Perhaps the game’s most telling pitch came in the top of the fourth inning. The game at that point was still scoreless, and, in fact neither team had a hit to that point.
With two outs, Nolan Arenado came to the plate, and quickly found himself ahead in the count 3-0. Atlanta’s pitcher that evening was Charlie Morton, who would work through three complete turns of the Cardinal lineup in mostly dominant fashion (he would, in fact, carry a no-hitter into the seventh inning). But he would be no stranger on this night to long counts. He would go to three-ball counts to 7 of the 27 batters he would face. Here in the fourth inning, Morton had already fallen behind 3-0 on two batters. Three other batters would start their at bat ahead 2-0 before getting their first strike from Morton.
But while advantageous counts against Charlie weren’t all that uncommon, success against the two-time All Star who finished third in the Cy Young Award voting in 2019 continued elusive. Of the five who started their at bat getting ahead in the count by at least 2-0, only 1 managed a hit.
The principle reason that the St Louis hitters experienced continued frustration in what were prime opportunities against Morton was that Charlie never gave in to them. All across baseball, that is the one universal trait exhibited by all of the game’s elite pitchers. Whatever the count, they don’t cave to the hitter. In his outing against St Louis, Morton confidently flung curves, cutters and changeups at the Cardinal hitters – even when behind in the count. But he threw even more fastballs in those situations, but always throwing them to the corners of the strike zone. He just never gave in to the hitter in those situations.
Except this one time – on the 3-0 pitch to Arenado. Perhaps he assumed that Nolan wouldn’t be swinging on 3-0? Whether anticipated or not, Arenado got that “hit-me-if-you-can” fastball at 94.8 miles-per-hour right down the heart of the plate. Arenado took his Sunday swing – and came up empty.
That would be the lone moment of grace for Nolan and for the Cardinals. Arenado would foul off the next two pitches before striking out on another fastball – this one a 95.6 mph missile at the upper outside edge of the zone.
It was a helplessness felt all through the lineup.
Leading off the game, Tommy Edman watched Morton miss with three straight fastballs. His fourth was a called strike, and then he retired Tommy on a 96 mph fastball at the bottom of the zone that Edman looped easily to center-fielder Guillermo Heredia.
After falling behind Tyler O’Neill in the fifth inning, Charlie threw a cutter for a strike and a curve in the dirt that Tyler chased to quickly even the count. Two pitches later, Tyler lined the third straight curve thrown to him right at Heredia.
All of the long counts did take a toll on Morton. He threw first-pitch balls to three of the four hitters he faced in the seventh. After falling behind Dylan Carlson 2-0, he fired a nasty fastball (at 95.4) down and in on the border of the zone that Dylan fouled off. He then evened the count with 96 mph heat just in under Carlson’s hands – setting him up for a final, 3-2 fastball just outside that Dylan skied easily in the direction of left-fielder Abraham Almonte.
It wasn’t until the eighth inning, after falling behind Matt Carpenter 2-0, that Charlie – on his 105th pitch of the evening – strayed upstairs with a 2-1 fastball that Matt knuckled into right for a single.
Charlie would hang in there for 7 more pitches, facing two more batters before a bloop single to left off the bat of Jose Rondon chased him from the game. He left two runners on base with a 4-0 lead and two outs in the eighth.
That would be the final (box score), as St Louis had no better luck against the Atlanta bullpen than they did against Morton.
It was a welcomed breakthrough for an under-achieving Atlanta team that is still looking up at the .500 mark (they are 31-35) in mid-June.
For the Cardinals, it is a continuation of a troubling team slump. Shut out, now, for the second time in 5 games, St Louis has managed just 9 runs over its last 6 games. It’s a tumble that has seen them hit just .180 (32 for 178) and slug just .258. They have just 8 extra base hits over those 6 games. Their runs per game for the month of June has fallen to a humbling 2.93.
Among the head-shaking numbers that accompany this offensive brown-out is a sudden inability to hit when ahead in the count. Across all of the National League, batters that are ahead in the count are slashing .276/.476/.499/.975. Over their last six games, St Louis is an amazing 5 for 47 (all singles) when hitting ahead in the count – a .106 batting average.
As it was last night, it’s been a combination of pitchers executing excellent pitches when behind in the count, and Cardinal batters coming up just late when they don’t.
Carlson – who flew out on that 3-2 pitch in the seventh – is one of several Cardinals who have struggled lately when ahead in the count. In the month of June, Dylan is 4 for 21 (.190) when hitting ahead in the count.
Sustaining offense is much more difficult when your clean-up hitter struggles – and Nolan Arenado is scuffling as much as you are ever likely to see him. In his first at bat of the second Cub game, he hit a home run off of Kyle Hendricks. He is 0-for-17 since then. After a hot start to the month, Nolan is hitting just .231 (12 for 52) in June.
His big hit Wednesday night against Miami notwithstanding, June has been a struggling month for Yadier Molina. Hitless in three at bats last night, Yadi is just 2 for 20 (.100) over the last 6 games, and hitting .146 (6 for 41) over his last 13 games. Molina hasn’t had an extra-base hit in 14 games, and is hitting .162 (6 for 37) in 12 games in June.
Molina grounded to third on a 2-1 pitch in the eighth inning. Having a fine year overall, Molina has struggled throughout when ahead in the count. He is 0 for 12 this month when he has the pitcher at a disadvantage. For the season, in at bats when he is ahead in the count, Yadi is 6 for 38 (.158) with no extra-base hits.
Ponce de Leon
In a season where his team desperately needs him to step up, Daniel Ponce de Leon continues to scuffle. Remembering that Daniel began the year in the rotation, Ponce de Leon may be deep in the running for the most disappointing of all the 2021 Cardinals so far. Last night, Daniel allowed an inherited runner to score, and allowed another run of his own – all in just 7 batters faced. Daniel has now allowed runs in 6 of his last 9 appearances, yielding a total of 9 runs (8 earned) in just 11 innings (a 6.55 ERA). Of the 14 hits he’s given up in those innings, 8 have gone for extra-bases (6 doubles and 2 home runs). The last 53 batters to face him are hitting a lusty .318 with a .519 slugging percentage.
In just three inning on Thursday evening, Atlanta scored more runs (4) than Miami scored (3) in their entire three game series against the Cards.
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.