Suddenly trailing 3-2 in the eighth inning, and now facing the electric stuff of Milwaukee left-hander Josh Hader, Jose Martinez fanned the Cardinal hopes with a leadoff walk. He thus became the fifth Cardinal to reach base in yesterday’s 3-2 loss (box score) with no one out.
Last year, Cardinal runners who reached base with no one out scored 51.5% of the time. So far this year, that number has been similar – 50.8%. But during the general offensive brown-out that has characterized this month, even though St Louis hitters are reaching base at a .369 clip with no one out, only 45.8% are scoring. And true to form, while Martinez made it to second in that inning, he watched from there as Yairo Munoz struck out to end the inning. Seven of the Cardinals’ nine offensive innings ended with a strikeout.
With one game left in May, the Cards are managing a halting 3.88 runs per game this month with a disappointing .244 team batting average. They have been one of baseball’s best teams with no one out. They are hitting .287/.369/.489 this month before the first out. But after the first out, the succeeding hitters are hitting just .219/.280/.338. Over the last eight games, as the offense has ground to 3.13 rpg halt while managing just a .298 team on base percentage, this team has still hit .317/.361/.525 with no one out, but only .211/.261/.283 once that first out has been recorded.
While Wednesday’s game was notable for the return of top prospect Alex Reyes (who did well in his four innings), by the end of the day, this game looked like so many others the Cards have lost this season – late inning bullpen collapses and unrealized offensive opportunities. St Louis went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position, and left 10 runners on base – 6 of them in scoring position. Of the last 90 Cardinals to bat with two outs, 31 have struck out.
The team with the shaky bullpen can’t afford to miss too many scoring chances.
The game ended with Martinez striking out with runners at first and third. It was Jose’s only opportunity to hit with runners in scoring position all day. His has been one of the most important missing bats (along with Tommy Pham’s) as the offensive troubles have lately returned. Martinez is 0 for 9 over the last three games, and is hitting just .222 (6 for 27) over the last 8 games. He has one extra-base hit (a double) over his last 30 plate appearances.
The Cardinal’s other top prospect in the lineup – Tyler O’Neill – was their other 0 for 4. Batting right behind Martinez, it gave the Cards an 0-for-8 day from their three and four hitters. Tyler provided an offensive jolt upon returning from Memphis – hitting home runs in three consecutive games at one point. Over his last four games, Tyler is 0-for-11 with 8 strikeouts. He has 2 singles in his last 19 at bats (.105) with 13 strikeouts.
If there is no shortage of bad Cardinal offensive news, there have also been a few bright spots. One of these is Yairo Munoz. The star of spring training, Munoz began the season on the roster but was returned to Memphis as he struggled out of the gate. Returning about the same time O’Neill did, Yairo has returned to his spring form. With 2 hits yesterday, Munoz now has a five-game hitting streak, during which he is hitting .412 (7-for-17). He has also hit safely in all of his last 7 starts, hitting an impressive .480 (12-for-25) in those games.
This production has entrenched him at shortstop for the moment. When Paul DeJong returns, this could set up another difficult lineup decision. The athletic Munoz can also play second, so if Kolten Wong’s production doesn’t pick up, Yairo could see some time there.
For all of this, the headline yesterday was the removal of starting pitcher Alex Reyes after four innings and 73 pitches. There was a momentary loss of velocity, which sent a ripple of concern through the Cardinal dugout. Alex certainly didn’t breeze through the Brewers the way he did through the minor leagues, but some of this was to be expected. After the long absence and the unusual hype connected to his return, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex didn’t quite feel like himself on the mound.
I’m pretty sure he will be OK.
The larger story is that his solid four innings (no runs on 3 hits) continues the excellent month of May this team has received from its starters. With one game left in the month, St Louis’ rotation holds a 2.72 ERA and has surrendered only 10 home runs in 149 innings (0.6 per 9 innings) while holding opposing batters to just a .220 batting average and a .308 slugging percentage. Of the now eight pitchers who have started games for the Cards this month, five of them have ERAs below 2.25. These pitchers (who seem to be the front-runners in the rotation discussion once everyone is back and healthy) are Reyes (0.00), Jack Flaherty (1.40), Miles Mikolas (1.89), Michael Wacha (2.02) and Carlos Martinez (2.19).
All of this gives one a sense of why the Cardinals are so excited about the prospects of their rotation – now and for a long time to come.
The worst part of Alex’ early exit was it left five full innings to be covered by the Cardinal bullpen. This is not usually a formula for success. After Reyes left, the bullpen combined to allow 3 runs on 7 hits and 4 walks in what only proved to be four total innings (since Milwaukee wasn’t required to bat in the ninth). Cardinal relievers have now pitched 90 innings this month with a 5.10 ERA. They have now served up 12 home runs in those innings – a 1.20 per nine-inning pace that is exactly double the rate of the starters this month.
Fifty-three games into the season, and the bullpen mess is no closer to being solved.
Last year, Tyler Lyons gained increasingly more important roles in the Cardinal bullpen as he finally seemed to have moved past his early career tendency of serving up home runs. After getting dinged for 12 in just 60 innings in 2015, and 9 more in 48 innings the next year, Tyler worked through 54 innings last year, serving up just 3 home runs.
When Christian Yelich unloaded on the only pitch that Lyons threw yesterday – the long home run to center that tied the game at 2 – it marked the third home run that Tyler has allowed already this year (in just 12 innings).
In the tribute to Murphy’s Law that has been the Cardinal bullpen this year, Tyler Lyons has been as snake-bit as any of them. Management clings to the fact that all of these pitchers have much better track records than they’ve shown so far. They believe that there is a top-notch bullpen in there somewhere.
But as the division starts to tilt away from them, the urgency to find answers increases.