There have been times during this “special” season that the Cardinals have resembled a nostalgia tour more than a team that wants to be seriously considered a contender. There have been some wonderful moments, to be sure. But there have been more and longer stretches through the first half of this season where this club has had the look of a pretender.
One such stretch was the first four games following the All-Star Break. With the local columnists reminding the Cardinal faithful that St Louis possessed one of the softest second half schedules, the team proceeded to lose two of three to one of those bad teams – the last place Cincinnati Reds.
Disappointment grew to frustration when, in preparation for their trip into Toronto, St Louis learned that their team would have to leave their leading power sources behind. Not finding it convenient to avail themselves of the life-saving COVID vaccines, All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado found the gates to Canada closed to them.
Soldering on without them, the remaining Cardinals journeyed into Toronto, where they were promptly offered up to the young and energetic Blue Jays team. Toronto whacked three home runs – including a grand slam – on its way to an easy 10-3 victory.
Through all of this, the steady Milwaukee team kept winning. Entering the break just a half-game behind the Brewers, the Cards looked up on the evening of their final game in Toronto and found themselves a full three games in arrears in the division and falling. With Milwaukee winning again last night, St Louis – had they lost last night – could very well come limping into Washington for the last leg of their eight-game road trip, four games behind the Brewers, riding a three-game losing streak, and just 1-4 in the early going of the season’s second half.
None of that speaks very well for a team that has high aspirations.
But before things could reach that state, two tough old birds stepped in and – for the moment, anyway – halted the St Louis slide.
On the mound, Adam Wainwright put the Cards on his shoulders again, and flashing that timeless curve muffled the aggressive young Toronto lineup for seven innings.
The offense was carried by the oldest player on the roster. Albert Pujols, his legend fraying about him, has famously come home for his final major league season. But, as Waino was defying age on the mound, Pujols was turning the clock back in the batter’s box.
His first three times to the plate, Albert drilled a single to left, slapped a double to the opposite field, and crushed a misplaced fastball fully 439 feet into the upper deck in straight-away center. That drive came with a couple of teammates on base, and was the kill shot in what became a 6-1 Cardinal victory (box score).
The home run was just his seventh of the season, and the three hits raised his average to the dizzying heights of .241. Like most St Louisans of a certain age, I can remember Julys past where this might have been Albert’s twenty-seventh home run of the season, and his three-hit night would push his average up to .341. Still, for one night anyway, it was 2010 again, and nothing had changed.
More to the point, it reminded some of us who are occasionally concerned about this club that the tough old birds on this roster (whose number is due to swell to three when Yadier Molina returns early next month) still have a little life in them.
As satisfying as last night was, the bigger picture is still of a team that preys on the lesser teams in the league (three of which dwell in its own division) and is almost always exposed when matched against the better teams.
As they head into Washington, the Cardinals have played 21 games this month. Sixteen of those games have been played against teams whose records are over .500 for the season. St Louis is 6-10 in those games. For the season, they are 19-27 when matched against winning teams.
Moreover, there is no aspect of this team that appears equal to this competition. In the 46 games, the offense is scoring just 3.63 runs per game, with a .235 team batting average and a .675 OPS. Meanwhile the starting rotation has put together just 16 quality starts in the 46 games, while shouldering a 4.22 ERA. The bullpen has only 8 saves to go with 8 blown saves and a 3.86 ERA.
The next test this team will face will arrive on August 5 in the persons of the New York Yankees. At 66-33, New York currently holds the American League’s best record. If these tough birds are going to change their second-half narrative, this is as good a place to start as any.
Just Like Old Times for Albert
When the team takes the field in Washington, Pujols will bring a five-game hitting streak with him. Two of the five games have been multi-hit efforts, and Albert holds a .471 average (8 for 17) and a .765 slugging percentage (2 doubles and 1 home run) during the streak.
Those five games are part of a longer streak that has seen Pujols hit safely in 9 of his last 10. He is 14 for his last 36 (.389) and 6 of the 14 hits have gone for extra-bases (3 doubles and 3 home runs) – a .722 slugging percentage. For the month of July (17 games) Albert is hitting .348 (16 for 46) and slugging .630 (4 doubles and 3 home runs).
How long he can keep this up is anyone’s guess, but production like this is very much in line with the best of Albert’s previous seasons.
Among the many heroes of last night’s 13-hit attack was beleaguered outfielder Lars Nootbaar. Lars singled, doubled, and drove in a run last night. After a terrible start to the season, Lars has made the most of his July opportunities. In just 38 plate appearances this month, Nootbaar has 6 singles, 3 doubles, 2 home runs, and 6 walks – a batting line of .344/.447/.625. That will play.
He’s been even better against winning teams this month, going 10 for 23 (.435) with 3 doubles and a home run (.696 slugging percentage).
Tommy Edman struck out three times on the same pitch last night – the split-fingered offering from Toronto starter Kevin Gausman that started off the plate and finished a foot or so outside. Tommy finished the night 0-for-5.
Edman has been one of the Cardinal batsmen who has struggled profoundly against the winning teams. He’s played in all 16 games against them this month, collecting 66 plate appearances. He managed just 8 singles, 3 doubles, 2 runs scored, 1 run batted in, 2 walks, 1 sacrifice fly, and 1 ground-ball double play – a scuffling batting line of .175/.197/.222. For the season, Tommy is hitting .203 (36 for 177) against winning teams, with a .294 slugging percentage (8 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs).
Hitless in four at bats last night, Tyler O’Neill will ride a 0-for-14 streak into Washington. In the 8 games since his return from the injured list, Tyler is hitting .161 (5 for 31) with just 1 extra-base hit (a home run), good for a .258 slugging percentage.
Tyler finished July 0-for-13 against winning teams. He has had 75 plate appearances against them this season, with 12 singles, 1 double, 1 home run, 8 runs scored, 6 runs batted in, 4 walks, 30 strikeouts, 1 stolen base and 3 double-plays to show for them. His batting line against winning teams this year is a concerning .197/.240/.254.
Four of Adam’s five starts this month have now matched him against winning teams. In 27 innings in those games, Waino holds a 2.33 ERA, a .222 batting average against, and a .274 on base percentage against. Adam walked no one last night, and has walked just 5 in these 27 innings.
With another spotless inning (including 2 strikeouts) last night, closer Ryan Helsley is up to 10.2 innings this month, during which he has allowed just 1 unearned run. He has faced 37 batters in July. They have 4 singles and 2 walks – a .114/.162/.114 batting line. Seventeen of the 37 have struck out.
And the good teams haven’t bothered Ryan. In 18.2 innings against those guys, Helsley holds a 0.48 ERA, a .113 batting average against, and a .129 slugging percentage against.
His electric show at the All-Star Game seems to have revived him.
St Louis scored the first run in both games in Toronto. This has sometimes been a challenge for this team this year, but they have now scored first in four of the last five.
The two games played in the cool air of Canada averaged 72.0 degrees at game time. The Cardinal’s previous two series had averaged over 90 degrees, and the 7 before that all averaged in the 80s. St Louis hadn’t played in a series averaging less than 84 degrees since they went into Boston for three games in mid-June (June 17-19). The average temperature of those three games was 68.0 degrees.
With the split, St Louis has won just 2 of its last 11 series (2-6-3).
The Washington Nationals – surprise winners of two of three from the Dodgers this week – will be the sixth of the last seven Cardinal opponents that will have won their previous series.
The Toronto series was St Louis’ fifteenth road series of the year, and the fifth time in those fifteen series that they went into the final game facing a sweep. So far, only Tampa Bay has been able to close out the sweep of the Cards.
Overall, they are now 4-6-5 in their road series, with an overall record away from home of 23-27.