One of baseball’s axioms about dealing with elite pitchers is that if you don’t get to them early, you might not get to them at all. There are several variables that the starting pitcher will have to adjust for as he begins the game. Mounds are apparently all different. The strike zone of each individual umpire is quite different. Usually, the hitters will come to the plate with some kind of approach or game plan which may not be anticipated and may lead to early success. So, there are some adjustments to be made in that first inning or so – which opens a window of opportunity for the hitters.
The spectrum of this axiom was on full display last night in the finale of the season series between the Cardinals and the Washington Nationals. The Cardinal offense didn’t come close to getting Washington ace Max Scherzer early. He struck out the first four batters he faced and five in the first two innings. And as it turned out, they never did get him – Scherzer finished his evening after 7 innings and 100 pitches, giving St Louis no runs on only 2 hits, while striking out 12.
Washington, on the other hand, jumped Cardinal starter Carlos Martinez for 2 first inning runs, and kept him out of kilter for the rest of an uncommonly short five inning outing, on its way to a relatively easy 7-2 victory (box score).
Coming off of an excellent June, when he posted a 2.43 ERA in 5 starts – and riding an even longer streak of 11 quality starts in 12 games, Martinez gave 5 runs in 5 innings. His evening, though, really fell on two pitches to National’s superstar outfielder Bryce Harper that most hitters would had turned into easy fly outs. Harper got a little more of them than might be expected, sailing both into the right-field seats for two-run home runs.
Last night’s game marks the seventh time in Carlos’ 17 starts that the Cards were shutout while Martinez was on the mound. Carlos has gotten fewer than 3 support runs 11 times in his 17 games.
Over the course of what has looked at times like a break-out season, Carlos has shown a tendency to wilt in the sixth (6.75 ERA) and seventh (7.71 ERA). But he has been mostly terrific before those innings – if he can make it through the first inning unscathed. From the second through the fifth innings (even after giving up three runs in last night’s third inning), Carlos has a 1.99 ERA and a .192 batting average against in those innings. Harper’s second home run was the first Carlos has surrendered in the third inning all season.
On the other hand, Bryce’s first inning home run was the third first-inning home run off of Carlos (in 17 first innings). His first-inning ERA now sits at 3.71.
If you waited until the ninth inning, you would have seen John Brebbia out there mopping up. He gave a hit and a walk (intentional), but got through the inning – his first appearance in five days – unscathed. Over his last 4 games, batters are 2 for 16 (.125) against him. For the season, John has a 2.35 ERA over 15.1 innings, during which batters are hitting .148 against him.
As the back of the bullpen was shuffled over the last two series – and while Seung-hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal are still struggling – and their role reversals haven’t resolved their struggles – I was hoping that Brebbia might get higher leveraged opportunities. Instead, he seems to have been buried deeper in the depth chart.
So, Max Scherzer probably isn’t the pitcher you want to see on the mound when you are riding a 16-game hitting streak. Yadier Molina finished his evening – as did many of the Cardinals – 0 for 4, bringing an end to his streak. Over the course of the 16 games, Yadi hit .333 (21 for 63) with 3 home runs and 12 runs batted in.
Hot off his three-hit, five RBI game in the finale of the Arizona series, Randal Grichuk finished up his 1 for 13 (.077) series against Washington with an 0-for-4 night. He struck out 3 times last night, and 6 times during the series. Since his hot start after his recall, Grichuk is now hitting .229 (8 for 35) in his post-Memphis appearances.
All season, the Cardinals have been less than dynamic in the first inning. While last night’s three-up, three struck out was an extreme example, those strikeouts did leave the Cards with a .217 team batting average in the first inning. Dexter Fowler (11 for 55) and Matt Carpenter (12 for 60) are both batting .200 for the season in the first inning – although with 13 walks, Carpenter’s on base percentage is .342 in that inning.
In the eighth inning, Tommy Pham completed the scoring by flicking Enny Romero’s up-and-away fastball over the right-field wall. The home run was Pham’s tenth of the season – a career high. It was also (after 26 games and 101 plate appearances) his first home run at Busch this season. He carries a .218/.307/.264 batting line at home. He is at .344/.435/.688 in 108 plate appearances on the road. For his career, in 257 plate appearances at home, Tommy has 5 home runs and a .219/.307/.335 batting line. He has been to the plate 310 times on the road, where he has hit 19 home runs with a .293/.382/.574 batting line.
Pham’s home run leaves Stephen Piscotty (121 PA) and Greg Garcia (74 PA) as the only Cardinals with 50 or more plate appearances at home who have yet to reach the fences at Busch. Piscotty has 6 road home runs and Garcia 1.