The tone for the weekend was set on Friday afternoon. To be precise in the third inning.
Jack Flaherty drew the assignment for the first game of the series, and through two innings it looked like the Cubs might be in trouble. Jack struck out a couple in the first, stranding a runner, and then struck out the first two batters in the second. After Kyle Schwarber walked, a harmless ground ball off the bat of Jason Heyward ended the inning. Game scoreless after two.
All season so far, the thorn in the Cardinal side has been the starting pitching. And the usually critical inning has been that third inning as the top of the order gets its second look at the pitcher. That happened again to St Louis on Friday afternoon.
After Flaherty struck out opposing pitcher Kyle Hendricks, he walked Daniel Descalso – albeit, yes, one of those balls should have been called a strike. After a passed ball, another walk put two runners on base for Anthony Rizzo.
Two pitches later, Rizzo was trotting around the bases, the Cubs had a 3-0 lead and would never look back in the game (which they would win 4-0 – box score) and the series (which they would sweep in three games).
Beyond the damaging third, Jack would pitch well. He would even strike out 9 over his 5.2 innings. The walks that preceded the home run would also be a theme throughout the series, as Cardinal pitchers would walk 14 Cub batters (2 intentionally) in 24 innings. It all made for a less-than-competitive series.
The Dangerous Third and Fourth Innings
Throughout recent baseball history, the most dangerous inning has typically been the sixth. That is the inning that a starter may suddenly tire, and the inning before the back-of-the-bullpen arms usually come into play. To an extent, that is true again this season. The league ERA in the sixth is a fairly high 4.63 (according to baseball reference), and the major league batting line in the sixth sits at .248/.326/.432. By season’s end, the sixth may regain its position as the most offensive inning.
For the moment, though, it only ranks as the third most offensive inning behind the third (4.79 ERA) and the fourth (4.73) as all over baseball offenses are beginning to adjust to that starter the second time through the order.
In few places has the carnage of the third inning been felt more than in St Louis, where Cardinal starters have now served up 11 home runs and 28 runs. Their season ERA in that inning – after 34 games – is an unsettling 7.15, and the batting line against is an equally distasteful .281/.389/.578.
Most of the Cardinal issue of playing from behind too early in games springs from distinct third-inning difficulties. In Flaherty’s case, half of his 8 home runs allowed have come in that inning, where he carries a 14.85 ERA. He has yet to allow a run in either of the first two innings this season. In those 14 innings (7 first innings and 7 second innings), Jack has surrendered just 10 hits – all singles – while striking out 14. From the fourth inning on, Jack does well enough, with a 3.38 ERA, a .233 batting average against, and a .266 on base percentage against. He has struck out 19 in the 16 innings represented by his efforts in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
If we could just figure out a way to get him through that nettlesome third.
Questions of Character
Obviously, it is easy enough to make way too much of three games in early May. In many ways, this situation is not unlike the early season matchups with the Brewers. As Milwaukee won 5 of the first 7, it would have been easy to say that the Brewers were clearly the better team. St Louis won the last three games between those teams, and has since evened the series. A similar thing could happen down the line with the Cubs.
Here’s the thing, though. Beginning with the playoff series between these teams after the 2015 season, the Cubs have dominated this matchup (see accompanying chart) to the tune of a .609 winning percentage.
This decided advantage has less to do with the talent differential between these two teams than it is a matter of character. The last 64 games between these two franchises has left the indelible impression that the Cubs are tougher mentally than their St Louis counterparts. Nowhere was that more evident than in the big September showdown in 2017.
There were 12 games left in the season, and St Louis went into Chicago trailing by just three. Seven of those final 12 would be between the Cards and the Cubs (the last 4 at home), effectively affording St Louis every opportunity to claim the division.
The Cubs swept the first three in Chicago. By the time the series returned to St Louis, the Cards were already pretty much out of contention – trailing by 6 with 7 to play. But Chicago won 3 of those 4 anyway.
The organization has spent the last three off-seasons lusting after that “impact” bat. But there is no evidence, yet, that they have at all answered the character gap that exists between them and their rivals from the North.
After the Cards were dominated in the opener of this series, President John Mozeliak was quoted as saying, “The good news for baseball is that the Cubs and the Cardinals are good. That’s good for the game.”
The Cubs clearly are good. The Cardinals still have a lot to prove in that regard – at least if “good” means good enough to actually compete with the Cubs. For anyone who saw the Sunday night debacle (box score), it make take a while to convince them of St Louis’ legitimacy.
John Gant allowed his first inherited runner of the season to score in the Sunday blowout. He also struck out another batter, and fanned 4 in his 2 innings over the weekend. Gant has struck out 9 over his last 5 innings.
As it was last Friday against Cincinnati, so it was Sunday night against the Cubs. It was Dominic Leone on the mound when the game spun out of control. He surrendered 6 ninth-inning runs to the Reds, to pad a 12-1 loss. The Cubs stuck him with 6 more in their eighth inning to turn a 7-2 game into a 13-2 laugher.
Through his first 11 games, Dominic held a 1.64 ERA and a .111 opponent’s batting average. Over his last 4.2 innings he has been bashed to the tune of 14 runs on 14 hits – a 27.00 ERA. The last 32 batters he has faced hold a .500/.563/.929 batting line against him.
Dexter Fowler lost some starts recently to a bout with an illness, but he continues to hit. He came off the bench to deliver a single on Friday, and added another hit Sunday afternoon. Over his last 19 games, Dexter is hitting .383 (23 for 60).
Paul Goldschmidt managed two quiet singles in the Sunday blow-out. They were his only hits in the series. Paul has not yet reached his comfort level at the plate for his new team. After a 2-for-13 series in Chicago, Goldschmidt is hitting .211 (4-for-19) for the early part of May. All his hits have been singles, and he has no walks to go with 8 strikeouts, so his whole batting line for the month so far is .211/.211/.211 (with a double play and a caught stealing).
His hits Sunday came in his first two at bats, in the first and third innings. For the series, from the fourth inning on, Paul was 0-for-8 with 4 strikeouts. Paul has not yet been much of a late-inning presence for the Cards. From the seventh-inning on this season, Goldschmidt is 7 for 40 (.175).
Kolten Wong’s tailspin continues. Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, Wong has dropped to .248 for the season. He was 1-for-9 against the Cubs, and is 2-for-17 (.118) this month so far.