One of the persistent early-season narratives dealt with the Cardinal’s inability to cope with winning teams. Throughout the season’s first half they were routinely handled by teams with winning records, as they lost 22 of the first 34 they played.
The narrative has been different in the season’s second half. Last night’s hard-won 4-2 conquest of the Chicago Cubs (box score) brings St Louis to 9-8 in their last 17 matches against over .500 clubs.
Surprisingly, it has been the much maligned bullpen that has been most responsible for this turnaround. Last night’s victory was a microcosm as the starter lasted less than 2 innings, but the determined bullpen held the game where it was until the offense could make its comeback.
With the starters managing just 5 quality starts and 84.2 innings with a 6.38 ERA, it has fallen to the pen to account for 75 innings in those 17 games – and account for them they did to the tune of a 1.80 ERA and a .191 batting average. They have allowed just 1 of 19 inherited runners to score, while posting a 5-1 record, 5 saves, 6 holds and no blown saves.
The bullpen’s ability to rise to the occasion is one of the most encouraging developments of the second half. And they came to the rescue early last night.
With the clouds of disaster gathering around, Mike Matheny came and got Jaime Garcia before the game could spiral away from him. That moment came with two out in the second inning with the Cubs – already leading 2-0 – sitting with the bases loaded and Kris Bryant at the plate.
The moment and the game would belong to the Cards, but continues the troubling downward spiral of Garcia’s season. Jaime has 1 quality start in his last 6 trips to the mound. That is his best statistic from those starts.
In three of the six, Jaime never got an out in the fifth inning, totaling just 27.3 innings in those starts. In those innings, Garcia has been thumped for 25 runs on 38 hits (including 10 home runs) and 12 walks. He has an 8.23 ERA with a .333/.406./684 batting line against. Jaime has been struggling.
He is 4-6 with a 5.65 ERA in 12 starts since the All-Star Break, with only 3 of those outing counting as quality starts.
Garcia has made 4 of the 17 second half starts against winning teams. He is averaging less than 4 innings per start (15.2 total innings) and has managed a 1-2 record in spite of a 8.62 ERA, a .338 batting average against, and a .708 opposing slugging percentage. He has given up 6 home runs in those innings. He is 3-5 in 10 starts this season against winning teams with a 5.64 ERA – the highest of any member of the rotation.
To the rescue came 22-year-old uber-prospect Alex Reyes. Beginning with Bryant, Alex would strike out 4 batters over the next 4.1 innings, allowing 1 hit and no runs. Alex would also walk 6 of his own batters to raise the stress level, but in the end there was always enough left in the tank to quell the threat.
Reyes has now made 2 starts and 7 relief appearances. Four of those relief efforts have come against winning teams (twice against Chicago as well as appearances against the Astros and Mets). Those appearances have totaled 11.2 innings. Alex has walked 9 in those 11.2 innings, but has struck out 15, allowed 5 hits and no runs. St Louis’ record against winning teams started to turn about the time that Alex joined the big league club.
Offensively, it would be an overstatement to say that the team broke out of its hitting slump. They only had 7 hits. It was enough, though.
Two of the hits – including the game-deciding home run – came off the bat of Brandon Moss who has been struggling through the most pronounced slump of his career.
His struggles have not extended to his games against winning teams, however. Since the break, Brandon has played and started 10 of the 17 games against the better opponents. He is 16 for 42 in those games (.381) with 7 home runs and 13 runs batted in (.881 slugging). For the season, 13 of his 26 home runs have come in 128 at bats against teams that are over .500.
The other hitting hero was returning shortstop Aledmys Diaz. Lost for 38 games to a broken hand, I don’t know what anyone’s expectations for him would be. But – as he did so often before his injury – Aledmys rose to the moment. He had 2 hits including the game-tying homer. Aledmys second half batting average is now .311.
To the mound this afternoon is emerging star Carlos Martinez. Carlos has made 12 starts this season against winning teams. Eight of those have been quality starts as Carlos has earned a 5-3 record and a 3.09 ERA against these teams. Four of those starts have come in the second half. Three of those starts have been quality starts. Martinez is 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA and a .198/.287/.313 batting line against him when facing winning teams since the All-Star Break.
From September 2 through September 8, St Louis scored first in seven consecutive games. In the five games played since then, the Cards have surrendered the first run in all five.
When Jon Lester takes the mound this afternoon for Chicago, he will be the first left-hander to start against St Louis since Oakland’s Ross Detwiler on August 26 – a stretch of 17 straight right-handed starters. The Cards went 8-9 in those games.
With two more home runs providing the only offense, the Cards have pushed their season total to 207 in 144 games – a pace that would bring them to 233 for the season. They now have 59 multiple home run games this season. Seven more home runs will tie the 2004 Cardinals for the third most home runs of any Cardinal team. That 2004 team had 67 multi-homer games.