It was, in many way, the kind of game that Mike Matheny would have felt right at home in. It was, in fact, a microcosm of the season’s first half. The blueprint went like this: a more than credible effort from the starting pitcher, undermined by an overmatched offense that spent the game waving at breaking pitches out of the strike zone, with any hope of victory dashed at the end by bullpen shenanigans.
In particular, Jack Flaherty gave the Cardinals – struggling to cling to a playoff spot – all that the team could ask for. After six excellent innings, Jack left the game having allowed just one run.
It would be more than his offense would manage all night – and almost more hits that his offense would garner in the game. The close game then slipped away as two more runs scored over the last three innings, and the Dodgers finished erasing St Louis’ wildcard lead with a 3-0 victory (box score). The game featured two Cardinal singles and 10 Cardinal strikeouts.
Throughout the amazing month of August (during which the bullpen posted a 2.82 ERA and a .214 batting average against), Cardinal relievers worked a total of 92.2 innings, allowing a total of 30 runs and 6 home runs. The two runs allowed by the pen last night, bring their September total to 31 runs allowed, and the home run launched by Yasiel Puig off of Tyler Webb was the eighth allowed already by the bullpen this month in just 50.1 innings.
The St Louis bullpen now boasts an ERA of 5.01 in September, with a .289/.374/.489 slash line If you are looking for the biggest difference between the 22-6 Cardinals of August and the 5-8 Cardinals of early September, the bullpen would be where you would start.
The inadequacies of the team, though, cannot dim another excellent performance by young Jack Flaherty. Not quite to his 23rd birthday, Flaherty, at least, has come down the stretch pitching like a champion. With 6 more innings of 4-hit, 8-strikeout ball, Jack has reduced his second half ERA to 2.42 over 63.1 innings in 11 starts. Opponents have hit .167 against him since the break, while he has piled up 81 strikeouts – 11.51 per 9 innings. While the Cardinals seem to be fading fast, the future is still very bright for this organization – and nowhere more bright than the right arm and competitive nature of Jack Flaherty.
With those strikeouts, it should come as no surprise that Jack has the team’s best swing-and-miss ratio. Last night, the Dodgers missed on 18 of the 47 swings they took against him (38.3%). Since the All-Star break, batters miss 32.8% of the time that they swing against him, and 30.3% of the time this season.
A point of improvement for the young right-hander could certainly be pitch efficiency. As good as Jack has been, he has managed quality starts only 10 times in his 25 starts, mostly because his pitch counts haven’t allowed him to work past the fifth inning in many of these games. Even as Flaherty finished six last night, he did it at the cost of 103 pitches – a hefty 4.48 per batter faced. For the season, Jack is throwing 4.22 pitches per batter. Of Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 100 batters, only Daniel Poncedeleon (4.37) throws more. The team average is just 3.88 pitches per batter.
When Dominic Leone walked Justin Turner with one out in the eighth inning, Manny Machado came to the plate in a double-play opportunity. It was the twenty-third time this season that Leone faced a batter with an opportunity to get a double play. He is still looking for his first – although this one was close. Dominic got the ground ball he needed, but could only get the out at first.
Leone also threw first-pitch strikes to all four batters he faced – in spite of the fact that he walked two of them. Walks are a rarity from Dominic, who has walked just 7 (3 intentional) in 21 innings this year. A lot of this is due to the fact that Leone isn’t afraid to throw strike one. Since his return from the DL, 63.2% of the batters Dominic has faced have seen first-pitch strikes.
In general, batters have been willing to play along with Leone. Last night, 2 of the 4 he faced offered at that first pitch. For the season, 37.6% of the batters that Leone has faced have chased after that first pitch. It is the highest ratio of any pitcher on the team that has faced at least 50 batters.
Bud Norris was called on in the eighth to face Yasmani Grandal with a couple runners on. His first pitch was a fastball – up but just a bit away. Grandal took it (for a strike). Increasingly, batters are not offering at Bud’s first pitch. During the season’s first half, 35.5% of the batters to face Norris chased after his first pitch. Since the break, that ratio has dropped to 27.4%.
Of the 5 swings he took, Grandal only missed once. This has been another notable drop-off for Norris as the season has worn along. In the first half, batters missed connections on 30.4% of their swings. That number is down to 17.8% swung-and-missed since then. (Only 15.6% in September, as Bud has only 5 swinging strikes all month.) Since the break – among Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 20 batters – only Tyson Ross (16.3%) has missed fewer bats.
The first 29 batters that Tyler Webb faced as a Cardinal saw 19 first-pitch strikes (65.5%). This includes 11 who swung at the pitch (37.9%). Last night, none of the 5 Dodgers he faced offered at his first pitch, and only 2 of the 5 were called strikes. Through the month of September, so far, Webb has now faced 22 batters, throwing only 10 first-pitch strikes (45.5%) and having only 4 batters swing at them (18.2%).
Did I Mention the Cards Had Only Two Hits?
After pushing all year to get the team batting average up to .250, the Cardinals are working hard to get it to fall from there. They are still hitting .250 as a team (.249503 to be precise, which is about as narrow as you can still be hitting .250), but have put that mark in jeopardy hitting just .229 (99 for 433) this month.
The league’s leading home run hitter, Matt Carpenter is fighting through a harsh September. After 4 hitless at bats (during which he struck out 3 times), Carpenter is hitting .208 for the month (10 of 48). He has just 2 doubles and is still trying for his first September home run. Carpenter has 2 home runs over his last 29 games.
In his second tour wearing the birds on the bat, Matt Adams has had some nice moments – most recently a big home run against Pittsburgh. Overall, though, Matt has been less than torrid in his return. With his 0-for-4 last night, Adams is hitting .167 (8 for 48) as a Cardinal.
One of the casualties of last night’s loss was the end of Marcell Ozuna’s impressive 9-game hitting streak. While this has not been the season envisioned, in Marcell’s previous 9 games he was every bit the offensive force the Cardinals were hoping for. He had multiple hits in 5 of the 9, hitting .410 (16 for 39) during the streak. It wasn’t a quiet .410 either, as Ozuna’s 16 hits included 2 doubles and 5 home runs. He drove in 13 runs during the streak, while slugging .846.
Amidst the recent offensive struggles, Kolten Wong has returned to the lineup from the disabled list. He has yet to re-discover his stroke. Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Wong is hitting .211 (4 for 19) since his return with 1 run batted in and 1 extra-base hit.
Yadier Molina’s September has been interrupted by an elbow injury, and he has yet to find the range either this month. He was hitless in 3 at bats last night, falling to .235 (4 for 17) for the month.
As I was finishing this up, the Dodgers were wrapping up the Saturday afternoon contest against the Cardinals with a message-sending, 17-4 humiliation of the home-town team.
While starting pitcher John Gant didn’t deliver his best game, the game (once again) got away when manager Mike Shildt went to the bullpen. St Louis actually held a 4-3 lead at that point (one out in the fifth), but LA had the bases loaded, and Gant was scuffling – having made 75 pitches already. So Mike played the bullpen card.
In addition to allowing all 3 of Gant’s inherited runners to score, the bullpen outdid themselves the rest of the afternoon, finishing their 4.2 inning adventure allowing 11 runs of their own (7 earned) on 10 hits – including 3 home runs.
September’s bullpen line now reads 11 home runs allowed in 55 innings, a 5.73 ERA, accompanied by a .305/.394/.531 batting line.
This tumble (and the Cards have now lost 4 straight – tying their longest losing streak of the season) represents a sizeable lost opportunity.
Back on September 5, the Cards had just overcome Washington by a 7-6 score. At that point, they were 78-62. They were a manageable 4.5 games behind Chicago for the division lead (considering there were 22 games to go). They held the second wild-card spot over the Dodgers by 2 games, and were only a half-game behind Milwaukee for the top spot.
And the 22 games before them couldn’t set up any better. They started with 3 in Detroit against a Tiger team that had already lost 83 games and sat 22.5 game out in their division. Following that, the Cards would play 13 of their next 16 at home, ending the season with 3 in Chicago against the Cubs. If during the preceding 19 games they could manage to strike a couple of games off the Cubs’ lead, those last three might well be for the division title.
To this point, the Cards have done their best to waste that opportunity. Including today’s loss, the Cards have lost 6 of the first 9 of those games. They have lost their entire lead over LA –and in fact now trail them – also losing 2 games to Chicago, and 4 games (at the moment, pending the result of their game) to the Brewers.
Since management removed the “interim” tag from Shidt’s title, the Cards are 8-10 and fading fast – being dragged down by the same flaw that doomed Matheny – an ineffective bullpen.