint of the team that this will be in just a few years – if management can resist the urge to give all of them away.  It is already hard to find room in the Cardinal’s crowded rotation.  While Carlos Martinez is still out, it would seem that Reyes will take his spot (currently held by John Gant), but after Carlos comes back some very talented starter will either be back in Memphis or bolstering the sagging bullpen.

A similar thing is happening in the lineup, where Matheny is working hard to find enough at bats for all of his outfielders and Jedd Gyorko.

And there is more talent out there on the way.  If one of them can be a late-inning asset in the bullpen, this team could be very hard to head.

NoteBook

Last night’s crowd of 39,545 was a little disappointing by St Louis standards under any circumstance – much less with the cross-state Royals visiting.  It, nonetheless, pushed St Louis’ home attendance to 1,023,464 in 25 home dates – an average of 40,938.6.  This would put them on pace to draw 3,356,962 for the season.  If that happens, it will be their fifteenth straight three-million season and the twentieth in the last twenty-one years.  However, it will also be the lowest attendance figure since the 2012 team drew in 3,262,109.  Much of the early season was atypically cold, and may have held down attendance figures.  We will see what the heat of summer brings.

Of the 16 series they have played so far, the Cards have won the first game 8 times.  Even after last night’s loss, they are 18-5 in the games of those series.  They have won 5 of the first 7 series, splitting the other 2.

And An Off-Season Football Note

Earlier today the NFL announced its National Anthem policy.  Already the aftermath is brewing.  Since this is still mostly two sides shouting at each other, I will link again to the piece I wrote about this last year.

Early Concerns on the Road

After a fairly tepid start, the Cardinals burst back into contention with an 8-1 run (April 12-22).  At that point, they were, in fact, tied for the division lead.  This was, of course, encouraging – said encouragement tempered by the fact that 7 of the 8 wins had come at the expense of the struggling Cincinnati Reds.  With series against contending teams in New York and Pittsburgh coming up (the Mets series at home and the Pirates on the road), it was anticipated that this stretch would be a better measuring stick than the games against Cincinnati.

For those of us less sold on this team as contenders, the results mostly supported the hypothesis – with St Louis losing 4 of the 6 games.  The most telling of these games were the three losses in Pittsburgh.

In their 16-12 start, the brightest and most consistent aspect of the club has been the pitching staff.  After last night’s 3-2 win (box score), the Cards rank fourth in the NL with a 3.37 team ERA.  As the pitching was an area of primary concern (at least for me) entering the season, this would seem to be good news indeed.  Inside the numbers, though (and especially during the sweep in Pittsburgh) there seems to be cause for continued concern.

With early season temperatures in St Louis averaging less than 60 degrees (59.4 to be exact), this pitching staff has been prospering at home (remembering that under the best of conditions, Busch Stadium plays strongly in the pitcher’s favor).  After last night’s win, the Cards are 8-5 at home with a 2.74 team ERA.  Opponents are hitting .220 against the Cardinal pitching staff at home, with just 7 home runs in 125 innings.  Perhaps most stunning, only 2 of 21 inherited runners at home have come around to score (an amazing 9.5%).

The numbers on the road have been less encouraging.

The Pirate Sweep

During the three games in Pittsburgh (in temperatures that averaged a frosty 50.3 degrees) the Pirates took full advantage of the still-suspect Cardinal pitching staff.  They ended the 3-game series with 17 runs scored (15 earned for a 5.06 ERA) and a .286 batting average against Cardinal pitchers.

Most under the microscope was the piecemeal bullpen.  Their numbers in the sweep are most telling.  In 9.1 innings of work, the Pirates compiled 8 runs (6 of them earned – a 5.79 ERA) on 14 hits (a .333 batting average against).  There were also 8 walks (6 unintentional) in those innings and two batters hit by pitches (a .444 on base percentage).  Of the 13 runners the pen inherited, 6 scored (46.2%).

And, of course, both leads that they inherited were surrendered.

Continuing Trends

Of course, too much can be made of any one series.  Every pitching staff will endure at least one such series during the season.  In the Cardinals case, though, the Pittsburgh series continued a pronounced early season trend.

Now 8-7 on the road (4-7 not counting the games in Cincinnati), the team ERA is almost one and a quarter runs higher there (3.97).  While the innings count is close (125 innings at home and 131.1 innings on the road), the team has served up more than twice as many home runs on the road (15) than they have in the comfy confines of Busch (7).

And the pen?

Soberingly, it has been the arms most depended on.  It has been Matthew Bowman (6.1 innings, 5 runs on 9 hits), Tyler Lyons (4.2 innings, 4 runs on 7 hits), and Greg Holland – who has only managed 3 innings in 5 road appearances.  During those 3 eventful innings, Holland (brought in to be the ninth-inning answer) has faced 21 batters, giving 6 runs (5 earned) on 8 hits and 3 walks.

I highlight the word concern used in the previous paragraphs.  In baseball, it is always early until it isn’t.  All of these troubled pitchers have ample opportunity to reverse the narrative.  But as I wondered openly at the outset of the season whether this team could trust its bullpen, the early results have not allayed my fears.

Tommy Pham

While the Cardinals as a whole have hit only .207 as a team since Cincinnati left town, Tommy Pham headlines a very short list of Cardinals who haven’t missed the pliant Red pitching staff.  With last night’s home run, Pham is hitting .385 (10 for 26) with 5 of the hits for extra bases (3 doubles and 2 home runs) good for a .731 slugging percentage over the last 7 games.  This includes going 7 for 10 against the Mets.  Tommy begins the day leading the National League (narrowly) in batting average.  He is clearly following up strongly after his break-through 2017 season.

If this weren’t encouraging enough, last night’s home run was already his third at home this season.  Last season 17 of his 23 home runs were hit on the road, leading to a concern that Busch may be a bit too spacious for Tommy (as, indeed it seems to be for many hitters).  Last season, Pham hit .340/.431/.611 on the road – superstar numbers.  At home, he was a much more pedestrian .265/.388/.410.  So far this early season, Tommy’s batting splits slightly favor his home field (.333/.441/.611 vs .339/.448/.482).

Kolten Wong

Also heating up in the post-Cincinnati era is second-baseman Kolten Wong.  One of the Cards who started off the season ice cold, Kolten has had some hits start to fall in lately.  With yesterday’s 1-for-2, Wong is hitting .333 over the last 7 games (7 for 21).

Jose Martinez

On the other end of the ledger is 2017’s other break-out star – Jose Martinez.  After a torrid start to the season, Jose is only 5 for 26 (.192) in the wake of the Reds’ series.  In the early going, frosty Busch seems to have gotten the best of Jose.  Hitless in 4 at bats last night, Jose has now had 19 plate appearances at home over the last two series (Mets and White Sox).  He has contributed 2 singles, 1 double, 1 walk and one double play in those appearances (a slash line of .167/.211/.222).  In 13 home games so far in 2018, Jose is hitting .224 (11 for 49) with 1 home run and 7 runs batted in.

Matt Carpenter

Hitting into a bunch of bad luck so far this year (see this story), Matt Carpenter (who went 0 for 8 in the Pirate series) broke out a little last night with a double and a game-tying, ninth-inning home run.  Carpenter is still just 3 for 19 (.158) since Cincinnati left town, and just .170 still for the season.  Perhaps last night was the beginning of a turn-around.

Yadier Molina

To the list of players glad to be back home, you can add the name of Yadier Molina.  His 1-for-12 series in Pittsburgh dropped him to just .246 on the road this season (14 for 57) albeit with 5 home runs.  He had two hits last night – including the game winner, raising him to a .298 average at home this season.

Since the last Cincinnati series (last night notwithstanding) Molina has managed 4 singles and 5 strikeouts in his last 28 plate appearances – a .143/.143/.143 slash line.  His would be another welcome turnaround.

Still Waiting for Dexter

Dexter Fowler hit the big walk-off single that gave the Cards a series win against the Mets (box score).  He hasn’t had a hit since, following an 0-for-9, 4 strikeout Pittsburgh series with an 0-for-3 last night.  Unlike Carpenter, Wong and Molina, Dexter’s recent at bats don’t show much sign of a turnaround.  His season average sits still at .165.

While I’m sure some are anxious over the slow start, I will remind the ready reader that Dexter started slowly last year, too.  But at the end of the year, he was one of the few Cardinal hitters still getting big hits in important games.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, Dexter’s two-run home run in St Louis’ afternoon game against the White Sox proved decisive – so perhaps Fowler is beginning to find the range now, too.

Michael Wacha

A quiet hero last night was starting pitcher Michael Wacha.  After five solid innings, he left the game trailing 2-1, the victim of a two-run double off the bat of uber-prospect Yoan Moncada.  An inning shy of a quality start, Wacha is one of the critical pieces to the 2017 puzzle.  There were moments last season (and there have been a few already this season) when Michael looked like he was again becoming the pitching phenom he was in his rookie season.  He also faded notably down the stretch.

Over his last two starts, Wacha has allowed just 3 runs in 11 innings (2.45 ERA) with 11 strikeouts.  Both of these starts were at home.  Of his first 6 starts this season, he has made 4 at home, going 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA allowing no home runs.  He has lasted just 9.2 innings combined in his two road starts.  During these innings, he has allowed 8 runs (7 earned) on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs.

Wacha will be a pitcher to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Luke Weaver

Their offseason actions indicated that management believes that Luke Weaver is ready to take his regular turn in the major league rotation.  Three starts into the season, this was looking like a good decision.  Luke was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA.  He finished April 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA over his last three starts.  He has walked 9 batters and has given 14 runs on 17 hits over his last 14 innings.  Again, very, very early.  But it will be very damaging if the club is wrong about Luke.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris – an acquisition I was dubious of over the off-season – has been as steady as we could have hoped for.  Earning his first Cardinal win last night, Bud’s ERA is now down to 1.88.  As opposed to many of the Cardinal pitchers, Bud has actually been better on the road (1.17 ERA v 2.70 at home).

Dominic Leone

Another off-season bullpen acquisition – Dominic Leone – is starting to find his footing.  After serving up 3 home runs in his first 4.2 Cardinal innings, Leon has served up none (allowing just 1 run) over his last 8 innings.  He pitched the eighth last night, giving a hit but no runs.

Up Next

Even as I was composing this missive, the Cardinals won their afternoon game against the White Sox (by the same 3-2 score), meaning they will open their series against the Cubs with a little momentum.  Still, the White Sox are now 8-20 on the year. It would do a lot for my confidence if St Louis could do some of this winning against contending ball clubs.

DeJong Reverses RISP Trend in Cardinal Win

Fearless forcast – mark it down.  At some point this season, the Cardinals will lose a game to the Cincinnati Reds.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.

It almost happened Saturday afternoon.  Three Cardinal home runs accounted for all of their scoring in a 4-3 win (box score) – a game in which they were 0-or-6 with runners in scoring position (RISP).  This has been a continuing sore spot for an offense that has still mostly underachieved (in spite of the fact that they are still scoring 4.81 runs a game).  With the 0-for-6 on Saturday, the Cards fell to 6 for 32 (.188) is RISP opportunities over their four previous games.  It also dropped them to .230 (35 for 152) for the season in RBI opportunities.

For one afternoon on Sunday, though, the concerns were temporarily allayed as St Louis cruised past Cincinnati (for the seventh straight time this season) by a 9-2 score (box score). One of the game features was a 5-for-16 performance (.313) with runners in scoring position.  Whether this is the beginning of a turnaround is yet to be determined.

Noteworthy in the game – and in the early season struggles – is second-year shortstop Paul DeJong.  Entering the game just 2-for-19 (.105) with runners in scoring position, Paul had ducks on the pond every time he came to the plate Sunday afternoon.  Batting eighth in many of the recent games, manager Mike Matheny sought to change things up by batting DeJong fifth this day, and the game continually found him.

In the first inning – with the game still scoreless – DeJong came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.  He bounced into the 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.

Now it’s the third inning.  The Cards have just pushed their lead to 2-0, when Paul came to the plate with runners at first and second and one out.  But instead of another rally-killing ground ball, DeJong slapped a single that positioned a runner (Yadier Molina) at third, where he would score on a fly-ball off the bat of Tyler O’Neill (his first major league RBI), giving the Cards a 3-0 lead.

When Dexter Fowler led off the fifth with a walk and a stolen base, DeJong had yet another RISP opportunity.  Nothing came of this as Paul grounded out.

In the meantime, the Cardinal offense had slowed, and the Reds began to chip away at the deficit.  So, when Paul came to the plate in the seventh inning – with runners at first and second and two out – the Cards were clinging to a 3-2 lead.  Just 3 for 22 at this point with runners in scoring position on the season, Paul DeJong finally came through.  He delivered a crushing three-run homer that took much of the pressure off, and sent the Cards on to their decisive victory.

While DeJong hasn’t (yet) been as consistent as he was in his rookie year, this was – nonetheless – his seventh home run of the young season.  Big hits in clutch situations from DeJong would go a long way toward healing what’s wrong with the St Louis offense.

If DeJong is turning the corner, the RISP results are still frustrating for Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter.  Wong ended the third by striking out with runners at first and second.  He is now 2 for 11 (.182) in the early season with runners on base.  Carpenter had a fourth inning chance with two on and no one out, but he was retired on a fly ball.  Matt is just 2 for his first 15 (.133) in RISP situations.

Again, it’s early.

Two RISP Pitching Notes

On the subject of runners in scoring position, a couple of pitching numbers jumped out at me this morning.  Neither pitcher pitched on Sunday, but rookie Jordan Hicks and top starter Carlos Martinez have both found another gear when pitching in RISP situations.  Hicks has held batters to 0-for-16 in these opportunities so far this season.

As for Martinez, he served up a two-run single to New York’s Yoenis Cespedes in the second inning of his shaky opening start against the Mets.  That has been the only hit this season off of Carlos when he has had ducks on the pond.  Batters are now 1-for-24 (.042) against Martinez in these situations – including 0 for their last 21.

Speaking of Pitching

Miles Mikolas (Sunday’s starter) added another strong effort to the rotation’s early success.  Miles finished his day having pitched 7 innings, allowing 1 earned run on 5 hits.  Since the first two games of the season, the Cardinal rotation holds a 2.73 ERA, allowing just 8 home runs over their last 112 innings.

Recent Scoring Changes – For Those Scoring at Home

Dexter Fowler’s struggling start got a little better.  In the fifth inning of the April 12 game in Cincinnati, Fowler reached when his pop-fly to short fell in.  Originally scored an error, Dexter has now been awarded a hit on the effort.  It pushes his early season average up to .192.

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.

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.

Michael Wacha – Throwing Strikes and Taking Names

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

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

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

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

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

Paul DeJong

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

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

Yadier Molina

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

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

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

Matt Carpenter

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

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

NoteBook

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

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

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

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

Cards Overcome Another Early Deficit

As Jack Flaherty walked off the mound after his second major league inning, his team trailed 3-0.  After fellow rookie Harrison Bader put the Cards back in the game with a two-run homer, Flaherty gave those runs back in the bottom of the third, and St Louis still trailed by three.

All that was left for the offense to do was to keep battling back.

By game’s end the resilient Cardinal offense overcame yet another spotty pitching performance as they exploded for 6 in the ninth, and cruised past San Francisco 11-6 (box score).

It’s a position this team has found itself in frequently this season, so it should surprise no one that the hitters are almost comfortable in the situation.  Last night, the 27 batters that came to the plate with the team trailing hit a combined .360 (9 for 25) and slugged .840 (3 triples and 2 home runs).  They are just coming off a month (August) where they trailed in nearly 40% of their plate appearances, yet hit .291/.365/.497 when they trailed – especially when they trailed by three runs.

What, exactly, is magic about a three-run deficit I can’t really say, but over the course of the year – and especially in the second half – seeing that three-run deficit lights a fuse in the Cardinal offense.  Last month they hit .397/.471/.712 in 86 plate appearances trailing by three runs.  Since the All-Star Break, in 106 plate appearances, that line is .370/.438/.696.  For the season, 254 Cardinal hitters have stood at the plate facing a three-run deficit.  They are hitting .316/.379/.600.

Fifteen times this year St Louis has trailed by three runs in a game – but by no more than three runs.  They lost all of the first nine of those games.  They have now won 5 of the last 6.

The 11 runs on 15 hits suggests that this team didn’t do all their hitting and scoring in August – where they hit .280 and scored 5.79 runs per game.  In the season’s second half, the Cards are scoring 5.22 runs per game with a .276 team batting average.

Stephen Piscotty

Not all of their numbers are robust, but every day manager Mike Matheny is tasked with choosing which three of his five impact outfield bats (and maybe six, now, if you count Bader) to put in the lineup.  Last night Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler and Jose Martinez all sat, while Bader, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty all starred – to some degree or other – in the Cardinal victory.

Perhaps the most impressive of the three was Piscotty – who has been a little bit buried on the bench lately.  He had three hits, including a home run and a triple that was almost a home run – with those last two hits capping excellent at bats.

On the triple that began the comeback from the three-run deficit, Piscotty took all of the first three pitches from Hunter Strickland – finding himself backed up in the count 1-2.  He then fouled off five consecutive pitches before finally launching Strickland’s ninth pitch off the padding on the top of the right-center field wall.

On the home run, Piscotty turned on a 2-2 fastball that Albert Suarez ran right in under his fists.  Both the discipline that Stephen showed against Strickland and the surprising quickness he showed against Suarez are difficult to maintain when you’re not getting regular at bats.

Since his recall from Memphis, Piscotty has only gotten into 10 games – 7 as a starter.  He is nonetheless hitting .357 (10 for 28) and slugging .643 (one triple and 2 home runs) in those opportunities.

Piscotty also began the game-tying eighth inning rally with a single to left.  The Cardinals were trailing 5-4 at the time.  Piscotty for the season is a .324 hitter (11 for 34) when he bats with his team trailing by one run.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong picked up in September where he left off in August.  After hitting .347 last month, Wong tacked on two more hits last night.  He is hitting .308 for the season, and .316 (48 for 152) in the second half.

Wong’s RBI single in the ninth was his fifth game-winning hit of the year, tying him with Paul DeJong for fourth highest on the team.  Dexter Fowler and Jedd Gyorko are tied for the team lead with 9 each, followed by Yadier Molina with 8.

Kolten’s other hit came with two outs in the third with the Cards still down, 3-0.  It put him on base for Bader’s home run.  No one on the team has responded to that three-run deficit like Kolten Wong.  His 1-for-2 last night when trailing by three follows on the heels of his 5-for-8 August in that situation.  Since the All-Star Break, Kolten is 6 for 11 (.545) when trailing by three, and for the year he is 10 for 16 (.625) when staring at a three-run deficit.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong never stays down for very long.  After his most recent six-game hitting streak, DeJong went hitless in his last two games.  But DeJong (who finished August hitting .297 with a .508 slugging percentage and a team leading 20 runs batted in in 27 games), began September with two hits – including a double – and two runs batted in.  Paul has driven in a team-leading 34 runs in 45 games since the All-Star Break, while hitting .280 (53 for 189) and slugging .513 (9 doubles, a triple, and a team-leading 11 home runs).

His two-run, ninth inning double was typical of so many big hits that DeJong has gotten this year – the hit that breaks open the game.  This one turned a 6-5 Cardinal lead into an 8-5 lead.  For the season, when St Louis is either even in the game, or ahead by fewer than 4 runs, DeJong is hitting .356 (57 for 160) and slugging .619 (15 doubles and 9 home runs).  He has driven in 30 runs in those at bats.

Yadier Molina

He still looks stiff when he runs – like he hasn’t fully recovered from that abdominal strain, but Molina still plays every day.  And he hits.  A single and a triple last night (yes, he ran OK on that one), bring his current hitting streak to 5 games, during which Molina is hitting .333 (7 for 21). But this is part of an even longer stretch where Molina has hit safely in 12 of 13 games, going 18 for 52 (.346) during the streak.

Yadi ended August with a .312 average for the month – and showed surprising power.  He hit 5 home runs and slugged .548.  For the second straight season, Yadi has turned it up a notch or two after the break.  He is now hitting .305 (46 for 151) in the season’s second half.

Yadi tried to spark an earlier rally with a one-out triple in the fourth (the Cards still trailing 5-2 at the time).  That didn’t pan out, but it did bring Yadi’s average to .478 (11 for 23) on the season when he bats with a three-run deficit.

Matt Carpenter

The lineup shuffle that placed Kolten Wong in the leadoff spot dropped Matt Carpenter down to clean-up.  While it may have helped the lineup in general, it didn’t pay any immediate benefits to Carpenter.  Matt’s 0-for-4 followed tightly on the heels of his .202 August, and drops him now to just .158 (9 for 57) over his last 15 games.  Carpenter – who is hitting .241 for the year – is back down to .248 (38 for 153) in the second half – albeit still with a .372 on base percentage.

Carpenter’s evening included going 0 for 3 during the portion of the game where the Cardinals trailed.  Especially during the second half of the season, Carpenter has struggled to contribute hits when the Cardinals have trailed in games.  And especially when the deficit is three runs or less.  In his last 51 plate appearances with St Louis down by no more than 3 runs, Matt owns a .158 batting average (6 for 38).  He does still contribute walks, though, as his on base percentage in those plate appearances is a still healthy .373.

Pitching in Close Quarters

When Flaherty surrendered the lead in the second inning, he continued a problematic trend that has kept the Cardinals and their suddenly prolific offense from being serious contenders.  Through the month of August the Cardinal pitching staff pitched 69.2 innings with the game either tied or holding a one-run lead.  They responded to those opportunities with a 6.85 ERA and a .325 batting average against.  In 137.1 such innings since the All-Star Break, Cardinal pitchers have managed just a 5.77 ERA with a .292 batting average against.  Brandon Crawford’s two-run homer in last night’s second inning was the twenty-seventh home run the Cardinals have given up since the All-Star Break in games they were either tied in or leading by one run.

This is not exactly a formula for success – even if you have a competitive offense.

In August, the team received only 13 quality starts in 28 games, finishing with a 4.62 ERA (4.81 by the starters, with a .297 batting average against).  Since the All-Star Break, the team ERA is hovering at 4.06.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons is fast approaching super-hero status.  Last night’s perfect eighth inning that included two more strikeouts brings his scoreless streak to 20 games and 18.2 innings, during which he has allowed just 3 hits while striking out 25.

Sam Tuivailala

Sam Tuivailala gave the last run of the game in a mop-up ninth inning.  Though his season’s ERA is still a fine 2.97, Sam has begun to take on water recently.  He has now allowed runs in 3 of his last 5 games, giving 4 total runs in 4 total innings.  His ERA sits at 4.05 in the second half (13.1 innings).

Some of this just might be due to Sam’s unfamiliarity with pitching with a lead.  Since the All-Star Break, last night was only Sam’s second inning pitching with a lead – as opposed to 11 innings pitched while trailing in the game.  Of the 58 batters he’s faced in the second half, he has pitched to 2 with the score tied, 11 with the Cardinals leading, and 43 while trailing in the game.

For the season, Tuivailala has an 0.92 ERA with a .132 batting average against in 19.2 innings while trailing, 9.00 with a .353 batting average against in 4 innings while tied, and 4.66 allowing a .349 batting average in just 9.2 innings with a lead.