Tag Archives: Wong

Early Concerns on the Road

After a fairly tepid start, the Cardinals burst back into contention with an 8-1 run (April 12-22).  At that point, they were, in fact, tied for the division lead.  This was, of course, encouraging – said encouragement tempered by the fact that 7 of the 8 wins had come at the expense of the struggling Cincinnati Reds.  With series against contending teams in New York and Pittsburgh coming up (the Mets series at home and the Pirates on the road), it was anticipated that this stretch would be a better measuring stick than the games against Cincinnati.

For those of us less sold on this team as contenders, the results mostly supported the hypothesis – with St Louis losing 4 of the 6 games.  The most telling of these games were the three losses in Pittsburgh.

In their 16-12 start, the brightest and most consistent aspect of the club has been the pitching staff.  After last night’s 3-2 win (box score), the Cards rank fourth in the NL with a 3.37 team ERA.  As the pitching was an area of primary concern (at least for me) entering the season, this would seem to be good news indeed.  Inside the numbers, though (and especially during the sweep in Pittsburgh) there seems to be cause for continued concern.

With early season temperatures in St Louis averaging less than 60 degrees (59.4 to be exact), this pitching staff has been prospering at home (remembering that under the best of conditions, Busch Stadium plays strongly in the pitcher’s favor).  After last night’s win, the Cards are 8-5 at home with a 2.74 team ERA.  Opponents are hitting .220 against the Cardinal pitching staff at home, with just 7 home runs in 125 innings.  Perhaps most stunning, only 2 of 21 inherited runners at home have come around to score (an amazing 9.5%).

The numbers on the road have been less encouraging.

The Pirate Sweep

During the three games in Pittsburgh (in temperatures that averaged a frosty 50.3 degrees) the Pirates took full advantage of the still-suspect Cardinal pitching staff.  They ended the 3-game series with 17 runs scored (15 earned for a 5.06 ERA) and a .286 batting average against Cardinal pitchers.

Most under the microscope was the piecemeal bullpen.  Their numbers in the sweep are most telling.  In 9.1 innings of work, the Pirates compiled 8 runs (6 of them earned – a 5.79 ERA) on 14 hits (a .333 batting average against).  There were also 8 walks (6 unintentional) in those innings and two batters hit by pitches (a .444 on base percentage).  Of the 13 runners the pen inherited, 6 scored (46.2%).

And, of course, both leads that they inherited were surrendered.

Continuing Trends

Of course, too much can be made of any one series.  Every pitching staff will endure at least one such series during the season.  In the Cardinals case, though, the Pittsburgh series continued a pronounced early season trend.

Now 8-7 on the road (4-7 not counting the games in Cincinnati), the team ERA is almost one and a quarter runs higher there (3.97).  While the innings count is close (125 innings at home and 131.1 innings on the road), the team has served up more than twice as many home runs on the road (15) than they have in the comfy confines of Busch (7).

And the pen?

Soberingly, it has been the arms most depended on.  It has been Matthew Bowman (6.1 innings, 5 runs on 9 hits), Tyler Lyons (4.2 innings, 4 runs on 7 hits), and Greg Holland – who has only managed 3 innings in 5 road appearances.  During those 3 eventful innings, Holland (brought in to be the ninth-inning answer) has faced 21 batters, giving 6 runs (5 earned) on 8 hits and 3 walks.

I highlight the word concern used in the previous paragraphs.  In baseball, it is always early until it isn’t.  All of these troubled pitchers have ample opportunity to reverse the narrative.  But as I wondered openly at the outset of the season whether this team could trust its bullpen, the early results have not allayed my fears.

Tommy Pham

While the Cardinals as a whole have hit only .207 as a team since Cincinnati left town, Tommy Pham headlines a very short list of Cardinals who haven’t missed the pliant Red pitching staff.  With last night’s home run, Pham is hitting .385 (10 for 26) with 5 of the hits for extra bases (3 doubles and 2 home runs) good for a .731 slugging percentage over the last 7 games.  This includes going 7 for 10 against the Mets.  Tommy begins the day leading the National League (narrowly) in batting average.  He is clearly following up strongly after his break-through 2017 season.

If this weren’t encouraging enough, last night’s home run was already his third at home this season.  Last season 17 of his 23 home runs were hit on the road, leading to a concern that Busch may be a bit too spacious for Tommy (as, indeed it seems to be for many hitters).  Last season, Pham hit .340/.431/.611 on the road – superstar numbers.  At home, he was a much more pedestrian .265/.388/.410.  So far this early season, Tommy’s batting splits slightly favor his home field (.333/.441/.611 vs .339/.448/.482).

Kolten Wong

Also heating up in the post-Cincinnati era is second-baseman Kolten Wong.  One of the Cards who started off the season ice cold, Kolten has had some hits start to fall in lately.  With yesterday’s 1-for-2, Wong is hitting .333 over the last 7 games (7 for 21).

Jose Martinez

On the other end of the ledger is 2017’s other break-out star – Jose Martinez.  After a torrid start to the season, Jose is only 5 for 26 (.192) in the wake of the Reds’ series.  In the early going, frosty Busch seems to have gotten the best of Jose.  Hitless in 4 at bats last night, Jose has now had 19 plate appearances at home over the last two series (Mets and White Sox).  He has contributed 2 singles, 1 double, 1 walk and one double play in those appearances (a slash line of .167/.211/.222).  In 13 home games so far in 2018, Jose is hitting .224 (11 for 49) with 1 home run and 7 runs batted in.

Matt Carpenter

Hitting into a bunch of bad luck so far this year (see this story), Matt Carpenter (who went 0 for 8 in the Pirate series) broke out a little last night with a double and a game-tying, ninth-inning home run.  Carpenter is still just 3 for 19 (.158) since Cincinnati left town, and just .170 still for the season.  Perhaps last night was the beginning of a turn-around.

Yadier Molina

To the list of players glad to be back home, you can add the name of Yadier Molina.  His 1-for-12 series in Pittsburgh dropped him to just .246 on the road this season (14 for 57) albeit with 5 home runs.  He had two hits last night – including the game winner, raising him to a .298 average at home this season.

Since the last Cincinnati series (last night notwithstanding) Molina has managed 4 singles and 5 strikeouts in his last 28 plate appearances – a .143/.143/.143 slash line.  His would be another welcome turnaround.

Still Waiting for Dexter

Dexter Fowler hit the big walk-off single that gave the Cards a series win against the Mets (box score).  He hasn’t had a hit since, following an 0-for-9, 4 strikeout Pittsburgh series with an 0-for-3 last night.  Unlike Carpenter, Wong and Molina, Dexter’s recent at bats don’t show much sign of a turnaround.  His season average sits still at .165.

While I’m sure some are anxious over the slow start, I will remind the ready reader that Dexter started slowly last year, too.  But at the end of the year, he was one of the few Cardinal hitters still getting big hits in important games.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, Dexter’s two-run home run in St Louis’ afternoon game against the White Sox proved decisive – so perhaps Fowler is beginning to find the range now, too.

Michael Wacha

A quiet hero last night was starting pitcher Michael Wacha.  After five solid innings, he left the game trailing 2-1, the victim of a two-run double off the bat of uber-prospect Yoan Moncada.  An inning shy of a quality start, Wacha is one of the critical pieces to the 2017 puzzle.  There were moments last season (and there have been a few already this season) when Michael looked like he was again becoming the pitching phenom he was in his rookie season.  He also faded notably down the stretch.

Over his last two starts, Wacha has allowed just 3 runs in 11 innings (2.45 ERA) with 11 strikeouts.  Both of these starts were at home.  Of his first 6 starts this season, he has made 4 at home, going 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA allowing no home runs.  He has lasted just 9.2 innings combined in his two road starts.  During these innings, he has allowed 8 runs (7 earned) on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs.

Wacha will be a pitcher to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Luke Weaver

Their offseason actions indicated that management believes that Luke Weaver is ready to take his regular turn in the major league rotation.  Three starts into the season, this was looking like a good decision.  Luke was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA.  He finished April 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA over his last three starts.  He has walked 9 batters and has given 14 runs on 17 hits over his last 14 innings.  Again, very, very early.  But it will be very damaging if the club is wrong about Luke.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris – an acquisition I was dubious of over the off-season – has been as steady as we could have hoped for.  Earning his first Cardinal win last night, Bud’s ERA is now down to 1.88.  As opposed to many of the Cardinal pitchers, Bud has actually been better on the road (1.17 ERA v 2.70 at home).

Dominic Leone

Another off-season bullpen acquisition – Dominic Leone – is starting to find his footing.  After serving up 3 home runs in his first 4.2 Cardinal innings, Leon has served up none (allowing just 1 run) over his last 8 innings.  He pitched the eighth last night, giving a hit but no runs.

Up Next

Even as I was composing this missive, the Cardinals won their afternoon game against the White Sox (by the same 3-2 score), meaning they will open their series against the Cubs with a little momentum.  Still, the White Sox are now 8-20 on the year. It would do a lot for my confidence if St Louis could do some of this winning against contending ball clubs.

DeJong Reverses RISP Trend in Cardinal Win

Fearless forcast – mark it down.  At some point this season, the Cardinals will lose a game to the Cincinnati Reds.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.

It almost happened Saturday afternoon.  Three Cardinal home runs accounted for all of their scoring in a 4-3 win (box score) – a game in which they were 0-or-6 with runners in scoring position (RISP).  This has been a continuing sore spot for an offense that has still mostly underachieved (in spite of the fact that they are still scoring 4.81 runs a game).  With the 0-for-6 on Saturday, the Cards fell to 6 for 32 (.188) is RISP opportunities over their four previous games.  It also dropped them to .230 (35 for 152) for the season in RBI opportunities.

For one afternoon on Sunday, though, the concerns were temporarily allayed as St Louis cruised past Cincinnati (for the seventh straight time this season) by a 9-2 score (box score). One of the game features was a 5-for-16 performance (.313) with runners in scoring position.  Whether this is the beginning of a turnaround is yet to be determined.

Noteworthy in the game – and in the early season struggles – is second-year shortstop Paul DeJong.  Entering the game just 2-for-19 (.105) with runners in scoring position, Paul had ducks on the pond every time he came to the plate Sunday afternoon.  Batting eighth in many of the recent games, manager Mike Matheny sought to change things up by batting DeJong fifth this day, and the game continually found him.

In the first inning – with the game still scoreless – DeJong came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.  He bounced into the 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.

Now it’s the third inning.  The Cards have just pushed their lead to 2-0, when Paul came to the plate with runners at first and second and one out.  But instead of another rally-killing ground ball, DeJong slapped a single that positioned a runner (Yadier Molina) at third, where he would score on a fly-ball off the bat of Tyler O’Neill (his first major league RBI), giving the Cards a 3-0 lead.

When Dexter Fowler led off the fifth with a walk and a stolen base, DeJong had yet another RISP opportunity.  Nothing came of this as Paul grounded out.

In the meantime, the Cardinal offense had slowed, and the Reds began to chip away at the deficit.  So, when Paul came to the plate in the seventh inning – with runners at first and second and two out – the Cards were clinging to a 3-2 lead.  Just 3 for 22 at this point with runners in scoring position on the season, Paul DeJong finally came through.  He delivered a crushing three-run homer that took much of the pressure off, and sent the Cards on to their decisive victory.

While DeJong hasn’t (yet) been as consistent as he was in his rookie year, this was – nonetheless – his seventh home run of the young season.  Big hits in clutch situations from DeJong would go a long way toward healing what’s wrong with the St Louis offense.

If DeJong is turning the corner, the RISP results are still frustrating for Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter.  Wong ended the third by striking out with runners at first and second.  He is now 2 for 11 (.182) in the early season with runners on base.  Carpenter had a fourth inning chance with two on and no one out, but he was retired on a fly ball.  Matt is just 2 for his first 15 (.133) in RISP situations.

Again, it’s early.

Two RISP Pitching Notes

On the subject of runners in scoring position, a couple of pitching numbers jumped out at me this morning.  Neither pitcher pitched on Sunday, but rookie Jordan Hicks and top starter Carlos Martinez have both found another gear when pitching in RISP situations.  Hicks has held batters to 0-for-16 in these opportunities so far this season.

As for Martinez, he served up a two-run single to New York’s Yoenis Cespedes in the second inning of his shaky opening start against the Mets.  That has been the only hit this season off of Carlos when he has had ducks on the pond.  Batters are now 1-for-24 (.042) against Martinez in these situations – including 0 for their last 21.

Speaking of Pitching

Miles Mikolas (Sunday’s starter) added another strong effort to the rotation’s early success.  Miles finished his day having pitched 7 innings, allowing 1 earned run on 5 hits.  Since the first two games of the season, the Cardinal rotation holds a 2.73 ERA, allowing just 8 home runs over their last 112 innings.

Recent Scoring Changes – For Those Scoring at Home

Dexter Fowler’s struggling start got a little better.  In the fifth inning of the April 12 game in Cincinnati, Fowler reached when his pop-fly to short fell in.  Originally scored an error, Dexter has now been awarded a hit on the effort.  It pushes his early season average up to .192.

Ten Two-Out Runs Topple the Cards

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

Starting Pitching Leads the Great Collapse

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

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

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

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

They are much less “in it,” now

Luke Weaver

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

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

Sam Tuivailala

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

Zach Duke

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

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

Hits Still Scarce

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

Jedd Gyorko

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

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

Dexter Fowler

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

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

Tommy Pham

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

Paul DeJong

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

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

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

Yadier Molina

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

Stephen Piscotty

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

Elimination Season Draws to Its Conclusion

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

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

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

The Hot Team Hits One of the First Two Pitches

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

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

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

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

Seung-hwan Oh

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

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

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

Brett Cecil

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

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

John Brebbia

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

Tyler Lyons

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

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

Meanwhile, the Cardinals See a Lot of Pitches

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

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

Tommy Pham

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

Jedd Gyorko

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

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

Where Do We Go From Here?

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

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

NoteBook

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

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

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

Cardinal Hitters Grind Down Reds’ Young Hurlers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tommy Pham

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

Luke Weaver

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

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

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

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

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

Hopeful News from the Bullpen

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

NoteBook

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

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

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

Over Early

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over Early – Well, Maybe Not

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

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

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

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

Tine to File a Missing Person’s Report?

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

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

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

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

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

Cards 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.

Cards Exposed Again by Winning Teams

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

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

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

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

Offensive Deficiencies

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

Tommy Pham

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

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

Tommy’s breakthrough season withstands all levels of scrutiny.

Dexter Fowler

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

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

Pitching Falters

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

Needless to say, the Cardinals were hoping for better.

Starters Against Winning Teams

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

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

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

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

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

John Brebbia

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

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

Tyler Lyons

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

Matthew Bowman

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

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

NoteBook

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

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

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.

Inches Betray Cardinals as Winning Streak Ends

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

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

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

Jose Martinez

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

Tommy Pham

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

Kolten Wong

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

Harrison Bader

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

Sam Tuivailala

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

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

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

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

Matthew Bowman

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

Twenty At Bats with Runners in Scoring Position Highlights Cardinal Win

It was April 17, 2014, and the Cardinals were in Washington to play the Nationals.  The headliner that day would be Adam Wainwright, who fired a complete-game, 2-hit shutout in an 8-0 win (box score).  The less remembered story is the offense that finished with their 8 runs on 15 hits, 5 walks, a hit batsman, and three other runners that reached on errors.  From that total of 24 baserunners, the Cardinals amassed 23 at bats with runners in scoring position (they were 8 for 23).

That is how far back in Cardinal history you have to go to find the last time the Cards had more at bats with runners in scoring position (RISP) than they had last night.  The offense highlighted last night’s 13-4 conquest of Cincinnati (box score) going 6 for 20 (including 2 doubles and a triple), 4 walks and a sacrifice fly with runners in scoring position – a .300/.400/550 batting line.

With the outburst, the Cards continued a couple of encouraging trends.  The team batting average with runners in scoring position has now risen to .277 in the second half, and up to .288 over the last 86 games.  The run-scoring pace continues to be healthy – 5.45 runs per game in September, 5.16 runs per game since the All-Star Break, and 5.34 runs per game over the last 86 games.

Eighty-six games ago, the Cardinals limped home after losing all seven games of a road trip through Chicago and Cincinnati.  At that point, this team was just 26-32 and fading.  Since then, they have won 50 games – a .581 winning percentage.

Paul DeJong

Yes, that was Paul DeJong with another three-hit night – including a double and a home run.  The rookie, who spotted the rest of the team 46 games before he even made it out of Memphis, is the team leader in home runs with 22.  And he now has multiple hits in 3 of his last 4 games.

Paul has started off his September with a .300 batting average (12 for 40) and a .550 slugging percentage (4 doubles and 2 home runs).  Since the break, DeJong is a .280 hitter (63 for 255) and a .516 slugger.  Over his last 54 games DeJong has hit 13 home runs and driven in 37.

Of the rookie’s 22 home runs, 21 have come over the Cards last 86 games.  DeJong is hitting .298 (93 for 312) over that span.

Jose Martinez

Because he doesn’t carry a starters number of at bats, I think that much of Cardinal Nation – much less the baseball world in general – doesn’t really grasp the remarkable season that Jose Martinez is having.  It isn’t impossible that Jose will go from being fourth outfielder in April to player of the month in September.  Eleven games into the season’s make-or-break month, Jose is hitting .421 (16 for 38), and slugging .763 (4 doubles and 3 home runs).  Jose has driven in 10 runs in the first 11 games of the month.

He has been even better since inheriting the cleanup spot 9 games ago.  While the organization is (apparently) pondering where they can find a “middle-of-the-order” bat for next season, Jose has noisily gone about the business of hitting .424/500/.818 in the cleanup spot.  For those concerned that the sample size might be too small, consider that in 118 plate appearances in the season’s second half, Martinez is hitting .350/.441/.650, and over the last 86 team games – in 186 plate appearances spread irregularly back to the end of June – Jose’s batting line is .329/.407/.620.  In his last 158 at bats, Jose has hit 12 home runs and driven in 32.

He, by the way, added a single, a double and a walk while driving in two more runs last night.

Yadier Molina

And, once again, Yadier Molina was the straw that stirred the drink with two more hits and 3 more runs batted in.  This included his second consecutive game-winning RBI – his team-leading eleventh of the season.

Where to begin with Molina?  First, Yadi now has three-consecutive two-hit games.  His September average rises to .306 (11 for 36).  He has 15 runs batted in already this month (8 of those over the last 2 games).  Since the All-Star Break, Yadi has hit .302 (55 for 182) with surprising power.  He has 8 home runs and a .505 slugging percentage in the second half.  Stretching back to late June, Yadi is a .300 hitter (81 for 270) over his last 73 games.

Age, apparently, really is just a number.

Yadi has been the Cards best hitter with runners in scoring position all season, but he has been especially torrid of late.  He was 2 for 3 in RISP opportunities last night.  He is 7 for 13 (.538) this month in those at bats.  In the season’s second half, Yadi is hitting .353 (18 for 51) with the ducks on the pond.  During St Louis’ 86-game turnaround, Molina is 29 for 77 – a .377 batting average with runners in scoring position.

His season RISP average is .327 (37 for 113).

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong is back in the lineup and swinging the bat freely again – good news, indeed.  With 2 more hits last night, Wong is now hitting .302 in the second half (51 for 169), and since the end of June, Kolten carries a .317 average.  He has 60 hits in his last 189 at bats.

Wong was 1 for 3 in RISP opportunities last night.  He has been second on the team all year behind Yadi in that stat, and has been even more torrid since the end of June, hitting .381 (16 or 42) with runners at second and/or third.

Progress of the Bullpen

After a shorter-than-usual five innings from starter Lance Lynn, the Cardinal bullpen quieted Cincinnati over the last 4 innings.  The bullpen has hit September with a 2.54 ERA that features a .245 batting average against and a .287 on base percentage against.  They have walked only 6 in their last 28.1 innings.  Still to be seen is how they will hold up in high leverage situations.  It remains one of the more intriguing mysteries of the rest of the season.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil – who tossed two scoreless innings last night – is trying (again) to recover his season.  He is pitching now in mostly low leveraged situations.  Brett, though, was one of the positive forces that led the season’s turnaround back in June and July.  He has pitched 37.2 innings in the last 86 games, walking just 5 batters (2 of those intentionally) with a 3.11 ERA.

NoteBook

The Cardinals ended their most recent road-trip winning 3 of 4 in San Diego.  They scored 13 runs in the four games combined – as many as they scored last night alone against Cincinnati.

Conversely, they opened their current home stand by sweeping three games from Pittsburgh.  They allowed a total of 4 runs in those three games – as many as they surrendered last night alone to Cincinnati.

A pronounced problem earlier in the season, St Louis has now won the first game of five consecutive series and 9 of their last 12.  They are 21-12 in the games of these series.

Elimination Season Continues

With last night’s loss, Cincinnati was officially eliminated from the Wild Card race.  They become the first NL Central team to be eliminated from anything. While they are now 16.5 games behind the Cubs, they are still mathematically alive for the division title – albeit just barely.  Their magic number is down to 2.