Tag Archives: Hicks

Cards on Fire When Runners on Base

The game had been taut and tense all along.  After two-and-a-half scoreless innings, Atlanta rookie sensation Ronald Acuna gave the Braves an early lead with a home run.  In the top of the fourth, resurgent Cardinal shortstop Paul DeJong one-upped the Atlanta rookie.  His home run came with a runner on base (a recurring theme lately).

Now it’s the eighth inning, score still 2-1 Cards. But now St Louis is rising against the Atlanta bullpen.  A walk and a double put two runners on base ahead of an RBI single off the bat of DeJong (again).  Now its 3-1, but the inning isn’t over yet.  Another walk loads the bases and brings ex-Cardinal Sam Freeman out of the bullpen.  Sam got his first man – striking out rookie Patrick Wisdom.  He wouldn’t survive the next batter.

Catcher Yadier Molina smoked a grounder past diving shortstop Charlie Culberson.  Two runners scored on the hit, with the third also crossing the plate after the ball eluded Acuna (who at first glance looks more polished in the batter’s box than in left field).  Suddenly, it was a 6-1 Cardinal lead, and St Louis was on its way to a deceptively easy 8-1 victory (box score).  

For the game, the Cards were only 4-for-21 (.190) when they hit with no one on base.  But, lately runners on base have had the same effect on them that blood in the water has on sharks.

Over the last ten games, the Cards have pushed 62 runs across the plate in spite of the fact that they have only hit .245 as a team.  The difference has been that as a team they have hit .358/.424/.562 once a runner reaches base.  During that same span, they are hitting just .167/.233/.258 with the bases empty.

Last night, they were 7 for 16 (.438).

In no situation have they been more deadly than the situation that Molina found himself in – hitting with the bases loaded.  Over the last ten games, the Cards are 5-for-11 (.455) with the bases loaded.  In the 58 games since the All-Star Break (during which they have been scoring 5.24 runs per game) the Cards are 22 for 67 (.328) with the bases loaded.

It has been impressive to see.  Last night, doubly so as Atlanta has as many damaging opportunities.  Of their 40 plate appearances last night, 18 of them came with at least one runner on base – 5 of them with at least 2 runners on base.  The Braves finished the game 0-5 with runners in scoring position, and 2-for-15 (.133) with no runs batted in with any runners on base.

This last achievement was quite a relief compared to recent efforts.  For the month of September, opponents are hitting .286 (79-for-276) against Cardinal pitchers when batting with one or more runners on base.

A lot of times, it isn’t so much how many hits you manage, but when you do or don’t get them.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez was one of the Cardinal’s most proficient bats in the second half of last season, and is following along much of those same lines this year.  With a single and a double last night, Martinez is leading the team in batting average after the All-Star Break.  Jose is hitting .313 (56-for-179) over his last 54 games.

In his only opportunity to hit with a runner on base, Martinez set the big eighth inning in motion with a double.  Jose is now 6 of his last 14 (.429) and 33 for 89 (.371) since the break with at least one runner on base.

DeJong

More than a little lost for most of the season, Paul DeJong has been much of the driving force behind the recent offensive upsurge.  DeJong has two hits in each of his last two games, and has hit safely in 10 of his last 11, hitting .317 (13-for-41) in those games.  His hits include 2 doubles and 3 home runs.  Paul has 11 runs batted in and a .585 slugging percentage through those last 11 games.

DeJong could well serve as the poster child for the Cardinals’ recent split-personality with runners on base.  He was 0-for-2 last night with the bases empty and 2-for-3 with runners on.  Over the Cardinals’ last ten games, DeJong is just 3 for 19 (.158) with 1 extra-base hit (a double) when batting with the bases empty.  He is 9 for 18 (.500) with a double, 2 home runs, and 10 runs batted in in those games when batting with one or more runners on base – an .889 slugging percentage.

Wong on the Rise

Another element of the second half offensive revival is Kolten Wong.  Wong had two singles, a walk and a hit by pitch last night – bringing his season average back up to the .250 mark.  Wong is hitting .330 (35 for 106) in the second half.

Included in that second half resurgence is a .438 on base percentage when batting with the bases empty (21 hits in 57 at bats – a .368 batting average – 6 walks, and a hit by pitch).  He reached all three times he was up with the bases empty last night.  On a team that frequently doesn’t do much until someone gets on base, Kolten is a welcomed table setter.

Matt Carpenter

It was the fifth inning of the September 13 game against the Dodgers.  Facing nasty left-hander Clayton Kershaw, Matt Carpenter, the National League’s leading home run hitter, dropped down a bunt, beating it out for a hit.

He hasn’t had a hit since.

Carpenter – after his 0-for-4 last night – is now hitless in his last 17 at bats.  He has struck out in 8 of those 17 at bats, and is now hitting .169 for the month of September with no home runs.  Matt’s last home run came off of Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey in the second inning of the August 31 game.  That was 62 at bats, 77 plate appearances, and 332 pitches ago.  At one time in the MVP discussion, Carpenter has fallen back into the pack.

Time to Talk About Batting the Pitcher Eighth?

I’m not a big fan of batting the pitcher eighth.  All things considered, I think it handicaps the offense as much as it helps.  But there are some situations where it is worth the discussion.  In spite of his recent slump, Matt Carpenter still lists as the Cardinals’ most dangerous hitter.  But he can’t hit anywhere but leadoff.  Would it surprise you if I pointed out that Carp leads all Cardinal hitters in percent of plate appearances with the bases empty at 66.0%?  If he can only hit leadoff, maybe batting Wong ninth might get him at least a few at bats with a duck or two on the pond?

More Good Starting Pitching

Rookie starter Austin Gomber worked in and out of trouble all night.  His 5 innings cost him 98 pitches – too many.  But at the end of the day he had allowed just 1 run.  With the second half of the season now 58 games old, Cardinal starters have consistently given the team a chance.  With Gomber’s effort, Cardinal starters hold a 3.37 ERA in the season’s second half.

Throughout what has been a somewhat struggling month of September (and Austin has a 7.07 ERA after 3 starts this month), Gomber has had persistent trouble in keeping the bases clean.  Last night, the Braves were 5 for 10 with a double and a home run when hitting with the bases empty.  For the month, now, the 29 batters that have had their shot at Austin with the bases empty are hitting .385 with a .448 on base percentage.

John Brebbia

Earlier this season, John Brebbia went on a streak where he started to look like a top-echelon reliever.  I pointed that out in a post, and he immediately started to get hit.  At the risk of jinxing him again, I will note that Mr. Brebbia is once again stringing together quality bullpen innings.  Since the All-Star Break, John has thrown 13.1 innings over 14 appearances with a 1.98 ERA and a .191 batting average against.

He threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning last night, striking out 2.  He has 20 strikeouts, now, over his last 13.1 innings – an impressive 13.17 per 9 innings.

Jordan Hicks

In spite of apparent over-use, Jordan Hicks has been one of the bright spots in the second half bullpen.  He threw a 1-2-3 seventh last night.  In 26 innings over 25 second half games, Hicks holds a 2.08 ERA, a .227 batting average against, and a .268 slugging percentage against.  With his strikeout last night, Jordan has struck out 18 over his last 11.2 innings.

Mike Mayers

Mike Mayers pitched the ninth inning last night in a mop up role.  He ran into trouble (again) but worked his way out of it.  Mayers’ recent efforts haven’t filled anyone with overwhelming confidence, but the hard-thrower is starting to miss some bats – an encouraging sign.  With his 2 strikeouts last night, Mike has 19 in his last 11.1 innings.

After striking out the first two batters, Mike surrendered a walk, bringing Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis to the plate with a runner on.  This has been a sore spot recently for Mayers.  He would get Markakis on a pop fly to center, but not until Freeman had put two runners in scoring position with a double.

In the season’s second half, batters are hitting .371 (13 for 35) against Mayers when hitting with runners on base.  They are now 6 for 11 (.545) against him this month in those opportunities.

Wither Jose Martinez

It was the bottom of first inning of last night’s game – still scoreless.  Matt Carpenter had reached on an infield hit, and had advanced himself to third on a wild pitch and a groundout.  Now Jose Martinez was up.  Pittsburgh starter Ivan Nova buried a fastball down and in – well off the plate.  It’s the kind of pitch that a pitcher hopes the batter will swing at.  The kind of pitch that will usually tie up a batter, resulting in weak contact – if, indeed, the batter even makes contact.

In that regard, I suppose you could say that Nova got his wish.  Jose did swing at the pitch.  The result, though, was somewhat less than Ivan might have hoped for, as Martinez sent the pitch soaring into the Pirate bullpen just beyond the left-field wall.  Up quickly 2-0, the Cardinals were on their way to a 5-2 victory (box score).  The win was their fourth in a row, their twentieth in 25 August games, their twenty-third in the last 30 games, and their twenty-sixth in 38 second half games.

The Cardinals are playing hot baseball – with no one hotter than Jose Martinez.

With two more hits last night, Martinez has now hit safely in 15 of his last 17 games, and it hasn’t been a quiet hitting streak.

Jose is hitting .400 (26 for 65) in those games, getting multiple hits in 8 of them.  The hits include 4 doubles and 3 home runs.  He has driven in 12 runs over his last 17 games, while slugging .600.

This hot streak has carried him to the top of the team’s batting chart for the month – and for the second half.  Martinez is now hitting .372 (32 for 86) in August and .342 (39 for 114) since the All-Star Break.

What a lucky thing he is still in the lineup.

Back in the beginning, the plan was that Jose would be the everyday first baseman.  While his offense was pretty much all that they had hoped for (Jose is hitting .309 overall on the season), his defense – and, remember, Martinez was learning to play first at the major league level – was untenable.

This put then-manager Mike Matheny in quite a bind.  One of his most potent offensive players couldn’t play his position.  Being a National League team, Matheny didn’t have a designated hitter option available (at least not on a regular basis), so Jose spent some games coming off the bench and sometimes working into right-field in place of the struggling Dexter Fowler.

This led to consistent chatter regarding a trade of Martinez to an American League team.  This picked up steam after Mike Shildt replaced Matheny as manager.  Although Fowler was scuffling along with a batting average in the .170s, Shildt committed the team to giving him everyday at bats as the right fielder.  This worked out about as well as it had all season.  Fowler played in all of the first 17 games of the Shildt regime – starting 15.  Dexter hit .204 in those games, and the team went 9-8.

Fowler might still be in right field, except that his seventeenth game under Shildt would be his last for awhile – he was sidelined after breaking his foot.  It opened an outfield spot for Jose, who hasn’t stopped hitting since.  And the team hasn’t stopped winning.

The future is still a little murky for one of the Cardinals’ driving offensive forces.  At some point – probably before the 2019 season starts – a decision is going to have to be made about the future of Fowler.  In Dexter’s defense, his career suggests that he is a much better player than he has shown this year.  Furthermore, I always remind people that at the end of last year – in those important September games – Fowler was one of the few Cardinals still getting big hits in high-leverage situations.

Still, the thought of St Louis parting ways with Martinez (whose outfield defense is more than passable) in favor of Fowler doesn’t sit terribly well with me.

With his first-inning home run, Jose drove in Carpenter who had reached third with less than two outs.  Martinez has now delivered that runner (runner on third with less than two outs) in 4 of 5 opportunities this month, in 6 of 8 such chances in the second half, and, now, 63% of the time this year (15 of 24).

Jose did strikeout last night – his seventy-fifth strikeout of the season.  Of course, he went down swinging.  Martinez has only taken a called third strike 12 times this season.  With just 16% of his strikeouts being called third strikes, Martinez has the lowest such percentage of any Cardinal with at least 100 plate appearances.

Of the seven swings he took last night, that strikeout was his only miss.  For a guy whose swing is quite healthy – and produces notable power – Martinez rarely swings and misses.  While the entire team is missing on 22.3% of their swings this month, Martinez is missing on just 16.5%.  For the season, the team as a whole is missing on 23.7% of their swings, while Jose misses just 18.8% of the time.

Jose was the only Cardinal hitter last night that didn’t take at least one called strike during the course of the game.

More Good Offense

A battling overall offense, that ended the game fouling off 30 pitches and forcing 152 pitches (4.11 per plate appearance) from the Pirate staff ended up with 5 more runs on 10 hits.  They have now scored at least 5 runs in 16 of their 25 games this month – averaging 5.24 runs per game – while hitting .275 as a team in August.

Matt Carpenter

On the heels of his 4 double game in Colorado, Matt Carpenter added two more hits last night.  Carpenter is hitting .299 (43 for 144) in the second half.

When Matt came to the plate in the third after Jack Flaherty led off the inning with a single, it was the seventy-fifth time this season that Carpenter was up in a double play situation.  He has yet to ground into one – Carpenter lined out to center.

As always, Matt is very discriminating in the batter’s box.  Of the 24 pitches he saw last night, he took 10 of them for balls.  So far this month, 42.9% of the pitches thrown to Carpenter have been taken for balls.  His season percentage of 41.7% balls leads all Cardinal regulars.  Fowler is next at 40.4%.

This patience allows Carpenter to see more pitches than any other Cardinal.  With 24 pitches in 5 plate appearances last night, Matt is up to a team-leading 4.21 per plate appearance.  Young Harrison Bader is actually right behind at 4.20.

Paul DeJong

Amid the team’s offensive resurgence, Paul DeJong is still stuck in neutral.  He went hitless in three at bats last night – with two strikeouts.  Over his last 7 games, Paul is just 3 for 27 (.111) with 15 strikeouts.  In the season’s second half, DeJong is hitting just .196 (27 for 138).

Along with the decrease in his average, Paul has experienced an increase in his foul balls.  He fouled the ball off on 3 of his 6 swings last night.  Throughout the season’s first half, DeJong only hit foul balls with 32.9% of his swings.  Since the break, 43.0% of his swings have resulted in fouls.

The obvious tangent to this is fewer balls hit into play.  From his 6 swings last night, DeJong only managed 1 ball put into play.  Over the last 30 games, Paul is getting the ball into play with only 31.4% of his swings.

His recent struggles seem to be more of a timing issue.

While it is commonly thought that Matt Carpenter is the Cardinal least likely to swing at the first pitch of an at bat, that is actually no longer true.  Paul DeJong has taken that title from him.  Paul took all four first pitches thrown to him last night, and for the season is swinging at that pitch only 15.6% of the time.  Carpenter swings at the first pitch 18% of the time.  Perhaps this is too much passivity, as 3 of those 4 first pitches he took last night were strikes.

If tentative to swing at the first pitch, Paul shows little inhibition toward swinging at the last pitch.  On both of his strikeouts, he went down swinging.

Over the last 30 team games, Paul has struck out 34 times – 28 of them swinging.  Previous to that, 19 of his first 60 strikeouts (31.7%) had come on called third strikes.

Jack Flaherty

With each start, Jack Flaherty solidifies his place in this rotation now and for years to come.  With 7 terrific innings last night – during which he allowed just 1 run on 4 hits (3 singles and a double) and no walks, Jack wrapped up a dominating month. 

Entering the month not having thrown a quality start in any of his previous 7 starts – during which he lasted as many as 6 innings only once – Jack exploded through August.  He tossed 5 consecutive quality starts, finishing 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA over 32 innings.  He allowed only 14 hits in those innings, and only 5 of those for extra-bases (2 home runs and 3 doubles).  His batting average against for the month was a microscopic .136 and his slugging percentage against just .223.

Not too many pitchers of any age and experience cobbled together a better month than that.

As part of this new-found dominance, opposing teams have lost the ability to create complicated innings against Jack.  Through the season’s first four months, Jack pitched to 4.13 batters per inning.  After facing just 23 batters in his seven innings last night, Flaherty finished the month facing just 3.56 batters per inning.  No one else in the rotation faced fewer than Miles Mikolas’ 4.07 batters per inning.

Jack has also enjoyed enviable run support recently.  His 5 runs of support last night reduced his second-half average to just 6.27 runs per 9 innings.

Rotation Still Flying High

With the outing, Flaherty sustained the recent run of excellent starting pitching.  The rotation’s August ERA is now down to 2.79, and since the break, opposing hitters are batting just .237 in over 200 innings against the Cardinal starters.

Overall, the team ERA for the month is an enviable 2.80, with a .227 batting average against.

Control Issues from the Pen

So solid for most of the month, the bullpen flinched a little last night, allowing a run in a complicated eighth.  As per usual, when the bullpen leaks a bit there are control issues behind it.  Last night, Cardinal relievers walked 2 and hit another batter in just two innings.  In 83.1 innings this month, Cardinal relievers have walked 43 batters.  Even though 2 of those walks were intentional, that still makes 4.43 unintentional walks for every 9 innings.

There are an awful lot of very young relievers out there, so this might just take some time.

On the other hand, while the bullpen has allowed walks, extra-base hits have been exceedingly rare against this group.  After allowing none last night, the Cardinal bullpen has been touched for just 5 home runs and 12 doubles over their 83.1 August innings – a .299 slugging percentage.

Jordan Hicks

In the middle of the one ugly inning the bullpen endured last night was outstanding rookie Jordan Hicks.  Throwing his sixty-sixth inning of the year already (at this pace the 22-year-old will pitch 81 innings this year) Jordan gave the run on 2 hits and 2 walks, leaving a 2-on, 2-out situation to Dakota Hudson.  Over his last 5 appearances, Jordan has made it through just 4.2 innings, walking 7 and giving 7 hits.

The walks have been a recurring issue with Jordan, but the hits are unusual.  The last 27 batters he has faced are hitting .350 against him, with a .519 on base percentage.  He has thrown 111 pitches over those 4.2 innings – with only 57% of them going for strikes.  After throwing just 6 strikes last night, Hicks is down to 59.2% strikes for the second half.

The workload for Jordan may be a concern.

As the season reaches August, Jordan’s innings are becoming increasingly complicated.  Through his first 54.2 innings this year, he faced an average of 4.19 batters per inning – not bad considering he has always had a propensity for walks.  In his 11.1 August innings, he is facing a very high 4.85 batters per inning.  His pitches per inning have also risen from 15.2 throughout the season’s first 4 months to 18.79 in August.  His two-thirds of an inning last night cost him 15 pitches.

Still, for all of this, Hicks almost never gives up an extra base hit.  He has allowed just 7 all season, and none since serving up a triple to the White Sox’ Yoan Moncada back on July 11 – 95 batters ago.

Always a predominant ground-ball pitcher, Jordan got groundball from all 3 batters who put the ball in play against him.  In the season’s second half, he gets that groundball 64.8% of the time.

Dakota Hudson

Presented with a dangerous situation in the eighth, Hudson diffused the inning, getting Adam Frazier to ground out to end it.  Over his brief 14.2 inning career, the first 60 batters to face him are hitting just .173 and slugging only .212.  He has allowed just 2 doubles to those batters.

Dakota has also been a little bit of a good-luck charm for the offense.  When they scored in the bottom of the eighth for him, it was Hudson’s ninth support run in 12.2 innings this month – one reason why the rookie already has 4 relief wins.

Hudson may be the only pitcher on the staff more ground oriented than Hicks.  After getting Frazier to ground out, Dakota is getting 72.5% of the batters who have hit the ball against him this month to hit it on the ground.

That ground ball came on Hudson’s fourth and final pitch.  One thing about groundball pitchers – they keep their pitch count low.  In spite of the fact that he walks a few batters, too, Hudson is throwing just 14.45 pitches per inning.  Since he got here, that is the lowest figure on the staff.

Bud Norris

Continuing to get the job done, Bud Norris closed things out in the ninth for his sixth consecutive save. 

Good all year, Norris may be in the midst of his best stretch of the season.  He is unscored on over his last 6 games (6 IP), allowing just 2 hits and 1 walk.  Over his last 15 games (13.2 IP), Bud has saved 10 of 11 with a 1.32 ERA, a .170 batting average against, and a .191 slugging percentage against.  This has reduced his second-half ERA to 2.35.

NoteBook

In search of their tenth straight series victory, St Louis has won the opening game of their sixth consecutive series.  That’s a good first step.

All Things are Possible at Coors

Pitchers, as you know, rarely hit home runs.  And when they do, they are rarely 426-foot moon shots.  And if a pitcher should launch one that far, it would almost never be to the opposite field.

Conversely, if one team only scores in one of the nine innings, and the other team only scores in two of those innings, the game’s final score rarely reaches double figures.

And, of course, seven-run leads rarely disappear.  In modern baseball, usually any lead of five or more runs is nearly impossible to overcome.

And yet – in the rarefied air of Coors Field Colorado, all feats are possible.  On a balmy evening last night in the heart of the Rockies, the red-hot Cardinals erupted for 4 second-inning runs – highlighted by pitcher Miles Mikolas’ opposite-field, 426-foot, two-run homer.  They would not score again until adding 3 more runs in the fifth inning – and that would be all they would get.

Still, with a seven-run lead going into the bottom of the fifth, the Cardinals and their fans were probably feeling fairly comfortable.

Until Colorado stormed back with 5 of their own in the bottom of that inning – driving Mikolas (who had been awarded the seven-run lead) from the game before he could qualify for the win.

Now trailing just 7-5, the denizens of Coors Field put the tying run on base in three of the last four innings – even getting that tying run as close as second base once.  But the resilient – and re-born Cardinal bullpen was equal to every challenge as the Cards held on for a hard-fought 7-5 victory (box score).  At Coors Field, it seems like every game ends like this.

The win gives St Louis its fourth straight victory, its eighteenth in 22 August games, 21 wins in 27 games since the bullpen was re-invented, and a 24-11 record since the All-Star Break.  All this good enough to push this team into the WildCard lead.  Where once the Cards trailed the Cubs by 8.5 games, they have now trimmed that lead to just 3 with still 33 games left to play.

Things have suddenly gotten very interesting in St Louis.

The Bullpen’s New Norm

Earlier this year, a “typical” bullpen performance would have featured a heart-breaking late-inning comeback by whoever we happened to be playing.  Since the Great Bullpen Flush of July 26-27, the new “typical” bullpen performance has featured a starter leaving the game way early, only to have a group of electric arms shut the other team down the rest of the way.

In Colorado last night, a quartet of Cardinal relievers quieted the Rockies (in Coors, no less), allowing no runs and just 3 hits over the last 4.1 innings.

Through the month of August, so far, the Cardinal bullpen holds a 1.86 ERA over 77.1 innings.  This features a .181 batting average against, and a .258 slugging percentage against.  Only 5 home runs have been hit against the Cardinal pen in those 77.1 innings. 

These numbers are eerily consistent with the bullpen’s performance overall since the late-July facelift.  Over the last 27 games, Cardinal relievers have thrown 97 innings with a 1.86 ERA, a .190 batting average against, and a .280 slugging percentage against.

Even though – in once sense – these were dominant innings, they weren’t without their drama.  Four walks in those 4.1 innings kept the bullpen one pitch away from disaster.  This, too, I’m afraid has been somewhat typical.  With many very young arms throwing many important innings, the walks continue to allow teams back into games.

Throughout the month of August, Cardinal relievers have walked 40 batters.  Even though 2 of those walks have been intentional, that is still 4.42 un-intentional walks every 9 innings.

In the hitter friendly environment of Coors Field, 4 walks in 4 innings will almost always spell disaster.  But again, in Coors, you never know what will happen.

Second-Half Hicks on Point

Continuing his second-half resurgence, Jordan Hicks kept Colorado off the scoreboard in the eighth.  In 16 appearances since the All-Star break, Hicks has allowed just 3 runs in 17.1 innings (1.56 ERA).  Two walks complicated the inning – and, in fact, provided the Rockies their best opportunity to win the game.  Jordan made the crucial pitch that got Carlos Gonzalez to end the inning on a ground ball, but this is a recurring issue for the hard-throwing right hander.  Jordan has walked 7 batters in his 10.2 innings this month.

It will be interesting to see – as he matures as a pitcher – if he will need to trade any of that velocity for increased command.

Jordan came in to preserve a two-run lead.  He has now pitched 28.2 innings this season with a lead of at least two runs – posting a 1.26 ERA, a .168 batting average against, and a .178 slugging percentage against.  His ERA is only 4.42 in the 36.2 innings in which he has pitched with less than a two-run lead.  This includes allowing 7 runs over the 11 innings he has pitched trying to preserve a one-run lead (5.73 ERA).

Bud Norris

On, again, in the ninth, Bud Norris seems to be getting better as the season winds down.  He is now unscored on over his last 5 games, and holds a 1.42 ERA over his last 12.2 innings.  During those innings, opponents are managing just a .178 batting average and a .200 slugging percentage against him.

Offense Still On Track

Although they only scored in two innings, the offense enjoyed its first look at the hitter’s palace that is Coors Field.  Finishing with 7 runs on 11 hits, the Cards are now averaging 5.14 runs per game this month, and 5.03 runs per game since the All-Star Break.  They have hit 49 home runs since the break, and 32 in 22 games this month.

Kolten Wong

Among the offensive heroes was Kolten Wong – who finished with 3 singles and drove in a run with a fly ball.  Since his return from the DL, Kolten has played in 18 games – making 16 starts.  He has hits in 13 of those 16 starts- getting multiple hits in 5 of them.  He has contributed a .368 batting average (21 for 57) during those games.

Kolten was 2-for-2 while the Cardinal lead was less than three runs, and 3-for-3 while the lead was less than five runs.  Since the All-Star Break, Wong is 11-for-21 (.524) when the Cards are ahead by one or two runs, and 17-for-36 (.427) if the lead is between one and four runs.

Jose Martinez and Tyler ONeill

When things are going well for your team, sometimes even injuries work out for you.  While Mike Matheny held the reigns, all of the injury luck was bad – Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, Michael Wacha, Wong, almost his entire bullpen, etc.

As Mike Shildt has taken over, not only have many of these missing pieces returned, but he has also benefited from a timely injury or two.  Just days after publicly committing to Dexter Fowler as an everyday presence in right field, Fowler goes down with a broken foot.  This injury opened a lineup spot for Jose Martinez.

Jose had two hits last night, and has now hit safely in 11 of his last 12 starts, and 12 of his last 14 games – 6 of those being multi-hit games.  During that stretch, Martinez is hitting .404 (21 of 52), raising his average for the month of August to .370 (27 for 73).

Similarly, a recent injury to Marcell Ozuna – who, in fairness was starting to come around with the bat – has opened playing time for another very promising youngster.  Tyler O’Neill added two hits to the Cardinal attack last night – including the second-inning home run that got things off and running.

Since his last call-up, O’Neill has been hitting .375 (12 for 32) with 2 doubles and 2 home runs (.625 slugging percentage).

That second-inning home run (in his first plate appearance at Coors) makes Tyler 8 for 16 (.500) in the second half with the Cards either even in the game or trailing by a run.  For the season, Tyler is 13 for 35 (.371) either even in the game or trailing by one.  Three of those hits are now home runs – giving him a .629 slugging percentage in that situation.

Matt Carpenter

So torrid for most of the summer, gravity has caught up with Matt Carpenter a bit this month.  His 0-for-5 last night makes him 0-for-10 with 6 strikeouts over the last 3 games.  He has hit 8 home runs this month, but is hitting just .217 (18 for 83) while doing so

Paul DeJong

Although he has teased at times, Paul DeJong has never managed to shake his post injury slump.  His power has come back somewhat.  He has hit 6 home runs in 34 second-half games.  But after his 0-for-4 last night, Paul is hitting just .198 (26 for 131) since the break.

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.

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.

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.

Nine-Game Road Trip Ends With a Whimper

The first two months of the season followed an eerily familiar script.  Game after game, the Cards received sterling efforts from their starting pitching.  But far too often that effort would be undermined by a largely impotent offense and a struggling bullpen.

Even though the team finished with a losing record in June, it could point with relief to the improvement in its relief.  After being scorched to the tune of a 5.27 ERA in May, the Cardinal bullpen seemed to right itself in June.  They put together a 3.51 ERA and held opponents to just a .230 batting average.

Meanwhile as the calendar flipped to July, the long-dormant offense seemed to spring to life.  Through the first nine games of this month, the Cards were scoring at a (for them) unheard of rate of 6.56 runs per game.

Last night, the season’s longest road trip ended with a vintage mid-May style loss.  Luke Weaver stood tall on the mound, allowing just 1 run on 3 hits over his 6 innings.  He took the loss.  After scoring 14 runs the night before, the Cardinal offense limped off the field with no runs on just 4 hits.  Meanwhile, the bullpen allowed a close game to unravel – allowing 3 final runs over the last two innings.

The nine-game road trip ended with an un-inspiring 5-4 record, courtesy of last night’s very quiet 4-0 loss (box score).  They return home for a brief three-game series against Cincinnati before they will welcome the All-Star break.  Ninety-one games into the season, they sit at 47-44; 23-22 at home and 24-22 on the road.

Considering that the trip began in Arizona followed by a visit to San Francisco, I think the Cardinals and their fans have to be mostly satisfied with 5-4.  Even so, the quiet way that they were dominated last night brings us home with a feeling of unfinished business.  The 5-4 trip could have been quite a bit better with just a little more consistency.

Tommy Pham

On July 1, Tommy Pham called a halt to a 31 at bat hitless streak.  With 8 hits in his subsequent 18 at bats, it looked like Pham was back.  Since the last of those hits (a sixth-inning RBI single off of San Francisco’s Ty Blach on July 5) Tommy is riding another long hitless streak – 14 at bats.  His four strikeouts last night leave him with strikeouts in all of his last 6 plate appearances, and 8 in the 14 at bats.

The skid drops Tommy to just .235 (8 for 34) this month, with 12 strikeouts.  He finished this last road trip with a .200 average (6 for 30) with only one extra-base hit and 11 strikeouts.

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna – one of the few offensive heroes of June – finished an un-inspiring road trip with an 0-for-4 evening.  Marcell – who has started 37 consecutive games – had 40 plate appearances on the road trip.  These resulted in 5 singles, 1 double, 1 walk, 10 strikeouts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 1 double play grounded into.  This calculates to a batting line of .158/.175/.184.

This fairly dismal road trip continues a strange trend in Ozuna’s season.  While most of the team hits better on the road than at home, the consistent story of Marcell’s season has been the reverse.  The Cardinals are scoring 4.74 runs per game on the road, hitting a home run for every 23.4 road at bats.  They score just 4.13 runs per game at home, with a home run every 31.9 at bats.

But Ozuna has thrived in spacious Busch.  He is hitting .313 (50 for 160) at home with 6 home runs.  He is now hitting just .233 (42 for 180) with 4 home runs and 11 walks away from home.  Marcell’s road on base percentage is just .273.

Ozuna – who hit 37 homeruns last year – hasn’t hit one since the first inning of a June 16 game against the Cubs.  That was 95 at bats ago.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler was one of the heroes of the 14-2 rout the night before.  He drove in 5 runs with a single and a grand slam.  He was 0-for-4 last night.  He is 2-for-14 for the month of July (.143).  While both Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong have recovered from dismal starts, Fowler’s batting average still sits at .170 for the season.

Luke Weaver

The Cardinal’s tough-luck loser was the bright spot of the evening.  His six strong innings provided his second consecutive mostly dominant performance (he pitched 8 innings of the 11-2 win in San Francisco no July 5).  Over his last 14 innings, Luke holds a 1.93 ERA and an opponents’ batting line of .109/.146/.174.

Weaver also finished off a road trip that saw the starting pitching come to the fore.  Cardinal starters threw 7 quality starts in the 9 games, and finished with a cumulative 3.04 ERA.

Too Bad the Same Thing Can’t Be Said For the Bullpen

Even as the rotation regained its footing after a little slide, the Cardinal relief corps started regressing back to its May standard.  They surrendered 3 more runs over the last 2 innings last night and finished the road trip with a combined 5.32 ERA and a .299 batting average against.

Mike Mayers

Just at the point where Mike Mayers was starting to be trusted with more critical situations, he has backtracked a bit.  His seventh inning last night turned a 1-0 White Sox lead into a 3-0 lead.  Over his last 4.1 innings, Mike has allowed 4 runs on 7 hits.  The last 19 batters he has faced are hitting .389 against him.

Jordan Hicks

Almost untouchable in the early days of his rookie season, Jordan Hicks gave up the last run in the eighth inning last night.  Jordan has now allowed runs in 3 of his last 5 games – giving a total of 5 runs in 6.1 innings (along with allowing both of his last two inherited runners to score).

It is no longer surprising to see runs score while Hicks is on the mound.

Next

The Cardinals are off today as they prepare for Cincinnati on Friday.  The Cards are 9-1 against the Reds this year, encouraging predictions of entering the break on a bit of a streak.  Let me caution you.  The Reds have won 19 of their last 28 games.  While it is true that they are still just 41-52, it is also true that St Louis has never managed a 28 game span with 19 wins.  No one should suppose that these games will be easy.

NoteBook

Last night’s loss snapped a five-game streak in which the Cards had scored the game’s first run.  It also ended an eight-game streak in which the Cardinals held a lead at some point in the game.

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.