The game was still quite close. As the Friday game against the Cubs moved into the eighth inning, it was just a 4-3 lead for the Northsiders. And there on the mound was Kodi Whitley.
This probably wasn’t the arm Cardinal fans were anticipating. A one-run game against their ancient rivals, eighth-inning. Probably the faithful were expecting Giovanny Gallegos – or perhaps Genesis Cabrera. These are the elite late-inning arms the Cards have ridden for most of the year.
Whitley, however, was not a poor choice. Gradually, Kodi had been earning more and more trust for late-inning, high-leverage situations. On May 11, Kodi had entered in the seventh inning against Milwaukee in a game the Cards trailed 1-0 at the time. Whitley allowed an infield single, but no further damage. The Cards went on to win that one in 11, 6-1.
Three days later, St Louis was in San Diego, trailing the Padres 5-3 in the eighth inning. Manager Mike Shildt entrusted that inning to Whitley as well. Kodi invited a bit of trouble by walking the first two batters of the inning, but recovered to keep it a two-run game. St Louis’ late rally fell short, but Kodi had done his job.
Now he was getting a shot at the Cubs.
He faced three batters and didn’t retire any of them. In fairness, he didn’t get a lot of luck. Ian Happ flared a single into left, and after a damaging walk to David Bote, Nico Hoerner hit a chopper to third that should have resulted in at least one out. But Nolan Arenado couldn’t field the bounce cleanly, and the bases were loaded.
With Eric Sogard (a left-hander) coming off the bench for the Cubs, Shildt wanted a lefty. But not Cabrera. He chose this moment to tab a struggling Tyler Webb to face Sogard and then the top of the order. Three batters later, the bases were still loaded, there was now one out, but Chicago had pushed its lead to 6-3. Into the game, now, came Seth Elledge.
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Seth. Most Cardinal fans probably assumed he was no longer on the team. He had pitched just once over the last two weeks. And here he was in a critical situation, trying to keep the game in striking distance. In quick succession, he allowed a walk, a double, a single, another double, and another single. And now it was a 12-3 game.
Elledge, by the way, got credit for two-thirds of an inning pitched even though he didn’t directly retire any of the five batters he faced. Luckily (or perhaps mercifully) the Cubs ran into two outs on the bases.
After the game – when asked why Cabrera and/or Gallegos weren’t on the mound in that spot – Mike noted accurately enough that he can’t pitch “those guys” every night (those guys included closer Alex Reyes). And with that, he put his finger on one of the great current concerns of this team – bullpen depth.
In the wake of the Cub series – and in spite of the fact that Reyes served up the game-winning homer on Sunday – the big three of Cabrera, Gallegos and Reyes had already combined for 75.2 innings with an aggregate 1.55 ERA. Everyone else who has only appeared as a reliever for the Cards (phrased this way to eliminate the one inning from Matt Carpenter and the relief efforts of sometimes starters Daniel Ponce de Leon and Johan Oviedo) has pitched 73 innings with an aggregate 7.27 ERA.
Pitching at their present rates, Cabrera would finish the season with 82 innings pitched, Reyes would throw 88 and Gallegos would be on the mound for 96. Of the 1423 the Cards are on pace to pitch, these three relievers are on pace to throw 18.7% of them. It’s too much. Someone else has to effectively handle some of this load. This team has to find someone they can trust with this situation.
This must be a frustrating development for the front office. Leaving spring training, they counted bullpen depth as one of their strengths. But the normally reliable pen has been rocked a bit by injuries to Jordan Hicks and Andrew Miller and the surprising struggles of Tyler Webb. And all of a sudden, you have a bullpen in crisis.
But before they start scouring the trade market – which I’m not necessarily saying is a bad idea – let’s look at a couple of the internal candidates. There are a few arms in the tent that shouldn’t be given up on just yet.
Ryan Helsley has hit a hiccup in his season. Ryan was the actual losing pitcher of the Friday game (box score). He came into a 2-2 game in the seventh and promptly served up the two runs that put the Cards in the hole.
Helsley has now allowed runs in three of his last four games. The last 19 batters to face him are slashing .357/.500/.786 – a distressing run. But over the 14 outings prior to this, Ryan held an 0.66 ERA and a .116 batting average against. None of the 50 batters he faced in that stretch managed an extra base hit off of him.
While he’s had some recent struggles, my belief is that he is still more the pitcher that he was during the previous 14 games than he is the pitcher we’ve seen the last four. With legitimate 100 mph stuff, he certainly has the tools.
As mentioned, Kodi has earned his way into higher leveraged situations, and – also as mentioned – the catastrophe of Friday night that started on his watch wasn’t entirely his fault. Whitley has the minor league pedigree to suggest that he should have success in the majors. In the last minor league season that there was (2019) Kodi managed a 1.52 ERA in AAA (part of a 1.60 ERA over three levels and 67.1 minor league innings that year), and then pitched to a 1.64 ERA in the Arizona Fall League.
Ponce de Leon
It’s a small sample size, but Daniel Ponce de Leon – who began the season as a starter – has done much better in relief (2.70 ERA and a .130 batting average against). This pattern has held true through the early part of his career. In 22 starts, Daniel is 2-8 with a 4.66 ERA. In 18 relief appearances he has 1 save and a 2.60 ERA (with a .172 batting average against).
Ponce de Leon pitched twice in the Cub series, throwing a total of 2.2 scoreless innings. He was hugely responsible for the only win the Cards managed in the series on Saturday (box score) as his 1.2 innings bridged the gap between Miles Mikolas’ early exit and the seventh inning when Shildt turned to Cabrera.
Daniel may well be a successful starter someday, but for now he is one of the more promising options in a surprisingly needy bullpen.
Obviously looking here more at potential than production, Junior Fernandez is another flame-thrower who hasn’t quite figured things out yet. Sometimes it is this very situation – a bullpen in need of arms – that provides the opportunity that a sleeping giant like Fernandez needs.
The point here is that there are internal options, as well as the likelihood that Webb will re-discover his command at some point. For the month of May, the starter’s fine 3.10 ERA has been frequently betrayed by a bullpen with a ragged 4.39 ERA. This is frustrating, but not incurable.
Whether from within or through an acquisition, the Cardinal bullpen will rise again.
I make it a point now – every time Adam Wainwright starts a game – to thoroughly drink in every moment, realizing that there won’t be all that many more of them. Although it ended disappointingly (box score) Sunday’s first eight innings were a pure joy, as Waino shut the Cubs out on one hit.
Typically, though, Adam’s teammates neglected to score any runs for their long-time ace. In the nine games he’s started this year – and while he’s been the pitcher of record – here is the game-by-game run support he’s received: 1,0,0,2,1,6,2,1 and 0 on Sunday. It works out to 2.14 support runs per every nine innings pitched. It’s notably difficult to win a lot of games without runs to work with.
It’s difficult not to be enamored with Edmundo Sosa. He was about the only bat that showed up against Chicago. Even granting that most of his hits were less that rocket shots, Sosa was still an impressive 7 for 11 (.636) with a double and a triple (.909 slugging percentage) against the Cubs. Sosa carries a five-game hitting streak into Chicago tonight – a streak in which four of the five games are multi-hit games. Edmundo is hitting .588 (10-for-17) and slugging .824 (2 doubles to go with that triple) during the streak.
Sosa, of course, has spent the year buried on Mike Shildt’s bench. On the roster for every game this year, Edmundo was awarded just two starts and 17 plate appearances until Paul DeJong landed on the injured list. This is the first real look we’ve gotten of him, and there’s a lot to like.
You’d like to think that Edmundo would continue to play after DeJong heals, but my advice is to not hold your breath. Shildt and the organization fully believe in DeJong, and – good or bad – he will be in there pretty much every day that he is healthy.
The Cardinal chances weren’t helped by the loss of Dylan Carlson (back issue) for the last two games of the series. Dylan was 2-for-4 in the first game, and now has multiple hits in three of his last four games. Dylan – who is back in the lineup tonight – has multiple hits in three of his last four games – hitting .438 (7 for 16) over that span. He is up to .306 for the month, with a .408 on base percentage.
Nolan Arenado entered the Cub series scorching hot (riding a six-game hitting streak). He left it ice cold, going just 1-for-11 (.091) in his first taste of this great rivalry. Under the steady diet of changeups that baffled the entire lineup, Nolan’s discipline began to erode and his strike zone steadily began to expand.
Late in the Sunday game, Harrison Bader snuck a ground-ball double down the third-base line. It was the only thing that stood between him and a hitless series – Harrison finished 1-for-12 (.083). It was also his only hit over the last 5 games, leaving him 1 for his last 19 (.053). Off to a hot start when he returned from the injured list, Bader is now down to .221 for the month.
The Cubs were the fifth of the previous six teams to play St Louis after having won their previous series.
The 6 runs St Louis managed in the series were their fewest in any series so far this year. They won two of three their last visit to Milwaukee in spite of scoring just 9 runs during the series.
Lasting just 2:47, the Saturday game was St Louis’ quickest game since a 5-0 victory over Colorado on May 7 took only 2:42 to complete.
The weekend series was also the hottest of the season so far. Two of the games began in temperatures over 80 degrees – including 88 for the Sunday game, the hottest of the year so far. The series averaged a season-high 81.3 degrees. The previous hottest series was the Pittsburgh series that just preceded the Cub series. Those games averaged 73.5 degrees. The previous hottest game was the 82 degrees that they played in while beating the Mets 6-5 on May 3.
The three games played in San Diego earlier this month all drew 15,250. Until this weekend, those were the largest crowds that the Cards had played in front of this season. With the relaxing of the COVID regulations last weekend, St Louis saw its first crowds of over 20,000 since the 2019 playoffs. The Saturday game drew the most (26,027) and the entire series averaged crowds of 24,797.
My Designated Hitter Rant
Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter. Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH. While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it. So, I have re-written it here. The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks. I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.