After the Pirates provided him with the lead with two runs in the top of the third inning, starting pitcher Cody Ponce – making the first start of his major league career – toyed with the idea of giving it back in the bottom of that inning. With one out, he walked Tommy Edman just ahead of the power part of the Cardinal lineup – Paul DeJong and Paul Goldschmidt, who would both be getting their second look at the young Pirate right-hander.
St Louis had lost the first game of the doubleheader to the clever Chad Kuhl. Kuhl had baffled them with a steady mix of hard and soft stuff that he consistently located on the corners of the zone. Ponce would also pitch very well on this night, but with considerably less cleverness.
With DeJong at bat, Cody threw him the fastball he was looking for – 92.5 miles per hour and right down the heart of the plate. But Paul didn’t really square it up, sending a soft flare into short right. Right fielder Jose Osuna didn’t get an exquisite jump on the ball but came closing on it fast, only to see it hit the turf just before he got there.
For about a second there, Cardinal fans had a vision of Goldschmidt at the plate representing the lead run. The problem was that the pop fly put base-runner Edman in no man’s land. With Osuna closing on the ball, there was no way Tommy could stray too far from first. As soon as the ball hit, Osuna was there to gobble it up and fire it to second, barely forcing Edman for the second out.
That might be the microcosm moment as the Cardinals surrendered a couple of games to the beleaguered Pirates, 4-3 (boxscore) and 2-0 (boxscore) as well as a game in the standings to the idle Cubs.
The Birds had some opportunities. They put runners in scoring position in 4 of Cody’s 5.2 innings. But they were 0-for-7 in those opportunities and left 5 while being shutout.
A young man without a rocket arm, Ponce seemed more than willing to challenge the Cardinals. They had their pitches to hit. But, as sometimes happens, they just couldn’t square them up.
A two-out double by Goldschmidt in the first gave Brad Miller the first RBI opportunity of the nightcap. Cody came right after Brad with a 93.4 mph fastball right down the chute. Miller fouled it off. Two pitches later, Brad got a curveball sitting over the middle but flied out to left.
The next inning found Max Schrock at the plate with a runner at third and two outs. Max jumped on a 90.4 mph first pitch fastball that had much-too-much of the plate. And grounded it to second.
There was no one on base for Tyler O’Neill when he hit with one out in the fourth. Ponce threw him a four-seamer at 92.7 right up in his wheelhouse. Tyler hit it pretty well, but right at Osuna.
The game’s pivotal moment came in the home fifth. Dylan Carlson led off with a double into the right-field corner. Shrock got the first shot. He watched Cody pour a fastball right over the middle of the plate, and then popped out on a cutter that jammed him. Next came Harrison Bader.
Ponce kept challenging. Bader got a cut fastball at 88.9 right in the hitting zone. He fouled it off. Two pitches later he got another just like it. And fouled out.
Edman ended the inning with a strikeout.
Leading off the seventh (which was the last inning of the double-header game) Yadier Molina almost halved the lead against reliever Nik Turley. But his long drive to right-center wasn’t quite tagged enough and Cole Tucker ran it down.
After Carlson struck out, the last hope of the day belonged to Dexter Fowler off the bench. As if to prove that he had been watching from the bullpen, Turley came right after Dexter with a fastball down the middle. Fouled off. Two pitches later Fowler got another just like it that he skied into right for the final out.
All across baseball, batters are hitting .336/.350/.589 on that first pitch. The Cards were 0-for-3 on that pitch in the second game. They had also been 0-for-3 on that first pitch in game one. For 15 innings yesterday, St Louis was 0-for-6 on the first pitch, and 0-for-13 in all at bats in which they offered at the first pitch. DeJong’s flair would have been their only hit in those at bats. One of those days.
And sometimes that’s how it happens in baseball. You don’t square up every fastball. Somedays it’s not your day. But it’s understandable that the Cardinal faithful might be getting a little antsy.
When Will They Hit?
Since they restarted the season after the COVID interruption, the Cardinal offense has profited from an abundance of walks and hit batsmen – two elements that were instrumental in the ninth-inning rally against KC the night before.
On Thursday against Pittsburgh, those gifts went away. Over 15 innings yesterday they were granted just 6 walks and no hit batsmen. Without those aides, the offense once again looked halting.
The abbreviated season is now more than a third passed, and the lineup is littered with hitters that we had higher hopes for. Edman – who hit .300 last year and carried the team’s best OPS is hitting .253 with a disappointing .693 OPS. For all of his talk about fixing his swing, Matt Carpenter is hitting .200. O’Neill is down to .180. Kolten Wong is off to a .231 start. Top prospect Carlson is hitting .196 with a .566 OPS.
Of the 15 National League teams (numbers provided by baseball reference), St Louis ranks eleventh in batting average (.241), twelfth in slugging percentage (.376), eleventh in OPS (.717), and twelfth in runs per game (4.09).
With the season’s final month just around the corner, you can understand if the fans start to feel a little bit of panic. But just because baseball has shortened its season, that doesn’t change the laws of baseball. Nobody on the team has more than the 75 at bats that Edman has so far. O’Neill has 61 at bats. Carpenter 60. Carlson just 56 – a little more than a tenth of a normal season’s worth of at bats.
Agonizing as it is to say this, baseball is still a marathon – even when it’s a sprint. It would be soothing to see some of these players putting up solid numbers – especially guys like O’Neil and Carlson who are trying to establish themselves. But sometimes baseball isn’t that accommodating.
With the trade deadline creeping up, the front office will be under varying degrees of pressure to address the lagging offense. But the only sensible course of action is to believe that all of these players are better than we’ve seen so far.
And as for yesterday, you just have to shrug. It was just one of those days. Right?
Speaking of Edman
Tommy’s season can still be called a bit of a disappointment so far, but over recent games Edman has started to resemble the Tommy Edman of last year. He was 3 for 6 in the doubleheader, and has now hit safely in 6 straight games. Edman is 8 for 23 (.348) in those games. He has also hit safely in 8 of his last 9, hitting .353 on 12 of 34 swinging.
As inspiring as any of the Cards so far is the rebound of St Louis icon Yadier Molina. After missing 8 games due to the pandemic, Yadi has stepped back into the lineup hitting as though he had never left. Molina had hits in both games – including a home run in the first game, and gave Turley quite a ride in the seventh inning of the last game. Molina is a .391 hitter (9 for 23) over his last 6 games, driving in 4 runs. In the 9 games since his return, Yadi has driven in 7 runs while hitting .343 (12 for 35).
It’s still surprising to see Yadi do this. In the second inning of the second inning, he took the first pitch curve ball from Ponce. The next pitch was a fastball that he slapped up the middle for a single.
Always one of baseball’s most aggressive hitters, Yadi is one of the few you can count on to chase after that first pitch. While all of baseball only swings at the first pitch 25.4% of the time, Yadi goes after 50.9% of those pitches.
What is beginning to be surprising is how productive he’s becoming when he does take that first pitch. Across the majors, batters are only hitting .237 when they take the first pitch of an at bat. Both of Yadi’s hits yesterday came after he took a first-pitch curve.
Since his return to the lineup, Molina is now 6 for 16 (.375) with a double and a home run (.625 slugging percentage) after he takes that first pitch.
After going through considerable struggles when first recalled, things are looking like they are starting to fall in a little bit for Dylan. With hits in both games yesterday, Carlson has a little six-game hitting streak of his own going. He is hitting .333 (7-for-21) during the streak with a .571 slugging percentage (2 doubles and a home run).
Up 6 times in the doubleheader, Dylan took the first pitch 5 times. So far in his young career, Carlson is taking that first pitch 86.9% of the time – a ratio that leads the club.
After drawing a walk in 12 straight games, Paul Goldschmidt saw that streak end in the second game yesterday. He was, nonetheless, 2-for-6 in the doubleheader. Since the team came out of quarantine Paul is hitting .340 (17 for 50) with a .507 on base percentage (courtesy of 18 walks).
Paul took the first pitch all six times yesterday. Always a patient hitter, Goldy has been even more so after the restart. Over his last 69 plate appearances, Paul has taken the first pitch 56 times (81.2%). Those at bats have worked out for him quite well, as he’s hitting .400/.571/.625.
For the season, Goldy is taking that first pitch 78.9% of the time, and hitting .370 (20 of 54) when he does. Seventeen of his 20 walks this season have come in those at bats, giving him a .521 on base percentage when he takes that first pitch.
How Solid is the Rotation!
The fact that the Cards are only 9-8 over the last 17 games isn’t really the fault of the starting rotation. With few exceptions, the Cardinal starters have given the team a chance to win almost every game since the re-start. Yesterday was no exception. Kwang Hyun Kim (6 innings, 0 earned runs, 3 hits) and Johan Oviedo (5 innings, 2 runs, 4 hits) combined for 11 innings of 1.64 ERA and a .171 batting average against. All hits were singles.
Since the season re-boot, the Cardinal rotation has chipped in with a 2.42 ERA and a .164 batting average against.
Kwang Hyun has gone six innings without allowing an earned run in back to back games. In 15.2 innings since his return to the rotation, Kim holds a 0.57 ERA, a .161 batting average against, and a .250 slugging percentage allowed.
One of the interesting numbers from Oviedo’s first two starts is the reluctance of hitters to swing at his first pitch. Perhaps it’s his somewhat imposing presence on the mound. Or perhaps his reputation for occasional wildness. Or perhaps just because he’s a rookie and no one has faced him before. Whatever the reason, only 3 of the 21 batters he faced yesterday offered at his first pitch. In his first game, only one Cub (Javier Baez on his way to a first inning strikeout) swung at his first pitch. That’s 4 out of 39, just barely more than 10%.
In the 4-3 first game loss, the Cards never held a lead. In each of their previous seven games they had held at least a one-run lead at some point of the game. The last game that they never led in was Johan Oviedo’s first start, a 4-2 loss to Chicago on August 19 (second game).
Paul Goldschmidt had made 8 consecutive starts at first base until Matt Carpenter started there in the first game of the double-header (Goldschmidt started that game at DH). Yadier Molina – who has now made 9 consecutive starts behind the plate (including both games of the double-header) now holds the team’s longest streak for consecutive starts at one position.
The Pirates scored first in both games of the doubleheader, continuing a season-long pattern for the Cards. They have now allowed the first run in four straight. After scoring the first run in the first three games of the season, the Cards have only managed that feat 6 times in the last 19 games.
The 2:02 second game was – by one minute – the season’s quickest game. The first game of the August 17 game in Chicago (also a 7-inning game) took 2:03. The two games of the DH averaged 2:25, making this the quickest series (by average time) of the season so far. The three games they played against the White Sox coming out of quarantine averaged 2:33.7.
The 3 runs scored in the series is tied for the fewest runs the Cards have scored in a series so far this year. In the final series before the COVID interruption they scored just 3 runs (also a two game series) in Minnesota. They lost both of those games, too. The 6 runs they allowed are the fewest given up in any series so far this year. They gave 9 to the Twins in late July.
My Designated Hitter Rant
As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably). If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH. Here is the link. If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.