Healing Bullpen Backs Offense as Cards Hammer Fish

The last time Trevor Rosenthal pitched a meaningful inning was July 8 in Milwaukee.  Trevor – already deposed as the closer – came out of the bullpen into a 3-3 game in the ninth inning.  He walked a batter and surrendered a sacrifice bunt before Seung-hwan Oh came in to complete the loss, allowing the walk-off single to Jonathan Villar.

In the 17 games since then, the Cardinal bullpen has pitched 62 innings with a 1.60 ERA and a .168 batting average against, allowing only 3 of the last 16 inherited runners to score.  Not coincidentally – even though the rotation has only managed 7 quality starts and a 4.55 ERA in those games – St Louis has won 12 of the 17.  At the risk of over-simplification: Fix your bullpen, fix your season.

That bullpen made another significant contribution last night, offering 4 innings of shutdown relief (while the Marlin bullpen spit out 3 important runs in their 4.2 innings in addition to allowing all three of their inherited runners to score).

The trio that closed things out last night were not prominently thought of as the season began, but gradually have carved out bigger roles for themselves in this evolving bullpen.  Matthew Bowman was a Rule-5 guy that had been unimpressive in the Met organization the year before.  Dean Kiekhefer was an unheralded minor leaguer.  Seth Maness was a veteran who was sliding out of late inning consideration.  An abortive beginning to his season almost led to his being optioned to Memphis.  He landed on the disabled list instead, returning at the end of June to underwhelming fanfare.  More on them in a bit, but first let’s consider last night’s starter.

On the plus side, Mike Leake didn’t walk anyone last night.  He still hasn’t walked anyone since he walked Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer in the sixth inning of his June 30 start against the Royals.  That was 31.2 innings, 131 batters faced, and 463 pitches ago.

As with Wacha last night, Leake’s actual game was better than his line showed.  He threw four very good innings.  As for the fifth, it sometimes happens – even to veteran pitchers – that after your offense has blown the game open (and an eight run lead seemed pretty much blown open) it can be difficult to hold your focus.  The Marlins are a pretty explosive offense.  They don’t need much of an opening to throw up a big inning.

That apology being made, this is, nonetheless, two straight games that Leake has been punctured for 6 runs.  It is also three times in the five games he started in July that he has given up at least 5 runs.  He is actually 3-2 over his last five games, but with a 5.70 ERA, surrendering 40 hits in his last 30 innings.

Yesterday I noted that Leake got less run support than the rest of the starting staff.  The 11 from last night match his total run support from his previous 3 games.  He now has the second highest average support runs per nine innings this year at 5.41 (Wacha is at 5.56).

Up until last night, Leake had been performing better on five days rest instead of four.  In 11 starts this year on four days, Leake is 4-6 with a 4.18 ERA.  On five days he was 2-1 with a 3.09 ERA.  He’s now 3-1 with a 4.45.

The more I watch Matthew Bowman, the more I like him.  With 2 more scoreless innings last night, Matthew has been solved for only 2 earned runs in his last 16.2 innings covering 14 games (1.08 ERA).  And nothing about it looks fluky or lucky.  Bowman has some nasty breaking pitches that drop off the table.

For the month of July, opponents hit .157 against Bowman, who has gone 22 innings without giving up a home run.  Matthew also has one of the highest ground-ball ratios on the team, now at 62.3% after all three batters who put the ball in play against him last night hit it on the ground.

Bowman was pitching last night on two days’ rest.  So far this season, that seems to be the longest you should have him go in between appearances.  He has pitched on two-days or less 20 times this season and pitched with three-days or more 14 times.  He holds a 2.22 ERA with no home runs allowed in 24.1 innings with less than three-days’ rest, and a 4.00 ERA, allowing all three of his home runs in 18 innings after having had three or more days off.

Dean Kiekhefer still hasn’t thrown enough for any meaningful trends to develop.  He did strike out Ichiro last night.  Cardinal management would love to be able to trust him to get one or two left-handed batters out so they can have more flexibility with Tyler Lyons.

Seth Maness finished up with a nearly spotless 1.1 innings.  He’s been much better since his return from the DL, and especially over his last 8 appearances where he’s managed a 0.87 ERA in 10.1 innings.  His batting average against has been a surprising .162 this month (and just .129 over his last 9.1 innings).  Seth is actually throwing the ball better, I think, than he has ever thrown it.

As his sinker has re-discovered its bite, Seth has also re-discovered his ground ball mojo.  Seth got four of the five batters he faced last night to hit the ball on the ground.  Now 18 of the last 27 (66.7%) that have put the ball in play against Seth have been induced to hit a ground ball.

Fifteen of his 21 pitches were strikes (71%).  Seth Maness has thrown 82 of his last 113 pitches for strikes (73%).  Throwing strikes and getting ground balls will put up a lot of zeros.

Oh didn’t get a shot at a save last night, but he has seemed more confident in the role of late.  He has saved 5 of the 12 wins – four of them in one-run games – and has done so with minimal drama (5 innings, 0 runs, 2 singles, 0 walks, 5 strikeouts, 73% of pitches thrown for strikes).  In the 7 total games (and innings) that Oh has been the closer, he has been touched for 1 run.  That was during the July 3 game against Milwaukee when he walked into a bases-loaded, no-out situation – but also with a 9-4 lead.  It was pretty grisly business as he gave a walk, a double and saw the Brewers creep to within 9-8 before he finally closed things down.  Beyond that, he has been quite good and getting better.  The same is true of the bullpen in general.

Is the bullpen fixed?  Way too early to say that.  The good 17 game run has included series against Miami (twice), the Dodgers and the Mets – so that is all encouraging.  If Rosenthal gets fixed and returns to be an important part of the mix (or if Alex Reyes ends up here before long) it could only add to the growing confidence these guys are beginning to get.

In the 11-6 win last night (box score), there were also a few guys who did some hitting.

Yadier Molina pushed his hitting streak to 13 games.  With three hits last night, Yadi now has multiple hits in 4 straight games and two or more hits in 5 of the 13.  He has also doubled now in 5 straight games.  He is hitting .380 (19 for 50) and slugging .620 during his streak.

With 2 games left in July, Yadi is hitting .329 for the month (24 of 73).

Kolten Wong – seemingly energized after his big hit against Familia – went 3 for 5, including a double and a triple.  His July average has now crept up to .275 (14 for 51).

Tommy Pham is only hitting .264 this month, but his home run last night was his fifth in 72 July at bats.

Randal Grichuk joined the action late and didn’t join in on the fun, going 0 for 2.  Randal has 4 hits in his last 32 at bats (.125).  He has only 10 hits in his last 48 at bats (.208) but the hits include 2 doubles and 3 home runs.

St Louis did add two more home runs to their season tally last night.  They now have 142 in 103 games.  They are now 17 behind the total of the 2012 Cardinals.  That team hit more than one home run in a game 46 times.  The 2016 Cardinals have already managed that feat 39 times.

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