Flaherty Dominant, But

Every time Jack Flaherty takes the mound, you wonder if this will be the night.

Last night in Arizona, Mr. Flaherty threw six more hitless innings.  The only hit he allowed in his 7-inning, 11-strikeout performance came by virtue of a grounder off the bat of Eduardo Escobar that started foul, but bounced oddly fair past first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.

Over his last 15 starts, Jack has allowed no runs in 8 of them.  Three different times he has gone at least 7 innings allowing just one hit.  He has another seven-inning, two-hit outing.

Over his last 99.1 innings and 368 batters faced, Jack has been reached for just 12 runs (11 earned) on 48 hits (32 singles, 10 doubles and 6 home runs).  He has notched 124 strikeouts (more than one third of the batters to face him), a 1.00 ERA, a .142 batting average and a .224 slugging percentage against him.

His record is just 6-3, though.  In the 15 games, the Cards have scored more than two support runs for him exactly four times.  Last night was the sixth time that he was left with just one run.  Another time the birds gave him no offensive support at all.

All of those trends came together last night in a kind of a nightmare of a game.  The Cards gave Jack his one run early, but didn’t score again.  Flaherty preserved his lead with 7 scoreless innings, and the bullpen served up the lead in the ninth.

Ten innings after that, Arizona won a very damaging 3-2 decision in a marathon game that lasted almost seven hours (box score).

Five starts into September, and Mr. Flaherty holds a 0.97 ERA for the month.  It is also 0.97 for 14 second half starts.

The loss hurts as the hard-charging Milwaukee Brewers have pushed their way back to 2.5 games out (1.5 games now, after the completion of Thursday’s action).  With one game left against Cincy and three in Colorado, Milwaukee may not lose again, putting the Cards in the position of having to sweep Chicago again this weekend.

This thing, I fear, will come down to the very last pitch of the very last inning.

NoteBook

Marcell Ozuna bounced into two double plays last night – giving him a career high 20 for the season.  His previous high was the 18 he hit into 2017.

Dexter Fowler’s home run accounted for his sixty-fifth RBI of the season – a career high.  His eighteenth home run ties his career high.

Fowler’s home run also gave St Louis the first run of the game for the second straight game.  The Cards have now claimed the first run in 17 of their last 22 games.

Goldschmidt’s home run gave the Cards a brief lead in the thirteenth inning.  It was his seventh late, game-changing RBI.  He is second on the team in that category.  Paul DeJong has 10.  Matt Carpenter is third with 5.

Through 157 games, the 2019 Cardinals had never played more than eleven innings.  In this century, they have played 20 innings just twice, and 19 innings only one other time.  The 20 inning games came on April 27, 2003 in Florida (a 7-6 win – they were called the Florida Marlins back then), and on April 17, 2010 at home against the Mets (a 2-1 loss).  Their previous 19-inning game this century was on August 19, 2012.  They lost at home to Pittsburgh, 6-3.

The game against the Mets also lasted exactly 6:53, meaning that last night’s game tied that Met game for the longest Cardinal game by time this century.

The Cards have now lost 4 of their last 9 quality starts, and have lost 23 times this season when their starter has given them a quality start, their most such loses since the 2016 team lost 24 quality starts.  At 51-23 in those games, St Louis is losing 31.1% of the time that their starter throws a quality start.  If that percentage holds, it will be the team’s highest since the 2014 team lost 31.9% of its quality starts.

A Season For Old Men

Adam Wainwright turned 38 at the end of August.  Yadier Molina has been 37 since mid-July.  There have certainly been moments during the season where both of them have looked their age.  I’ll bet anything that there have been many moments during the brutal 162-game marathon that is the major league season that both have felt every day of their age.

Nevermind any of that.  September is a glorious month to be an old man playing a boys’ game.  As the last grizzly days of the championship season grind to their end, it’s the old men who are leading the team as it fights its way into a playoff berth.

Last night was not Waino’s best performance this month, but he hung tough and got the outs he needed to get to record his fourteenth win of the season.

As for Yadi, he drove in a couple of runs with productive outs, slapped a single – and, oh yes, kabolished a hanging slider for a no doubt two-run homer – all four of his runs batted in critical as St Louis claimed its ninetieth win of the season – 9-7 over the resilient Diamondbacks.

Kabolish, of course, isn’t a word in the traditional dictionary sense of what we consider words.  Kabolish is a word my wife coined to refer to anything that is more than simply destroyed.

In the wake of last night’s victory, the Cardinals have tightened the noose around the necks of the Brewers – the magic number for claiming the division title is down to three – even as St Louis pushed its division lead over Milwaukee to 3.5 games.

With five games to play, the Cards sit snugly in the catbird seat.

Yadier Molina

Yadi continues the hot series he had in Chicago.  Over his last 4 games he is hitting .412 (7 for 17) with 2 home runs.

Tommy Edman

Tommy Edman – who also added a home run last night – has contributed two hits in 3 straight games.  His current hitting streak is now up to six games, with five of the six being two-hit games.  Edman has also hit in 12 of 13 and 16 of 18.  He is batting .500 (11 for 22) over the six games, with a 1.000 slugging percentage.  His hits are 6 singles, 1 double, 2 triples and 2 home runs.

Edman is now up to .342 (27 for 79) for the month, with 14 extra-base hits, including a team-leading 6 home runs.  Tommy carries a .709 slugging percentage for September.  He is now also over .300 (.301) for the second half.

Paul Goldschmidt

After breaking out of a brief funk with two hits in the last game in Chicago, Paul Goldschmidt returned to Arizona and added two more hits – including an opposite field home run.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong fashioned a six-game hitting streak from September 2 through the seventh.  In the fifteen games since then, Paul has hits in only six of them – going 8 for his last 54, a .148 batting average.

Paul is down to .185 for the month (15 for 81).

Ryan Helsley

First out of the pen was Ryan Helsley, who provided another good inning.  In 11.2 innings across 9 appearances this month, Ryan carries a 2.31 ERA.  In 24.1 second half innings, Helsley’s ERA sits at 1.85.

Giovanny Gallegos

Giovanny Gallegos had one of the more interesting moments in the Saturday game in Chicago – giving up the home run to Tony Kemp after having struck him out on the previous pitch.  Those have been the only runs off of Giovanny in his last 8 appearances (7.2 innings).

His second half ERA is 1.78 after he worked a flawless seventh last night.

NoteBook

The two home runs that Arizona hit last night brought the total against the Cardinal pitching staff to 183 this year.  That total equals the home runs hit against 2017 edition.  The next home run allowed by a Cardinal pitcher will the most home runs surrendered by a Cardinal team in a season since the 2006 team served up 193.

Edman started the scoring and was credited with the game-winning hit – the seventh of his rookie season.  Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna are still tied atop the list with 14 apiece.  Edman is now tied for third on the team with DeJong.  Just behind them are Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Molina with six each, and Jose Martinez with 5.

Yes

The rain never really came – not in time to stop the proceedings, anyway – but the skies were overcast over a breezy, 76-degree afternoon that admitted an intermittent drizzle to dampen the mood of the 38,606 in attendance at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.  It was almost as though the skies anticipated the scene below.

For 8 innings on that grey Chicago Sunday, the Cubs prevailed.  They took a 2-1 lead into the ninth of a game they simply had to win.  This time the fragile lead would not be trusted to the bullpen.  This game, win-or-lose, would belong to the starter Yu Darvish.  He lost it.  After 8 terrific innings, the irrepressible Cardinals broke through for 2 ninth-inning runs against him.  And that was it, the 3-2 victory (box score), finishing a four-game sweep that sent St Louis to the playoffs for the first time in four years and put the Cubs’ playoff hopes on life support.

On Saturday I remembered a series that St Louis played in Chicago in September of 2017.  Ever since that series a question has hung over this franchise – thicker and more ominous than the clouds the enshrouded Wrigley.  The character question re-surfaced time and time again over the last couple of years.  A question so engrained that even as the Cardinals spent the bulk of August and the early part of September pushing around losing teams, the doubt persisted.

Could this team win tough, playoff-deciding, September games against winning teams fighting for playoff spots?

In four nerve-racking, do-or-die, one-run games played on the home field of the team that had repeatedly tormented them since 2017, the answers were yes, yes, yes and yes.

And, to the secondary question of whether the Cards had finally crafted a roster that would take them back to the playoffs, the answer there is also, now, yes.

The sweep, leaving St Louis three ahead of Milwaukee for the division title with six games left, caps a fairly remarkable run.  Sitting with a 26-28 record after their loss on May 29, this frequently disregarded ballclub has gone on to win 63 of its last 102 games – a .618 winning percentage.  They have won some with the offense – although truthfully, over the last 102 games the offensive numbers have been decidedly average – 4.53 runs scored per game and a batting line of .243/.315/.415.

The constant over the last 102 games has been the pitching – that part of the team that was perceived as its strength when we left spring training has spent nearly the last four months asserting its dominance.

Since May 29, the St Louis Cardinals have registered a 3.41 team ERA – 3.35 from the rotation and 3.51 from the bullpen.  If they had maintained those numbers over the course of the entire year, they would be leading all of major-league baseball in ERA (as it stands they are fifth with a 3.78 ERA), the rotation would sit second to the Dodgers (3.15), and the bullpen would also lead all of the majors.  As it currently stands, both the rotation and the pen have 3.78 ERAs for the season – ranking the rotation as sixth and the relievers as third in all of baseball.

The games in Wrigley this weekend varied slightly from that pattern.  The team ERA for the Cub series sat right at that 3.41 mark, but did so without much positive contribution from the bullpen.

Continuing a recent regression – that may have something to do with overuse – the Cardinal bullpen continues to show slippage.  After giving a 5.02 ERA to Chicago with a .263/.323/.474 batting line, the St Louis relief corps is scuffling through September with a 4.61 ERA.  According to baseball reference, that ranks twentieth out of thirty bullpens this month.

While that sounds a worrying note for the team’s future in the playoffs, at least for the Chicago series the rotation stepped clearly to the fore.

In 22.2 innings against a gifted Chicago offense, the four Cardinals starters limited them to a 2.38 ERA and a batting line of .238/.311/.363.  For the month of September that rotation holds a 2.04 ERA – a half run per game better than major league baseball’s second best September rotation – the Yankees at 2.59.

With the end of the regular season upon us, and the playoffs looming in the distance, both of those numbers suggest troubling questions.  How long can the rotation maintain its almost other-worldly domination? And, will the bullpen re-discover its magic in time to keep this team progressing?

Everything has almost completely played itself out for 2019.  While some important questions have been answered, there are a few critical ones that continue to hover.  Stay tuned.

Jack Flaherty

The almost always dominant Jack Flaherty began the series on the perfect note – with 8 dominant innings (1 run on 3 hits).  He wasn’t involved in the decision (a 10-inning, 5-4 victory), but continued his string of stellar starts.  The lost win, by the way, was the team-leading fourth time this season the relievers couldn’t hold on to one of his leads.

Jack has now thrown six consecutive quality starts, and 12 of his last 14 starts have likewise qualified.  He holds a 1.07 ERA over those 14 starts (92.1 innings), over which he has a 6-3 record and 113 strikeouts.  The last 344 batters to hit against Flaherty are hitting .148 and slugging just .237.  He had surrendered just 6 home runs over his last 14 games.

His ERA for September sinks to 1.20, and his second half ERA sits at 1.05.

Lately, Jack has been a strike machine.  Eighty-four of his 118 pitches against Chicago (71.2%) were strikes.  In 4 September starts, Flaherty is throwing strikes 69.2% of the time – the highest ratio in the rotation.

Michael Wacha

Michael Wacha started the Friday game – a 2-1 Cardinal win.  Michael is on a very short leash these days – and has been for quite a while.  In 9 starts since his return to the rotation, Wacha has been pulled before completing 5 innings 6 times (including on Friday).  On four of those occasions – including Friday – Wacha had been pitching quite effectively, but at the earliest opportunity for offense, manager Mike Shildt has gone to his bench and thrown the rest of the game on to the backs of the bullpen – adding, perhaps, to the weariness the Cardinal relief corps may be experiencing.

Over his last 5 starts, Wacha has lasted just 22 innings, although his ERA over that span is 2.05.  He has pitched only 15 innings in his 4 September starts, but with a 1.80 ERA.

The Cards scored no runs for Wacha while he was in there, and have only scored 2 support runs for him this month – 1.20 per nine innings.

As Wacha has righted his ship, he has become an increasingly dominant ground ball pitcher.  Of the 14 Cubs that put the ball in play against him, 9 (64.3%) hit it on the ground.  For the month of September, he is getting 62.7% ground balls, and in the second half, he is now up to 54.2%.

All those ratios are higher than anyone else in the rotation – including Dakota Hudson.

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller – whose season has been marked with inconsistency – was one of the few bullpen heroes of the Cub series.  Andrew pitched in 3 of the 4 games, pitching a total of 3 scoreless innings.  Miller, now has strung together 5 consecutive scoreless outings, totaling 5 innings.  During these innings, Miller – who has been plagued by control issues this season – has thrown 47 of his 60 pitches for strikes – 78%.

Andrew – who has walked only 2 in 8 September innings – is throwing 70.8% of his pitches (97 of 137) for strikes this month.

Tommy Edman

Playing on the biggest stage of his young career, Tommy Edman rose spectacularly to the occasion.  In 4 games against the Cubs, Tommy was 7 for 16 with a double and 2 triples.

Edman’s current hitting streak is up to 5 games.  He has also hit in 11 of his last 12, and 15 of his last 17.  Over the 5 games, Edman is 9 for 19 (.474) with 4 extra-base hits for an .895 slugging percentage.

Tommy could well be a player-of-the-month candidate.  He is now hitting .329 (25 for 76) in September, including 5 doubles, 3 triples and 5 home runs.  He is slugging .671 this month.

Tommy’s trademark is becoming his even polished swing that rarely misses.  Of the 34 swings he took against the Cubs, he only missed on 6 of them (17.6%).  Since he joined the team, his 17.9% miss percentage is exceeded only by Kolten Wong’s 16.0%.

Matt Carpenter

Wong’s hamstring injury opened the door for Matt Carpenter to return to the starting lineup.  After a purgatorial season, Carpenter is closing in style.  His enormous tenth-inning home run on Thursday was the pinnacle of a series that recalled the best of the Matt Carpenter of bygone days.

Matty came to the plate 14 times in Chicago, collecting 2 singles, a double, the home run, 2 walks and a hit-by-pitch.  His batting line for the series was an impressive .364/.500/.727.  Over his last 5 games, Carp’s line is .385/.500/.769.

Carp is now 12 for 36 (.333) in September with 6 extra-base hits and a .556 slugging percentage.

Carpenter is traditionally difficult to double up.  At the plate in 3 double-play opportunities over the weekend, Carpenter didn’t hit into a DP in any of them, and is now 0-for-9 this month.  For the season he has hit into 3 double plays in 72 opportunities, a 4.2% which is second lowest on the team, behind Wong’s 2.3% (2 for 88).

Matt’s other reputation, of course, is for not swinging at the first pitch.  During his struggling first half, he found himself chasing that first pitch more than he usually does – although 23.3% is still comparatively low.

In the month of September, he is chasing that first offering only 13.6% of the time.  In his 14 plate appearances over the weekend, he swung at the first pitch just once.

Yadier Molina

Another of the veterans leading down the stretch is Yadier Molina, who went 6 for 17 (.353) against Chicago.

Yadi is as aggressive as Carpenter is patient.  In Chicago, Molina chased the first pitch 11 times in 17 plate appearances (64.7%), and swung at all pitches 64.5% of the time.  He is up to 54.7% swinging at the first pitch this month.  For the season, Yadi is the only Cardinal regular to swing at more than half the pitches thrown his way (55.9%).

Needless to say, Yadi is almost never called out on strikes.  All 4 of his strikeouts this weekend were swinging.  He has taken strike three only 4 times this year.

Dexter Fowler

Ex-Cub Dexter Fowler was one of the few Cards to struggle at Wrigley.  He was 2 for 15 (.133) both singles.  Dex has just 1 extra-base hit (a double) over his last 10 games – a span in which he is hitting .147 (5 for 34) with 147 strikeouts.

Dexter is hitting just .203 (14 for 69) in September.  He has only 4 extra-base hits this month, and is slugging just .290.

NoteBook

The injury to Wong interrupted his streak of consecutive starts at second base at 18.  He and shortstop Paul DeJong had shared the longest current streak of consecutive starts on the team.  DeJong heads to Arizona having made 21 consecutive starts at short.

The Cards head to Arizona with more victories in the second half of the season (in 68 games) than they managed in 88 games during the first half.  With a record of 44-44 at the break, the Cards are 45-23 since (a .662 pace).

The Cardinals have now swept 4 four-game series this year, pulling big sweeps off against the Dodgers and Rockies at home and going on the road to sweep four from the Pirates before rolling the Cubs.  Overall, the Cards have played 13 four-game series, winning 9, losing 2 and splitting 2.  They were 37-15 in the games of those series.

Overall, St Louis has completed the sweep 9 times in 15 sweep opportunities.

The Saturday afternoon attendance total of 40,071 was the largest road crowd the Cards had played to since their series in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.  On the final day of that series (August 7) they played to 48,994.

At 4 hours and 24 minutes, the Saturday game was also the Cards’ longest nine-inning game of the season.  The previous long game had been the 9-8 loss to San Francisco on September 4.  That game lasted 4:05.  Saturday was, in fact, the longest nine-inning ballgame the Cards have played this century.  Previously they played a nine-inning game in 4:19.  That was in Colorado on April 16, 2000 (the second game of a doubleheader).  The final there was Colorado 14, St Louis 13 (in a game that featured only two home runs) – (box score).  The first game that day – by the way – was played in a snappy 2:53 (a 9-3 Cardinal win).

First Two Games Go To the Cards

Sometimes there is that moment.

In an eerily familiar parallel, St Louis went into Wrigley Field in mid-September of 2017 (Friday, the fifteenth, to be exact).  In this instance, it was the Cardinals who were three games behind.  That year – as with this year – they would play Chicago 7 times over the last 12 games of the season, three in Chicago (that year) and four in St Louis.  Then, as now, the enormity of the series was palpable.

In 2017, Carlos Martinez was the Cardinals’ ace starter, and matched against ex-Cardinal John Lackey in the opening game.  Carlos almost could not have been better.  Through four innings, he allowed 1 run on 3 hits with no walks and 5 strikeouts.

But then came that moment.  Top of the fifth.  Martinez, himself, is at the plate, with runners at first and second and two outs.  Lackey believes his 2-2 pitch has Carlos struck out, and starts heading back to the bench.  But umpire Jordan Baker calls it ball three, and Lackey’s loose grip on his emotions begins to unravel.

When John looped a hanging slider over the plate on 3-2, Carlos shot it into center field for the single that gave St Louis a crucial 2-1 lead.  And John Lackey lost it.

With the Wrigley crowd urging him on, Lackey and catcher Willson Contreras verbally landed on Baker – and Contreras needed to be restrained or he may well have physically landed on him.  In the altercation, in fact, Contreras slammed his mask into the turf so hard that it hit the umpire.  Apparently, there is no suspension for that sort of thing, because Willson was back in the lineup the next day.

But he and Lackey were certainly done for that afternoon, both ejected.  But that mattered little.  Like a hockey team after a fight, the Cubs were aroused.

The next time the top of the order came up in the sixth, they took Martinez down.

Three singles and two walks pushed the baby bears back in front 3-2, with the bases still loaded and just one out.  Javier Baez’ nubber back to the mound might have been the double-play that would staunch the bleeding, leaving the Cards still hanging in the game.

But Carlos couldn’t get a handle on the ball.  Everyone was safe – and the next thing anyone knew, Chicago had thrown 7 runs on the board, on their way to a convincing 8-2 victory (box score).

That was the game and the moment when the character gap between these two teams was clearly first evident.  The separation here was more than talent.  Chicago basically took that game away from the visiting Cardinals.  For that game and the rest of the weekend, the team from Chicago was consistently mentally tougher.

Chicago went on to sweep the three games – leaving the Cardinal season on life support.  They finished the job a week later, when they won three of the four in St Louis to bury the birds – who ended the season nine games behind.

The 2018 team was never really close enough to threaten, but – up until last night – the 2019 season carried that same vibe.  The not-tough-enough Cardinals fading before the Cubs.  It showed in general as Chicago swept the first two series in Wrigley this year – especially this game from June 8 – an embarrassing affair, in which the Cards jumped on the Cubs with four in the first, never scored again, and watched Chicago waltz off with a 9-4 win.

That loss left St Louis 4.5 games behind Chicago.

Fast-forward to Thursday night.  Jack Flaherty – pitching in the biggest game of his life – gives St Louis 8 brilliant innings, and hands off a 4-1 lead to the bullpen – or rather to Carlos Martinez again, now re-purposed as the Cardinal closer.

And it’s nearly the same story – without all the Lackey ejection drama.  A walk, a single and a double shave the Cardinal lead to 4-2.  There is one out, and the tying runs are on second and third.  This time it is Contreras dribbling the ball in between the mound and third base.  Martinez can’t make the play again (although this a much tougher play) and it’s a one-run game with the tying run at third.

But it is at this precise moment that the script changes – and with it, perhaps, the fortunes of these two franchises.

Andrew Miller enters to pitch to Jason Heyward who slaps the 0-1 pitch to the right side.  Off the bat, it looks like a base hit, but Cardinal second baseman Tommy Edman sticks a glove out there, gathers the ball in, keeps his feet, and throws out Heyward.  The tying run scores, but at the expense of the second out.  Miller then retires Nico Hoerner on a flyball.

Seven pitches into the top of the tenth, Matt Carpenter – struggling through the toughest year of his career – delivers what is arguably the biggest hit of the season as he drives Craig Kimbrel’s fastball deep over the center field wall.  And all of a sudden the team from St Louis had out-toughed the bullies from the north side (box score).

They followed that up Friday afternoon with another gritty 2-1 win.

On Monday, we will assess the series and look at all the numbers.  But the first two games of this set are not about the numbers.  These two games have been about the narrowing of the character gap.  The heroes here have been a satisfying blend of old (Carpenter and Yadier Molina) and new (Flaherty, Edman and Giovanny Gallegos).

St Louis now has its foot firmly on the neck of its ancient rival.  The Cubs are five back (in the division) with just 8 games to play.  Of course, five of those games are against St Louis.  When Milwaukee was in town earlier this month, the Cards had their foot on the neck of the Brewers, but couldn’t finish them off (and they may live to regret that).  With the first two games of this series in their win column, the Cards could do themselves a world of good – as well as turning over a new page in this rivalry – if they can finish these guys off (like they did to us in 2017).

NFL Week Two:

Bye Bye to Ben and Brees

Both plays looked so innocuous.

In the first half of the Seattle-Pittsburgh game (gamebook) (summary), Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked 4 times, and bounced right along.  On their third offensive snap of the game, Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down in the arms of Branden Jackson for a seven-yard loss.  This would be the only quarterback sack that Seattle would achieve on this afternoon.

It was the 503rd time that Big Ben was sacked in his career.  And it would be his last for 2019.  He came up shaking his right elbow.  Ben played the entire rest of the half, throwing the ball fifteen times and grasping that elbow after almost every one of those throws.  He is now facing elbow surgery and is done for the year.

A few hours later in Los Angeles, Drew Brees was trying to step up in the pocket against the Rams.  Tripping over an offensive lineman, Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald stretched out his massive hand and closed it around Brees’ just after the pass got off.

Again, the play looked harmless enough.  But somewhere in the brief contact, Drew’s ulnar collateral ligament gave way.  Surgery has corrected the damage, but Drew will need six to eight weeks to recover.

Ben and Drew have been pillars in the NFL, now for about 15 years.  They have combined for 3 Super Bowl titles, 131,390 passing yards, and 885 touchdown passes.  So when both go down on the same afternoon, it’s headline worthy.

Rudolph to the Rescue

The Steelers will now hand the reigns to Mason Rudolph.  A third-round pick out of Oklahoma State back in 2018, Rudolph saw his first NFL action in Sunday’s second half.  He didn’t look cowed at all or overmatched, completing 12 of 19 for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns, while suffering an interception that wasn’t his fault.

The Steelers came up just short, 26-28.  In the end, it was the unstoppable Wilson, who kept answering the Steeler scoring drives.  Russell was an impressive 14 for 16 (87.5%) in the second half, on his way to another three-touchdown performance.

Seattle unveiled an impressive newcomer of their own in receiver D.K. Metcalf.  A second-round pick out of Mississippi, Metcalf added 3 catches for 61 yards and his first career touchdown after catching 4 passes for 89 yards in the opener against Cincinnati.  DK is listed as 6-4, and it looks like about five feet of that is his legs.

Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water

The Saints have gone in a different direction to plug their hole at quarterback.  They will turn to veteran Teddy Bridgewater.  Teddy was last seen leading Minnesota to the playoffs in 2015 before injuries of his own sidelined him for the next two years.

After Brees left the game, the New Orleans offense dried up.  The Saint defense held them in the game for a half (the Rams led at intermission by only 6-3), but couldn’t hold them off indefinitely. LA punched home three second half touchdowns, and won convincingly, 27-9 (gamebook) (summary).

Certainly losing your starting quarterback doesn’t help your chances.  This, though, would have been a tough victory for the Saints regardless.  The Ram defense – in case anyone asks you – is for real.  They stuffed an elite running game in New Orleans.  The Saints managed 19 rushing yards (on 12 attempts) in the first half, and finished the day with 57 yards and a 2.9 average.  After Alvin Kamara racked up 140 scrimmage yards in the second half against Houston, Los Angeles limited him to 60 for the game.

Brees might have been able to conjure up some magic had he stayed in, but this game mostly belonged to the Ram defensive line.

Of note, though, is the fact that the officials once again cost New Orleans a touchdown.  LA’s only turnover of the game was a sack-fumble when Trey Hendrickson stripped the ball out of Jared Goff’s hands.  Inexplicably, the play was originally ruled an incomplete pass, although Jared’s hand was clearly empty as he completed his throwing motion.

On the other end of that fumble was Saint defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, who returned the fumble 87 yards for the score that should have given the Saints the lead.  On review, the call was changed to a fumble, and the Saints were given the ball.  But since the whistle blew, the return was wiped out.

On the ensuing drive, New Orleans pushed the ball almost to mid-field and then went for it on fourth-and-one (calling a running play).  As dominant as the Ram defensive line was on this afternoon, that was probably not he call to make.

Run Commitment in AFC South

Watching the Indianapolis Colts outlast the Tennessee Titans, 19-17 (gamebook) (summary), was like watching the same team in two different jerseys.  The early read on both these teams is pretty much the same.  Both have tough defenses, both are committed to running the football, and neither passing game is very scary.

In the game, the Colts and Titans combined to run the ball 36 times for 193 yards (5.4 per rush) in the second half alone.  In a losing effort, Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota threw the ball only 28 times – something rarely seen in the modern era.

Adventures in Officiating

Was there a second left, or not?

Well, first, I suppose, we need to talk about the roughing the passer penalty.

Like the Rams-Saints contest, the Chicago Bears and the Denver Broncos also went into the half at 6-3 – a half in which neither team even made it into the red zone.

But now, playing just their second game of the season – at high altitude and in 87 degree heat – the vaunted Chicago defense began to wilt as Denver’s new quarterback – Joe Flacco – set up for an oppressive 33 pass plays.

Held to just 129 first half yards, Denver ran an exhausting 45 second half plays at the Bear defense for 243 yards while controlling the ball for 17:51 of those last 30 minutes.

Trailing 13-6 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Broncos almost sealed the game with a 16-play, 84-yard, 7:57 drive that reached the Chicago 2-yard line. 

But cornerback Kyle Fuller out-fought receiver Emmanuel Sanders and intercepted Flacco’s pass in the end zone.

Undaunted, Denver – on its last possession of the game – marched 62 yards in 12 plays for what seemed to be the game-winning touchdown (a seven-yard pass to Sanders).

The two teams would combine to convert just 2 of 12 third-down opportunities in the second half, but they would combine to go 4-for-4 on fourth-down.  Twice on what they thought was their game-winning drive, Denver went for it on fourth down – including a fourth-and-ten at midfield.  So it was no surprise that they would go for (and earn) two points after their touchdown.

Trailing, now, 14-13, Chicago would begin on their own 25 with 31 seconds left in the game and just 1 timeout.  To this point of the contest, the Bear offense had been as moribund in the second half as it was in the first.  After 141 yards of total offense over the first two quarters, as they set up for the first play of the final drive of the game, they had managed just 102 second half yards.  Their lone play of the game (to that point) of over 20 yards was a 46-yard run by Cordarrelle Patterson, setting up Chicago’s only touchdown of the day.

But the game’s complexion changed on the very first play of the drive.  Rolling to his right, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky dumped off a short pass to Trey Burton.  As he was in the act of throwing the football, Bronco linebacker Bradley Chubb wrapped him up and dropped him.  For his effort, in what seemed for all the world like a completely legal play, he drew the roughing the passer penalty that would cost Denver the game.

The penalty yards were added to the passing yards, and that – with the clock stoppage that came after the penalty – set the Bears up suddenly at their own 45 with 24 seconds and still one timeout left.

Three incompletions and a pre-snap penalty later, and things looked less rosy of the Bears.  They still had their timeout, but faced fourth and 15 from their own 40 with 9 seconds left.

For an agonizing eternity, Trubisky hung in the pocket waiting for someone to uncover.  At seemingly the last second, Allen Robinson worked his way into a crease in the zone, 25-yards up the field.  I think that the Bears began calling for the timeout as soon as Mitch released the throw.  As Robinson hit the turf on the Denver 35-yard line, the clock showed all zeros.

But the officials determined that there was still one second left on the clock, meaning that they would have had to have award the timeout in the very heartbeat that Robinson’s knee hit the turf.

A slow motion replay revealed that there was at least a partial second left at the moment the knee hit.  Still, this would constitute the fastest awarded timeout I have ever seen.

New Bear kicker Eddy Pineiro,/a> then kicked the winning field goal (no chip shot at 53 yards) and the Broncos start their season 0-2 (summary). The two plays (Patterson’s 46-yard run and Robinson’s 25-yard reception) represented over 57% of Chicago’s total offense in the second half.

It is understandable if Denver felt itself poorly used by the officiating crew.  It certainly seemed like they made a concerted effort to give Chicago every opportunity to win the game.

The New Orleans Saints, of course, can empathize.  And then some.

Cards Can’t Take Control of Central

When the Cardinals’ plane landed in Denver prior to last Tuesday’s game against the Rockies, St Louis had won 23 of 30 games and climbed from 3.5 games behind in the division to 4 games ahead.

But the magic seems to have vanished somewhere over the mountains.  Last night they were pushed around by Washington, 6-2 (box score) their fifth loss in the last eight games.

And so, the division is still sitting there for the taking.  The Cardinal lead is down now to just two games over both Chicago and Milwaukee.  St Louis has 11 games left – only four at home.  Increasingly, it is looking that the 2019 National League Central Division will be decided in Wrigley Field beginning Thursday night.

All but on life-support when they arrived in St Louis, the Milwaukee Brewers – after taking two of three from the Cards – are now well positioned to make the playoffs again.  While they do end the season with six games on the road, the Brewers have no winning teams left on their schedule.  As long as they take care of the business before them, they will almost certainly gain on either the Cards or the Cubs, as those two teams will play each other seven more times before the season ends.

And if those games are fairly even divided, Milwaukee could easily swoop in and take the division.  To say the least, it will be a very interesting two weeks.

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna, of course, was the hero of the Monday game – his home run and double accounting for all the Cardinal offense.  He followed that performance with an 0-for-3 last night.  Unfortunately, that latter result has been much more the norm than his Monday show.

Over his last 19 games, Marcell has had multiple hits in just 2, while being held hitless in 12 of them.  Marcell is 9 for his last 69 (.130).  Counting his 4 on Monday, Ozuna has 9 runs batted in over those 19 games.

He is now a .155 hitter for the month (9 for 58).

Marcell – who was 0-for-2 against Washington starter Patrick Corbin – has been one of the most prominent right-handed bats that have never really punished left-handed pitching.  He is 13 for 72 (.181) against lefties.  He hit .314/.362/.533 against them last year.

Giovanny Gallegos

There was more damage done to the bullpen last night, as a 3-2 game got out of hand over the last two innings.  The Cardinal bullpen has slumped to a 4.67 ERA this month.

But in the midst of this trouble, Giovanny Gallegos – who was dinged for a couple of runs over a few recent games – has started to look very much like his old self.  He pitched to 4 batters last night, and struck out 3 of them.  Giovanny holds a 1.29 ERA in the second half over 28 innings.

Much valued for his ability to dominate left-handed batters, Gallegos struck out both he faced last night.  Lefties are now 0 for 12 with 7 strikeouts against Giovanny this month, and 4 for 45 (.089) with 19 strikeouts in the second half.

John Gant

It was when John Gant entered the game that things started to go seriously awry, as John continues to regress severely from his early season dominance.  Gant faced two batters, giving a hit and a walk.  One of the runners scored after he left the game.  John has seen runs scored against him in 5 of his last 10 games, a 7.1 inning span that has seen him give 10 runs (9 earned) on 10 hits and 11 walks (1 intentional).  He has allowed the last 42 batters to face him a .323 batting average and a .500 on base percentage.

He is up to 6.86 with the ERA in the second half.

NoteBook

St Louis has now lost 3 of the last 5 quality starts they’ve received from their rotation.  It brings them to 48-22 on the season in games in which they’ve received a quality start.

They have now lost more quality starts than any Cardinal team since the 2016 team finished 56-24 in those games.  They are now up to 31.4% of these games lost – the highest rate since the 2014 team (62-29) lost 31.9% of the time they got a quality start.

In allowing one of the two runners he inherited to score, Ryan Helsley has now seen 6 of his 11 inherited runners cross the plate (54.5%).

St Louis had scored first in six consecutive games prior to last night.

Hudson Stays Grounded

When Dakota Hudson walked off the mound last night, after holding Washington to 2 runs over seven innings, he continued an extraordinary run of starting pitching, both for himself, personally, and for the team here in the final month of the 2019 regular season.

Dakota has now put together quality starts in 6 of his last 7 outings, going 6-1 with a 1.59 ERA.  The last 173 batters to face him hold a batting line of .139/.244/.245.

Halfway through September, now, and the Cardinals have four starters with ERAs under 2.00 for the month – and Hudson’s is the worst of those (1.89).  With three starts each this month, Dakota trails Adam Wainwright (0.45), Jack Flaherty (1.23) and Michael Wacha (1.64).  The entire rotation sits at a 1.96 ERA 16 games into September.

It will be interesting to see how long they can keep this up.

Meanwhile, Hudson is enjoying consistent success the more he stays grounded.  In the figurative sense, of course, this refers to his pitch-to-pitch focus – something manager Mike Shildt calls “staying in the moment.”  But there is an equally important literal sense to Dakota’s staying grounded.

In his 7 innings last night, Hudson induced 13 ground balls.  That is a huge key for him.  Thirty starts into his major league career, and Dakota has induced at least 10 ground balls in 15 of them.  He has 12 quality starts in those games, going 9-2 with a 2.48 ERA in 90.2 innings.

None of the 13 grounders hit against him last night were hits, and only 4 of the last 64 groundballs he has allowed have found holes.

Dakota is pitching extremely well right now.

Tommy Edman

St Louis had only 5 hits last night, but two of them belonged to Tommy Edman – who extended his hitting streak to 6 games.  He has also hit safely in 10 of his last 11.  He is hitting .364 (8 for 22) over the six games, and .326 (14 for 43) over his last 11.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong was hitless in three at bats again last night.  Paul has been held hitless in 5 of his last 8 games, hitting .133 (4 for 30) in that span.  He is hitting .193 (11 for 57) in September, with only 3 walks (contributing to a .242 on base percentage).

NoteBook

Marcell Ozuna re-took the team lead in game-winning RBIs by driving in all four Cardinal runs last night.  Ozuna now has 14 GWH.  Paul Goldschmidt is right behind with 13.

St Louis has now scored first in six straight games and 12 of the last 14.

Brewers Batter Bird’s Bullpen

Holding a four-game lead in the division, the St Louis Cardinal’s penultimate home stand began emphatically last Friday night when Paul Goldschmidt broke a scoreless third-inning tie with a grand slam home run.  Goldschmidt followed up that shot with a three-run homer three innings later as the Cards cruised to a 10-0 win in the opener (box score).

Sunday afternoon, the first series of the home stand ended just as emphatically when Ryan Braun drilled a ninth-inning grand slam of his own to send the Brewers to a 7-6 win (box score) and a 2-1 series victory.  With a chance to put their foot on the throats of a dangerous division rival, the Cards instead saw their division lead sliced in half.  They wake up this morning holding a two-game margin over Chicago, and, now, just a three-game cushion on the Brewers – who they will face no more this season.

The most troubling development from the lost opportunity was the fact that Milwaukee feasted on the St Louis bullpen – heretofore the team’s greatest strength.

In the Sunday afternoon contest, Milwaukee scored all 7 runs (6 of them earned) on 7 hits, 3 walks, a hit batsman and two home runs – all in the last four innings against the bullpen after starter Michael Wacha had shut them out on five hits through the first five innings.

The three Cardinal starters in the series worked 17 innings allowing just 3 runs on 12 hits – including just 1 home run.  They walked only 5 as they fashioned a 1.59 ERA.

In 10 innings during the series, the pen was solved for 9 runs (8 earned) on 7 walks, 2 hit batsmen and 9 hits that included 3 home runs.  Their ERA during the series was a sobering 7.20.

Over the ebb and flow of a baseball season, this kind of thing happens, and as such is nothing to be too concerned about – until a pattern starts to develop.

And sadly, this melt-down wasn’t quite an isolated incident.  Over the last 11 games, the rotation has delivered 60 innings of 1.80 ERA baseball, allowing 21 walks, 5 home runs, and a .201 batting average against.  Over those same 11 games, in just 36 innings, the bullpen has blown 4 leads, allowed 44% of their inherited runners to score, while posting a 5.50 ERA.  They have walked 19 batters (and hit 3 others) in those innings, serving up 6 home runs of their own.

In the sixth inning of the Saturday contest, Milwaukee turned two walks, a single and a ground-out into the run that gave them a 3-2 lead.  In the 10.1 innings that the St Louis starters pitched with the games tied, that was the only run scored against them. – an 0.87 ERA.  The starters did a remarkable job holding the Brewers down until the offense could get a lead.

The problem was holding that lead.  In 12.1 innings pitching with any kind of lead, the St Louis ERA was 5.84.  If that lead was less than four runs, the team ERA during the series was 11.37 in 6.1 innings.

Needless to say, a situation to keep an eye on.

Junior Fernandez

Junior Fernandez had made 7 consecutive scoreless appearances, totaling 7.2 innings, before serving up the hanging slider for Braun.  It was the first home run hit off of Fernandez in his major league career.

John Gant

John Gant set the game-winning rally in motion on Sunday afternoon.  He had pitched a devastatingly good seventh inning on Saturday, striking out all three batters to face him.  On Sunday he couldn’t throw a strike, walking the bases loaded (the Brewers who would score in front of Braun).

It has been a while since Gant was consistently good.  A revelation early in the season, Johnny has now served up earned runs in 10 of his last 26 games.  Over his last 23.1 innings, he has given 20 runs (18 earned) on 28 hits and 21 walks.  He has a 6.94 ERA over that span, with a .308 batting average against and a .438 on base percentage allowed.  His second half ERA is now 6.41 over 19.2 innings.  He finished the first half at 2.22 over 44.2 innings.

Tyler Webb

Tyler Webb is also slipping back after a sustained run of excellent pitching.  Tyler served up the home run that put the Saturday game out of reach (box score).  He has now given runs in 3 of his last 8 games.  In his last 4.1 total innings, Tyler has yielded 7 runs on 4 hits – 2 of them home runs).  He has also walked 6 batters in those innings.

Adam Wainwright

Even as the bullpen has had some recent struggles, the rotation had had an impressive resurgence – none more impressive than Friday’s starter (and winner) Adam Wainwright.  Adam tossed six innings of 2-hit shutout ball, and has now given just 1 run in 20 innings (0.45 ERA) over his last 3 starts.  The last 73 batters to face him hold a .174/.219/.217 batting line.

Jack Flaherty

Jack Flaherty’s start on Saturday wasn’t as dominant as most of his recent performances.  He still delivered a quality start, and struck out 10 in 6 innings.  He is 6-3 over his last 13 starts with a 1.07 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 84.1 innings.  Over those last 13 starts, Jack has gotten more than two runs of support just 3 times.

Flaherty’s ERA is still at 1.23 for the month, and 1.05 in the second half.

Michael Wacha

With his five scoreless on Sunday, Wacha’s September ERA slides to just 1.64 – albeit for just 11 innings over 3 starts.

Kolten Wong

As much as anyone else, Kolten Wong continues to be the offensive catalyst.  He was 5 for 12 against Milwaukee, and is hitting .438 (7 for 16) over his last 4 games.

Kolten is hitting .309 (17 for 55) for the month, and .351 (65 for 185) since the break.

Tommy Edman

With hits in all three games, Tommy Edman extends his current hitting streak to five games, during which he is hitting .333 (6 for 18).  Edman also has hits in 9 of his last 10 games, hitting .308 (12 for 39) but slugging .744, as those hits include 3 doubles, a triple, and 4 home runs.  Tommy has driven in 8 in his last 10 games.

Paul Goldschmidt

Goldschmidt’s two-homer game on Friday extended his hitting streak to five very noisy games – Paul was 6 for 15, with 5 extra-base hits and 3 walks.  He drove in 10 during the five games, with a batting line of .400/.500/1.000.  Goldy had also hit in 8 of 9 at that point, going 11 for 28 with 9 walks in those games.  He would go hitless in the last two games of the series, but after driving in 15 runs over his previous 9 games, while hitting .393/.541/.821.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong hit a clutch home run that gave the Cards the lead in the Sunday game, but it was one of only two hits for DeJong in the series.  Over his last 7 games, Paul is just 4 for 27 (.148).

He has hit, now, 3 home runs this month, but is just 11 for 54 (.204) while drawing just 2 walks against 17 strikeouts.

NoteBook

The Friday grand slam held up as the game-winning hit for Goldschmidt – his thirteenth of the season – tying him with Marcell Ozuna for the team lead.

DeJong’s two-run seventh-inning home run Sunday afternoon briefly gave St Louis a 3-2 lead.  No one on the team has more late-inning, game-changing RBIs than Paulie – who now has 9.  The next closest on the team are Matt Carpenter and Goldschmidt with 5 each.

As mentioned, Flaherty struck out 10 Brewers in 6 innings, bringing his season’s strikeout total to 206.  Jack is just 23 years old and in just his third season.  He struck out 182 last year, and now has 408 for his career in 346.2 career innings.

Friday night’s attendance of 47,075 was the largest crowd to see a Cardinal game since the last game in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.  That August 7 game was attended by 48,994.  Friday was the largest home crowd since 47,117 showed up on June 23 – the last night of Albert-stock when the other LA team was in for a visit.

The Friday game – which St Louis led 10-0 after 6 – was also the first time St Louis had carried a double-digit lead into the seventh inning since May 9, when a five-run sixth gave them a 16-4 lead over Pittsburgh on the way to an eventual 17-4 victory (box score).

The Cards scored first in all three games (for all the good it did them).  They have now scored first in 5 straight games, and 11 of 13.

This was the twenty-sixth series this season when the Cards won the opening game, and only the seventh time in those 26 series that they’ve been forced to play a rubber game.  St Louis has now lost 5 of the 7 rubber games.

After Saturday’s loss, St Louis has lost two of their last three quality starts.  For the season, the Cards are 47-21 when their starter throws a quality start.  At 30.9%, they are losing quality starts at the highest rate since the 2014 team lost 31.9% of their quality starts (62-29).

Nothing Wrong With a Lead-Off Homer . . or Two . . or More

Tim Melville’s first pitch of the game wasn’t terrible (some of his later ones were).  That first slider, perhaps, didn’t have the bite that Tim would have liked, but the location was OK – down and in on lead-off batter Dexter Fowler.

But Dexter was looking for that pitch – probably in just that spot – and he buried it deep into the right-field stands.  Before the afternoon had run its course, Cardinal batters had crushed 5 home runs and 3 doubles as part of a convincing 10-3 victory (box score).  As the Cardinal lineup was constructed for power – and as they were playing in one of baseball’s most offensive ballparks – this result was much less surprising than the pair of 2-1 games that preceded it.  What was surprising – and gratifying – was that 4 of the 5 long balls came from the lead-off hitters in the first four innings – reportedly, the first time in franchise history that has happened.

For the bulk of the season, lack of production from leadoff hitters has been one of the factors that has been stalling the Cardinal offense.  In the 782 offensive innings leading up to the All-Star break, Cardinal lead-off hitters were hitting just .233/.306/.381.  In those 782 innings, those lead-off hitters scored just 112 times.

As the second half began, lead-off production dropped even more.  From mid-July through the beginning of September, St Louis got a batting line of .218/.292/.375 from their first batters over 394 innings.  Only 11 of those 394 innings began with a home run.

September has been quite another story.  Yesterday’s leadoff hitters went 4 for 8 (the 4 home runs) along with Kolten Wong’s walk that initiated the four-run ninth – so all 5 lead-off batters that reached scored.  Through the first 105 offensive innings of September, St Louis’ lead-off hitters are chipping in at a .301/.381/.559 clip.

Classically, the lead-off guy just gets on and waits to be driven in by the guys behind him.  But the lead-off home run is OK, too.

Dexter Fowler

Fowler had a terrific return to Coors Field.  The one-time Rockie ignited what offense St Louis generated through the series, going 5 for 9 with 2 doubles, the lead-off home run, 4 walks and 3 runs scored.  Dex had a .692 on base percentage in the three games.

Dex has lead off 18 of the 105 offensive innings this month, reaching 7 times (.389).

Kolten Wong

Wong added the only Cardinal home run that didn’t come from a lead-off hitter.  He followed Fowler’s lead-off shot with one of his own.  He also added a double, and is leading the team, batting .347 in the second half.

Wong – especially in the second half – has embraced the opportunity to lead off innings.  In 37 such opportunities, Kolten is hitting .323/.432/.484.  During his first three seasons, Kolten carried a .291 on base percentage when leading off innings.  Over the last four years of his career, that has improved dramatically.  Beginning in 2016 and over 385 innings, Kolten has hit .299/.379/.507 when leading off.

Andrew Knizner

Andrew Knizner began his career 0 for 10.  With Yadier Molina and Matt Wieters ahead of him, starts at the major league level have been a little hard for Andrew to come by.  But Knizner started yesterday afternoon and contributed a couple of hits.  He now has at least one hit in each of his last ten starts, hitting .282 (11 for 39) and slugging .487 (2 doubles and 2 home runs) in those starts – during which he has driven in 7 runs.

Bullpen to the Rescue Again

After starter Miles Mikolas battled through 5 innings, he turned the 6-3 lead over to the bullpen.  The St Louis relief corps – who, according to baseball reference – lead the major leagues in ERA (3.38) since the break took it from there.  They walked a few more than normal – 4 over the last 4 innings to go with a hit batsman – but they struck out 8, allowed just 2 hits – and, of course, no runs.

Tyler Webb

Tyler Webb invited a little trouble in the sixth.  He faced only two batters, walking the second.  Still, the runner didn’t score, and Webb’s second half ERA drops to 2.95 with a .141 batting average against over 18.1 innings.

Giovanny Gallegos

Giovanny Gallegos lowered his second half ERA to just 1.38, although his performance was more up-and-down than earlier in the season.  He took over in the sixth and struck out both batters he faced.  He came back out for the seventh, but was less in command, walking a batter and allowing a triple – fortunately picking up a double play in between those results – before leaving the fray.

Carlos Martinez

Whatever the tomorrow of Carlos Martinez will be, today he is embracing the closer’s role with the kind of dominance that the Cards have been hoping for.  In the game’s most stressful moment, in the eighth inning, Cards still up 6-3, but with Rockies at second and third and only one out, Carlos was summoned from the pen.  Not blinking for a second, Carlos struck out both batters he faced, preserving the lead.

This is now 9 consecutive scoreless appearances for Martinez, totaling 9 innings.  He has allowed 2 hits (both singles) and 3 walks in those innings, while striking out 14 (of the last 31 batters to face him) and stranding all 4 of his inherited runners.  His batting average against (and slugging average against, too, for that matter) is .071, and those batters are missing on 33% of their swings against him.

That is getting it done.

NoteBook

Fowler not only set the tone for the afternoon by drilling the first pitch of the game over the boards, he also earned the game-winning hit for the blast – his sixth this season.  He is now tied with Paul DeJong for third on the team.  Marcell Ozuna (13) and Paul Goldschmidt (12) are well ahead of the group.  Just behind Fowler and DeJong are Matt Carpenter, Tommy Edman, Jose Martinez and Molina with 5 each.

With his two stolen bases yesterday, Wong – over the 20 mark in steals for just the second time in his career – established a new career high of 22 steals.

On September 4, in a 9-8 loss to San Francisco, the Cardinals played their longest nine-inning game of the season (4:05).  Yesterday afternoon’s 3:56 marathon didn’t eclipse the San Francisco game, but it was the longest nine-inning road game of the season.  Previously, a 10-7 loss in Milwaukee on April 15 had taken 3:51.

The Cards scored first in each of the last two games of the series, and have done so in 8 of their last 10.

Football’s Back in Town

Even as baseball is lining up for its big finish, the one hundredth NFL season kicked off over the weekend.  As always, there were some surprises.

In particular, Week One saw three road teams serve notice – although only one of them won.  That one would be the Green Bay Packers – who went into Soldier Field and upset the reigning division champions (perhaps, a harbinger of future difficulties for Chicago based teams?).  The Cincinnati Bengals (who have been fairly irrelevant for a few seasons now) and the Washington Redskins (equally unimportant recently) gave homestanding playoff teams in Seattle and Philadelphia (respectively) all they could handle.

There were other surprises, too.

Adventures in Kicking

Among the many things the NFC defending champs from Los Angeles do well is special teams – especially the contributions of punter Johnny Hekker and place kicker Greg Zuerlein.  Hekker’s first punt of the day traveled 7 yards.  His last punt was blocked.  With 4:10 left in regulation, Zeurlein missed a 41-yarder (normally a chip shot for him) that would have iced the game.

The Rams would win, anyway, holding off a game Carolina team 30-27, but you could tell it was the first game of the season for both.

One of football’s best running teams last year, Los Angeles struck the Panthers with 166 rushing yards – 130 of them on a whopping 20 carries in the second half.

Adventures in Kicking Part Two

Los Angeles’ other playoff football team came this close to losing its home opener to an Indianapolis team that had recently lost superstar quarterback Andrew Luck to retirement.  The Chargers were forced to win in overtime, 30-24, but only because Indianapolis’ sure-fire hall-of-fame kicker Adam Vinatieri missed an extra point, and two of three field goal attempts (from 46 to end the first half and 44 to begin the second).  I haven’t done any research, but I’m pretty sure it was Adam’s worst day ever.

In many ways, I’m sure, the team on the other side of the field could relate.  Prior to last year, the Chargers may have lost a half-dozen games due to missed kicks over the previous couple of seasons.

At any rate, there were enough positives to come out of the defeat that Colts fans – while disappointed – have every reason for high expectations for the rest of the season.  Filling in for Luck, Jacoby Brissett was more than capable – although, to this point he is not the downfield threat that Andrew was.  Jacoby completed 77.8% of his throws (21 for 27) but for only 190 yards (9.05 per completion).

However, given the proficiency of Indianapolis’ running game, that kind of game management should be more than sufficient.  Last year, the Colts built an offensive line to keep Luck comfy in the pocket.  This year, they have learned that they can lean on that line in the run game.

The Colts ran the ball 22 times for 173 yards and a touchdown.  And that was just the second half.  For the game, the Chargers were gashed to the tune of 203 yards and an average of 6.2 yards per rush.

Last year, we made note of several teams that featured the running game over the passing attack – we called them Neanderthal teams.  The Colts look like they are headed in this direction this year.

Exhibit A is the fourth quarter of their opener.  8:30 left in the game.  Indy holds the ball on its own 20, trailing 24-16.  And they run the ball.  Five consecutive times.  They would run the ball a total of ten times on the 80-yard, 16-play drive that led to the game-tying touchdown with 38 seconds left in regulation.

In the end, though, the game belonged to Philip Rivers – especially the second half, when he completed 14 of 17 passes (82.4%) for 216 yards.  Averaging 15.43 yards per completion in the half, Rivers was as dynamic as Brissett was pedestrian – and the Chargers balanced off with 125 rushing yards of their own.

Abandoning the Run

Not at all in the Neanderthal mindset were the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Down 20 to 0 at the half in New England, the Steelers put their running game on the shelf and dialed up passes on 35 of their 37 second half plays – with predictable results.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did complete some passes (18) for quite a few yards (211 in the second half).  But he also threw an interception and put only 3 points on the board.  Maybe the Steelers should take a closer look at the Colt tape.

When 37 Seconds is Too Many

The New Orleans Saints had everything orchestrated perfectly.  Taking over on their own 7 yard line with 3:29 left in the game, they meticulously pushed their way up the field – along the way, draining the visiting Houston Texans of all of their time outs.  Now it was New Orleans about to take a time out with the clock winding its way inside the last minute.  Finally with 55 ticks left, the Saints called their second time out, and sent Wil Lutz on to the field to kick the game-clinching 47-yard field goal.

Or so they thought.

Lutz kicked the field goal.  It was now New Orleans 27 – Houston 21.  The Texans would get the ball on their own 25 (after the touchback) with 50 seconds and no time outs left, and needing the touchdown to win.  Game in the bag?  You might think so.

Two plays and 13 seconds later, Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson found Kenny Stills up the seam, in behind the defenders.  Kenny pulled in the 37-yard touchdown pass, and all of a sudden it was 28-27, Houston.

Now it was New Orleans in the impossible situation.  Ball on their 25, 37 seconds left, one time out.  But down only by one, all they needed was a field goal.  Even that, though, seemed improbable.  They would need at least three decent completions just to get moderately close to Lutz’ range.

Bingo, bango bongo.  Three quick Drew Brees completions netted 35 yards, with the timeout called with 2 seconds left on the clock.  The rest was Lutz’ longest career field goal (58 yards) and the Saints went home happy (30-28).

The story was the second half.  Trailing 14-3 at intermission, Brees and running back Alvin Kamara took over.  Drew was 16 for 20 for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns in the second half, and Kamara chipped in 140 yards from scrimmage.

Even so, Houston did almost everything they needed to do to beat the Saints on the road.  But, as has happened so often the last few seasons, the Texans came up just short.

One of the things we’ll keep our eyes on as the season progresses is whether this Houston team can actually break through and win some of these marquee games.

Rare Pitching Duels in the Rarefied Air

Losing a 2-1 game in Colorado is difficult.  Losing consecutive 2-1 games in Colorado is – I understand – unprecedented (I read somewhere that the Rockies had never won consecutive games at home scoring less than 3 runs).  This century, previous to this series, the Cardinals have played 65 games in the pitcher terror chamber that is Colorado.  They have averaged 5.49 runs per game in those contests.  In those 65 games, they have been shut out just 3 times (once in a game started by last night’s starter Antonio Senzatela on May 26, 2017), and they have been held to one run (prior to this week) on just 6 other occasions.

Meanwhile, Cardinal pitching in Colorado has come up with 3 shutouts of their own, held them to 1 run just once (on July 26 of 2006), and to two runs just 4 times.  Of these 8 best pitching efforts in Colorado, only one has occurred since 2015 – a 3-0 Cardinal win started by Adam Wainwright on May 27 of 2017 (and yes that was the game after Senzatela’s shutout).  Colorado has averaged 5.98 runs against the Cardinals in their home ballpark this century.

So the likelihood of the back-to-back pitching duels that we’ve just seen is more than just a little unlikely.  The Cards have scored in double figures 9 times in Colorado, and have given up double figures 11 times.

In all 65 previous games, only once have both teams scored in double figures, a 15-12 Cardinal win on April 8, 2003.  There have been 5 of the 65 games in which both teams have scored more than the 6 combined runs that these two teams have managed through the first two games.  In the entire century to this point the Cardinals have lost a total of two, 2-1 games in Colorado.

So, with St Louis somewhat desperate to put some distance between themselves and their pursuers in the division, the surprising lack of offense has been disappointing.  The story of the second half, though, continues to be the pitching.

Even though the losses drop the Cards to just 6-5 for the month, they have done so with a 2.63 team ERA and a staggering .208 batting average against.  Over their last 19 games, St Louis is 13-6, featuring a 2.64 team ERA and a .200 batting average against.

Once the Colorado series is over, the season’s last 16 games will all be against teams scrambling to make the playoffs (7 of the games on the road).  How much contribution they will get from their offense against these teams is anyone’s guess.  St Louis’ playoff hopes will rise and fall on the continued excellence of their pitching.

Dakota Hudson

Even though his five-game winning streak came to a halt, Dakota Hudson added another quality start and threw another very good game in a difficult ballpark.  Dak has quality starts in 5 of his last 6 outings.  He holds a 1.41 ERA over his last 38.1 innings with a .126 batting average against.  He is 8-3 with a 3.21 ERA in the second half.

NoteBook

Losing well pitched games was a kind of early season specialty for this team, but they have done better of late.  St Louis had actually won 7 consecutive quality starts until last night.  The Cards are now 46-20 this year when they get a quality start from their starter.  That is still losing 30.3%, which would be the highest percent since the 2014 team lost 31.9% of the time that they got a quality start (62-29).

Cards Still Can’t Buy That Two-Out Hit

When Nolan Arenado scooped up Paul Goldschmidt’s short-hop smash to his right, his momentum carried him momentarily to the foul side of the third-base bag.  Nolan righted himself and tossed the ball to first, where Goldschmidt gained a hard-earned infield hit by sliding under Daniel Murphy’s attempted tag.

And just like that, St Louis had the tying run on first base.  It was the eighth-inning, with Colorado holding a 2-1 lead.  It was St Louis’ first two-out hit of the game.

It would also be their last.

Such a threat as the hit presented was extinguished 5 pitches later when Jairo Diaz struck out Marcell Ozuna.  One inning later, Tommy Edman’s double-play grounder ended the game – a 2-1 Rockies win (box score).

In an offensively ragged first half, the St Louis Cardinals ranked near the bottom of the majors in most offensive categories.  As the calendar has flipped to the second half, the birds have notably improved in most of those categories.  But not when it comes to hitting with two outs.  According to baseball reference, the Cards have the fourth fewest two-out runs batted in (219), the fifth fewest two-out hits (366) and two-out home runs (45), the fifth lowest two-out slugging percentage (.377), the sixth lowest two out OPS (.699), and the seventh lowest two-out batting average (.235) in all of the majors.

These situations are not improving.  Since the break, the Cards with two-outs have just 16 home runs, 89 runs batted in, and a .234/.320/.374 batting line (a .694 OPS).  The league average two-out batting line, by the way, is .244/.324/.421 for an OPS of .746.  In spite of the fact that they are 6-4 so far in September, there is still no two-out offense to speak of – a .208/.300/.321 batting line.

Most days the pitching and the runs put up before the second out is recorded are enough to get the victory.  Every so often, though, this flaw comes back to haunt.  Last night was one of those nights – particularly in the fifth when Dexter Fowler grounded out with the bases loaded, and in the seventh when Jose Martinez struck out with runners on first and third.

For the season, St Louis is hitting .216 with runners in scoring position and two outs (fourth-worst in all of baseball and second only to Miami in the National League).  Their 162 runs batted in in that circumstance is also fourth-worst in baseball and second worst (again to Miami) in the NL.

It’s not hard to see something like this costing this team in the playoffs – should they get there.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong contributed singles in successive at bats against San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner back on September 4.  Since the second of those singles, Wong – who has been the team’s offensive catalyst for most of the second half – has started to cool for the first time in a long time.  He endured his second consecutive hitless game last night, and is just 4 for his last 21.

Paul DeJong

Also in a recent slump is Kolten’s double-play partner, Paul DeJong.  Paul is also hitless over the last two games, and has 1 hit in his last 14 at bats.

Paul has hit 2 of the team’s 8 home runs this month, but among only 7 hits in 34 at bats (.206).  In addition, he has just 2 walks this month – holding him to a .243 on base percentage.

Michael Wacha

It is hard to imagine manager Mike Shildt doing this with either Jack Flaherty or Dakota Hudson, but for the second start in a row, Mike pinch-hit for starting pitcher Michael Wacha very early in the game.  Last Wednesday against San Francisco, Wacha threw 2 scoreless innings and was removed for a hitter.  Last night, he was removed after 4.  These actions suggest that Wacha doesn’t have Shildt’s total trust – and there is little reason that he should.

Since his return to the rotation seven starts ago, Wacha has been decent – but not spectacular.  He has pitched a total of 30.1 innings in those games, with an 0-3 record and a 4.45 ERA.

Getting that third out has been a sticking point for Wacha all year, but especially in the second half.  Colorado hitters were 2 for 6 with a walk with two outs against Michael last night.  Since the break, two-out batters are roughing Wacha up to the tune of .327/.403/.527.

Ryan Helsley

Ryan Helsley remains one of the intriguing arms – not just for the rest of this year, but for 2020 and beyond.  He pitched two innings of relief last night, and has worked more than one inning in 9 consecutive appearances.  Over his last 4 games, Ryan has given 1 run (unearned) on 8 hits over 9 innings, walking 2 and striking out 9.  He has a 1.04 ERA over 17.1 innings since his final recall from AAA.  In 19.1 second-half innings, Ryan has an 0.93 ERA with a .208 batting average against.  None of the last 80 batters that he has faced have managed a home run against the talented right-hander, and are slugging just .278 against him.

Ryan got a double play to end the fifth inning, so the only batter he faced with two outs last night was Sam Hilliard in the sixth.  Of all Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 30 batters with two out in an inning, only the injured Jordan Hicks (.091) holds a lower batting average against than Helsley’s .139.  After Hilliard grounded out, those batters are 5 for 36 against Ryan.

Giovanny Gallegos

Giovanny Gallegos closed out the game with two scoreless, hitless innings.  Giovanny has scuffled a bit recently, but he still holds a 1.46 ERA over 24.2 second half innings.

NoteBook

St Louis never managed a lead in last night’s game.  At some point in each of the previous eleven games they had held at least a one-run lead.