In claiming their third consecutive victory, the Cardinals are making a bit of a habit of “the ambush inning.”
Wednesday night, it was the fourth inning. After Arizona’s Zack Godley set down the first 9 Cardinals to face him that night, St Louis ambushed him in the fourth. The first five batters to face him that inning reached – three of them scoring. The Cards would play from ahead all day, winning finally by a 4-3 score as Arizona’s ninth-inning rally came up short.
Thursday, it was the fourth, again. Diamondback starter Patrick Corbin faced one over the minimum through the first three innings, but the Cardinals jumped him in the fourth. Again, the first five batters reached, although this time only two managed to score. That game ended up a 10-4 Cardinal victory, although it was much more back and forth than that score would indicate.
Then, last night, after missing a big opportunity in the first, the Cardinals ambushed struggling National’s right-hander Tanner Roark in the third. This time, only the first four batters reached, but three of them scored. The Cards never looked back on their way to a comfortable 8-1 victory (box score).
From time to time this season, the Cardinals have been a good on-base team. Getting runners on base puts pressure on everybody. Getting runners on with nobody out is even better, as it gives the offense many more options in getting that runner home.
I don’t have numbers league-wide for this, but charting the Cardinals and their opponents, runners that reach base with no one out end up scoring between 45-50% of the time. Over the recent little surge, where St Louis has won 5 of the last 6, they have excelled at this aspect of the game. Cardinals batting with nobody out are reaching base at a .443 clip, and after they reach, they are scoring 56% of the time.
Last night, 7 of the 15 Cardinals who came to the plate with no one out reached base, and 4 of them scored.
This has certainly helped open up the offense, which – thanks to the late surge – finished June scoring 147 runs in 29 games (5.07 runs per game). They have scored 7.17 runs per game over the last 6 games (43 runs) during which time they have hit .282 as a team, with a .380 on base percentage.
Yadier Molina has been very much in the middle of the offensive turnaround. He has played in 5 of the last 6 games, hitting .400 (8 for 20) with 7 runs batted in. This, of course, is part of a longer stretch of success for Molina, who pushed his hitting streak to 15 games with his two hits last night. During the streak, Molina is hitting .328 (20 for 61), with 3 home runs and 12 runs batted in. He finished June with a .296 batting average.
His third-inning two-run single that started the scoring held up as the game-winning hit. It is Yadi’s fifth game-winning hit this season. Among Cardinals, only Dexter Fowler has more – Dexter has 7.
Molina was 1-for-1 batting with no one out, and 1 for 2 batting with one out. The only time he hit with two out last night, he lined out to center to end the first. Over the course of the season, Yadi is hitting .320 (56 for 176) when batting with less than two outs. He is now 12 for 76 (.158) when hitting with two outs. Of his 35 runs batted in this season, only 6 have come with two out.
Jedd Gyorko had what is starting to become a typical night for him. He singled, doubled, walked, drove in a run and scored twice. Jedd has now hit safely in 6 of his last 7 games (getting 2 hits in 3 of them). During this stretch, Jedd has come to the plate 28 times, collecting 4 singles, 4 doubles, 1 home run, 9 runs batted in, six walks, 1 sacrifice fly, and only 1 strikeout. That is a .429/.536/.762 batting line. Gyorko’s season average is back over .300 (.302) as he finished June with a .290 average (27 for 93) with 4 home runs and a team-leading 18 runs batted in.
While striking out only once over his last 7 games, Jedd has now drawn a walk in 5 straight contests, and in 9 of his last 10 games. All of this – the hitting the ball with authority to right field, the patience at the plate – this is a different Jedd Gyorko than we saw last year.
Gyorko singled off of Roark’s hand as part of that ambush third inning – it was his only at bat of the game with nobody out. He is now hitting .318 this year with no one out (35 for 110). That is the best average among season-long regulars. Kolten Wong is hitting .407 with no one out, but he has missed a good chunk of the season with injuries. Paul DeJong also doesn’t have a starter’s quantity of at bats, but he is hitting .342 with nobody out.
Another one of the igniters of the offense recently is Tommy Pham. He brought the crowd to its feet with a stellar defensive play on the first hitter of the game, and followed going 2 for 4 with a walk and a run scored. Tommy has a .350 batting average and a .480 on base percentage over the last six games. Moreover, Pham has hit safely in 10 of his last 11 games, hitting .326 in that span (14 for 43) with 3 home runs, 7 runs batted in, 3 stolen bases, 11 runs scored and a .535 slugging percentage.
I would hate to be the one filling out the lineup card that doesn’t include Tommy Pham’s name.
It took a review to confirm it, but Pham beat out a two-out, seventh-inning infield hit that loaded the bases. Pham now has a .414 on base percentage this year when batting with two outs.
Another Quality Start
Mike Leake’s excellent 8 innings (1 run 5 hits), gave the Cardinals six consecutive quality starts for the first time since mid-May, and 8 in the last 9 games. Entering tonight, St Louis has yet to string together seven consecutive quality starts.
In winning 5 of the last 6, the starting rotation has contributed a 4-0 record, a 2.82 ERA, and a .235 batting average against. As much fun as it’s been watching the offense of late, St Louis’ long-term success is tied to the effectiveness of its starters.
After a four-start dry spell, Mike Leake has put together three excellent starts in a row. At the point where you might have begun to wonder if the early season Leake was a mirage, he has given the team 20 innings over these three starts, allowing 5 earned runs on 14 hits – a 2.25 ERA with a .215/.284/.292 batting line against. Of the 20 batters who put the ball in play against Mike last night, 17 hit it on the ground (4 of them into double plays).
The double plays proved to be quite important, as Mike is still showing a tendency to walk batters with no one out. Last night, two of his three walks came with no one out. Over his shaky month of June, 8 of his 12 walks came with no one out. Five of the 8 ended up scoring. For the season, Mike has only issued 13 no-out walks – with 8 of those coming home to roost.
As Aledmys Diaz Plays in Memphis
I suppose that it is possible that many Cardinal fans aren’t sure what to make of the demotion of Aledmys Diaz. Several columnists and bloggers attending on the Cardinals have treated this event as some kind of watershed moment in Diaz’ career as it relates his future as a Cardinal.
And I can understand the reaction. Most times in most organizations the demotion of a player who had been an All Star the year before would be a fairly catastrophic event. But not in St Louis. What Cardinal management has done over the last couple of years – and what they are seemingly becoming more comfortable doing – is a kind of re-definition of how the minor leagues have been traditionally used in the past.
In the past, the minor leagues have been a kind of finishing school. A raw talent comes out of high school or college that is not quite ready to succeed against major league competition. So he is sent to one of the myriad of minor league teams to get regular playing time and learn his craft.
And then, at some point, he “graduates,” if you will, from the minors. It may take him a few trips back and forth as he makes the adjustment, but at the point where he becomes a regular on the big league team, he has become a “major league” ballplayer and ceases to be known as a “minor league” player.
At this point, it is assumed that the minors have no more to teach him, and that he has nothing left to prove there. So, at this point, for this player to be sent back to the minors for anything other than a rehab assignment would commonly be viewed as a humiliating moment, signaling an absolute loss of confidence in that player and a permanent change of direction by the organization.
Last year, when the Cardinals did this to both Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk at the same time, that’s how it read to me. The Cardinals had finally given up on two talented by frustratingly inconsistent players, and were moving forward with other options at second base and center field. As it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth. Both players were – and are – very much a part of the Cardinals’ future plans.
The change in philosophy was even more evident earlier this spring when Grichuk was sent down again. He wasn’t being removed from the scene and dumped in the minors in the hopes that maybe he would figure things out. He worked with a specialist – a strategist, I think they called him – a bat whisperer, if you will – to try to unlock the star player that was encumbered by the collection of bad habits and overthinking that Randal Grichuk had become.
I don’t know if there are other organizations out there that are doing this, but what the Cardinals have figured out is that the minor league system is good for more than just teaching prospects on the way up. It can also serve as a kind of clinic for major league players. It’s a place where they can get specialized, individualized attention. Where areas of weakness can be addressed and where performance can be enhanced away from the glare of the major leagues. A demotion like this isn’t something I think you’d see in response to a little slump (0 for 12 or something). But if a player becomes lost, it becomes a viable option.
And lost is an apt description of Diaz. In all facets of his game, he was not himself. I expect that, like Wong and Grichuk, Aledmys is still very much a part of the Cardinal future. But not the way he was playing now. My expectation is that people will now work with Aledmys – rebuild him, even – and that sometime before August he will be back at shortstop, and looking more like the Diaz we remembered from 2016.
The broader message to the rest of the Cardinal roster is that if you start to struggle and you still have options left, you won’t necessarily continue to struggle at the major league level. This management is becoming more and more comfortable with writing you a prescription for the Memphis Clinic.
This kind of attention and work can’t possibly be given by the major league team. The season won’t stop and wait for this. But the minor league setup is structured to do this very thing. Kolten Wong came back a better player. The sample size on Randal Grichuk is still pretty small, but it looks like he may have made a breakthrough as well.
There is no reason not to expect similar improvement from Diaz.