The bottom – when it fell out – fell quickly. A sensation in August (winning 22 of 28 games), the now very young St Louis Cardinals unraveled in September. Entering the month, they sported the National League’s second best record, and sat just 3.5 games behind the Cubs for the league’s best mark. At that point, they were a half-game ahead of Milwaukee for the first wildcard spot, and 3 games ahead of the Dodgers for the last playoff spot.
But at the first hint of September in the air, the delicate flower began to fold. After winning two of three in early September from Washington, they were still third in the league (and the division) and still had a two-game grip on the last playoff spot. As they began their last home stand, they still had control of their own destiny – holding that last spot, still, by 1.5 games.
As Milwaukee came into town – with six games left in the season – St Louis sat 87-69, not only still 1.5 games ahead for the second wildcard, but just two behind those Brewers for first wildcard, and just 4.5 behind the Cubs (who they would end the season against) for the potential division title.
The remarkable August had offered them no shortfall of opportunities.
All of these finally wound to an end in the pre-October chill of Wrigley Field as the too young Cardinals were exposed again by the Cubs, 10-5 (box score). The loss finished a string where the baby birds lost 5 of their last 6 (and that on the heels of a three-game winning streak), 12 of the last 22 following the Washington series, and 15 of the 27 games in September. Needless to point out, they will not be one of the clubs who will be playing in October.
It is easy, at the end, to be disappointed – and even easier to see where this club needs to get better. And in future posts, we will look at all of this. But I think, if we can take a step back and look at this little run in totality, I think we would have to admit that this not-quite-ready-for-prime-time team did more than hold its own.
Remember that of those 16 critical end-of-season games, only 3 were played against a team (San Francisco) that did not make the playoffs. Of their 27 September games, 19 were against teams that finished with winning records. Of the 68 games they played after the All-Star Break, fully 50 were against teams that finished the season over .500. They were 29-21 in those games. For the season, they lined up 93 times against teams that won more than they lost this year. Through myriad injuries and significant upheaval, the 2018 St Louis Cardinals fought their way to a 50-43 record against these opponents.
Yes, at the end of the day, the youngsters – the pitchers especially – were not up to the September challenge. But there was certainly enough promise on display to paint a very hopeful picture for much winning in 2019 and beyond.
Jack Flaherty’s tremendous rookie season ended with something of a thud. He lasted just 2.2 innings during the finale, serving up 4 runs on 4 hits. His September ended with just 1 quality start in his last six, an 0-3 record, 18 walks and 2 hit batsmen in his 28.2 innings, and a 5.34 ERA. There are better things ahead for young Mr Flaherty. In spite of his shaky September, Jack started 19 games this season against teams that would win more than they lose. His record in those games was only 5-7, but with a 3.35 ERA and a .198 batting average against. He struck out 124 in 102 innings – 10.94 per nine innings against winning teams.
Jack is an arm to keep an eye on for next year.
As for his recent struggles, they pretty much mirrored the entire rotation this month. Cardinal starters finished the month with a 4.60 ERA and just 7 quality starts among their 27 games.
Bullpen Sputters to the End.
The game was still close when Mike Shildt went to get Flaherty. It was just 3-2 Chicago at the time. So one last time, for 2018 anyway, Shildt entrusted the game to his bullpen. The results were consistent with the performance through the rest of this month. Five-and-a-third innings later, Chicago – in addition to scoring one of the runners that Flaherty had left on base – had scored 6 additional runs (4 earned) on 8 hits – including 3 doubles and a home run – and 3 walks. Even though the offense eventually scrapped its way to 5 runs of their own, they were never really in it once the pen took over.
The September numbers tell the story. In 104.1 innings (almost 4 a game), the Cardinal bullpen gave 71 runs (58 earned) on 111 hits including 15 home runs. They also walked 68 batters. They finished the month with a 5.00 ERA, a .275 batting average against, and a .376 on base percentage against.
In the 19 games against winning teams that St Louis played last month, the bullpen vulnerability was even more pronounced. In their 72.2 innings against the Nationals, Pirates, Dodgers, Braves, Brewers and Cubs, St Louis relievers gave 61 runs (49 earned) on 88 hits (including 12 home runs) and 53 walks. Their 6.07 ERA in those contests was accompanied by a .299/.403/.510 batting line against – a cool .913 OPS.
The bullpen was a concern going into last off-season. It will be again.
Austin Gomber’s trajectory – and season’s end, for that matter – closely mirror that of Flaherty. Another of the August revelations, Gomber served up 4 runs of his own in two relief innings in the finale. His damage included allowing his fourth home run in his last 10.2 innings. Austin ended September with a 9.15 ERA in 19.2 innings that included a batting line against of .356/.408/.578.
The season’s last two runs allowed were charged to Tyler Webb. They were both unearned. All of the last 5 runs that Tyler allowed this year were unearned.
Dakota Hudson did finally get the last out of the sixth inning – but not until after he had allowed both inherited runs to score. Ten of the last 13 runners that Hudson (a starter in the minors) has inherited have scored.
Jose Martinez finished his first season as an April-September (mostly) every-day player with two more hits and a walk. Martinez came down the stretch with hits in 9 of his last 11 games, getting two hits in six of them. In those critical games against Atlanta, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Chicago, Jose hit .357 (15 for 42).
Martinez is another interesting decision that the front office will have to make this offseason. He is no spring chicken (Jose is 30), his power is good but not great (he hit 17 home runs), and he is a shaky defender – although much better in the outfield than at first base. There is talk of moving him to an American League team where he can DH, but he doesn’t hit for enough power to truly profile as the DH type.
That would also leave right field open, so the Cards would open the season with either Tyler O’Neill, Dexter Fowler, or some combination of both in right. Unless, of course, they could sign Bryce Harper – something I would have to see to believe.
One thing to keep in mind with Jose. He led the team in batting average after the All-Star break, as he hit 318 (69 for 217). He hit .333 after the break last year (49 for 147) which would have led the team if he had gotten a regular’s at bats.
Moreover, he hit .344 (52 of 151) in his 46 second half games against winning teams. At this point, I’m not convinced that the Cards are a better team without him.
Wading through a difficult season, Paul DeJong did, at least, end on a high note. With his two hits in the finale, Paul ended his season with hits in 4 straight games, and in 12 of his last 13. For the streak, he hit .302 (16 for 53) with 6 doubles and a couple of home runs. He drove in 11 runs and slugged .528 over those last 13 games.
A little too old, perhaps, to be considered a true prospect, Patrick Wisdom (now 27) turned some heads with his bat over the last few weeks of the season. Whether he has an organizational fit or not makes for a good question, but he certainly took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. With his two hits yesterday, Wisdom finished 7 of his last 18 (.389).
Also intriguing about Wisdom is that his production went up against the better teams. It’s a decidedly small sample size, but in his 24 games against winning teams, Wisdom hit .323 (10 of 31) with a double and 3 home runs. He drove in 8 runs in those 31 at bats and slugged .645 against the league’s better teams.
Wisdom is yet another intriguing piece of the Cardinal future. That last week of the season confirmed that the future isn’t quite now for this team. But August wasn’t a complete mirage.
The future here is soon.
From the point where they removed the “interim” label from Shildt’s job title, St Louis went 15-16.