At its best, sports can be transcendent. I wrote a bit about this after the last Super Bowl. Heroic, unexpected achievements that challenge the expected limits of mortality. It is magic of the head-shaking flavor.
In yesterday’s second inning, starting pitcher John Gant provided the head-shaking moment. Hitless so far in his career, John walked into a pitch from Gio Gonzalez and popped it over the fence for the two-run home run that sparked the Cards on to their 6-4 win (box score).
The night before, it was Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong with eighth- and ninth-inning home runs, respectively, that brought the Cards back from a late deficit for another win. And these have not been all. Almost every member of the current roster – and especially the young guys – have had their moment in the hero spotlight. The list is far too long to detail here, dating back to the big bullpen shakeup that proceeded the July 27 game against Chicago.
One noticeable trend is the contribution of the Memphis Mafia. These are those players – Gant, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Yairo Munoz, Tyler O’Neill, Daniel Poncedeleon and Patrick Wisdom – that have been the sparkplugs. Players, perhaps, who haven’t been around long enough to understand that it isn’t supposed to be this easy. That, perhaps, has been part of the magic.
Since that day in July, St Louis is 14-4 (including 11-2 in August). This brings them to an impressive 17-9 since the All-Star Break, with their last win extending their season-long winning streak to seven games, and pushing them to 10 over .500 (65-55) for the first time all year.
Offense Front and Center
Taking the lead in this series against Washington are the bats. The rebounding Cardinal offense is now averaging 7.2 runs per game over its last 6 games. They are scoring 5.54 runs per game this month, 5.17 runs per game over the 18-game streak, and 5.19 runs per game during the seasons’ second half.
In the hitting revival, there has been some talk about new approaches to situational hitting. Two-strike hitting and two-out opportunities have been mentioned. Less referenced is the recent success that Cardinal leadoff hitters have had.
Last night, each starter other than Gant had an opportunity to lead-off an inning. Four of the eight (the Cards did not have an offensive ninth) reached base, and three of them scored.
So far this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters are reaching base at a .400 clip – Including 5 home runs and a .559 slugging percentage. Prior to this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters managed just a .317 on base percentage with a .442 slugging percentage.
Other than Gant, it was second baseman Kolten Wong driving the offense. In four plate appearances, Wong walked, singled, doubled and homered, scoring twice and driving in three runs. Wong has been another one of the critical offensive pieces that have endured long slumps as well as significant time on the disabled list. Wong was in the midst of his hottest streak of the season when he went down. Since coming back, he hasn’t missed a beat.
Still hitting just .236 for the season, Kolten is hitting .400 for the month of August (12 for 30) and slugging .600 (a home run, now, to go along with his 4 doubles). He is a .356 hitter (16 for 45) in the second half.
Jedd Gyorko didn’t contribute any hits to the victory, but he ignited the two-run fourth with a leadoff walk. Through the season’s first half, Jedd led off in 47 different innings, reaching base only 9 times (19.1%). He eventually scored on just 4 of those occasions. The fourth inning last night was the fifteenth time Jedd has led off an inning in the second half. He has now reached base in 8 of those innings (53.3%), scoring 6 times.
Even though Gant didn’t complete 6 innings – and even though the team ended up allowing 4 runs for the game – this game featured another very strong start from the rotation. John finished his 5.1 innings allowing just 1 run on 4 hits and no walks. Since John has been more-or-less installed into the rotation, batters are only hitting .201 against him.
As for the rotation, now, they have held opposing hitters to a .234 batting average this month, while issuing just 14 un-intentional walks over 73 innings – 1.73 walks per 9 innings. During the 14-4 stretch, opponents are hitting just .243 against Cardinal starters, drawing just 20 un-intentional walks (1.81 per 9 innings).
Since the All-Star Break, Cardinal starters have faced 579 batters, holding them to a .235 batting average.
Most all of the real damage done to the pitching staff came in Mike Mayers’ eventful eighth inning. He faced 5 batters and only retired 2 – allowing hits to the other three (all of whom eventually scored – two of them on Bryce Harper’s home run).
Mike has had some good moments this year, but has been trending down as of late. The 25 batters he has faced this month are hitting .318 against him, with a .591 slugging percentage (he has also allowed 3 doubles this month). Since his last return from Memphis, Mike has pitched 27 innings over 26 appearances, with a 5.00 ERA to show for it.
It took him 19 pitches, but Jordan Hicks secured the last three outs and held on to the save – his fourth. There was a point just before the All-Star Break where Hicks looked like he was hitting the “rookie wall.” In his last 4 appearances before the break, Jordan served up 7 runs in 3.1 innings.
Whether it was the rest or whether he did some fine tuning during the break, second-half Jordan has been as good as we’ve seen him all year. In 12 second-half outings, Hicks has allowed 1 run on 9 hits (all singles) over 13.1 innings. His 0.68 ERA is accompanied by a 188 batting average against.
Some Revisionist History
In a recent exchange, baseball president John Mozeliak told reporters that this current team was the team they expected that they would see all year.
Well, not exactly.
The team they expected to see all year featured Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham all over the bases with Marcell Ozuna raining home runs all over the various ballparks. The team they expected to see had Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone muffling opposing offenses from the seventh inning on. None of those worthy gentlemen performed remotely to expectations.
John and his fellows also expected to see Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Alex Reyes string together dominant start after dominant start, while Paul DeJong built on his stellar rookie season. All of these critical pieces have spent considerable time on the disabled list.
The truth is, John, – bad injury luck aside – the team you constructed over the last few off seasons wasn’t very good. Mozeliak and the rest of the front office have been bailed out as much as anyone by the magic of the Memphis Mafia.
Harrison Bader’s second-inning sacrifice fly gave the Cards the first run of the game for the fifth time in the last six games. St Louis has won all five – as well as the game that they didn’t score first in.