While Daniel Ponce de Leon mixed in a few change-ups and curves, most of his first 12 pitches to Chicago first-baseman Anthony Rizzo were high fastballs, just above the strike zone. For his part, Rizzo took a couple of them for balls, and fouled the others off.
Beginning with the thirteenth pitch of the at bat, Ponce de Leon began to bring the fastball down into the strike zone. That thirteenth pitch was at the top border of the zone, and produced another foul from Rizzo.
Fourteen pitches into the at bat (the second time already a Cardinal pitcher has been taken to 14 pitches in an at bat this season) Rizzo got the pitch he had been waiting for – that fastball at 96.1 mph right down the middle of the plate. And with a flick of Anthony’s bat, what had been an early 5-1 Cardinal lead was a 5-5 tie.
At one in the same time, it was the most telling at bat of the weekend series between these ancient rivals, and the pivotal moment of the series as it propelled Chicago to an 8-5 win in the opening game (box score) and to a subsequent sweep of the series.
The losses are starting to mount, now, for this Cardinal team. The sweep annulled any momentum gained from their victory in the final game of the last home stand, and send the Birds back home to face Miami having lost 9 of 10 and 11 of 13. The team that led this division by 3.5 games on May 19 has gone 7-14 since, and the team that boasted a .611 winning percentage (22-14) on May 11 has gone 10-19 since. They are now a game below .500 (32-33) and not only 6 games behind the Cubs and Brewers – who are tied at the top of the division, but also a game behind the third place Cincinnati Reds.
It’s been a distressing tumble, but the losing streak inside the losing streak is arguably even more alarming.
In losing 19 of the last 29 games, St Louis has had 6 games against losing teams. They have won 5 of those games (beating Pittsburgh twice and winning three of four against Arizona). The other 23 games have been against winning teams – Milwaukee, San Diego, both Chicago teams, the Dodgers, Cincinnati and Cleveland. They are 5-18 in those games (including 2-9 so far in June). For the season, now, St Louis is just 16-28 when matched against teams that have won at least as often as they’ve lost.
As one might suspect from the numbers just cited, no aspect of the team is even competitive in this arena. In the just concluded Cub series, the starting pitchers were pushed around to an ERA of 6.23, with the bullpen being similarly abused to a 4.91 ERA. For the month so far, the bullpen’s disappointing 4.66 ERA is more than topped by the rotation’s stunning 7.58 ERA. Over the last 23 games against winning teams, the two ERAs have pretty much met in the middle – 5.25 for the rotation, and 5.26 for the relief corps.
Production from the offensive side has been no better. Over the last 23 games against winning teams, St Louis is managing just 2.96 runs per game with a .212/.285/.350 batting line. This month they are hitting .218/.291/.345 and scoring 3.36 runs per game. They scored 7 runs in the three games against the Cubs, with a .170/.257/.266 batting line.
From the point where Nolan Arenado’s two-run single in the third inning of the Friday game gave the Cards a 5-1 lead, St Louis finished the series just 9 for its last 75, slashing .120/.202/.226.
It is sobering to note that – if things continue at this pace – this team will would finish as easily the worst Cardinal entry this century against winning teams. Twenty-one seasons into the new century, and only one Cardinal team has finished below .400 against winning teams (all of these numbers include playoffs where applicable). That team was the 2017 edition. They played .380 ball against winning teams (27-44) on their way to an 83-79 record and a third-place finish in the division. The 2021 club is currently playing .364 ball against winning teams.
Only four times this century has a Cardinal team failed to average at least four runs a game against winning teams. The worst of that lot was the 2014 club that averaged just 3.64 runs per game against winning teams. They still managed to go 43-38 in those games on their way to a 90 win season, a division championship and a berth in the NLCS that year. The current edition is managing just 3.45 runs per game in these contests.
Only twice previously this century has a Cardinal team allowed more than five runs a game against these opponents. The 2000 team was 35-40 against .500 or better teams, allowing the 5.05 runs per game. That team still won 95 games although they also lost in the Championship series. The 2007 edition has been – to date – the only Cardinal team this century to finish with a losing record (they were 78-84). That team was 37-50 against winning teams, serving up 5.16 runs per game to them. This 2021 team is allowing 5.20 runs per game to winning teams.
In scoring differential, the Cards worst two seasons so far have been the 2007 and 2016 teams, who were both outscored by 0.78 runs per game when they played these better teams. So far the 2021 team is being outscored by 1.75 runs per game.
This all puts management in a bit of a bind. It’s not like there is one player they could bring in that would answer all of these issues. This isn’t to say that this team wouldn’t be better if, say, a Max Scherzer should suddenly find himself in Cardinal red. The realty of the situation, though, is that a blockbuster trade almost certainly isn’t enough to reverse all of these trends. Like it or not, management is going to have to hope that the team they already have somehow begins to play more like the team they thought it would be.
Which brings me to the most surprising aspect of these struggles. Even given the injuries (and the Cards are always dealing with a fistful of injuries) you wouldn’t think that this team would be routinely pushed around by every decent team that crosses its path. The pitching staff is loaded with several high-octane arms, balanced by a smattering of veteran pitchers well versed on the craft of getting batters out. Meanwhile the lineup has no shortage of multiple All-Stars and Gold Glove winners, balanced by a smattering of highly regarded young hitters. How is it that this team is sinking below the levels of all previous teams in this century?
To answer, I turn back to the Anthony Rizzo at bat. As it has happened almost without exception in big game so far this season, it’s the Cardinals coming up short in the game’s character moments. It’s Rizzo’s home run to tie the game. It’s Giovanny Gallegos serving up a two-run, game-tying home run to the Dodger’s Matt Beaty in the seventh inning in Los Angeles one night after Chris Taylor won his 14-pitch duel against Genesis Cabrera with a three-run double that broke a 3-3 tie.
It’s Alex Reyes serving up Jesse Winker’s third home run of the game in the ninth inning after the offense had erased a 7-run deficit to forge a tie. And then it’s the Cards offense placing the tying run at third and the winning run at second with no one out in the bottom of that inning and not plating either of them.
Watching the Cardinals and Cubs square off in a couple series so far this season, I’m not left with the impression that there is a huge talent gap between the two teams. In fact, in terms of raw talent, I’m not at all convinced that St Louis doesn’t boast the more talented roster.
But so far this season there is no question which team is tougher. Without notable exception, that is always the better advantage to have.
In fairness, I should point out that this same critique could be made of both the 2006 and 2011 teams that eventually won World Championships. Both of those clubs went through extended stretches of their seasons coming up short in the crucial moments of their games. So the fact that they are consistently falling short now doesn’t mean it will be that way for the entire season.
But if you are trying to put your finger on exactly what’s missing through the first 65 games of the season, this is it. It’s the toughness.
Paul Goldschmidt slashed a single into left field in the third inning of the first game to extend his hitting streak to six games. It was his last hit of the series, as he comes home hitless in his last 9 at bats, and just 2 for his last 15. One of the best pure hitters of his generation, Goldschmidt will carry a .244 average for the season to the plate when he comes up for the first time tonight.
It’s been that kind of year so far for Goldy and the Cards. Every time it looks like he (or they) are building a bit of momentum, things immediately go into reverse.
Johan Oviedo was the starter in game one. Staked to a 5-1 lead, he failed to last the five innings to even qualify for his first major league win. It was his sixth start of the season, and his one relief appearance was (at 4.2 innings) longer than all but one of his starts.
The kid with great stuff and a terrific attitude seems like he’s been dumped in a bit over his head. Over his last 4 starts he has managed just 14.2 innings with a 6.75 ERA.
Three of those four starts have come against winning teams, with Johan lasting just 10.1 innings total in those starts with a 7.84 ERA.
On a weekend when there were very few positives, the best news was the performance of Sunday’s starter (and, unfortunately, loser) Carlos Martinez. Coming off two very bad starts, facing a team that has had more than its share of success against him, in a venue where he has struggled before, and under the glare of the network telecast, Carlos stood toe-to-toe with the Cubs for his full 7 innings.
Martinez has a history of letting his emotions run away with him. On Sunday evening, he pitched with great passion but with just as much control of those passions. Even when an error on a ground ball that would have ended the third inning allowed the only two runs of the game to score (box score), Carlos never blew up.
It was funny. You could almost hear the surprise in the announcers’ voices that Carlos was actually pitching a great game. Carlos’ final line showed 7 innings, 2 runs (both unearned) 4 hits, just 1 walk, and 6 strikeouts – and no hit batsmen, wild pitches or balks. Well, done, Mr. Martinez.
Jake Woodford might be one of the pitchers paying the price for the many short starts from the rotation. Jake usually throws 30-40 pitches when he comes in and frequently doesn’t get that many rest days in between. Woodford pitched in both of the first two games, allowing a run each time. He has now allowed one run in three straight games, and four out of five.
Over those last 5 games, Jake has toiled for 7.1 innings, giving only 4 hits. But 3 of those hits have been home runs, which combine with 4 walks and 4 hit batsmen to achieve a .160/.353/.520 batting line. He has also allowed 5 of his last 6 inherited runners to score.
With all the COVID restrictions lifted, the Cards played in front of 30,000 plus crowds for the first time this season. The highest attended game was the Saturday contest – which drew 39,095. The three games averaged 36,477.3. Both figures were easily the highest of the season so far. The previous highs had both been established when Chicago visited St Louis from May 21-23. That Saturday game drew 26,027, and the series attracted an average of 24,797.
With Paul DeJong returned to the starting lineup, Edmundo Sosa’s streak of 22 consecutive starts at shortstop came to an end with the Friday game. That had been the most consecutive games started by a Cardinal at the same position. The new longest streak now belongs to Dylan Carlson, who tonight made his nineteenth consecutive start in centerfield.
On Friday, St Louis lost the first game of a series for the fourth straight series and for the sixth time in the last seven.
This was the third straight series that the Cards faced a sweep in the last game. This was also the fifth time this season that the Birds went into the final game of a series needing a win to avoid a sweep. They were unable to salvage that win in two of the last three, and three of the five so far this season.
At 2:34, the Sunday game was the Cards quickest game since the first game of the May 5 double-header game against the Mets. That game took just 2:28. Of course, that was a seven-inning contest. The last time they played a faster nine-inning game was the 2:22, 2-1 loss to Philadelphia on April 26. That game was at home. On Sunday April 18 they played a 2:34 road game in Philadelphia (which they also lost, 2-0).
The average time for the three games came in at 2:59 – making this the quickest series since that Met series. The four game set (which featured two seven-inning games) averaged 2:56.8. This was the season’s fastest road series of the year. The mid-April series in Philadelphia (which averaged 3:00.7) had been the quickest road series.
The 7 runs scored in the series were the fewest scored by the Cards since their first series against the Cubs. They scored only 6 runs in those three games, losing two.
These seven runs were the fewest St Louis has scored in a road series this year. They had previously scored just 8 runs in three games against the White Sox from May 24-26.
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.