When Edmundo Sosa’s grounder snuck through the infield, Cardinal Nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. Having lost the first two of the three-game set to the White Sox, St Louis was clinging to a narrow two-run lead in the finale until Sosa’s ninth-inning chopper brought home two more and gave the Cards the 4-0 lead that would hold up as the final score on Wednesday afternoon (box score).
While relieved not to carry a four-game losing streak with them into Arizona, the three games on the South side echoed issues that have lingered at least through the month of May – and in some cases, all year. To this point the Cardinals – still clinging to first place in their division – have yet to pay the full penalty of these shortcomings, but if a resolution isn’t found, there will likely be enough series like this one against the White Sox to slide St Louis out of the playoff picture.
Issue One – Walks and Other Free Baserunners
Not long removed from the series in San Diego where they walked 26 batters in 24 innings, the Cardinal pitching staff left Chicago having walked 12 more in 25 innings – to go along with 4 more hit batsmen. The Cardinals hit the end of May walking an average of 5 batters per every nine innings, and having hit 18 other batters in just 23 games.
Even though opposing batters are hitting a negligible .219 against Cardinal pitching this month, all the free base-runners have improved the on base percentage against this staff to .333.
Against the White Sox, only 5 of the 16 free runners scored. Of the 129 free runners St Louis has allowed this month, a relative few (34 – just 26.3%) have found their way across the plate. For the season, only 27.4% (69 out of 252) of the batters walked and hit have completed their journey around the bases.
To this point, Cardinal pitchers have done an admirable job of pitching out of all of this trouble. But it’s not a formula for long term success.
Issue Two – Offense in Decline Again
The four runs the Cards scored in the finale accounted for exactly one half of all the runs scored in the series. St Louis’ 2.67 run-per-game average for the series came as a result of a .206 team batting average. The offense in April averaged 4.5 runs per game across 26 games, but did so in very uneven fashion. St Louis journeyed into Arizona averaging 3.91 runs per game in their 23 May contests.
These days, every offseason focuses on upgrading the offense. To this point – with the 2021 season rapidly approaching the one-third mark – this organization has been unable to turn the corner.
The difficulty here is that the organization believes in all of these players – and has shown great patience while they have struggled to score on any kind of consistent basis. At some point, management may find itself at a cross-roads – especially as the trading deadline draw near. These decisions will be immeasurably easier if some of the players that they believe in start to produce.
This applies in some measure to the starters, although they have – by and large – done well enough. For the most part, the St Louis offense has been done in by the third lingering issue of the early season.
Issue Three – Dude, Where’s Your Bench?
As the Cardinal starting lineup continues to struggle to stay on the field (and at the moment there are still two on the shelf) the bench players are continuously offered opportunities to contribute. In the Wednesday finale against Chicago, St Louis started five bench players. Other than Sosa (who left Chicago with a .375 batting average), the other four continued their season long struggles. Andrew Knizner, Lane Thomas, Max Moroff and Justin Williams combined to go 0-for-14 with 9 strikeouts. For the three games against the Sox, Moroff finished 1 for 8, Thomas finished 0 for 11, and Williams went 0 for 7. It’s a combined 1 for 26 (with 16 strikeouts).
Forty-nine games into the season, and starting pitcher Jack Flaherty’s .673 OPS is higher than six of the team’s principle bench players: Matt Carpenter (.137/.289/.274/.563); Knizner (.197/.290/.246/.536); Williams (.162/.273/.248/.520); Thomas (.107/.242/.107/.350); John Nogowski (.071/.188/.071/.259); and Moroff (.063/.063/.063/.125).
It’s harsh, because the organization believes in all of these guys as well. They are either veterans with track records, or high ranking prospects who are projected to be starters in the near future, or guys who have had explosive batting seasons in AAA, or impressive spring trainings. None of these guys should be hitting under .200 and OPSing under .700. Yet here they are, forcing management into yet more difficult decisions.
In my humble opinion, few things would energize this team more than to have a few hits fall in for some of these talented bench players.
Consistent Paul Goldschmidt put together another solid series against the Sox. He went 4 for 10 in Chicago with a walk and a hit-by-pitch. After his 1-for-4 in Arizona last night, Goldy is hitting .303 (27-for-89) this month.
Yadier Molina made two starts in Chicago, and went 3-for-8 at the plate. He added three more hits last night in Arizona. Yadi’s has been one of the team’s most potent bats lately. He has hit safely in 9 of his last 11, hitting .310 (13 for 42) over that span with a .524 slugging percentage (3 doubles, 2 home runs).
It took John Gant 94 pitches to navigate 5 innings on Wednesday. He gave 5 hits and walked 3, but gave no runs. It was his second start of the season in which he’s pitched at least five innings allowing no runs. In fact, in his 9 starts this season, John has never allowed more than three runs. In 4 May starts, Gant is 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA.
Before Wednesday’s win, the Cards had trailed at some point in five straight games.
After starting all of the first 48 games at third base, Nolan Arenado yielded the position to Moroff on Wednesday. The new Cardinal streak for most consecutive games started at the same position goes to Sosa, who is in the lineup tonight at shortstop for the eleventh straight game.
To be clear on this, both Arenado and Tommy Edman have started every game for St Louis – the only two players to do that. But they haven’t started all of those games at the same position.
St Louis is now 3-5 in road series, and 0-5-1 in series when they lose the first game.
Ironically, all three sacrifice bunts laid down in Wednesday’s game came from the American League team. Hey White Sox, haven’t you heard that the designated hitter was supposed to banish the bunt to the ash heap of history?
Which leads me to —
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.