Tag Archives: Piscotty

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.

John Gant Ends Season in Cardinal Rotation

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

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

That’s three.  And then?

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Piscotty

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

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

NoteBook

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

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

It’s Always a Bad Sign . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting Game in Detroit

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Quarterbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 the First Strike

The game was still scoreless in the first inning when Dexter Fowler set the tone for the evening.  With Matt Carpenter at third and one out, Dexter cuffed the first strike he saw from Pittsburgh right-hander Ivan Nova up the middle for the single that drove in the first Cardinal run.

Eight innings later – with the Cardinals now trailing 3-2 in the ninth – Stephen Piscotty slapped the first strike he saw from Pirate closer Felipe Rivero down the right-field line for the double that initiated the two-run rally that brought the Cards a gritty 4-3 win (box score).

The Pirate pitching staff made very few mistakes with their first strikes, but when you are facing the hot team, they will take advantage when you do get too close to the zone.  St Louis was 4 for 8 last night when they hit the first strike.

Conversely, the Pirates had some first-strikes to hit in important situations as well.  After Pittsburgh bounced back to tie the game at 2 in the fourth inning, Elias Diaz came to the plate with runners at first and third and just one out.  He jumped on the first strike he saw from Michael Wacha – and grounded into an inning ending double play.

With the Pirates leading 3-2 in the seventh, Adam Frazier had runners at second and third with one out.  He got a first-strike to his liking from Matthew Bowman, but only bounced it to second.

Through the eighth and ninth innings, ex-Buc Juan Nicasio faced three batters in a row (Josh Bell, David Freese and Gregory Polanco) who all jumped his first pitch.  They were 0 for 3 (two ground balls and a fly out).

For the game, Pittsburgh was only 2 for 12 when hitting the first strike.  Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), batters are hitting .348/.408/.607 when they hit the first strike.

Probably, on some other day, the Pirates might have turned most of those pitches into line drives into the gap.  But, as the season winds down – at least as long as they are not playing Chicago – St Louis is the team swinging the hot bat, and Pittsburgh is not.

Cardinal hitters were also 6 for 17 (.353) when hitting with two strikes – another hint that they are a hot team right now.  Across all of baseball, batters in two-strike counts are hitting .176/.249/.280.

Dexter Fowler

Of course, the hottest of the hot continues to be Dexter Fowler.  With 2 more hits and 2 more RBIs last night, Fowler has fashioned together a nice little six-game hitting streak, during which he is hitting a capable .520 (13 for 25) and slugging an acceptable 1.000 (he has 3 doubles and 3 home runs in those games).  Dexter has multiple hits in all but one of the games, has driven in at least 2 runs in each of the last 5 games, during which time he also has 3 game-winning hits (including last night) and 3 late, game-changing hits (also including last night).  Fowler has now wrested the team lead in game-winning-RBIs from Yadier Molina 12-11.  His 9 late, game-changing hits are more than twice as many as any other Cardinal.

Fowler is slashing .400/.478/.800 for the month of September, but a variety of injuries has limited him to just 11 of the 20 games played.  He has had 179 plate appearances since the All-Star Break, during which he has contributed 28 singles, 12 doubles, 4 triples, 4 home runs, 28 walks, 2 hit-by-pitches, and 2 sacrifice flies – a .313/.425/.531 batting line.  Last night’s win was St Louis’ 55th in its last 95 games (.579).  Fowler has been a significant spoke in the wheel, hitting .320/.421/.581 since early June.

When he’s hot, Dexter can certainly carry a club.

Both of his hits and his game-winning ground out came on the first strike thrown to him last night.  Since the break, Fowler is hitting .476 (20 for 42) when he hits the first strike in an at bat.  He is 7 for 9 this month alone.

Stephen Piscotty

Piscotty isn’t as torrid as Fowler by any stretch of the imagination.  But he does continue to show signs that he has turned things around since his refresher course in Memphis.  Piscotty (who had two hits last night) has been back for 25 games now, during which he is hitting .293 (22 for 75).

Pitching Staff Continues to Come Together

A mystery for much of the season, the Cardinal pitching staff in September has looked more like the collection of arms we thought we would see all year.  The team ERA is now down to 3.31 for the month.  Equally as important, after yielding only 5 hits last night, the team batting average against is down to .233 on the month.  For the year, teams are hitting a surprising .252 against Cardinal pitching.

Bullpen Making them Earn It

John Brebbia walked a batter in the sixth inning.  It led to nothing, but it’s noteworthy for the infrequency of the occurrence.  The St Louis bullpen has now walked just 17 batters in 63.2 innings this month (1 of those intentionally) – an average of just 2.26 unintentional walks every 9 innings.  The on base percentage against the Cardinal bullpen this month is just .293.

John Brebbia

Brebbia did give up the walk, but has settled in rather nicely as the sixth inning man.  He hasn’t allowed a run in his last 5 games, and has given just 2 over his last 8 innings.  He has pitched in 28 innings since the All-Star break, with a 2.57 ERA.

John has also been one of the steadying forces in the bullpen in the Cardinal’s turnaround.  As St Louis has played 15-over ball over the last 95 games, Brebbia has been involved in 40 of them, pitching 42 innings with a 2.14 ERA and a .192 batting average against.

In a first-pitch-fastball league, John is not afraid to throw his plus slider as a first pitch.  He’s also not afraid to throw the high fastball and challenge hitters to get on top of it.  He did a little of both last night, getting Starling Marte to fly to left on a first-pitch slider that he didn’t quite square up on, and later getting Josh Bell to hack at that too-high fastball.  He also flew to left on the first pitch.

These are two of the reasons that John has had uncanny success with batters who hit his first strike.  For the season, they are just 5 for 27 (.185) with just 2 doubles (.259 slugging percentage) and just 1 run batted in.

Ryan Sherriff

Ryan Sherriff could have been the losing pitcher last night – he gave the run that put Pittsburgh ahead 3-2 in the seventh.  Of course, he also could have gotten out of the inning without giving up a run were it not for an error on a should-have-been double play ball.  Nonetheless, Ryan has been hit a little hard lately.  He’s allowed runs in two of his last four games and three of his last seven.  He has allowed a total of 5 runs in his last 6 innings, with a batting line against of .292/.393/.583.

The culprit here has mostly been his sinker not sinking so much lately.  When it’s dropping, it’s a tough pitch to lay off of.  And once he gets you to two-strikes, you usually strike out (52.4% strike out).  This happened to Polanco leading off the seventh.

Increasingly, though, Ryan isn’t getting to strike two as his sinker rides high early in the count.  Jordy Mercer got a first-strike sinker that was up in the zone, and he slapped it into right for a single that set up the go ahead run.  The last 7 batters who have hit Ryan’s first strike are 4 for 7, and they are hitting .417 against him (5 for 12) on the year.  Ryan has made it to strike two on only 11 of the 28 batters he’s faced this month (39.3%).

Ryan, of course, has only pitched 10.1 innings in his major league career, so all of this comes with a small-sample-size warning.

NoteBook

With last night’s victory, St Louis has won the first game of 7 of its last 8 series.

Cards Hang On for Rare One-Run Victory

Every so often we see a glimpse of the team that the organization thought we would be this year.  We got one such glimpse last night, as a resilient offense erased two deficits – one a four-run deficit – to pull out a one-run, extra-inning victory.  These kinds of efforts, though, have been much more the exception than the rule.  St Louis is only 5-8 in extra innings, and 21-28 in one-run games (8-12 in the second half).

Although the run-scoring has slowed a little recently, the runs scored in the 8-7 victory (box score) kept the average at 4.97 since the All-Star Break.  That’s good, but increasingly this team is struggling to get hits.  They scored their 8 runs yesterday on just 8 hits through 10 innings.  During the month of September, the team batting average has fallen to just .235.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler has come back ready to hit.  He drove the team to last night’s victory, tying the game with an eighth-inning home run and giving the team the lead with a double in the tenth.  Dexter finished with 3 hits, and has had 7 in the three games since he’s returned to the lineup.  He has driven in 5 runs over the last 2 games, and almost had 3 home runs and 6 runs batted in over those games.

Fowler has only been healthy enough to play in 8 games so far this month, but is hitting .370 (10 for 27) and slugging .778 (5 extra base hits) when he has.  Fowler is hitting .340/.453/.617 in 28 games since coming off the disabled list.  After a forgettable first half, Fowler is hitting .299/.415/.500 in the second half – albeit in only 39 games.

Fowler’s tenth-inning double stood up as his tenth game-winning run batted in of the season.  He trails only Yadier Molina – who has 11 – for the team lead.  His two late, game-changing hits were his seventh and eighth such hits of the season.  No other Cardinal has more than 4.

If one-run games are considered character games – and I consider that they are – then Dexter is one of the few Cardinals who has consistently shown up in these games.  The Cards have played in 4 this month.  Fowler is 7 for 16 (.438) with a double, a triple, and 2 home runs (1.000 slugging percentage) in those games.  In those 4 games, he has scored 5 runs and driven in 6.

He has played in 13 of the Cardinals’ 20 one-run games since the break, hitting .353 (18 for 51) and slugging .588 (4 doubles, 1 triple, and the 2 home runs).  Even after his uneven first half, Fowler is hitting .277 (39 for 141) and slugging .596 in 37 one-run games this season.  Ten of his 17 home runs have come in games decided by one run.

Since most one-run games are fairly dominated by the pitchers, this kind of offense is impressive, indeed.

Kolten Wong

Troubles continued for Kolten Wong, now hitless in his last 11 at bats after his 0 for 4 last night.  Wong did get hit by a pitch, steal a base, and score the game deciding run in the tenth.  Even while struggling to hit, Kolten is still reaching base.

In his 8 games since being sidelined by a stiff back, Wong is only 3 for 20 (.150), but has 6 walks and 2 hit-by-pitches for a .393 on base percentage.  He is down to just .156 for the month (5 for 32) – although with a .341 on base percentage.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko is back in the lineup, but perhaps a little rusty from his layoff.  The hamstring injury has been just another complication in what has been trying second half.  With his 0 for 4 yesterday, Jedd is hitting .203 (27 for 133) since the All-Star Break.

Jedd has played in 40 of the Cards 49 one-run games.  He is hitting just .216 in those games (29 for 134) with 3 home runs and 16 runs batted in.

Stephen Piscotty

One-run games have come with particular difficulty for Stephen Piscotty – especially since the All-Star Break.  Overall, Stephen has hit much better since his return from Memphis.  Unless the game is decided by one run.

After his 0 for 4 last night, Piscotty is 0 for 7 in 3 one-run games this month, and .042 (1 for 24) in 9 one-run games since the break.  For the season, Piscotty has played in 34 one-run games, hitting .190 (19 for 100) with 2 home runs and just 7 runs batted in.

Brett Cecil

After two excellent innings in relief, Brett Cecil was asked to pitch a third inning when he went out for the sixth with the Cards clinging to a 5-4 lead.  A walk and a double set the stage for a couple runs to score.  With the damage, Brett’s ERA popped back over 4 for the season (4.04) and back up to an even 5.00 in 27 second half innings.

Tyler Lyons

At the end of the game, it was Tyler Lyons securing the last two outs and claiming the save.  In recent games, Lyons hasn’t been as dominant as he has been during most of the season.  Still, his ERA sits at 2.68 for the season – and 1.11 in 24.1 innings in the season’s second half.

Relief pitching is, perhaps, the most critical factor in winning one-run games.  Certainly much of the Cardinal’s futility in these games can be traced to the bullpen’s 4.10 ERA in the 49 one run games.

Lyons, however, has been one of the strongest bullpen links in these games.  He holds a 2.16 ERA and a .160 batting average against in 8.1 innings in the second half, and a 1.80 ERA with a .212 batting average against in 15 innings for the year in one-run games.

NoteBook

In falling behind 4-0, the Cardinals have gone three straight games without scoring first, and have done so only once in their last seven games (Tommy Pham’s first inning home run in the first game in Chicago).

Last night’s win gives the Cards opening game wins in 6 of their last 7 series – all except the series in Chicago.

Jack Flaherty’s abbreviated start brings to four the number of consecutive games without a quality start from the rotation.  They have only 2 in the last 8 games.  No Cardinal has thrown a quality start since Luke Weaver’s last start.

One day after I noted in passing the ongoing struggles this team has had in games where Chris Segal is calling balls and strikes, guess who will be behind the plate tonight?  He is likely to be the only umpire who will call five games for the Cards this season.

Pitching From Behind Not an Issue for Lackey and the Cubs

During the offensive surge that characterized the Cardinals for most of the second half of the season, the one thing that opposing pitchers didn’t want to do was fall behind in the count to them.  From the All-Star Break through the end of August, Cardinal at bats that began with a 1-0 count ended up with the Cards hitting .333/.460/.573.  Twenty-nine of those 672 plate appearances ended with the Cardinal batter hitting a home run.

As August has faded into September, however, this has ceased to be the case.  Whether the team is feeling the pressure of the pennant race, or whether many of the young players are running out of gas, falling behind the Cardinal hitters is now where you want to be.  During the month of September so far, 196 Cardinal hitters have watched the first pitch miss the zone for ball one.  Those batters have gone on to hit just .232/.385/.464.  While the .385 on base percentage looks healthy, throughout all of major league baseball (courtesy of baseball reference) the average on base percentage for all at bats that begin with ball one is .388.

Yesterday afternoon – in an abbreviated appearance – Chicago veteran John Lackey schooled the Cardinal hitters (young and old).  He threw only 46 strikes among his 74 pitches, and only half of the 18 batters he faced saw first-pitch strikes.  He spent the 4.2 innings that he worked yesterday delivering pitches on the corners of the strike zone, and showing little concern – for the most part – whether the pitch resulted in a ball or a strike.  (The spectacular exception to this, of course, was the 2-2 pitch that John thought that he had struck Carlos Martinez out on.  This was the pitch that led to the bruhaha that got Lackey and his catcher tossed from the game).

Up until that point, what Lackey did that was sort of spectacular in its own right, was that he almost never gave in to the hitter.  Even behind in the count, he kept pitching to the black.  The middle-of-the-plate cutter that Martinez singled on was about the only timed all afternoon that Lackey gave in to a hitter.  The 9 batters who saw ball one from John finished 0 for 7 with 2 walks (one intentional).  His effort set the tone for the rest of the game, as St Louis finished just 1 for 14 (.071) in at bats that began 1-0.  Lackey wouldn’t be around long enough to get the decision, but the Cubs would shortly take advantage of a lack of composure on the part of Martinez to cruise past the Cards, 8-2 (box score).

The afternoon continued the sudden cooling overall of the Cardinal offense.  They finished the day with just 7 hits, and are now hitting .236 overall this month.  September, in the midst of a playoff push, is an inopportune time for a team to go into a batting slump.

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty did have another misadventure on the bases, but this one was mostly bad luck.  His ground ball shot past third, headed for the corner.  But, as Piscotty was turning around first and chugging toward second, the ball caromed off the jutting corner of the left field stands and shot all the way back to the infield, where Javier Baez retrieved it and threw Piscotty out at second.  It was that kind of day at Wrigley.

Even so, Stephen finished with 2 of the Cardinal hits, and continues to re-establish himself.  Piscotty is now up to .289 (11 for 38) for the month of September, and .295 (18 for 61) since his return from Memphis.

Yadier Molina

From the break through the end of August, Yadi was a .396 hitter (19 for 48) when the pitcher fell behind him 1-0.  Chicago reliever Pedro Strop did that in the seventh inning yesterday, but Yadi ended the at bat flying out on a 1-2 pitch.  For September, Yadi is now 3 for 15 (.200) after getting ahead in the count 1-0.

Kolten Wong

A September mostly dominated by back issues is beginning to drag down what has been to this point a breakthrough season for Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 2 at bats yesterday, Kolten is now down to .192 for the month (5 for 26).

Harrison Bader

In a year of rookie firsts, Harrison Bader has hit his first real dry patch as a big leaguer.  After yesterday’s 0 for 3, Harrison his hitting .130 (3 for 23) over his last 7 games.  He has gone 8 games without driving in a run.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil is pitching almost exclusively now in low leveraged situations.  Yesterday he pitched the seventh trailing by 6 runs.  Still, it was a very crisp inning – he set down all three batters faced (two on strikeouts) on only 13 pitches.  Cecil has now strung together 5 consecutive scoreless outings (covering 6 innings) during which he has allowed just 4 hits.  He has generated 18 swinging strikes from the last 59 swings taken against him – a healthy 31%.

Where in the World is LeGarrette Blount

As we open our first NFL discussion of the season, it didn’t escape my notice that LeGarrette Blount is no longer lining up in the New England backfield.  Those who may remember, I considered Blount last year to be one of the great under-utilized weapons in football.  He surprisingly finished with 1161 yards last year – surprising because his opportunities were so irregular.

He had four different games last year where he rushed for over 100 yards.  He had 4 other games where he had less than 15 carries.  LeGarrette is the sledge-hammer back that wears down a defense as the game goes along.  Fifteen carries isn’t enough to even get him warmed up.  If he had played in an offense that would feature him – the way that Dallas features Ezekiel Elliott – his numbers would be comparable.

If you are the New England Patriots, however, and you have an embarrassment of offensive talent, then it’s understandable that Blount may not get a featured role every game.  If you are the Philadelphia Eagles – the team whose uniform Blount now wears – it might be a little less defensible.

In his Philadelphia debut last Sunday, LeGarrette finished with 46 yards on 14 carries.  I know the Eagles are extremely high on young QB Carson Wentz, but even if Wentz is the next Tom Brady, a more balanced offense would be a substantial boon to Carson’s development.

Carson, by the way, had a big day on Sunday (26 of 39 for 307 yards and 2 touchdowns) leading the Eagles to a 30-17 win over Washington (GameBook).  He made more highlight reels, though, for his backfield elusiveness than for his pocket passing.  If Carson spends the entire season getting chased around like he was on Sunday, the Eagles season will probably fall far short of expectations.  All the more reason to balance the attack.

Speaking of New England

The Patriots have given Blount’s role to a former Buffalo Bill named Mike Gillislee.  He ran for all three touchdowns that New England scored on Thursday night.  Mike is a tough and intelligent runner, who can certainly get low at the goal line.  But he is not the weapon that Blunt was.  As the season wears on, I think the Patriots will miss having that dominating presence.

Speaking of a dominating presence, Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt lit up the defending champions for 148 rushing yards (101 of them on 10 second half carries).  Alex Smith and Tyreek Hill looked pretty dominant, too in Kansas City’s 42-27 dumping of the Patriots (GameBook).  The Patriot defense will be a work in progress.  My strong recommendation to the Saints and everyone else who will face New England in the early going is to take advantage while you may.

Some Love for Some Weary Defenses

Both Seattle and the New York Giants lost tough first week matches, and both offenses have issues.  A lot of the defensive numbers were nothing to write home about, but both were impressive in their own right.

In their 17-9 loss to Green Bay (GameBook), the Seattle defense was on the field for 39 minutes and 13 seconds as the Packers ran 74 offensive plays to only 48 for the Seahawks, and outgained Seattle 370 yards to 225.  Yet, Green Bay’s only touchdowns came on a 6-yard drive after Seattle turned the ball over deep in its own territory, and a 32-yard touchdown strike from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson when Green Bay quick-snapped, catching Seattle trying to run in substitutions.

For as dominating as the Packers were in the game, kudos to the Seahawk defense for keeping it as close as it was.

In Dallas, the Cowboys were on their way to dealing the Giants a similar dose of domination.  They held the ball for 20:33 of the first half, out gaining New York 265-49.  At that point, Dallas had 87 rushing yards on 18 carries, and QB Dak Prescott had thrown for 183 more, with a 91.8 passer rating.  They led 16-0 at the half.

Now, the way this script normally plays out is that the weary defense collapses as the fourth quarter wears on, and he Cowboys break the game open.  None of that happened this time. The bloodied Giant’s defense held Dallas to just 127 second half yards.  Elliott had 11 second half carries for only 43 yards (3.9 per), and the Giants actually held a time-of-possession advantage of 16:19 to 13:41 after the intermission. Dallas cruised on to its 19-3 win (GameBook), but the Giant defense made a statement.

So did the Giant offense.  That was the problem.

Football is back.  Week One is in the books.  The long journey has begun.

Baserunners Everywhere, But Not a Run to Be Scored

After the game, Cardinal starter and tough-luck loser Lance Lynn put a very strange game in context.  He pointed out that he had given up a first-inning run on three hits, none of which made it to the infield grass.  Before the game was over, the two teams would combine for 20 hits (with 8 of them not making it out of the infield), 4 walks, and 1 hit batsmen.  Of all of those baserunners – in a game where most of the outs were hit harder than most of the hits – only 3 made it home.  All of those wore the San Diego uniform as San Diego ended St Louis’ four-game winning streak with a 3-0 blanking (box score).

Even with the disappointing outcome, the Cardinal pitching staff – an area of concern earlier this season – continues to take the lead in the team’s belated run for a playoff spot.  Beginning with the last game of the last home stand, the pitching staff has sustained a 2.57 ERA over the last 11 games.

Lance Lynn

Earlier this season, Lance went through a stretch of starts where he pitched well, but couldn’t make it through 6 innings due to elevated pitch counts.  After throwing 32 pitches in last night’s first inning, and 57 pitches through the first two, the odds of Lance hanging on past the fourth inning weren’t looking too good.  But the gutsy Mr. Lynn would throw 118 pitches as he would fight his way through six innings, putting runners on base in 5 of them, but only allowing one run on a swinging bunt in the first inning.

Of the 28 batters he faced, only 12 came to the plate with no one on base.

Struggle though it was, Lance provided the Cardinals with his eleventh quality start in his last 12 games.  Record wise, Lynn is now 4-1 with a 1.77 ERA over 76.1 innings in those games.  He also left 3 of the games with a lead that was later surrendered by his bullpen.  Lance, who also had problems with home runs earlier this season, has now allowed just 4 over those last 12 games, while holding batters to a .211/.299/.309 batting line.

Zach Duke

The game got away a bit when San Diego scored twice in the seventh against a Cardinal bullpen strategy that should maybe be re-examined.  It began with a one-batter appearance by lefty Zach Duke.  That seems to be the role he has inherited, as all of his last 5 games (and 7 of his last 9) have been one-batter affairs.  While Zach has done OK in this role (Carlos Asuaje’s single made him the only one of the five to reach), it’s still evident that Zach hasn’t pitched enough (remember, he had no spring training) to really solidify the feel of his slider.  Since August 27, Zach has thrown just 18 actual pitches (it works out to about 1.5 pitches per day).  He needs, I think, a bit more opportunity than that to be as effective as he can be.

Seung-hwan Oh

And then, of course, with the game still exceedingly tight at 1-0, Mike Matheny summoned Seung-hwan Oh from the bullpen.  I said earlier that most of the outs in this game were harder hit than most of the hits.  One spectacular exception to that generality was the home run that Wil Myers crushed into the upper deck in left field off yet another hanging slider from Oh.

Patience is a vital virtue for any successful organization.  At some point, though – and coming down the stretch of a playoff run is that point – management has to concede that a particularly inconsistent performer just can no longer be trusted in high-leveraged situations.  Oh has pitched in 21 games since the All-Star Break (15.2 innings), with a 4.60 ERA and a .313 batting average against.  Going back to August 10, Seung-hwan has pitched in 10 games – totaling just 5.2 innings – during which he has allowed 5 runs on 10 hits.

Since the break, batters who have faced Oh with runners on base are 10 for 28 (.357) with 2 doubles, a triple, and 2 home runs (.714 slugging percentage).

Oh has also now allowed 8 of the 17 runners he has inherited (47.1%) to score this season – including 5 of the 8 he’s inherited in the season’s second half.

Harrison Bader

They were both ground balls that never made it through the infield, but Harrison Bader finished with two more hits and kept giving the Cards chances to push something across.  Since his recall, Harrison has 9 hits in 26 at bats (.360).  They haven’t all been infield dribblers, either.  Harrison has hit 3 home runs in his last 7 games in two of the National League’s more spacious ballparks (San Francisco and San Diego).

His hits last night included a third-inning single with a runner on first.  In the very early games of his career, Bader has shown an affinity for hitting with runners on base.  He is now 8 for his first 21 (.381) in those opportunities.

Paul DeJong

Scuffling a bit lately, Paul DeJong contributed a couple of hits to the effort – both hits coming with the bases empty.  In his opportunities with runners on base, Paul grounded to second with runners at first and second and two-out in the third, and he struck out with a runner at first and one-out in the sixth.

For the season, now, Paul is 54 for 177 (.305) when hitting with the bases empty.  He is a .262 hitter (43 for 164) when he hits with a runner on base.  Twelve of his 21 home runs have been solo shots.

Stephen Piscotty

Another of the strong positives from last night is the continued emergence of Stephen Piscotty from what has been a mostly lost season.  With 2 more hits last night, Piscotty is hitting .333 (15 for 45) since he returned from Memphis, and .391 (9 for 23) over his last 8 games.

Batting behind Jose Martinez and Yadier Molina (who went a combined 1 for 8), Piscotty is one of the few Cardinals who didn’t get an opportunity to hit with a runner on base.  With his 2-for-4 evening, Stephen is now hitting .342 (13 for 38) since the All-Star Break with the bases empty.  In his last 28 at bats with a runner on base, Stephen has just 5 hits (.179).

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler’s recent struggles continue.  Hitless in 4 at bats with 2 strikeouts – including with the bases loaded and two-out in the ninth inning – Dexter is now just 5 for 31 (.161) over his last 9 games.

Dexter has had a roller-coaster season, the lows very low and the highs very high.  Still, one of the difficulties that have partially defined the season of this would-be leadoff hitter is his season-long .239 batting average (54 for 226) with no one on base.  He was 0-for-3 last night with the bases empty.

Yadier Molina

Since a recent streak where he hit safely in 12 of 13 games, Yadier Molina has hit a bit of a dry patch.  After last night’s 0 for 4, Yadi is just 2 for 17 (.118) since the end of that streak.

Alex Mejia

With recent injuries to Jedd Gyorko and Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals have ended up with Alex Mejia as their mostly-starting third baseman.  So far, this could have gone better.  Called up at the beginning of September, Alex was 0 for 2 last night, and is 1 for 14 (.071) since his recall.

NoteBook

Before last night’s game, all of the Cardinals previous 3 losses (and 4 of the previous 5) had been by one run.  The game also broke a streak of 9 consecutive games that St Louis held a lead in at some point.  The last time the Cards played a game in which they never led was the 10-inning, 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay on August 27 that ended the last home stand.

Jack Flaherty – and Bullpen – Back On Track

The second time around was much better for rookie pitcher Jack Flaherty.  He wasn’t as dominant as his opponent, San Diego’s impressive Dinelson Lamet, but he made big pitches to get out of trouble and – with excellent work by a bullpen that is still defining itself – held the Padres in check until a late rally pushed St Louis to a 3-1 victory (box score).

His command still wasn’t what we understand it was in Memphis.  Only 52 of his 86 pitches were strikes (as he walked 4 in 5 innings).  Through his first two games, 40.5% of his pitches have been out of the strike zone.  Still, he limited the damage to 1 run through 5 innings.

Going back to the last game of the last home stand, this is now two complete turns through the new-and-revised rotation, with encouraging results.  The total team ERA through the last ten games has been a sparkling 2.50 with a .221 batting average against.  The starters have worked 63.1 of those innings with a 2.70 ERA and a .230 batting average against.  The bullpen’s last 26.2 innings have provided an excellent 2.03 ERA and .200 batting average against.

St Louis has won 7 of the 10 – including 6 of the last 7.

Ryan Sherriff

Ryan Sherriff has been one of the positive forces out of the pen since his call-up.  He was the winning pitcher last night, and has a 1.29 ERA through his first 7 big-league innings.

In his very early innings, Ryan looks like a pitch-to-contact kind of guy.  He hasn’t missed many bats so far.  Last night, he got only 2 swinging strikes from the 11 swings taken against him.  Of the last 46 swings taken against him, only 15.4% have been missed.

But, if he’s not missing bats, neither are the opposing hitters able to put the ball in play.  Six of last night’s 11 swing produced foul balls.  In his last 4 games, 50% of the swings against him have produced foul balls.

John Brebbia

In 20 innings since the All-Star Break, John Brebbia (who pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning last night) has yet to be presented with a runner at third and less than two outs.  He was in that situation 9 times in the season’s first half, allowing that run to score 5 times.

John threw first-pitch strikes to 2 of the 3 batters her faced last night.  For the season, 115 of the 161 batters he’s faced have seen strike one.  His 71.4% is the highest on the team.

None of the 3 he faced last night swung at his first pitch.  Of the last 18 batters he’s faced, only Tampa Bay’s Adeiny Hechavarria has swung at his first pitch.  Adieny fouled of Brebbia’s first pitch in the eighth inning of the August 27 game.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons finished off the game and got the save.  Like the San Francisco game on September 2, Tyler got himself into ninth-inning trouble.  Unlike the San Francisco game, this time he was allowed to work his way out of it.  Since the All-Star Break, Tyler has pitched in 22 games (totaling 20.1 innings).  He has struck out 26 in those innings (11.51 per nine-innings) and allowed just one run (0.44 ERA).  And he wasn’t on the mound when the run against him scored.

Tyler’s pitches have been up more lately than they were during his hot streak, but still no one is taking very confident swings at him.  Since the All-Star Break, 38 batters have put the ball in play against Lyons, with only 7 getting hits.  That makes for an uncommonly low BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .184.  The BABIPists will write that off as small sample size luck, but there’s a bit more to it than that.  With his looping curve and very nasty slider, Tyler is a very uncomfortable at bat these days.

Included in this is significant discomfort swinging at Tyler’s first pitch.  None of the five who faced him last night did, and only 19.3 % of the batters he’s faced this season have offered at his first pitch.  That number is the lowest on the pitching staff.

The Padre hitters took 7 pitches from Lyons last night – 5 of them called strikes.  This has been another pattern with Tyler on the hill – taking strikes.  For the season, 40.9% of the pitches that batters have taken from Lyons have been called strikes – the highest ratio on the staff.

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty was last night’s lone hitting star, with two hits – including the game winning home run.  Piscotty has played in 15 games since returning from Memphis, getting 49 plate appearances.  In those plate appearances, Stephan has 9 singles, 1 triple, 3 home runs, and 8 walks – a .317/.429/.585 batting line.  It’s starting to look like Piscotty has pushed ahead of Randal Grichuk in the outfield pecking order.

Dexter Fowler

As August has lapsed into September, and the wear and tear on his body has compounded, Dexter Fowler has seen his production drop recently.  Yesterday’s 0 for 3 drops him to 5 for 27 (.185) over his last 8 games.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong was also hitless last night (4 at bats).  He is suffering through about the longest dry spell of his rookie season.  Over his last 8 games, Paul is hitting just .114 (4 for 35).

Alex Mejia

Of the “Memphis Mafia” that have contributed so much to St Louis’ late playoff push, Alex Mejia has struggled more than some others – especially during his September call-up.  Last night he had 4 plate appearances, striking out in 2 and grounding into double plays in the other 2.  During the early days of the month, Alex is just 1 for 12 (.083) with 7 strikeouts to go along with last night’s double plays.

NoteBook

The Padres – who were coming off a series victory against the Dodgers – are the eighteenth team St Louis has played this season that had won its previous series.  They have now won 5 of those series, losing 9 and tying the other 4.  They are 27-28 in the games of those series.

Cards Overcome Another Early Deficit

As Jack Flaherty walked off the mound after his second major league inning, his team trailed 3-0.  After fellow rookie Harrison Bader put the Cards back in the game with a two-run homer, Flaherty gave those runs back in the bottom of the third, and St Louis still trailed by three.

All that was left for the offense to do was to keep battling back.

By game’s end the resilient Cardinal offense overcame yet another spotty pitching performance as they exploded for 6 in the ninth, and cruised past San Francisco 11-6 (box score).

It’s a position this team has found itself in frequently this season, so it should surprise no one that the hitters are almost comfortable in the situation.  Last night, the 27 batters that came to the plate with the team trailing hit a combined .360 (9 for 25) and slugged .840 (3 triples and 2 home runs).  They are just coming off a month (August) where they trailed in nearly 40% of their plate appearances, yet hit .291/.365/.497 when they trailed – especially when they trailed by three runs.

What, exactly, is magic about a three-run deficit I can’t really say, but over the course of the year – and especially in the second half – seeing that three-run deficit lights a fuse in the Cardinal offense.  Last month they hit .397/.471/.712 in 86 plate appearances trailing by three runs.  Since the All-Star Break, in 106 plate appearances, that line is .370/.438/.696.  For the season, 254 Cardinal hitters have stood at the plate facing a three-run deficit.  They are hitting .316/.379/.600.

Fifteen times this year St Louis has trailed by three runs in a game – but by no more than three runs.  They lost all of the first nine of those games.  They have now won 5 of the last 6.

The 11 runs on 15 hits suggests that this team didn’t do all their hitting and scoring in August – where they hit .280 and scored 5.79 runs per game.  In the season’s second half, the Cards are scoring 5.22 runs per game with a .276 team batting average.

Stephen Piscotty

Not all of their numbers are robust, but every day manager Mike Matheny is tasked with choosing which three of his five impact outfield bats (and maybe six, now, if you count Bader) to put in the lineup.  Last night Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler and Jose Martinez all sat, while Bader, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty all starred – to some degree or other – in the Cardinal victory.

Perhaps the most impressive of the three was Piscotty – who has been a little bit buried on the bench lately.  He had three hits, including a home run and a triple that was almost a home run – with those last two hits capping excellent at bats.

On the triple that began the comeback from the three-run deficit, Piscotty took all of the first three pitches from Hunter Strickland – finding himself backed up in the count 1-2.  He then fouled off five consecutive pitches before finally launching Strickland’s ninth pitch off the padding on the top of the right-center field wall.

On the home run, Piscotty turned on a 2-2 fastball that Albert Suarez ran right in under his fists.  Both the discipline that Stephen showed against Strickland and the surprising quickness he showed against Suarez are difficult to maintain when you’re not getting regular at bats.

Since his recall from Memphis, Piscotty has only gotten into 10 games – 7 as a starter.  He is nonetheless hitting .357 (10 for 28) and slugging .643 (one triple and 2 home runs) in those opportunities.

Piscotty also began the game-tying eighth inning rally with a single to left.  The Cardinals were trailing 5-4 at the time.  Piscotty for the season is a .324 hitter (11 for 34) when he bats with his team trailing by one run.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong picked up in September where he left off in August.  After hitting .347 last month, Wong tacked on two more hits last night.  He is hitting .308 for the season, and .316 (48 for 152) in the second half.

Wong’s RBI single in the ninth was his fifth game-winning hit of the year, tying him with Paul DeJong for fourth highest on the team.  Dexter Fowler and Jedd Gyorko are tied for the team lead with 9 each, followed by Yadier Molina with 8.

Kolten’s other hit came with two outs in the third with the Cards still down, 3-0.  It put him on base for Bader’s home run.  No one on the team has responded to that three-run deficit like Kolten Wong.  His 1-for-2 last night when trailing by three follows on the heels of his 5-for-8 August in that situation.  Since the All-Star Break, Kolten is 6 for 11 (.545) when trailing by three, and for the year he is 10 for 16 (.625) when staring at a three-run deficit.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong never stays down for very long.  After his most recent six-game hitting streak, DeJong went hitless in his last two games.  But DeJong (who finished August hitting .297 with a .508 slugging percentage and a team leading 20 runs batted in in 27 games), began September with two hits – including a double – and two runs batted in.  Paul has driven in a team-leading 34 runs in 45 games since the All-Star Break, while hitting .280 (53 for 189) and slugging .513 (9 doubles, a triple, and a team-leading 11 home runs).

His two-run, ninth inning double was typical of so many big hits that DeJong has gotten this year – the hit that breaks open the game.  This one turned a 6-5 Cardinal lead into an 8-5 lead.  For the season, when St Louis is either even in the game, or ahead by fewer than 4 runs, DeJong is hitting .356 (57 for 160) and slugging .619 (15 doubles and 9 home runs).  He has driven in 30 runs in those at bats.

Yadier Molina

He still looks stiff when he runs – like he hasn’t fully recovered from that abdominal strain, but Molina still plays every day.  And he hits.  A single and a triple last night (yes, he ran OK on that one), bring his current hitting streak to 5 games, during which Molina is hitting .333 (7 for 21). But this is part of an even longer stretch where Molina has hit safely in 12 of 13 games, going 18 for 52 (.346) during the streak.

Yadi ended August with a .312 average for the month – and showed surprising power.  He hit 5 home runs and slugged .548.  For the second straight season, Yadi has turned it up a notch or two after the break.  He is now hitting .305 (46 for 151) in the season’s second half.

Yadi tried to spark an earlier rally with a one-out triple in the fourth (the Cards still trailing 5-2 at the time).  That didn’t pan out, but it did bring Yadi’s average to .478 (11 for 23) on the season when he bats with a three-run deficit.

Matt Carpenter

The lineup shuffle that placed Kolten Wong in the leadoff spot dropped Matt Carpenter down to clean-up.  While it may have helped the lineup in general, it didn’t pay any immediate benefits to Carpenter.  Matt’s 0-for-4 followed tightly on the heels of his .202 August, and drops him now to just .158 (9 for 57) over his last 15 games.  Carpenter – who is hitting .241 for the year – is back down to .248 (38 for 153) in the second half – albeit still with a .372 on base percentage.

Carpenter’s evening included going 0 for 3 during the portion of the game where the Cardinals trailed.  Especially during the second half of the season, Carpenter has struggled to contribute hits when the Cardinals have trailed in games.  And especially when the deficit is three runs or less.  In his last 51 plate appearances with St Louis down by no more than 3 runs, Matt owns a .158 batting average (6 for 38).  He does still contribute walks, though, as his on base percentage in those plate appearances is a still healthy .373.

Pitching in Close Quarters

When Flaherty surrendered the lead in the second inning, he continued a problematic trend that has kept the Cardinals and their suddenly prolific offense from being serious contenders.  Through the month of August the Cardinal pitching staff pitched 69.2 innings with the game either tied or holding a one-run lead.  They responded to those opportunities with a 6.85 ERA and a .325 batting average against.  In 137.1 such innings since the All-Star Break, Cardinal pitchers have managed just a 5.77 ERA with a .292 batting average against.  Brandon Crawford’s two-run homer in last night’s second inning was the twenty-seventh home run the Cardinals have given up since the All-Star Break in games they were either tied in or leading by one run.

This is not exactly a formula for success – even if you have a competitive offense.

In August, the team received only 13 quality starts in 28 games, finishing with a 4.62 ERA (4.81 by the starters, with a .297 batting average against).  Since the All-Star Break, the team ERA is hovering at 4.06.

Tyler Lyons

Tyler Lyons is fast approaching super-hero status.  Last night’s perfect eighth inning that included two more strikeouts brings his scoreless streak to 20 games and 18.2 innings, during which he has allowed just 3 hits while striking out 25.

Sam Tuivailala

Sam Tuivailala gave the last run of the game in a mop-up ninth inning.  Though his season’s ERA is still a fine 2.97, Sam has begun to take on water recently.  He has now allowed runs in 3 of his last 5 games, giving 4 total runs in 4 total innings.  His ERA sits at 4.05 in the second half (13.1 innings).

Some of this just might be due to Sam’s unfamiliarity with pitching with a lead.  Since the All-Star Break, last night was only Sam’s second inning pitching with a lead – as opposed to 11 innings pitched while trailing in the game.  Of the 58 batters he’s faced in the second half, he has pitched to 2 with the score tied, 11 with the Cardinals leading, and 43 while trailing in the game.

For the season, Tuivailala has an 0.92 ERA with a .132 batting average against in 19.2 innings while trailing, 9.00 with a .353 batting average against in 4 innings while tied, and 4.66 allowing a .349 batting average in just 9.2 innings with a lead.