The rain never really came – not in time to stop the proceedings, anyway – but the skies were overcast over a breezy, 76-degree afternoon that admitted an intermittent drizzle to dampen the mood of the 38,606 in attendance at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. It was almost as though the skies anticipated the scene below.
For 8 innings on that grey Chicago Sunday, the Cubs prevailed. They took a 2-1 lead into the ninth of a game they simply had to win. This time the fragile lead would not be trusted to the bullpen. This game, win-or-lose, would belong to the starter Yu Darvish. He lost it. After 8 terrific innings, the irrepressible Cardinals broke through for 2 ninth-inning runs against him. And that was it, the 3-2 victory (box score), finishing a four-game sweep that sent St Louis to the playoffs for the first time in four years and put the Cubs’ playoff hopes on life support.
On Saturday I remembered a series that St Louis played in Chicago in September of 2017. Ever since that series a question has hung over this franchise – thicker and more ominous than the clouds the enshrouded Wrigley. The character question re-surfaced time and time again over the last couple of years. A question so engrained that even as the Cardinals spent the bulk of August and the early part of September pushing around losing teams, the doubt persisted.
Could this team win tough, playoff-deciding, September games against winning teams fighting for playoff spots?
In four nerve-racking, do-or-die, one-run games played on the home field of the team that had repeatedly tormented them since 2017, the answers were yes, yes, yes and yes.
And, to the secondary question of whether the Cards had finally crafted a roster that would take them back to the playoffs, the answer there is also, now, yes.
The sweep, leaving St Louis three ahead of Milwaukee for the division title with six games left, caps a fairly remarkable run. Sitting with a 26-28 record after their loss on May 29, this frequently disregarded ballclub has gone on to win 63 of its last 102 games – a .618 winning percentage. They have won some with the offense – although truthfully, over the last 102 games the offensive numbers have been decidedly average – 4.53 runs scored per game and a batting line of .243/.315/.415.
The constant over the last 102 games has been the pitching – that part of the team that was perceived as its strength when we left spring training has spent nearly the last four months asserting its dominance.
Since May 29, the St Louis Cardinals have registered a 3.41 team ERA – 3.35 from the rotation and 3.51 from the bullpen. If they had maintained those numbers over the course of the entire year, they would be leading all of major-league baseball in ERA (as it stands they are fifth with a 3.78 ERA), the rotation would sit second to the Dodgers (3.15), and the bullpen would also lead all of the majors. As it currently stands, both the rotation and the pen have 3.78 ERAs for the season – ranking the rotation as sixth and the relievers as third in all of baseball.
The games in Wrigley this weekend varied slightly from that pattern. The team ERA for the Cub series sat right at that 3.41 mark, but did so without much positive contribution from the bullpen.
Continuing a recent regression – that may have something to do with overuse – the Cardinal bullpen continues to show slippage. After giving a 5.02 ERA to Chicago with a .263/.323/.474 batting line, the St Louis relief corps is scuffling through September with a 4.61 ERA. According to baseball reference, that ranks twentieth out of thirty bullpens this month.
While that sounds a worrying note for the team’s future in the playoffs, at least for the Chicago series the rotation stepped clearly to the fore.
In 22.2 innings against a gifted Chicago offense, the four Cardinals starters limited them to a 2.38 ERA and a batting line of .238/.311/.363. For the month of September that rotation holds a 2.04 ERA – a half run per game better than major league baseball’s second best September rotation – the Yankees at 2.59.
With the end of the regular season upon us, and the playoffs looming in the distance, both of those numbers suggest troubling questions. How long can the rotation maintain its almost other-worldly domination? And, will the bullpen re-discover its magic in time to keep this team progressing?
Everything has almost completely played itself out for 2019. While some important questions have been answered, there are a few critical ones that continue to hover. Stay tuned.
The almost always dominant Jack Flaherty began the series on the perfect note – with 8 dominant innings (1 run on 3 hits). He wasn’t involved in the decision (a 10-inning, 5-4 victory), but continued his string of stellar starts. The lost win, by the way, was the team-leading fourth time this season the relievers couldn’t hold on to one of his leads.
Jack has now thrown six consecutive quality starts, and 12 of his last 14 starts have likewise qualified. He holds a 1.07 ERA over those 14 starts (92.1 innings), over which he has a 6-3 record and 113 strikeouts. The last 344 batters to hit against Flaherty are hitting .148 and slugging just .237. He had surrendered just 6 home runs over his last 14 games.
His ERA for September sinks to 1.20, and his second half ERA sits at 1.05.
Lately, Jack has been a strike machine. Eighty-four of his 118 pitches against Chicago (71.2%) were strikes. In 4 September starts, Flaherty is throwing strikes 69.2% of the time – the highest ratio in the rotation.
Michael Wacha started the Friday game – a 2-1 Cardinal win. Michael is on a very short leash these days – and has been for quite a while. In 9 starts since his return to the rotation, Wacha has been pulled before completing 5 innings 6 times (including on Friday). On four of those occasions – including Friday – Wacha had been pitching quite effectively, but at the earliest opportunity for offense, manager Mike Shildt has gone to his bench and thrown the rest of the game on to the backs of the bullpen – adding, perhaps, to the weariness the Cardinal relief corps may be experiencing.
Over his last 5 starts, Wacha has lasted just 22 innings, although his ERA over that span is 2.05. He has pitched only 15 innings in his 4 September starts, but with a 1.80 ERA.
The Cards scored no runs for Wacha while he was in there, and have only scored 2 support runs for him this month – 1.20 per nine innings.
As Wacha has righted his ship, he has become an increasingly dominant ground ball pitcher. Of the 14 Cubs that put the ball in play against him, 9 (64.3%) hit it on the ground. For the month of September, he is getting 62.7% ground balls, and in the second half, he is now up to 54.2%.
All those ratios are higher than anyone else in the rotation – including Dakota Hudson.
Andrew Miller – whose season has been marked with inconsistency – was one of the few bullpen heroes of the Cub series. Andrew pitched in 3 of the 4 games, pitching a total of 3 scoreless innings. Miller, now has strung together 5 consecutive scoreless outings, totaling 5 innings. During these innings, Miller – who has been plagued by control issues this season – has thrown 47 of his 60 pitches for strikes – 78%.
Andrew – who has walked only 2 in 8 September innings – is throwing 70.8% of his pitches (97 of 137) for strikes this month.
Playing on the biggest stage of his young career, Tommy Edman rose spectacularly to the occasion. In 4 games against the Cubs, Tommy was 7 for 16 with a double and 2 triples.
Edman’s current hitting streak is up to 5 games. He has also hit in 11 of his last 12, and 15 of his last 17. Over the 5 games, Edman is 9 for 19 (.474) with 4 extra-base hits for an .895 slugging percentage.
Tommy could well be a player-of-the-month candidate. He is now hitting .329 (25 for 76) in September, including 5 doubles, 3 triples and 5 home runs. He is slugging .671 this month.
Tommy’s trademark is becoming his even polished swing that rarely misses. Of the 34 swings he took against the Cubs, he only missed on 6 of them (17.6%). Since he joined the team, his 17.9% miss percentage is exceeded only by Kolten Wong’s 16.0%.
Wong’s hamstring injury opened the door for Matt Carpenter to return to the starting lineup. After a purgatorial season, Carpenter is closing in style. His enormous tenth-inning home run on Thursday was the pinnacle of a series that recalled the best of the Matt Carpenter of bygone days.
Matty came to the plate 14 times in Chicago, collecting 2 singles, a double, the home run, 2 walks and a hit-by-pitch. His batting line for the series was an impressive .364/.500/.727. Over his last 5 games, Carp’s line is .385/.500/.769.
Carp is now 12 for 36 (.333) in September with 6 extra-base hits and a .556 slugging percentage.
Carpenter is traditionally difficult to double up. At the plate in 3 double-play opportunities over the weekend, Carpenter didn’t hit into a DP in any of them, and is now 0-for-9 this month. For the season he has hit into 3 double plays in 72 opportunities, a 4.2% which is second lowest on the team, behind Wong’s 2.3% (2 for 88).
Matt’s other reputation, of course, is for not swinging at the first pitch. During his struggling first half, he found himself chasing that first pitch more than he usually does – although 23.3% is still comparatively low.
In the month of September, he is chasing that first offering only 13.6% of the time. In his 14 plate appearances over the weekend, he swung at the first pitch just once.
Another of the veterans leading down the stretch is Yadier Molina, who went 6 for 17 (.353) against Chicago.
Yadi is as aggressive as Carpenter is patient. In Chicago, Molina chased the first pitch 11 times in 17 plate appearances (64.7%), and swung at all pitches 64.5% of the time. He is up to 54.7% swinging at the first pitch this month. For the season, Yadi is the only Cardinal regular to swing at more than half the pitches thrown his way (55.9%).
Needless to say, Yadi is almost never called out on strikes. All 4 of his strikeouts this weekend were swinging. He has taken strike three only 4 times this year.
Ex-Cub Dexter Fowler was one of the few Cards to struggle at Wrigley. He was 2 for 15 (.133) both singles. Dex has just 1 extra-base hit (a double) over his last 10 games – a span in which he is hitting .147 (5 for 34) with 147 strikeouts.
Dexter is hitting just .203 (14 for 69) in September. He has only 4 extra-base hits this month, and is slugging just .290.
The injury to Wong interrupted his streak of consecutive starts at second base at 18. He and shortstop Paul DeJong had shared the longest current streak of consecutive starts on the team. DeJong heads to Arizona having made 21 consecutive starts at short.
The Cards head to Arizona with more victories in the second half of the season (in 68 games) than they managed in 88 games during the first half. With a record of 44-44 at the break, the Cards are 45-23 since (a .662 pace).
The Cardinals have now swept 4 four-game series this year, pulling big sweeps off against the Dodgers and Rockies at home and going on the road to sweep four from the Pirates before rolling the Cubs. Overall, the Cards have played 13 four-game series, winning 9, losing 2 and splitting 2. They were 37-15 in the games of those series.
Overall, St Louis has completed the sweep 9 times in 15 sweep opportunities.
The Saturday afternoon attendance total of 40,071 was the largest road crowd the Cards had played to since their series in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. On the final day of that series (August 7) they played to 48,994.
At 4 hours and 24 minutes, the Saturday game was also the Cards’ longest nine-inning game of the season. The previous long game had been the 9-8 loss to San Francisco on September 4. That game lasted 4:05. Saturday was, in fact, the longest nine-inning ballgame the Cards have played this century. Previously they played a nine-inning game in 4:19. That was in Colorado on April 16, 2000 (the second game of a doubleheader). The final there was Colorado 14, St Louis 13 (in a game that featured only two home runs) – (box score). The first game that day – by the way – was played in a snappy 2:53 (a 9-3 Cardinal win).