Tag Archives: Mikolas

Texas Lefty Leaves Cards Less than Smyly

After an encouraging 8-2 victory on Saturday (box score), the St Louis Cardinals faced the Texas Rangers on Sunday afternoon, needing any kind of win to halt a four-series losing streak.  They would give the ball to young Jack Flaherty (who would turn in a strong effort).

But, standing in the way was veteran Texas left-hander Drew Smyly.

It’s funny how some tendencies follow a club over the course of decades – regardless of the makeup of the club.  In St Louis, the boogeyman has been almost any flavor of left-handed pitcher, but especially the soft-tosser.  In this context, Smyly isn’t the softest of soft tossers, but with a fastball that topped out at 92.6 (according to Brooks Baseball), Drew doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of opposing batters with sure speed.  But it’s enough fastball to tantalize and to set up his curve and changeup.

On a superficial level, you tell yourself that it doesn’t just happen to the Cardinals – that these guys are getting other teams out as well.  But someone is hitting these pitchers.  Smyly entered the game with a 6.85 ERA.  And, in the early going, it looked like the Cards had him solved.  In quick succession, Drew allowed a double, a walk, and a two-run double.  Quickly, it was 2-0 St Louis.

But that would be it.  Smyly would face 16 more batters before ending his four-inning stint.  St Louis would score no more runs and manage just one more hit against him.  Drew wouldn’t figure into the decision, of course (a 5-4 Texas win in 10 innings – St Louis’ thirteenth loss in its last 17 games).  Along the way, he would walk 3, but he would also strike out 4 of those last 16 batters faced.

It doesn’t stand as a dominant game, per se, but by the end it fell along familiar parameters.  St Louis finished 3 for 15 (.200) against Drew, and just 5 for 29 (.172) during the three-game series against Texas’ left-handers.  They are down to .235 against them for the season.

Offensive Struggles

While losing two of three in Arlington, St Louis did manage to score 15 runs in the series, but hit only .236 (26 for 110) and couldn’t cash in on other opportunities.  The Cards are hitting just .241 this month.

Harrison Bader

St Louis’ complex outfield picture got more complex over the weekend.  With Jose Martinez moving into the DH slot in the American League park, Harrison Bader was able to start all three games in center.  Bader was nothing but spectacular.  He, of course, made several sparkling plays in center.  He also went 7 for 12 (.583), including a home run and 2 doubles (a 1.000 slugging percentage) at the plate.

Harrison started the season as the regular centerfielder.  But he started off slowly at the plate, and when he went down briefly with a hamstring pull, Martinez found his way into the lineup and hit his way into a permanent spot.

While his opportunities have been infrequent, Bader has hit .326 (15 for 46) since his return, and is now hitting .306 (11 for 36) for the month.

Bader had multiple hits in all three games in Texas, and it seems hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup when the season resumes Tuesday night.

Harrison was only 1-for-4 against left-handed pitching in the series, but was 6-for-8 against the righties.  While not qualifying, yet, as a regular, Bader is hitting .357 this month (10 for 28) against righties – the highest on the team for anyone with more than 20 plate appearances against them.

Paul DeJong

As you might suppose, St Louis isn’t overburdened with batters who are flourishing against left-handed pitching.  One who has been succeeding all year is Paul DeJong.  The righty was 2-for-3 against Texas’ left-handers in the series – his hits being a double and a home run.  For the season, Paul has the team’s second highest average against lefties.  In 32 plate appearances against southpaws (and there haven’t been an awful lot of lefties to face the Cards so far this season), Paul now has 2 singles, 5 doubles, 2 home runs and 6 walks.  He has driven in 7 runs against lefties so far, with a .346/.469/.769 batting line against them.

Yadier Molina

Everyday catcher Yadier Molina – who has been so consistent all season – had a tough series in Arlington.  He was just 2 for 13, going hitless in two of the games.  Over his last 5 games, Yadi is hitting just .150 (3 for 20) with no runs scored and one run batted in.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler had his one big moment.  Capping a nine-pitch at bat in Sunday’s ninth inning, trailing by one, Dexter lined a game-tying home run into the upper deck in right.  The home run (clutch as it was) broke an 0-for-15 streak.  Fowler – over .300 for much of the season – is hitting just .195 this month (8 for 41).  Bader had almost as many hits in the Texas series as Dexter has had all month.

Fowler – a switch hitter – is getting fewer and fewer opportunities against lefties.  He is hitting .208 against them this season (5 for 24) with no extra-base hits.  Lately, though, he has been struggling against right-handers as well.  He is 6 for 32 (.188) against them this month.

Kolten Wong

In the Saturday victory, Kolten Wong was held hitless in 5 at bats – breaking his encouraging little five-game hitting streak.  Wong – who has struggled lately – was 6-for-18 (.333) during that streak.

Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt walked 4 times in the 3 games in Texas.  He subsequently scored 3 runs and drove in a run with a ground ball.  But he had no hits in the series (0-for-10).  Paul hasn’t had the best of starts.  He is 16 for 65 (.246) this month with 2 extra-base hits (1 home run).  He has driven in 5 runs in 18 games in May.  He is 6 for 28 (.214) this season against left-handed pitching.  Paul has 1 home run against lefties this year.

It’s safe to say that there is an explosion coming from Mr Goldschmidt.

Cheers for the Rotation

As we approach the end of May, almost any good news from the pitching staff in general and the rotation in particular is cause for celebration.  The overall numbers from the Texas series are not particularly warm or fuzzy.  The staff finished the series with a 4.73 ERA, and the starters finished at 7.43 and a .327/.383/.582 batting line.

The actuality wasn’t as bad as the numbers.  Game One starter Miles Mikolas was driven from the mound after 1.1 innings, having allowed 7 runs on 9 hits (including 2 home runs).

From the moment Mikolas left the mound through the end of the series, the Cardinal pitching staff contained the Texas offense to just 7 more runs in 25.1 innings.  Their 2.49 ERA was backed by a .195 batting average against.  Dakota Hudson and Jack Flaherty followed Mikolas with quality starts, and the bullpen – pitching as many innings as the starters in this series – were flawless (until the end of the Sunday game).

As I said, any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is welcome.

Mikolas

Miles Mikolas had tossed three consecutive quality starts – throwing a total of 20 innings – before his meltdown in the first game.  He had pitched three straight games without allowing a home run.

Hudson

Dakota has also been steadily improving.  He served up 8 April home runs in just 24 innings – contributing to a 5.63 ERA.  In 23 innings over 4 starts (3 of them quality starts) in May, Hudson has allowed just 1 home run and holds a 3.13 ERA (that ERA figure is a little deceptive in that it doesn’t include the 6 unearned runs he allowed a couple of starts ago).

Among the most encouraging notes from the Saturday win was Dakota Hudson dominating lefties.  Until that night, the 101 lefties to face Hudson had owned him to the tune of a .388/.475/729 batting line with 8 home runs.  Saturday night they (lefties) finished with just 4 singles in 21 at bats against Hudson (.190).

NoteBook

In the Saturday game, Paul DeJong – in addition to getting two hits – drew a walk.  It is already his twenty-fifth walk of the season.  All last year he drew 36 – his current career high.

Then in the Sunday game, Paul drilled his seventeenth double of the season.  All of last year, he only hit 25.

With their fifth straight series loss, St Louis (holding a 10-14 road record) is now 2-5-1 in road series.  They are also 2-5-1 in series when they lose the first game.

This was also their eighth series so far this year against a team that had won its previous series.  They are also, now, 2-5-1 in those series – going 11-13 in those games.

(This post was originally composed Monday, May 20).

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.

Leadoff Homer from Carpenter Sparks Four-Run Inning

Vince Velasquez – the hard-throwing Philadelphia starting pitcher – had fallen behind the leadoff batter in the fifth by a 3-1 count.  He and the Phillies were already down 2-0, and a leadoff walk here would not help.

The 3-1 fastball (officially 91.8 mph) hugged the outside corner of the strike zone, but it was up a bit.  The batter – Matt Carpenter – flicked his bat and lofted a fly ball just deep enough into center to clear the wall (and the glove of Phillie center-fielder Obudel Herrera).  Before the inning would end, St Louis would add three more runs – enough to put the wraps on a 6-0 win (box score).

All season long, the Cardinals have led off innings as well as almost anyone in baseball.  Their .357 on base percentage leading off innings is tied with Atlanta for the best in the National League and fourth-best in baseball (according to baseball reference).  Consistently putting the leadoff man on base was a big part of the amazing offensive consistency that this team enjoyed in April – when they scored 5.45 runs per game.

The early games of May have been less impressive, with the offense struggling to manage 3.67 runs per game.  As far as putting the first batter of an inning on base, St Louis is still doing that at a high level.  Three of the 8 leadoff batters reached base last night – and the leadoff on-base percentage for the month is still .340.  But what has been lost lately is the ability to build on that momentum.  In April, 55% of the Cardinal leadoff hitters who reached base ended up scoring.  Thus far in May, leadoff batters who reach are only scoring 28% of the time.  Carpenter was the only one who scored last night.

Jose Martinez opened the Cardinal second with a walk, and moved into scoring position when he advanced on a long fly ball off the bat of Yadier MolinaKolten Wong followed with a hard hit out, and after an intentional walk to Harrison Bader, pitcher Miles Mikolas struck out looking.

Carpenter again led off the next inning and walked.  Nothing came of that, either, as the walk was followed by a strikeout and a double-play grounder.

Through St Louis’ first 53 offensive innings of the month, their leadoff hitters have reached 18 times.  Only 5 of those have scored – 2 of them on leadoff home runs.  They are applying the pressure, but failing – so far this month – to take full advantage.

Last night, two two-run home runs (by Molina and Paul DeJong) kept the offense on schedule, but until they can start to push their leadoff runners around the bases, the Cardinal offense will continue to be a hit-and-miss affair.

Yadier Molina

In addition to calling a terrific game behind the plate, Yadier Molina was also the offensive engine last night.  He finished with three hits, including the home run that put the Cards ahead.  Yadi has now hit in all of his last 5 starts, going 7 for 19 (.368).  He has also hit safely in 23 of his last 25 starts, hitting .337 over that span (33 for 98).

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna hit a couple balls hard last night, but results have been hard to come by lately.  Over his last 4 games, Marcell is hitting .125 (2 for 16).

Among his contributions to the April offense, Ozuna was one of the most effective Cardinals leading off an inning.  In the 26 April innings he led off, he hit .375 (9 for 24) with a .423 on base percentage.  He ended up scoring in 8 of the 11 innings that he began by reaching base.

Last night, he led off two innings, going 0-for-2.  He is 1-for-7 as a leadoff hitter so far this month.

Kolten Wong

The struggles continue for Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night (although he also drew a walk and lofted a sacrifice fly), Wong is now hitless in his last 10 at bats, falling to .243 for the season.

Kolten has 2 hits (both singles) this month in 19 at bats (.105).

Miles Mikolas

The opening day starter, Miles Mikolas lasted only 5 innings in each of his first two starts, serving up 8 runs (and 4 home runs) in those efforts.

In his last 6 starts, Mikolas seems to be getting better each time out.  He went 7 scoreless against Philadelphia last night, allowing 3 hits.  In his two May starts, Miles has given just 1 run over 13 innings.  He has both the Cardinal wins this month, with an 0.69 ERA.

Since those first two starts Mikolas is 4-1, with a 3.16 ERA, walking just 6 batters over his last 37 innings.  He has thrown 67% of his last 532 pitches for strikes, holding opponents to just a .232 average.

Jordan Hicks

With one out in the ninth, manager Mike Shildt summoned closer Jordan Hicks into the game with a 6-run lead.  Hicks hadn’t appeared in a game in any of the last 6 days.  The reason for this inactivity was two-fold.  First, the Cards haven’t been presented with a save opportunity in quite a while.  Secondly, the Cards are monitoring the talented right-hander’s innings.  Hick responded by striking out both batters he faced – both on devastating sliders over 90 mph.

Jordan has now retired all of the last ten batters he’s faced – striking out 6 of them.  Since an early-season blown save, Jordan has an 0.75 ERA over his last 12 innings, holding batters to an .086 batting average in those innings.

Carlos Martinez as Closer?

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

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

And then the calendar flipped to September.

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

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

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

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

What now?

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

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

The ending tonight would be different.

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

Carlos the Closer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles Mikolas

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

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

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

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

Fireworks from the Offense

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

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

Marcell Ozuna

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

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

Jose Martinez

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

Matt Carpenter

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

Paul DeJong

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

NoteBook

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

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

Pitchers and Front Offices Under Stress

While victories haven’t been plentiful in the month that cost the Cardinals the services of their manager, there has been plenty of excitement.  The Cards have scored 68 runs during July’s first 13 games (5.23 per), and they have surrendered 64 runs in those games (4.92 runs per game).

During these mostly offensive contests, there have been many moments of fine pitching.  The difference lately has been pitchers on both sides handling the stress of having multiple runners on base.

In the last game before the All-Star break, Cardinal pitchers held Cincinnati batters to a .188/.350/.250 batting line with no one on base.  For the month so far, Cardinal pitchers are performing well with the bases empty – a .215/.280/.297 batting line.

Similarly, the Cardinal hitters did little against the Cincinnati pitchers with no one on base – the .217/.217/.478 batting line was improved by the two solo home runs.  This month, so far, Cardinal hitters have been less than dominant with the bases empty – .237/.295/.381.

But when the heat was on, both pitching staffs struggled under the added stress.

With two or more runners on, Cincinnati went 4-for-7 in Sunday’s game – including Adam Duvall’s two-run single and Jose Peraza’s RBI single, both with the bases loaded in the fourth.  Opposing batters are hitting .368/.417/.513 this month with multiple runners on base.  This includes 8-for-21 (.381) with the bases loaded.

For their part, the Cardinal hitters have returned the favor.  They only had 5 at bats on Sunday with multiple runners on base, but came through with two very clutch hits – Tommy Pham’s two-run single with the bases loaded, and Yadier Molina’s RBI single with runners at first and second in the decisive four-run Cardinal fourth.  They are hitting .368/.413/.632 this month with more than one runner on base. 

Stress – as they say – can be a killer.

On Sunday, it was just enough heroics to give the Cards a squeaky 6-4 victory in Mike Shildt’s managerial debut (box score).  Even with the win, the Cards begin the second half of the season tomorrow night just 48-46 and 6-7 for July.

Paul DeJong

One of the casualties of the managerial change was the end of Paul DeJong’s hitting streak.  Stretching back to before his injury, Paul was riding a nine-game hitting streak.  Granted, it wasn’t the world’s most destructive hitting streak.  He hit only .286 during the streak (10 for 35), with only 2 doubles and 1 run batted in.  Paul has only one extra-base hit since returning from his broken wrist – so his power stroke hasn’t completely returned just yet.  But he does look like he’s getting closer.

Before his injury, DeJong was a better ignitor than he has been since his return.  Presented with bases empty situations, Paul was 24 for his first 86 – a .279 batting average.  He was 0-for-3 with the bases empty on Sunday, leaving him 4-for-18 (.222) with the bases empty after his injury.  Not only are all the hits singles, but two of those hits were infield hits.  Paul has only walked once in his last 19 plate appearances with the bases empty.  Through all of this, I have gotten the distinct impression that Paul just isn’t comfortable yet.  It will come.

Paul did have an opportunity to put the game out of reach in the fourth.  He was up with runners at first and second and two out – Cards holding a 6-3 lead.  He lined out to end the inning.  Throughout the beginning of his young career, Paul has done a lot of impressive things.  Hitting with multiple runners on base has not yet been an area of excellence.  He is only 6 of 32 so far this season (.188) with two or more runners on – although three of those hits have been three-run home runs.  Last year, he had 65 plate appearances with ducks (plural) on the pond.  He responded with 10 singles (2 of the infield variety), 5 doubles, 2 walks (1 intentional), 17 strikeouts, one hit-by-pitch, and one sacrifice fly – a .246/.277/.328 batting line.  He is now 21 for 93 (.226) in these situations for his young career.

Jedd Gyorko

Inheriting a spot in the every-day lineup due to Jose Martinez’ defensive inconsistencies (or, perhaps consistencies), Jedd Gyorko limped to the end of the first half.  Hitless in 3 at bats on Sunday, Gyorko is 1 for 14 (.071) over his last 4 games.

Nobody responds to multiple baserunners better than Jedd.  His hitless at bats on Sunday all came with less than two runners on.  He is now hitting .218 (41 for 188) this season in those situations.  He is a .524 hitter (11 for 21) when he gets to hit with multiple runners on base.

Kolten Wong

Also limping to the end of the first half was Kolten Wong.  Torrid through most of the month, Wong finished 0-for-3 on Sunday and finished the half 1 for 13 over his last 4 games (.077).

Speaking of bases-empty situations, Wong – who has re-invented himself as an ignitor – has never warmed this year to these opportunities.  All of his at bats Sunday were in bases empty situations.  He is now a .176 hitter this year (23 for 131) in his opportunities to get things started.

Miles Mikolas

Miles Mikolas finished a very strong first half on a less than spectacular note.  He finished only 4 innings, giving 3 runs on 6 hits.  He had produced quality starts in 7 of his previous 8 starts, going 4-3 in those games.  His 2.76 ERA over those starts was complimented by a .224/.273/.301 batting line.

All of Cincinnati’s opportunities with multiple base-runners on Sunday came during Miles abbreviated start.  This has been something of an enduring problem for Mikolas.  In those high-stress situations, Miles has allowed 15 hits in 44 at bats – a .341 batting average.

John Gant

Perhaps earning a larger role in the season’s second half is John Gant.  He got the win in Shildt’s first game with 4 scoreless innings of relief.  He has pitched in 5 games since his last recall from AAA – three starts and two relief appearances.  In the combined 24.1 innings represented by those games, John holds a 2.22 ERA and a .149 opponent’s batting average (he has surrendered just 13 hits in those innings).

Jordan Hicks

Is it the innings?  The Cardinal’s talented 21-year-old rookie ended the first half with 48 innings pitched.  Has the league adjusted on him?  Is the fact that his command has never been stellar finally catching up with him?

Whatever the reason, the formerly untouchable Mr. Hicks is now one of the team’s most hittable relievers.  Trying to reel in Sunday’s win, Jordan Hicks held on for the save – but not until he surrendered another run on 2 more hits.  This is now four consecutive games in which Jordan has surrendered runs – a total of 7 runs over his last 3.1 innings.  In addition, he has allowed 4 of his last 5 inherited runners to cross the plate.  The last 21 batters he has faced are hitting .474 against the flame-throwing Hicks.  He has thrown strikes with just 59% of his last 80 pitches.

On the Dismissal of Mike Matheny

Speaking of performance under stress, one game before the end of the first half, the Cardinal front office announced that manager Mike Matheny (and two of his coaches) would serve as scapegoats for the team’s struggling start.

This happens all the time in baseball, and no one should be too surprised when it shakes out this way.  Clearly, though, this is just a cosmetic move on the part of what has become a questionable Cardinal management group.

Far from being the problem, Matheny’s performance under the stress of the 2018 season has been – I think – admirable.

Let’s begin with the injuries.  First and foremost, the bullpen.  A suspect area from the beginning of the season, such arms as Matheny was given to face an increasingly challenging division went down in droves.  Matthew Bowman, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Greg Holland, Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons and Ryan Sherriff – all of whom were counted on to play prominent roles in the Cardinal pen – have missed significant time due to injuries.

If that weren’t bad enough, many of these pitchers have tried to compete in spite of their compromised health – resulting in more than a few damaging performances.

In addition, Matheny had to battle with most of his anticipated starting rotation missing much of the first half.  Alex Reyes and Adam Wainwright have missed virtually the entire season, while Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha have each missed substantial parts.

He also had to deal with the loss of perhaps the most indispensable Cardinal – Yadier Molina – for about a month.

But this was only the tip of the adversity of the first half.

In addition to the loss of the guts of his pitching staff, Matheny’s Cardinals endured horrific slumps from most of his most needed bats.  Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong all spent most of the first half hitting below .200.  After a torrid start, Tommy Pham joined the slumping hitters.  Marcell Ozuna has never settled in – he hit the All-Star break with a very pedestrian .268/.309/.385 batting line, and promising shortstop DeJong joined most of the pitching staff and Molina on the disabled list for about half of the first half.

And in spite of all of this, Matheny’s Cards hung in the race at 47-46.  In my mind an impressive feat in and of itself.  Even more impressive to me is that his team never gave in to the adversity.  At no point did they blame injuries.  At no time did they divide.  The pitchers never pointed at the hitters, the starters never faulted the bullpen.  To a man, every player on that team – through the end of Matheny’s tenure – believed that they would overcome all of this and make the playoffs.  In spite of mounds of statistical evidence that paints this team as a mediocre collection, the team itself never bought into that.

In fact, Matheny stayed with his struggling hitters until all of them (except Fowler) eventually worked their way out of their slumps.  Against the outside pressure on him to give up on these players – especially Fowler and Wong – Mike maintained his belief in them.  That is a hard thing to do.

In fact, if anyone’s feet should be held to the fire over the Cardinals’ tepid start this season, it should be that management group.  They are, essentially, coming off three or four pretty bad off seasons in a row.  Over the last couple in particular, these guys have brought Fowler, Ozuna and Holland to the team with great fanfare.  To this point, it is clear that all of these big “gets” were significantly over-rated by the front office – which also truly failed to fix the bullpen problem that they knew they would enter the season with.  In the case of Marcell Ozuna, his acquisition cost the Cardinals the career of the electric Sandy Alcantara – a decision I fear the franchise will regret for quite a few years to come.

Interestingly, another of the big “gets” over the last winter was pitching coach Mike Maddux.  While Matheny paid with his head for the team-wide struggles, hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller suffered similar fates for the team hitting struggles.  But although the tepid bullpen (they finished the first half with a woeful 4.48 ERA) is as responsible for the team’s stagnant start as the inconsistent hitting, apparently Mr. Maddux gets a pass.  In the end, Mike Matheny pays for the consistent failures on John Mozeliak and the management group.

The upshot here is not devastating for the Cardinals.  There are other very fine managers out there – and Mike Shildt may prove to be one of those.  In temperament he seems similar to Matheny.  (Matheny – by the way – becomes the first Cardinal manager to be dismissed during the season since Joe Torre in 1995.  Things worked out well enough for Mr. Torre, and I have no doubt that if Mike Matheny wants to continue managing, he will enjoy great success elsewhere.)  I hope that – if this management group can find another fine manager, they will support him with a better cast of players.

The thing, ultimately, that I find most disturbing about this is that the Cardinals have now become “that” organization.  A team whose recent past has been governed by long-term value, has now become that franchise that reacts – and even over-reacts – to short term pressures.  With one of the most promising farm systems in baseball about to send a great many exciting players to the majors, I am increasingly concerned that management will continue to give them away in their insatiable lust for that “impact bat” for the middle of the lineup.

It is here hoped that the ownership group will keep a close eye on them and make some kind of intervention before this would be allowed to happen.

That would go a long way to reducing my stress.