It was 25 days ago that the Cardinals came out of isolation to resume their abbreviated season. With 23 (or so) games left in the season – and after playing 30 games over the previous 25 days – the COVID hangover still lingers over this team. In the last two games St Louis played before the outburst, they started Carlos Martinez and Daniel Ponce de Leon against the Twins. Both lost their games.
On July 28, Martinez served 2 home runs, giving 6 runs on 7 hits through 3.2 innings of a 6-3 Minnesota win. The next day, Ponce de Leon took the ball. He also managed just 3.2 innings, although with less damage (1 home run, 3 runs on 2 hits). That game ended a 3-0 victory for the Twins.
Fast-forward about a month and a half to yesterday. Minnesota paid a visit to St Louis to conclude their season series with a double-header. Again, the Cardinal pitchers would be Martinez and Ponce de Leon. Again the results would be similar. Martinez’ day would end after 3.2 innings, 4 runs, 7 hits and another home run. Ponce de Leon would only make it through 3 innings (2 runs, 5 hits, another home run). Carlos lost again, 7-3 (boxscore). St Louis managed a fortuitous comeback to take Daniel off the hook with a 6-4 second game victory (boxscore). Both pitchers rode different paths to their Twin-City rematches.
Ponce de Leon
Given his long sought after chance at the rotation, Daniel Ponce de Leon has had only struggles to show for his efforts. His 3 walks in his 3.2 inning first stint against Minnesota initiated a season-long (so far) struggle with command for young Daniel. Between his appearances against the Twins, he made three other starts, totaling just 8.2 busy innings. The damage done included 8 runs on 8 hits – 3 of them home runs, 11 walks, and a hit batsman. His first turn at the rotation ended unceremoniously on August 28 when he lasted less than an inning of a 14-2 loss to Cleveland.
He was on his way to Springfield the next day. So yesterday’s appearance is a kind of re-emergence for Daniel. Although he certainly would have hoped for better, it seems – with many, many doubleheaders still to play – that Ponce de Leon will get more opportunities.
For Martinez, the interlude between his starts against Minnesota was more in keeping with the 2020 COVID meme. Carlos was one of the very first to come down with the virus and seems to have suffered most from it. It took him about three weeks before he felt healthy again.
After building up arm strength as rapidly as possible, Carlos returned to the mound yesterday for the first time since the first time he faced Minnesota. The Twins are, of course, one of baseball’s more dangerous hitting teams – and not to take any credit away from them – but his first time back, Carlos wasn’t Carlos. There were flashes of running mid-90s fastballs and sharp sliders. But Martinez was over the plate way too frequently.
In a related note, Ryan Helsley pitched the seventh – serving up a two-run homer to wrap up the scoring. Helsley is another COVID returnee who still hasn’t solidified his grip on the slider.
Here it is, nearly a month and a half after the season was interrupted, and the Cardinals are still trying to get all of their pieces a) back on the field, and b) capable of competing against teams whose seasons haven’t been disrupted.
These two short starts left more doubleheader innings for the bullpen (7.1) than the starters covered (6.2). A solid week after the team thought the rotation was back on its feet, the starters have stumbled through the early part of the month. Five of the 9 games so far this month have seen St Louis get fewer than 5 innings from its starter – and in four of those the starter didn’t make it through 4. In 9 September games, St Louis has needed nearly as many innings from its bullpen (32.2) as its received from its rotation (37.2) Carrying a 4.78 ERA through the early part of the month, the rotation has also recently left significant deficits for the still scuffling offense to make up.
The virus thing has been a stumbling block that keeps on stumbling. Still, showing perhaps more grit and more resilience than some may have believed they possessed, this Cardinal team keeps picking itself back up and battling on. Their record (18-17) isn’t gaudy. But it’s kept them competitive. And now – with the Twins in the rear-view mirror – one can almost see a light at the end of the tunnel.
No More Winning Teams?
For good or for ill, the rest of the Cardinal schedule has no more teams on it that currently have a winning record. Detroit came into the day just two games shy of .500 (19-21) but as I write this they are being pummeled by Milwaukee 15-0, so it will take a bit longer – at best – for them to reach that mark. Speaking of the Brewers, the rest of our season will be very involved with Milwaukee – a division rival that we still haven’t played. We have ten games to play against them – six of which will come in three doubleheaders.
The Brewers (and the Reds, for that matter) were expected to compete for the division crown. Things haven’t materialized for either team – Milwaukee is 18-22, while Cincy is 18-24. Even so, the feeling is that both clubs are better than they have shown. So the second half (basically) of the Cardinal season may not play out as softly as it might seem. But it looks right now like the most difficult part of the journey is behind us – although the onslaught of games (at least 23 more in the next 18 days with no more days off) will continue.
And That’s a Good Thing
Usually, performance against winning teams is a very revealing barometer. This year, I’m not sure how much stock to put into it. St Louis is 9-11 in 20 games against team that have won more than they’ve lost. They were 4-3 over the last two series against the Cubs and the Twins. Eighteen of those 20 games came in the first 30-game span after the Cards came out of quarantine – including their first 8 games back on the field, with no preparatory workouts, on the road, against the two division leaders in Chicago, with all of their starters on very limited pitch counts.
The numbers are what they are, but they were forged under as much adversity as imaginable. Considered under the circumstances, a 9-11 mark may be more encouraging than it might appear.
Hard on the Rotation
One pattern playing through these games is the consistent struggle the rotation has had in containing these lineups. The Twins combined to hit .375 against Martinez and Ponce de Leon, with a .656 slugging percentage against them. Over the last two series (7 games), the starters hold a 5.46 ERA while allowing a batting average of .300 and a .517 slugging percentage. The starters have surrendered 6 home runs in their last 28 innings.
In the 20 games against winning teams, the rotation has covered only 76.2 innings (leaving 80.1 for the pen). They have served up 16 home runs in those innings (1.88 per 9 innings), leading to a 4.93 ERA against the higher caliber clubs. Still, these games were the starters at their worst. If this team somehow manages to stagger home with a playoff spot, it will be interesting to see if this number can improve in October.
Frankly, the Pitching Will Have to be Better
Offense has been a struggle in general for this team, and these struggles have been magnified against the better pitching staffs. In 13 innings yesterday, St Louis managed just 9 hits (a .184 average) with only one extra-base hit. Over the last two series, they’ve hit just .211. Over the whole 20 games, the team batting average of .218 is almost 30 points lower than their season-long .246 average. Truthfully, if the Birds hadn’t been handed 5 gift runs in the second game, they almost certainly would have lost that game as well.
The shadow of an unreliable offense still hangs over this team.
Paul Goldschmidt continues as the team’s most consistent offensive force. Goldy went 3 for 7 during the doubleheader. With hits in both games, Paul has now tied his season-long hitting streak at 5 games. He is 7 for 18 (.389) over these last 5 games.
Paul is also one of the few Cardinals who hasn’t disappeared when facing winning teams. He is 7 for 23 (.304) over the last two series, and in all 20 of the games against winning teams, Goldy has come through at a .308 clip (20 for 65).
Brad Miller is one who has struggled to contribute over the last two series. He was 1 for 6 in the double-header and is 2 for his last 19 (.105), both singles. His last extra-base hit came in the 16-2 rout of Cincinnati on September 1.
Still Waiting for Tyler
Tyler O’Neill beat out a dribbler up the third base line in the first game yesterday. He played both games, and that was his only hit (he finished 1 for 6). Over his last 4 games, he is 2 for 14 (.143), both singles with no walks. After a good start to the month, O’Neill is hitting .231 (6 for 26) in September, with a .259 on base percentage. While Dexter Fowler is absent, Tyler will get every opportunity to show he can be a major-league regular. It can’t happen fast enough for both Tyler and the Cards.
Paul DeJong also played both games of the doubleheader. He walked twice, but went 0-for-5 with 2 strikeouts and a walk. Paul has faded a bit in September, his average dropping to .241 (7 for 29) this month.
Over the last two series, Paul is just 5 for 21 (.238), but with 4 walks his on base percentage for the last 7 games is .360.
As the Cards returned home, they found the heat waiting for them. The first game of the doubleheader checked in at 88 degrees. Four of the previous five games had been played in sub-80 degree weather. This was the Cards highest game-time temperature since the first game here against Kansas City on August 24. The temperature at game time for that one was a smoky 95 degrees.
The first-game loss marks the fourth time in the last five series that the Cards have lost the opening game.
When Paul Goldschmidt moved to DH for the second game, it snapped his streak of 13 consecutive starts at first base – at the time tied for the longest Cardinal streak. The longest such streak now belongs to Paul DeJong alone, who has now made 14 consecutive starts at shortstop.
My Designated Hitter Rant
As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably). If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH. Here is the link. If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.