Tag Archives: Gant

And Just a Dash of Memphis Magic

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

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

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

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

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

Offense Front and Center

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

Leading Off

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

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

Jedd Gyorko

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

John Gant

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

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

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

Mike Mayers

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

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

Jordan Hicks

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

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

Some Revisionist History

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

Well, not exactly.

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

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

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

NoteBook

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

Efficient Gant Quiets the Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bullpen

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

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

Dakota Hudson

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

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

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

Mike Mayers

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

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

Some Late Inning Runs

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

Second Half Yadi

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

NoteBook

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

Flaherty in Fight with First Pitch Command

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again the Pen

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

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

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

John Gant

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

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

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

An insightful note about his appearance:

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

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

Yadier Molina

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

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

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

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

Up Next

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

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

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

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

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

Strikes a Rarity

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

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

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

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

The two games totaled 6 hours and 51 minutes.

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

Matt Carpenter

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

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

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

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

Tommy Pham

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

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

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

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

Yairo Munoz

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

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

Marcell Ozuna

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

DexterFowler

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

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

John Gant

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

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

Greg Holland

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

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

Jordan Hicks

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

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

Pitchers and Front Offices Under Stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stress – as they say – can be a killer.

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

Paul DeJong

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

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

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

Jedd Gyorko

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

Miles Mikolas

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

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

John Gant

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

Jordan Hicks

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

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

On the Dismissal of Mike Matheny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would go a long way to reducing my stress.

John Gant Ends Season in Cardinal Rotation

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

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

That’s three.  And then?

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Piscotty

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

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

NoteBook

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

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

It’s Always a Bad Sign . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting Game in Detroit

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Quarterbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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