After three hours and 46 minutes – and 349 pitches – the St Louis Cardinals – clinging by their fingernails in the chase for the National League’s last playoff spot and in a death struggle against their ancient rivals – finally held on to one of the season’s most uncomfortable victories, 8-7 (box score).
Starter Carlos Martinez ground through 4.1 innings that were complicated by 4 hits, 4 walks, a hit batsman, and a batter reaching on a catcher’s interference call that wiped out a potential double play. In all, that’s 10 base-runners. But, in a departure from his earlier form, Carlos didn’t unravel. Pitching under nearly constant pressure, Carlos held his stuff together, allowed only 3 of the runners to score (only two of them earned), and walked off the mound holding a 5-3 lead.
And then there was the eighth inning. In a throwback to the thready first half when the Cardinal bullpen hemorrhaged runs in that inning, two Chicago home runs put 4 sudden runs on the board and closed St Louis’ big lead back down to a single run. The Cubs ended the game putting the tying run in scoring position in both the eighth and ninth innings against newly ordained closer Juan Nicasio.
But – for one night, anyway – the Cardinals were the tough ones as they won enough of the tough at bats to hold off the defending world champs.
Time to exhale.
That Nettlesome Eighth Inning
Repeatedly through the first 88 games of the season, games would blow up on the Cards in the eighth inning. They limped into the break with a 5.63 ERA in this inning, and a .281 batting average against. Up until last night, the relative competence of the late inning relief corps was one of the marked improvements in the team. Up until last night, the team’s second half ERA in the eighth inning was 3.44 with a .230 batting average against.
The two home runs in that inning last night bring to 12 the number of eighth inning home runs hit against the Cardinals since the All-Star Break – one more than in any other inning (there have been 11 hit in both the first and fourth innings). For the season, now, more runs have been scored against this team in the eighth inning (91) than in any other (85 have been scored in the fifth, the next highest inning). Their ERA in that inning is still 4.87.
Pitchers Still Struggling
Even though Martinez had some gritty moments, at the end of the day, the Cards have still gone 11 straight games without a quality start, and, surrendering 6 more earned runs, the team ERA is up to 5.87 over those games. The last 11 Cardinal starters have managed just 44.1 innings – fractionally more than 4 per start – with an 8.53 ERA and a .308 batting average against. If this keeps up, even a sometimes heroic offense will be unable to keep this team in playoff contention.
While he had moments, and all ended well, Martinez is still struggling through the final playoff push. Over his last 3 starts, Carlos has made it through just 16 innings with a 7.31 ERA and a .279 batting average against. Through 5 starts in the month of September, Carlos is 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA.
Ironically for Carlos – considering his season long issues with the first inning – the first innings of his last three starts have been perfect. In his 5 September starts, Carlos has allowed just 1 baserunner – a walk that didn’t score – in the first innings of those games. Now, it’s the second inning that’s the issue. His ERA is now 7.20 this month in the second.
Zach Duke ended the messy fifth inning, and then tossed a flawless sixth. Zach, who looks like he has finely found that mystic slider, struck out 3 of the 5 Cubs that he faced. Over this stretch where the starters have been putting a lot on the shoulders of the bullpen, Zach has been one of the members of the pen who has stepped forward. He holds a 1.69 ERA over the last 11 games (he’s pitched in 6 of them). Zach has stranded his last 12 inherited runners.
Eight is Enough for the Offense
While September hasn’t been their most efficient month, the Cardinals are still putting enough runs on the board most nights to get a victory. With the 8 last night, they are averaging 4.88 this month, and 5.01 in the second half.
The Summer of Pham isn’t quite over yet. With 2 more hits last night – including a home run into Big Mac Land, Tommy Pham has pushed his September batting line to .303/.432/.576. Since the All-Star Break, Tommy has been to the plate 277 times, with the following results: 46 singles, 14 doubles, 1 triple, 12 home runs, 40 walks, 6 hit-by-pitches, 2 sacrifice bunts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts – a batting line of .320/.433/.548. In his last 65 games (59 starts), Pham has scored 50 runs.
With two more hits last night, Jedd Gyorko now has 5 in his last two games – including 2 home runs. He is now hitting .350 (7 for 20) over his last 7 games (about the time he moved back into the starting lineup), with a .700 slugging percentage. A hot Gyorko down the stretch could make a big difference.
As September has worn on, it seems that Stephen Piscotty has claimed the top spot in the pecking order in right field. Randal Grichuk got a spot start there last night and drove in two important runs with opposite field extra-base hits.
Grichuk has never become the superstar that Cardinal fans have hoped. Not yet anyway. And it certainly feels like this will be his last month as a Cardinal. St Louis does have a glut of outfielders. But, before Randal returns to the bench to watch the end of the season play out, it should be noted that since the All-Star Break Grichuk is a .270/.311/.556 hitter. In 178 second half at bats, Randal has hit 12 home runs, tied for second on the team with Pham (who has hit his in 228 at bats) and trailing only Paul DeJong (who has hit 15 in 272 at bats). As they say, these numbers will play.
My point, I guess, is to not be too hasty in unloading the talented Mr. Grichuk. And, maybe, to give him a few more starts down the stretch.
Matt Carpenter’s first inning home run stood up as the game-winning hit – Carpenter’s fifth of the season. The team leaders going into the last 5 games of the season are Dexter Fowler with 12; Yadier Molina – 11; Gyorko – 9; Carpenter, DeJong, Grichuk, and Kolten Wong all with 5.