When John Gant’s five-inning, 99-pitch struggle was over he had walked 5 batters with just two strikeouts. His first inning had been a three-up, three groundout inning. Thereafter, John had traffic in every inning. According to Statcast, 53 of his 99 offerings missed the strike zone.
And yet, when the dust settled, Gant had allowed 1 run on 3 hits, and would become the eventual winning pitcher as St Louis opened their season series against Pittsburgh with a 7-3 victory (box score), their sixth win in the last 8 games.
Gant’s effort continues the recent run of sterling starting pitching. Over the last ten games, Cardinal starters have thrown 63 innings, surrendering just 12 earned runs on only 41 hits – a 1.71 ERA with a .187 batting average against.
Gant was helped immensely by a couple of unorthodox double plays. After Ka’ai Tom drew a walk to open the third, Pirate pitcher JT Brubaker bunted him to second. But, once there, Kim began to stray towards third. Second baseman Tommy Edman (covering first on the bunt) noticed the aggressive turn and threw behind him, picking Tom off of second.
A single and a walk put Gant in a tight spot in the fifth, when Erik Gonzalez cuffed a little dribbler in front of the plate. The runner at second (Wilmer Difo) couldn’t initially tell if the ball was hit or missed, and got a late break off of second. Thinking quickly, Cardinal catcher Andrew Knizner grabbed the ball, tagged Gonzalez, and fired to third in time to get Difo.
Beyond the alert defensive plays behind him, John Gant survived by getting the Pirate hitters to chase a few pitches (9 of them – with 6 of those coming in two-strike counts). But mostly, he simply stayed out of the middle of the strike zone. Of his 99 pitches, only 4 strayed over the heart of the plate – and none of them resulted in any damage.
In the second inning, he hung an 0-1 curve to Bryan Reynolds, who decided not to swing. In the second inning, he fired a first-pitch sinker (at 90.9 mph) right down the middle to Kevin Newman (who watched it go past). In the third, Gonzalez got a first-pitch, 90.1 mph fastball right down the middle – he fouled it back. Johnny hung him a slider on the very next pitch, which Erik slashed back up the middle. The chopper looked like it might squirt through for a hit, but Gant made a nice play, leaping to pull it down.
Gant doesn’t have radar-gun dazzling stuff. He attacks with an assortment of breaking pitches and a sinker that he can usually hit the corners of the zone with. But even on a day when his control eluded him, Gant was able to muffle the Pirates by simply avoiding that one big mistake.
Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Bullpen Slips Again
Gant left the game with a 6-1 lead that quickly became 6-3 in the sixth, even though Pittsburgh contributed only one hit (a single) to the rally. Two walks, a balk and a wild pitch did the rest. While they haven’t been terrible, the Cardinal bullpen has been susceptible to the occasional hiccup. Over the same last ten games, the pen has carried 26 innings, giving just 14 hits (.157 batting average against), but they have allowed as many earned runs as the starters (12) thanks to 18 walks, 4 hit batsmen, 3 wild pitches, and now, a balk. Going into the season, the bullpen was advertised as every bit as much a strength as the rotation – and mostly they have been. But they’ve been dented by a few messy innings of late.
When the Cards added a ninth-inning run, and the game no longer presented a save situation, Mike Shildt turned the game over to Ryan Helsley. This is where Ryan fits, currently, in the bullpen pecking order. He gets the almost-high leverage opportunities. Regardless of the circumstance, though, Helsley’s stock is rising. After allowing 5 runs over his first 2.2 innings, Ryan has given just 1 additional run on 5 hits over his last 10 innings – an 0.90 ERA with a .152 batting average against. Ryan has yet to allow an extra-base hit this season.
Today’s Statistical Oddity
Pittsburgh finished the game with only 4 hits. Three of the four came on at bats that lasted 7 pitches or more. Newman drove in Pittsburgh’s first run when he singled on Gant’s first pitch to him in the fourth. Otherwise, Pittsburgh was 0-for-23 on the night on the first six pitches of any of their plate appearances (although they did also draw 7 of their 9 walks in those plate appearances).
Tyler O’Neill accounted for some of the early offense with a home run that was part of a three hit day – Tyler’s second three-hit game in the last three games, and his third multi-hit game in his last 6.
None of the three hits yesterday were pulled. The home run was a monster 426-foot blast to straight-away center. The other two were singles that were poked into right. They pitched him away, so he went to the opposite field.
O’Neill is now 9 for 22 (.409) over his last 6 games with 4 of the hits leaving the park – a .955 slugging percentage.
This isn’t the first time that O’Neill has teased us with his considerable potential, so I’m careful not to over-react. But Tyler is in a pretty good place right now.
Tyler is an aggressive, early in the count hitter. 55.4% of his plate appearances are over before he sees four pitches. When he can do that – when he gets a pitch to hit before he gets into a strike-out situation – Tyler has been terrifically productive. He is 11 for 30 (.367) in the first three pitches of an at bat, with a double and 4 home runs (an .800 slugging percentage). His homer yesterday was on the first pitch, and the 2 singles came on the third pitch.
When he has to stay in for more than three pitches, Tyler is 2 for 24 (.083) with 16 strikeouts (and 1 walk).
At 3.97, the team’s ERA has finally slipped below 4.00. They have climbed back up to number seven in the league.
At 5,953, yesterday’s attendance was the smallest crowd the Cards have played before since they left Miami.
The crowd, though, was the only thing about the game that was reminiscent of Miami. The game-time temperature of 51 degrees was the second lowest of the season, behind only the 37 degrees they played in on opening night in Cincinnati.
My Designated Hitter Rant
Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter. Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH. While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it. So, I have re-written it here. The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks. I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.