Tag Archives: Carlos Martinez

Waino Still Playing Stopper

A strange thing happened in the seventh inning of the Sunday night game.  The Cardinals didn’t score.  That same strange thing happened in both the eighth and ninth innings.  Inexplicably, the Cards didn’t come from behind to win their fourth straight game – and the third in a row on a walk-off.

Of course, in baseball you don’t win them all – even if sometimes you start to feel invincible.  Certainly losses have been few and far between for this franchise lately.  The loss on Sunday night was only their fifth in the previous 23 games – a great roll that has carried this team to a three-game lead in its division.

But while the occasional loss will happen, I am always very interested to see how the team responds to the loss.  How difficult is it to saddle this team with consecutive losses?  How well can they stay out of losing streaks?

In fact, the record after a loss this year tells the Cardinal story in microcosm.  They hit the All-Star Break just 22-21 after having lost the game before.  They began the second half 5-2 after a loss.  That carried them to the California trip in early August – a troubling swing through Oakland and Los Angeles which saw our heroes lose all five games – the last four after having lost the previous game.

And then they flipped the switch.  With yesterday’s 3-1 victory (box score), St Louis has won their last 6 games in a row after a previous loss – and are now 11-6 in the second half in those games.

As has been the case 150 times since 2007, it was Adam Wainwright playing stopper.  He was in vintage form, muffling the Giants on 4 hits over 7 shutout innings.  Over his career, Waino is 76-42 with a 3.55 ERA when pitching after a loss.  Those wins are 26 more than the second place pitcher this century – that would be Chris Carpenter, who was 50-26 as a Cardinal after a loss.

Of the 150 Wainwright starts, St Louis has wins in 98 of them – a .653 winning percentage.  Carpenter (again, second on this list) made 131 starts after a Cardinal loss, with the team going 71-40 (.640) in those games.  For the century, St Louis is a .575 team (842-623) after enduring a loss the game before.

Regarding the season as a whole, 2019 hasn’t been Adam’s most consistent season, but it is trending upward as October looms.  Over his last 5 starts, Adam is 3-1 with a 3.49 ERA.  In the second half, Waino has pitched 4 games after a St Louis loss.  He is 2-1 in those games with a 2.55.

AndrewMiller

It is just almost never easy for Andrew Miller.  After being the only pitcher in the pen not used at all in the double, double-headers, Miller entered with one out in the eighth inning against San Fran, holding a 3-1 lead.  He faced two batters, walking the first and striking out the second.

In 16.2 innings since the All-Star Break, Andrew has walked 13 batters and served up 4 home runs.  In spite of ranking eleventh on the team in innings pitched in the second half, his walks are the third most on the staff, and his home runs allowed are fifth.  By comparison, Jack Flaherty has pitched 55.1 second half innings, allowing just 15 walks and 3 home runs.

Nonetheless, Andrew has given just 9 total hits in those 16.2 innings while striking out 17 with a 3.24 ERA.

CarlosMartinez

In spite of pitching for a third day in a row, Carlos Martinez continues to solidify into the closer’s role.  Yesterday afternoon was Carlos’ sixth consecutive scoreless outing, covering 6.1 innings.  He has allowed one hit in those innings.  His swing-and-miss percentage is 39% during this run in which he has struck out 10 and gotten 78% groundballs from those batters who have put the ball in play.

Martinez has been a big part of the winning streak.  He has pitched in 10 of the 24 games, saving 6 (in 6 opportunities) and winning two others.  Over his last 10 innings, Carlos has pitched to a 1.80 ERA.

HarrisonBader

Harrison Bader had moments in the Cincinnati series, but overall his bat seems to be slowing a bit.  Harrison is 4 for 17 (all singles) for a .235 batting average over his last 6 games.

With yesterday’s 0-for-3, Harrison has played in 8 games after a loss in the second half.  He is 0 for 17 in those games, and is now down to .189 (21 for 111) after a Cardinal loss this year.

NoteBook

Kolten Wong’s RBI triple brings him to 55 RBIs this season.  He is 6 behind his career high set in 2015.

St Louis has won the first game of its last five series, and 7 of the last 8.

In the win, the Cards snapped a six-game streak in which they trailed at some point of the game.

Waino Plays Stopper Again

The memory is surprisingly vivid even a month later.  It is June 29.  The Cardinals – on the road in San Diego – were getting hammered 12-2.  After the game, the young Padres were cavorting on the field.  They were careless, happy and hot.  Although they weren’t expected to contend, at that moment they were 42-40 and just a game and a half out of the last wildcard spot.

In the other dugout, the Cardinals (who had vowed to make it back to the playoffs this year) wandered off the field like a team caught in a nightmare that they couldn’t wake up from.  That loss was their fifth in a row.  It dropped them to 40-41 on the season.  They were 4 games behind the Cubs in the division, and a game and a half behind San Diego in the wildcard race – three games behind the last spot, with four teams in between them and the last playoff spot.

This was the statistical half-way point of the season, and this team was under .500.  They were also at that point 20-20 in games after a loss.  While – to the best of my knowledge – no one else tracks games after a loss, I consider it a fairly useful barometer of a team’s character and resourcefulness.

For some background, no Cardinal team this century has finished below .500 in games after a loss.  The 2017 team finished a century-worst 39-39 in games after a loss.  That team finished 83-79 and 9 games out.

Throughout the century, coming into this year, the Cards (including playoffs) were 809-596 – a .576 winning percentage – after they had lost the game before.  Five times this century, this team won over 60% of their games after a loss.  All of those teams made the playoffs.

The seven versions of the Cardinals that have failed to make the playoffs this century are a combined 294-246 (.544) after a loss, while all of this century’s playoff teams have gone 515-350 (.595) after a loss.

The concept is simple enough.  Everybody loses games now and then.  But the tough teams resist getting that second loss pinned on them.  Stay out of losing streaks, and things will generally pan out well for the season.

Throughout the bulk of the season, the issue in games after a loss has been on the mound.  St Louis has lacked that stopper’s mentality from the next day’s pitcher.  Through the end of June, the next day’s starter carried a 4.86 ERA and a .281 batting average against.

On the last day of June, Miles Mikolas put his foot in the ground and began something of a turnaround.  He contained the exuberant Padres for 6 innings, leaving the game trailing, but only by a 3-2 score.  With a nearly impeccable bullpen (which has been a strong part of this story) holding the line, St Louis tied the contest thanks to an eighth-inning error, winning finally in the eleventh on Matt Wieters’ two-run home run (box score).

With the end of the season’s longest losing streak, came a reversal of fortunes for both teams.  Gravity has since caught up with the Padres, who have floated out of playoff contention.  For their part, the Cards used that emotional win to fashion the 16-8 July record that has surged them to the top of the division.

At the close of last weekend’s series against Houston, the Cardinal momentum looked like it may have stalled, as St Louis was defeated fairly soundly on Saturday and Sunday.

And so, yesterday they again needed a starter to take the mound and put an end to the losing streak.  As it has been so often over the last decade plus, that starter was Adam Wainwright.

The Cubs gave as good as they got from Waino, but by the end of his 5.2 inning stint, he held the game at a 1-1 tie.  The bullpen, again, threw airtight relief, and a late home run off the bat of Paul Goldschmidt sent the Cards into sole position of first place by a 2-1 score (box score).

This was now the 147th time that Adam has taken the mound after a Cardinal loss in his storied career.  The Cards are now 96-51 (.653) in those games.

Meanwhile, St Louis has gone 5-3 this month (including 4-1 over the last 5) in games after a loss – improving them to 26-23 for the season in this category.  In the 8 games after a loss this month, the rotation has come up strong with a 3.40 ERA and a .245 batting average against.  The bullpen has been even better in these games with a 1.88 ERA and a .152 batting average against.

Waino, by the way, has made the start in two of those games, throwing 5 solid innings against Seattle on July 3 setting up a 5-2 victory.

Last night’s game had a bit of a playoff feel to it.  The birds haven’t won too many of those types of games over the last few years.

Who You Gonna Call?

After back-to-back walks in the sixth, the Cubs had their best opportunity to break the hearts of the home team fans.  Bases were now loaded, two outs, and Kyle Schwarber – owner of more than one telling hit against the Cardinals in his career – was at the plate.  At 95 pitches, and with the lefty up, manager Mike Shildt felt the prudent thing was to relieve Adam in an attempt to hold onto the 1-1 tie.

So, who do you call on?  Giovanny Gallegos, of course.  Five pitches later, Gallegos got Kyle to reach for that slider, lofting a harmless fly ball to medium deep left.  And the threat was done.  Giovanny has now stranded the last 8 runners that he has inherited – including the bases loaded twice.  Gallegos – who has stranded 29 of the 32 batters he has inherited this season – has now come into bases loaded situations 7 times this season.  He has stranded all of these gentlemen in 5 of those occasions, allowing just one of those runs in the other two occasions.

There just has not been an occasion that has been too large for the amazing Mr. Gallegos.

Gio is now unscored on in 8 straight games (11.2 innings).  He has allowed 2 hits in those innings with 15 strikeouts against 3 walks.  Over his last 24 games (29.2 innings), Gallegos holds an 0.61 ERA with a.131/.179/.212 batting line against.  The 4 walks he has allowed in those innings more than swallowed up in his 39 strikeouts.   In 12.2 innings this month Gio holds an 0.71 ERA, and has allowed just 3 hits against 18 strikeouts.

This just in.  Gallegos is pretty good.

AndrewMiller

Andrew Miller – all things considered – has put together a very solid month of his own.

He also entered the game with a runner on base (first base) and two outs.  Miller allowed an infield hit, but then retired slugger Kris Bryant on a fly ball to center.

For the month of July, Miller has a 1.80 ERA through 10 innings.

CarlosMartinez

In recent days, Carlos Martinez has had some scary innings.  None of that was in play last night.  Carlos wrapped up a four-out save in perfect fashion, featuring 3 strikeouts.  One of the big questions surrounding any closer is how quickly he can turn the page if he has a couple of rugged outings.  Here, in a big game against the Cubs (a team he has had struggles with) Carlos was as good as could be hoped.

Throughout his career, Carlos has always pitched very well on days after a Cardinal loss.  He has pitched in 5 of the 8 such games this month, giving 1 run on 3 hits and a walk while striking out 8 in 5 innings.  For the season, Martinez holds a 2.79 ERA with a .206/.280/.279 batting line in 19.1 innings after a loss.

Over the course of his career, Carlos has pitched in 107 games after a Cardinal loss – starting 47 of them.  He is 24-14 with 10 saves and a 3.08 ERA over 362 innings.

TommyEdman

After a bit of a tailspin, Tommy Edman is beginning to re-emerge. He has had two hits in each of the last two games.

Tommy has had a good month in games after a loss.  He has now played in 7 of them, hitting .320 (8 for 25).

JoseMartinez

Jose Martinez finished the game with two singles, stretching his hitting streak to seven games.  He is hitting .333 (9 for 27) during the streak.

PaulGoldschmidt

Speaking of hitting streaks, Goldschmidt extended his to eight straight games.  It hasn’t been a quiet hitting streak either, as Paul has hit .364 (12 for 33) in those games.  The hits have been 5 singles and 7 home runs.  Paul has driven home 14 runs over the last 8 games (3 of them game winners) while slugging a tidy 1.000.

DexterFowler

Dexter Fowler saw his six-game hitting streak come to an end last night.  Dex was 7 for 23 (.304) with 2 doubles and 2 home runs (.652 slugging percentage) during the streak.

PaulDeJong

Paul DeJong will certainly be glad to see July end.  After his 0 for 4, Paul is down to .214 for the month (18 for 84).

For the season, Paul has struggled considerably after a St Louis loss.  Playing in 48 of the 49 games, DeJong is hitting .227 in those games (41 for 181).  In July, after a loss, he was 3 for 30 (all singles) with 1 walk and 8 strikeouts – a .100/.156/.100 batting line.

NoteBook

Paul Goldschmidt’s home run accounted for his eighth game-winning RBI of the season.  Only Marcell Ozuna (who has 9) has more.

The home run was Goldy’s twenty-fifth of the year.  Paul has been a four-time thirty-home-run guy – including last year when he hit 33.  His career high is 36, done twice.  Behind his average home run pace for most of the year, Goldschmidt is now on pace to hit a career-high 38.  Seven homers in eight games will do that.

Paul hasn’t started every game this season, but he has played in all of them – all 106.  Goldschmidt has never played in every game in a season, but he has come close.  He played in 160 with Arizona back in 2013.  He has played in at least 155 games in each of the last 4 seasons – including 158 last year.

Paul is also up to 396 at bats, and is creeping up on the 593 he had last year – the second most of his career.

After getting hit by a pitch again last night, Kolten Wong has reached double figures in HBP for the third consecutive season, and the fourth time in his career.  His career high is 15 set in 2015.

Kolten is also moving up on the games played list – last night was his 104th game of the season.  He played just 127 last year.  Kolten has never played more than the 150 games he played in 2015.

Wong is also up to 330 at bats for the season, just beneath the 353 he managed last year.  Wong hasn’t been over 400 at bats in a season since that 2015 season.

His single was his eighty-sixth hit of the season – he finished last year with 88.  Kolten, in his seven-year career – has exceeded 100 hits only three times.  He has also nearly matched his total bases for all of last year (when he had 137).  He already has 129 in 2019.

With Tuesday’s hard-fought win, St Louis has now won the opening game of five straight series.

The Cubs (coming off losing two-of-three in Milwaukee) are the fourth team in the Cards’ last five series that had lost its previous series.

St Louis fell behind again in the fourth inning.  They have now surrendered the game’s first run in four straight games, and six of the last seven.

Finding a Way to Win the Close Ones

In his remarks after the game, Paul Goldschmidt (whose grand slam had sent home the winning runs) more or less put his finger on the issue.  He said:

“I think we’re going to have to find a way to win these games.  There’s going to be the games you just lose, and there’s going to be the ones you come out there and win.  But we have to find a way to win the close ones.”

These words of wisdom (quoted in the mlb.com game account) came in the aftermath of another one-run game – this one a 6-5, ten-inning conquest of the Pittsburgh Pirates (box score).

The Cardinals have now played 17 games in the month of July, and nearly half of them (7 to be precise) have been decided by one run.  There is a romance to the one-run game.  As the Cardinal’s slugging first baseman pointed out, a season is determined by that percentage of games that could go either way.  The ones that are decided less by talent and more by character.

It’s part of my interest in one-run games.  Games where the difference is truly as thin as one at bat either way.

Almost always, one-run games are characterized by strong pitching efforts.  They are generally 4-3 or 3-2 games.  The Cardinal’s one-run games this month, though, have been decidedly offensive by comparison.

Of the 7 there were 2 that were clearly pitching duels – a 1-0 game and a 3-2 game.  But the other five are a 5-4 game, two 6-5 games, and the 12-11 game of last Friday.  In their 7 July one-run games, the birds have hit 12 home runs and averaged 5 runs a game.  But the Cards are only 4-3 in those games, because the pitching staff has scuffled to a 5.02 ERA in them.

For the season, St Louis has fought through 29 one-run games.  They have won 14 and lost 15.  The Brewers, by comparison, are 15-11 in one-run games, the Braves are 18-11, and Philadelphia is 13-10.

San Francisco is 23-10 in one-run games.

It’s a trait you almost always see in the tough teams.  But something not consistently found in the Cardinals.

Not yet, anyway.

Tommy Edman

Tommy Edman contributed 2 hits and a run scored to the victory.  Tommy has been in the starting lineup for 7 straight games, and is hitting .300 (9 for 30) in those games.

Edman has also been one of the team’s most consistent forces in one-run games since bursting onto the scene.  He has played in all 7 this month (starting 6) and is hitting .407 (11 for 27) in them.  He has played in 10 one-run games since his call up.  He is hitting .438 (14 for 32) with a home run and 4 runs batted in in those games.

Tyler O’Neill

After a torrid start after his recall, Tyler O’Neill – now that he has been made a fixture in the lineup – is starting to fade a bit.  After his 0-for-5 last night, Tyler is just 2 for 18 (.111) – all singles – over his last 4 games.  He has no walks and six strikeouts in those contests.

Yairo Munoz

Yairo Munoz was also one of the Cardinals held hitless last night – he was 0-for-4.  Munoz has been one of the team’s better hitters in one-run games, but not this month.  In the 7 July one-run games, Munoz is now hitting .217 (5 for 23) with no walks.

Daniel Ponce de Leon

Daniel Ponce de Leon started the affair and lasted just 3 innings.  Four walks in those innings hastened his exit.  Still, for the innings that he pitched, Daniel was only touched for one run.  When he starts, I’m surer management would like to see him get deeper into games, but for the month of July so far Ponce de Leon holds a 3.00 ERA over 18 innings.

Daniel has also been one of those players who have stepped up in the one-run games he has been a part of.  Ponce de Leon has only pitched in 5 of the 29 Cardinal one-run game (4 as a starter), but holds a 2.66 ERA and a .211 batting average against in those 20.1 innings.

Tyler Webb

Just recalled from Memphis, Tyler Webb was thrust right into the middle of another one-run game.  He threw two scoreless innings (the seventh and the eighth) to help send the game into extra-innings.

Tyler has pitched in only 4 games this month in and around his trip to Memphis, but two of those have been one-run affairs (he also pitched in the 5-4 loss in Seattle on July 2).  He pitched 1.1 hitless innings in that one as well – although he granted one intentional walk.

Webb has 3.1 hitless innings in the one-run games he’s pitched this month, and for the season has allowed just 1 run in 6.1 innings during parts of 8 one-run games.

John Brebbia

John Brebbia struck out two more batters in his .2 scoreless innings last night.  Since returning from his paternity leave, John has pitched 9 innings, giving 2 runs on 4 hits.  He has struck out 17 of the last 33 batters to face him.

Brebbia has now pitched 10 innings across 9 one-run games this season.  He holds a 1.80 ERA and a .194 batting average against in those games, while striking out 15 batters.

Carlos Martinez

This was a 6-3 Cardinal lead in the tenth inning when Carlos Martinez walked in to preserve the lead.  He did – after 6 batters and 3 hits that included a home run.  He was saved from his first blown save of the season (as a closer) when Jose Martinez cut down the tying run at the plate.

Carlos is now a troubled closer.  He has given up runs in 4 of his last 5 games.  Over his last 5 innings, Martinez has given 6 runs on 10 hits and 4 walks.  His ERA for his 8 July innings has risen to 6.75.

Carlos has all 4 of the saves the team has in one-run games this month – but they haven’t been pretty.  In the 4 innings of those saves, Martinez has allowed 4 runs on 9 hits.  For the season, Carlos has thrown 11 innings in 10 one-run games with a 4.09 ERA and a .311 batting average against to show for it.

Carlos continues to be a concern.

NoteBook

The grand slam proved to be Paul Goldschmidt’s sixth game-winning run batted in of the season.  This ties him with Paul DeJong for second on the team behind Marcell Ozuna’s 9.

Kolten Wong’s intentional walk was his thirty-third walk of the year.  He drew only 31 in 407 plate appearances last year.  In his seventh season, Kolten has never walked more than the 41 walks he drew in 411 plate appearances in 2017.

Please Tell Memphis that Mr O’Neill Sends his Regrets

No AAA affiliated franchise has things easy.  Almost without fail, as soon as someone starts to really put things together, the parent club decides that they have a need for that individual, and he magically disappears from the AAA team’s roster.

In Memphis, the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate, that situation might be less volatile than in some other cities.  With a mostly static roster, the Cards have found it relatively easy to leave their hot prospects in their minor league abodes, honing their various crafts.

Such has been the situation for one Tyler Alan O’Neill.  Once upon a time, Tyler O’Neill was a third-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners, becoming a Cardinal almost exactly two years ago today as the result of a July 21, 2017 trade.  Since then, he has had 216 at bats in St Louis, and 573 in Memphis.  He came north with the parent club this year, but, with playing time hard to come by, was returned to Memphis when Luke Gregerson was ready to come off the injured list.

And there Tyler stayed.  With his rookie status already exceeded, O’Neill was no longer listed among the Cardinal prospects.  So while Cardinal Nation followed the progress of the Nolan Gorman’s and the Randy Arozarena’s with considerable focus, Tyler O’Neill labored in relative anonymity.

Memphis, however, was more than happy to have him.  In about a year’s worth of at bats (573) Tyler has delivered 49 home runs for Memphis.  Add the 14 he’s now hit in the show, and, in just under two years in the organization, Tyler O’Neill has accounted for 63 home runs.  He has averaged one for every 11.7 at bats in AAA Memphis.

Who knows how long he might have remained there.  But about 14 games ago, Marcell Ozuna fractured some fingers while on the base paths and the big league birds were in need of an outfielder.  The thinking was that – as before – once Ozuna was pronounced fit, Tyler would be returned to his minor league venue.

Those plans may now be on permanent hold.

Yesterday afternoon, Tyler O’Neill drilled his fourth home run of the recent home stand and was a significant contributor to the Cards 6-5 victory over Pittsburgh (box score).  O’Neill was 7 for 12 against Pittsburgh (.583) with three of the hits being home runs.  He drove in 6 runs in the 3 games, and slugged 1.333.  The win was St Louis’ fourth in the last 5 games of the home stand.  Tyler hit .500 over the 5 games (10 for 20) and slugged 1.2000 (2 doubles, 4 home runs), while driving in 11.

O’Neill has now hit safely in 8 straight starts, hitting .438 during the streak (14 for 32), and slugging .875. For the month of July, Tyler O’Neill is carrying a .400 batting average (16 for 40) and a slugging percentage of an even 1.000.

It’s a very small sample size, I grant you.  But if this keeps up, Tyler O’Neill will not be going back to Memphis.  If this keeps up, Tyler O’Neill will not be going back to the bench when Ozuna comes back.  Someone else will lose those at bats.

In baseball, if you hit, you play.  If you hit a lot, you play a lot.

By the numbers, the Tyler O’Neill of July is very unlike the O’Neill we’ve seen here before.  If anything, his aggressiveness has increased.  Last year, he swung at 52.3% of the pitches thrown his way.  In his first 48 plate appearances this year, he swung at 52.4%.  In his 42 July plate appearances, O’Neill has chased after 58.3%.  Over the last 5 games, Tyler has swung at 50 of 79 pitches thrown his way – a super-aggressive 63.3%.

This aggression is even more pronounced on the first pitch.  Last year, Tyler went after the first pitch 36.6% of the time, and 37.5% during the early part of this year – both aggressive numbers.  He has offered at the first pitch 52.4% of the time so far this month.  He went after 8 of 12 (66.7%) against the Pirates.

But, even though he is swinging more often, he is making contact as never before.  As a rookie in 2018, O’Neill missed on 44.3% of his swings.  He was up to an amazing 50.5% of his swings through his first 48 plate appearances of 2019.

In July, Tyler is missing on just 28.6% (team average is 23.8% for the year).  In 31 swings against the Pirates, O’Neill missed the ball just 4 times (12.9%).

Thirty-one swings is far too few to prove anything definitively.  But if, indeed, Tyler O’Neill is making serious progress on connecting when he swings, then he will definitely not be going back to Memphis.

Little Other Offense

In winning two of three from Pittsburgh, the Cardinal offense was led, principally by O’Neill and Paul Goldschmidt.  Together, they drove in 10 of the 14 runs the Cards scored in the series.  After them, there weren’t an awful lot of contributors, as the team finished the series with just 20 hits and a .220 batting average.  There are a handful of Cardinals who are still trying to turn things around.

Kudos to the Rotation

Aside from Tyler O’Neill, the heroes of the Pittsburgh series were the arms of the rotation.  Daniel Ponce de Leon’s short start on Wednesday broke a string of six consecutive quality starts.  Even with that, the rotation contributed 19.2 innings against the Pirates with a 2.29 ERA.  They walked just 5 (2 of those intentionally) and allowed just one home run.

In winning 4 of the last 5, St Louis has done so behind a rotation that has carved out a 1.93 ERA and a .222/.295/.299 batting line against.

Miles Mikolas

Monday’s starter, Miles Mikolas set the tone for the series – not just in effectiveness (he threw a complete game shutout) but also in style.  Of the 32 batters to face him, 29 hit the ball in play, with 20 of the 29 (69%) hitting it on the ground.  Miles threw just 3.13 pitches per batter faced (leading to just 11.11 pitches per inning) while throwing 73% of his pitches for strikes.

For the series, the Cards finished up getting ground balls 57.7% of the time, throwing just 3.58 pitches per batter (14.04 per inning), and throwing strikes 66.5% of the time.

For the season, Miles has thrown 1099 of his 1658 pitches for strikes.  His 66.3% ratio is the highest of any Cardinal pitcher who has thrown at least 700 pitches.

Jack Flaherty

Tuesday’s starter, Jack Flaherty, came fairly close to losing his second consecutive 1-0 game.  He avoided the fate by driving in his own run with a double to earn himself a no decision.

The 0-1 record aside, Jack has been very good his last two times out – allowing 2 runs in 14 innings. Three starts into the month of July, Jack holds a 2.89 ERA and a .182 batting average against.

Carlos Martinez

Ending a fabulous run of performances, during which he gave just 1 run over 12 innings, Carlos Martinez was touched for runs in both of the last two games pitching in the closer’s role.  He gave a total of 3 runs in 2 innings, earning a loss and a scuffling save.

Even though Carlos’ pitches were up more than usual, he still had batters pounding the ball into the turf.  Of the 10 who put the ball in play against him, 7 hit the ball on the ground.  For the season, Carlos’ 65.0% ground ball rate is second on the team only to Jordan Hicks (67.2%).

NoteBook

Paul Goldschmidt’s three-run homer on Wednesday proved to be the game-winning RBIs.  Paul now has 5 GWHs on the season, ranking him third on the team behind Marcell Ozuna (9) and Paul DeJong (6).

Before the Goldschmidt home run, St Louis went into the seventh inning trailing 4-3.  It was the first time in seven games that they trailed after six innings.  On July 6, in San Francisco they trailed 5-1 after six on their way to an 8-4 loss (box score).

All of the Cards’ last four series have gone to rubber games – with St Louis winning three of those.  They are now 5-5 in rubber games on the season.

On Tuesday night, the Cards eclipsed the two million mark in home attendance.  With 128,928 attending the three-game set against the Pirates, St Louis now sits at 2,053,573 for the season – an average of 42,782.8 per home game.

Baby Steps?

The St Louis Cardinals finished their weekend series against Arizona with 25 offensive innings.  They only managed to put their leadoff batter on base in 5 of those innings.  Getting that first batter on base has been a constant struggle since April.  For the month of July, now, Cardinal leadoff batters hold a .266 on base percentage.  For the season, they sit at just .302.

The results in those 20 other innings against Arizona were fairly predictable.  The Cards scored in only 3 of them, totaling 4 runs.   Certainly one of the factors in the slow offensive start is the fact that all too often the power hitters are up with no one on and two outs.  Nobody – it seems – wants to embrace the table-setter’s role.

The good news is that – at least during the Arizona series – the Cardinals did finally figure out what to do once they did get that runner on.  They scored in 4 of the 5 innings that their first batter reached, totaling 7 runs in those innings.

This had also been a problem.  In the six games preceding the All-Star break, the Cards put their leadoff runner on 16 times, bringing him home just 6 times (38%).  For the season, only 48% of the Cardinal leadoff batters who reach base end up scoring.  When the offense is functioning well, that number will typically be closer to 55%.

It was only three games – and only one of the many offensive issues that this team will try to correct in the second half (and the offense overall hit just .215 and scored 3.67 runs per game in the Arizona series).  In essence, the offensive turnaround so far is more hoped for than evident.

But doing something when the leadoff batter gets on is at least a healthy place to start.  A baby step, if you will.

Matt Wieters

Thrust into the lineup due to the thumb injury to Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters is starting to find a comfort level at the plate.  He caught the first two games of the series, going 3 for 6 with a home run.  Matt has only had 24 plate appearances through the early games of July.  But he has answered those plate appearances with 4 singles, 2 home runs and 4 walks – a .300/.417/.600 batting line.

Kolten Wong

Heating up, finally, is Kolten Wong.  One of the mysteries in the Cardinal lineup, Kolten finished the series with 4 hits, and now has a little five-game hitting streak underway.  He is hitting .500 (8 for 16) during the streak.

Kolten is up to .375 (9 for 24) in early July.

Tyler O’Neill

Flashing a bit of the ability that has made him so successful at AAA, Tyler O’Neill put together a fine series against the Diamondbacks.  Moreover, as he is getting consistent at bats, Tyler is starting to show some encouraging consistency.

He was 3 for 8 against Arizona – with all the hits going for extra bases, and has now hit safely in all of his last 5 starts.  He is 7 for 20 (.350) with a .600 slugging percentage in those games.  For the month of July, Tyler is a .321 hitter (9 for 28) with a .536 slugging percentage and 5 runs batted in in just 7 starts.

Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt was a big bat in the Sunday game with an important two-run home run.  He was held to an 0-for-4 on Friday, breaking a seven-game hitting streak.  During the streak, Paul had hit .346 (9 for 26) with 2 doubles and 2 home runs.  He drove in 6 runs during the 7 games, with a .654 slugging percentage.

Tommy Edman

Tommy Edman ended the first half hot, hitting in his last 5 games.  He finished with 6 hits in 18 at bats during the streak, including a triple and a home run.  He drove in 6 runs over the 5 games with a .333 batting average and a .611 slugging percentage.

He began the second half going 0-for-5 against Arizona.

In the early games of his career, Tommy hasn’t yet shown a great knack for leading off an inning.  He was 0-for-3 as a leadoff batter against Arizona, he is 1-for-9 leading off innings this month.  So far, Tommy has lead off in 22 innings with 5 hits and 1 hit-by-pitch (a .273 on base percentage).

Edman has only walked once in his first 60 plate appearances.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez’ bat was another important weapon that was limited during the Arizona series.  Jose went hitless in 6 at bats during the series, and is now 0 for his last 11.

Rotation Rises

The primary reason that St Louis managed victories in two of the three over the weekend was the emergence of the starting rotation.  Building off the Jack Flaherty’s sterling seven-inning performance against San Francisco just before the break, all three Cardinal starters (Daniel Ponce de Leon, Dakota Hudson and Adam Wainwright) followed with quality starts of their own.  The three combined to pitch 19.2 of the 27 innings of the series, allowing a total of 3 runs.  They finished the series with a combined 1.37 ERA and a .149/.240/.239 batting line against.

Daniel Ponce de Leon

Daniel Ponce de Leon turned his latest spot start into the one that has vaulted him into the rotation.  He muffled Arizona for 6.2 innings, limiting them to 1 run on 3 hits with no walks (although he did hit one batter) and 7 strikeouts on Friday.  He lowered his overall ERA to 1.99 for the season, and to 0.79 (with a .114 batting average against) for the month.

He’s been nothing but impressive so far.  He’s forced his way into a starting job.  Now we’ll see if he can stay there.

Dakota Hudson

Dakota Hudson – Saturday’s starter – tossed his ninth quality start in his last 11 games.  Hudson is 6-1 with a 2.84 over his last 11 games.

Adam Wainwright

Outdueling Zach Greinke in the series finale, Adam Wainwright threw seven scoreless innings, and has quality starts in two of his last three outings, recording a 1.93 ERA in those outings.

Carlos Martinez

Inheriting the closer’s rule in the wake of the season-ending injury to Jordan Hicks, Carlos Martinez has been as good as could be hoped.  He saved both wins against Arizona, and has now thrown 6 straight scoreless outings (covering 7.1 innings).  Not only has he allowed no runs of his own, he has also stranded all 5 runners he inherited during those games.  He has 10 strikeouts over those innings, and those that are hitting the ball in play against him are hitting it almost exclusively on the ground (10 of 13).

He hasn’t allowed an extra-base hit since June 9.

NoteBook

Yairo Munoz started at shortstop on Sunday afternoon, breaking Paul DeJong’s streak of 26 consecutive starts at short.  That had been the longest current streak of any Cardinal at the same position.  That mantle now falls to Paul Goldschmidt, who on Sunday made his eighteenth consecutive start at first.

The Saturday game registered an official temperature of 90 degrees – significant evidence that summer is in full force in St Louis.  It was just the third 90+ degree game this season, and the first since May 25 when they beat Atlanta here 6-3.  The hottest game of the year so far was played in Mexico on April 13 when we lost to Cincinnati, 5-2.

That home series against Atlanta had been the hottest by average temperature this season at 86.3 degrees.  The just finished Arizona series averaged 88.7 degrees.  And, no, it was not a dry heat.

When the Cards took their 5-0 lead into the seventh inning on Sunday, it marked the first time they held a five-run lead going into the seventh inning since May 18 when they took a 7-2 lead into the seventh in Texas – on their way to an 8-2 victory (box score).  One of the consequences of the recent offensive struggles is that any late inning lead this team holds is generally precarious.  Laughers have been few and far between lately.

New/Old Offensive Philosophy Leads to Damage in Seattle

“Our hard-hit contact rate improved [in May] and our results decreased.  And I felt like we said, ‘You know what? We’ve got to do something different because we’re not getting the reward.’  We got away from the damage we were doing coming out of Spring Training.  We did without reward and lost our way a little bit.  We’ve gotten back to doing what we need to do, and that’s putting some damage out there.”

The speaker here was Cardinal manager Mike Shildt, quoted in Anne Rogers game story for MLB.com (full article).

The gist – as I understand it – is that the Cardinal hitters tried to be too selective at the plate.  Earlier in that same article, Dexter Fowler explained it this way: “See the ball in the zone and take that hack at it.  Guys sit there thinking, ‘Oh, he’s going to throw me this, so I want it in this spot.’  If it’s in the zone, hit it.”

June, of course, was a disastrous offensive month for the Holy Cardinal Franchise.  They managed just 3.54 runs per game and finished dead last in the entire major leagues in team batting average (.223), on base percentage (.286) and slugging percentage (.357).

The Seattle series did show a significant uptick.  In three games in the Pacific Northwest, the formerly inept Cardinal batsmen hit .275 (28 for 102), with 12 of the hits going for extra-bases (6 doubles and 6 home runs).  They slugged .510 in Seattle.

So, how much of the expressed philosophical issue and the described resolution are truly responsible for the woes of June?  And how compelling is the evidence that things have turned around?  Let’s play a little fact or fiction.

There actually is a statistical footprint that supports the “too passive” theory.  The usual statistical breakout of the average major league at bat is that slightly more than half of them get to the point where the hitter gets two strikes on him.  At that point, the numbers shift drastically to the pitcher.  Up to that point, major league batters hit over .300.  The other 50% of at bats are generally divided pretty evenly between batters hitting the first and second strike.  According to baseball reference, batters hitting the first strike thrown to them are hitting .354/.414/.636.  Once the batter gets two strikes on him, his numbers drop to .173/.247/.285.

St Louis’ numbers from June show that the first strike was hit only 17.5% of the time (suggesting a reluctance to take an aggressive approach).  Moreover, when that pitch was hits, the results – the “damage” if you will – sat well below the major league average.  Cardinals hitting the first strike in June hit .279/.357/.517.

Meanwhile, they ended up in two-strike counts an uncomfortable 57.3% of the time – with predictable results (.165/.225/.256).

For all of the talk, though, they didn’t hit that first strike any more frequently in this series.  Of the 109 batters who came to the plate in Seattle, 18 hit the first strike (just 16.5% – this number including two batters who walked before seeing strike one).

They did, however, hit that first pitch much better when they did hit it – going 9 for 16 (.562) with 2 doubles and a home run (.875 slugging percentage).

Of the 109 batters sent to the plate, 62 (56.9%) still ended up in two strike counts – higher than average.  These batters, though, also performed better.  The batting average was somewhat higher at .190 (11 for 58).  But 6 of the 11 two-strike hits went for extra-bases (3 doubles and all 3 home runs hit over the last two games).  Tommy Edman’s seventh-inning, game-winning single in the Thursday game (box score) also came on a two-strike pitch, culminating a 9-pitch at bat.

It could be argued from this, that the team isn’t any less selective than they were in June, but that when they do decide to swing, they are doing so with more abandon – that the swings, themselves, are more aggressive.

On the Other Hand

So, if there is some evidence of a new and more productive offensive philosophy in place, here are a couple of caveats to keep in mind.

First of all, the sample size is exceedingly small.  We are looking here at 109 plate appearances in contrast to 964 in June alone, and 3226 for the season.  Three games can suggest a possible turn-around, but proves nothing.

Second, of course, this was Seattle.  The Mariners are having a fairly dreary season, having lost more than fifty games, already.  There have been a lot of teams that have taken similar advantage of the Seattle pitching staff.  This becomes more credible when (if) they can perform similarly against a more established pitching staff.

Finally, this re-discovered damage happened on the road.  The question that hangs over this offense is – aggressive or not – can they do sustained damage in their spacious ballpark, where big flies tend to die on the track?

Don’t get me wrong, it was a relief to see some hits coming off the bats of some struggling hitters.  But there is still much to be proved.

HarrisonBader

Perhaps the change in philosophy affected no one more than Harrison Bader.  He had fallen completely into that pattern throughout the month of June.  Harrison hit that first strike just 19% of the time, and went just 3 for 12 when he did.  He ended with two-strikes on him 61.9% of the time, batting just .087 (4 for 46) when that happened.

Harrison had 7 plate appearances in the last two games of the Seattle series, and he hit the first strike in 3 of them – getting singles all three times.

PaulGoldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt finished the Seattle series with 3 hits over the last two games – a single and two doubles.  Two of the three hits came with two strikes on him – which was encouraging.  But again, Goldschmidt faced two-strike counts in 6 of his last 8 plate appearances.  Paul, who is, perhaps, more selective than he needs to be, has gotten to two strikes in 62.8% of his plate appearances.

JoseMartinez

Jose Martinez finished the Seattle series with a single and a double yesterday afternoon.  Jose has now strung together a nice six-game hitting streak.  He is hitting .333 during the streak (8 for 24), with half the hits going for extra-bases (2 doubles, 2 home runs).  Since being returned to the lineup 13 games ago, Jose is hitting .314 (16 for 51), and slugging .529 with 3 home runs.

DexterFowler

Fowler also has a little hitting streak going, having at least one hit in each of the last 7 games he’s had an official at bat in.  He walked as a pinch-hitter in the last game against San Diego.  Counting that walk, over his last 25 plate appearances, Fowler has contributed 5 singles, 1 double, 1 home run and 5 walks – a .350/.480/.550 batting line.

Fowler – like Goldschmidt – is a taker of pitches.  For all his talk about aggression, he never did hit the first strike thrown him at any point in the series, working with two strikes on him in 9 of the 11 plate appearances he had where they actually pitched to him (he was intentionally walked his last time up).

All three of his hits in the series came with two strikes on him.

YadierMolina

While most of the Cardinals’ struggling hitters found some measure of success in Seattle, things are still not falling in for Yadier Molina.  Yadi is 0-for-10 with a sacrifice fly in his last 11 plate appearances, but three of those outs (including the sac fly) have been line drives.  In 20 games since he’s returned from injury, Yadi is carrying a .239/.257/.282 batting line.

MichaelWacha

After allowing just 3 runs over 13 innings of his previous two starts, inconsistency found Michael Wacha yesterday afternoon, and he was driven from the mound before he could get through the fourth inning.

Wacha has labored to a 5.89 ERA since he returned from the injured list.

CarlosMartinez

Carlos Martinez’ season began on the injured list, and his first several appearances out of the pen were less than sharp.  That has resolved itself over his last 7 appearances (10.1 innings) in which he has given just 1 run on 7 hits (0.87 ERA).  Over that span, Carlos has walked just 2, given no extra-base hits, and struck out 11.

Of the last 24 batters to put the ball in play against him, exactly two-third have hit the ball on the ground.

AndrewMiller

Like Martinez, it took Andrew Miller a little while to get the feel of his slider.  The recent results indicate it is about back to its former level of filthiness.  He has struck out all of the last five batters he’s put into two strike counts, and 9 of the last 11.

NoteBook

Jose Martinez grounded into two double plays last night.  He has already bounced into 11 this season.  His career high are the 15 he hit into last year in 152 games and 534 at bats.

Last night’s victory gave St Louis a series win on the road.  This was their fourteenth road series of the season, and only the fifth of them that they have won, losing 8 and splitting 1.  Even with the win, they are 19-24 on the road this season.

Even though they eventually won the game, St Louis trailed after six innings for the ninth game in a row.

Carlos Martinez as Closer?

It was not quite a week ago that the Cardinals wrapped up one of the most successful months in their storied history.  With last Friday’s 12-5 conquest of Cincinnati, St Louis put the cherry on a 22-6 month.  The surprise feature of the historic month was the emergence of the bullpen.

An early-season disaster area, the relief corps contributed a 2.82 ERA to the August effort. Opposing hitters managed just a .214 average against these talented but young arms.  In 92.2 innings the bullpen allowed just 6 home runs, 13 doubles and no triples – a .307 slugging percentage against.

And then the calendar flipped to September.

Through the first four games of the season’s ultimate month, the bullpen suffered at least a hiccup, if not a major regression.  Through the first 21 bullpen innings of September, the relief corps surrendered 13 runs (12 earned) on 21 hits and 14 walks.  The hits included 4 home runs – three off the fingertips of presumptive closer Bud Norris – in just 1.1 innings.

Looking for just their second win in five games this month, the Cardinals thought they might breathe a little.  A 3-run first (courtesy of Matt Adams’ first Cardinal home run in a couple of years) – followed by 2 more runs in the second – gave them an early cushion.  A fifth-inning run (courtesy of Adams’ second home run of the night) made it 6-0 Cardinals.

But then, leading 7-2 in the seventh, starter Miles Mikolas ran into a spot of two-out trouble.  A Bryce Harper single and a double off the bat of Anthony Rendon brought Juan Soto to the plate with two runners in scoring position.  With 107 pitches thrown and 12 hits given up, Mikolas was certainly a candidate for relief.  Whatever misgivings manager Mike Shildt may have had toward his bullpen, they were not in evidence here.  Into the game came the usually reliable Dakota Hudson.

Dakota did get that final out of the inning – seventeen pitches later when Pedro Severino slashed a sharp line drive into right-center that the ever-quick Harrison Bader caught up to.  In between, a walk, a double, a single and a wild pitch had turned an early laugher into a tense 7-6 games.

What now?

The usual eighth- and ninth inning duo has been Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris.  But Hicks had pitched in both of the previous games (and warmed up several times).  With his work-load already approaching 70 innings (with a month left in the season), the 22-year-old (as of today) fire-baller has increasingly shown the strain of the season.  And Norris – of course – had suddenly sprung a leak.

At this point, the September bullpen had pitched to a 5.91 ERA.  They had thrown only 57% of their pitches for strikes – walking 15 batters in 21.1 innings – with a distressing opponent’s batting line of .288/.392/.588.

The ending tonight would be different.

On this night, the hero of the bullpen would be erstwhile starter Carlos Martinez.  The last six outs would belong to him.  He would get them, but – as has been true for most of this early month – it would not be easy.  After 40 more pitches – which included two singles, a runner reaching on an error, and 4 strikeouts, Carlos finally got Michael Taylor to chase a slider running out of the strike zone for the last out in a tenser-than-desired 7-6 victory (box score).

Carlos the Closer?

The two innings and 40 pitches preclude Martinez from being used again anytime soon, but does raise the intriguing concept of Carlos Martinez as Cardinal closer.  Norris has done an admirable job through most of the season, and a couple of bad outings in a row doesn’t necessarily mean that he is collapsing.  So any continued faith that Shildt has in him would not be unjustified.

At the same time, Bud has never been a closer in September for a team in the hunt.  This is unknown territory for him.  It is also so for Martinez, who did pitch out of the bullpen in September and the playoffs during his first two years (2013-2014) – but not as closer.

Since the All-Star Break, Norris is 6-for-6 in save opportunities when entering with a 3-run lead, allowing no runs and just 2 singles in 6 innings in those games.  He is only 5-for-8 when he has less than those three runs.  In the 6.2 innings he’s lasted in these contests, Bud holds an 8.10 ERA, with a .355/.487/.581 batting line against.

For the season, Norris is 14-of-14 with a 1.84 ERA and a .152/.200/.152 batting line against in save opportunities of 3-or-more runs.  When brought in to protect a 1- or 2-run lead, he is a much more pedestrian 14-of-19, with a 4.82 ERA and a .286 batting average against.  He has walked 9 batters and hit another in those 18.2 innings.

Carlos has only made 7 relief appearances – only once as the closer – but so far so good.  He has allowed just 1 run in 8.1 relief innings.

Should Martinez get more of these late-game opportunities, it raises an intriguing possibility.  Carlos was the team’s opening day starter in New York, where he threw the first pitch of the Cardinal season.  The Cardinal second half began on the road in Chicago, where Martinez again threw the first pitch of the second half.  St Louis’ season will end in Chicago, giving Carlos the opportunity to throw the last pitch of the Cardinal season.  I’m sure it’s been done before, but that would be a curious trifecta.

Miles Mikolas

Having already surpassed his career-high in innings (at least at the major league level – he threw 188 in Japan last year) Mikolas has struggled some, recently.  Although he missed by one out last night, Miles has only 1 quality start in his last 5 outings, while pitching to a 4.60 ERA over 29.1 innings.

This was the second time in three starts that Miles has served up 12 hits (Colorado had that many in 4.2 innings on August 24).  Over the 16.1 innings covered by those last three starts, Mikolas has served up 32 hits, with a .421 batting average against.

That being said, Miles hasn’t shown much signs of prospering on extra-rest.  He was pitching on six-days rest last night.  Since the break, he has pitched on extra rest 5 times.  In those games, he has worked 29.1 innings with a 4.91 ERA and a .336 batting average against.  His ERA is just 2.16 in the 4 games this half he has pitched on four-days of rest.

He has a 2.35 ERA this season when starting on four-days.

Fireworks from the Offense

After driving 40 home runs and averaging 5.29 runs per game in 28 games through that exciting August, the offense took a little breather during the first three games of September – all loses.  In those games, they totaled 7 runs and 1 home run.

Frankly, the only reason St Louis isn’t off to an 0-5 start this month is the return the last two games of the August offense.  Over their last 18 innings, Cardinal batsmen have smacked 8 home runs and piled up 18 runs – in both cases, barely enough to survive short starts and shaky bullpen efforts.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the things the offense could really use is a return to 2017 form for Marcell Ozuna.  Hitless in his first 8 at bats after a short DL stint, Ozuna has been one of the heroes of the last two games.  Marcell drilled two home runs on Tuesday night, and followed with 4 singles last night.

Ozuna – whose second-half average is up to .298 (45 for 151) with 8 home runs – was starting to turn things around noticeably in August before his injury.  In 20 August games, he hit .321 (26 for 81).

Jose Martinez

After leading the team with a .389 batting average in August, Jose Martinez began September in a mini-swoon (one single in his first 15 at bats).  He looked more like the old Jose last night, as he contributed 3 singles.  Martinez is now hitting .336 (48 for 143) in the second half.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter didn’t contribute as loudly as he usually does in a Cardinal victory, but he still added a single, a double, a run batted in and 2 runs scored.  Since the break, Matt is a .290/.418/.639 hitter with 16 home runs, 36 runs scored, and 33 runs batted in in 46 games (and those kind of RBIs are tough to achieve when you hit leadoff).  Matt has also been intentionally walked 13 times over his last 46 games.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong hit one of the home runs in Tuesday’s game, but can’t seem to keep anything sustained.  After his 0-for-5 last night, Paul is still hitting just .200 in the second half (34 for 170) – albeit, now, with 8 home runs.

NoteBook

Up next is a three-game set in Detroit.  After that St Louis plays 13 of its next 16 at home.  If this team can figure out its own home park (they are 37-31 at home) they could have an opportunity to open up some ground in the wild-card race.  And, since they then close the season with three games in Wrigley, if they can pick up a couple of games on Chicago in the process (they are currently 4.5 games behind), that could make for a very interesting closing series.

First, though, they will have to resolve – again – that bullpen.

DeJong Reverses RISP Trend in Cardinal Win

Fearless forcast – mark it down.  At some point this season, the Cardinals will lose a game to the Cincinnati Reds.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.

It almost happened Saturday afternoon.  Three Cardinal home runs accounted for all of their scoring in a 4-3 win (box score) – a game in which they were 0-or-6 with runners in scoring position (RISP).  This has been a continuing sore spot for an offense that has still mostly underachieved (in spite of the fact that they are still scoring 4.81 runs a game).  With the 0-for-6 on Saturday, the Cards fell to 6 for 32 (.188) is RISP opportunities over their four previous games.  It also dropped them to .230 (35 for 152) for the season in RBI opportunities.

For one afternoon on Sunday, though, the concerns were temporarily allayed as St Louis cruised past Cincinnati (for the seventh straight time this season) by a 9-2 score (box score). One of the game features was a 5-for-16 performance (.313) with runners in scoring position.  Whether this is the beginning of a turnaround is yet to be determined.

Noteworthy in the game – and in the early season struggles – is second-year shortstop Paul DeJong.  Entering the game just 2-for-19 (.105) with runners in scoring position, Paul had ducks on the pond every time he came to the plate Sunday afternoon.  Batting eighth in many of the recent games, manager Mike Matheny sought to change things up by batting DeJong fifth this day, and the game continually found him.

In the first inning – with the game still scoreless – DeJong came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.  He bounced into the 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.

Now it’s the third inning.  The Cards have just pushed their lead to 2-0, when Paul came to the plate with runners at first and second and one out.  But instead of another rally-killing ground ball, DeJong slapped a single that positioned a runner (Yadier Molina) at third, where he would score on a fly-ball off the bat of Tyler O’Neill (his first major league RBI), giving the Cards a 3-0 lead.

When Dexter Fowler led off the fifth with a walk and a stolen base, DeJong had yet another RISP opportunity.  Nothing came of this as Paul grounded out.

In the meantime, the Cardinal offense had slowed, and the Reds began to chip away at the deficit.  So, when Paul came to the plate in the seventh inning – with runners at first and second and two out – the Cards were clinging to a 3-2 lead.  Just 3 for 22 at this point with runners in scoring position on the season, Paul DeJong finally came through.  He delivered a crushing three-run homer that took much of the pressure off, and sent the Cards on to their decisive victory.

While DeJong hasn’t (yet) been as consistent as he was in his rookie year, this was – nonetheless – his seventh home run of the young season.  Big hits in clutch situations from DeJong would go a long way toward healing what’s wrong with the St Louis offense.

If DeJong is turning the corner, the RISP results are still frustrating for Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter.  Wong ended the third by striking out with runners at first and second.  He is now 2 for 11 (.182) in the early season with runners on base.  Carpenter had a fourth inning chance with two on and no one out, but he was retired on a fly ball.  Matt is just 2 for his first 15 (.133) in RISP situations.

Again, it’s early.

Two RISP Pitching Notes

On the subject of runners in scoring position, a couple of pitching numbers jumped out at me this morning.  Neither pitcher pitched on Sunday, but rookie Jordan Hicks and top starter Carlos Martinez have both found another gear when pitching in RISP situations.  Hicks has held batters to 0-for-16 in these opportunities so far this season.

As for Martinez, he served up a two-run single to New York’s Yoenis Cespedes in the second inning of his shaky opening start against the Mets.  That has been the only hit this season off of Carlos when he has had ducks on the pond.  Batters are now 1-for-24 (.042) against Martinez in these situations – including 0 for their last 21.

Speaking of Pitching

Miles Mikolas (Sunday’s starter) added another strong effort to the rotation’s early success.  Miles finished his day having pitched 7 innings, allowing 1 earned run on 5 hits.  Since the first two games of the season, the Cardinal rotation holds a 2.73 ERA, allowing just 8 home runs over their last 112 innings.

Recent Scoring Changes – For Those Scoring at Home

Dexter Fowler’s struggling start got a little better.  In the fifth inning of the April 12 game in Cincinnati, Fowler reached when his pop-fly to short fell in.  Originally scored an error, Dexter has now been awarded a hit on the effort.  It pushes his early season average up to .192.

Fixing the Brand

As the 2017 playoffs begin to crank up in earnest, the St Louis Cardinals will be relegated to watching.  A proud franchise who – not too long ago played in four consecutive Championship Series –  will be bristling over their second straight exclusion from the post-season dance.

All over Cardinal Nation, a host of voices will be raised to give guidance and counsel to the St Louis management.  I understand that mine will be a lonely voice, lost – no doubt – amidst the throngs clamoring for truckloads of money to be thrown at some high profile free agent or other.  I am not terribly concerned about these voices, because (usually) Cardinal management has a much clearer grasp on the needs of their team than the common fan.

This year, however, from their early comments I am concerned that John Mozeliak and his councilors may have missed the many loud messages that his team has been sending him.  So, as I acknowledge the fact that my singular plea for reason is liable to vanish into the great void of the blogosphere, I will nonetheless send forth my diagnosis of the club’s current issues and – as far as I am able – to at least hint at some sensible prescriptions.

It is important to note that none of this is as cut and dried as most fans (and bloggers) seem to think.  Contrary to many opinions, giving Miami whatever they want for Giancarlo Stanton is not really a prescription for success, either in 2018 or beyond.

This is, in fact, both a critical and challenging offseason.  St Louis has a handful of gifted players who must be added to the 40-man roster or be lost.  They, therefore, will be challenged with making critical decisions about the futures of the players already on that roster.  In many of these cases, the cases for and against these players is anything but clear.  The organizational challenge is to be right in deciding which young talents to embrace and which to part with.

None of this will be easy at all, as I will attempt to point out.

First Off, This is a Team in Transition

Most followers of the Cardinals are already aware that this team is transitioning from the veterans of the teams that went to all of those championship series.  For years, the organization has been stockpiling talent throughout its minor league system.  Now, that rich resource is beginning to re-shape the major league team.

Twenty-three percent of all plate appearances taken by the 2017 Cardinals belonged to players who opened the season in Memphis.  That percentage rose to 34% in the second half.  The pitching staff was less influenced, but still 16% of the innings pitched came from Memphis arms.  That figure also rose to 25% in the second half.

Make no mistake.  The youth movement is underway.  There had been similar displacement the year before, with the emergences of Aledmys Diaz and Alex Reyes.  St Louis is clearly rebuilding, and trying to remain competitive while doing so.

The answer to getting this team back into the playoffs – for all of the rebuilding – is actually comparatively simple.  They need to guess correctly on a closer.

Get Thyself a Closer

For as uneven as the Cardinals have been the last two years, they would have made the playoffs both years if they could have successfully filled one position – the closer.  With more stability in the ninth inning, this teams could easily have made up the one game they lacked in 2016 and the four they fell short of this year.  Cardinal pitchers appearing as closers finished 2017 with a 3.75 ERA – the worst showing for Cardinal closers since the fourth-place 2008 team finished with a 6.27 ERA from its closers.

It has become axiomatic throughout baseball – probably on all levels.  If you don’t pitch the ninth, you will not succeed.  This organization believed it had the ninth inning covered at the start of both of the last two seasons.  They had no reasons to anticipate the struggles Trevor Rosenthal would have in 2016 or the problems that Seung-hwan Oh would run into this year.

Swing the net out to include the eighth inning, and the story becomes even more compelling.  They lost 6 games this year when leading after 7 innings.  Even more telling, in games the Cards were tied after 7 innings, they were only 3-12 – by percentage the worst performance by a Cardinal team in this century

But the Cardinals already know they have bullpen issues.  And solving the eighth and ninth innings may well get them back into the playoffs, but won’t address the issues that will keep them from advancing once there.

It’s from this point on that I don’t think the organization is seeing clearly.

The Magical Impact Bat?

Among the primary targets this offseason, an “impact bat” seems to be high on the list.  Really?  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t mind seeing an established bat in the middle of the lineup.  But who?  And at what cost.

The least intrusive path would be free agency.  But who would that be?  J.D. Martinez is probably the most established of the free-agents to be.  Would he come to St Louis?  Given the Cardinals’ track record of wooing elite free agents (not to mention the spacious ballpark), I’ll have to remain skeptical on this one.

What concerns me most is that they will go out and trade a whole bunch of promising players for a slightly upgraded version of Brandon Moss.  Is Josh Donaldson, for example, really worth surrendering the future of an Alex Reyes or a Sandy Alcantara?  Are you really sure we don’t already have that impact bat?  Can you say for certainty that the three-four-five spots in the Cardinal order come next July (or perhaps even June) won’t be Paul DeJong, Patrick Wisdom and Tyler O’Neill?  Look at some of the players on the team this year that got less than full-time at bats.

DeJong hit 25 home runs in 417 at bats.  Give him 500 at bats (around the norm for a starter) and Paul would have been a 30 home run man with a .285/.325/.532 batting line.  And he was a rookie this year.  There is a fairly good chance we haven’t seen the best of Paul yet.

Tommy Pham only made 128 starts, but finished with 23 home runs and a .306/.411/.520 batting line.  A .931 OPS sounds pretty “impact” to me.

Jose Martinez got only 272 at bats, but hit 14 home runs.  That would project to 26 home runs in a 500 at bat season to go along with his .309/.379/.518 batting line.  Are we really, truly sure that Jose couldn’t be a fulltime player.

Moreover, I think the “impact bat” is an over-rated concept, unless you’re running a Whitey-ball offense and your lineup is 7 jack-rabbits and one bopper.  Far more important is the depth of the lineup.

Consider:  in the offensively unimpressive first half, four of the eight Cardinal batsmen with the most plate appearances hit below .250.  Dexter Fowler finished at .248, Stephen Piscotty hit .240, Matt Carpenter scuffled in at .237, and Randal Grichuk hit the break at .215.  That’s a lot of outs sprinkled regularly through the lineup.  A “bopper” in the middle would certainly help, but with that many struggling bats, one “impact bat” won’t cure the problem.

Now consider: for the 44 games from August 6 through September 23, St Louis averaged 5.77 runs per game – an adequate offensive production, by anyone’s standard.  During that span – of the eight players getting the most plate appearances – only Carpenter (.244) was under .250 – and that just barely.  Nobody hit more than the 9 home runs that came off the bat of DeJong, but almost everybody hit some.  Most importantly, they weren’t making outs.  In almost all cases, a deep lineup is better for your offense than a concentrated one.

There is considerable pressure in the team to do something dramatic to push the team back into the playoffs.  Again, I am just one voice.  But if I had one of the best farm systems in baseball, I would trust it more.  I would give this system every opportunity to prove to me that the pieces I need are already at my disposal.  I’m not saying never trade from any of this surplus.  But I am saying don’t trade the future for a mess of pottage (no offense, Josh).

Wither Lance Lynn

In this post, I made most of my case for keeping Lance Lynn.  Since one of the comments made by the brain trust had something to do with shoring up the rotation (a goal I approve of), I have to wonder where they think they will get better value than Lance?  Remembering that he was in his first year coming off elbow reconstruction (the infamous Tommy John surgery), Lance’s 33 starts, 17 quality starts, 186.1 innings pitched and 3.43 ERA are quite impressive.

More than the numbers, though, Lance was a bulldog.  He even got hit in the head with a line drive and kept on pitching.  As the next generation of pitchers graduate to the majors, Lance would be a terrific mentor.

Yes, he faded at the end – which was disappointing.  Still, I am not at all convinced that, for the money and the years it would take to sign Lynn, they will find a better bargain out there.

Here’s a final note.  In a down year for free-agent pitchers, Lance will be a likely target for a certain division rival who is always scrambling for pitching.  He would be just what the doctor ordered for them.

My prediction here is that if they let Lance walk, they will regret it.

These are all important considerations, but the single most important failing of the 2017 team is one that I don’t think they are even aware of.

A Matter of Character

Throughout the course of the entire season, manager Mike Matheny would intone sentiments similar to this: time and time again, this team has shown me its character and its toughness; one thing I will never ever doubt is the toughness and character of this team.

The character of the team and its much-envied clubhouse was the foundation upon which the belief in the Cardinals’ eventual triumph was forged.  It is organizational bedrock.  The foundational doctrine upon which all decisions are based.

And it’s complete mythology.

In every way possible, the 2017 Cardinals tried to send this message to their manager’s office – and to their front office, too for that matter.  Character wins were almost non-existent in 2017.

They were 4-7 in walk-off victories, 5-9 in extra-innings, 24-29 in one-run games.  And two measures that I am fond of as revealers of character: they were 39-39 after losing their previous game, and 27-44 against teams with winning records – including losing 6 of their last 7 must-win games against Chicago.

As a point of reference, the 39-39 in games after a loss is the worst record for a Cardinal team in this century.  The 2007 team that finished 78-84 was 43-41 after a loss.  The 2006 team that snuck into the playoffs and won the whole thing after an 83-78 regular season was 43-40 after a loss (counting the playoffs).

By contrast, the 100-win 2005 team went 50-15 after a loss (counting the playoffs).  In fact, the three 100-win versions in this century (2004, 2005, 2015) combined to go 128-65 (.663) after losing their previous game.  There have been seven 90-win teams in this century so far.  After losing their previous game, those teams have combined to go 301-209 (.591).  There have also been seven 80-win teams in St Louis in this century.  Even they have managed to go 294-251 (.539) in games after a loss.

The utility of this metric is that it reveals precisely one of the principle failings of this year’s club – a frustrating inability to break out of losing streaks.  In my season wrap-up post, I documented several extended losing spells.  In most of them, St Louis needed to wait for a series against a pretty bad team (like Philadelphia) before they could pull themselves out of their tailspin.

As to the record against winning teams, think about 27-44.  That is a .380 winning percentage.  If you took a fairly good AAA team and had them play 71 games against average major league teams, this is about the record you would expect them to compile.  In fact, this winning percentage is also the lowest of any Cardinal team in this century, breaking the one-year-old record of the 2016 team that floundered along at 24-35 (.407) against teams that won at least as many as they lost.

I promise you that the talent gap isn’t that great between the Cardinals and the other winning teams in the league.  This points strictly to toughness.

Over the course of the entire century, St Louis is 766-566 (.575) after a loss, and 713-688 (.509) against winning teams.

So, who are the players who have routinely fallen short in these character games?  It’s time, I suppose, to name names.

Stephen Piscotty

Enduring the worst season of his career, Piscotty also routinely came up short in tough situations.  He hit .213 against winning teams (29 for 136) with 3 home runs.  This included a .179 average (5 for 28 – all singles) after the All-Star Break.  During the season’s second half he was also 10 for 57 (.175) in games after a loss, and just 3 for 24 with runners in scoring position.  Renowned for his prowess with runners in scoring position through the first two seasons of his career, Piscotty hit just .125 in the second half this year with ducks on the pond.

I don’t think anyone in the organization believes that 2017 will be a representative year in the career of Stephen Piscotty.  A combination of things conspired to derail his season early, and he never found his way back.  But, with talented outfielders rising through the system, the organization will now be forced to re-evaluate their commitment to Piscotty.  Further complicating the issue is that, should they decide to trade Stephen, they are unlikely to get full trade value.

Piscotty is a very cerebral player, and very likely to figure things out.  Whatever his future with the organization, Stephen is one player who could profit greatly by hitting the ground running next season.

Luke Weaver

This, I suppose, should be expected.  Rookie right-hander Luke Weaver was mostly a revelation during the last part of the second half.  But the young man still has some lessons to learn that the league’s better clubs are all too willing to teach.

Luke made 5 starts against winning teams, culling just 1 quality start.  He served up 6 home runs in 24.2 innings, compiling a 2-2 record with an 8.03 ERA and a .321/.381/.547 batting line against.  It will be interesting to see how quickly he learns and adapts.

Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman was a bit exposed – especially late in the season – by the better teams.  In 35 games (26.2 innings) against higher quality opponents, Matthew was pushed around a bit to the tune of a 5.06 ERA and a .284 batting average against.

Not So Cut and Dried

A few of the players on the team, though, defy an easy label.  In this difficult off-season, these will be the hardest decisions the organization will have to make, as guessing wrong will come with consequences.

Randal Grichuk

For the last two seasons, Randal has been the almost-emergent superstar.  In each of the last two seasons, his final numbers have disappointed.  But in both seasons he has shown enough hint of promise to earn another chance.

Grichuk finished 2017 with much the same totals as 2016.  The batting average fell a couple of notches to .238 (from .240) and the home runs dipped from 24 to 22.  He ended 2017 slugging .473 after slugging .480 the year before.  Overall, less than compelling.

But, he did hit .265/.303/.550 with 13 of his home runs in 189 at bats after the break.  So now, the organization has to decide if that was just a tease?  Or is it real progress?

He ended the year at just .218 (43 of 197) against winning teams, but hit 11 of his 22 home runs against them.  In the second half, he was 20 of 83 (.241) when playing winning teams, but with a .542 slugging percentage as half of those 20 hits went for extra bases – including 7 home runs.

In games after a loss, Randal checked in with a disappointing .201 average (36 of 179), including just .188 (15 for 80) in the second half – but again, with a .438 slugging percentage.

Randal mostly split right field with Piscotty in the season’s second half.  In Grichuk’s 34 starts the team was 22-12.  They were 13-18 in Piscotty’s 31 starts.

There is no question that Randal was productive in the second half.  His 13 home runs were only 3 behind team-leader Paul DeJong in 100 fewer at bats.  If the Grichuk of the second half had had a 500 at bat season he would have hit 34 home runs with his .265 batting average and .550 slugging percentage.

With Randal’s potential, you would hope for more than that.  But, if the Randal they saw in the second half is the Randal that they can count on seeing all of next year, I think they could accept that.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter’s entire season is tough to get a handle on.  On the one hand, he drew a career high 109 walks, leading to the second-highest on-base percentage of his career (.384).  On the other hand, his batting average continued to sink – down to .241 (30 points lower than his previous worst average).  On the other hand, he was apparently battling shoulder issues all season – perhaps accounting for much of that loss of production.  On the other hand, after playing in at least 154 games a year from 2013 through 2015, Matt has followed with two injury plagued seasons.  He also hit 23 home runs (his third consecutive 20-homer season) and slugged a solid .451.  His final OPS of .835 is still well above league average, but below either of his previous two seasons.

In his games against winning teams, Matt hit just .221 (49 of 222), but drew 38 walks, helping him to a .341 on base percentage.  He made 141 starts this year, with the team going 70-71 (.496) when he was in the lineup, and 13-8 (.619) when he wasn’t.

So did Matt have a good year or not? With the home runs and the on base, I suppose that I would have to call it good, but troubling.  By degrees, Matt is becoming more valuable for his ability to walk than for his ability to hit the ball.  And, by degrees, the team is starting to feel the loss of that big hit.

Carpenter is one of the team’s core members, and he will be on the field somewhere on opening day (barring another injury).  But a lot of elements in his career trajectory concern me.

Michael Wacha

While this was – in many ways – a triumphal season for Michael Wacha, he is still coming up short in these character games.  After suffering through three injury plagued seasons, an offseason workout regimen kept Michael on the field for 30 starts and 165.2 innings.  The anticipation is that his 12-9 record and 4.13 ERA will be marks to build on going forward.

It may, indeed, play out that way.  It is, nonetheless, true, that Wacha (who excelled against good teams and in stopper situations early in his career) continues to trend down in these games.

From 2013 through 2015, Wacha pitched in 40 games (35 starts) against teams that boasted winning records for the season.  He was 15-9 in those games with a 3.08 ERA and a .217 batting average against.

In 2013 and 2014, Wacha pitched in 12 games (10 starts) after a Cardinal loss.  He was 5-3 with a 2.88 ERA in those situations, holding batters to a .195 batting average.

In 2017, Wacha was only 2-6 in 12 starts against winning teams.  His 5.90 ERA was accompanied by a .296/.365/.502 batting line against.  He was 5-4 in 13 starts following a Cardinal loss, but with a 4.76 ERA.  Since 2015, Wacha is 4-10 against winning teams with a 5.70 ERA, and since 2014 he is 15-9, but with a 4.64 ERA in games after a loss.

Wacha is yet another enigma on this team.  Beyond the physical issues, there has been a palpable loss of mojo.  The spectacular hero of the 2013 playoffs has lost that big game feel.  Wacha is one of the players who could make a huge difference next year if he can channel his earlier self.

Carlos Martinez

In spite of the fact that he tossed his first two complete-game shutouts and crossed over both the 200-inning and 200-strikeout plateaus for the first time in his career, Carlos Martinez regressed noticeably in 2017.  After going 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA in 2015 (his first year in the rotation), and 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA last year, Carlos saw those numbers sink to 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA.  And the core difficulty that he had was with winning teams.

In his first two seasons in the rotation, Martinez had gone 12-9 with a 3.35 ERA against winning teams.  He had put together quality starts in 17 of his 26 starts against them.

He made 15 starts against winning teams this year.  Only 7 of those fulfilled the standards for a quality start.  Even though he has “stuff” the equal of any pitcher in the game, he was only 4-7 with a 4.28 ERA in those games.  He was just 1-3 with a 6.12 ERA with a .301 batting average against them in the second half of the season.  After allowing just 12 home runs in 166.2 innings against winning teams his first two years in the rotation, he served up 11 in 90.1 innings against them last year.

In all likelihood, this is just a bump in the road for Carlos.  But there were a couple of concerning developments that I noticed that need to be solved somehow, or Martinez will never realize his potential.

For one thing, Martinez continually tries to do too much.  His anointing as the ace of the staff this year may have fed into this tendency.  Especially in big games, he tries too much to give extra effort.  In a game that rewards players that learn to play within themselves, this will usually be counterproductive.

It was noted that Carlos complicated three consecutive late-season starts by throwing away routine double-play balls.  More than this, though, Martinez’ need to do too much affected his fielding for much of the season.  He dove, scrambled, and lunged for every near-by ground ball.  He probably caused nearly a dozen infield hits by deflecting grounders that would have been right to his infielders.

On several occasions, he even kicked at ground balls to his right, like a hockey goalie trying to make a skate save.  Now, I ask you, what good could come of that?  Who in the world could make a play on a ball that Carlos has deflected with his foot?

It’s all part and parcel of a young pitcher losing control of himself.

The other issue is even more concerning.  There sometimes – especially in big games – seems to be an emotional fragility to Martinez.  Something in his confidence seems to drain if the opposing team has early success against him.  He hasn’t fully mastered the ability to gather himself after bad things happen and continue to pitch within himself.

There is no better example of this than the game that sent the Cardinal season spinning toward its final destination (box score).

For ten batters on a beautiful Friday afternoon in Wrigley, Carlos Martinez was untouchable.  His 100-mph fast ball jumped and ran like a thing alive, and his slider was about eleven different flavors of filthy.  The defending champion Cubs – possessors of one of the most potent lineups in baseball – couldn’t touch him.  Five of the ten batters struck out, and four of the others hit groundouts.  Of his first 43 pitches, 30 were strikes.

Then Kris Bryant – the eleventh batter to face him – looped a fly ball to right on a 2-0 pitch.  It wasn’t hit terribly well or terribly far.  If this incident had happened at Busch, Piscotty would have probably been about a step on the track as he made the catch.  But in Wrigley it was just far enough to creep over that overhanging basket for a game-tying home run.

And with that, the air went out of Carlos Martinez.

The first 10 batters he faced got no hits.  Six of the last 16 he faced got hits.  After striking out 5 of the first 10, he didn’t strike out another batter.  While 30 of his first 43 pitches were strikes, only 31 of his final 57 made it to the strike zone.  None of the first 10 batters walked.  Carlos walked 3 of the last 16 and hit another as his once dominating slider flew wildly all over the place.

Carlos ended the affair lasting just 5.1 innings.  On a day that he started with devastating stuff, he ended serving up 7 runs on 6 hits and 3 walks.

Being “the man” requires uncommon mental and emotional discipline.  The next level for Martinez lies just beyond that barrier.

Let it be noted that in three years in the rotation, Carlos is 17-8 with a 2.96 ERA in games after a loss.  That includes his 4-3, 2.61 mark this year in those situations.

Better Than the Numbers Suggest

One player deserves mention in a better category.  His contribution was greater than his numbers might suggest.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler was the big free agent acquisition after being one of the drivers of Chicago’s championship the year before.  His final numbers were sort of ordinary (.264 batting average with 18 home runs).  He also hit just .225 (42 for 187) against winning teams, and .237 (52 of 219) in games following a loss.  Not overly impressive.

But Fowler’s season was a story of two halves.  Hobbled by a variety of injuries in the first half (mostly his feet), Dexter limped to a .248 average (albeit with 14 home runs).  He had hit .199 (27 of 136) against winning teams, and .201 (28 of 139) in games after a loss.

As his health improved, Fowler became a decided force for good throughout the second half.  He hit .288/.400/.488 after the break, including .294 with a .400 on base percentage against winning teams, and .300 with a .402 on base percentage in games after a loss.

The guy I saw at the end of the season is the guy I’m excited to see all year next year.

Setting the Bar

The Cardinals did have a few players who consistently rose to the challenge of the games against the better teams.  They should get a notice as well.

Tommy Pham

Tommy’s break-through season wasn’t limited to beating up on lesser teams.  Tommy hit .287 against over .500 teams with a .391 on base percentage.  He also hit .330/.451/.558 in games after a loss.  He also hit .305/.420/.514 with runners in scoring position.  Tommy had himself a year.

Lance Lynn

It’s probably fitting that I spend the last few paragraphs that I am likely to devote to the 2017 baseball season to Lance Lynn.  While the Cardinals repeatedly fell short against winning teams, Lance was 4-3 against them, with 4 other potential wins lost in the bullpen.  He posted a 3.09 ERA against these teams in 78.2 innings, with a .196 batting average against him.

Are we really, really sure we want to cut ties with him?

Final Word

Again, I am just one voice.  But the message clearly sent from the 2017 season is that this team’s greatest need is not some aging slugger to bat fourth.  The greatest gap between the Cards and the Cubs – and the other good teams in the majors – is the character gap.  If this were my team, this is the area that I would focus on first.

Cards Withstand Eighth Inning Rally

After three hours and 46 minutes – and 349 pitches – the St Louis Cardinals – clinging by their fingernails in the chase for the National League’s last playoff spot and in a death struggle against their ancient rivals – finally held on to one of the season’s most uncomfortable victories, 8-7 (box score).

Starter Carlos Martinez ground through 4.1 innings that were complicated by 4 hits, 4 walks, a hit batsman, and a batter reaching on a catcher’s interference call that wiped out a potential double play.  In all, that’s 10 base-runners.  But, in a departure from his earlier form, Carlos didn’t unravel.  Pitching under nearly constant pressure, Carlos held his stuff together, allowed only 3 of the runners to score (only two of them earned), and walked off the mound holding a 5-3 lead.

And then there was the eighth inning.  In a throwback to the thready first half when the Cardinal bullpen hemorrhaged runs in that inning, two Chicago home runs put 4 sudden runs on the board and closed St Louis’ big lead back down to a single run.  The Cubs ended the game putting the tying run in scoring position in both the eighth and ninth innings against newly ordained closer Juan Nicasio.

But – for one night, anyway – the Cardinals were the tough ones as they won enough of the tough at bats to hold off the defending world champs.

Time to exhale.

That Nettlesome Eighth Inning

Repeatedly through the first 88 games of the season, games would blow up on the Cards in the eighth inning.  They limped into the break with a 5.63 ERA in this inning, and a .281 batting average against.  Up until last night, the relative competence of the late inning relief corps was one of the marked improvements in the team.  Up until last night, the team’s second half ERA in the eighth inning was 3.44 with a .230 batting average against.

The two home runs in that inning last night bring to 12 the number of eighth inning home runs hit against the Cardinals since the All-Star Break – one more than in any other inning (there have been 11 hit in both the first and fourth innings).  For the season, now, more runs have been scored against this team in the eighth inning (91) than in any other (85 have been scored in the fifth, the next highest inning).  Their ERA in that inning is still 4.87.

Pitchers Still Struggling

Even though Martinez had some gritty moments, at the end of the day, the Cards have still gone 11 straight games without a quality start, and, surrendering 6 more earned runs, the team ERA is up to 5.87 over those games.  The last 11 Cardinal starters have managed just 44.1 innings – fractionally more than 4 per start – with an 8.53 ERA and a .308 batting average against.  If this keeps up, even a sometimes heroic offense will be unable to keep this team in playoff contention.

Carlos Martinez

While he had moments, and all ended well, Martinez is still struggling through the final playoff push.  Over his last 3 starts, Carlos has made it through just 16 innings with a 7.31 ERA and a .279 batting average against.  Through 5 starts in the month of September, Carlos is 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA.

Ironically for Carlos – considering his season long issues with the first inning – the first innings of his last three starts have been perfect.  In his 5 September starts, Carlos has allowed just 1 baserunner – a walk that didn’t score – in the first innings of those games.  Now, it’s the second inning that’s the issue.  His ERA is now 7.20 this month in the second.

Zach Duke

Zach Duke ended the messy fifth inning, and then tossed a flawless sixth.  Zach, who looks like he has finely found that mystic slider, struck out 3 of the 5 Cubs that he faced.  Over this stretch where the starters have been putting a lot on the shoulders of the bullpen, Zach has been one of the members of the pen who has stepped forward.  He holds a 1.69 ERA over the last 11 games (he’s pitched in 6 of them).  Zach has stranded his last 12 inherited runners.

Eight is Enough for the Offense

While September hasn’t been their most efficient month, the Cardinals are still putting enough runs on the board most nights to get a victory.  With the 8 last night, they are averaging 4.88 this month, and 5.01 in the second half.

Tommy Pham

The Summer of Pham isn’t quite over yet.  With 2 more hits last night – including a home run into Big Mac Land, Tommy Pham has pushed his September batting line to .303/.432/.576.  Since the All-Star Break, Tommy has been to the plate 277 times, with the following results: 46 singles, 14 doubles, 1 triple, 12 home runs, 40 walks, 6 hit-by-pitches, 2 sacrifice bunts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts – a batting line of .320/.433/.548.  In his last 65 games (59 starts), Pham has scored 50 runs.

Jedd Gyorko

With two more hits last night, Jedd Gyorko now has 5 in his last two games – including 2 home runs.  He is now hitting .350 (7 for 20) over his last 7 games (about the time he moved back into the starting lineup), with a .700 slugging percentage.  A hot Gyorko down the stretch could make a big difference.

Randal Grichuk

As September has worn on, it seems that Stephen Piscotty has claimed the top spot in the pecking order in right field.  Randal Grichuk got a spot start there last night and drove in two important runs with opposite field extra-base hits.

Grichuk has never become the superstar that Cardinal fans have hoped.  Not yet anyway.  And it certainly feels like this will be his last month as a Cardinal.  St Louis does have a glut of outfielders.  But, before Randal returns to the bench to watch the end of the season play out, it should be noted that since the All-Star Break Grichuk is a .270/.311/.556 hitter.  In 178 second half at bats, Randal has hit 12 home runs, tied for second on the team with Pham (who has hit his in 228 at bats) and trailing only Paul DeJong (who has hit 15 in 272 at bats).  As they say, these numbers will play.

My point, I guess, is to not be too hasty in unloading the talented Mr. Grichuk.  And, maybe, to give him a few more starts down the stretch.

NoteBook

Matt Carpenter’s first inning home run stood up as the game-winning hit – Carpenter’s fifth of the season.  The team leaders going into the last 5 games of the season are Dexter Fowler with 12; Yadier Molina – 11; Gyorko – 9; Carpenter, DeJong, Grichuk, and Kolten Wong all with 5.