For seven innings on Saturday afternoon, all of the vultures circling above the down-trodden Cardinals vanished. For seven innings they swung the bats lustily. While long-time ace Adam Wainwright was dominating the Atlanta lineup, the beleaguered St Louis offense bashed out 12 hits (including 3 doubles and 2 home runs) while parading 9 runners across the plate. The first game of a double-header necessitated by the rainout of the Saturday game felt like a watershed moment as the everywhere-slumping lineup was able to exhale, relax, and just hit the ball. That 9-1 win (box score) was – it seemed – just what the doctor ordered.
And then they played the night-cap.
With two out in the top of the sixth in that second game, Cardinal first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt cued a grounder off the end of his bat that dribbled past the second-base bag just slightly to the right-field side of the base. Second baseman Ozzie Albies (who had lined up to the shortstop side of second base) came scurrying around the base to scoop up the dribbler.
Not anticipating the play, though, was second base umpire John Libka, who didn’t back away from the grounder and found himself directly between Albies and first base when the Atlanta fielder picked up the ball. Libka quickly ducked, trying not to affect the play – but to no avail. The combination of the slowly hit ball, Goldschmidt running at top speed, and Albies having to adjust his throw over the umpire allowed Paul to beat the play at first.
It was the first Cardinal hit of the game. There would be only one more.
Starter Drew Smyly thus became the fourth pitcher this season (and the second in the series) to take a no-hitter against the Cards into at least the sixth inning (Milwaukee’s Brandon Woodruff and the White Sox’ Lance Lynn preceded Charlie Morton earlier in this season).
Smyly also helped author the third shutout of the Cardinal offense in the last 8 games. For the second time in the double-header, Cardinal pitching held Atlanta to just one run. This time, though, that run spelled defeat (box score).
The St Louis Cardinals spent a long weekend (four games) in Atlanta, and their manager (Mike Shildt) and President of Baseball Operations (John Mozeliak) spent the entire time answering questions about the missing offense. The cascade of numbers that are starting to attach themselves to this struggling unit invite the worst in the alarmists that follow (or cover) the team. Here are just a few.
Even with the outburst in game three, the Cards still finished the series hitting .179, slugging just .268 and scoring 2.5 runs per game. Toss out that anomalous third game, and St Louis managed to score just one run over the other 25 innings of the series. They were held to 3 hits, 3 hits and 2 hits, going 8 for 80 (.100) over the course of the rest of the series, with only one extra-base hit.
A tepid June has left them last in the league in runs scored this month with 54 (3.00 per game) which places them 13 runs behind the next worst team – the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates. Their .283 team on base percentage this month pulls their season on base percentage (after 72 games) to .299 while their season-long scoring average has dropped below 4 per game (3.99).
Over the last nine games (from the second game of the most recent Cub series) St Louis has scored a total of 19 runs (9 of those coming in Sunday’s first game), with a .188/.255/.280 batting line. Again, subtracting the outlier, and over the other 8 games they have managed a total of 10 runs (no more than four in any one game) while they have been “hitting” .162/.232/.227.
I could probably go on, but you get the gist.
Anyway, the upshot is that the sky is officially falling in Cardinal Nation, which turns its lonely eyes to Shildt and Mozeliak to ask in unison, “What are you doing about this?”
In times like this, “patience” is a tough mantra to sell. But the fact of the matter is that few real options present themselves. Help could certainly come from the outside, but the market is still probably a month away from defining itself. And even if Mo can find some useful parts in the market, he won’t be able to re-make the team. For better or for worse, the improvement will come – if it comes – from the team that we already have. The team that the organization liked (when it was healthy) coming out of camp.
One of the immutable baseball laws is that your team is never as good as it looks when it’s winning, or as bad as it looks when it’s losing. Put simply, this team isn’t this bad. I grant that this can be hard to believe. In losing 18 of their last 29 games, the Cards have been behind by at least 5 runs in 10 of the 18 losses. For the better part of a month, this team has basically been bending over, grabbing its collective ankles and repeating “Thank you sir, may I have another,” as the rest of the league has been pretty much abusing them.
Nonetheless, the question about this team really isn’t “Are they this bad.” The answer to that question is clearly “no.” Less clear is the answer to the question “How bad are they?”
While the offense has a few corner pieces that are established major league hitters, much of the fortunes of this club are dependent on the bats less established – or not established at all. Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong, Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill – the season comes down to these guys. They will either hit and we’ll win, or they won’t, and we won’t. It just isn’t more complex than that. And there is a measure of relief in that.
One way or another, management is going to have to know what we have in these guys. Are they pieces to build around? Or will we need to look in other directions? The next 90 games will tell.
One of the positives to come out of the series is more progress from Paul Goldschmidt. Paul was 5 for 13 (.385) in the series with a home run and 5 runs batted in (and two no hitters broken up). Goldy is hitting .306 (19-for-62) in June with a double, a triple and a team leading 4 home runs. Paul is slugging .548 for the month.
Three times in the series, Goldschmidt came to the plate with a runner at third and less than two outs. He delivered the run every time. Throughout the season, Paul has been the team’s best at getting this done, plating 12 of the 20 such opportunities presented him (60%).
Tyler hit a bit of a speed bump in Atlanta. Coming into the series, O’Neill had hit safely in 22 of his previous 27 games. But he left Atlanta just 1 for 10 with 6 strikeouts.
Twenty-nine Cardinals struck out during the four games in Atlanta, but only 3 of those were called third strikes – all of those belonging to O’Neill, who has the annoying habit of trusting umpires to call close pitches as balls regardless of how erratic their strike zones have been. Tyler leads the team in being called out on strikes with 18. At some point, he’s going to have to realize how inconsistent these umpires are, right?
The irony underneath this, is that any time other than with two strikes on him, Tyler is one of the team’s most consistently aggressive hitters. He swung at 53.2% of the pitches thrown to him in Atlanta (33 of 62), and has chased after 53% of the pitches sent his way this season (the team average is 47.9% swung at).
While his swing looks more compact to me this year, Tyler is still missing with the highest percent of swings of anyone on the team. He missed on 12 of his 33 swings in Atlanta (36.4%), and for the season he leads the team, missing on 37% of his swings.
His extended stay in the starting lineup may be starting to catch up with Edmundo Sosa. He is 2 for 15 (.133) over his last 5 games. It has been 5 games since his last run batted in, 11 games since his last walk and run scored, and 13 games since his last extra-base hit. Edmundo’s batting line for the month of June now sits at .204/.246/.259.
Sosa is one of the hitters who seems to be pressing most at the plate. In Atlanta, he swung at 25 of the 36 pitches thrown to him – an overly aggressive 69.4%. This month, Edmundo is hacking at 56.9% of the pitches thrown to him – the highest percentage on the team.
Sosa’s 3.48 pitches seen per plate appearance is the lowest on the team.
Paul DeJong laced a home run in his second game back from the injured list. He has now been back for ten games, and that was pretty much the highlight. Paul is 3 for 32 (.094) since his return – including 1 for 13 against the Braves.
In his start before his Friday start in Atlanta, Carlos Martinez delivered seven impressive innings in a tough-luck loss. To say he couldn’t build on that in Atlanta would be an understatement. Carlos lasted three innings, allowing 8 runs on 8 hits including 2 home runs. It was the third time in four June starts that Carlos was pushed around.
For the month, now, Martinez has lasted just 14.2 innings over 4 starts, being mauled for 25 runs on 26 hits and 10 walks. His June ERA sits at 15.34, with an accompanying .377 batting average against.
I mentioned above some hitters who will determine the Cardinal fate this year. There are a few pitchers in that category as well, with Carlos prominent among them. For a lot of teams, Martinez would have just pitched his way out of the rotation. But in St Louis this year, the Cards don’t really have any healthy options ready to take his place. So Martinez will get opportunities.
This is good news for Carlos, because starting is very important to him. Hopefully, he can also make that good news for the Cardinals.
Trending in the other direction is Wainwright. With Sunday’s complete game (albeit of only seven innings), Adam has thrown quality starts in all four of his June games. He is 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA and a .189 batting average against this month.
Recent Scoring Changes (for those of you scoring at home)
More bad news for Martinez. I referenced his strong start against the Cubs on June 13. In the third inning of that game, he had Eric Sogard at third with two outs, and looked like he had retired Joc Pederson on a dribbler to shortstop Paul DeJong – who had shifted over to the first base side of second. It appeared to me to be a routine play that DeJong booted for an error. That, at least, is how it was ruled at the time. Surprisingly, that has been reversed, and Pederson has been awarded a hit on that play. It also makes both runs scored that inning earned on Martinez’ ledger.
Friday’s crowd of 40,377 was the first time the Cards have played in front of 40,000 since the playoffs of 2019.
When they trailed by eight runs going into the seventh inning of the Friday game, it was their largest deficit after six innings since June 2. Then, on Sunday, they won the first game by 8 runs – their largest margin of victory since April 13.
Nolan Arenado’s two-run home run in the first Sunday game proved to be the game-winning hit. Arenado, Goldschmidt and Yadier Molina are all tied for the team lead with 8.
The Sunday games (both being seven inning) were the two fastest played by the Cards so far this year, at 2:16 and 1:58 respectively. The average time of the four games (2:29.8) was also the quickest for a series so far this season.
The Cards are now 3-5-2 in ten series against teams that had lost their previous series.
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.