On Again, Off Again Offense Off Again

The story is told of three statisticians who went duck hunting.  As the first duck flew overhead, the first statistician shot at him – but his bullet flew 50 feet too high.  Before the duck could disappear from sight, the second statistician also fired.  His bullet went 50 feet to low, prompting the third statistician to declare, “What do you know, we got him.”

The St Louis Cardinals will take the field tonight having outscored their opponents over the last six games (four games against Pittsburgh and two against Atlanta) 39-25.  This is a dominant enough differential that you might the Cards had won at least 5 of the 6 if not all of them.

Certainly, you would think the Cards would have won more than the two that they have, in fact, won.  But, like the duck in the story, the Pirates and Braves have taken little lingering damage, and the Cardinals have only statistics to comfort them.

One week ago tonight, the Cardinals battered Pittsburgh 17-4 and promptly lost the next three games as the offense disappeared.  On Tuesday evening, they landed on the Atlanta Braves to the tune of 14-3.  Last night they struggled to come up with three hits in a 4-0 shutout loss (box score).

For all of the fact that they managed so few hits, St Louis did have opportunities.  In a game that was just 2-0 until Atlanta’s last at bat, St Louis added 5 walks and a hit batsman to the mix.  They had 12 plate appearances with at least one runner on base, including 6 with two or more – highlighted, of course, by Paul Goldschmidt’s bases loaded opportunity with one out and the game still scoreless in the third.

Including the double-play that Atlanta starter Mike Soroka got from Goldschmidt, St Louis was 1-for-8 batting with a runner on base, 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, and 0-for-4 with 2 double plays with two or more runners on.

Through March/April this team averaged 5.45 runs per game, scored at least once in every game, and managed at least four runs in 24 of the season’s first 28 games.

Beginning with the last game in April, this offense has been shut out 3 times, and has failed to score as many as four runs 8 times over the last 15 games – 7 times over these last 13 games.  Yet, for the 13 games, St Louis is still averaging 4.38 runs per game, thanks to the intermittent outbursts.

As the losses mount, the frustration level climbs.  But answers are hard to come by.  So is consistency.

Marcell Ozuna

While not disappearing completely, Marcell Ozuna has certainly faded recently.  He did hit the home run that started Tuesday’s onslaught, but that has been his only hit over the last 4 games (he is 1 for his last 17).  He is just 7 for 52 (.135) over the last 13 games, and is now hitting .179 for the month of May.

Matt Carpenter

The Cardinals are still waiting Matt Carpenter to find himself.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Matt has 1 hit over his last 5 game, and is hitting .115 (3 for 26) over his last 8 games.  His average for May has faded to .192 (only slightly lower than his season average of .199).  Yes, there are still the walks – he walked once last night and has 8 for the month.  But at some point, the Cards will need some hits from Carpenter.

Paul Goldschmidt

Paul’s third-inning double play might have been his most telling at bat.  Goldschmidt did also draw a couple of walks, but otherwise went 0-for-2.  It brought a halt to Goldschmidt’s baby five-game hitting streak.  During the streak, Paul hit .476 (10 for 21).

Michael Wacha

Michael Wacha failed to deliver the team’s fourth consecutive quality start, but he did give the team five innings on 90 pitches and left trailing 2-0.  For the season, Wacha has been pretty good at working out of messes with runners on base (hitters carry just a .236 average against Wacha with runners on base).  That success carried over last night, as the Braves were 0-for-8 against Michael with runners on.

His problem, of course, was keeping Braves off the bases in the first place.  Of the 13 batters that faced Michael with the bases empty, 2 walked, 2 singled, 1 doubled and Austin Riley collected his first major league home run.  While the Braves only touched him for 2 runs (1 earned), the constant traffic on the base paths added to the stress of Michael’s evening and hurried his exit.

Giovanny Gallegos

Giovanny Gallegos isn’t a reliever we’ve paid a whole lot of attention to – and with some reason.  Giovanny has had his ups and downs.  He pitched a perfect seventh last night, striking out two – an inning that highlighted two things that Gallegos – in his limited opportunities – has done quite well.

First, is keeping people off base.  With his perfect seventh, only 3 of the last 19 batters to face him have reached.  For the season, his .244 on base percentage against with the bases empty is the second lowest on the club – behind only Tyler Webb’s .240.

The two strikeouts bring his season total to 29 in 17 innings – an average of 15.35 per nine innings.

Cards Ride Another Big RISP Night to a Win in Atlanta

It was last Thursday that your St Louis Cardinals put on one of the most impressive displays of batsmanship with runners in scoring position (RISP) in their recent history.  Finishing the game with 25 at bats with runners in scoring position, the Cards slapped out 11 hits (none of them home runs).  They ground the Pittsburgh Pirates that evening to the tune of 17-4.

Last night in Atlanta, it looked like a similar team taking the field.  They rode a 6-for-10 RISP performance to a 14-3 win.

The Cards are now hitting .292/.397/.491 this month with runners in scoring position, and rank second in the National League and fifth in all of baseball, hitting .278 on the season in these situations.

The Cardinals have now had 13 games this season with at least 10 RISP at bats, hitting over .400 in those at bats in three of them (they were also 7-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a 13-5 battering of Milwaukee on April 22).

It’s a great skill to have – getting that hit with the ducks on the pond (as they say).  But this number also shows the all-or-nothing nature of the Cardinal offense of late.  In the three games after the bludgeoning of Pittsburgh (all losses to the Pirates) St Louis was just 3-for-21 (.143) with runners in scoring position.

Yadier Molina

Among the offensive heroes of the night – as usual these days – was catcher Yadier Molina.  He finished with a double and a three-run home run (one of three, three-run homers hit by St Louis on the night).  Especially lately, I’m not sure that there is anyone that I would rather have at the plate than Yadi.  He has now hit safely in 6 of his last 8 games, going 11-for-30 (.367).  Five of those 11 hits have been for extra bases, and he has driven home 7 runs in the 8 games while slugging .667.

Yadi is up to .333 for the month (15-for-45) with 10 runs batted in in 13 games (12 starts).

Molina’s home run came on his only plate appearance of the game with runners in scoring position.  He is now 6 for 13 (.462) this month in RISP opportunities.  For the season, Molina is hitting .395 (17 for 43) with runners in scoring position.

Dexter Fowler

In mid-April manager Mike Shildt moved Dexter Fowler from sixth to seventh in the lineup, and Fowler has thrived there.  He singled, homered, and walked twice last night, and is now hitting .368 (25 for 68) in the 22 games since the move.  He has also drawn 13 walks and has been hit by pitches twice – leading to a .482 on base percentage.

Jack Flaherty

Gradually but surely, the Cardinal starters are serving up fewer home runs.  In April, the starters served up 34 home runs in 151 innings – 2.03 per nine innings.  The April batting average against the St Louis rotation was .264 – unexpectedly high against a good-stuff rotation.

Thus far in May, only 6 home runs have been hit against Cardinal starters in 76.1 innings – just 0.71 per nine innings.  The batting average against these starters has also fallen to a more expected .241.

Jack Flaherty has been prominent in both trends.  Jack allowed only 3 hits and no home runs over his six innings.  He has now allowed just 1 home run over his last 4 starts (23.2 innings), while holding opposing batters to a .185 batting average.  Walks have been a problem for him recently, though.  He walked 5 last night and has walked 12 over his last 16.2 innings.

While Cardinal batsmen have done well – mostly – in RISP situations, of late the Cardinal pitchers have not been so fortunate.  One of the numbers underpinning the 4-9 start to the month of May has been a general inability to get people out with runners in scoring position.

Atlanta scored 3 runs last night on only 3 hits because they were 2-for-4 against Flaherty in RISP situations.  Thus far in May, opposing hitters are 5 for 12 (.417) against Flaherty with runners in scoring position, and 28 for 81 (.346) against the entire staff in those situations.

NoteBook

Marcell Ozuna’s first-inning home run held up as the game-winning-hit – his sixth this season.  No other Cardinal has more than 3.

With his 3-run homer in the ninth, Kolten Wong now has 22 runs batted in this year.  He had 38 all of last year.  His career high is just the 61 he drove in in 2015.

Kolten has also already drawn 20 walks this year.  Last year he walked only 31 times, and has never walked more than 41 times in a season.

Shildt Brings Lineup Stability to St Louis

The war of attrition that is the regular baseball season will always test the plans of spring.  Slumps, hot streaks and injuries will force managers and fan bases to consider and reconsider lineup constructions and pitching rotations.

Usually at about this point of the season (roughly the one-fourth mark) managers of teams who aren’t clicking on all cylinders will start getting pressure to make adjustments.  This is one of the annual tests of managerial patience.  In general, the patient manager will be rewarded – but history must prove him right.

In Mike Shildt’s case – navigating through his first season at the Cardinal helm and with his team fighting through a 2-9 stretch – the advice has been plenty and loud.  Drop Matt Carpenter from the leadoff spot – or from the lineup entirely.  Drop everyone but Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright from the rotation.  Release Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone – it comes with the territory.

Fans, by nature, have short memories and shorter attention spans.  On the other hand, sometimes the spring plan is bad and needs to be adjusted.  The manager’s art is to know when to stay the course and when to say “we were wrong.”

Forty-one games into the 2019 season, we have seen some of both from Shildt and the Cardinal management.

As far as the patient Mike Shildt, we have seen him stand by his starting rotation through its rough start.  Through this point, he remains doggedly committed to all of them.

The top four spots in his lineup have also gotten the full benefit of the doubt.  Of these top four, only Paul DeJong (who has hit third in 38 of the first 41 games) has answered the faith of his manager with an outstanding start.  As to the rest, well, Mike continues to believe that better days are coming.

Carpenter has fought through a season-long slump, but has still been the leadoff hitter in 37 of the first 41 games.  Paul Goldschmidt has hit second 40 times already.  Paul hit more than a few home runs early, but then went through an extended dry spell where he contributed little.  His resurgence in the recent Pirate series might suggest the beginning of a hot streak from Goldschmidt.

Marcell Ozuna has been written into the fourth slot 39 times so far.  He had a torrid couple of weeks toward the end of April, but has tailed off since then.  As with the others, though, Marcell maintains Shildt’s complete confidence.

In all of this, I would have expected nothing less from Mike.  Mike believes in all of these players, and belief is the managerial bottom line.

At the same time, other spring plans have already been discarded.

The first to bite the dust was the “closer-by-committee” plan.  There were supposed to be three primaries at the back of the bullpen – any one of which might get the save opportunity on any given night.

But Alex Reyes and Andrew Miller both began the season in uneven fashion, and Jordan Hicks – who many might not have felt was ready to be “the man” – stepped into the void and hasn’t looked back.  There hasn’t been “closer-by-committee” talk since the first week of the season.

The other major policy change occurred 14 games into the season when centerfielder Harrison Bader went out for a few games with a right hamstring pull.  The very mild injury opened an opportunity for Jose Martinez, and he has made it impossible for Mike to return him to the bench.

For the moment, the starting outfield consists of Ozuna, Dexter Fowler and Martinez, with Bader as fourth outfielder.  This, though, will be a developing story.  The Cards are 12-7 (.632), although they score just 4.63 runs per game when Bader starts.  With Martinez in the lineup, St Louis is 16-12 (.571), scoring 5.14 runs per game.  They are 20-19 in Ozuna’s 39 starts – scoring just 4.87 runs per game.  St Louis is 15-15 with Fowler in the lineup, although the 5.17 runs per game they score when he is in there is the highest of any of the outfielders.

The outfield picture – trust me – isn’t settled by a long shot.  This and other lineup shuffling will be something to keep an eye on as the season unfolds.

There is still – of course – a long way to go and a lot of baseball to be played.  More injuries will alter the landscape.  At some point some struggling players may be re-fitted.  But in the ups and downs of the early season, we’ve been given some idea of who Mike Shildt is – some insight into his patience and loyalty.

The rest of the season, now, will have to prove him right.

Miklas and Waino and Three Days of Raino?

Back in 1948 a sports editor for the Boston Post coined the enduring phrase (“Spahn and Sain and two days of rain”) adopted for more than half a century by teams that don’t seem to have enough starting pitching to safely make it back to the top of the rotation (in 1948 baseball teams used four-man rotations).

It seems a little strange to be adapting the ancient ditty to the 2019 St Louis Cardinals.  Questions certainly abounded as the team came out of spring training.  Mostly questions about offense and defense.  More than a bit of insecurity regarding the bullpen.  But where most felt the team would certainly be the strongest was in the rotation.

Jack Flaherty emerged through the midst of the 2018 season as one of the most exciting young prospects in baseball.  Joining him in the rotation was Dakota Hudson – who had been one of the top starters in AAA last year until he spent the last half of the season pitching with great effectiveness out of the Cardinal bullpen.  And, of course, there was Michael Wacha – finally healthy.

In fact, if there were questions about the rotation at the beginning of the season, they might have centered on Miles Mikolas and especially Adam Wainwright.  Mikolas had been brilliant (18-4) in 2018, but in some ways he kind of came out of nowhere – and baseball history is full of these kind of one-year wonders.  They have a brilliant year, and the league makes an adjustment to them.

Wainwright, of course, has been in a perpetual battle against injuries and father time for the last several seasons.  Now 37, there were serious concerns whether there was anything left in Waino’s tank.

Fast-forward to the end of the first quarter of the 2019 season, and the Cardinals are enjoying (if that is the correct word) their first off day in the month of May.  They are coming off a brutal 1-3 series against the Pittsburgh Pirates that closed out a disappointing 2-5 homestand – which, in turn – was the centerpiece in a 2-9 stretch that dropped St Louis from being in first place, three games ahead of the pack, down now to fourth place, 3.5 games behind the surging Cubs.

The offense and bullpen – though hitting an inconsistent patch of late – have proven to be mostly capable.  But that rotation.  The spring pride of the Midwest, the Cardinal starting five have fallen to fifteenth out of baseball’s 30 teams with a 4.35 ERA.  The struggles have been general, except for Mikolas and Wainwright.

One of the highlight’s of course, of the recently concluded Pittsburgh series was the 17 runs the Cards scored in the Thursday contest (their only win of the series).  Immediately after that outburst, the Birds lost consecutive 2-1 games (box score 1, box score 2), in which they wasted consecutive excellent starts from the twin lynchpins of the rotation.  Mikolas has tossed 5 quality starts out of his 9 starts.  Waino also has 5 in 8 starts.  The rest of the team, in 24 starts, has 6.

Adam Wainwright

Six pitches into the Friday night game, Waino trailed 1-0, courtesy of Adam Frazier’s leadoff home run.  That would be all the damage surrendered by the great Cardinal veteran.  He would leave after 7 innings, allowing just that single run on 5 hits.  He walked no one and struck out 8.

Of the 8 strikeouts, 5 were called third strikes.  It’s the curveball, of course – a nasty thing to contend with when you’ve got two strikes on you.  But it’s more than that.  All year, Adam has been confidently throwing that cutter to the corners of the zone.

To this point of the season, Waino leads the team in called strikeouts with 17 and in percentage of strikeouts coming on called third strikes (45.9%).  The team average is 24.6% of their strikeouts being called third strikes.

Of Waino’s 92 pitches on Friday, the Pirates only offered at 35 of them (38%).  This has been another benchmark of Waino’s renaissance season, as opposing batters only offer at 39.5% of his pitches this season – also the lowest percentage on the team.

Miles Mikolas

The afternoon after Wainwright tossed his gem, Mikolas answered with one of his own – 7 innings, 2 runs, 3 hits, 1 walk, 7 strikeouts and no home runs.  The result was similar as well.

Miles actually staggered a bit out of the gate.  His first 6 starts were less than encouraging.  Over his first 34 innings, Miles allowed 21 runs (20 earned) on 34 hits – including 8 home runs.  He was 2-2 at that point, with 5.29 ERA.  He was only getting ground balls from 48% of the batters who put the ball in play against him, while those same batters missed on only 14% of their swings against him.

Over his last three starts, though, Miles has fully resembled the pitcher that took the league by surprise last year.  Over his last 20 innings, there have been only 3 runs scored on 13 hits and 2 walks (and no home runs).  He is 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA his last 3 times to the mound.  Batters are now hitting .183/.205/.225 against him, hitting the ball on the ground 58% of the time and missing on 20% of their swings.

Dakota Hudson

Slowly but surely, Dakota Hudson seems to be turning the corner.  He had some early-season difficulties, but he is 2-1 with a 3.57 ERA over his last 4 starts.  Granted, those numbers include 6 un-earned runs scored against him two outings ago.  Dakota – who didn’t allow a home run all last season – gave up 8 in his first 18.1 innings this season.  There has only been 1 hit against him over his last 22.2 innings.

Even though he allowed 3 first inning runs on Sunday, Dakota still finished 6 innings giving up no more runs.  In so doing, he gave the Cards their third consecutive quality starts for only the second time all season (Waino, Mikolas and Hudson had earlier turned the trick in Washington from April 30 through May 2).

When he’s right – and Dakota has been closer to that recently – he is as severe a ground ball pitcher as the Cardinals have.  Over his last 2 games, batters are hitting ground balls 72% of the time.  On Sunday, he was able to make it through 6 in spite of allowing 9 hits, walking 2 and hitting another batter because he didn’t nibble with the batter at the plate.  He faced 28 batters throwing just 84 pitches – 3.00 per plate appearances.  Opposing hitters missed on only 9.1% of their swings, and put the ball in play 52.4% of the time they swung at Dakota’s pitches.

This month, he is averaging just 3.35 pitches per plate appearance – the lowest of any Cardinal starter.

Michael Wacha

The date was April 6.  It was opening weekend against San Diego.  After Flaherty had started the home opener, it was Michael Wacha’s turn in the second game.  But Michael found himself in a bit of first-inning difficulty.  After an RBI double from Hunter Renfroe put San Diego up 1-0, Wacha found himself facing Wil Myers with the bases loaded and one out.  Michael got out of it, when Myers grounded the first pitch to Paul DeJong, starting a 6-4-3 double play.

That was the last time this season that Michael Wacha has induced that double-play ground ball.  Wacha has now pitched to 26 consecutive batters with an opportunity to get a double play, and has been unable to get a ground ball.  (One of those opportunities, by the way, came against the Cubs’ Taylor Davis in his last start in Chicago.)  He faced 8 batters in his 5.2 inning struggle against Pittsburgh on Thursday who could have eased his labor by grounding into a double play.  He got none of them.

Wacha – who throws that heavy sinking fastball – was helped last year by only 4 double-play grounders in 65 such opportunities.  If Michael could figure out a way to get the occasional ground ball, it could make a noticeable difference in his season.

John Gant

John Gant – who earlier this season pitched a relief no-hitter – has now gone 7 straight appearances and 6.1 innings without being scored on – although he has surrendered all of 3 hits in those innings.  He has struck out 11 in those innings.  Gant – who hasn’t walked a batter in his last 11 games – covering 11.2 innings – is throwing 72% strikes over his last 174 pitches. 

He worked in two of the Pirate games – tossing 1.1 innings.  In those innings, the 5 Pirate batters he faced swung at 11 of his pitches – missing 5.  In the month of May, John has the team’s highest swing-and-miss percentage – 44.0%.

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller also pitched in two of the Pirate games – earning the game two loss.  Very different with Miller in May is that everything he is throwing either is a strike or looks enough like one to compel the batter to swing.

He threw 22 pitches to the 8 Pittsburgh batters he saw this weekend.  They swung at 14 (63.6%).  Of the 8 that they didn’t swing at, 5 were called strikes.  Only 3 of his 22 pitches ended up being called balls.

For the month of May, Miller has thrown 31 pitches to 11 batters, getting 17 swings (54.8% – the highest on the team), and getting 9 of the 14 taken pitches called strikes (64.3% – best, again, by far on the team).

It’s kind of two steps forward, one step back, but there is some evidence of Miller returning to form.

John Brebbia

After allowing just 1 run over his first 18.1 innings, John Brebbia has given up runs in 2 of his last 4 games – losing both.  The damage is 4 runs in 4.1 innings – including 2 crushing home runs.  The last 21 batters to face him have a line of .316/.381/.737.

Offensive Roller-coaster

In losing three of four to Pittsburgh, the offense turned in their most Jekyll and Hyde performance of the season.  After a 17-run eruption on Thursday, they totaled 2 runs in the next two games combined.  Sunday they scored 6 times in the first two innings and then nothing after that (on their way to a 10-6 defeat).  They finished outscoring Pittsburgh for the series 25-18 – for all the good that did them.

Still, there are positive signs for some hitters who have been struggling recently.

Paul Goldschmidt

One of the most encouraging signs to come out of the otherwise lost weekend were the hits off the bat of Paul Goldschmidt.  It’s no secret that he has been frustrated with his contributions so far.  In the Pirate series, he hit safely in all four games – getting multiple hits in three of them.  He finished the series 9-for-17 (.529) with a double a home run and 4 runs batted in – pushing him to .298 for the month.

Jedd Gyorko

A big part of the team the last few years, Jedd Gyorko is finding it hard to get at bats.  He did get a few against Pittsburgh, going 3-for-6.  Jedd is now 5-for-14 (.357) for the month.

Yairo Munoz

Yairo Munoz is another of the bench players who gets infrequent opportunities that had some moments in the Pittsburgh series.  He went 3 for 9 in the four games, and is 9 for his last 19 (.474).

Jose Martinez

The defensive limitations of Jose Martinez showed up again a few times over the weekend.  Pretty much any line drive hit to right field is going to be an adventure.

But Jose continues to hit.  After his three-hit game on Sunday, Martinez has started 24 of the last 25 games, hitting .365 (31 for 85) in those games.

Cards Bats Restored to Power – for One Game, Anyway

So, the way things have been going lately, when Gregory Polanco drove his first-inning home run into the right field bleachers, you will have to forgive me for shaking my head and thinking, “here we go again.”

The Cardinals were coming off their sixth loss in seven games, and had just surrendered the game’s first run for the sixth time in the previous seven games.  It was starting to look like the re-run of a movie we’d seen before.

But last night the Cards answered – and kept answering.  Four runs in the second, two more in the third, five runs in each of the fourth and sixth innings, a final tally in the eighth.  A week’s worth of frustration and bad luck poured out in a deluge of hits and walks.  Many players who have seen lots of zeroes in their recent box scores saw their fortunes reversed in this one – a 17-4 victory (box score).

In fact, every Cardinal starter except the pitcher finished with at least 1 hit and 1 run scored.  All but Paul DeJong drove in at least 1 run.

St Louis has been on the other end of a few of these pummelings in recent days.  On April 26 the Cincinnati Reds pounded them to the tune of 12-1.  On May 5, a 13-5 loss to the Cubs was actually 13-2 in the ninth inning before the Cards put a few meaningless runs on the board.  Most recently – on Tuesday – the Cards fell 11-1 before Aaron Nola and the Philadelphia club.

Neither the Reds, Cubs nor Phillies were on the field to receive this payback.  Last night, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It would have been nice to answer one of the clubs that pushed us around, but this was still sufficiently satisfactory.

The first sentence in the MLB.com report on this game reads: “Turns out the concerns about the Cardinals’ collective offensive rut carried a short shelf life, as a visit from the Pirates proved to be all the antidote they needed on Thursday.”

I’m not entirely sure we can make that assumption yet.  Over their previous seven games, the Cards averaged 2.57 runs per game and were shutout twice.  It was nice to see some hits and some runs last night, but before we declare the Cardinal bats cured, let’s see how they do tonight, OK?

Yadier Molina

Never bothered by the team hitting woes, Yadier Molina was again one of the driving offensive forces last night, with 3 hits (including a double) 2 runs batted in and 3 runs scored.  Molina has hit safely in 25 of his last 28 starts, batting .346 over that stretch (37 for 107).  He has 26 runs batted in in those 28 games.

He is hitting .393 (11 for 28) for the month of May with 3 doubles, a home run and 7 RBIs to go along with a .607 slugging percentage.

Michael Wacha

The Cardinals are still pining for consistency and innings from their rotation.  Even with the big lead, Michael Wacha couldn’t make it through the sixth.  He is now 3-0 on the season, but with a 5.35 ERA – 6.75 over his two starts this month.

This was Wacha’s third start this season on four-days rest.  He has started on five-days rest on two other occasions.  It’s far too early to call this a trend, but the early numbers between Wacha on four-days and five-days are at least worth looking at.

On four-days, Wacha has made it through only 14.1 innings of those three starts, serving up 5 home runs.  His 9.42 ERA is backed by a batting line against him of .371/.414/.710.  His ground-ball percentage in those starts was only 33.9%

In his two five-days starts, Wacha has thrown 11.2 innings, allowing 1 home run.  In those starts, his ERA falls to 2.31, and the corresponding batting line just .190/.333/.357 while batters are hitting the ball on the ground 46.4% of the time.

In only a handful of starts, and too early to over-react.  But it’s something to keep an eye on.

Behind a Lot Lately

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.

Dakota Hudson

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.

Paul Goldschmidt

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.

Marcell Ozuna

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.

Harrison Bader

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.

Kolten Wong

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.

Leadoff Homer from Carpenter Sparks Four-Run Inning

Vince Velasquez – the hard-throwing Philadelphia starting pitcher – had fallen behind the leadoff batter in the fifth by a 3-1 count.  He and the Phillies were already down 2-0, and a leadoff walk here would not help.

The 3-1 fastball (officially 91.8 mph) hugged the outside corner of the strike zone, but it was up a bit.  The batter – Matt Carpenter – flicked his bat and lofted a fly ball just deep enough into center to clear the wall (and the glove of Phillie center-fielder Obudel Herrera).  Before the inning would end, St Louis would add three more runs – enough to put the wraps on a 6-0 win (box score).

All season long, the Cardinals have led off innings as well as almost anyone in baseball.  Their .357 on base percentage leading off innings is tied with Atlanta for the best in the National League and fourth-best in baseball (according to baseball reference).  Consistently putting the leadoff man on base was a big part of the amazing offensive consistency that this team enjoyed in April – when they scored 5.45 runs per game.

The early games of May have been less impressive, with the offense struggling to manage 3.67 runs per game.  As far as putting the first batter of an inning on base, St Louis is still doing that at a high level.  Three of the 8 leadoff batters reached base last night – and the leadoff on-base percentage for the month is still .340.  But what has been lost lately is the ability to build on that momentum.  In April, 55% of the Cardinal leadoff hitters who reached base ended up scoring.  Thus far in May, leadoff batters who reach are only scoring 28% of the time.  Carpenter was the only one who scored last night.

Jose Martinez opened the Cardinal second with a walk, and moved into scoring position when he advanced on a long fly ball off the bat of Yadier MolinaKolten Wong followed with a hard hit out, and after an intentional walk to Harrison Bader, pitcher Miles Mikolas struck out looking.

Carpenter again led off the next inning and walked.  Nothing came of that, either, as the walk was followed by a strikeout and a double-play grounder.

Through St Louis’ first 53 offensive innings of the month, their leadoff hitters have reached 18 times.  Only 5 of those have scored – 2 of them on leadoff home runs.  They are applying the pressure, but failing – so far this month – to take full advantage.

Last night, two two-run home runs (by Molina and Paul DeJong) kept the offense on schedule, but until they can start to push their leadoff runners around the bases, the Cardinal offense will continue to be a hit-and-miss affair.

Yadier Molina

In addition to calling a terrific game behind the plate, Yadier Molina was also the offensive engine last night.  He finished with three hits, including the home run that put the Cards ahead.  Yadi has now hit in all of his last 5 starts, going 7 for 19 (.368).  He has also hit safely in 23 of his last 25 starts, hitting .337 over that span (33 for 98).

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna hit a couple balls hard last night, but results have been hard to come by lately.  Over his last 4 games, Marcell is hitting .125 (2 for 16).

Among his contributions to the April offense, Ozuna was one of the most effective Cardinals leading off an inning.  In the 26 April innings he led off, he hit .375 (9 for 24) with a .423 on base percentage.  He ended up scoring in 8 of the 11 innings that he began by reaching base.

Last night, he led off two innings, going 0-for-2.  He is 1-for-7 as a leadoff hitter so far this month.

Kolten Wong

The struggles continue for Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night (although he also drew a walk and lofted a sacrifice fly), Wong is now hitless in his last 10 at bats, falling to .243 for the season.

Kolten has 2 hits (both singles) this month in 19 at bats (.105).

Miles Mikolas

The opening day starter, Miles Mikolas lasted only 5 innings in each of his first two starts, serving up 8 runs (and 4 home runs) in those efforts.

In his last 6 starts, Mikolas seems to be getting better each time out.  He went 7 scoreless against Philadelphia last night, allowing 3 hits.  In his two May starts, Miles has given just 1 run over 13 innings.  He has both the Cardinal wins this month, with an 0.69 ERA.

Since those first two starts Mikolas is 4-1, with a 3.16 ERA, walking just 6 batters over his last 37 innings.  He has thrown 67% of his last 532 pitches for strikes, holding opponents to just a .232 average.

Jordan Hicks

With one out in the ninth, manager Mike Shildt summoned closer Jordan Hicks into the game with a 6-run lead.  Hicks hadn’t appeared in a game in any of the last 6 days.  The reason for this inactivity was two-fold.  First, the Cards haven’t been presented with a save opportunity in quite a while.  Secondly, the Cards are monitoring the talented right-hander’s innings.  Hick responded by striking out both batters he faced – both on devastating sliders over 90 mph.

Jordan has now retired all of the last ten batters he’s faced – striking out 6 of them.  Since an early-season blown save, Jordan has an 0.75 ERA over his last 12 innings, holding batters to an .086 batting average in those innings.

Third Inning Woes Bedevil Flaherty and the Cards

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. 

Year Cubs Cards Pct
2015 3 1 .750
2016 10 9 .526
2017 14 5 .737
2018 9 10 .474
2019 3 0 1.000
       
  39 25 .609

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

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.

Dominic Leone

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

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

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

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.

Lack of Two Out Hits Contribute to Loss in Washington

The one everyone remembers came in the eighth inning.  Singles by Jedd Gyorko and Marcell Ozuna, and a walk drawn by Harrison Bader loaded the bases for the Cards with two out in a game they had trailed 2-1 since the fourth inning.

Backup catcher Matt Wieters (who had contributed one of the early hits) was due, but it was the eighth inning and manager Mike Shildt had a bench loaded with regulars who were getting the night off.  The at bat would go Paul Goldschmidt, and he would be hitting against the left-hander.  Washington had brought in closer Sean Doolittle to face the right-handed Bader trying to earn a four-out save.

After losing his 8-pitch battle with Bader, Doolittle would now have to face the slugger Goldschmidt with no place to put him.  But also with two out, so Sean was always just one pitch away from getting out of the mess.

Goldschmidt fouled off the first three pitches, took a ball, and then flinched on a 1-2 inside fastball that was off the plate.  First-base umpire Quinn Wolcott emphatically rung him up.  The replays showed that it was close.

While that will be the one remembered, it was only one of several such late opportunities presented to the Cardinals, all of which slid by the boards.  In fact, from the fourth inning on – the inning they fell behind – St Louis had at least one hit in every inning, and had the tying run in scoring position in three of those innings (including that eighth).  But the lack of that two out hit – compounding the earlier mistakes that had put them in the hole to begin with – were too much for them to overcome, and the five-game winning streak came to an ignominious 2-1 end (box score).

The lone Cardinal run scored in the third, but the inning was greatly defused when Wieters was picked off of second after Dakota Hudson missed on an attempted bunt.  Washington scored their two runs in the fourth on a throwing error and a double play.  So, even though the hitters were mostly dominated for the second straight night by National starters (Stephen Strasburg last night and Max Scherzer the night before), St Louis will head to Chicago knowing they mostly let this one get away.

In the end, they finished 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position, and 0 for 3 in the sixth, seventh and eighth runners in scoring position and two out.  A single by Gyorko and Matt Carpenter’s walk gave Ozuna and Tyler O’Neill the RBI opportunities in the sixth.  Marcell popped out and O’Neill struck out.  The seventh inning opportunity came courtesy of an infield hit from Yairo Munoz and a walk drawn by Jose Martinez.  The inning ended when Kolten Wong’s foul fly decided not to go out of bounds and floated back to where right fielder Victor Robles could gather it in.

St Louis finished the game 2-for-11 (.182) with two out, ending six of their nine innings with strikeouts.  For the season – in spite of the fact that they have been one of baseball’s most consistent offenses – they are hitting just .246 with two outs.  An area I know they expect to be better in.

On the other hand, the Cards were 5 for 13 (.385) with no one out.  They remain one of baseball’s best hitting no-out teams, raising their season average to .293 and their on base percentage to .357 in that situation.  For the season, 56.7% of all Cardinal runners who reach with no outs have come home to score.

MattCarpenter

Given to pronounced slumps over recent years, Matt Carpenter is currently fighting his way through another.  Last year, when his season started slowly, he had the advanced metrics to fall back on that showed he was still hitting the ball hard – just not having any luck.

Recently, though, Matt just isn’t hitting the ball at all.  After last night’s 0-for-3 with 2 strikeouts, Carpenter finished the Washington series just 1 for 16 (.063) with 11 strikeouts.  He is kind of a mess right now.

In his only at bat of the game with two out, Matt flew out fairly deep to center to end the first.  Carpenter is now 2 for 24 (.083) on the season with two out, driving in just 1 run.

Pitching Revival

Even in defeat, the recent improvement in the Cardinal pitching remains evident.  Starting with six very strong innings from Dakota Hudson, Washington ended with just 5 hits (all singles) and 11 strikeouts.  Frankly they were lucky to score at all.

After being fairly battered early, the Cardinal pitching staff seems to have found its footing a bit.  They have now fashioned 5 quality starts over their last 9 games, producing a 3.26 team ERA while holding opposing teams to just a .217 batting average.  The once concerning rotation has contributed 52 innings over those 9 games, with a 2.77 ERA and a .229 batting average against.

This is much more according to the plan.

Better With Two Outs

One of the great improvements over the last 9 games has been in St Louis’ ability to get that third out.  The first 282 batters to face the Cardinals with two out this year drew 35 walks and smacked 28 extra-base hits – including 15 two out home runs.  That batting line translated into .249/.358/.494

Over the last 9 games, 110 batters have faced the Cards with two outs.  They have 13 walks and just 4 extra-base hits – including just 1 home run – a batting line of .240/.336/.302.  Last night, Washington was 2-for-11 with two outs – but also with two more walks.

DominicLeone

After being battered over two games against Cincinnati (allowing 8 runs in 1.1 innings), Dominic Leone returned to form against Washington.  In 1.2 scoreless innings he struck out 4.

One of the Cardinal strengths all year has been pitching with no one out, as opponents have only hit .202 against St Louis in that situation.  Leone has been a solid part of that.  He struck out both of the batters he faced with no outs last night.  Batters are now 2-for-19 (.105) with 8 strikeouts when pitted against Leone with no one out.

Unfortunately, Dominic has also contributed to the two out struggles.  The hit he gave up last night came with two out, bringing opposing hitters to 9 for 19 (.474) against Leone in that situation.

When You’re Trying Not to Hit the Curve Ball

Last night in Washington, Adam Wainwright made his record-tying start with catcher Yadier Molina.  These two have formed the battery for 248 Cardinal games over the years – tying the Tom Glavine/Javy Lopez record.

In rolling through 6.2 innings in the game, Adam threw 80 pitches.  Twenty-six of those were curve balls – Waino’s signature pitch.  The fastest of these (according to Brooks Baseball) spun in at 77.6 mph.  Adam’s fastest pitch of the game (a sinker) registered all of 92.4 mph.  During the evening, 12 of Adam’s 80 offerings cracked the 90-mph barrier.

The league, of course, is well aware of who Wainwright is – especially at this point of his career.  Beating Wainwright means that you need some strategy for coping with that curve.

If he’s missing the strike zone with it, then the adjustment is easy.  Just don’t swing at it.  If he is throwing that curve for strikes, you can try to wait for him to hang one – Victor Robles got a hanger on a 3-1 pitch and sailed it over the wall.

But if he’s not hanging them often, then most teams will take the approach the Nationals took last night – hit him early in the count.  Once Adam gets two strikes on you, you become vulnerable to Uncle Charlie.  Early in the count, Wainwright will throw more cutters and sinkers to set the hitter up for the curve.  Twenty-one of the 29 batters to face Adam ended their plate appearance before strike two, with 7 of them hitting Adam’s first strike.

Across all of baseball, this is very profitable hitting territory.  According to baseball reference, all major league hitters are hitting .342 and slugging .617 when they hit that first strike.

But, of course, Wainwright and Molina have been around a bit as well.  Figuring that the Nationals would be looking to hit something other than that curve, they mixed plenty of cutters (13) and sinkers (23) – especially early in the count.  In a sense, it was a case of be careful what you ask for.  The battery of Wainwright and Molina was consistently effective at jamming the Washington hitters – who were very obliging.

In the second inning, Matt Adams got enough of one of those inside cutters to float it into short left-center for a single.  The next inning, Adam Eaton was quick enough on another inside cutter to stroke it just fair over the right-field wall.  For the rest, it was a predictable mix of relatively easy fly-ball outs.

For the rest of the series, Washington will have to deal with pitchers with more stuff in Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson.  But last night, they were treated to a demonstration of pitching as an art form.  When he’s right, Adam can make it look fairly easy.

Ah, But Those Home Runs

In spite of the strong performance, Wainwright did serve up two more home runs.  For the rotation, now, that is 34 home runs allowed in 151 innings.  The opposing slugging percentage against Cardinal starters is .502 – the second highest in all of baseball.

That Bullpen is Still Plenty Tough

As they have for most of the year, St Louis’ bullpen came in and closed the door.  Over the last 2.2 innings, Washington managed only 1 hit and no runs.  The batting average against the Cardinal bullpen falls to .178 – the lowest in the majors.

John Gant

Adding another strong outing to his excellent start, John Gant threw 1.1 scoreless innings last night.  His season ERA slides to an unexpected 0.98.

He reached two strikes on all 5 batters he faced last night, a facet of his game that has been exceptional this year.  So far this season, 63.2% of all batters John has pitched to have ended up in two-strike counts.  They have not prospered, hitting .050/.116/.050.

Speaking of Two Strikes

Almost as masterful on the other side was Washington starter Anibal Sanchez.  Mr. Sanchez, himself, featured a cutter that never exceeded 89.5 mph.  But he spotted it expertly on the corners of the zone.

He, and the relievers who followed him, put 27 of the 38 Cardinal batters in two-strike counts – on their way to ringing up 15 strikeouts and holding one of baseball’s most consistent offenses under four runs for just the fifth time this season.

Jose Martinez

Contrary to the plan at the start of the season, Jose Martinez started for the thirteenth consecutive game last night.  For the third straight of those games, he finished with 2 hits.  He has hit in 11 of those games, getting multiple hits in 7 of them.  Jose carries a .462 average (20 for 47) as he is making it exceedingly difficult for management to put him back on the bench.

One of those hits (his second inning single) came on a 1-2 pitch.  Martinez – among his other accomplishments – is the best two-strike hitter on the team, carrying a .318 average (14-for-44) when down to his last strike.

Matt Carpenter

While most of the team seems to be perking along, things are still a struggle for Matt Carpenter.  Matt found himself in two-strike counts through all 5 of his at bats.  He walked once and struck out the other 4 times.  He now has 7 strikeouts over his last 2 games.  For the season, only Paul Goldschmidt (61.4%) has found himself in two-strike counts with more frequency that Carpenter (60.0%).  Once considered the team’s best two-strike hitter, Carp is hitting .145 (9-for-62) in that situation so far this year.

Yadier Molina

And, yes, Yadier Molina’s career-best-tying 16-game hitting streak came to an end in the win.  Yadi was 0-for-3 with a walk.  During the streak, Molina hit .328 (21 for 64) with a couple of home runs.  Yadi drove in 19 runs during that streak.