Tag Archives: Gant

Cards Overcome Sputtering Offense in Shutout of Miami

If it’s possible to hang a fastball, that’s what Austin Brice did in last night’s eighth inning.  It seemed to start at Dexter Fowler’s ankles, but then it rose and just spun in the middle of the zone.  For his part, Fowler launched it over the wall in right for the three-run homer that put Miami out of its misery and sent St Louis on its way to a 5-0 victory (box score).

Breakthrough opportunities were fairly rare – as has mostly been the case recently.  Two first-inning singles had given Dexter a first-and-second opportunity with two outs, but he struck out.

From that point, the Cardinals didn’t see a runner in scoring position till the fifth, when Matt Carpenter – who had made the score 1-0 with a third-inning home run – gave St Louis a two-out opportunity when he laid down a bunt-double.  The Fish gave away that run – in the first place by playing their entire infield on the right side to allow the bunt-double, and then Starlin Castro dropped Paul DeJong’s pop fly to short center to allow the run.

With DeJong advancing to second on the error, Paul Goldschmidt had the chance to deliver the key hit – but he grounded out.

The Cards followed by going down in order over the next two innings, so this final opportunity in the eighth was welcomed.

For the game, the Cards managed a .238 on base percentage with the bases empty, resulting in 21 of St Louis’ 33 batters coming to the plate with no one on.  This has been a recurring pattern.

Over the last 17 games, the Cardinals hold a .281 on base percentage when the bases are empty.  The results have been 62% of all Cardinal hitters batting with no one on, only 5 bases-loaded plate appearances all month, and 16 of the last 23 Cardinal home runs (69.6%) being solo shots.

Here’s the thing though.  St Louis has won 11 of those last 17 games.

Slowly, but consistently, the pitching is settling into the decisive factor the Cardinals have been counting on all season.  Sometimes it’s been two steps forward, one step back.  But, while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Cardinal pitching staff has put together a 3.42 ERA over these last 17 games.  That would be good enough for second in the league if they had been able to maintain that all year.

I’m not really sure that I believe in this team yet.  I would like to see them keep the streak going a little longer and, perhaps, see more wins against quality opponents.  But this is exactly the kind of thing that those who do believe in this team point to.  The fact that – even when the offense struggles to get out of its own way – the pitching can be dominant enough to keep them competitive.

A week ago they had just been swept by Chicago and sat one game under .500 and 5.5 games behind in the division.  Today they have trimmed that margin to 2.5 games, and have pushed their way to 3 over .500.  The opportunity is before them.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter continues to hint that he is about to turn the corner.  He had a big game on Monday with 3 hits, including a home run.  Carpenter has hits in 4 of his last 5 games.

Carpenter never batted last night with a runner on base.  That’s normal for him.  As he has spent most of the year as the leadoff hitter, 69% of his at bats have come with the bases empty.  Of his 10 home runs this season, 9 have been solo shots.

Paul DeJong

DeJong didn’t leave his hot streak in New York.  With 2 hits last night, Paul has pushed his hitting streak to seven games, getting multiple hits in three of them.  Over the 7 games, he is hitting .367 (11 for 30) with a double and 3 home runs.  He has driven in 6 runs during the streak, while slugging .700.  He has also hit safely in 12 of his last 13 games.

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna rebounded from a tough series in New York to collect a couple of singles last night.  Marcell is up to .340 (18 for 53) for the month of June.

One of Marcell’s hits came in his 2 at bats with no one on base.  Throughout the last 17 games, Ozuna has been one of the few hitters to get hits with bases empty.  He is, in fact, hitting .378 on 14 hits in his last 37 such opportunities.

Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt’s season stays stuck in neutral.  He was hitless in 4 at bats last night, and has just 1 hit (that two-run home run in New York) over his last 5 games (16 at bats).  Paul is down to .192 (10 for 52) on the month.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina picked up two hits in his first game back from the injured list.  In the 6 games since then, hits have been harder to come by.  After his 0-for-4 last night, Yadi is 4 for 23 (.174) with 1 double (.217 slugging percentage) since that first game back.

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader had the big first game in New York with 3 hits, a couple stolen bases, and the big defensive play.  He’s had no hits since.  With his 0-for-3 yesterday, Harrison is hitless in his last 13 at bats, with 7 strikeouts.

Miles Mikolas

In his three June starts, Miles Mikolas has had consistent issues keeping the bases clean.  Even though he shut the Marlins out through 6 innings last night, Miami batters were still 5 for 15 (.333) when hitting against him with the bases empty.  For the month, batters are hitting .355 (11 for 31) against him with the bases empty.

Last night he was very good once a runner reached.  The Fish were only 1 for 8 when they hit against Miles with a runner on base.  In his other starts this month, he hasn’t been so efficient.

Giovanny Gallegos

First out of the bullpen in support of Mikolas was Giovanny Gallegos, who recorded a scoreless seventh.  At some point someone other than me is going to have to start taking this kid seriously.  Gallegos has now thrown 12 scoreless innings over his last 9 games, giving just 4 hits and no walks – he has been throwing his pitches for strikes 75% of the time during this streak.  The last 38 batters he’s faced have a batting line of .108/.105/.162.

John Gant

John Gant had a couple rough games early in the road trip, as he gave runs in consecutive appearances.  Still, John has been more than just solid recently.  He pitched a scoreless eighth last night.  He has pitched in 8 of the last 17 games, throwing 10.1 innings with a 2.61 ERA.

Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks has held the back end of the bullpen very solid over the Cards recent rise.  He earned last night’s save with a 1-2-3 ninth.  He has now pitched in 7 of the last 17 games, with a 1.23 ERA and an .083 batting average against in 7.1 innings.

NoteBook

The victory was the Cardinals’ ninth this month – tying their total for the entire month of May.

Nonetheless, St Louis had trailed at some point in five consecutive games until last night.

The Cards scored first for the third straight game and the fourteenth time in their last 20 games.

Last night was game number 64 for Dexter Fowler this year.  Between his injuries and unending slumps, Dex played in only 90 games all last year.  He also now has 193 at bats, after finishing last year with just 289.  His strikeout was also his fifty-second of the season after striking out just 75 times last year.

The First Inning Blahs

Going into this afternoon’s contest against the Cubs, you would have found the St Louis Cardinals ranking twenty-second in all of baseball (30 teams) in first inning batting average (according to baseball reference).  They were hitting .224 in that inning.  That number has actually now dropped to .221 as they began the game in Chicago going down in order in the first.

You don’t have to look very far to figure out why.  Yesterday’s game against Cincinnati began with Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong striking out against the Reds Anthony DeSclafani.

In Mike Shildt’s almost unchanging lineups, Carpenter and DeJong have been first inning automatics.  Matt Carpenter has hit leadoff in 48 of the first 60 games.  DeJong has hit third in 51 games, and second in 6 others.  DeJong has 58 first-inning plate appearances, and Carpenter has been to the plate in the first inning 51 times.  Their combined 109 first-inning plate appearances is just under half of the teams’ 259 total plate appearances.

Almost as automatic as having Carpenter and DeJong up in the first inning, is having them out in the first.  Matt is 7 for 42 (.167) in the first.  Paul is hitting .188 (9 for 48).

The curiosity here is that both warm up notably as the game goes on.  Carpenter is a .157 hitter (13 for 83) through the game’s first three innings, and then a .269 hitter with a .477 slugging percentage from the fourth inning on (35 for 130 with 6 doubles and 7 home runs).  DeJong is even more extreme.  Through the first three innings, Paul is 15 for 82 (.183).  From the fourth inning on, Paul slashes .329/.403/.579.  He is 46 for 140 with 8 of his 9 home runs. (Note: in the just ended Chicago game, Paul hit his tenth home run – in the ninth inning).

It was Paul’s 2-run home run in the seventh that decided yesterday’s game, 3-1 (box score).

Even though they won yesterday’s game, they failed to score at least four runs for the third straight game, and for the eleventh game in the last 18.  The longer the struggle to score runs, the more you find yourself wondering if maybe someone else shouldn’t take the first two at bats of your games.

(Further Note: DeJong’s home run was the only run St Louis scored in a 3-1 loss.  That makes 4 straight and 12 of the last 19 in which the Cards have failed to score at least four runs.)

Marcell Ozuna

With two more hits yesterday, Marcell Ozuna is looking more confident at the plate.  Marcell has hits in 7 of his last 8 games, with four of them being multi-hit games.  Ozuna is hitting .414 (12 for 29) in those games, with a double, 2 home runs, 6 runs batted in, and a .655 slugging percentage.

Matt Wieters

It’s been a tough last four games for Matt Wieters, occupying Yadier Molina’s position while the indispensable Cardinal is recovering.  Hitless again yesterday, Wieters in 1 for his last 16 (.063) with 7 strikeouts.

Dakota Hudson

Twenty-four year old Dakota Hudson is rapidly becoming the story of the pitching staff this year.  A dark horse to earn a rotation spot in spring, and looking un-prepared for the opportunity through his first five starts, Mr. Hudson has been St Louis’ most consistent starter ever since.  Although he couldn’t make it through the seventh, he still nailed his fifth consecutive quality start, and his sixth in his last seven starts.

Over his last 41.2 innings, Dakota has surrendered 1 home run, while 65% of the batters who put the ball in play against him have hit it on the ground.  Dakota holds a 2.59 ERA over his last 7 starts.

John Gant

The beneficiary of the DeJong home run was John Gant, who retired all four batters he faced and was granted the win (he is now 5-0).  John is on another streak of scoreless appearances.  Over his last 7 games and 8.1 innings, John has given no runs on 3 hits and 2 walks.

NoteBook

Although Cincinnati scored the tying run in the next half inning, St Louis did score first again in this one.  That’s three games in a row, and 7 of the last 9.

Although they did give up the tying run, St Louis never trailed in this one, and haven’t trailed in four of their last six.

John Gant’s appearance yesterday afternoon was already his twenty-eighth this season.  That is already a career high.  His previous high was the 26 games he pitched for St Louis last year.

With yesterday’s steal, Kolten Wong is in double figures for steals for just the third time in his career, and the first time since he stole 15 in 2015.  His career high is the 20 he stole in 2014.

Starters Rise to Occasion in Sweep of Cubs

So, it was another minimal offensive series for your St Louis Cardinals.  Granted, they faced three quality arms, but as the Sunday game ended, the Cards had scored just 11 runs during the three games, hitting .233 on just 21 hits.

Oh, did I mention that St Louis won all three games?  By scores of 2-1 in 10 innings (box score), 7-4 (box score) and 2-1 again (box score).

If this team is going to be special this year, it will be because of their pitching.  For the first fifty or so games, the rotation showed inconsistent flashes of potential.  For three games as May faded into June, and against their divisional rival from up North, the Cardinal starters were very special.

The Cards got 20 innings from their starters in this series – and might well have had a couple more, had Jack Flaherty’s Saturday start not been interrupted after five innings by rain.  For those 20 innings the Cubs dented St Louis’ starters for just 3 runs on 12 hits – a 1.35 ERA and a .182 batting average against.

Yes, there was a bit of luck involved.  Especially on Sunday, when Chicago hit Adam Wainwright harder than the results showed.  Still, the club couldn’t have asked for more from the starters.

The bullpen was nearly as good, although hiccups from Jordan Hicks and John Brebbia threatened two of the games.

In fact, that might be the most satisfying element of the series.  Each game was tightly contested, and Chicago could very easily have swept the home team.  These were, in fact, the type of games that the Cards have repeatedly lost to Chicago over the last few years – the character games.  For one weekend at least, it was St Louis coming through with the clutch hit and the big defensive play.

To keep things in perspective, there is still a lot of baseball to be played – and many more contests against Chicago.  This was just one chapter in a very long novel.  But it was not insignificant.  Much like their season series against their other primary division competitor.  After losing 5 of the first 7 against Milwaukee, they came back to sweep the Brewers the last time they played them to even that series.  This sweep, though, does more than just answer the Cubs earlier sweep of the Cards.  Getting off the deck and answering these two teams provided a significant confidence boost.

And confidence, by the way, is not in short supply.  I don’t think I ever remember a more confident two-games-over team.

The rest of the summer will tell whether that confidence is warranted or just bravado.  One thing to remember, though.  Both of St Louis’ answering sweeps were at home.  If they have true designs on the division title, this team will have to find some way of coping with Miller Park and Wrigley Field – Wrigley as soon as this Friday.

Fifty-eight games into the 2019 season, this team is still a mystery.

Miles Mikolas

Three starts ago, Miles Mikolas endured a nightmare start in Texas – he gave 7 runs (and 2 home runs) in less than 2 innings.  That disaster stands in sharp contrast to Miles three starts before and his two starts since.  In those other 5 games, Miles has pitched at least 6 innings in all of them, (and 7 in the other 4) without giving up more than three runs in any of them.  In fact, he gave up as many as 3 runs in only one of those games.

Over the 34 innings that surround that Texas game, Miles has allowed as many runs (7) and home runs (2) as he did in that Texas game.  He holds a 1.85 ERA in those other games, holding those teams to a .213 batting average, while walking just 4.

Jack Flaherty

Flaherty followed Mikolas’ 7 strong innings (1 run on 6 hits) with a strong effort of his own.  After allowing solo home runs in the first two innings, Jack settled down and kept Chicago off the scoreboard till the rains came in the fifth.

The rain interrupted a streak of three consecutive quality starts from the young right-hander.  Over his last 4 starts, Jack has a 2.74 ERA over 23 innings with 26 strikeouts.  His last 4 opponents are hitting .182 against him.

Through the month of May, the 30 batters that swung at Flaherty’s first pitch ended up hitting .320.  On Saturday the 6 Cubs who chased after Jack’s first pitch finished 0-for-6 with 3 strikeouts.

In fact, in that Saturday game Chicago’s hitters combined to go 0 for 11 when they swung at the first pitch.  For the series, the Cubs were just 3 for 32 (.094) in at bats where they swung at the first pitch (the major league average when swinging at the first pitch is .268).

John Gant

One of the bullpen heroes of the series, John Gant pitched in two of the games, winning the Saturday game and saving Sunday’s contest.  He allowed a walk, but retired the other five batters he faced.

John is on another streak of scoreless outings, as he has allowed no runs on 3 hits and 2 walks over his last 7 innings over 6 games.

Johnny has been much better than anyone could have expected.

Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks was the winner in the Friday game, pitching two innings.  He was brought back to save the Sunday game, but faltered.  Manager Mike Shildt says he isn’t concerned, but maybe he should be at least a little.

Hicks has now given runs in 3 of his last 6 games.  Over his last 5.2 innings, Jordan has given 6 runs on 7 hits and 5 walks.  The 29 batters he has faced over those appearances are hitting .292 against him – far too high for a kid who throws 104+.  With the walks, the recent on base percentage against him is .414.

Offensive Struggles

I began by referencing the recent offensive brown-out.  Even though the pitching (and defense, by the way) made what little offense they got stand up, the Cards have been a less than stellar offensive machine for quite a while now.

Over their last 16 games, this team is averaging 3.94 runs per game with a distressing .217 team batting average.

Kolten Wong

When Kolten Wong rolled to second in the second inning of the Friday game, he extended his current hitless streak to 22 at bats.

From that moment on, Wong owned the series as much as any non-pitcher could.  He got 6 hits in his last 9 at bats (two hits in each game), stole two bases, scored twice, drove in two – including the important first run in the Sunday game – and made the defensive play of the series to end the eighth inning of the Sunday game (you have probably seen the highlight of Wong racing almost into mid right-field and going full extension to gather in Anthony Rizzo’s soft liner.

Wong had himself a series.  Historically, Kolten is either icy-ice cold or broiling hot.  No one in this clubhouse would complain if Wong went on a substantial tear.

For the series, Wong was 2 for 4 in at bats where he swung at the first pitch.  For the season, that is when he is at his best.  He is still hitting .316 (18 for 57) when swinging at the first pitch.

Marcell Ozuna

Left fielder Marcell Ozuna didn’t get a hit in 3 at bats in the Sunday game, breaking a short but very loud five-game hitting streak.  During those previous 5 games, Marcell went 9 for 19 (.474).  He hit 2 home runs, drove in 6, and slugged .842.

Matt Carpenter

For much of the early season – for whatever reason – Matt Carpenter has been noticeably more aggressive on the first pitch.  In April, he chased the first pitch thrown him 22.4% of the time.  In May, it was 24.1%.  In all of this, the results weren’t much.

Lately, he has returned to the Matt Carpenter we remember, and his numbers have been steadily rising.  He had 10 plate appearances in the Cub series and took the first pitch 9 times.  He finished the series 3 for 9 with a walk.  Over his last 16 games, Matt has taken the first pitch thrown 81.7% of the time – and is slashing .310/.408/.548 when he does.

You would think this would make him all the more dangerous when he does swing at the first pitch, but that hasn’t materialized yet.  Over those same 16 games, Matt is slashing .200/.273/.500 in the plate appearances in which he chases that first pitch.

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader hit a home run late in the Saturday game.  It was his only hit in the last two series (1 for 19 – .053).

Paul DeJong

And Paul DeJong’s tailspin continues.  He did get a late single in the Sunday game, but that represents only his second hit in his last 11 games (and 36 at bats).  Over the 16 games that the Cards have scuffled for runs, Paul is hitting .145 (8 for 55) with just 1 home run.

Paul swung at the first pitch only twice in his 11 plate appearances in the series.  In his red hot April, DeJong swung at the first pitch 24.3% of the time, and with devastating effect – a line of .438/.455/.719.

In May, he took the first pitch 86% of the time.  Over the last 16 games he has watched the first pitch 89.4% of the time – more frequently than Carpenter.

The numbers suggest a more timid approach at the plate, but that’s not what I see from him.  After his blazing April, pitchers seem much less anxious to challenge Paul early in the count.  He sees a great many first pitches just off the plate or just low – occasionally, these pitches cross the corners of the strike zone.

After they establish the outside, many pitchers are then able to jam DeJong later in the at bat.  They have had some success doing that.

Mostly, though, Paul appears to still be taking disciplined at bats.  I don’t see him chasing many pitches at all.  But he is missing his pitch when he gets it – or fouling it off.  Timing just a little off.  Or, when he does get into one, someone makes a great play on it – like Albert Almora did in the Saturday game.

DeJong, I think is close.  One thing he won’t have to worry about is opportunity.  As with Wong and Carpenter and all the other starters who went through extended slumps, he can depend that Shildt will continue to write his name on the lineup card even if he goes 2 for his next 50.

NoteBook

It took until the fifth inning, but the Cards did score first yesterday.  They have scored the first run in 5 of their last 7.

The Cardinals have won only 7 series all year, but 4 of them have now been by sweep.  Of the 5 series that St Louis was in position to sweep, only Washington – who faced a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cards – was able to avoid the redbird brooms.

The Cub series was also just the eighth series this year in which the Cards won the first game.  They are 5-3 in series when they win that first game.

With his 8 innings on Sunday, Adam Wainwright now has 66.1 on the season.  He pitched only 40.1 innings all last year.  He also now has 1,998.1 for his career – leaving him just 5 outs shy of 2000.

Miklas and Waino and Three Days of Raino?

Back in 1948 a sports editor for the Boston Post coined the enduring phrase (“Spahn and Sain and two days of rain”) adopted for more than half a century by teams that don’t seem to have enough starting pitching to safely make it back to the top of the rotation (in 1948 baseball teams used four-man rotations).

It seems a little strange to be adapting the ancient ditty to the 2019 St Louis Cardinals.  Questions certainly abounded as the team came out of spring training.  Mostly questions about offense and defense.  More than a bit of insecurity regarding the bullpen.  But where most felt the team would certainly be the strongest was in the rotation.

Jack Flaherty emerged through the midst of the 2018 season as one of the most exciting young prospects in baseball.  Joining him in the rotation was Dakota Hudson – who had been one of the top starters in AAA last year until he spent the last half of the season pitching with great effectiveness out of the Cardinal bullpen.  And, of course, there was Michael Wacha – finally healthy.

In fact, if there were questions about the rotation at the beginning of the season, they might have centered on Miles Mikolas and especially Adam Wainwright.  Mikolas had been brilliant (18-4) in 2018, but in some ways he kind of came out of nowhere – and baseball history is full of these kind of one-year wonders.  They have a brilliant year, and the league makes an adjustment to them.

Wainwright, of course, has been in a perpetual battle against injuries and father time for the last several seasons.  Now 37, there were serious concerns whether there was anything left in Waino’s tank.

Fast-forward to the end of the first quarter of the 2019 season, and the Cardinals are enjoying (if that is the correct word) their first off day in the month of May.  They are coming off a brutal 1-3 series against the Pittsburgh Pirates that closed out a disappointing 2-5 homestand – which, in turn – was the centerpiece in a 2-9 stretch that dropped St Louis from being in first place, three games ahead of the pack, down now to fourth place, 3.5 games behind the surging Cubs.

The offense and bullpen – though hitting an inconsistent patch of late – have proven to be mostly capable.  But that rotation.  The spring pride of the Midwest, the Cardinal starting five have fallen to fifteenth out of baseball’s 30 teams with a 4.35 ERA.  The struggles have been general, except for Mikolas and Wainwright.

One of the highlight’s of course, of the recently concluded Pittsburgh series was the 17 runs the Cards scored in the Thursday contest (their only win of the series).  Immediately after that outburst, the Birds lost consecutive 2-1 games (box score 1, box score 2), in which they wasted consecutive excellent starts from the twin lynchpins of the rotation.  Mikolas has tossed 5 quality starts out of his 9 starts.  Waino also has 5 in 8 starts.  The rest of the team, in 24 starts, has 6.

Adam Wainwright

Six pitches into the Friday night game, Waino trailed 1-0, courtesy of Adam Frazier’s leadoff home run.  That would be all the damage surrendered by the great Cardinal veteran.  He would leave after 7 innings, allowing just that single run on 5 hits.  He walked no one and struck out 8.

Of the 8 strikeouts, 5 were called third strikes.  It’s the curveball, of course – a nasty thing to contend with when you’ve got two strikes on you.  But it’s more than that.  All year, Adam has been confidently throwing that cutter to the corners of the zone.

To this point of the season, Waino leads the team in called strikeouts with 17 and in percentage of strikeouts coming on called third strikes (45.9%).  The team average is 24.6% of their strikeouts being called third strikes.

Of Waino’s 92 pitches on Friday, the Pirates only offered at 35 of them (38%).  This has been another benchmark of Waino’s renaissance season, as opposing batters only offer at 39.5% of his pitches this season – also the lowest percentage on the team.

Miles Mikolas

The afternoon after Wainwright tossed his gem, Mikolas answered with one of his own – 7 innings, 2 runs, 3 hits, 1 walk, 7 strikeouts and no home runs.  The result was similar as well.

Miles actually staggered a bit out of the gate.  His first 6 starts were less than encouraging.  Over his first 34 innings, Miles allowed 21 runs (20 earned) on 34 hits – including 8 home runs.  He was 2-2 at that point, with 5.29 ERA.  He was only getting ground balls from 48% of the batters who put the ball in play against him, while those same batters missed on only 14% of their swings against him.

Over his last three starts, though, Miles has fully resembled the pitcher that took the league by surprise last year.  Over his last 20 innings, there have been only 3 runs scored on 13 hits and 2 walks (and no home runs).  He is 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA his last 3 times to the mound.  Batters are now hitting .183/.205/.225 against him, hitting the ball on the ground 58% of the time and missing on 20% of their swings.

Dakota Hudson

Slowly but surely, Dakota Hudson seems to be turning the corner.  He had some early-season difficulties, but he is 2-1 with a 3.57 ERA over his last 4 starts.  Granted, those numbers include 6 un-earned runs scored against him two outings ago.  Dakota – who didn’t allow a home run all last season – gave up 8 in his first 18.1 innings this season.  There has only been 1 hit against him over his last 22.2 innings.

Even though he allowed 3 first inning runs on Sunday, Dakota still finished 6 innings giving up no more runs.  In so doing, he gave the Cards their third consecutive quality starts for only the second time all season (Waino, Mikolas and Hudson had earlier turned the trick in Washington from April 30 through May 2).

When he’s right – and Dakota has been closer to that recently – he is as severe a ground ball pitcher as the Cardinals have.  Over his last 2 games, batters are hitting ground balls 72% of the time.  On Sunday, he was able to make it through 6 in spite of allowing 9 hits, walking 2 and hitting another batter because he didn’t nibble with the batter at the plate.  He faced 28 batters throwing just 84 pitches – 3.00 per plate appearances.  Opposing hitters missed on only 9.1% of their swings, and put the ball in play 52.4% of the time they swung at Dakota’s pitches.

This month, he is averaging just 3.35 pitches per plate appearance – the lowest of any Cardinal starter.

Michael Wacha

The date was April 6.  It was opening weekend against San Diego.  After Flaherty had started the home opener, it was Michael Wacha’s turn in the second game.  But Michael found himself in a bit of first-inning difficulty.  After an RBI double from Hunter Renfroe put San Diego up 1-0, Wacha found himself facing Wil Myers with the bases loaded and one out.  Michael got out of it, when Myers grounded the first pitch to Paul DeJong, starting a 6-4-3 double play.

That was the last time this season that Michael Wacha has induced that double-play ground ball.  Wacha has now pitched to 26 consecutive batters with an opportunity to get a double play, and has been unable to get a ground ball.  (One of those opportunities, by the way, came against the Cubs’ Taylor Davis in his last start in Chicago.)  He faced 8 batters in his 5.2 inning struggle against Pittsburgh on Thursday who could have eased his labor by grounding into a double play.  He got none of them.

Wacha – who throws that heavy sinking fastball – was helped last year by only 4 double-play grounders in 65 such opportunities.  If Michael could figure out a way to get the occasional ground ball, it could make a noticeable difference in his season.

John Gant

John Gant – who earlier this season pitched a relief no-hitter – has now gone 7 straight appearances and 6.1 innings without being scored on – although he has surrendered all of 3 hits in those innings.  He has struck out 11 in those innings.  Gant – who hasn’t walked a batter in his last 11 games – covering 11.2 innings – is throwing 72% strikes over his last 174 pitches. 

He worked in two of the Pirate games – tossing 1.1 innings.  In those innings, the 5 Pirate batters he faced swung at 11 of his pitches – missing 5.  In the month of May, John has the team’s highest swing-and-miss percentage – 44.0%.

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller also pitched in two of the Pirate games – earning the game two loss.  Very different with Miller in May is that everything he is throwing either is a strike or looks enough like one to compel the batter to swing.

He threw 22 pitches to the 8 Pittsburgh batters he saw this weekend.  They swung at 14 (63.6%).  Of the 8 that they didn’t swing at, 5 were called strikes.  Only 3 of his 22 pitches ended up being called balls.

For the month of May, Miller has thrown 31 pitches to 11 batters, getting 17 swings (54.8% – the highest on the team), and getting 9 of the 14 taken pitches called strikes (64.3% – best, again, by far on the team).

It’s kind of two steps forward, one step back, but there is some evidence of Miller returning to form.

John Brebbia

After allowing just 1 run over his first 18.1 innings, John Brebbia has given up runs in 2 of his last 4 games – losing both.  The damage is 4 runs in 4.1 innings – including 2 crushing home runs.  The last 21 batters to face him have a line of .316/.381/.737.

Offensive Roller-coaster

In losing three of four to Pittsburgh, the offense turned in their most Jekyll and Hyde performance of the season.  After a 17-run eruption on Thursday, they totaled 2 runs in the next two games combined.  Sunday they scored 6 times in the first two innings and then nothing after that (on their way to a 10-6 defeat).  They finished outscoring Pittsburgh for the series 25-18 – for all the good that did them.

Still, there are positive signs for some hitters who have been struggling recently.

Paul Goldschmidt

One of the most encouraging signs to come out of the otherwise lost weekend were the hits off the bat of Paul Goldschmidt.  It’s no secret that he has been frustrated with his contributions so far.  In the Pirate series, he hit safely in all four games – getting multiple hits in three of them.  He finished the series 9-for-17 (.529) with a double a home run and 4 runs batted in – pushing him to .298 for the month.

Jedd Gyorko

A big part of the team the last few years, Jedd Gyorko is finding it hard to get at bats.  He did get a few against Pittsburgh, going 3-for-6.  Jedd is now 5-for-14 (.357) for the month.

Yairo Munoz

Yairo Munoz is another of the bench players who gets infrequent opportunities that had some moments in the Pittsburgh series.  He went 3 for 9 in the four games, and is 9 for his last 19 (.474).

Jose Martinez

The defensive limitations of Jose Martinez showed up again a few times over the weekend.  Pretty much any line drive hit to right field is going to be an adventure.

But Jose continues to hit.  After his three-hit game on Sunday, Martinez has started 24 of the last 25 games, hitting .365 (31 for 85) in those games.

Third Inning Woes Bedevil Flaherty and the Cards

The tone for the weekend was set on Friday afternoon.  To be precise in the third inning.

Jack Flaherty drew the assignment for the first game of the series, and through two innings it looked like the Cubs might be in trouble.  Jack struck out a couple in the first, stranding a runner, and then struck out the first two batters in the second.  After Kyle Schwarber walked, a harmless ground ball off the bat of Jason Heyward ended the inning.  Game scoreless after two.

All season so far, the thorn in the Cardinal side has been the starting pitching.  And the usually critical inning has been that third inning as the top of the order gets its second look at the pitcher.  That happened again to St Louis on Friday afternoon.

After Flaherty struck out opposing pitcher Kyle Hendricks, he walked Daniel Descalso – albeit, yes, one of those balls should have been called a strike.  After a passed ball, another walk put two runners on base for Anthony Rizzo.

Two pitches later, Rizzo was trotting around the bases, the Cubs had a 3-0 lead and would never look back in the game (which they would win 4-0 – box score) and the series (which they would sweep in three games).

Beyond the damaging third, Jack would pitch well.  He would even strike out 9 over his 5.2 innings.  The walks that preceded the home run would also be a theme throughout the series, as Cardinal pitchers would walk 14 Cub batters (2 intentionally) in 24 innings.  It all made for a less-than-competitive series.

The Dangerous Third and Fourth Innings

Throughout recent baseball history, the most dangerous inning has typically been the sixth.  That is the inning that a starter may suddenly tire, and the inning before the back-of-the-bullpen arms usually come into play.  To an extent, that is true again this season.  The league ERA in the sixth is a fairly high 4.63 (according to baseball reference), and the major league batting line in the sixth sits at .248/.326/.432.  By season’s end, the sixth may regain its position as the most offensive inning.

For the moment, though, it only ranks as the third most offensive inning behind the third (4.79 ERA) and the fourth (4.73) as all over baseball offenses are beginning to adjust to that starter the second time through the order.

In few places has the carnage of the third inning been felt more than in St Louis, where Cardinal starters have now served up 11 home runs and 28 runs.  Their season ERA in that inning – after 34 games – is an unsettling 7.15, and the batting line against is an equally distasteful .281/.389/.578.

Most of the Cardinal issue of playing from behind too early in games springs from distinct third-inning difficulties.  In Flaherty’s case, half of his 8 home runs allowed have come in that inning, where he carries a 14.85 ERA.  He has yet to allow a run in either of the first two innings this season.  In those 14 innings (7 first innings and 7 second innings), Jack has surrendered just 10 hits – all singles – while striking out 14.  From the fourth inning on, Jack does well enough, with a 3.38 ERA, a .233 batting average against, and a .266 on base percentage against.  He has struck out 19 in the 16 innings represented by his efforts in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

If we could just figure out a way to get him through that nettlesome third.

Questions of Character

Obviously, it is easy enough to make way too much of three games in early May.  In many ways, this situation is not unlike the early season matchups with the Brewers.  As Milwaukee won 5 of the first 7, it would have been easy to say that the Brewers were clearly the better team.  St Louis won the last three games between those teams, and has since evened the series.  A similar thing could happen down the line with the Cubs.

Here’s the thing, though.  Beginning with the playoff series between these teams after the 2015 season, the Cubs have dominated this matchup (see accompanying chart) to the tune of a .609 winning percentage. 

Year Cubs Cards Pct
2015 3 1 .750
2016 10 9 .526
2017 14 5 .737
2018 9 10 .474
2019 3 0 1.000
       
  39 25 .609

This decided advantage has less to do with the talent differential between these two teams than it is a matter of character.  The last 64 games between these two franchises has left the indelible impression that the Cubs are tougher mentally than their St Louis counterparts.  Nowhere was that more evident than in the big September showdown in 2017.

There were 12 games left in the season, and St Louis went into Chicago trailing by just three.  Seven of those final 12 would be between the Cards and the Cubs (the last 4 at home), effectively affording St Louis every opportunity to claim the division.

The Cubs swept the first three in Chicago.  By the time the series returned to St Louis, the Cards were already pretty much out of contention – trailing by 6 with 7 to play.  But Chicago won 3 of those 4 anyway.

The organization has spent the last three off-seasons lusting after that “impact” bat.  But there is no evidence, yet, that they have at all answered the character gap that exists between them and their rivals from the North.

After the Cards were dominated in the opener of this series, President John Mozeliak was quoted as saying, “The good news for baseball is that the Cubs and the Cardinals are good.  That’s good for the game.”

The Cubs clearly are good.  The Cardinals still have a lot to prove in that regard – at least if “good” means good enough to actually compete with the Cubs.  For anyone who saw the Sunday night debacle (box score), it make take a while to convince them of St Louis’ legitimacy.

John Gant

John Gant allowed his first inherited runner of the season to score in the Sunday blowout.  He also struck out another batter, and fanned 4 in his 2 innings over the weekend.  Gant has struck out 9 over his last 5 innings.

Dominic Leone

As it was last Friday against Cincinnati, so it was Sunday night against the Cubs.  It was Dominic Leone on the mound when the game spun out of control.  He surrendered 6 ninth-inning runs to the Reds, to pad a 12-1 loss.  The Cubs stuck him with 6 more in their eighth inning to turn a 7-2 game into a 13-2 laugher.

Through his first 11 games, Dominic held a 1.64 ERA and a .111 opponent’s batting average.  Over his last 4.2 innings he has been bashed to the tune of 14 runs on 14 hits – a 27.00 ERA.  The last 32 batters he has faced hold a .500/.563/.929 batting line against him.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler lost some starts recently to a bout with an illness, but he continues to hit.  He came off the bench to deliver a single on Friday, and added another hit Sunday afternoon.  Over his last 19 games, Dexter is hitting .383 (23 for 60).

Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt managed two quiet singles in the Sunday blow-out.  They were his only hits in the series. Paul has not yet reached his comfort level at the plate for his new team.  After a 2-for-13 series in Chicago, Goldschmidt is hitting .211 (4-for-19) for the early part of May.  All his hits have been singles, and he has no walks to go with 8 strikeouts, so his whole batting line for the month so far is .211/.211/.211 (with a double play and a caught stealing).

His hits Sunday came in his first two at bats, in the first and third innings.  For the series, from the fourth inning on, Paul was 0-for-8 with 4 strikeouts.  Paul has not yet been much of a late-inning presence for the Cards.  From the seventh-inning on this season, Goldschmidt is 7 for 40 (.175).

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong’s tailspin continues.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, Wong has dropped to .248 for the season.  He was 1-for-9 against the Cubs, and is 2-for-17 (.118) this month so far.

When You’re Trying Not to Hit the Curve Ball

Last night in Washington, Adam Wainwright made his record-tying start with catcher Yadier Molina.  These two have formed the battery for 248 Cardinal games over the years – tying the Tom Glavine/Javy Lopez record.

In rolling through 6.2 innings in the game, Adam threw 80 pitches.  Twenty-six of those were curve balls – Waino’s signature pitch.  The fastest of these (according to Brooks Baseball) spun in at 77.6 mph.  Adam’s fastest pitch of the game (a sinker) registered all of 92.4 mph.  During the evening, 12 of Adam’s 80 offerings cracked the 90-mph barrier.

The league, of course, is well aware of who Wainwright is – especially at this point of his career.  Beating Wainwright means that you need some strategy for coping with that curve.

If he’s missing the strike zone with it, then the adjustment is easy.  Just don’t swing at it.  If he is throwing that curve for strikes, you can try to wait for him to hang one – Victor Robles got a hanger on a 3-1 pitch and sailed it over the wall.

But if he’s not hanging them often, then most teams will take the approach the Nationals took last night – hit him early in the count.  Once Adam gets two strikes on you, you become vulnerable to Uncle Charlie.  Early in the count, Wainwright will throw more cutters and sinkers to set the hitter up for the curve.  Twenty-one of the 29 batters to face Adam ended their plate appearance before strike two, with 7 of them hitting Adam’s first strike.

Across all of baseball, this is very profitable hitting territory.  According to baseball reference, all major league hitters are hitting .342 and slugging .617 when they hit that first strike.

But, of course, Wainwright and Molina have been around a bit as well.  Figuring that the Nationals would be looking to hit something other than that curve, they mixed plenty of cutters (13) and sinkers (23) – especially early in the count.  In a sense, it was a case of be careful what you ask for.  The battery of Wainwright and Molina was consistently effective at jamming the Washington hitters – who were very obliging.

In the second inning, Matt Adams got enough of one of those inside cutters to float it into short left-center for a single.  The next inning, Adam Eaton was quick enough on another inside cutter to stroke it just fair over the right-field wall.  For the rest, it was a predictable mix of relatively easy fly-ball outs.

For the rest of the series, Washington will have to deal with pitchers with more stuff in Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson.  But last night, they were treated to a demonstration of pitching as an art form.  When he’s right, Adam can make it look fairly easy.

Ah, But Those Home Runs

In spite of the strong performance, Wainwright did serve up two more home runs.  For the rotation, now, that is 34 home runs allowed in 151 innings.  The opposing slugging percentage against Cardinal starters is .502 – the second highest in all of baseball.

That Bullpen is Still Plenty Tough

As they have for most of the year, St Louis’ bullpen came in and closed the door.  Over the last 2.2 innings, Washington managed only 1 hit and no runs.  The batting average against the Cardinal bullpen falls to .178 – the lowest in the majors.

John Gant

Adding another strong outing to his excellent start, John Gant threw 1.1 scoreless innings last night.  His season ERA slides to an unexpected 0.98.

He reached two strikes on all 5 batters he faced last night, a facet of his game that has been exceptional this year.  So far this season, 63.2% of all batters John has pitched to have ended up in two-strike counts.  They have not prospered, hitting .050/.116/.050.

Speaking of Two Strikes

Almost as masterful on the other side was Washington starter Anibal Sanchez.  Mr. Sanchez, himself, featured a cutter that never exceeded 89.5 mph.  But he spotted it expertly on the corners of the zone.

He, and the relievers who followed him, put 27 of the 38 Cardinal batters in two-strike counts – on their way to ringing up 15 strikeouts and holding one of baseball’s most consistent offenses under four runs for just the fifth time this season.

Jose Martinez

Contrary to the plan at the start of the season, Jose Martinez started for the thirteenth consecutive game last night.  For the third straight of those games, he finished with 2 hits.  He has hit in 11 of those games, getting multiple hits in 7 of them.  Jose carries a .462 average (20 for 47) as he is making it exceedingly difficult for management to put him back on the bench.

One of those hits (his second inning single) came on a 1-2 pitch.  Martinez – among his other accomplishments – is the best two-strike hitter on the team, carrying a .318 average (14-for-44) when down to his last strike.

Matt Carpenter

While most of the team seems to be perking along, things are still a struggle for Matt Carpenter.  Matt found himself in two-strike counts through all 5 of his at bats.  He walked once and struck out the other 4 times.  He now has 7 strikeouts over his last 2 games.  For the season, only Paul Goldschmidt (61.4%) has found himself in two-strike counts with more frequency that Carpenter (60.0%).  Once considered the team’s best two-strike hitter, Carp is hitting .145 (9-for-62) in that situation so far this year.

Yadier Molina

And, yes, Yadier Molina’s career-best-tying 16-game hitting streak came to an end in the win.  Yadi was 0-for-3 with a walk.  During the streak, Molina hit .328 (21 for 64) with a couple of home runs.  Yadi drove in 19 runs during that streak.

And Just a Dash of Memphis Magic

At its best, sports can be transcendent.  I wrote a bit about this after the last Super Bowl.  Heroic, unexpected achievements that challenge the expected limits of mortality.  It is magic of the head-shaking flavor.

In yesterday’s second inning, starting pitcher John Gant provided the head-shaking moment.  Hitless so far in his career, John walked into a pitch from Gio Gonzalez and popped it over the fence for the two-run home run that sparked the Cards on to their 6-4 win (box score).

The night before, it was Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong with eighth- and ninth-inning home runs, respectively, that brought the Cards back from a late deficit for another win.  And these have not been all.  Almost every member of the current roster – and especially the young guys – have had their moment in the hero spotlight.  The list is far too long to detail here, dating back to the big bullpen shakeup that proceeded the July 27 game against Chicago.

One noticeable trend is the contribution of the Memphis Mafia.  These are those players – Gant, Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Dakota Hudson, Yairo Munoz, Tyler O’Neill, Daniel Poncedeleon and Patrick Wisdom – that have been the sparkplugs.  Players, perhaps, who haven’t been around long enough to understand that it isn’t supposed to be this easy.  That, perhaps, has been part of the magic.

Since that day in July, St Louis is 14-4 (including 11-2 in August).  This brings them to an impressive 17-9 since the All-Star Break, with their last win extending their season-long winning streak to seven games, and pushing them to 10 over .500 (65-55) for the first time all year.

Offense Front and Center

Taking the lead in this series against Washington are the bats.  The rebounding Cardinal offense is now averaging 7.2 runs per game over its last 6 games.  They are scoring 5.54 runs per game this month, 5.17 runs per game over the 18-game streak, and 5.19 runs per game during the seasons’ second half.

Leading Off

In the hitting revival, there has been some talk about new approaches to situational hitting.  Two-strike hitting and two-out opportunities have been mentioned.  Less referenced is the recent success that Cardinal leadoff hitters have had.

Last night, each starter other than Gant had an opportunity to lead-off an inning.  Four of the eight (the Cards did not have an offensive ninth) reached base, and three of them scored.

So far this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters are reaching base at a .400 clip – Including 5 home runs and a .559 slugging percentage.  Prior to this month, Cardinal leadoff hitters managed just a .317 on base percentage with a .442 slugging percentage.

Kolten Wong

Other than Gant, it was second baseman Kolten Wong driving the offense.  In four plate appearances, Wong walked, singled, doubled and homered, scoring twice and driving in three runs.  Wong has been another one of the critical offensive pieces that have endured long slumps as well as significant time on the disabled list.  Wong was in the midst of his hottest streak of the season when he went down.  Since coming back, he hasn’t missed a beat.

Still hitting just .236 for the season, Kolten is hitting .400 for the month of August (12 for 30) and slugging .600 (a home run, now, to go along with his 4 doubles).  He is a .356 hitter (16 for 45) in the second half.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko didn’t contribute any hits to the victory, but he ignited the two-run fourth with a leadoff walk.  Through the season’s first half, Jedd led off in 47 different innings, reaching base only 9 times (19.1%).  He eventually scored on just 4 of those occasions.  The fourth inning last night was the fifteenth time Jedd has led off an inning in the second half.  He has now reached base in 8 of those innings (53.3%), scoring 6 times.

John Gant

Even though Gant didn’t complete 6 innings – and even though the team ended up allowing 4 runs for the game – this game featured another very strong start from the rotation.  John finished his 5.1 innings allowing just 1 run on 4 hits and no walks.  Since John has been more-or-less installed into the rotation, batters are only hitting .201 against him.

As for the rotation, now, they have held opposing hitters to a .234 batting average this month, while issuing just 14 un-intentional walks over 73 innings – 1.73 walks per 9 innings.  During the 14-4 stretch, opponents are hitting just .243 against Cardinal starters, drawing just 20 un-intentional walks (1.81 per 9 innings).

Since the All-Star Break, Cardinal starters have faced 579 batters, holding them to a .235 batting average.

Mike Mayers

Most all of the real damage done to the pitching staff came in Mike Mayers’ eventful eighth inning.  He faced 5 batters and only retired 2 – allowing hits to the other three (all of whom eventually scored – two of them on Bryce Harper’s home run).

Mike has had some good moments this year, but has been trending down as of late.  The 25 batters he has faced this month are hitting .318 against him, with a .591 slugging percentage (he has also allowed 3 doubles this month).  Since his last return from Memphis, Mike has pitched 27 innings over 26 appearances, with a 5.00 ERA to show for it.

Jordan Hicks

It took him 19 pitches, but Jordan Hicks secured the last three outs and held on to the save – his fourth.  There was a point just before the All-Star Break where Hicks looked like he was hitting the “rookie wall.”  In his last 4 appearances before the break, Jordan served up 7 runs in 3.1 innings.

Whether it was the rest or whether he did some fine tuning during the break, second-half Jordan has been as good as we’ve seen him all year.  In 12 second-half outings, Hicks has allowed 1 run on 9 hits (all singles) over 13.1 innings.  His 0.68 ERA is accompanied by a 188 batting average against.

Some Revisionist History

In a recent exchange, baseball president John Mozeliak told reporters that this current team was the team they expected that they would see all year.

Well, not exactly.

The team they expected to see all year featured Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham all over the bases with Marcell Ozuna raining home runs all over the various ballparks.  The team they expected to see had Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone muffling opposing offenses from the seventh inning on.  None of those worthy gentlemen performed remotely to expectations.

John and his fellows also expected to see Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Alex Reyes string together dominant start after dominant start, while Paul DeJong built on his stellar rookie season.  All of these critical pieces have spent considerable time on the disabled list.

The truth is, John, – bad injury luck aside – the team you constructed over the last few off seasons wasn’t very good.  Mozeliak and the rest of the front office have been bailed out as much as anyone by the magic of the Memphis Mafia.

NoteBook

Harrison Bader’s second-inning sacrifice fly gave the Cards the first run of the game for the fifth time in the last six games.  St Louis has won all five – as well as the game that they didn’t score first in.

Efficient Gant Quiets the Fish

A .500 team after 102 games, the staid St Louis Cardinals made a fairly stunning reversal of direction.  Instead of handing out many of their most prized prospects at the trading deadline in search of that lusted-for impact bat, the Cardinals decided to trust their highly-regarded system.  They cleared away a few veteran arms and bats, and infused the clubhouse with fresh young arms and bats.

The early returns on this decision have been encouraging.  With last night’s 7-1 victory in Miami (box score), the Cards have won four consecutive series for the first time this season, going 9-4 over those 13 games.

Compared to the many high-ceiling arms boasted throughout the Cardinal system, last night’s starter John Gant gets little recognition.  But John has held his own.  He has been particularly hard to hit – especially since he has settled into a mostly starting routine.  Seven of his last 9 appearances have been starts, during which opposing batters have hit just .201 (Miami had only 2 hits in 6 innings against Gant last night).  In that regard, his start was reminiscent of many of the efforts of the rotation in July, when they held opposing hitters to a .225 average.

Moreover – especially lately – John has been stingy with walks.  He walked only one last night, and over his last 3 starts has walked just 4 in 14.1 innings (2.51 walks per nine innings).

If anything could be better pitching-wise than allowing only two singles and one walk through six innings, Gant gave insight into the kind of pitcher he is evolving into as he needed only 63 pitches to navigate past 21 batters. Of those 21 batters, only Justin Bour – who led off the second drawing a six-pitch walk – extended his plate appearance past five pitches.

Over his last 3 starts, John has faced 60 batters.  Only 5 have seen more than five pitches during their plate appearances.  That is about as efficient as it gets.

The Bullpen

While the recent surge has shown the rotation, perhaps, turning a corner (they now have 4 consecutive quality starts), the heroes of the uprising have been the denizens of the bullpen.  Shredded and left for dead after a July that showed them compile a 5.98 ERA and a .306 batting average against, the Cardinal bullpen held the Marlins at bay last night until the offense could provide some late breathing room.

Their combined line last night showed 1 hit allowed over 3 walk-less, scoreless innings.  The pen has now thrown 47 innings over the last 13 games, with a 1.34 ERA and a .170 batting average against to show for their efforts.

Dakota Hudson

Speaking of efficient pitching, not-quite-24-year-old rookie Dakota Hudson pitched for the first time in the major leagues – and probably for the first time anywhere – on back-to-back days.  He pitched 1.2 innings last night after throwing a scoreless inning on Tuesday.  He needed 8 pitches to work to 4 batters on Tuesday, and just 18 pitches to face 5 more last night.

To this point, the rookie who had owned the PCL has been as advertised.  Through his first 6 major league appearances, he has worked 8.2 innings allowing no runs, two singles, and one walk.  He has already earned 2 wins and 3 holds.

Fourteen of the first 29 batters (48.3%) Dakota has faced in the major leagues have hit one of his first two pitches.  They are 0 for 14.  Over the course of the whole year, opposing batters are hitting .318 against the Cards when they hit either of the first two pitches thrown.

Mike Mayers

Mike Mayers closed out the relatively easy win with a scoreless ninth.  Mayers has had some hiccups along the way, but his season has been pretty solid – and over his last seven outings he has looked increasingly worthy of his late-inning opportunities.

During his last 7, he has allowed just 1 run over 6 innings while striking out 7 – an ability he didn’t show much of early.  In 9 games and 10 innings since the All-Star Break, Mike has a 2.70 ERA.

Some Late Inning Runs

It was also a little relieving to see the four late runs that padded the lead.  The offense that had averaged 5.04 runs per game in July had been little seen through early August.  The Birds were averaging just 4.14 runs per game through the first 7 games this month – scoring just 6 over the previous three games.  With the outburst, they are back up to 4.71 runs per game through the first 21 games of the season’s second half (they are 12-9 in those games).

Second Half Yadi

In recent years – and in spite of a surprisingly heavy workload – Yadier Molina has seen a hitting resurgence after the All-Star Break.  He was 2-for-4 last night (a double and a home run), and is now hitting .314 (27 for 86) since the break.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong was starting to heat up pretty good before he went on the disabled list.  He has returned from that list in top form.  With his 2 hits last night, Kolten is 7 for 17 (.412) since his return.

In the seventh inning, Kolten slapped Jarlin Garcia’s 1-0 pitch into center for a single.  In July, Wong was 9 for 16 (.563) when he hit the first or second pitch of an at bat.  For the season, if his at bat is two pitches or less, Wong is a .400 hitter (26 for 65).

NoteBook

The Cards are now only 6-8 in rubber games, but 5-4 when those rubber games are on the road.

Flaherty in Fight with First Pitch Command

There was nobody on base in the second inning, with one out in a still scoreless contest when Cincinnati’s Phil Ervin came to the plate.  Cardinal rookie right-hander Jack Flaherty challenged him with the fastball, and Ervin swung through it for strike one.

Jack would face 19 Reds on the evening in his five innings.  Ervin would be the only one who would actually swing at Jack’s first pitch (Scooter Gennett tried to bunt a first pitch fastball from Flaherty in the first inning but fouled it off).

Of the 17 batters that took Jack’s first pitch, only 4 of the saw the pitch called a strike, and 3 of those were first pitch curve balls that Jack managed to get over.  The only Cincinnati batter of the evening to take a first pitch fastball for a strike from Flaherty was pitcher Sal Romano, who led off the fifth by watching a 90.6-mph offering fly right down the middle.

Cincinnati had just seen Flaherty eleven days ago.  Jack threw five innings of 2-hit, shutout ball that day, as he threw 10 first-pitch fastballs to the 20 batters he faced.  So the Cincinnati patience with him could be seen as an adjustment.  In all honesty, though, none of those fastballs was really close enough to offer at.  Finishing off a frustrating road trip with a 7-3 loss in Cincinnati (box score), Jack struggled with his normally good fastball command the entire evening.

Jack’s normal MO is to get ahead with the fastball and then put the batter away with his hard-biting slider.  Even without his normal command, the strategy worked well enough.  Flaherty still struck out 8 in his five innings (5 of them with the slider) while allowing 4 hits.  He was essentially undone by two fastballs – among the hardest he threw on the evening – that ended up in less than ideal locations.  A first-inning fastball to Eugenio Suarez was, perhaps, not far enough away and perhaps a shade too high.  In the fourth inning, his knee-high fastball to Adam Duvall probably caught too much of the plate.  Both those pitches were slapped for opposite field home runs – something that happens a lot in Great American Small Park – accounting for the three runs that saddled Jack with the loss.

Through his five starts in July, when he could get batters to swing at that first pitch, Flaherty has held these batters to a .150 batting average (3 for 20).

This effort may also be one more evidence that Flaherty, now up to 85 major league innings (and another 31.2 in Memphis) may be hitting some kind of wall.  On June 22, Jack fired 7 innings of 1-hit ball against Milwaukee.  In now 6 starts since then, Jack has only gotten an out in the sixth inning one time.  He has served up 6 home runs in his last 27.1 innings, and has 1-3 record with a 4.94 ERA in those starts.

Again the Pen

After breaking a ten-game streak in which they had allowed multiple runs in every game, the bullpen regressed to form last night.  Entering in the sixth inning of a still competitive 3-2 game, the Cardinal relief corps once again played the role of batting practice pitchers.

In the 3 innings after Flaherty left, the bullpen yielded 4 more runs on 6 hits and 4 walks.  The six hits included 3 doubles and another home run.

The meltdown ensured the Cardinals’ eighth loss in their last twelve games, and dropped them to 9-12 in July.  All throughout, the bullpen has been at the epicenter of the disaster.  In 42.1 innings over the last 12 games they have coughed up 43 runs (41 earned) on 67 hits – including 5 home runs – an ERA of 8.72 coupled with a .360 batting average against.  They have pitched 67.2 innings through 21 games this month, surrendering 60 runs (54 earned) on 94 hits.  The starters have only surrendered 90 hits this month in 115 innings.  The July bullpen numbers are a distressing 7.18 ERA and a .328 batting average against.  Batters are hitting only .215 against the Cardinal starters this month.  In winning 2 of 3 against the Cards this week, Cincinnati only managed 6 hits in 18.1 innings against St Louis’ three rookie starters.

John Gant

In a surprise move, skipper Mike Shildt summoned John Gant from the bullpen to pitch the sixth.  It was a surprise, since John had started one of the Saturday games, and, was not only scheduled to start on Sunday, but was pitching three days after throwing 82 pitches over five innings.

Most think this was a desperation move – prompted by the overall susceptibility of the bullpen.  Whatever the thought process, it didn’t work as Gant surrendered 2 damaging runs that pushed the game a bit out of reach.

While Gant has pitched quite well in whatever role asked, his demise yesterday was due, in part, to an increasingly nettlesome aspect of his game.  John walked two more batters in his one inning – one of which (Joey Votto) scored on Tucker Barnhart’s home run.  He has now walked 7 batters in his last 10 innings, and 13 in his 21.1 innings this month.  Even though one of those walks was intentional, that is still 5.06 unintentional walks for every 9 innings.  Since he was last recalled from Memphis in late June, John has walked 18 batters in 30.1 innings.  Remarkably, his ERA over those innings is still an excellent 2.37 – due primarily to a .180 batting average against him – but it is an issue nonetheless.

An insightful note about his appearance:

In taking over the Cardinal reigns, new manager Shildt committed to playing time for struggling multi-million dollar hitters Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna.  Neither hitter has – as yet – rewarded Shildt’s confidence, although Fowler has had a few moments.

It is interesting to note that – at the same time – he made no such commitment to multi-million dollar reliever Greg Holland.  In fact, when Mike went to Gant, Holland was supposedly available in the pen and quite well rested.  But Shildt opted for a semi-tired starter on three-days’ rest rather than Holland. 

Yadier Molina

Even as the Cardinal fortunes in general have taken a downturn, Yadier Molina has remained a bright spot.  He had 3 more hits last night, and is now hitting .375 (12 for 32) since Shildt took over and moved him to the second spot in the order.  Even over the last 12 games, Yadi’s production has remained high – a .349 batting average on 15 of 43 hitting.  Molina has now hit 3 home runs this month, while going 23 for 68 – a team-leading .338 average.

Over the years, pitchers have tried to use Yadi’s aggressiveness against him.  Molina has been tempted with a great many first pitch sliders on the corner of the strike zone – or perhaps just a bit off the corner, and all too frequently this strategy has been rewarded.  Suddenly – although still aggressive – Yadi is no longer that hitter who needs to hit that first pitch to have success.  After last year’s All-Star break, Molina was 48 of 140 (a .343 batting average) when he took the first pitch of an at bat.  Those hits included 10 doubles, 1 triple, and 8 of the 9 home runs he hit in last season’s second half – a .600 slugging percentage with 32 runs batted in.

In yesterday’s fifth inning, Romano started Molina off with that slider just off the plate.  Yadi didn’t bite.  Two pitches later, he got that middle-in fastball that he ripped into left for a hit.  Then, in the seventh reliever David Hernandez threw that first-pitch slider up in the zone.  Yadi took that one for a high strike, but two pitches later landed on another fastball and snuffed it over the left-field wall for a home run. 

Molina is now 12 for his last 28 (.429) when he takes the first pitch.  For the month of July, Yadi is a .378 hitter (17 for 45) when he doesn’t bite on the first pitch.

Up Next

The Cards head home, now, after what was – in many ways – a remarkable road trip.  Its historic features included Matt Carpenter’s home run streak – not to mention his 5-5, 3 home run, 2 double performance in an 18-5 devastation of the first-place Cubs, as well as back-to-back near no-hitters from two rookie pitchers making the first starts of their major league careers.

And yet, the team comes limping back after a 3-5 trip.  This – on the heels of a 5-4 trip just before the break – means that this team has played 17 of its last 20 on the road.  Including losing 2 of 3 to Cincinnati at home, they are 9-11 during that stretch, losing 3 games in the standings.

Events that should have galvanized this team – that should spark them on to some kind of sustained spurt – don’t result in more than a one-day blip.  When Mike Matheny was fired, they rallied behind popular bench coach Shildt and won their next game, 6-4, in spirited fashion.  They then lost the next game 9-6.  After the battering of the Cubs, they were punched out 7-2 by the Northsiders in the rubber game of that series.  They lost the Daniel Poncedeleon start in spite of his 7 hitless innings, and, after Austin Gomber’s start led to a dramatic eleventh-inning win, the Cards went quietly in the rubber game against the Reds.

They are now a curiously symmetrical .500 team.  They are 24-24 at home, and 27-27 on the road.  The upcoming home stand will not be easy.  They have three more against the Cubs and four against the Rockies.  At 54-47, Colorado is another over-.500 team.

The Cards currently sit at 8.5 games out, and it’s hard to tell whether they still believe they can put together a run.  The season is starting to slip away.  If they lose any more ground during this home stand . . .

Strikes a Rarity

One never knows what one will get the day after a game like Friday’s.  Highlighted by Matt Carpenter’s career day, the Cardinals waltzed away with an 18-5 win (box score).  When the next day features a double-header, it’s even harder to predict.

As it turned out a long day of baseball turned even longer as both pitching staffs showed a strange aversion to throwing strikes. 

The umpires played a part.  Both Lance Barksdale and Will Little might have been more generous with the outside corners, but any part they might have played in the outcome was minor indeed.  There weren’t a whole lot of narrow misses.

The 18 innings saw a total of 589 pitches.  Of the 351 pitches that were taken by both teams, 252 (71.8%) were called balls.  Of the 161 batters that came to the plate, 68 (42.2%) ended their at bat ahead in the count.  The pitching staffs combined to issue 28 total walks (3 of them intentional).

The two games totaled 6 hours and 51 minutes.

For all that – as neither side took full advantage of their opportunities – the final scores were not all that extreme.  The Cubs took the opener, 7-2 (box score), with the Cards salvaging (barely) the night-cap, 6-3 (box score).  After racking up 18 runs on 18 hits in the Friday game, the Cards were just 2 for 20 (.100) in the double-header when they were ahead in the count.

Matt Carpenter

The story of the weekend was Cardinal first-baseman Matt Carpenter.  With home runs in each game of the double-header, Carpenter extended his historic home run streak to six games.  While the decision not to start Matt in the second game was a little questionable (how do you bench someone who has home runs in five straight games?) Carpenter did provide a seventh-inning home run that helped bring the Cards back late.

During the streak, Carpenter is 11 for 20 (.550) with all the hits being for extra-bases (3 doubles and 8 home runs) – resulting in a video-gamesque slugging percentage of 1.900.

Matt has 12 runs batted in during the six games, but he only has 1 game with multiple RBIs – the Friday game in which he drove in 7.  The home runs in the other five games were all solo shots – one of the residual complications of having your most consistent power hitter who can only hit in the lead-off spot.

At the double-header’s conclusion, Carpenter now has 72 plate appearances in the month of July.  They have resulted in 4 singles, 7 doubles, 10 home runs, 17 runs batted in, 13 walks (2 of them intentional) 10 strikeouts, 1 hit-by-pitch, and 0 double plays.  Matt’s July batting line is a satisfactory .362/.486/1.000.

Tommy Pham

While Carpenter has grabbed the headlines, Tommy Pham – whose first half was deeply marred by an epic slump – has bounced back recently with a vengeance.  In many ways, his recent production is almost as noteworthy as Carpenter’s.

Since Mike Shildt took over as manager, Pham has gone 10 of 17 (.588) including a double and a home run.  He has 8 runs batted in over those last 17 at bats – a span during which he is slugging an impressive .824.

After a fairly brutal start, Tommy is now hitting .316 with 15 runs batted in in 16 July games.  He has had 5 multi-RBI games already this month, including three, 3-RBI games.

When Tommy is seeing the ball well, he is almost always ahead in the count. In his 9 plate appearances over the double-header, Pham was ahead in the count 4 times.  In 65 July plate appearances, he has ended the at bat ahead 47.7% of the time.

Yairo Munoz

Yairo Munoz didn’t start the first game, but he came off the bench to get only the Cardinals’ second (and last) hit of that game – later scoring St Louis’ last run.  He did start game two, driving in the game-tying run in the eighth.

Playing time for Munoz has been less plentiful since Paul DeJong returned to the lineup.  Nonetheless, the rookie continues to produce when the opportunity presents itself.  Munoz is now 11 for his last 31 (.355), with 3 home runs and a double (a .677 slugging percentage) in spite of the fact that he has played in only 11 of the last 16 games – making just 7 starts.

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna, on the other hand, just keeps starting.  Forty-four consecutive starts in left field for the former All-Star.  He was 1-for-7 in the double-header.  In 17 July games, Marcell has 73 plate appearances, resulting in 12 singles, 1 double, 7 runs batted in, 4 walks (1 intentional), 14 strikeouts, 1 sacrifice fly, and 1 double play.  It’s only a .191/.233/.206 batting line.

DexterFowler

The embattled Dexter Fowler is one of the players that Shildt has made a commitment to.  Dex has played in all five games played under the new regime – starting 4.  He was 0-for-5 in the double-header, and is now 3-for-19 (.158) for Shildt.  For the month of July, Fowler is 7 for 38 (.184).

Among the many puzzling aspects of Fowler’s season is his persistent inability to hit when ahead in the count.  He was ahead in 3 of his 5 appearances in the double-header, going 0-for-3 in those opportunities.  For the season – even though Fowler has found himself ahead in the count 40% of the time – he is still hitting just .186 (16 for 86) when he has the count in his favor.

John Gant

John Gant is not one of the major pitching prospects that people rave about in the Cardinal system, but since he was last recalled from Memphis, it has to be acknowledged that he has been the Cardinals’ best pitcher.  He made the start in the second game, throwing 5 innings of shutout baseball at the Cubs.  In his last 6 games (four of them starts), Gant is 2-1 with a 1.84 ERA and a .160 batting average against. 

Johnny doesn’t give in to hitters – even when behind.  Gant fell behind 7 of the 22 he faced yesterday.  He walked 3 but the others went 0-for-4 against him.  For the season, batters are hitting just .180 (9 for 50) when they are ahead of Gant in the count.

Greg Holland

After Gant’s five great innings, Greg Holland entered and promptly served up the lead.  Yes, an error on a double play ball could have gotten Greg out of the mess, but he still walked two in the inning (including one with the bases loaded).

A note to Mike Shildt.  One of the factors that cost your predecessor his job was that he kept allowing Holland to pitch in important situations.  I advise caution with his usage.

Jordan Hicks

While Holland set up the mess and was charged with the 3 Chicago runs in the sixth, they mostly scored with Jordan Hicks on the mound.  Jordan allowed 2 of the 3 inherited runners to score.  He has now allowed 6 of his last 8 to cross the plate.

There is much more to say about the bullpen, but I think that will be the focus of tomorrow’s post.