Like Cardinal fans the world over, I thought “this time, for sure.”
Sporting an 0-8 record, talented 23-year-old right-hander Johan Oviedo took the mound in Cincinnati yesterday afternoon, making the eighteenth start of what has been a premature major-league career.
After losing the first two games in Cincinnati – and falling behind 3-2 in the first inning on Sunday – the Cardinal offense came to life, scoring 7 times in the fourth inning. So as Johan jogged out to the mound to pitch the bottom of the fifth with a 9-3 lead, he was three outs away from that first win.
The Cards would go on to win the contest, 10-6 (box score), but Oviedo wouldn’t end up as the pitcher of record. In a messy fifth inning, Johan would throw 20 pitches to four batters, retiring only one. When he walked Tyler Naquin on a 3-2 fastball that wasn’t close to the strike zone to load the bases (his sixth walk in 4.1 innings), manager Mike Shildt had no choice. Oviedo’s first win would have to wait for yet another day.
For the forty-fifth time this season (and second time in the series) Shildt turned to Ryan Helsley to stifle the uprising. Ryan possesses an elite fastball. Of the 65 pitches thrown by Cardinal pitchers that have attained at least 100 miles-per-hour, Helsley has 9 of them, reaching a top speed of 101.3 – the top speed of any Cardinal pitcher not named Jordan Hicks (Jordan had 52 of the 65 before he was placed on the injured list).
With the great speed, though, comes questionable control. Of the 702 pitches Ryan has thrown this season, only 346 (49.3%) have ended up in the strike zone.
Control issues notwithstanding, Ryan has gone through several stretches of sustained excellence out of the bullpen. Sunday’s game displayed Good Ryan. Coming in with the bases loaded and only one out, Helsley needed just six pitches to strike Aristides Aquino out and force Kyle Farmer to pop out – both on high fastballs (at 98.5 and 98.3 mph, respectively).
With the Cardinals struggling to get innings from their starters – and Sunday’s game was the thirty-third time in St Louis’ first 100 games that the starting pitcher failed to last at least 5 innings, Helsley’s importance to the team as an arm that can help cover the innings between the short efforts of the starter, and the seventh inning, when Shildt can turn to the solid back end of his bullpen has been ever increasing.
Frustratingly, though, the combination of Ryan’s sustained stretches of excellence and his high-caliber fastball have tempted Shildt to use Helsley in high-leverage situations late in the ball game. His talent notwithstanding, Helsley has mostly stumbled in this role.
Ten times this season Ryan has come into the game in the seventh inning or later, with the game either tied or the Cards holding a lead of no more than three runs. Helsley has given up runs in 4 of the 10 games, and has allowed a total of 8 runs in 8 total innings in that situation.
The most recent of those opportunities came in the first game of this series against the Reds on Friday night. Ryan entered the game in the seventh inning with a 5-3 lead. The results this time were notably different. Ryan gave two singles and a double to the first three batters he faced, and then surrendered the tying run on a wild pitch. Cincinnati went on to take that game, 6-5 (box score).
In general, it has been just at the point when Mike is ready to believe in him that Helsley backtracks.
In the Friday game, Helsley found himself pitching on consecutive days for the fifth time this season. With at least one day of rest in between appearances, Ryan holds a 3.72 ERA over 36.1 innings. In his 4 innings pitched on zero rest, Helsley has been batted around for 7 runs on 8 hits and 3 walks.
The bullpen has paid the price all year for the short outings by the starters. And now – with several important arms out of the mix – the leaks in the pen are becoming fairly constant. In 11.2 innings against the Reds, the bullpen allowed 7 earned runs (5.40 ERA). The relievers other than Giovanny Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera, and Alex Reyes held a 9.00 ERA (7 earned runs in 7 innings). For the month, the relief corps holds a 5.92 ERA over 65.1 innings.
Just before the All-Star Break, Genesis went through a hiccup, allowing runs in three straight games and four out of five. Since then, he has been better – but results over his last 7 games have been strangely mixed. The good: over his last 6 innings, Cabrera has given no runs on just 2 hits with 7 strikeouts, and a .100 opponent’s batting average. The last 25 batters to face him are missing on 41% of their swings against him. The troubling: he’s walked 5 batters in those 7 innings, has thrown only 56% of his last 104 pitches for strikes, and allowed 2 inherited runs to score on Sunday. Genesis is one of the big three at the back of the pen. Much depends on him.
Although they lost two of three in Cincinnati (and fell to 8 games behind the Brewers), the offense did have its moments, scoring 18 runs, hitting .283 and slugging .538. And no one had a better series than centerfielder Harrison Bader, who battered the Reds with six hits (including a double and 2 home runs) in 11 at bats. This big series is part of a longer hot streak for Bader, who now has hits in 10 of his last 12 games, with 7 of them being multi-hit efforts, including 2 three-hit games.
Harrison is hitting .463 (19 for 41) over those games, with a .707 slugging percentage (4 doubles to go with the 2 home runs). He is now hitting .362 (25 for 69) in July with 5 doubles, 4 home runs, 15 runs batted in, and a .609 slugging percentage playing in all 19 games this month.
With hits in all three games, Nolan Arenado heads to Cleveland riding a six-game hitting streak. It’s been a mostly quiet hitting streak – 1 hit in each of the first 5 games – but may be starting to get a little noisy. Nolan had 3 hits on Sunday, including a triple and a home run. Nolan is now hitting .308 (8 for 26) with 5 extra base hits (1 double, 1 triple and 3 home runs) – a .769 slugging percentage during the streak.
After a brief flourishing against the Cubs, Dylan Carlson suffered another down series against the Reds. He did add one of the four home runs in the Sunday game, but it was his only hit in 12 at bats in Cincinnati. Dylan’s average is down to .203 (16 for 79) for the month.
Chad Fairchild’s crew (which includes the infamous CB Bucknor) did little to augment America’s opinion of them – or of umpiring in general – with Mike Shildt’s frustrations boiling over a little by Sunday. Using Statcast’s determinations of balls and strikes, the crew’s handling of home plate breaks down as follows:
Cardinal batters took 285 pitches during the series. Of those – according to Statcast – 62 were in the strike zone and 223 were not. Fairchild’s crew called 5 of the should-have-been strikes, balls (8.1%) and a whopping 23 of the pitches that were out of the zone as strikes (10.3%).
Reds batters took 243 pitches during the series – 69 in the zone, and 174 out. The umpiring crew called balls on an astounding 11 of the 69 pitches that were in the zone (all of 14.5%). They called 10 of the 174 out of the zone as strikes – a still pretty bad 5.7%.
As you can see, the crew made plenty of mistakes both ways, but the slanting against both Cardinal batters and pitchers is noteworthy. It’s understandable why Mike hopes he doesn’t have to see this crew again.
At 89 degrees, the Saturday game was the hottest the Cards have played in since July 4 when it was 90 degrees in Colorado. The entire series averaged 87.0 muggy degrees, making it the hottest series by average temperature since they played 4 games in Arizona from May 27-30. That series averaged 91 degrees.
After playing the first two games before crowds of 30,000, the final crowd in Cincy was a disappointing 21,947 – the smallest crowd to see the Cards play since July 7 in San Francisco when only 19,067 showed up.
While St Louis scored 18 runs during the series, they also surrendered 17 – the most they’ve allowed in a series since they allowed 21 runs while losing 3 of 4 to Pittsburgh at home from June 24-27. It was the most allowed in a three-game series since May 31-June 2, when they lost two of three in LA, allowing 25 runs along the way.
Fourteen times this season, the Cards have matched up against an opponent that had lost its previous series (Cincinnati was the fourteenth). In five of those series (including this one), St Louis has taken the field for the last game in danger of being swept. They have now avoided that sweep in four of the five series.
In the Sunday finale, Helsley stranded the bases loaded, and Gallegos stranded his inherited runner. For the season, Ryan has stranded 24 of 28, and Giovanny has left 16 of 18.
Their 10 runs on Sunday pushed the Cards back over the 4 runs a game mark to 4.03.
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.