Oh, Mike, I Thought We Had This Understood

The last time (before yesterday afternoon) that Alex Reyes occupied the closer’s role for the St Louis Cardinals was last Sunday (August 29) in Pittsburgh.  And the Pirates made short work of him.

The Cards scored twice in the fifth to forge a 3-1 lead, and the relief effort in front of Reyes (by Luis Garcia, T.J. McFarland, and Giovanny Gallegos) was about as flawless as could be hoped.  They combined for 3 innings, allowing just one base-runner on a walk.  Now it was Reyes.

It took the Pirates 18 pitches.  A walk, a strikeout, a walk, a three-run homer and the Pirates – with nothing to play for – forged a split of a four-game series that was critical for the Cards.

That home run was finally the catalyst that re-scripted the late inning bullpen assignments, but the truth is that it has been a long, long time since Alex Reyes has been an effective reliever.

Alex began the season as untouchable as any closer in the game.  Thirty-six games into his season, he had put up 39.2 innings with an 0.91 ERA and a .134 batting average against.  He was 20-for-20 in save opportunities.

His season turned sharply in Colorado on the Fourth of July.  He entered the bottom of the ninth inning of a 2-2 game and quickly and easily retired the first two batters.  He then lost the game on two singles sandwiched around a wild pitch.

By itself, not that big a deal.  These things happen.  But the next night it happened again.

This time it didn’t cost the Cards a game – they took a 5-1 lead against San Francisco into the ninth inning before turning the contest over to Reyes – who closed out the win, but only after giving up two runs on two hits, two walks, and another wild pitch.

Two outings later – on July 20 – Alex suffered the first blown save of his career with a ninth-inning meltdown against the Cubs.  It was a 6-1 Cardinal lead when he came in, but the bases were loaded with no one out.  Over the course of 30 agonizing pitches, Reyes was bled for two walks, a single and a game-winning double.  He took the loss after allowing all three of his inherited runners to score, and three more of his own in a third of an inning before he was replaced.

From that point on, he was damaged goods as a closer.  The ninth inning had gotten to him.  Characteristically, it took manager Mike Shildt a longer time than necessary to figure this out.  By the time he blew the save against the Pirates, Alex had blown 3 of 5 save opportunities – and at the most critical time of the season.

For the last week, the closer’s mantle has fallen to Gallegos.  In the interim, Reyes has appeared twice for one inning each time in low-leverage moments.  Until yesterday.

A stumble by eighth-inning man, Genesis Cabrera, set yesterday’s disaster in motion.  Entrusted with a hard-earned 5-1 lead against division leading Milwaukee, and with a chance to take two of three from the Brewers, Cabrera struck out Jace Peterson, the first batter he faced.  There followed a double off the bat of Eduardo Escobar and walks to Avisail Garcia and Lorenzo Cain.  The bases were now loaded and Rowdy Tellez represented the tying run.

Closer Gallegos was rushed into action, being asked to deliver a five-out save.  He would get only three.

After wiggling out of the eighth with no damage allowed, the Brewers immediately fell upon Gio in the ninth.  A double from Jackie Bradley Jr. and a single by Luke Maile turned it into a 5-2 game.  Gallegos set down Luis Urias on strikes, but a double by Peterson and a walk to Escobar re-loaded the bases, and ended the night for Gallegos.

Who to turn to now?

As Shildt tells it, it was a no-brainer.  Reyes – possessor of elite “stuff” – was, in his mind, the obvious choice.  Over his previous 23 games – mostly in high-leverage situations – Alex had served up 20 runs (15 earned) in 20.1 innings.  That, apparently, was not a part of the equation.

Two pitches later, and pinch-hitter Daniel Vogelbach was circling the bases to the rapture of both the crowd and the Brewer bench.  From his post-game comments, Mike made it pretty clear that he would make that same choice again.

Repeatedly during this disappointing season, Shildt has reminded us that the players are not automatons.  This observation is accurate – they are human like the rest of us.  But for some reason, Shildt continues to manage them like they were automatons.  In an earlier discussion, I likened his handling of the team to managing a Strat-O-Matic team (for those of you who are familiar with this baseball simulation).  In the game, the card represents the player, and it is what it is.  Whatever his card says he can do, that’s what he can do – and “he” performs with no memory of anything that went on in previous games.  For a card, there can be no emotion or jitters to overcome.  The card only lives in the present dice roll.

Human beings, like Alex Reyes, are very different from Start-O-Matic cards.  Their confidence can be damaged.  The weight of the moment can grow too large for them.  They can begin to think too much – or too little.  They start to try too hard.  The ninth inning can get into anyone’s head – and it has clearly gotten into Alex’ head.

Mike has to see this and understand what’s happening.  You can stick with a struggling player at any other position.  But you can’t struggle in the ninth.

I had thought that Mike had figured that out.

Lester

Picked up at the deadline, Jon Lester’s first few appearances in a Cardinal uniform were nothing to get excited about.  His last three starts have been surprisingly effective.  Jon – who would have been the winning pitcher on Sunday (box score) – has now given us 16.2 innings of 1.62 ERA baseball over those recent starts.  He is 1-0 in those games, but could have been 3-0, as Jon has been victimized twice by an increasingly leaky bullpen.

Kim

At one point this season, Kwang-Hyun Kim made four consecutive quality starts for this team.  But on July 28, his start was abbreviated as he started to suffer more elbow issues.  There has followed another short start – a brief stay on the injured list – a briefer stay in the bullpen upon his return – and then two more brief starts.  The last of these came in the 4-0 Saturday loss in Milwaukee (box score).  Kwang-Hyun didn’t make it out of the second inning.

Kim’s season is starting to quickly unravel.  Over his last 5 games – four of them starts – he has lasted just 15 innings, giving 12 runs on 19 hits and 7 walks.  He is 0-2 in those games with a 7.20 ERA, a .322 batting average against, and a .593 slugging percentage allowed.

Bader

In spite of the fact that they were completely stymied by Adrian Houser in the Saturday game, the Cards still finished the series with 20 runs scored and a .255/.339/.481 batting line.

In the middle of much of the offense was Harrison Bader, who seems to be emerging from a fairly protracted slump.  Five for 13 on the series, Harrison has now hit safely in 3 of his last 5 games, with all three of them being multi-hit games.  Bader is hitting .421 (8 for 19) and slugging .789 (1 double and 2 home runs) while driving in 6 runs over the 5 games.

One of Bader’s hits was an infield hit.  It was his tenth infield hit of the season’s second half – 22.7% of his hits.

Harrison is the hardest of the Cardinal regulars to double-up.  Five times over those last 5 games, Bader came up with an opportunity to ground into a double play, but he’s avoided that DP every time.  For the season, Harrison has bounced into 3 double-plays in 66 opportunities – just 4.5%.  Since the break, he’s hit into 1 in 42 opportunities – 2.4%.

It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but Bader – with runners at second and third and one out in the fourth inning – gave his team the lead on Sunday with a grounder that just crept up the third base line for a two-run double.  Bader has been better in that situation than you might guess.  He has driven home that runner from third 11 times in 16 chances this season (69%).

O’Neill

Tyler O’Neill looked for all the world like he had iced the Cardinal victory with the two-run homer that pushed the lead to 5-1.  Tyler went 4 for 11 (with 2 home runs) during the Brewer series.  He has hits in 5 of his last 7 (3 of them multi-hit affairs).  He is hitting .360 (9 for 25) and slugging .720 (1 double, 1 triple and the 2 home runs) in those games.  He is hitting .333 and slugging .722 in the early days of the month.

Grounding into 1 double play in 27 chances since the break, Tyler has been nearly as difficult to double-up as Bader.  He is bouncing into the DP just 3.7% of the time in the second half.

Of all the Cardinal regulars, Tyler still has the highest swing and miss rate – he’s at 34.3% for the year.  Against Milwaukee he missed on 14 of his 28 swings.

Arenado

Nolan Arenado left Milwaukee riding a little six-game hitting streak.  He is 8 of 23 during the streak (.348), with 3 of the 8 hits being home runs (a .739 slugging percentage).  During the early days of September, Nolan is hitting .316 with a .789 slugging percentage.

Sosa

Edmundo Sosa hit one of the 7 home runs the Cards hit over the three games, and finished the series 3 for 10.  Edmundo is off to a .308 start for the month, with a .538 slugging percentage.  In the season’s second half, Sosa is hitting .321 (26 for 81) and slugging .531 (2 doubles, 3 triples and 3 home runs).

NoteBook

In the Saturday shutout, the Cards’ streak of scoring first in 9 straight games came to an end.

At 4:08, the Sunday game was the longest played by the Cards since it took 4:09 to edge the Cubs 3-2 on July 21.  That was a 10-inning game.  It was the longest 9-inning game for the team since a 5-4 loss in San Diego on May 14 also took 4:08.

At 33,845, the crowd was the largest for a Cardinal game since 34,431 came out to watch the August 22 game against Pittsburgh.  It was their largest road crowd since 35,784 showed up in Kansas City on August 14.

With the roof closed for the first two games, the average temperature for the series – at 74.7 degrees – was the most temperate St Louis has played in since they played two games in Wrigley on an unusually cool July 9 & 10.  The temperature for both of those games was just 71 degrees.

St Louis has now won just one of its last 6 series.  They are now 1-5 when they play rubber games on the road.

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.

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