Tag Archives: Pham

Fixing the Brand

As the 2017 playoffs begin to crank up in earnest, the St Louis Cardinals will be relegated to watching.  A proud franchise who – not too long ago played in four consecutive Championship Series –  will be bristling over their second straight exclusion from the post-season dance.

All over Cardinal Nation, a host of voices will be raised to give guidance and counsel to the St Louis management.  I understand that mine will be a lonely voice, lost – no doubt – amidst the throngs clamoring for truckloads of money to be thrown at some high profile free agent or other.  I am not terribly concerned about these voices, because (usually) Cardinal management has a much clearer grasp on the needs of their team than the common fan.

This year, however, from their early comments I am concerned that John Mozeliak and his councilors may have missed the many loud messages that his team has been sending him.  So, as I acknowledge the fact that my singular plea for reason is liable to vanish into the great void of the blogosphere, I will nonetheless send forth my diagnosis of the club’s current issues and – as far as I am able – to at least hint at some sensible prescriptions.

It is important to note that none of this is as cut and dried as most fans (and bloggers) seem to think.  Contrary to many opinions, giving Miami whatever they want for Giancarlo Stanton is not really a prescription for success, either in 2018 or beyond.

This is, in fact, both a critical and challenging offseason.  St Louis has a handful of gifted players who must be added to the 40-man roster or be lost.  They, therefore, will be challenged with making critical decisions about the futures of the players already on that roster.  In many of these cases, the cases for and against these players is anything but clear.  The organizational challenge is to be right in deciding which young talents to embrace and which to part with.

None of this will be easy at all, as I will attempt to point out.

First Off, This is a Team in Transition

Most followers of the Cardinals are already aware that this team is transitioning from the veterans of the teams that went to all of those championship series.  For years, the organization has been stockpiling talent throughout its minor league system.  Now, that rich resource is beginning to re-shape the major league team.

Twenty-three percent of all plate appearances taken by the 2017 Cardinals belonged to players who opened the season in Memphis.  That percentage rose to 34% in the second half.  The pitching staff was less influenced, but still 16% of the innings pitched came from Memphis arms.  That figure also rose to 25% in the second half.

Make no mistake.  The youth movement is underway.  There had been similar displacement the year before, with the emergences of Aledmys Diaz and Alex Reyes.  St Louis is clearly rebuilding, and trying to remain competitive while doing so.

The answer to getting this team back into the playoffs – for all of the rebuilding – is actually comparatively simple.  They need to guess correctly on a closer.

Get Thyself a Closer

For as uneven as the Cardinals have been the last two years, they would have made the playoffs both years if they could have successfully filled one position – the closer.  With more stability in the ninth inning, this teams could easily have made up the one game they lacked in 2016 and the four they fell short of this year.  Cardinal pitchers appearing as closers finished 2017 with a 3.75 ERA – the worst showing for Cardinal closers since the fourth-place 2008 team finished with a 6.27 ERA from its closers.

It has become axiomatic throughout baseball – probably on all levels.  If you don’t pitch the ninth, you will not succeed.  This organization believed it had the ninth inning covered at the start of both of the last two seasons.  They had no reasons to anticipate the struggles Trevor Rosenthal would have in 2016 or the problems that Seung-hwan Oh would run into this year.

Swing the net out to include the eighth inning, and the story becomes even more compelling.  They lost 6 games this year when leading after 7 innings.  Even more telling, in games the Cards were tied after 7 innings, they were only 3-12 – by percentage the worst performance by a Cardinal team in this century

But the Cardinals already know they have bullpen issues.  And solving the eighth and ninth innings may well get them back into the playoffs, but won’t address the issues that will keep them from advancing once there.

It’s from this point on that I don’t think the organization is seeing clearly.

The Magical Impact Bat?

Among the primary targets this offseason, an “impact bat” seems to be high on the list.  Really?  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t mind seeing an established bat in the middle of the lineup.  But who?  And at what cost.

The least intrusive path would be free agency.  But who would that be?  J.D. Martinez is probably the most established of the free-agents to be.  Would he come to St Louis?  Given the Cardinals’ track record of wooing elite free agents (not to mention the spacious ballpark), I’ll have to remain skeptical on this one.

What concerns me most is that they will go out and trade a whole bunch of promising players for a slightly upgraded version of Brandon Moss.  Is Josh Donaldson, for example, really worth surrendering the future of an Alex Reyes or a Sandy Alcantara?  Are you really sure we don’t already have that impact bat?  Can you say for certainty that the three-four-five spots in the Cardinal order come next July (or perhaps even June) won’t be Paul DeJong, Patrick Wisdom and Tyler O’Neill?  Look at some of the players on the team this year that got less than full-time at bats.

DeJong hit 25 home runs in 417 at bats.  Give him 500 at bats (around the norm for a starter) and Paul would have been a 30 home run man with a .285/.325/.532 batting line.  And he was a rookie this year.  There is a fairly good chance we haven’t seen the best of Paul yet.

Tommy Pham only made 128 starts, but finished with 23 home runs and a .306/.411/.520 batting line.  A .931 OPS sounds pretty “impact” to me.

Jose Martinez got only 272 at bats, but hit 14 home runs.  That would project to 26 home runs in a 500 at bat season to go along with his .309/.379/.518 batting line.  Are we really, truly sure that Jose couldn’t be a fulltime player.

Moreover, I think the “impact bat” is an over-rated concept, unless you’re running a Whitey-ball offense and your lineup is 7 jack-rabbits and one bopper.  Far more important is the depth of the lineup.

Consider:  in the offensively unimpressive first half, four of the eight Cardinal batsmen with the most plate appearances hit below .250.  Dexter Fowler finished at .248, Stephen Piscotty hit .240, Matt Carpenter scuffled in at .237, and Randal Grichuk hit the break at .215.  That’s a lot of outs sprinkled regularly through the lineup.  A “bopper” in the middle would certainly help, but with that many struggling bats, one “impact bat” won’t cure the problem.

Now consider: for the 44 games from August 6 through September 23, St Louis averaged 5.77 runs per game – an adequate offensive production, by anyone’s standard.  During that span – of the eight players getting the most plate appearances – only Carpenter (.244) was under .250 – and that just barely.  Nobody hit more than the 9 home runs that came off the bat of DeJong, but almost everybody hit some.  Most importantly, they weren’t making outs.  In almost all cases, a deep lineup is better for your offense than a concentrated one.

There is considerable pressure in the team to do something dramatic to push the team back into the playoffs.  Again, I am just one voice.  But if I had one of the best farm systems in baseball, I would trust it more.  I would give this system every opportunity to prove to me that the pieces I need are already at my disposal.  I’m not saying never trade from any of this surplus.  But I am saying don’t trade the future for a mess of pottage (no offense, Josh).

Wither Lance Lynn

In this post, I made most of my case for keeping Lance Lynn.  Since one of the comments made by the brain trust had something to do with shoring up the rotation (a goal I approve of), I have to wonder where they think they will get better value than Lance?  Remembering that he was in his first year coming off elbow reconstruction (the infamous Tommy John surgery), Lance’s 33 starts, 17 quality starts, 186.1 innings pitched and 3.43 ERA are quite impressive.

More than the numbers, though, Lance was a bulldog.  He even got hit in the head with a line drive and kept on pitching.  As the next generation of pitchers graduate to the majors, Lance would be a terrific mentor.

Yes, he faded at the end – which was disappointing.  Still, I am not at all convinced that, for the money and the years it would take to sign Lynn, they will find a better bargain out there.

Here’s a final note.  In a down year for free-agent pitchers, Lance will be a likely target for a certain division rival who is always scrambling for pitching.  He would be just what the doctor ordered for them.

My prediction here is that if they let Lance walk, they will regret it.

These are all important considerations, but the single most important failing of the 2017 team is one that I don’t think they are even aware of.

A Matter of Character

Throughout the course of the entire season, manager Mike Matheny would intone sentiments similar to this: time and time again, this team has shown me its character and its toughness; one thing I will never ever doubt is the toughness and character of this team.

The character of the team and its much-envied clubhouse was the foundation upon which the belief in the Cardinals’ eventual triumph was forged.  It is organizational bedrock.  The foundational doctrine upon which all decisions are based.

And it’s complete mythology.

In every way possible, the 2017 Cardinals tried to send this message to their manager’s office – and to their front office, too for that matter.  Character wins were almost non-existent in 2017.

They were 4-7 in walk-off victories, 5-9 in extra-innings, 24-29 in one-run games.  And two measures that I am fond of as revealers of character: they were 39-39 after losing their previous game, and 27-44 against teams with winning records – including losing 6 of their last 7 must-win games against Chicago.

As a point of reference, the 39-39 in games after a loss is the worst record for a Cardinal team in this century.  The 2007 team that finished 78-84 was 43-41 after a loss.  The 2006 team that snuck into the playoffs and won the whole thing after an 83-78 regular season was 43-40 after a loss (counting the playoffs).

By contrast, the 100-win 2005 team went 50-15 after a loss (counting the playoffs).  In fact, the three 100-win versions in this century (2004, 2005, 2015) combined to go 128-65 (.663) after losing their previous game.  There have been seven 90-win teams in this century so far.  After losing their previous game, those teams have combined to go 301-209 (.591).  There have also been seven 80-win teams in St Louis in this century.  Even they have managed to go 294-251 (.539) in games after a loss.

The utility of this metric is that it reveals precisely one of the principle failings of this year’s club – a frustrating inability to break out of losing streaks.  In my season wrap-up post, I documented several extended losing spells.  In most of them, St Louis needed to wait for a series against a pretty bad team (like Philadelphia) before they could pull themselves out of their tailspin.

As to the record against winning teams, think about 27-44.  That is a .380 winning percentage.  If you took a fairly good AAA team and had them play 71 games against average major league teams, this is about the record you would expect them to compile.  In fact, this winning percentage is also the lowest of any Cardinal team in this century, breaking the one-year-old record of the 2016 team that floundered along at 24-35 (.407) against teams that won at least as many as they lost.

I promise you that the talent gap isn’t that great between the Cardinals and the other winning teams in the league.  This points strictly to toughness.

Over the course of the entire century, St Louis is 766-566 (.575) after a loss, and 713-688 (.509) against winning teams.

So, who are the players who have routinely fallen short in these character games?  It’s time, I suppose, to name names.

Stephen Piscotty

Enduring the worst season of his career, Piscotty also routinely came up short in tough situations.  He hit .213 against winning teams (29 for 136) with 3 home runs.  This included a .179 average (5 for 28 – all singles) after the All-Star Break.  During the season’s second half he was also 10 for 57 (.175) in games after a loss, and just 3 for 24 with runners in scoring position.  Renowned for his prowess with runners in scoring position through the first two seasons of his career, Piscotty hit just .125 in the second half this year with ducks on the pond.

I don’t think anyone in the organization believes that 2017 will be a representative year in the career of Stephen Piscotty.  A combination of things conspired to derail his season early, and he never found his way back.  But, with talented outfielders rising through the system, the organization will now be forced to re-evaluate their commitment to Piscotty.  Further complicating the issue is that, should they decide to trade Stephen, they are unlikely to get full trade value.

Piscotty is a very cerebral player, and very likely to figure things out.  Whatever his future with the organization, Stephen is one player who could profit greatly by hitting the ground running next season.

Luke Weaver

This, I suppose, should be expected.  Rookie right-hander Luke Weaver was mostly a revelation during the last part of the second half.  But the young man still has some lessons to learn that the league’s better clubs are all too willing to teach.

Luke made 5 starts against winning teams, culling just 1 quality start.  He served up 6 home runs in 24.2 innings, compiling a 2-2 record with an 8.03 ERA and a .321/.381/.547 batting line against.  It will be interesting to see how quickly he learns and adapts.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman was a bit exposed – especially late in the season – by the better teams.  In 35 games (26.2 innings) against higher quality opponents, Matthew was pushed around a bit to the tune of a 5.06 ERA and a .284 batting average against.

Not So Cut and Dried

A few of the players on the team, though, defy an easy label.  In this difficult off-season, these will be the hardest decisions the organization will have to make, as guessing wrong will come with consequences.

Randal Grichuk

For the last two seasons, Randal has been the almost-emergent superstar.  In each of the last two seasons, his final numbers have disappointed.  But in both seasons he has shown enough hint of promise to earn another chance.

Grichuk finished 2017 with much the same totals as 2016.  The batting average fell a couple of notches to .238 (from .240) and the home runs dipped from 24 to 22.  He ended 2017 slugging .473 after slugging .480 the year before.  Overall, less than compelling.

But, he did hit .265/.303/.550 with 13 of his home runs in 189 at bats after the break.  So now, the organization has to decide if that was just a tease?  Or is it real progress?

He ended the year at just .218 (43 of 197) against winning teams, but hit 11 of his 22 home runs against them.  In the second half, he was 20 of 83 (.241) when playing winning teams, but with a .542 slugging percentage as half of those 20 hits went for extra bases – including 7 home runs.

In games after a loss, Randal checked in with a disappointing .201 average (36 of 179), including just .188 (15 for 80) in the second half – but again, with a .438 slugging percentage.

Randal mostly split right field with Piscotty in the season’s second half.  In Grichuk’s 34 starts the team was 22-12.  They were 13-18 in Piscotty’s 31 starts.

There is no question that Randal was productive in the second half.  His 13 home runs were only 3 behind team-leader Paul DeJong in 100 fewer at bats.  If the Grichuk of the second half had had a 500 at bat season he would have hit 34 home runs with his .265 batting average and .550 slugging percentage.

With Randal’s potential, you would hope for more than that.  But, if the Randal they saw in the second half is the Randal that they can count on seeing all of next year, I think they could accept that.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter’s entire season is tough to get a handle on.  On the one hand, he drew a career high 109 walks, leading to the second-highest on-base percentage of his career (.384).  On the other hand, his batting average continued to sink – down to .241 (30 points lower than his previous worst average).  On the other hand, he was apparently battling shoulder issues all season – perhaps accounting for much of that loss of production.  On the other hand, after playing in at least 154 games a year from 2013 through 2015, Matt has followed with two injury plagued seasons.  He also hit 23 home runs (his third consecutive 20-homer season) and slugged a solid .451.  His final OPS of .835 is still well above league average, but below either of his previous two seasons.

In his games against winning teams, Matt hit just .221 (49 of 222), but drew 38 walks, helping him to a .341 on base percentage.  He made 141 starts this year, with the team going 70-71 (.496) when he was in the lineup, and 13-8 (.619) when he wasn’t.

So did Matt have a good year or not? With the home runs and the on base, I suppose that I would have to call it good, but troubling.  By degrees, Matt is becoming more valuable for his ability to walk than for his ability to hit the ball.  And, by degrees, the team is starting to feel the loss of that big hit.

Carpenter is one of the team’s core members, and he will be on the field somewhere on opening day (barring another injury).  But a lot of elements in his career trajectory concern me.

Michael Wacha

While this was – in many ways – a triumphal season for Michael Wacha, he is still coming up short in these character games.  After suffering through three injury plagued seasons, an offseason workout regimen kept Michael on the field for 30 starts and 165.2 innings.  The anticipation is that his 12-9 record and 4.13 ERA will be marks to build on going forward.

It may, indeed, play out that way.  It is, nonetheless, true, that Wacha (who excelled against good teams and in stopper situations early in his career) continues to trend down in these games.

From 2013 through 2015, Wacha pitched in 40 games (35 starts) against teams that boasted winning records for the season.  He was 15-9 in those games with a 3.08 ERA and a .217 batting average against.

In 2013 and 2014, Wacha pitched in 12 games (10 starts) after a Cardinal loss.  He was 5-3 with a 2.88 ERA in those situations, holding batters to a .195 batting average.

In 2017, Wacha was only 2-6 in 12 starts against winning teams.  His 5.90 ERA was accompanied by a .296/.365/.502 batting line against.  He was 5-4 in 13 starts following a Cardinal loss, but with a 4.76 ERA.  Since 2015, Wacha is 4-10 against winning teams with a 5.70 ERA, and since 2014 he is 15-9, but with a 4.64 ERA in games after a loss.

Wacha is yet another enigma on this team.  Beyond the physical issues, there has been a palpable loss of mojo.  The spectacular hero of the 2013 playoffs has lost that big game feel.  Wacha is one of the players who could make a huge difference next year if he can channel his earlier self.

Carlos Martinez

In spite of the fact that he tossed his first two complete-game shutouts and crossed over both the 200-inning and 200-strikeout plateaus for the first time in his career, Carlos Martinez regressed noticeably in 2017.  After going 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA in 2015 (his first year in the rotation), and 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year, Carlos saw those numbers sink to 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA.  And the core difficulty that he had was with winning teams.

In his first two seasons in the rotation, Martinez had gone 12-9 with a 3.35 ERA against winning teams.  He had put together quality starts in 17 of his 26 starts against them.

He made 15 starts against winning teams this year.  Only 7 of those fulfilled the standards for a quality start.  Even though he has “stuff” the equal of any pitcher in the game, he was only 4-7 with a 4.28 ERA in those games.  He was just 1-3 with a 6.12 ERA with a .301 batting average against them in the second half of the season.  After allowing just 12 home runs in 166.2 innings against winning teams his first two years in the rotation, he served up 11 in 90.1 innings against them last year.

In all likelihood, this is just a bump in the road for Carlos.  But there were a couple of concerning developments that I noticed that need to be solved somehow, or Martinez will never realize his potential.

For one thing, Martinez continually tries to do too much.  His anointing as the ace of the staff this year may have fed into this tendency.  Especially in big games, he tries too much to give extra effort.  In a game that rewards players that learn to play within themselves, this will usually be counterproductive.

It was noted that Carlos complicated three consecutive late-season starts by throwing away routine double-play balls.  More than this, though, Martinez’ need to do too much affected his fielding for much of the season.  He dove, scrambled, and lunged for every near-by ground ball.  He probably caused nearly a dozen infield hits by deflecting grounders that would have been right to his infielders.

On several occasions, he even kicked at ground balls to his right, like a hockey goalie trying to make a skate save.  Now, I ask you, what good could come of that?  Who in the world could make a play on a ball that Carlos has deflected with his foot?

It’s all part and parcel of a young pitcher losing control of himself.

The other issue is even more concerning.  There sometimes – especially in big games – seems to be an emotional fragility to Martinez.  Something in his confidence seems to drain if the opposing team has early success against him.  He hasn’t fully mastered the ability to gather himself after bad things happen and continue to pitch within himself.

There is no better example of this than the game that sent the Cardinal season spinning toward its final destination (box score).

For ten batters on a beautiful Friday afternoon in Wrigley, Carlos Martinez was untouchable.  His 100-mph fast ball jumped and ran like a thing alive, and his slider was about eleven different flavors of filthy.  The defending champion Cubs – possessors of one of the most potent lineups in baseball – couldn’t touch him.  Five of the ten batters struck out, and four of the others hit groundouts.  Of his first 43 pitches, 30 were strikes.

Then Kris Bryant – the eleventh batter to face him – looped a fly ball to right on a 2-0 pitch.  It wasn’t hit terribly well or terribly far.  If this incident had happened at Busch, Piscotty would have probably been about a step on the track as he made the catch.  But in Wrigley it was just far enough to creep over that overhanging basket for a game-tying home run.

And with that, the air went out of Carlos Martinez.

The first 10 batters he faced got no hits.  Six of the last 16 he faced got hits.  After striking out 5 of the first 10, he didn’t strike out another batter.  While 30 of his first 43 pitches were strikes, only 31 of his final 57 made it to the strike zone.  None of the first 10 batters walked.  Carlos walked 3 of the last 16 and hit another as his once dominating slider flew wildly all over the place.

Carlos ended the affair lasting just 5.1 innings.  On a day that he started with devastating stuff, he ended serving up 7 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks.

Being “the man” requires uncommon mental and emotional discipline.  The next level for Martinez lies just beyond that barrier.

Let it be noted that in three years in the rotation, Carlos is 17-8 with a 2.96 ERA in games after a loss.  That includes his 4-3, 2.61 mark this year in those situations.

Better Than the Numbers Suggest

One player deserves mention in a better category.  His contribution was greater than his numbers might suggest.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler was the big free agent acquisition after being one of the drivers of Chicago’s championship the year before.  His final numbers were sort of ordinary (.264 batting average with 18 home runs).  He also hit just .225 (42 for 187) against winning teams, and .237 (52 of 219) in games following a loss.  Not overly impressive.

But Fowler’s season was a story of two halves.  Hobbled by a variety of injuries in the first half (mostly his feet), Dexter limped to a .248 average (albeit with 14 home runs).  He had hit .199 (27 of 136) against winning teams, and .201 (28 of 139) in games after a loss.

As his health improved, Fowler became a decided force for good throughout the second half.  He hit .288/.400/.488 after the break, including .294 with a .400 on base percentage against winning teams, and .300 with a .402 on base percentage in games after a loss.

The guy I saw at the end of the season is the guy I’m excited to see all year next year.

Setting the Bar

The Cardinals did have a few players who consistently rose to the challenge of the games against the better teams.  They should get a notice as well.

Tommy Pham

Tommy’s break-through season wasn’t limited to beating up on lesser teams.  Tommy hit .287 against over .500 teams with a .391 on base percentage.  He also hit .330/.451/.558 in games after a loss.  He also hit .305/.420/.514 with runners in scoring position.  Tommy had himself a year.

Lance Lynn

It’s probably fitting that I spend the last few paragraphs that I am likely to devote to the 2017 baseball season to Lance Lynn.  While the Cardinals repeatedly fell short against winning teams, Lance was 4-3 against them, with 4 other potential wins lost in the bullpen.  He posted a 3.09 ERA against these teams in 78.2 innings, with a .196 batting average against him.

Are we really, really sure we want to cut ties with him?

Final Word

Again, I am just one voice.  But the message clearly sent from the 2017 season is that this team’s greatest need is not some aging slugger to bat fourth.  The greatest gap between the Cards and the Cubs – and the other good teams in the majors – is the character gap.  If this were my team, this is the area that I would focus on first.

Living in a Grinders Paradise

A trend I have mentioned a few times over the last part of the season reached – I hope – its nadir last night.  A Cardinal team that seems increasingly unwilling to swing the bat watched pitch after pitch go by last night.  Of the 173 pitches delivered over 11 grueling innings in a game the Cardinals desperately needed to keep alive their faint playoff hopes, the Cards swung at only 62 (36%).  They did grind – averaging as a team 4.22 pitches per plate appearance (for context, Matt Carpenter averages 4.45 pitches per plate appearance for the season).  But 40.5% of the pitches they took were called strikes, leading to 17 strikeouts and only 4 walks.  Eight of the 17 Cardinals who struck out were called out on strikes

Meanwhile, St Louis finished the eleven-inning fiasco with 1 run and only 6 hits.  The team batting average falls to .239 for the month.

Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham was about the only offense the Cards had going for them last night.  With 2 singles and a walk, Pham added 2 stolen bases and scored the team’s only run.  Tommy is still finishing strong.  He is now up to .306 with a .444 on base percentage for the month.  Since the All-Star Break, Pham is hitting .321 (75 for 234) with a .437 on base percentage (Tommy has walked 43 times, been hit by 6 pitches, and has stolen 14 bases in 17 attempts in the season’s second half).

Of the 29 pitches tossed to Tommy last night, he only swung at 7.  All season, Pham has been one of the most selective of the Cardinal hitters.  For the season, he only swings at 38.1% of the pitches he sees.  As the season goes on, though, Tommy is getting even more selective.  This month, his swing percentage is down to 33.4%.

Matt Carpenter

Struggling with a balky shoulder off and on all year, Matt Carpenter’s season came to an ignominious end with an 0-for-4 that featured 4 strikeouts.  Matt finishes September hitting .230 (but with a .420 on base percentage as he drew his twentieth walk in his twenty-one games).

When Carpenter came to the plate in the third inning with a runner at first and one out, it would be the 97th and final opportunity for Matt to ground into a double play.  He struck out.  One thing about striking out and hitting fly balls – they keep you out of double plays.  Matt bounced into only 5 all year.  Among season-long regulars, his 5.2% was the lowest on the team.

After the game, Matt admitted to taking pitches he might otherwise have swung at.  The evidence is in the statistics.  Over the course of the season, Carpenter swung at the first pitch just 13.2% of the time.  In the second half of the season, that ratio dropped to only 9.2%.  In 82 September plate appearances, Carpenter swung at the first pitch just 3 times.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler couldn’t break out of his late season swoon in time to extend the Cardinals hopes.  He was also 0 for 4 with 3 strikeouts.  Fowler welcomes Milwaukee hitting just .185 (5 for 27) over his last 7 games.

Fowler swung the bat 13 times last night, missing on 6 of the swings.  During the month of September, Dexter is missing on a team-leading 30.6% of his swings – higher even than Randal Grichuk’s 30.1%.

Dexter also saw 29 pitches last night (5.8 per).  For the month of September he trails only Carpenter in pitches per PA with 4.24.

Stephen Piscotty

As he returned from Memphis, Piscotty expressed the hope that he could get hot coming down the stretch.  That didn’t happen.  Piscotty went hitless in 3 at bats last night, and is 0 for 13 over his last 5 games.  It has been 15 games since Stephen has driven in a run – a span during which he has hit .191 (9 for 47) with only 2 extra base hits.  His September average is down to .231, and for the second half it’s down to just .229 (25 for 109).

Piscotty also had an opportunity to bounce into a double play.  In the fourth inning he had Jedd Gyorko on first with one out.  Stephen didn’t bounce into the double play.  He struck out into it instead.  Still, this month, Piscotty has bounced into just 1 DP in 17 such opportunities.

Carson Kelly

Carson Kelly made his fourth start in the last five games last night.  He is 1 for 15 (.067), and is 0 for 11 since Yadier Molina went on concussion protocol.  Carson is the top rated catching prospect in baseball.  It would help, though, if he would get a hit once in a while.

All four first pitches to Carson last night were strikes – although he only swung at one of them.  In his 30 plate appearances, Carson is seeing first pitch strikes 76.7% of the time.  No other non-pitcher on the team is getting challenged with the first pitch as often as Kelly.

Kelly swung the bat 4 times last night, fouling a pitch off and putting the ball in play with his other swings.  Kelly has only missed on 16.2% of his swings since joining the team.  He is also putting the ball in play with an impressive 49.5% of his swings.

Lance Lynn

If this was, indeed, Lance Lynn’s last start as a Cardinal it ended on a fairly ironic note.  Noted early in his career for the consistency of run support that he received, Lance will exit seeing no runs scored for him in his last game.  Moreover, this will be the third time in his last 5 games that St Louis was kept off the scoreboard while he was the pitcher of record.  In fact, over his last 27 starts, the Cardinals averaged just 3.00 runs per start for him.

Lance, nonetheless, finishes with an excellent 3.43 ERA – which was 3.21 in 15 second half starts in his first season returned from Tommy John surgery.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil delivered a scoreless seventh in the tie game, and continues to show incremental improvement in the season’s dying days.  His September ERA drops to 2.25 in 12 innings.  He had them three-up-and-three down on 9 pitches last night.  In his September innings, Brett is only facing 3.42 batter per inning, and throwing just 12.08 pitches per inning.  Over the course of the whole season, Cecil has thrown just 3.58 pitches per batter.

Eight of his nine pitches were strikes.  He spent almost the entire first half looking for the strike zone, as only 63.5% of his pre-All-Star Game pitches were strikes.  Between the break and the beginning of September, his percentage jumped to 69.4%.  This month, 73.1% of his pitches have been strikes.

Juan Nicasio

Juan Nicasio kept them off the board in the eighth, but it took him 20 pitches to work through the inning.  Since he has been a Cardinal, Juan has averaged 17.5 pitches per inning, and 4.38 pitches per batter.  Only Tyler Lyons (18.45 and 4.41) has thrown more pitches per inning and per batter this month than Nicasio.

Sam Tuivailala

Sam Tuivailala kept the game tied through the ninth.  Sam has been having a very solid September.  He now has a 2.00 ERA in 9 innings this month.  He faced only 3 batters last night, throwing 7 strikes in just 9 pitches.  This month, Sam is averaging just 3.56 batters per inning, just 12.00 pitches thrown per inning, just 3.38 pitches per batter, while throwing strikes with 73.1% of his pitches.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia dispatched his 3 batters in the tenth (including one who struck out) on only 8 pitches.  Even though Brebbia has struck out 17 batters in 10.2 innings this month, he has done so throwing a surprisingly economical 3.36 pitches per batter.  Seven of last night’s eight pitches were strikes.  John throws strikes 68.5% of the time over the course of the season.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman faced 5 batters in last night’s decisive eleventh inning.  One of them struck out, and the other four hit ground balls.  It resulted in two hits and the run that eliminated the Cardinals from playoff contention.  That’s the way the ball bounces sometimes.

Matthew has gotten ground balls from 14 of the 21 batters he’s faced this month, and 56.2% on the year – the highest ratio of anyone on the staff with more than 20 innings pitched.

Elimination Season Almost Ended

For all their warts, the Cardinals were the second to last team to be eliminated from playoff contention this year.  Milwaukee or Colorado will be the last.  Everyone else is already in or out.

NoteBook

With the loss, the Cardinals fall to 43-35 at home.  Of the 25 home series they have played, they have won 12, lost 10, and split the other 3.

With Milwaukee having won two of three from Cincinnati, the Cards will play no more teams this season that have either lost or split their previous series.  So the final tallies on those situations are:

St Louis finished just 37-36 against teams that had lost their previous series.  Those games averaged 3:06, and drew a total attendance of 2,563,414 (an average of 35,115.3) and were played in average temperatures of 78.5 degrees.  We went 11-10-2 in those series, sweeping 3 of the 5 we had a chance to sweep, and being swept in 3 of the 4 that we were in danger of being swept in.  We were 4-5 in rubber games against teams that had lost their previous series.

We only played 6 teams this season that had split their previous series, and we beat them up in good order, going 13-4 in those games.  Those games averaged 2:58.8 and drew a total attendance of 726,554 (an average of 42,738.5).  The average temperature of those games was 79.4 degrees.  We won 5 of the 6 series, including sweeps in 3 of 4 opportunities while avoiding the sweep in the only such series lost all season.  We won the one rubber game played in these series.

Cards Withstand Eighth Inning Rally

After three hours and 46 minutes – and 349 pitches – the St Louis Cardinals – clinging by their fingernails in the chase for the National League’s last playoff spot and in a death struggle against their ancient rivals – finally held on to one of the season’s most uncomfortable victories, 8-7 (box score).

Starter Carlos Martinez ground through 4.1 innings that were complicated by 4 hits, 4 walks, a hit batsman, and a batter reaching on a catcher’s interference call that wiped out a potential double play.  In all, that’s 10 base-runners.  But, in a departure from his earlier form, Carlos didn’t unravel.  Pitching under nearly constant pressure, Carlos held his stuff together, allowed only 3 of the runners to score (only two of them earned), and walked off the mound holding a 5-3 lead.

And then there was the eighth inning.  In a throwback to the thready first half when the Cardinal bullpen hemorrhaged runs in that inning, two Chicago home runs put 4 sudden runs on the board and closed St Louis’ big lead back down to a single run.  The Cubs ended the game putting the tying run in scoring position in both the eighth and ninth innings against newly ordained closer Juan Nicasio.

But – for one night, anyway – the Cardinals were the tough ones as they won enough of the tough at bats to hold off the defending world champs.

Time to exhale.

That Nettlesome Eighth Inning

Repeatedly through the first 88 games of the season, games would blow up on the Cards in the eighth inning.  They limped into the break with a 5.63 ERA in this inning, and a .281 batting average against.  Up until last night, the relative competence of the late inning relief corps was one of the marked improvements in the team.  Up until last night, the team’s second half ERA in the eighth inning was 3.44 with a .230 batting average against.

The two home runs in that inning last night bring to 12 the number of eighth inning home runs hit against the Cardinals since the All-Star Break – one more than in any other inning (there have been 11 hit in both the first and fourth innings).  For the season, now, more runs have been scored against this team in the eighth inning (91) than in any other (85 have been scored in the fifth, the next highest inning).  Their ERA in that inning is still 4.87.

Pitchers Still Struggling

Even though Martinez had some gritty moments, at the end of the day, the Cards have still gone 11 straight games without a quality start, and, surrendering 6 more earned runs, the team ERA is up to 5.87 over those games.  The last 11 Cardinal starters have managed just 44.1 innings – fractionally more than 4 per start – with an 8.53 ERA and a .308 batting average against.  If this keeps up, even a sometimes heroic offense will be unable to keep this team in playoff contention.

Carlos Martinez

While he had moments, and all ended well, Martinez is still struggling through the final playoff push.  Over his last 3 starts, Carlos has made it through just 16 innings with a 7.31 ERA and a .279 batting average against.  Through 5 starts in the month of September, Carlos is 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA.

Ironically for Carlos – considering his season long issues with the first inning – the first innings of his last three starts have been perfect.  In his 5 September starts, Carlos has allowed just 1 baserunner – a walk that didn’t score – in the first innings of those games.  Now, it’s the second inning that’s the issue.  His ERA is now 7.20 this month in the second.

Zach Duke

Zach Duke ended the messy fifth inning, and then tossed a flawless sixth.  Zach, who looks like he has finely found that mystic slider, struck out 3 of the 5 Cubs that he faced.  Over this stretch where the starters have been putting a lot on the shoulders of the bullpen, Zach has been one of the members of the pen who has stepped forward.  He holds a 1.69 ERA over the last 11 games (he’s pitched in 6 of them).  Zach has stranded his last 12 inherited runners.

Eight is Enough for the Offense

While September hasn’t been their most efficient month, the Cardinals are still putting enough runs on the board most nights to get a victory.  With the 8 last night, they are averaging 4.88 this month, and 5.01 in the second half.

Tommy Pham

The Summer of Pham isn’t quite over yet.  With 2 more hits last night – including a home run into Big Mac Land, Tommy Pham has pushed his September batting line to .303/.432/.576.  Since the All-Star Break, Tommy has been to the plate 277 times, with the following results: 46 singles, 14 doubles, 1 triple, 12 home runs, 40 walks, 6 hit-by-pitches, 2 sacrifice bunts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts – a batting line of .320/.433/.548.  In his last 65 games (59 starts), Pham has scored 50 runs.

Jedd Gyorko

With two more hits last night, Jedd Gyorko now has 5 in his last two games – including 2 home runs.  He is now hitting .350 (7 for 20) over his last 7 games (about the time he moved back into the starting lineup), with a .700 slugging percentage.  A hot Gyorko down the stretch could make a big difference.

Randal Grichuk

As September has worn on, it seems that Stephen Piscotty has claimed the top spot in the pecking order in right field.  Randal Grichuk got a spot start there last night and drove in two important runs with opposite field extra-base hits.

Grichuk has never become the superstar that Cardinal fans have hoped.  Not yet anyway.  And it certainly feels like this will be his last month as a Cardinal.  St Louis does have a glut of outfielders.  But, before Randal returns to the bench to watch the end of the season play out, it should be noted that since the All-Star Break Grichuk is a .270/.311/.556 hitter.  In 178 second half at bats, Randal has hit 12 home runs, tied for second on the team with Pham (who has hit his in 228 at bats) and trailing only Paul DeJong (who has hit 15 in 272 at bats).  As they say, these numbers will play.

My point, I guess, is to not be too hasty in unloading the talented Mr. Grichuk.  And, maybe, to give him a few more starts down the stretch.

NoteBook

Matt Carpenter’s first inning home run stood up as the game-winning hit – Carpenter’s fifth of the season.  The team leaders going into the last 5 games of the season are Dexter Fowler with 12; Yadier Molina – 11; Gyorko – 9; Carpenter, DeJong, Grichuk, and Kolten Wong all with 5.

Ten Two-Out Runs Topple the Cards

As if the mental toughness gap that separates the Cardinals and the Cubs needed any more emphasis, Chicago applied another demonstration last night, scoring 10 two-out runs in a 10-2 victory (box score).  For the game, Chicago was 8 for 17 with 2 doubles, 2 home runs and 3 walks with two-outs, a .471/.550/.941 batting line.

Starting Pitching Leads the Great Collapse

Twelve games ago, everything was on the table for the Cardinals.  Coming off a 13-4 battering of Cincinnati in the first game of that series, St Louis stood 76-68, and just two games behind Chicago.  In front of them, they had two more games with Cincinnati, and then seven shots at the Cubs over their final 12 games – with six games against bottom dwellers Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in between.

They couldn’t possibly have been anymore “in it.”

But, beginning with a 6-0 loss to Cincinnati that next day, they have skidded to a 5-7 record over the first 12 games of that crucial stretch – including 4 losses in 4 games against Chicago.  And at the forefront of the tailspin is the starting rotation that we had pinned our hopes on, both for the season and for this crucial stretch.  After last night’s 3-inning, 8-run battering of Luke Weaver, St Louis has just 1 quality start in its last 12 games.  During this stretch, the rotation has pitched fewer innings than the bullpen (50.1 to 53.2), with a 7.69 ERA and a .292 batting average against.

Even after all of this, the Cards still have an outside shot at the second Wild Card.  But at some point their starting pitching will have to give them a chance.

They are much less “in it,” now

Luke Weaver

While he is the latest contributor, Weaver is probably the least responsible for the collapse in the rotation.  He owns the only quality start over the last 12 games, and could have had a second as he led 8-2 after five innings when he was relieved after his last start.  His worst game of the season interrupted a 7-game winning streak, during which he held a 1.61 ERA in 44.2 innings.

Eight of the nine batters who reached against Luke scored yesterday.

Sam Tuivailala

Since the All-Star Break, Sam Tuivailala has been experiencing more difficulties with the first out than the last.  In his seventh inning last night, he gave a leadoff single, but got a double play and a strikeout to avoid any scoring.  Over his last 19.1 innings, batters hitting with no one out are now hitting .333 (9 for 27).  They are now 4 for 23 (.174) with two outs.

Zach Duke

The damage, of course, could have been worse.  Already ahead 10-2, the Cubs had the bases loaded with – again – two out, with Anthony Rizzo at the plate in the eighth inning.  Zach Duke was summoned to put out the fire – which he did by getting a ground out.  It was one of the few times last night that Chicago didn’t get the two-out hit, but rather par for the course for Duke.

Zach has now held batters to a .211 batting average with two outs (4 for 19) this season.  He has stranded his last 11 inherited runners – including twice with the bases loaded.

Hits Still Scarce

While the starters have been creating early deficits, the offense can’t shake its general hitting slump.  With only 6 hits last night, the Cards carry a .243 team batting average for the month – including .240 over the last 12 games.

Jedd Gyorko

With Jose Martinez still battling an injury and Matt Carpenter still slumping, the three hits from Jedd Gyorko last night were a welcomed sight.  Back in the starting lineup, Gyorko is beginning to get his timing back.  Over his last 6 games (5 of them starts), Jedd is hitting .313 (5 for 16).

Jedd’s hits included a two out single in the sixth inning.  All season, Jedd has been one of our better two-out hitters.  He is now hitting .286 this year (36 for 126) with two outs.  Twenty-six of his 66 runs batted in have come with two outs.  He ranks second on the club in two-out batting average (behind only Dexter Fowler) and in two-out runs batted in (behind Yadier Molina’s 29).

Dexter Fowler

As for Fowler, he added two more hits last night, and continues to be the most consistent offensive force on the team.  He has only played in 9 of the last 12 games, but with spectacular effect, hitting .417 (15 for 36) and slugging .750 (3 doubles and 3 home runs).  He has scored 7 runs and driven in 11 in those 9 games.  Since the All-Star break, Dexter has been a .304/.414/.506 hitter.

All of Dexter’s at bats came with two out last night.  He is now 6 for his last 13 two-out at bats – accounting for 5 two-out runs batted in.  As mentioned, Dexter has been the team’s best two-out hitter this year.  He is 38 for 114 with 7 doubles, one triple, 7 home runs and 23 walks – a .333/.449/.596 batting line.  He now has 25 two-out RBIs this season.

Tommy Pham

After hitting .286 with a .429 on base percentage in the first half when batting with two outs, Tommy Pham has struggled to extend innings in the second half – and especially this month.  With his 0-for-2 in last night’s two-out at bats, Tommy is 4 for 21 (.190) this month, and 12 for 51 (.235) in the second half with two outs.  He did, however, draw a two-out walk, his eleventh since the break, keeping his on base percentage at .391 in this situation in the second half.

Paul DeJong

In the middle of the sagging offense is rookie Paul DeJong.  Heroic for much of the season, Paul is fading at the finish.  After his 0-for-3 last night, he is hitting .163 (7 for 43) over these last 12 games.  He is down to .229 (19 for 83) for the month.

During his compelling first half, Paul was uncanny when hitting with no one out – he hit .408 with a .735 slugging percentage.  After popping out to lead off the sixth, DeJong is 1 for his last 17 (an infield hit, at that) when batting with no one out.

The Cardinals had none of their leadoff hitters reach base last night.

Yadier Molina

Yadi is another of the hitters who has struggled during the 12-game downturn.  Molina has played in 11 of the games, hitting .162 (6 for 37) after his 0-for-3 last night.  Molina is now down to .233 for the month (17 for 73).

Stephen Piscotty

Given the lion’s share of the playing time in right field, Stephen Piscotty hasn’t really taken advantage.  With the team struggling for hits and runs, Piscotty has now gone 13 games without driving in a run.  He is hitting .209 (9 for 43) in those games.

Piscotty struck out to end the sixth.  With two outs, now, Stephen is 0 for his last 6, and 1 for 17 (.059) this month.  Since the All-Star Break, Stephen is hitting .156 when hitting with two outs.

Kolten Wong

And, of course, no listing of slumping Cardinal hitters would be complete without including Kolten Wong.  He was also 0 for 3 last night.  Over the last 12 games, Kolten is scuffling along at .125 (4 for 32).  In September, Wong is hitting just .170 (9 for 53).

Wong’s struggles with two outs are very similar to Piscotty’s.  After ending the second inning with a strikeout, Wong is 0 for his last 7, 1 for 13 (.077) this month, and 12 for 61 (.197) since the All-Star Break when hitting with two outs.  He is only a .212 two-out hitter for the season.

Elimination Season Draws to Its Conclusion

As the Cardinals were officially closed out of the NL Central chase, the playoff picture has begun to take definite shape.  The Cardinal’s division is one of only two left unsettled, and that by the slimmest of margins.  Milwaukee will need St Louis to win all of the remaining games in this series to have a chance.  Boston is holding off the Yankees by 4 games in the AL East.  All other division winners have been crowned (Cleveland, Houston, Washington and the Dodgers).

Minnesota will likely be the second Wild Card in the AL – after the Yankees.  A handful of teams trail them, but none closer than 5 games.  Arizona is the top Wild card in the NL.

That second NL Wild Card is the lone remaining playoff spot that will be hotly contested over the season’s last 6 days.  Currently, Colorado holds the spot, with the Brewers 1.5 games behind and, yes, the Cardinals one game behind that.

The Hot Team Hits One of the First Two Pitches

Within five pitches.  That’s how the game account of the Cardinal’s damaging 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh read (box score).  One-time closer Seung-hwan Oh had entered the fifth inning of a 1-1 tie.  The first batter he faced – Christopher Bostick – singled on an 0-2 pitch.  Starling Marte followed by unloading on Oh’s 0-1 pitch.  Five pitches, five strikes, two runs.  And a loss.

All pitchers make mistakes, but mistakes early in the at bat are almost always more damaging.  There is a simple dynamic at play here.  Batters (most of them) are more aggressive early in the count, looking for something they can drive.  Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference) when batters hit one of the first two pitches thrown them, they hit .340 with a .573 slugging percentage.  If the pitcher survives those first two pitches, his average against tumbles to .222 with a .369 slugging percentage.  Overall, batters hit one of the first two pitches 26% of the time.  Yesterday, Cardinal pitchers – including veterans Oh and Brett Cecil – saw 11 of the 35 batters who faced them hit one of the first two pitches (31.4%).  The damage was predictable: 6 for 11, including both home runs and a triple.

In a final twist from the first game of the series, when the Cards were jumping on the first strike thrown to them, St Louis was only 1 for 9 when they hit one of the first two pitches thrown.

The hot team – apparently – hits one of the first two pitches.

Seung-hwan Oh

There is little left to say about the season that Oh is having.  The numbers do tell the story.  The last 4 times he has come into a game that was either tied or one run either way, Oh has managed just 2.1 innings, serving 3 runs on 5 hits (including 2 home runs) – this all leading to a loss, a blown save, a .455 batting average against, and a 1.000 slugging percentage against.

Over his last 13 games, Oh’s ERA is 8.31, and in 18.2 innings since the All-Star Break, Seung-hwan carries a 5.30 ERA, and a batting line against of .303/.333/.500.

I’m not sure where Mike Matheny’s continued confidence in him comes from.

Brett Cecil

Cecil is another depended-upon reliever whose season is fading to a close.  He has now allowed runs in two of his last three games, while his ERA rises to 4.79 with a .304 batting average against since the All-Star break.

“Early mistakes” is one of the trends that has helped define Brett’s disappointing season.  Fully 31.2% of the batters he has faced this season have gotten to him in the first two pitches (including Pittsburgh’s Jordan Luplow who homered off the first pitch he saw from Cecil last night).  Overall, batters who hit one of Brett’s first two pitches are hitting .420 and slugging .642.  When he survives to pitch 3, the batting line against him drops to .199/.257/.325.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia added another good inning.  He threw the seventh, giving a hit, but no runs with 2 strike outs.  This makes six straight scoreless outings for John, and leaves him with just 2 runs allowed in 9 innings this month.  Brebbia carries a 2.48 ERA in the season’s second half with 35 strikeouts in 29 innings.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons kept Pittsburgh off the board in the eighth.  Lyons’ great season continues.  He struck out two batters last night, and has fanned 7 of the last 11 to face him.  He has 37 strikeouts in 27 innings since the break (12.33 per 9 innings) and holds a 1.00 ERA during that stretch.

Lyons has faced 100 batters in the second half.  Only 15 have hit his first or second pitch.  For the season, just 20.5% hit those pitches against Tyler.  None of the 4 he faced last night managed a quick at bat against him.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals See a Lot of Pitches

When operating at peak efficiency, the Cardinals do a great job of walking that line between aggression and taking grinding at bats.  As September wears on, though, they are becoming – by degrees – more grinders than hitters.  Last night, 19 of their 36 batters (52.8%) were up there for more than 4 pitches – leading to 5 walks and a .368 on base percentage in those PAs.  For the month, 40.3% of Cardinal hitters are seeing at least 5 pitches per plate appearance – leading to 77 walks and a .391 on base percentage in those PAs.

But with all of this on base, the actual hits are starting to be few and far between.  The Cards only had 4 hits all game yesterday, and the batters who were grinding at bats were only 2 for 14.  For the month, the 40% of batters who are seeing at least 5 pitches are hitting just .202 in those at bats.  For the month overall, St Louis carries a .245 team batting average.

Tommy Pham

Among the carnage last night was the end of Tommy Pham’s latest hitting streak, a modest six-gamer during which Pham hit .444 (12 for 27) and slugged .667 (3 doubles and 1 home run).  Tommy scored 5 runs and drove in 5 other during the streak.

Jedd Gyorko

Bouncing back into the lineup after an extended absence is hard enough.  Without a few minor league games to warm up in, it’s even more difficult.  Jedd Gyorko – who was enduring a struggling second half anyway – has experienced further difficulty after returning from his hamstring injury.  Over his last 7 games, he is 2 for 15 (.133) and in the second half his average is down to .204 (29 for 142).

Jedd pushed all of his plate appearances last night past 4 pitches, and 9 of the 16 that he has had since his return.  Since the All-Star Break, 44.4% of his plate appearances have lasted at least 5 pitches.

But, again, Jedd was 0 for 2 last night.  He is also 1 for 8 this month and 12 for 54 (.222) since the break in at bats that last more than 4 pitches.

Kolten Wong

Also still struggling to regain his earlier form is Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, Wong is down to .180 (9 for 50) this month.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In spite of everything, St Louis makes it to the final homestand still moderately relevant.  A good homestand (meaning 5-2 or better) could very well eke this team into the playoffs.

That, of course, would mean that they would have to win games against Chicago and Milwaukee – tasks that they have found difficult to achieve with any consistency.  It they do sneak in, they will have done it the hard way.

NoteBook

Sunday’s game was the final road game of the season for the Cardinals.  The final road tally is: 39 wins, 42 losses, 402 runs scored, 374 runs allowed, 3:04.3 average game time, 2,537,288 total attendance (an average of 31,324.5 per game), 77.1 degrees of average temperature, 10 series won, 13 series lost, 3 series split, 4 series swept in 7 opportunities, while they were the victims of 5 sweeps in 6 opportunities.  They finished 2-7 in rubber games on the road.

The Pirate series was the twenty-fifth series this season that St Louis won the first game of the series.  With the loss, they are 16-5-4 in those series, with a 53-25 record (just 28-25 after that first game).

St Louis is now, also, 11-10-2 in series against teams that had lost their previous series.  They have been consistently unable to take advantage of teams that had been playing poorly.  They are just 37-36 in the games of those series, including just 4-5 in rubber games.

Cardinal Hitters Grind Down Reds’ Young Hurlers

These are the names of the Cincinnati pitchers who worked in last night’s game: Rookie Davis, Keury Mella, Luke Farrell, Deck McGuire, and Alejandro Chacin.  I haven’t taken the time to check how many games/innings these pitchers have thrown in the major leagues, but I would guess that it’s pretty negligible – and this is understandable as Cincinnati is trying to evaluate these young pitchers for next year and beyond.

Not always – as I can think of many games this year where young pitchers with minimal experience have tied the Cards in knots – but most of the time the patient, veteran Cardinal hitters have taken advantage of inexperienced (and sometimes veteran) pitchers.  They did this last night.

For background, across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), pitchers generally prosper if they can avoid getting that first pitch swung at.  If the batter takes that first pitch – regardless of whether it’s a ball or a strike – their average drops to .249 with a .417 slugging percentage – and even lower if the first pitch they take is a strike (.223 and .357).

But last night Cardinal hitters – even with the pressure of their uphill push to the playoffs – hit comfortably after taking the first pitch from these young pitchers.

Thirty-three of the forty-four Cardinal batters watched the first pitch go by.  They went on to hit .321/.424/.714.  Even the 17 that took first pitch strikes went on to hit .313/.353/1.250.

This isn’t necessarily an isolated occurrence.  Again (according to baseball reference), the Cards rank fourth in all of baseball in team batting average (.262) after taking the first pitch, trailing only Houston (.272), Colorado (.271), and Washington (.263).  They lead all of baseball in on base percentage in those at bats (.359).  The Cubs are second at .357.  They trail only Houston in slugging percentage after taking the first pitch, .450-.443.

I think all along as we have followed this team, we have appreciated their ability to take pitches and work at bats.  Perhaps we didn’t realize that they are among the best in baseball at this.

On the other hand, last night St Louis was only 2 for 10 when they swung at the first pitch.  For the month of September, this team is only hitting .224 when they swing at that first pitch.  Over all of baseball, batters hit .270 in at bats when they swing at the first pitch thrown.

With 9 more runs, St Louis is still scoring 4.89 runs per game this month, and 5.03 runs per game in the season’s second half.

Tommy Pham

Having a breakthrough season, Tommy Pham looks like he will be finishing strong.  With 3 more hits last night, Tommy has 7 in his last 3 games.  Pham now has 250 plate appearances since the All-Star Break.  These have resulted in 42 singles, 13 doubles, 1 triple, 10 home runs, 36 walks, 5 hit-by-pitches, 1 sacrifice bunt, 1 sacrifice fly, and 10 stolen bases.  It all adds up to a convincing .319/.430/.536 batting line.  Tommy has scored 47 runs in 59 games in the season’s second half.

In both the fifth and sixth innings, Tommy took first pitch fast balls right down the middle for strikes, and came back to get hits on pitches later in the at bat that were not as good as the first one he took.  Tommy is kind of the poster child for the Cardinals proficiency in hitting after taking the first pitch.  Pham is a .328/.447/.569 hitter this season when he takes the first pitch, and only a .259/.292/.402 hitter when he comes out swinging.  He was 0 for 1 last night when he swung at the first pitch.

Kolten Wong

While Tommy Pham is finishing his breakthrough season strong, Kolten Wong is limping toward the finish line.  While it’s impossible to tell how much is his back problem and how much is just a slump, what is known is that Kolten is 0 for 15 over his last 6 games, 3 for 32 (.094) over his last 11 games, and 5 for 36 (.139) this month.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver, in winning his sixth straight start and seventh straight decision, only went 5 innings last night, leaving a 6-run lead to the bullpen. Since his return from Memphis on August 17, Luke has pitched in 7 games – 6 as a starter.  He is 6-0 with a 1.41 ERA and 50 strikeouts over 38.1 innings in those games.  In four September starts Luke is 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA and a .209/.227/.291 batting line against.  He has 29 strikeouts in 23.2 September innings.

It is clear that the Cardinals wouldn’t have the slim playoff hope that they have without the notable contribution of Mr. Weaver.

Of the 20 batters Luke faced last night, 15 took his first pitch.  Only 3 of those was called a strike.  Getting ahead 1-0, though, against Luke Weaver doesn’t necessarily ease your way.  None of the 12 walked, and only two managed hits (both singles).  For the season, batters who start out 1-0 against Luke are only hitting .230.

Luke will throw that first-pitch fastball temptingly off the corner and invite the hitter to chase it.  If not, Luke’s fastball has enough late life that even when the hitter is looking for it, it’s hard to barrel up.  Luke is increasingly able to throw his curve and changeup for strikes when behind in the count – making that running fastball all the more difficult to get a jump on.

Luke walked no one last night (no Cardinal pitcher issued a walk), and only went to three-balls on 3 batters.  Luke is armed with a fastball that runs up at about 96.  But he also has great poise and knows how to pitch.  He’s quite developed for a kid who just turned 24.

Hopeful News from the Bullpen

Bullpens don’t tend to get too much notice in a 9-2 blowout (box score) – and understandably so.  But Cincinnati can hit a bit, so shutting them out on 1 hit over the last 4 innings was no mean feat.  During the month of September, the evolving Cardinal bullpen has inched its ERA down to 3.16.  Its reason for hope, but let’s wait and see if they can hold it together against Chicago and Milwaukee.

NoteBook

Last night was the first time in seven games that the Cardinals didn’t trail at some point of the contest.

With the victory, the Cards are 10-12-3 in road series this year.  They are now 37-40 on the road this season.

Yadier Molina’s two-run double brings him to 80 runs batted in this season – tying his career high set in 2013.

Over Early

Unfortunately, a couple of the marquee matchups from Week Two of the NFL were over early.  The most surprising of these was the Dallas-Denver game.  After a 13-3 season last year, the Cowboys lost to the Packers by an eyelash in the Divisional round.  At 9-7, Denver had just missed the playoffs.  The Broncos were expected to be greatly challenged by the potent Dallas Cowboys and their elite running game.

Instead, when they looked up at halftime, the Cowboys found themselves trailing 21-10, having been outgained 246-97, out-rushed (surprisingly) 96-12, and losing the time of possession battle 18:36-11:24.  Things didn’t get any better in the second half, and Denver rolled on through to a 42-17 victory (game book).  Trevor Siemian commanded the offense, throwing the ball just 32 times, while Denver battered the Cowboy defense to the tune of 39 rushes for 178 yards.  The Bronco offense operated at peak efficiency.

For the Cowboys, the mystifying numbers were 40 yards rushing – 24 of them from quarterback Dak Prescott – and 1 lone rushing first down.

Yes, Denver stacked the box to take away the run.  Yes, when that happens it is incumbent on the passing game to take advantage of one-on-one matchups in the secondary.  (Of course, with 3 elite cornerbacks who stuck like glue to the Dallas receivers, there weren’t really any matchups to exploit).

But even granting that, the bottom line is that Dallas handed the ball to star running back Ezekiel Elliott just 4 times in the first half, and only 9 times in the entire game.

In what will be a recurring message in this edition of football notes – and may be a recurring theme this season.  You have to at least try.  Dallas conceded their most potent offensive weapon, and played – I think – right into the hands of the Broncos.

Less surprising – perhaps – was the New England Patriots 36-20 conquest of New Orleans (game book).  The Saints are still a bit of a work in progress – especially defensively – and New England was stinging from a beating they had taken in Week One.  This game was 20-3 after one quarter, and 30-13 at the half.  While most of their running came late – after the game was well in hand, New England did finish up very balanced – 39 passes, 31 runs.  Tom Brady finished his afternoon with 447 yards and 3 touchdown passes.

As for New Orleans, yes, I know the score was lopsided pretty quickly.  But still, as far as the running game goes, you have to at least try.  After carrying the ball just 6 times for 18 yards in New Orleans’ first game, former Minnesota star Adrian Peterson carried just 8 times for 26 yards.  I can’t imagine this was the plan when he came to the Saints.

Over Early – Well, Maybe Not

Headed in that same direction were the Green Bay Packers, who looked up to find themselves down 24-7 at the half in Atlanta.  Green Bay, however, didn’t roll over.

With quarterback Aaron Rodgers chucking the ball 32 times in the second half – and throwing for 258 yards and a couple of touchdowns, the Packers threatened to make a game of it, ending up on the downside of a 34-23 score (game book).  The Packers were 3 for 3 on fourth down.

Green Bay has some work to do to narrow the gap between them and the Falcons.  One aspect that doesn’t help is their running game.  With Ty Montgomery enthroned as the “feature” back, the Pack finished the game with 59 rushing yards on 15 carries – 10 of them by Montgomery – while Rodgers threw the ball 50 times.  Again, Green Bay was in comeback mode – I get that.  But my concern is that this is about what Green Bay will always get from their running game.  I just don’t see Ty Montgomery carrying the ball 20 times a game and still being healthy through Week 8.

The Packers seem to be one-dimensional by design.  And even though Rodgers is a truly great quarterback, that puts enormous strain on that passing game – even when fully healthy.  And now with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb banged up a little, the sledding will get even rougher.

Tine to File a Missing Person’s Report?

In the moments following his team’s 27-20 loss in Kansas City (game book), Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson lamented his team’s inability to get their running game going.

Well, hmm.  Let’s see.  Quarterback Carson Wentz handed the ball off all of 8 times in the first half and 13 times all day.  This in a game that Philadelphia never trailed in by more than one score until the last two minutes.

You know what, Doug, you have to at least try to run the ball.  Last week I mentioned that a lack of a running game would eventually catch up to Wentz and the Eagle offense.  So this week, Wentz accounted for 55 of Philadelphia’s 107 running yards and was sacked six times.

During all of this, LeGarrette Blount – he of the 1100 yards for New England last year – has completely vanished.  After getting 14 carries in Week One, he got zero on Sunday.  His only touch of the day was one pass thrown in his direction – which he caught for 0 yards.

If you are missing for two weeks, isn’t that the legal threshold for filing a missing person’s report?

Cards Exposed Again by Winning Teams

One of the beautiful things about the 162-game marathon that is the major league baseball season, is that by the time it has run its course it will answer all questions.  Heading into the big series in Wrigley, I asked some questions about the mental edge the Cubs have had over the Cards for the last couple of years.  In three sunny afternoons in Chicago’s Northside, those questions were resoundingly answered.

While the Cardinals will continue to fight for a playoff spot – as they should – the three-game sweep by the Cubs that culminated with yesterday’s 4-3 loss (box score) has left their playoff hopes mostly untenable.  Left for the Cardinals is to sift through the pieces and begin to plan for next season.

One of the glaring realities of the Cardinal season is that they are decidedly lacking when faced with teams that win more than they lose.  They are now 25-39 for the season, and 8-12 since the All-Star Break, against winning teams.

Since the point where a 10-2 run positioned them just 2 games behind (with 18 to play at that time) they have lost 4 of 5 games.  The Cards have scored just 11 runs in their last 5 games.

Offensive Deficiencies

One of the constants in the Cardinals’ matchups with winning teams has been scarcity of runs.  They scored all of 6 in the 3 games in Wrigley.  They have averaged 3.95 runs per game in the 20 second half games they’ve played against winning teams, and are averaging 3.92 against them for the season.  They average 5.31 runs per game against sub-.500 teams.

Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham certainly had opportunities to do more damage, but you couldn’t have realistically asked much more from him.  With 3 hits yesterday, Tommy kept giving the Cards opportunities to fight their way back into the game.  During the 5 games during which the Cardinal season has mostly faded away, Pham has been one of the few beacons.  Over his last 22 plate appearances, Tommy has 3 singles, a double, 2 home runs, 3 walks, and a hit-by-pitch – a .333/.455/.722 batting line.  In 57 games in the season’s second half, Pham is hitting .315/.431/.533 with 10 home runs, 10 stolen bases, and 44 runs scored.

Tommy has also been one of the few driving forces against winning teams, as well.  After finishing the Cub series 4 for 12, Tommy is up to .295 on the season (46 for 156) against winning teams, with 7 home runs.  Since the All-Star Break, he is 25 for 73 (.342) with a .548 slugging percentage.

Tommy’s breakthrough season withstands all levels of scrutiny.

Dexter Fowler

It’s good to have Dexter Fowler back.  Only activated before the Saturday game, Dexter was 4 for 8 in his two games, tying yesterday’s game once with a three-run homer and almost hitting another game-tying home run in the ninth.  Dex has only played in 7 games this month, but he’s hitting .304 (7 for 23) and slugging .609 (2 triples to go with yesterday’s home run).

In 27 games since his most recent return from the disabled list, Fowler is hitting .322/.438/.567.   He has only been healthy enough to play in 38 of St Louis’ 61 second half game, but he is hitting .285 (37 for 130) with a .403 on base percentage.

With the home run, Fowler set a new career high in runs batted in.  He now has 55 for the year, even though he has only been healthy enough to play in 108 of the 149 games so far.  His previous high was the 53 he drove in with Colorado in 143 games in 2012.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong did draw a walk and was hit by a pitch.  But hits have been few and far between for Kolten.  Having the best season of his career, Wong’s last 16 games have seen him go 9 for 50 (.180).  Recurring back issues may very well be part of the cause.

In the season’s second half, Wong has played in 19 of the 20 games St Louis has played against winning teams.  He is hitting .206 in those games (13 for 63).

Pitching Falters

With 11 more hits – including 5 against starter Lance Lynn in just 4 innings – The Cubs wrapped up the series hitting .296 against what had been a sturdy Cardinal staff coming into the series.  Especially vulnerable were Cardinal starters, who managed to survive only 15 innings through the 3 games, being stung for 13 runs (a 7.80 ERA).  They also walked 12 Cubs during the 15 innings – leading to a .411 on base percentage.

Needless to say, the Cardinals were hoping for better.

Starters Against Winning Teams

Even though his afternoon was disappointing, Lynn continues to be the best of the Cardinal starters facing winning teams.  He is 4-3 with a 3.18 ERA for the season, including 1-0 with a 2.86 ERA against these teams in the second half.

Michael Wacha is only 2-5 with a 5.73 ERA in 11 starts against winning teams for the year.  However, in 4 such second half games, Wacha has been much better (1-2, 3.74).

Luke Weaver’s closing starts against the Cubs and Brewers will be instructive.  To this point he has started against only 3 winning teams.  He is 2-1 in those games, but with a 4.24 ERA.

Carlos Martinez is 4-7 in 14 starts against winning teams with 4.29 ERA.  He is 1-3 with a 6.43 ERA since the All-Star Break

Before going down with an injury, long-time ace Adam Wainwright had made 10 starts against winning teams, throwing 5 quality starts against them.  He is 5-3 with a 3.28 ERA in those games.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia is still getting pretty highly-leveraged opportunities, and is doing mostly well with them.  He was given the sixth inning yesterday in a tied game – giving a hit, but no runs.  John’s season long ERA still sits at 2.35, including 2.67 in 27 second-half innings.  He has 13 strikeouts in 7 innings this month.

Intriguing with Brebbia is that he is one of the few Cardinals who has been much better against winning teams.  He pitched 2 scoreless innings in the Cub series – stranding all 3 runners he inherited.  Since the All-Star Break, he has allowed just 2 runs over 8.2 innings, and holds a 1.20 ERA in 16 innings against winning teams for the season.  He has done this with a .196/.237/.339 batting line against.

Tyler Lyons

After being so good for so much of the season, Tyler Lyons is starting to return to earth a bit.  He allowed runs in both games against the Cubs, and has allowed runs in 3 of his last 7 games (5.2 innings).  He was lucky not to give up a run against Cincinnati in the game before that.  The last 25 batters he has faced are hitting .409 with a .636 slugging percentage.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman allowed only 9 of the first 40 runners he inherited this season to score.  Four of the five that he inherited in the Cub series came home to roost.

Bowman may be one of those bullpen links that is being exposed against the better competition.  Matthew carries a 4.97 ERA in 25.1 innings against winning teams.

NoteBook

The Cardinals took the field Sunday needing a win to avoid a sweep.  This was the sixth different road series this year where the Cards needed a last game win to avoid a sweep.  They have now managed to dodge the sweep only once.  That lone exception occurred in the Cardinals’ very first road series of the year (April 10-12).  After losing their first two games in Washington, they won the series finale 6-1 behind the arm of Mike Leake and the bat of Stephen Piscotty (how long ago April must seem to those two).

The Cubs were also the nineteenth team St Louis has faced this year that won its previous series (Cincinnati will be the twentieth).  With the loss, St Louis is 5-10-4 in those series, going 27-32 against teams coming off series victories.

Cards to Live or Die on the Road

Luke Weaver was front and center again, as the Cards bounced back from a disappointing loss on Wednesday – the only blemish on a 5-1 home stand.  Weaver was excellent, again, with 6 innings of 2-hit ball during which he allowed just 1 run – unearned.  Weaver, thus dropped his season ERA to just 1.89, and picked up his one-hundredth career strikeout in just his eighty-first career inning when he got Jose Peraza swinging to end the third.  The Cards are now 16-8 at home since the All-Star Break.

Weaver – with the help of his bullpen – continues a stellar streak of Cardinal pitching.  Over the last 17 games, St Louis checks in with a 2.49 ERA and a .228 batting average against.  If they can continue this run over the last 16 games, we should be OK.

Next up will be a defining 9-game road trip – 3 games each in Chicago, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.  Pitching away from home has been a concern the entire year.  They did check in with a 2.56 ERA in their last 10-game road trip – but 8 of those games were in San Francisco and San Diego.  Still, the improvement on the road has been noteworthy in the season’s second half.  This team hit the All-Star Break with a 17-21 road record and a 4.92 road ERA.  Since then, they are 18-16 with a 3.62 ERA away from Busch.

Over the next ten days, the pitching staff’s ability to contend with the smaller ballparks in Chicago, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will simply decide the Cardinal’s season.  No pressure.

Luke Weaver

Luke has been more than “as advertised” his last 5 times out of the gate.  The same guy who dominated AAA for the last couple of seasons has looked like that guy up here.  He is 5-0 with a 1.15 ERA over his last 31.1 innings (which includes 42 strikeouts).  He is 3-0 in September with a 0.96 ERA and a batting line against of .197/.221/.288.  If the rotation stays the same, Weaver will be scheduled to open the last home stand against Chicago on September 25 and the next to last game of the regular season against Milwaukee.  If Luke is the real deal, he will have his opportunity to show that in two of the season’s more crucial games.

Luke has allowed 0 earned runs over his last 11.2 innings at Busch.

Weaver hasn’t been as dominant on the road, but he is still 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA there.

Home/Road Splits of Other Starters.

With all the chatter about the young arms, let’s not forget Lance Lynn, who is establishing himself game-by-game as the ace of the staff.  He made two starts in the last 10-game road trip, posting a 0.64 ERA in 14 innings – but was only 0-1 as he saw no run support to speak of.  In 6 road starts since the break, Lance is 2-1 with a 0.94 ERA.  He has made 16 road starts this season, going 5-4 with a 2.99 ERA.  He is 6-3, 3.02 at home.

Carlos Martinez – who opens the big road trip this afternoon in Chicago – is one of those pitchers who have turned things around on the road in the season’s second half.  Martinez hit the break just 2-5 with a 4.13 ERA in 8 starts and 48 innings away from Busch.  Over his last 7 road starts (47.2 innings), he has thrown 5 quality starts, going 3-2 with a 2.83 ERA.  Carlos is 6-3, 3.18 at home this season.

Michael Wacha had 5 mostly terrible road starts during the season’s first half.  He lasted just 24.1 innings in those games, serving up 5 home runs, losing both of his decisions with a 7.03 ERA and a .346/.409/.529 batting line against.  He has been better in the second half, but still up and down with a 4-2 record and a 3.95 ERA in his last 7 road starts (during which opposing batters have hit just .245).  Wacha is 8-3 with a 3.12 ERA at Busch.

Michael and rookie Jack Flaherty are the wild cards in the deck as we head down the stretch – and especially during the upcoming road trip.  Good starts from them will be crucial.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons pitched the seventh, and was lucky not to give up a run when Joey Votto was thrown out at the plate.  If Votto had been safe, that would have been the only run scored against Lyons in the season’s second half that he would have been on the mound for.  In his 22.1 post All-Star Break innings he has only been charged with one run (0.40 ERA) when he left an inherited runner that ended up scoring.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia tossed a scoreless eighth inning – striking out two along the way.  John has suddenly become a strikeout pitcher.  He has fanned 10 over his last 5 innings, and 30 in his 25 innings since the break.

Tommy Pham

After going through a small slide recently, Tommy Pham walked, stole two bases, doubled and homered yesterday.  He scored twice and drove in two runs, becoming a critical part of the 5-2 victory (box score).  Tommy is still leading all regulars in the season’s second half in runs scored (43), stolen bases (10), batting average (.314), on base percentage (.434), and slugging percentage (.530).

A veteran, now, of 249 major league games and 703 major league at bats, Tommy now has 34 career home runs among 196 career hits.  His walk and two RBIs yesterday bring his career totals in both categories to 100.  His career batting line is now .279/.376/.491.

Fifteen of Tommy’s 20 home runs this season have come on the road, where he has hit .338 and slugged .614 this year.  He is finding his stroke at just the right time.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez chipped in 2 hits for the third game in a row.  He has hit, now, in 14 of his last 15 games, hitting .440 during the streak (22 for 50).  Jose heads into the final 16 games of the season hitting .361 (39 for 108) in the season’s second half.

Like many of the Cardinal hitters, Jose has been a road terror all year, but especially in the second half.  Over his last 76 road plate appearances, Jose has hit 5 home runs with a .349/.461/.667 batting line.

Up Coming

My number one axiom of the baseball season is that it’s always early until it’s not.  That means, of course, that “critical” (in terms of games or series’) is a term to be used sparingly.  Now, of course, it is late and the 16 games remaining are justly regarded as critical, beginning with an impactful three days in Chicago.

Since the end of last season, local writers referred constantly to the 17.5 game gulf that separates the Cards from the defending world champions.  Such a thing, of course, never existed.  It’s one of those ridiculous straw men that betray a writer’s misunderstanding of the nature of baseball.  Whatever you’ve read this year, that is not a thing.

What is a very real thing, though, is the mental edge that Chicago has held over this team since the 2015 playoffs.  It isn’t anything that I can point to or quantify with any number of statistics, but it is real nonetheless.  You can see it in their (Chicago’s) bearing and attitude when they play against us.  They know that they are the tougher team, and they play with that confidence.

Well, that’s all well and good.  What has been very concerning over the last two years is that the Cardinals have bought into that as well.  Even though we have been sometimes competitive against the Cubs over these last two seasons, it has been evident in their play that they expected to lose the tough games.  It’s a perceptible sense that you get watching these games – a sense that the Cardinals know that Chicago is the better team.

Over the last few weeks, this team has re-invented itself.  It’s a team of fearless kids (Paul DeJong, Harrison Bader, Weaver) and guys who have been counted out their whole lives who are taking, perhaps, their one stab at glory (Pham and Jose Martinez), with a sprinkling of great veterans (Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright) added in.

Winning these games will be critical – there’s that word – for the team’s post-season chances.  But as important as the games themselves will be the moxie that this young team will carry with them to the field.  Will they fight for these games?  Will they win the tough at bats?  Do they really know that they are the better team?  Whether they win or lose, these are the signs that will tell us how great the gap between these teams truly is.

NoteBook

With yesterday’s win, the Cards are now 5-5 in rubber games played at home.

This was also the twenty-third series this season in which St Louis had won the first game.  They have now gone on to win 15 of those series, losing 4 and splitting 4 others.

Elimination Season Continues

Entering the day with a magic number of 1, either a Cub win or a Cincinnati loss would have mathematically eliminated the Reds from the division race.  Both happened.  With 80 wins, the worst the Cubs could finish is 80-82.  With 84 losses, the best the Reds could finish is 78-84.

Inches Betray Cardinals as Winning Streak Ends

The inches were spectacularly against the St Louis Cardinals through the first five innings of last night’s game, where – unlike the Indians – the Cards winning streak (a modest four games) came to a sour end, 6-0 (box score).  Jesse Winker’s leadoff home run was just barely fair down the right field line.  In the bottom of the first, Yadier Molina had runners at first and third with two out, when he floated a fly ball into short right-center that had just enough carry on it to allow Winker to make an excellent catch that both saved a run and ended the inning.

Then there was the fifth inning.  Jose Peraza just barely safe at first on an infield hit.  The ground ball back to the mound that just oozed out of Jack Flaherty’s grip.  Tyler Mahle just fractionally safe at second on another infield dribbler.  Things unraveled from there.  It’s baseball.

More concerning is the fact that St Louis finished the night with only 5 hits – all singles.  The offense has been pretty consistently good at putting runs on the board (last night excepted) but the hits are becoming more scare.  Twelve games into September, and the Cards have only 94 hits.  They are still scoring 5.00 runs per game, but are hitting just .239.

Jose Martinez

Among the shards of good news from last night was 2 more hits from Jose Martinez.  Jose has now hit in 13 of his last 14 games, hitting .435 (20 for 46) during the streak.  His average is up to .356 in the second half 37 for 104).

Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham contributed a walk and a hit by pitch – so he is still getting on base.  But his is one of the batting averages that is starting to fade in September.  Pham is just 1 for 12 over his last 6 games, and is down to .158 (3 for 19) for the month – albeit with a .407 on base percentage.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong has also seen a noticeable dip in September. A stiff back during the early days of the month didn’t help, but Wong hasn’t been really hot since getting back on the field.  He was 0 for 2 last night, and is now just 5 for 23 (.217) this month.  Like Pham, though, Wong has still been getting on base.  He drew his fifth walk of the month last night, pushing his on base percentage to .357.

Harrison Bader

Gravity may also be catching up with touted prospect Harrison Bader.  His 0-for-4 yesterday leaves him just 2 for 17 (.118) over his last 5 games.

Sam Tuivailala

At this time of year, relief innings can be a little hard to come by.  With a bullpen crowded with September call-ups, the middle relievers may have to wait for a while before their number comes up.

That is what is happening to Sam Tuivailala.  Sam has made it into only 3 of the first 12 games this month, and has had 5 days in between each of his last two games.  Rather than get rusty, though, Sam has become hyper-efficient.  He retired 3 batters last night on four pitches – all strikes.  Each batter he faced swung the bat once, and got himself out.

It’s an exceedingly small sample size – just the 11 batters he has faced this month – but 7 of those batters never saw a pitch out of the strike zone, and all 11 combined have only cost Tui 31 pitches (2.8 pitches per).  Along the way, Sam has thrown 25 of the pitches for strikes (81%!) with only one of those strikes being a swing and a miss.  On September first in San Francisco, Sam was finishing up the ninth inning of an 11-6 Cardinal win.  With two-out, Brandon Crawford swung through Tuivailala’s 1-1 pitch.  He ended the game by grounding out on the next pitch.

It’s too few batters and too few pitches to mean anything, but this is pitching to contact on steroids.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is another arm that seems to be profiting from extra rest in September.  Having pitched in 65 games through the end of August, Bowman looked a little frayed.  He has been better of late.  He is unscored on over his last six games (4.2 innings), during which he has allowed just one hit.  He has had at least four days of rest in between 3 of the 6 games.

Six Inning Effort From Wacha Ends August on Up Note

On the last day of August, Cardinal right-hander Michael Wacha put an end to an unsettling month with six excellent innings, leading St Louis to a 5-2 conquest of the San Francisco Giants (box score).  Both for Michael personally, and for the entire pitching staff, last month could not have ended fast enough.  Wacha hadn’t made it past the fourth inning in any of his previous three starts – a span that featured 24 hits in 12.1 innings, including 4 home runs. He was 0-3 with a 10.22 ERA and a .414/.453/.690 batting line against.  The team finished the month with just 13 quality starts and a 4.62 ERA.

For Wacha it was a needed boost, as he was in complete control.  He threw more than 11 pitches in only two of his six innings, and more than 20 only in the nettlesome fifth inning when the Giants scratched across their only run against him.

Even when he has struggled in the game as a whole, Wacha’s first innings have been excellent all year.  In his 9 starts in the second half, he has given no runs and only 5 hits in his first innings.  Through his 25 starts for the season, Michael carries a 1.08 ERA with a .187/.253/.231 batting line against him in the first.  Of the 15 home runs he’s allowed this season, only one has been hit in the first inning – and that came back on April 14 in New York.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons needed only 10 pitches to dispatch San Francisco in the eighth – securing his nineteenth consecutive scoreless appearance covering 17.2 innings, during which he has allowed just 3 hits.  He finished August allowing just 1 hit in 11.1 innings with 14 strikeouts.

Moreover, Tyler has flourished late in games.  This season in 11.1 innings before the seventh, Tyler’s ERA is an uninspiring 7.15 with a .292/.382/.500 batting line against.  In 31.2 innings from the seventh inning on, Lyons’ ERA is a microscopic 0.85 with a dominating batting line against of .147/.244/.186.

Also Nettlesome – The Ninth Inning

It didn’t cost them the game, but the ninth inning continues to be a concern.  San Fran plated a run on back-to-back doubles – the second of which would have been a two-run home run but for a curious replay overturn.  The Cardinals thus finished August with a 6.53 ninth-inning ERA.  Since the All-Star Break, St Louis has scuffled along with a 5.67 ninth-inning ERA – pushing the ERA in that inning for the season to 4.05.

Late-game effectiveness out of the pen continues to be a concern.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia allowed the doubles and the run (and almost two runs) last night.  After what has really been an excellent rookie season, John hit a little speed bump in August.  He finished the month with a 3.95 ERA in 13.2 innings.  Batters hit only .176 against him, but 8 of the 9 hits he gave up were for extra bases – including 3 home runs.

Since the All-Star Break, John has pitched 20 innings before the eighth inning and 20 innings in the eighth and ninth.  Before the eighth inning, Brebbia has allowed no runs and only 3 hits.  His second-half ERA in the eighth and ninth innings is 5.40.

Offense Finishes Month Strong

As they did for the most part over the entire month, the Cards finished August scoring 5 more runs.  In 28 August games, St Louis scored 162 runs (5.79 per game).  Since the All-Star Break they have scored 229 runs in 45 games (5.09 per game).

Fourth-Inning Magic

Leading 2-0, the Cardinals almost opened the game up in the “magic” fourth inning.  A leadoff single from Yadier Molina and a one-out double from Kolten Wong put runners at second and third.  Giant starter Matt Cain wriggled out of trouble by striking out Randal Grichuk and getting Wacha to bounce out.

Even so, the events continued the team’s strange affinity for the fourth inning.  Throughout the month of August, St Louis hit .358/.432/.650 in the fourth inning, while scoring 35 runs.  All of those totals were the highest of any inning last month.  Since the All-Star Break, those figures are .346/.397/.602 with 46 runs scored. Of those only the on base percentage isn’t the highest of any inning (St Louis has been reaching base at a .443 clip in the eighth inning since the break).

For the season, St Louis has scored 101 runs in the fourth inning – 21 more than in any other inning.  The team is hitting .306/.370/.516 in that inning.

Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham continues to be front and center as an offensive force for the Cards.  He added 3 more hits last night including an opposite-field double high off the right-field wall that would have been a home run in most other parks.  Tommy’s hitting streak now stretches to six games, during which he is hitting .476 (10 for 21), slugging 1.000 (2 doubles and 3 home runs), getting on base at a .577 clip (4 walks and a hit by pitch), scoring 6 runs and driving in 8.

In 123 plate appearances in 28 games last month, Tommy finished August with 20 singles, 6 doubles, 5 home runs, 21 runs scored, 19 walks, 3 hit-by-pitches, and 1 sacrifice bunt.  This added up to a batting line of .310/.434/.520.  Tommy’s line is now .327/.433/.537 with 8 home runs since the All-Star Break.

Tommy Pham is having the time of his life.

After grounding out in the first, Tommy reached base in his last four plate appearances.  He singled in the third, doubled in the fifth, drove in a run with a seventh-inning single, and drove in another with a hit-by-pitch in the eighth inning.  Since the All-Star Break, Tommy is hitting .300 in the first four innings (24 for 80) with 2 home runs.  From the fifth inning on, Tommy has had 103 plate appearances that have led to 19 singles, 4 doubles, 6 home runs, 18 runs batted in, 18 walks, and 2 hit-by-pitches – a batting line of .349/.476/.614.

For the season, Tommy is a .282 hitter through the first four innings with 5 home runs.  From the fifth inning on, Pham’s line is .335/.435/.594 with 14 home runs.

Randal Grichuk

Grichuk added two hits including a home run.  He homered in the last game in Milwaukee and almost tied the game with a ninth inning home run.  Since the All-Star Break, Grichuk is carrying a .282 batting average (37 for 131) and a .580 slugging percentage (8 doubles, 2 triples, and 9 home runs).  That will play.

Four of those home runs have now been hit in the second inning, and 7 of the 9 have come before the sixth.  Since the break, Grichuk is a .358 hitter before the sixth inning (24 for 67) with a .791 slugging percentage.  Thereafter, he hits .203 (13 for 64).

Dexter Fowler

After coming smoking-hot off the disabled list, Dexter Fowler is starting to cool off.  With his 0 for 5 last night, Fowler is now hitless in his last ten at bats, and 2 for 19 (.105) over his last 5 games.  He has 8 strikeouts in those games.

Dexter struck out with Matt Carpenter at second base to end the first inning.  Dexter just has never bonded with the first inning this year.  Since the break, Fowler is now 4 for 17 (.235), and 15 for 74 (.203) for the year in the first inning.