The game was still scoreless in the first inning when Dexter Fowler set the tone for the evening. With Matt Carpenter at third and one out, Dexter cuffed the first strike he saw from Pittsburgh right-hander Ivan Nova up the middle for the single that drove in the first Cardinal run.
Eight innings later – with the Cardinals now trailing 3-2 in the ninth – Stephen Piscotty slapped the first strike he saw from Pirate closer Felipe Rivero down the right-field line for the double that initiated the two-run rally that brought the Cards a gritty 4-3 win (box score).
The Pirate pitching staff made very few mistakes with their first strikes, but when you are facing the hot team, they will take advantage when you do get too close to the zone. St Louis was 4 for 8 last night when they hit the first strike.
Conversely, the Pirates had some first-strikes to hit in important situations as well. After Pittsburgh bounced back to tie the game at 2 in the fourth inning, Elias Diaz came to the plate with runners at first and third and just one out. He jumped on the first strike he saw from Michael Wacha – and grounded into an inning ending double play.
Through the eighth and ninth innings, ex-Buc Juan Nicasio faced three batters in a row (Josh Bell, David Freese and Gregory Polanco) who all jumped his first pitch. They were 0 for 3 (two ground balls and a fly out).
For the game, Pittsburgh was only 2 for 12 when hitting the first strike. Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), batters are hitting .348/.408/.607 when they hit the first strike.
Probably, on some other day, the Pirates might have turned most of those pitches into line drives into the gap. But, as the season winds down – at least as long as they are not playing Chicago – St Louis is the team swinging the hot bat, and Pittsburgh is not.
Cardinal hitters were also 6 for 17 (.353) when hitting with two strikes – another hint that they are a hot team right now. Across all of baseball, batters in two-strike counts are hitting .176/.249/.280.
Of course, the hottest of the hot continues to be Dexter Fowler. With 2 more hits and 2 more RBIs last night, Fowler has fashioned together a nice little six-game hitting streak, during which he is hitting a capable .520 (13 for 25) and slugging an acceptable 1.000 (he has 3 doubles and 3 home runs in those games). Dexter has multiple hits in all but one of the games, has driven in at least 2 runs in each of the last 5 games, during which time he also has 3 game-winning hits (including last night) and 3 late, game-changing hits (also including last night). Fowler has now wrested the team lead in game-winning-RBIs from Yadier Molina 12-11. His 9 late, game-changing hits are more than twice as many as any other Cardinal.
Fowler is slashing .400/.478/.800 for the month of September, but a variety of injuries has limited him to just 11 of the 20 games played. He has had 179 plate appearances since the All-Star Break, during which he has contributed 28 singles, 12 doubles, 4 triples, 4 home runs, 28 walks, 2 hit-by-pitches, and 2 sacrifice flies – a .313/.425/.531 batting line. Last night’s win was St Louis’ 55th in its last 95 games (.579). Fowler has been a significant spoke in the wheel, hitting .320/.421/.581 since early June.
When he’s hot, Dexter can certainly carry a club.
Both of his hits and his game-winning ground out came on the first strike thrown to him last night. Since the break, Fowler is hitting .476 (20 for 42) when he hits the first strike in an at bat. He is 7 for 9 this month alone.
Piscotty isn’t as torrid as Fowler by any stretch of the imagination. But he does continue to show signs that he has turned things around since his refresher course in Memphis. Piscotty (who had two hits last night) has been back for 25 games now, during which he is hitting .293 (22 for 75).
Pitching Staff Continues to Come Together
A mystery for much of the season, the Cardinal pitching staff in September has looked more like the collection of arms we thought we would see all year. The team ERA is now down to 3.31 for the month. Equally as important, after yielding only 5 hits last night, the team batting average against is down to .233 on the month. For the year, teams are hitting a surprising .252 against Cardinal pitching.
Bullpen Making them Earn It
John Brebbia walked a batter in the sixth inning. It led to nothing, but it’s noteworthy for the infrequency of the occurrence. The St Louis bullpen has now walked just 17 batters in 63.2 innings this month (1 of those intentionally) – an average of just 2.26 unintentional walks every 9 innings. The on base percentage against the Cardinal bullpen this month is just .293.
Brebbia did give up the walk, but has settled in rather nicely as the sixth inning man. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last 5 games, and has given just 2 over his last 8 innings. He has pitched in 28 innings since the All-Star break, with a 2.57 ERA.
John has also been one of the steadying forces in the bullpen in the Cardinal’s turnaround. As St Louis has played 15-over ball over the last 95 games, Brebbia has been involved in 40 of them, pitching 42 innings with a 2.14 ERA and a .192 batting average against.
In a first-pitch-fastball league, John is not afraid to throw his plus slider as a first pitch. He’s also not afraid to throw the high fastball and challenge hitters to get on top of it. He did a little of both last night, getting Starling Marte to fly to left on a first-pitch slider that he didn’t quite square up on, and later getting Josh Bell to hack at that too-high fastball. He also flew to left on the first pitch.
These are two of the reasons that John has had uncanny success with batters who hit his first strike. For the season, they are just 5 for 27 (.185) with just 2 doubles (.259 slugging percentage) and just 1 run batted in.
Ryan Sherriff could have been the losing pitcher last night – he gave the run that put Pittsburgh ahead 3-2 in the seventh. Of course, he also could have gotten out of the inning without giving up a run were it not for an error on a should-have-been double play ball. Nonetheless, Ryan has been hit a little hard lately. He’s allowed runs in two of his last four games and three of his last seven. He has allowed a total of 5 runs in his last 6 innings, with a batting line against of .292/.393/.583.
The culprit here has mostly been his sinker not sinking so much lately. When it’s dropping, it’s a tough pitch to lay off of. And once he gets you to two-strikes, you usually strike out (52.4% strike out). This happened to Polanco leading off the seventh.
Increasingly, though, Ryan isn’t getting to strike two as his sinker rides high early in the count. Jordy Mercer got a first-strike sinker that was up in the zone, and he slapped it into right for a single that set up the go ahead run. The last 7 batters who have hit Ryan’s first strike are 4 for 7, and they are hitting .417 against him (5 for 12) on the year. Ryan has made it to strike two on only 11 of the 28 batters he’s faced this month (39.3%).
Ryan, of course, has only pitched 10.1 innings in his major league career, so all of this comes with a small-sample-size warning.
With last night’s victory, St Louis has won the first game of 7 of its last 8 series.