Starters Rise to Occasion in Sweep of Cubs

So, it was another minimal offensive series for your St Louis Cardinals.  Granted, they faced three quality arms, but as the Sunday game ended, the Cards had scored just 11 runs during the three games, hitting .233 on just 21 hits.

Oh, did I mention that St Louis won all three games?  By scores of 2-1 in 10 innings (box score), 7-4 (box score) and 2-1 again (box score).

If this team is going to be special this year, it will be because of their pitching.  For the first fifty or so games, the rotation showed inconsistent flashes of potential.  For three games as May faded into June, and against their divisional rival from up North, the Cardinal starters were very special.

The Cards got 20 innings from their starters in this series – and might well have had a couple more, had Jack Flaherty’s Saturday start not been interrupted after five innings by rain.  For those 20 innings the Cubs dented St Louis’ starters for just 3 runs on 12 hits – a 1.35 ERA and a .182 batting average against.

Yes, there was a bit of luck involved.  Especially on Sunday, when Chicago hit Adam Wainwright harder than the results showed.  Still, the club couldn’t have asked for more from the starters.

The bullpen was nearly as good, although hiccups from Jordan Hicks and John Brebbia threatened two of the games.

In fact, that might be the most satisfying element of the series.  Each game was tightly contested, and Chicago could very easily have swept the home team.  These were, in fact, the type of games that the Cards have repeatedly lost to Chicago over the last few years – the character games.  For one weekend at least, it was St Louis coming through with the clutch hit and the big defensive play.

To keep things in perspective, there is still a lot of baseball to be played – and many more contests against Chicago.  This was just one chapter in a very long novel.  But it was not insignificant.  Much like their season series against their other primary division competitor.  After losing 5 of the first 7 against Milwaukee, they came back to sweep the Brewers the last time they played them to even that series.  This sweep, though, does more than just answer the Cubs earlier sweep of the Cards.  Getting off the deck and answering these two teams provided a significant confidence boost.

And confidence, by the way, is not in short supply.  I don’t think I ever remember a more confident two-games-over team.

The rest of the summer will tell whether that confidence is warranted or just bravado.  One thing to remember, though.  Both of St Louis’ answering sweeps were at home.  If they have true designs on the division title, this team will have to find some way of coping with Miller Park and Wrigley Field – Wrigley as soon as this Friday.

Fifty-eight games into the 2019 season, this team is still a mystery.

Miles Mikolas

Three starts ago, Miles Mikolas endured a nightmare start in Texas – he gave 7 runs (and 2 home runs) in less than 2 innings.  That disaster stands in sharp contrast to Miles three starts before and his two starts since.  In those other 5 games, Miles has pitched at least 6 innings in all of them, (and 7 in the other 4) without giving up more than three runs in any of them.  In fact, he gave up as many as 3 runs in only one of those games.

Over the 34 innings that surround that Texas game, Miles has allowed as many runs (7) and home runs (2) as he did in that Texas game.  He holds a 1.85 ERA in those other games, holding those teams to a .213 batting average, while walking just 4.

Jack Flaherty

Flaherty followed Mikolas’ 7 strong innings (1 run on 6 hits) with a strong effort of his own.  After allowing solo home runs in the first two innings, Jack settled down and kept Chicago off the scoreboard till the rains came in the fifth.

The rain interrupted a streak of three consecutive quality starts from the young right-hander.  Over his last 4 starts, Jack has a 2.74 ERA over 23 innings with 26 strikeouts.  His last 4 opponents are hitting .182 against him.

Through the month of May, the 30 batters that swung at Flaherty’s first pitch ended up hitting .320.  On Saturday the 6 Cubs who chased after Jack’s first pitch finished 0-for-6 with 3 strikeouts.

In fact, in that Saturday game Chicago’s hitters combined to go 0 for 11 when they swung at the first pitch.  For the series, the Cubs were just 3 for 32 (.094) in at bats where they swung at the first pitch (the major league average when swinging at the first pitch is .268).

John Gant

One of the bullpen heroes of the series, John Gant pitched in two of the games, winning the Saturday game and saving Sunday’s contest.  He allowed a walk, but retired the other five batters he faced.

John is on another streak of scoreless outings, as he has allowed no runs on 3 hits and 2 walks over his last 7 innings over 6 games.

Johnny has been much better than anyone could have expected.

Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks was the winner in the Friday game, pitching two innings.  He was brought back to save the Sunday game, but faltered.  Manager Mike Shildt says he isn’t concerned, but maybe he should be at least a little.

Hicks has now given runs in 3 of his last 6 games.  Over his last 5.2 innings, Jordan has given 6 runs on 7 hits and 5 walks.  The 29 batters he has faced over those appearances are hitting .292 against him – far too high for a kid who throws 104+.  With the walks, the recent on base percentage against him is .414.

Offensive Struggles

I began by referencing the recent offensive brown-out.  Even though the pitching (and defense, by the way) made what little offense they got stand up, the Cards have been a less than stellar offensive machine for quite a while now.

Over their last 16 games, this team is averaging 3.94 runs per game with a distressing .217 team batting average.

Kolten Wong

When Kolten Wong rolled to second in the second inning of the Friday game, he extended his current hitless streak to 22 at bats.

From that moment on, Wong owned the series as much as any non-pitcher could.  He got 6 hits in his last 9 at bats (two hits in each game), stole two bases, scored twice, drove in two – including the important first run in the Sunday game – and made the defensive play of the series to end the eighth inning of the Sunday game (you have probably seen the highlight of Wong racing almost into mid right-field and going full extension to gather in Anthony Rizzo’s soft liner.

Wong had himself a series.  Historically, Kolten is either icy-ice cold or broiling hot.  No one in this clubhouse would complain if Wong went on a substantial tear.

For the series, Wong was 2 for 4 in at bats where he swung at the first pitch.  For the season, that is when he is at his best.  He is still hitting .316 (18 for 57) when swinging at the first pitch.

Marcell Ozuna

Left fielder Marcell Ozuna didn’t get a hit in 3 at bats in the Sunday game, breaking a short but very loud five-game hitting streak.  During those previous 5 games, Marcell went 9 for 19 (.474).  He hit 2 home runs, drove in 6, and slugged .842.

Matt Carpenter

For much of the early season – for whatever reason – Matt Carpenter has been noticeably more aggressive on the first pitch.  In April, he chased the first pitch thrown him 22.4% of the time.  In May, it was 24.1%.  In all of this, the results weren’t much.

Lately, he has returned to the Matt Carpenter we remember, and his numbers have been steadily rising.  He had 10 plate appearances in the Cub series and took the first pitch 9 times.  He finished the series 3 for 9 with a walk.  Over his last 16 games, Matt has taken the first pitch thrown 81.7% of the time – and is slashing .310/.408/.548 when he does.

You would think this would make him all the more dangerous when he does swing at the first pitch, but that hasn’t materialized yet.  Over those same 16 games, Matt is slashing .200/.273/.500 in the plate appearances in which he chases that first pitch.

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader hit a home run late in the Saturday game.  It was his only hit in the last two series (1 for 19 – .053).

Paul DeJong

And Paul DeJong’s tailspin continues.  He did get a late single in the Sunday game, but that represents only his second hit in his last 11 games (and 36 at bats).  Over the 16 games that the Cards have scuffled for runs, Paul is hitting .145 (8 for 55) with just 1 home run.

Paul swung at the first pitch only twice in his 11 plate appearances in the series.  In his red hot April, DeJong swung at the first pitch 24.3% of the time, and with devastating effect – a line of .438/.455/.719.

In May, he took the first pitch 86% of the time.  Over the last 16 games he has watched the first pitch 89.4% of the time – more frequently than Carpenter.

The numbers suggest a more timid approach at the plate, but that’s not what I see from him.  After his blazing April, pitchers seem much less anxious to challenge Paul early in the count.  He sees a great many first pitches just off the plate or just low – occasionally, these pitches cross the corners of the strike zone.

After they establish the outside, many pitchers are then able to jam DeJong later in the at bat.  They have had some success doing that.

Mostly, though, Paul appears to still be taking disciplined at bats.  I don’t see him chasing many pitches at all.  But he is missing his pitch when he gets it – or fouling it off.  Timing just a little off.  Or, when he does get into one, someone makes a great play on it – like Albert Almora did in the Saturday game.

DeJong, I think is close.  One thing he won’t have to worry about is opportunity.  As with Wong and Carpenter and all the other starters who went through extended slumps, he can depend that Shildt will continue to write his name on the lineup card even if he goes 2 for his next 50.

NoteBook

It took until the fifth inning, but the Cards did score first yesterday.  They have scored the first run in 5 of their last 7.

The Cardinals have won only 7 series all year, but 4 of them have now been by sweep.  Of the 5 series that St Louis was in position to sweep, only Washington – who faced a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cards – was able to avoid the redbird brooms.

The Cub series was also just the eighth series this year in which the Cards won the first game.  They are 5-3 in series when they win that first game.

With his 8 innings on Sunday, Adam Wainwright now has 66.1 on the season.  He pitched only 40.1 innings all last year.  He also now has 1,998.1 for his career – leaving him just 5 outs shy of 2000.

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