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No One Comfortable Facing Castillo

It all started much too comfortably for the Cards.  The first five pitches out of Cincinnati starter Luis Castillo’s hands were all fastballs (averaging 97.3 mph).  Matt Carpenter launched the second one over the centerfield wall.  Paul DeJong collected an infield single on the fourth.  The fifth was ball one to Paul Goldschmidt.

It was a less than dazzling start from a highly regarded young right-hander who would end up dominating the Cardinals and earning his sixth victory that night.

In fact, the Cardinals would never score again, and Cincinnati would break St Louis’ four game winning streak, 4-1 (box score).

With his sixth pitch, he threw his first slider of the night.  On his sixth pitch to Goldschmidt, Paul grounded out on a change.

Through the first batter in the third – Goldschmidt, again, who walked – it was Castillo who seemed uncomfortable.  His command of the fastball was inconsistent.  The slider and change also eluded him from time to time.

The first 12 Cardinal batters had 2 hits (including the home run) and 4 walks.  But only the one run.  After that, it was all Castillo.  He set down the last 12 batters to face him – six on strikeouts.

The difference was the growing confidence in and command of that slider (and especially that wipeout change) that allowed him to throw any of his pitches – and throw them for strikes – at any time.  Five of the last six strikeouts came on the change-up (all swinging).   After the first two batters hit the second pitch, only two of the last 22 he faced put either the first or second pitch into play.  DeJong grounded out on an 0-1 slider in the second, and Marcell Ozuna flew out on a first pitch slider in the sixth.

The Cardinals would get plenty of fastballs from Luis (mostly on the corners, and some of them as hot as 98 mph), but they could never tell when, and could never sit on it, even when they were ahead in the count.

Of the 24 batters that faced Castillo in his six innings, 13 got first pitch fastballs, and 5 others got the fastball on the second pitch.  Luis threw first-pitch strikes to 12 of those Cardinal hitters.  Nine of those first pitch strikes were fastballs – and 8 of those were taken for called strikes.

In fact, of the 13 first-pitch fastballs thrown by Castillo, only one was swung at.  That’s quite a trick against a team that’s looking to hit the fastball early in the count.  And evidence that not too many Cards enjoyed a comfortable evening at the plate.

Offensive Difficulties Extended

It was an impressive display from Cincinnati’s best pitcher, but it nonetheless continues St Louis’ on-going offensive struggles.  Since they rang up 14 runs on Atlanta on May 14, St Louis is hitting .215 and scoring 3.76 runs per game over its last 17 games.

Matt Wieters

Matt Wieters is hitting his first little dry spell after inheriting the catching job from the injured Yadier Molina.  In his first 3 games as the starter, Matt went 6 for 11.  But he was hitless in 4 at bats last night, and is now 1 for his last 12 (with 5 strikeouts).

Dexter Fowler

Red hot when he was promoted to the leadoff spot ten games ago, Dexter Fowler immediately plunged into an offensive tailspin reminiscent of 2018.  Hitless last night in 4 at bats, Dexter is 3 for 31 (.097) over his last 10 games.  He finished at .171 in May (12 for 70), and is just 7 for 53 (.132) over the last 17 games.

Michael Wacha

After being knocked around in his first trip out of the bullpen, Michael Wacha entered in the fifth inning of this one and settled things down, looking much more like the Wacha we expected to see this year.  He pitched 2.2 innings, giving no runs of his own (although he did allow an inherited run to score) and showing much improved velocity.

Wacha is still getting an awfully high number of his first pitches hit, and hit hard.  Two of the 7 he faced last night hit his first pitch, and both got singles.  In May, 24 of the 108 batters he faced hit his first pitch – a 22.2% clip that is about double the league average.   Those batters hit .500 (12 for 24) with 3 doubles and 4 home runs.

Tyler Webb

One of the low profile arms in the Cardinal bullpen, Tyler Webb has been throwing quite well of late.  He retired all four batters he faced last night, and over his last 8 innings has allowed just 1 run on 3 hits.  In 11.1 innings in May, Webb posted a 3.18 ERA and a .135 batting average against.

Tyler hasn’t allowed a home run since the last time Cincinnati was in town – on April 26.  That was 55 batters, 13.2 innings, and 227 pitches ago.

NoteBook

Matt Carpenter’s first inning home run meant that St Louis has scored first in 6 of the last 8 games.  They are only 3-3 in those games.

The Cards have now lost the first game of 5 of the last 6 series.  They went 0-3-1 in the previous 4.

With last night’s six-hit effort, the team batting average now slips to .249 for the season.

Starters Rise to Occasion in Sweep of Cubs

So, it was another minimal offensive series for your St Louis Cardinals.  Granted, they faced three quality arms, but as the Sunday game ended, the Cards had scored just 11 runs during the three games, hitting .233 on just 21 hits.

Oh, did I mention that St Louis won all three games?  By scores of 2-1 in 10 innings (box score), 7-4 (box score) and 2-1 again (box score).

If this team is going to be special this year, it will be because of their pitching.  For the first fifty or so games, the rotation showed inconsistent flashes of potential.  For three games as May faded into June, and against their divisional rival from up North, the Cardinal starters were very special.

The Cards got 20 innings from their starters in this series – and might well have had a couple more, had Jack Flaherty’s Saturday start not been interrupted after five innings by rain.  For those 20 innings the Cubs dented St Louis’ starters for just 3 runs on 12 hits – a 1.35 ERA and a .182 batting average against.

Yes, there was a bit of luck involved.  Especially on Sunday, when Chicago hit Adam Wainwright harder than the results showed.  Still, the club couldn’t have asked for more from the starters.

The bullpen was nearly as good, although hiccups from Jordan Hicks and John Brebbia threatened two of the games.

In fact, that might be the most satisfying element of the series.  Each game was tightly contested, and Chicago could very easily have swept the home team.  These were, in fact, the type of games that the Cards have repeatedly lost to Chicago over the last few years – the character games.  For one weekend at least, it was St Louis coming through with the clutch hit and the big defensive play.

To keep things in perspective, there is still a lot of baseball to be played – and many more contests against Chicago.  This was just one chapter in a very long novel.  But it was not insignificant.  Much like their season series against their other primary division competitor.  After losing 5 of the first 7 against Milwaukee, they came back to sweep the Brewers the last time they played them to even that series.  This sweep, though, does more than just answer the Cubs earlier sweep of the Cards.  Getting off the deck and answering these two teams provided a significant confidence boost.

And confidence, by the way, is not in short supply.  I don’t think I ever remember a more confident two-games-over team.

The rest of the summer will tell whether that confidence is warranted or just bravado.  One thing to remember, though.  Both of St Louis’ answering sweeps were at home.  If they have true designs on the division title, this team will have to find some way of coping with Miller Park and Wrigley Field – Wrigley as soon as this Friday.

Fifty-eight games into the 2019 season, this team is still a mystery.

Miles Mikolas

Three starts ago, Miles Mikolas endured a nightmare start in Texas – he gave 7 runs (and 2 home runs) in less than 2 innings.  That disaster stands in sharp contrast to Miles three starts before and his two starts since.  In those other 5 games, Miles has pitched at least 6 innings in all of them, (and 7 in the other 4) without giving up more than three runs in any of them.  In fact, he gave up as many as 3 runs in only one of those games.

Over the 34 innings that surround that Texas game, Miles has allowed as many runs (7) and home runs (2) as he did in that Texas game.  He holds a 1.85 ERA in those other games, holding those teams to a .213 batting average, while walking just 4.

Jack Flaherty

Flaherty followed Mikolas’ 7 strong innings (1 run on 6 hits) with a strong effort of his own.  After allowing solo home runs in the first two innings, Jack settled down and kept Chicago off the scoreboard till the rains came in the fifth.

The rain interrupted a streak of three consecutive quality starts from the young right-hander.  Over his last 4 starts, Jack has a 2.74 ERA over 23 innings with 26 strikeouts.  His last 4 opponents are hitting .182 against him.

Through the month of May, the 30 batters that swung at Flaherty’s first pitch ended up hitting .320.  On Saturday the 6 Cubs who chased after Jack’s first pitch finished 0-for-6 with 3 strikeouts.

In fact, in that Saturday game Chicago’s hitters combined to go 0 for 11 when they swung at the first pitch.  For the series, the Cubs were just 3 for 32 (.094) in at bats where they swung at the first pitch (the major league average when swinging at the first pitch is .268).

John Gant

One of the bullpen heroes of the series, John Gant pitched in two of the games, winning the Saturday game and saving Sunday’s contest.  He allowed a walk, but retired the other five batters he faced.

John is on another streak of scoreless outings, as he has allowed no runs on 3 hits and 2 walks over his last 7 innings over 6 games.

Johnny has been much better than anyone could have expected.

Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks was the winner in the Friday game, pitching two innings.  He was brought back to save the Sunday game, but faltered.  Manager Mike Shildt says he isn’t concerned, but maybe he should be at least a little.

Hicks has now given runs in 3 of his last 6 games.  Over his last 5.2 innings, Jordan has given 6 runs on 7 hits and 5 walks.  The 29 batters he has faced over those appearances are hitting .292 against him – far too high for a kid who throws 104+.  With the walks, the recent on base percentage against him is .414.

Offensive Struggles

I began by referencing the recent offensive brown-out.  Even though the pitching (and defense, by the way) made what little offense they got stand up, the Cards have been a less than stellar offensive machine for quite a while now.

Over their last 16 games, this team is averaging 3.94 runs per game with a distressing .217 team batting average.

Kolten Wong

When Kolten Wong rolled to second in the second inning of the Friday game, he extended his current hitless streak to 22 at bats.

From that moment on, Wong owned the series as much as any non-pitcher could.  He got 6 hits in his last 9 at bats (two hits in each game), stole two bases, scored twice, drove in two – including the important first run in the Sunday game – and made the defensive play of the series to end the eighth inning of the Sunday game (you have probably seen the highlight of Wong racing almost into mid right-field and going full extension to gather in Anthony Rizzo’s soft liner.

Wong had himself a series.  Historically, Kolten is either icy-ice cold or broiling hot.  No one in this clubhouse would complain if Wong went on a substantial tear.

For the series, Wong was 2 for 4 in at bats where he swung at the first pitch.  For the season, that is when he is at his best.  He is still hitting .316 (18 for 57) when swinging at the first pitch.

Marcell Ozuna

Left fielder Marcell Ozuna didn’t get a hit in 3 at bats in the Sunday game, breaking a short but very loud five-game hitting streak.  During those previous 5 games, Marcell went 9 for 19 (.474).  He hit 2 home runs, drove in 6, and slugged .842.

Matt Carpenter

For much of the early season – for whatever reason – Matt Carpenter has been noticeably more aggressive on the first pitch.  In April, he chased the first pitch thrown him 22.4% of the time.  In May, it was 24.1%.  In all of this, the results weren’t much.

Lately, he has returned to the Matt Carpenter we remember, and his numbers have been steadily rising.  He had 10 plate appearances in the Cub series and took the first pitch 9 times.  He finished the series 3 for 9 with a walk.  Over his last 16 games, Matt has taken the first pitch thrown 81.7% of the time – and is slashing .310/.408/.548 when he does.

You would think this would make him all the more dangerous when he does swing at the first pitch, but that hasn’t materialized yet.  Over those same 16 games, Matt is slashing .200/.273/.500 in the plate appearances in which he chases that first pitch.

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader hit a home run late in the Saturday game.  It was his only hit in the last two series (1 for 19 – .053).

Paul DeJong

And Paul DeJong’s tailspin continues.  He did get a late single in the Sunday game, but that represents only his second hit in his last 11 games (and 36 at bats).  Over the 16 games that the Cards have scuffled for runs, Paul is hitting .145 (8 for 55) with just 1 home run.

Paul swung at the first pitch only twice in his 11 plate appearances in the series.  In his red hot April, DeJong swung at the first pitch 24.3% of the time, and with devastating effect – a line of .438/.455/.719.

In May, he took the first pitch 86% of the time.  Over the last 16 games he has watched the first pitch 89.4% of the time – more frequently than Carpenter.

The numbers suggest a more timid approach at the plate, but that’s not what I see from him.  After his blazing April, pitchers seem much less anxious to challenge Paul early in the count.  He sees a great many first pitches just off the plate or just low – occasionally, these pitches cross the corners of the strike zone.

After they establish the outside, many pitchers are then able to jam DeJong later in the at bat.  They have had some success doing that.

Mostly, though, Paul appears to still be taking disciplined at bats.  I don’t see him chasing many pitches at all.  But he is missing his pitch when he gets it – or fouling it off.  Timing just a little off.  Or, when he does get into one, someone makes a great play on it – like Albert Almora did in the Saturday game.

DeJong, I think is close.  One thing he won’t have to worry about is opportunity.  As with Wong and Carpenter and all the other starters who went through extended slumps, he can depend that Shildt will continue to write his name on the lineup card even if he goes 2 for his next 50.

NoteBook

It took until the fifth inning, but the Cards did score first yesterday.  They have scored the first run in 5 of their last 7.

The Cardinals have won only 7 series all year, but 4 of them have now been by sweep.  Of the 5 series that St Louis was in position to sweep, only Washington – who faced a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cards – was able to avoid the redbird brooms.

The Cub series was also just the eighth series this year in which the Cards won the first game.  They are 5-3 in series when they win that first game.

With his 8 innings on Sunday, Adam Wainwright now has 66.1 on the season.  He pitched only 40.1 innings all last year.  He also now has 1,998.1 for his career – leaving him just 5 outs shy of 2000.

Nola Dominant in Conquering Cards

What an interesting contrast in styles last night as Philadelphia dealt the St Louis Cardinals their eighteenth loss in their last 24 games – this one by a convincing 11-4 score (box score).

The Cardinals gave the ball to their eighth-ranked prospect, a left-handed fire-baller named Genesis Cabrera.  Making his major league debut, Cabrera lasted just 3.2 innings and 53 pitches.  Thirty-eight of the 53 pitches were fastballs, averaging almost 97 mph with the fastest reaching 98.8 on the BrooksBaseball gun (found here).

On the other side, Philadelphia turned to veteran right-hander Aaron Nola.  Aaron gave Philadelphia 7 innings yielding just 1 run on 4 hits while striking out 8.  Aaron’s fastball is not considered elite.  Again, according to Brooks, Aaron averaged just 93.1 mph on his heater.  The difference making pitch yesterday was his curve.  There are few things more devastating for a slumping team (like the Cardinals) than to face a pitcher that’s throwing his curve for a strike.

For the game, Aaron threw 35 of them (slightly more than one third of his 102 pitches).  The Cardinals swung at 17 of the 35.  Of the 17 swings, they put the ball in play 8 times (getting 2 hits); swung and missed 5 other times; and fouled off the other 4.  Of the 18 curves that they took, 11 were called strikes – 61.1%.

That 61% was enough.  Although the pitch was only a third of his repertoire, because he demonstrated that he could throw it for a strike most of the time, that curve occupied the batter’s mind.  In many cases last night, worrying about that curve made the Cardinal hitters noticeably defensive.

Perhaps the best example of this was the fourth inning.  Nola took the mound staked to a 4-0 lead.  Leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter gave him a tough at bat, eventually being called out on strikes on the sixth pitch (a fastball just above the knees).  But Nola then hung a first-pitch curve to Matt Wieters, who sent the pitch out of the park.  Philadelphia’s lead was now 4-1.

Facing a possible momentum switch, Nola now worked over two talented, but fairly young hitters in Yairo Munoz and Harrison Bader.

Aaron started Munoz out with a change that Yairo swung over top of.  The 0-1 pitch that followed would be the only fastball that Munoz would get in the at bat.  It was, in fact, the last fastball Aaron threw that inning.  The pitch was in off the plate, but Munoz wanted it and fouled it off.  Now ahead 0-2, Nola went back to that curve – well outside, but with two strikes Yairo was protecting and fouled it off.  The fourth pitch was a change that floated down and in, but Munoz couldn’t hold up and he struck out, swinging.

Now it was Bader’s turn.  This was even easier.  Aaron went changeup low, changeup inside, curveball outside – three pitches, no fastballs, three swings, three misses.

By the scoreboard, all of Aaron’s last seven pitches of the inning were strikes – although only the first pitch to Munoz would actually have been called a strike.

This was a fairly consistent pattern throughout.  For the game, half of the 38 batters the Cardinals sent to the plate never saw an official ball during the plate appearance – about twice the usual rate.

Between Aaron floating enough first-pitch curves over for strikes, and the anxious Cardinal hitters expanding their zones, Nola found himself working comfortably ahead most of the night.

Five different batters hit 0-1 offerings.  All of them grounded out.  Nola played that game with Paul DeJong three different times, getting a called first strike (twice on that curve) and then a groundball as DeJong jumped on the next offering.

Seven other Cardinals faced 0-2 counts.  Six of them struck out – all swinging, mostly at breaking balls like Munoz and Bader.  Across all of baseball (according to baseball reference) batters strike out in 0-2 counts about 50% of the time.

That curve ball is, arguably, baseball’s most difficult pitch to command.  When commanded though, it is, arguably, baseball’s most potent equalizer.

Last night for Nola and the Phillies, it was all of that.

Cards Bats Restored to Power – for One Game, Anyway

So, the way things have been going lately, when Gregory Polanco drove his first-inning home run into the right field bleachers, you will have to forgive me for shaking my head and thinking, “here we go again.”

The Cardinals were coming off their sixth loss in seven games, and had just surrendered the game’s first run for the sixth time in the previous seven games.  It was starting to look like the re-run of a movie we’d seen before.

But last night the Cards answered – and kept answering.  Four runs in the second, two more in the third, five runs in each of the fourth and sixth innings, a final tally in the eighth.  A week’s worth of frustration and bad luck poured out in a deluge of hits and walks.  Many players who have seen lots of zeroes in their recent box scores saw their fortunes reversed in this one – a 17-4 victory (box score).

In fact, every Cardinal starter except the pitcher finished with at least 1 hit and 1 run scored.  All but Paul DeJong drove in at least 1 run.

St Louis has been on the other end of a few of these pummelings in recent days.  On April 26 the Cincinnati Reds pounded them to the tune of 12-1.  On May 5, a 13-5 loss to the Cubs was actually 13-2 in the ninth inning before the Cards put a few meaningless runs on the board.  Most recently – on Tuesday – the Cards fell 11-1 before Aaron Nola and the Philadelphia club.

Neither the Reds, Cubs nor Phillies were on the field to receive this payback.  Last night, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It would have been nice to answer one of the clubs that pushed us around, but this was still sufficiently satisfactory.

The first sentence in the MLB.com report on this game reads: “Turns out the concerns about the Cardinals’ collective offensive rut carried a short shelf life, as a visit from the Pirates proved to be all the antidote they needed on Thursday.”

I’m not entirely sure we can make that assumption yet.  Over their previous seven games, the Cards averaged 2.57 runs per game and were shutout twice.  It was nice to see some hits and some runs last night, but before we declare the Cardinal bats cured, let’s see how they do tonight, OK?

Yadier Molina

Never bothered by the team hitting woes, Yadier Molina was again one of the driving offensive forces last night, with 3 hits (including a double) 2 runs batted in and 3 runs scored.  Molina has hit safely in 25 of his last 28 starts, batting .346 over that stretch (37 for 107).  He has 26 runs batted in in those 28 games.

He is hitting .393 (11 for 28) for the month of May with 3 doubles, a home run and 7 RBIs to go along with a .607 slugging percentage.

Michael Wacha

The Cardinals are still pining for consistency and innings from their rotation.  Even with the big lead, Michael Wacha couldn’t make it through the sixth.  He is now 3-0 on the season, but with a 5.35 ERA – 6.75 over his two starts this month.

This was Wacha’s third start this season on four-days rest.  He has started on five-days rest on two other occasions.  It’s far too early to call this a trend, but the early numbers between Wacha on four-days and five-days are at least worth looking at.

On four-days, Wacha has made it through only 14.1 innings of those three starts, serving up 5 home runs.  His 9.42 ERA is backed by a batting line against him of .371/.414/.710.  His ground-ball percentage in those starts was only 33.9%

In his two five-days starts, Wacha has thrown 11.2 innings, allowing 1 home run.  In those starts, his ERA falls to 2.31, and the corresponding batting line just .190/.333/.357 while batters are hitting the ball on the ground 46.4% of the time.

In only a handful of starts, and too early to over-react.  But it’s something to keep an eye on.