A single by Nolan Arenado provided the go ahead run in the bottom of the third – pushing the Cards to a 2-1 lead over the Dodgers on September 7. That would be the last piece of good news on the night – and very nearly their last hit.
While six LA relievers would shut the Cardinals out the rest of the way, the Dodger offense went about their methodical business of chewing through the St Louis pitching staff. Two runs in the fourth, single runs in the fifth and sixth, and two clinching runs in the ninth salted away the 7-2 victory (box score).
The loss was the fourth in a row for the Cards, and pushed them back down to one game above the .500 mark (they were 69-68). They fell that night to 14.5 games behind Milwaukee for the division – an almost impossible amount of ground to cover in the 22 games left in the season. The final Wildcard spot was more reasonable – they trailed the Padres by four games there – but there were two other teams (Cincinnati and Philadelphia) ahead of them in that chase, and a third team – the Mets – were tied with them. It was an awful lot of teams to leap-frog for a team that had shown no signs of putting together any kind of sustained surge.
That is how they went to bed on the evening of September 7. When they woke up the next morning, they were Supermen.
Last night’s 6-2 conquest of Milwaukee (box score), which bore a strong resemblance to that loss to the Dodgers, but in reverse, assured these Cardinals of their unlikely position as the final entrant into this year’s playoff field – and they have clinched this – again, improbably – with five games to spare.
They have done all of this by winning 19 of their last 20 games – including the last 17 in a row. The longest such winning streak in this franchise’s storied history. To the amazement of the baseball world, five months’ worth of frustration and inconsistency has been answered with three weeks of brilliance. To say that the change has been stunning would be a spectacular understatement.
How the turnaround has happened is the subject of a lot of speculation. Here, Zachary Silver, writing for mlb.com, discusses such aspects as a change in the lineup and re-shuffling the bullpen roles. These were certainly important. In previous posts, I have discussed the impact of early scoring (here) and hitting with runners in scoring position (here), along with various other statistical reflections of their streak. All of these are outward manifestations of this team’s great underlying strength.
Underpinning all of the eye-popping numbers that have attached themselves to the winning streak is the clubhouse. It’s a clubhouse that I have frankly been a little suspicious of as the season has rolled along – but more than any single other factor, this club has succeeded in the end because of its amazing unity and almost inexplicable faith in who they were.
In spite of 137 games of mediocrity, this curious mixture of old men and boys, former All-Stars and highly regarded prospects, never for one moment believed that they were mediocre. It’s the thing that I have never fully been able to understand about professional athletes. How can you spend 137 days getting beat almost as often as you squeeze out a win and not have it affect your confidence? Even a little?
But that is what this team – much like the 2011 team that they’ve drawn some comparisons to – has achieved. Somehow they managed not to inhale any of the negative vibes that have dogged this club almost since spring training. The absolute maintaining of their self-belief might be their most remarkable achievement.
Kudos to Mike
Which brings me to the real point of today’s post – manager Mike Shildt.
No one has eaten more of the frustration of the early season than the team’s manager. He has been defiantly protective of his club, even in their worst moments. He went so far as to guarantee that his team would be in the playoffs at a time when few could have shared his enthusiasm.
I always wondered throughout the season if Mike had private doubts that he never shared publicly. Did he begin to wonder if he had mistaken the heart of this team? Was there a point where he doubted the season could be salvaged?
Whether or not these or other similar thoughts entered his mind and heart we will never know. What we do know is that he always had his team’s back – even in the worst moments of the season. His belief in them never wavered.
It may have been awkward for him at times, but that is exactly the mindset he needed to maintain. Turn the page. Get ready for tomorrow. Prepare for the playoffs. In trying times, a team – a real team – needs to be unanimous in their belief. And that unanimity has to start at the top.
Yes, there are things I wish Mike would handle a bit differently. I wish, for example, that he would try to keep his bench more involved. Tonight – with the playoff berth clinched – Jose Rondon will get his first start since August 15 – a span of 41 games. Not to make too big a point of this, but that kind of thing never happened in the Tony LaRussa era.
But in his toughest and most important duty of the season, Mike Shildt rose to the challenge admirably. Well done, Mr. Shildt.
Paul Goldschmidt continues to lead out during the winning streak. He had two more hits last night, and is hitting .391 (25 for 64) and slugging .844 (8 doubles and 7 home runs) over these last 17 games. He has scored 24 runs and driven in 16. Paul has to be in the player-of-the-month conversation. He is hitting .347 in September (33 for 95) with 8 doubles, 9 home runs, and a .716 slugging percentage.
Paul is hitting .336 (86 for 256) with 18 home runs since the All-Star break.
Tyler O’Neill collected two hits for the second consecutive game, and now has three multi-hit games as part of a pretty loud, five-game hitting streak. Tyler is 8 for his last 22, including a double and 3 home runs. He has driven in 7 runs during the streak, while hitting .364 and slugging .818.
The hitting streak continues a very hot September for Tyler. His average for the month is up to .317 (33 for 104) and his slugging percentage is up to .692 (he has hit 6 doubles and 11 home runs this month). In 27 September games, Tyler has scored 27 runs and driven in 27.
In what may have been his last start of the regular season, Adam Wainwright scuffled but managed yet another quality start as he held Milwaukee to 2 runs over 6 innings. In the season’s second half, Adam has made 15 starts, throwing 12 quality starts. He is 10-2 since the break with a 2.50 ERA. He has walked just 19 over his last 100.2 innings (1.70 per 9 innings), and is holding batters to a .209 batting average and a .252 on base percentage.
They will probably hold Adam’s next start for the playoff game.
It wasn’t a save situation, but Giovanny Gallegos was on the mound when the team secured its playoff berth, throwing another scoreless inning – his seventh in a row.
Gio has allowed just 1 run over his last 11 innings (0.77 ERA). He threw 8 of his 9 pitches for strikes last night, and is throwing 67% strikes over those last 11 innings (117 of 175).
Wainwright is now up to 184 career victories.
If, in fact, he doesn’t pitch again during the regular season, Adam will finish with a career-best .220 batting average against. Currently his career-best is the .221 he allowed hitters last year. It speaks to his mastery of his craft that his batting averages against in his age 38 and 39 years are lower than in his early thirties, when he was winning 20 and 19 games.
Goldschmidt’s hot streak has carried him into the league lead in total bases with 307. If Paul maintains this lead, it will be the second time in his career that he’s led the league in this category. Goldschmidt lashed out 332 total bases to lead the league back in 2013.
Paul is also now up to 592 at bats – within 10 of his career high of 602 set, also, in 2013. With 8 more at bats, this will be just the second 600 at-bat season of his career.
The principle reason for that is that Paul is walking at the lowest rate of his career. Going into the season’s last 5 games, Goldschmidt is drawing walks in just 9.8% of his plate appearances. He has walked at least 10.2% of the time in every other season of his career (and owns a lifetime rate of 13.3%).
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.