There is this moment in Groundhog Day. Phil (the Bill Murray character) has just driven his truck off a cliff, where it landed upside down at the bottom of a gorge. Andie MacDowell’s character (Rita) shudders a bit at the horror, and Larry (played by Chris Elliott) tries to comfort her by saying, “He . . . might be okay.” One second later the truck explodes in fire. Larry then adds quietly, “Well, no. Probably not now.”
There was a moment like that in last night’s game. The Cardinals began the top of the second by throwing the ball around a bit, and gift-wrapped the first two runs of the game for Philadelphia. The bases were now loaded with one out, but with the score still just 2-0, one could reasonably think “we might be okay”. Of the 20 batters to put the ball in play against Cardinal starter Dakota Hudson on this evening, 17 would hit the ball on the ground. A well-placed ground ball here could very well stop the bleeding.
But Philadelphia’s next hitter – Bryce Harper – turned out to be one of the three who got the ball in the air. When it finally came down (in the right field bullpen), the Phillie lead grew to 6-0. Well, no, probably not now.
May has been playing a little like Groundhog Day for the Cardinals. Especially the last week or so. In losing 5 of their last 6, the Cards have been falling behind early and often. Thursday night in Washington they fell behind 2-1 in the fourth and never recovered. Friday in Chicago, it was 3-0 Cubs after 3. The Cards went quietly after that. On Sunday, it was 1-0 Chicago after 2. St Louis would never catch up in that one either.
Up until the point that they were waxed by Cincinnati 12-1 on April 26, this edition of the Cardinals had never trailed by as many as ten runs in a game, and had faced a deficit as large as five runs only once. They have now trailed by double-digits three times in the last 12 games. Last year’s team – on its way to a modest 88-win season – only trailed by as many as ten runs three times all season (a 13-5 loss to Jon Lester and the Cubs on June 15, an 11-4 loss to Max Fried and Atlanta on June 30, and a 17-4 spanking at the hands of Rich Hill and the Dodgers on September 15).
By way of comparison, the 2018 Cardinals pitching staff faced 6,246 batters. They faced 2,558 of them while holding a lead (41.0%), faced another 1,671 (26.8%) with the game tied, and 2,042 (32.7%) while trailing in the game. All last season, the pitchers faced just 21 batters (0.3%) with a deficit of ten runs or more.
In March-April of this year – even including the blowout against Cincy, the Cardinal pitching percentages were: ahead – 44.1%; even – 22.3%; and behind – 33.6%
Over their last six games, they have one win – the 6-0 win on Monday during which they never trailed – and have had brief leads in 2 of the 5 losses. All included during this losing skid, the Cards have only been ahead 16.9% of the time and tied another 29.6% of the time. Cardinal pitchers have trailed in the game 53.5% of the time. In just the last six games, they have already pitched to 4 batters (1.9%) while trailing by at least ten runs.
I have quoted the pitching staff numbers. The hitters in all these cases, of course, will be similar.
One of the immutable baseball truths is that you are never as good as you look when you are winning and never as bad as you look when you are losing. Truly, this team isn’t as helpless as it has seemed over the last week or so. But the losing is taking, I think, an emotional toll on this young team.
In April, this team hit .281 when they were trailing in a game. They erased one four-run deficit, and came close to doing that on two other occasions.
Recently, though, the bats have been very quiet once the team has fallen behind. Over the last six games, they are hitting just .231 while trailing in games. Over their last 5 defeats, they have scored just 7 runs after they have fallen behind. Only three of those runs scored while the games were close enough to matter.
Of course, you would like to see the team stop falling behind early. You would also like to see some of that early season bounce-back from the bats on those occasions when they do fall behind by a few runs.
In spite of last night’s debacle, Dakota Hudson has been trending upward over his last several starts. After beginning the year with a 6.08 ERA, a .350 batting average against, and a .633 slugging percentage against (courtesy of 5 home runs allowed over his first 13.1 innings), Hudson has been better over his last 4 starts. He still surrenders more home runs than he should (4 over his last 21.2 innings), but with a more palatable 3.74 ERA.
Things will certainly start looking better once Paul Goldschmidt figures things out a bit. After another hitless evening (0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts), Goldschmidt has sunk to .245 for the season. Over his last 10 games (9 starts) Paul has had 41 plate appearances. He has 6 singles, 15 strikeouts and a groundball double play to show for it – a disappointing .146/.146/.146 batting line. It has been 12 games since Paul’s last extra-base hit, 13 games since his last run batted in, and 14 games since his last home run.
After a torrid early-season streak, Marcell Ozuna is another Cardinal who has fallen on hard times of late. After his 0-for-3 last night, Marcell is now 2 for 19 (.105) over his last five games. He falls to .222 for the month (6 for 27).
Marcell did have a first-inning opportunity – while the game was still scoreless – with a runner at first and two outs. He grounded out to end the inning. Over the last 6 games, Ozuna is 0-for-9 when the game is tied, and 6 for 31 (.194) for the season in that situation.
When he first returned from the injured list, Harrison Bader provided a little pop with his bat. Lately, though, he has been affected by the general offensive downturn. Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Bader is 3 for 16 (.188) so far this month.
The disappearing act of second baseman Kolten Wong also continued. Hitless, again, in 3 at bats, Wong is now 0 for his last 13 and is hitting .091 (2 singles in 22 at bats) this month.