Milwaukee’s starting pitching was all but untouchable as they hosted their division rivals from St Louis for a three-game mid-week series that ended yesterday. Freddy Peralta joined co-aces Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes to make life generally miserable for a Cardinal offense that was feeling pretty good about themselves as they got off the plane.
Fresh off a convincing sweep of the Colorado Rockies, the Cards ran into a buzz-saw in Milwaukee. For 19.2 innings, that trio dominated the St Louis hitters, allowing just 2 runs on 9 hits (8 singles and a home run). While they walked 3 (and hit another), those guys struck out 27 St Louis batters, backing their 0.92 aggregate ERA with a .134/.183/.179 batting line against.
That being said, none of the Brewer starters earned a victory in the series, and Burnes – who allowed 1 run in 5 innings – was tagged with a loss. As St Louis heads to San Diego to open a three-game series there, they do so having taken two of the three in Milwaukee (6-1 in 11 innings, 1-4 and 2-0) because their starting pitching was just a shade better.
Two playoff teams from last year who are currently sitting first and second in their division, these are two teams who believe that their pitching staffs are equal to any occasion. If pitching duels are not your thing, perhaps you should skip the rest of the games between these teams this year. The first game went 1-1 into the eleventh. The second game went 1-1 into the bottom of the eighth. The finale was a 1-0 game going into the ninth. The series, perhaps, should have come with a warning: for purists only.
These two teams have now split their first six games, with each winning a series in enemy territory. St Louis’ current three-game lead aside, this is shaping up to be a very tight (and probably low-scoring) race to the end.
Cards Press On
Of greatest encouragement to Cardinal fans is the pitching staff’s ability to sustain these high-level performances. They hold a 2.83 team ERA during the month of May. They have allowed only 4 home runs all month, and the .197 batting average against them is augmented by a .282 slugging percentage.
Over the last 22 games, Cardinal starters hold a 2.19 ERA. Batters are hitting just .202 against them.
Best With the Bases Loaded
The lone real drag on the pitching staff is its propensity to walk (and hit) batters. What opposing offenses can’t manage by hitting the ball against them, St Louis pitchers are inclined to do to themselves with free passes. In 105 innings this month, Cardinal pitchers have walked 54 and hit 6 others.
One of the outcomes of all of this is a league-leading number of bases-loaded situations. In 38 games, Cardinal pitchers have dealt with 61 bases-loaded situations – nearly two a game. That figure stands as the most in the National League. In the eleventh inning of the first game, Alex Reyes faced Jackie Bradley Jr. and Billy McKinney with the bases loaded. Both struck out
For all of the struggles that put them into these situations, the St Louis pitching staff has responded in enviable fashion. Opposing batters are hitting just .111 (5-for-45) in those at bats (the lowest average in the league). Not only are they one of just 4 teams not to allow a grand slam so far this year, they have surrendered just 2 extra-base hits (both doubles) with the bases loaded – a .156 slugging percentage, which, along with their .418 OPS with the sacks jammed, is also the best figure in the league.
The total picture, of course, isn’t complete perfection. While hits in these moments have been few and far between, St Louis pitchers have also issued 8 bases-loaded walks (also most in the league), hit 3 others, allowed 5 sacrifice flies, uncorked 3 wild pitches – and even committed a balk.
In a way, it’s kind of been a microcosm of the Cardinal season.
Johnny Gant has kind of been the poster boy for the Cardinal pitching staff. In matters of contact and runs allowed, Gant has had an exemplary season – especially recently. Over his last 4 starts, Gant has an 0.89 ERA with a .197 batting average against. Yet – even though he has been in the rotation the entire season and hasn’t missed a start, John hasn’t pitched enough innings to be a qualifying pitcher (and his season-long 1.83 ERA would have him in the top 5 in the league right now).
His nemesis has been walks. He walked 3 more in 5 innings on Wednesday, and has walked 16 in his last 20.1 innings. Gant has authored 26 unintentional walks in 34.1 innings – 6.82 per game. Consequently Gant has completed six innings just once this year, leaving a lot of innings for the bullpen.
For the season, Gant has pitched with the bases empty only 49.0% of the time – and those batters have a .395 on base percentage against him.
While I’ve seen him sharper, Jack Flaherty completed his second consecutive scoreless outing (he had thrown seven scoreless against Colorado in his previous effort). Jack now has 4 consecutive quality starts as part of a seven-game winning streak. In 43 innings over his last 7 games, Jack has been touched for just one home run while compiling a 1.47 ERA and a .174 batting average against.
His struggles against Philadelphia now well behind him, Genesis Cabrera is starting to settle in again. His last five appearances (covering 6 innings) have been scoreless, and he’s allowed 1 single to the last 22 batters to face him. Even so, he also continues to invite trouble, as he has walked 4 of those batters and only 52 of his last 90 pitches (58%) have been strikes.
Alex Reyes faced 14 batters in 3 busy innings against Milwaukee. When Manny Pina led off against him in the bottom of the ninth Thursday afternoon, he became the only one of the 14 to bat against Alex with the bases empty. He drew a lead-off walk. Even taking into account the 7 runners he’s inherited across his various appearances, and the fact that both extra innings he started began with a runner on base, Alex has pitched to only 32 of his 84 batters faced with the bases empty – just 38.1%.
Home Run Dependency
The 9 runs that St Louis scored in the series were the fewest they have scored in any series so far this year. (The 5 they allowed were the second fewest. In an early season sweep in Miami they allowed just 3 runs). Six of the nine runs scored on home runs.
For the season, 86 of St Louis’ 170 runs have come via the home run – 50.6%. The National League average is 41.7%. This over-reliance on the home run is a contributing factor to St Louis’ inconsistencies on offense.
When Nolan Arenado’s eight-game hitting streak ended on Wednesday, he responded with 3 hits – including the game’s only run batted in – to start another yesterday. Nolan is 16 for 46 in May (.348) with a .609 slugging percentage (4 doubles, a triple and 2 home runs.
Paul DeJong went 0-for-6 in Milwaukee before his rib injury sidelined him. He has hit in only one of his last 6 games, going 2-for-20 (.100) in those games. His average for the month of May has dipped to .205 (8-for-39).
Bullpen Home Run Watch Ends
Coming within a few days of a full month without issuing a home run, the Cardinal bullpen (in the person of Ryan Helsley) was finally taken deep (by Milwaukee’s Avisail Garcia) in Wednesday’s eighth inning.
The bullpen homer-less streak reached its twenty-fourth team game (23 with a bullpen appearance) and ended after 72.2 innings, 253 at bats, 305 plate appearances and 1252 pitches.
Up until that point, Helsley – who has been much praised in this space – had not allowed an extra-base hit all season before serving up a double and the home run on back-to-back pitches.
A Sidenote: Four innings earlier, Garcia demonstrably disagreed with a third strike call – throwing both arms in the air and engaging in an extended debate with home plate umpire John Libka. I have seen players tossed for less. It would be interesting to know how close Avisail came to getting ejected four inning before he would become one of the game’s heroes.
St Louis is now 1-and-5 in rubber games.
The series averaged 3:31 even per game – exactly what the last game took. Considering the low scoring nature of the games, it’s a little surprising that this series was the longest by average time of any series so far this season.
The Cards are now 5-3-1 in series when they win the first game.
San Diego – who took two-of-three from Colorado – will be the fourth consecutive Cardinal opponent to have won its previous series.
Arenado’s single re-gained him the team lead in game-winning-hits. He pulls back in front of Paul Goldschmidt, 6-5.
Thursday’s shutout was the fourth authored by the Cards in their last 11 games.
St Louis had just one at bat with the bases loaded in Milwaukee, and now have just 3 in the month of May. They had 20 bases loaded at bats in April.
My Designated Hitter Rant
Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter. Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH. While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it. So, I have re-written it here. The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks. I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.