On the fourth pitch of the bottom of the first inning, Jon Gray’s slider stayed a little up and just inside enough for Matt Carpenter to get around on it. Matty got just enough lift on the pitch to pull it over the wall in right. One batter into the game, and the Cardinals had a quick 1-0 lead.
At the time, you wouldn’t have guessed that this would be a singular event. Gray’s ERA coming into the event (5.16) wasn’t dazzling (take into account, of course, that he pitches his home games in Colorado), and the Cardinals – of late – have shown a little pulse at the plate (including the 5-4 comeback win from the night before).
Nonetheless, when Gray finally ran out of gas after 92 pitches with one out in the eighth, he walked off the mound with a 6-1 lead – on his way to a 6-3 victory (box score).
Not only was the Carpenter home run an anomaly in that it accounted for the only Cardinal run to that point, it also turned out to be rare because he was actually able to pull the ball in the air – something the Cards managed only 3 times all night. Yadier Molina stroked a couple of fly ball outs to left during the game.
Velocity and location are not the only pitching factors. Some pitchers throw what batters refer to as a “heavy” ball. Even when left in locations and at velocities that batters can normally handle, these pitches don’t really jump off the bat. It creates the illusion that this particular ball is made out of granite or some other weighty material.
This is who Jon Gray was for most of the evening last night. He didn’t shy away from the strike zone with a fastball that held at about 94-mph and a slider about 10-mph slower. But both pitches ran heavy, resulting in many groundballs – especially in key situations.
About the only time that Gray was ever in trouble during the first seven innings was the fifth, when an infield hit and a walk put two on with just one out. But that heavy slider got the double play grounder (after a review) off the bat of Greg Garcia.
When he wasn’t getting ground balls, he was getting fly balls hit to the opposite field. Between Gray and the two relievers – ex-Cardinal Seunghwan Oh and Wade Davis – the power-hitting Cardinals were left with 7 opposite field fly balls – several of them quite well hit – that they couldn’t get around on enough to get them over the fence.
As the Rockies walked off the field congratulating each other after the last of these opposite field fly outs (a soft fly to right by Jedd Gyorko) with a win that was more dominating than the final score suggested, the scoreboard showed 3 runs for St Louis on only 4 hits. Other than the home run, the Cards had two infield hits, and one ground ball that snuck its way through the infield.
Gray – and the pitchers that followed – didn’t complicate things. They threw strikes and kept their heavy pitches low and away. They made it look easy.
The first opportunity to occupy the spot of the departed Tommy Pham fell to rookie Tyler O’Neill. He finished his first game back in the majors with two infield hits.
In his 3 plate appearances, Tyler ended up in two strike counts twice, striking out once. Power hitters in general – and rookie power hitters in particular – find themselves in this situation frequently. O’Neill’s rookie season is now just 50 plate appearances deep, but he has ended up in two-strike situations in 64% of them – and of the 32 times that he has seen strike two, he has subsequently seen strike three 21 times (65.6%).
Molina finished a very strong July (.315/.357/.472) with a disappointing 0-for-4. Twice during the game, Yadi put pretty good swings on the first strike he saw, but neither resulted in base hits. Over all of baseball, batters are hitting .338/.402/.585 when they hit the first strike. Yadi’s July ran quite contrary to that. With his 0-for-2 last night, Molina finished July 4-for-20 (.200) when hitting the first strike.
In his first at bat of the game in the first, he fell quickly behind in the count 1-2. But Yadi fouled off one pitch and took a ball before hitting the sixth pitch in play. Molina continues to be difficult to strike out. Strike two only leads to strike three 27.9% of the time with Molina at the plate.
Still feeling his way back from his injury, Paul DeJong took another 0-for-4 last night. Paul is now hitless in his last 14 at bats, and finished July just 18 for 83 (.217) with only 6 walks (.264 on base). Since being moved by new manager Mike Shildt into the third spot in the order, DeJong is hitting .182 (10 for 55) with only 4 walks (.230 on base).
Paul hit a couple of those “heavy” fly balls to right. His first time up, he jumped a first pitch fastball, but the drive ran out of steam and came down well short of the fence. Since his return from the DL, Paul is another who has had poor luck when hitting the first strike. He is now just 2 for 18 (.111) on those pitches.
Among the casualties of last night’s loss was Marcell Ozuna’s six-game hitting streak. He hit .346 (9-for-26) during the streak, with a double and 3 home runs. He drove in 7 runs during that streak, while slugging .731. The recent revival from Ozuna’s bat has been one of the most encouraging recent developments.
In general, the Cards struck out slightly less often in July than in the months leading up it – one of the reasons why the offense up ticked. Through the season’s first three months, the Cards averaged 8.77 strikeouts per game, striking out 43.4% of the time that they found themselves in two-strike counts. Over the last month, those numbers declined to just 7.46 strikeouts per game, and strikeouts in just 38.0% of their two-strike plate appearances.
Jedd Gyorko, in particular, is getting more and more difficult to fan. Jedd – who didn’t strike out at all last night – struck out only 8 times in July, and on just 21.1% of his two-strike plate appearances.
Struggling lately off the bench, Garcia got a start last night to try to help his timing. For one night, at least, the results were not quite there – Greg was 0-for-2 with that important double play. Garcia finished July in a 2-for-20 slump.
Last night’s starter, Jack Flaherty, didn’t make it out of the sixth inning again. He finished July tossing just 28.2 innings over 6 starts, with a middling 1-3 record and a 4.71 ERA. Since tossing seven innings of one-hit ball against Milwaukee on June 22, Jack has a 1-4 record and a 5.23 ERA over 7 starts. His loss was his second in a row and fifth in his last seven decisions – although in fairness to Jack, he was twice betrayed by his bullpen, and has had more than two runs scored for him only once in his last 9 starts.
Flaherty is still not giving up a lot of his – only 5 in his 5.1 innings last night (albeit they included a home run and a double). With that performance, the Cardinal starters finished the month of July with an opponent’s batting average of just .225.
Jack also struck out 7 batters in those innings, and is now averaging 11.06 strikeouts per nine innings. Flaherty throws a lot of strikes, and almost always gets hitters in two-strike counts. Last night, 14 of the 23 batters he faced ended up in two-strike counts. For the month of July, he put 65.6% of the batters to face him (80 of 122) in two-strike counts.
Following Jack’s lead, the Cardinal pitching staff in general constantly kept Colorado in two-strike counts. Of the 39 batters the Rockies sent to the plate, 26 (66.7%) ended their appearance with two strikes on them. Only 4 of them got hits, although those hits included the two-run home run by Charlie Blackmon in the fifth (on a 1-2 pitch) and the very damaging double struck by Gerardo Parra (also on a 1-2 pitch) in the sixth. That blow – from the first man faced by newly acquired Chasen Shreve – drove in a run to make it a 4-1 lead.
Speaking of the Bullpen
After an impressive series against the Cubs and a good first game against Colorado, the Cardinal bullpen ended July pretty much as they pitched through most of the month. With Flaherty out of the game, the Rockies padded their advantage with 2 more runs on 4 more hits – including a home run – over the last 3.2 innings. St Louis thus finished the month of July with a 5.98 ERA and a .306 batting average against from the bullpen.
At one time, perhaps, the best pitcher in the Cardinal bullpen, John Brebbia finished a rough July by serving up a two-run homer in two-thirds of an inning. He pitched 7 innings in July, allowing 6 runs on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs. Opposing batters hit .323 against him in those innings, with a .581 slugging percentage.
With two-outs in the seventh, Brebbia started Parra off with an inviting fastball – perhaps just a little lower than Gerardo might ideally like it. Parra jumped it, but only flew out to left. John has had some ups and downs, but this is one thing he has managed to do pretty well – throw that first strike just slightly better than the batter expects. For the season, batters are hitting just .160 (4 for 25) when hitting John’s first strike. Not only are all four of the hits singles, but two of them are infield hits.
Throwing a quiet eighth inning, Mike Mayers faced three batters and got two strikes on all of them, but was unable to get a strikeout. Mike throws the ball hard enough that one might expect more strikeouts. Of the 19 July batters that he got two strikes on, only 4 ended up striking out (21.1%). For the season, that percentage is a modest 35.8.