Mix In Just a Dash of WhiteyBall

Personally, I think he was bunting for a hit.  But the scorer credited Dylan Carlson with a sacrifice hit – which is fine with me, as it fits in nicely with the topic of the day.

Last night in Milwaukee the booming bats spoke early.  Nolan Arenado got the Cardinals on the board first with a two-run homer.  In the bottom of the second, the Brewers employed two solo shots of their own to even things up.

After that, the pitchers took over.  There would be no more long balls – and, for that matter, no stringing together of hits.  One team would turn to the manufacture of offense, and that team – your Cardinals – would go on to claim their ninth consecutive victory (and eleventh of twelve), 5-2 (box score).

We pick up the action in the top of the sixth, when Tyler O’Neill worked a lead-off walk.  Freddy Peralta’s first pitch to Arenado was a slider a little bit up and over the outside corner of the plate.  Making no real effort to reproduce his home run of the first inning, Arenado simply dumped Peralta’s pitch into right field for the single that moved O’Neill to second.  Two batters later, Yadier Molina squeezed a grounder into left.  With left fielder Christian Yelich charging the play – and with only one out – most baserunners would probably hold at third.  Tyler O’Neill isn’t most baserunners.

Among the more overlooked aspects of the Cardinal offense is its speed.  It shows up some in the stolen base totals – where the Cards rank third in the league, but only 13 above the league average.  More than just stolen bases, though, this is a team that doesn’t fear taking that extra base.  Here, as soon as the ball trickled into left, Tyler knew he was going to score.  The throw wasn’t close.

One inning later – now with Hunter Strickland on the mound – Matt Carpenter lined a lead-off hit to left (What a concept! Hitting the ball the other way!).  Yelich, supposing the hit was nothing more than a single was surprised to find Carpenter rounding the bag and heading for second – which he made easily.  What followed next could have come straight out of Whitey Herzog’s playbook.  A grounder from Tommy Edman sent Carpenter to third, and a fly ball from Paul Goldschmidt added an important insurance run.  Now it’s 4-2.

One more inning – one more example.  The leadoff hitter reaches for the third straight inning when Arenado draws a walk from Brent Suter.  Carlson then drags his bunt up the first base line.  He is barely out at first, while Nolan advances to second.  He would score from there on a floating single to center from Molina – and we had our 5-2 final.

For the game, 5 Cardinal batters reached base with no one out.  Three of them scored.  It’s a piece of the offense that has been missing for a good chunk of the season.  Coming into September, St Louis was bringing home 52.8% of batsmen who reached base with no one out – a fairly pedestrian total.

This month, however, the offense has upticked to 5.05 runs scored per game, even though the team batting line (.257/.309/.458) isn’t dramatically improved.  Much of the difference is that the Cards have found a way to chase home 49 of the 80 batters who have reached with no one out (61.3%).

It hasn’t been drastic enough to draw comparisons to the famous Cardinal teams of the Eighties, but it has been a poor-man’s version of it.  There has been some base thievery – the Cards are 10-1 in stolen bases through 19 games this month.  Mostly, though, it’s been the execution of situational baseball – stuff that they frankly weren’t all that good at through most of the season.

Of course, the power has been nice.  St Louis batters have launched 30 home runs in the first 19 games of the month, and their team slugging percentage sits more than .200 points higher than their team batting average.  But if all of your offense is home-run dependent, there will be a lot of games you will lose if you can’t, once in a while, do a few little things to create a run here and there.

Trust me, I’m not the only St Louis fan that smiles warmly when this team occasionally plays small ball.

Arenado

A recent five-game hitting streak made it look like Nolan was about to catch fire.  But his sputtering season turned cold again as he went hitless in the first two games against the Padres.  Nolan now has two hits in back-to-back games, so maybe he is trending back up.

Nolan’s home run came with two-out in the first.  This month, Arenado has been a particularly tough out when hitting with two outs.  He is now 7 for 22 (.318) with 5 of the hits going for extra-bases (1 triple and 4 of his 7 home runs for the month).  His 11 two-out runs batted in this month are nearly twice the 6 that Yadier Molina (who is next on the team) has.  Arenado is slugging .955 in those at bats.

Speaking of Yadi

Both of Molina’s hits and RBIs came with one out in the inning.  For some reason, that seems to be his comfort zone.  Since the All-Star Break, Yadi is hitting .157 (8 for 51) with no one out in an inning, and he is hitting .228 (13 for 57) with two outs.  But when batting with just one out, Yadi is 22 for 62 – a .355 average.

Edman

The victory saw the end of Tommy Edman’s nine-game hitting streak.  Tommy hit .308 (12 for 39) during the streak.

Lester

After a shaky first four games wearing the Birds on the Bat, Jon Lester – who won his 200th game last night – continues to provide St Louis with a much-needed second dependable rotation arm.  Over his last 6 starts (4 of them quality starts) he is 3-0 with a 2.27 ERA and a .203 batting average allowed.  Of the 9 earned runs he’s allowed in those starts, 8 have come off solo home runs.

In 4 September starts, Lester is 2-0 with a 2.59 ERA.

Whitley

Kodi Whitley uncharacteristically walked a batter, but otherwise delivered a scoreless seventh.  That is now 12.1 consecutive scoreless innings spread over his last 11 appearances.  The last 44 batters he’s faced are hitting .158 with no extra-base hits.

McFarland

In the season’s second half, the Cardinal pitching staff has been remarkable once they manage that second out of the inning.  At that point, opposing hitters manage a .197 batting average against the Cards.  T.J. McFarland has been a big part of that.  After getting the double-play ball off the bat of Jackie Bradley Jr. to relieve the pressure in the eighth, TJ proceeded to retire pinch-hitter Pablo Reyes of a soft fly ball.  Since he’s been with the team, batters with two out are just 6 for 34 (.176) against McFarland with 1 home run (a .265 slugging percentage).

Garcia

Even though his scoreless streak was snapped on Sunday, Luis Garcia continues to have a tremendous impact out of the Cardinal bullpen.  In 27 innings of the season’s second half (after his scoreless ninth last night), Luis has faced 106 batters.  They have managed 14 singles, 5 doubles, 1 sacrifice fly, 5 walks (1 intentional) and 26 strikeouts.  Seven of them have scored, so Garcia’s second-half ERA is 2.33 with a .190/.226/.240 batting line against.

Thoughts on the 2011 Team

Last weekend, the team hosted a reunion of the 2011 World Championship team.  Like most other St Louisans, the sight of these heroes stirred memories that are almost sacred to me.

Of course, I remember where I was for Game Six.  Game Five of the Divisional Series against Philadelphia was even more nerve-racking.  I swear I shook for about two hours after the game was over.

But my most enduring memories of that team aren’t of their eventual triumph, but of the myriad struggles that led to those moments.

I remember the season starting with the loss of Adam Wainwright for the season on like the second day of Spring Training.

Ryan Franklin began the year as the Cardinal closer.  Franklin had saved 27 games the year before, after saving 38 and being named to the All-Star team in 2009.  But over the winter, age had caught up with the then-38-year-old Ryan.  He blew the save on opening day, and had 4 blown saves by April 17 – at which point (with an 11.57 ERA) he was removed from the closer’s role.  He would linger in various middle-relief roles until he was released after giving 2 runs on 3 hits in a third of an inning against Baltimore on June 28.

This kicked off a season-long search for a closer.  Eight different pitchers recorded saves for the team that year, including Jason Motte – who claimed the role for the playoffs.

Chris Carpenter – whose season would end in glory – started the season 1-7.  Albert Pujols was hitting .262 as late as June 1.  Albert – you’ll remember – hit .328/.420/.617 during his 11-year Cardinal career, so .262 was a true struggle at that stage of his career.

It seemed that every aspect of the team that was supposed to be a strength had dissolved into mediocrity with no warning whatsoever.

When a moth flew into the ear of Matt Holliday in the eighth inning of the August 22 game against the Dodgers, it was almost as though the frustrating season had turned into theatre of the absurd.  What else could possibly go wrong for this team?

Leading 1-0 at the time Matt was removed, the Cards went on to blow that game in the ninth inning as well – setting the stage for a three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers.  One hundred and thirty games into the season, and the team was 67-63 and ten games out.  There was – at this point – ample evidence to suggest that this team was mediocre at best.  Any analysis on any level could have measured all the areas that this team fell short in.

But never at any time did the team itself believe that.  Against all evidence to the contrary, in the seclusion of their locker room they knew that they were more than that.  With all the reason in the world to give up on themselves and that season, this team never did.  Their faith never ever wavered.

That’s one of two great principles that I took from that team.  That it’s what you believe about yourself – what truth about yourself that you determine to hold onto in spite of what seems obvious and, perhaps, contradictory to the rest of the world – that matters.

The other great principle derives from the larger situation.  The deficit – which eventually grew to 10.5 games – was only the tip of the iceberg.  Adding to the frustration and seeming futility of the season, it was also the year that manager Tony LaRussa suffered all summer long from a bout of shingles.  And then, toward the end of the year, Jeannie Duncan – wife of pitching coach Dave Duncan – was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

More than just a battle against the mathematics of elimination, the triumph of that team was wrought in the crucible of considerable pain and in the shadow of tragedy.  It was almost as though some unseen power (God, if you’re a believer) threw as formidable a gauntlet as imaginable at this team – something that would drill down to the very marrow of their beings – not out of malice or in any kind of attempt to overthrow them.  But because this power – call it what you will – knew that this team was strong enough to triumph over all this adversity.

And that is, ultimately, what makes that team the greatest team of all time.  At some point, some other team may well rebound from a 10.5 game deficit at some late stage of some season and go on to postseason glory.  It would seem unlikely that that team – or any future team – would be called on to endure what these guys endured.

I often claim a transcendent aspect to sports – something of far greater meaning than the fortunes or misfortunes of a bouncing ball.  This team was all of that.  And, in the wake of their ultimate triumph, they left the record of their journey behind as a metaphor for our journey.

This was that other great principle.  That our greatest triumphs are the children of our deepest agony.  That which is easily achieved changes nothing.  That journey that demands everything is the journey that transforms.  Really, it’s the only thing that can transform.

Watching the final celebration on the mound, announcer and native St Louisan Joe Buck summed the proceedings with “What a team.  What a ride.”

It was all of that.  And so much more.

Eliminations

Back to the more mundane proceedings of the 2021 season, the Cardinal win last night eliminated the Chicago Cubs from all playoff consideration.  Again, this had been a foregone conclusion for some time.

NoteBook

St Louis has now scored first in 6 of their last 8 games.

The 5 runs scored nudges the team’s season-long scoring average to 4.25 runs per game.

With the game-winning hit, Molina re-takes the team lead with his fifteenth of the season.

Lester registers his 200th win in spite of the fact that he never won 20 games in a single season.  He won 19 twice and 18 another year.  The way starters are currently used makes winning twenty games in any season surprisingly difficult.

However it may end, to this point Lester’s sixteenth season hasn’t been one of his best.  His 5.55 strikeouts per nine innings would be a career worst, as would his .478 opponents’ slugging percentage and the .820 OPS against him.  On the plus side, Jon still hasn’t thrown a wild pitch.  He has never made it through an entire season without throwing at least one.

Paul Goldschmidt is up to 560 at bats for the season.  His career high (set in 2013) was 602, leaving Paul in range to surpass that. 

Goldschmidt is still walking in just 10% of his plate appearances.  While that rate is considerably above the league average (around 8.2%), it would still represent a career low for Goldy, who walked 10.2% of the time in 2012.

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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