Tag Archives: Molina

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).

Cards Ride Another Big RISP Night to a Win in Atlanta

It was last Thursday that your St Louis Cardinals put on one of the most impressive displays of batsmanship with runners in scoring position (RISP) in their recent history.  Finishing the game with 25 at bats with runners in scoring position, the Cards slapped out 11 hits (none of them home runs).  They ground the Pittsburgh Pirates that evening to the tune of 17-4.

Last night in Atlanta, it looked like a similar team taking the field.  They rode a 6-for-10 RISP performance to a 14-3 win.

The Cards are now hitting .292/.397/.491 this month with runners in scoring position, and rank second in the National League and fifth in all of baseball, hitting .278 on the season in these situations.

The Cardinals have now had 13 games this season with at least 10 RISP at bats, hitting over .400 in those at bats in three of them (they were also 7-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a 13-5 battering of Milwaukee on April 22).

It’s a great skill to have – getting that hit with the ducks on the pond (as they say).  But this number also shows the all-or-nothing nature of the Cardinal offense of late.  In the three games after the bludgeoning of Pittsburgh (all losses to the Pirates) St Louis was just 3-for-21 (.143) with runners in scoring position.

Yadier Molina

Among the offensive heroes of the night – as usual these days – was catcher Yadier Molina.  He finished with a double and a three-run home run (one of three, three-run homers hit by St Louis on the night).  Especially lately, I’m not sure that there is anyone that I would rather have at the plate than Yadi.  He has now hit safely in 6 of his last 8 games, going 11-for-30 (.367).  Five of those 11 hits have been for extra bases, and he has driven home 7 runs in the 8 games while slugging .667.

Yadi is up to .333 for the month (15-for-45) with 10 runs batted in in 13 games (12 starts).

Molina’s home run came on his only plate appearance of the game with runners in scoring position.  He is now 6 for 13 (.462) this month in RISP opportunities.  For the season, Molina is hitting .395 (17 for 43) with runners in scoring position.

Dexter Fowler

In mid-April manager Mike Shildt moved Dexter Fowler from sixth to seventh in the lineup, and Fowler has thrived there.  He singled, homered, and walked twice last night, and is now hitting .368 (25 for 68) in the 22 games since the move.  He has also drawn 13 walks and has been hit by pitches twice – leading to a .482 on base percentage.

Jack Flaherty

Gradually but surely, the Cardinal starters are serving up fewer home runs.  In April, the starters served up 34 home runs in 151 innings – 2.03 per nine innings.  The April batting average against the St Louis rotation was .264 – unexpectedly high against a good-stuff rotation.

Thus far in May, only 6 home runs have been hit against Cardinal starters in 76.1 innings – just 0.71 per nine innings.  The batting average against these starters has also fallen to a more expected .241.

Jack Flaherty has been prominent in both trends.  Jack allowed only 3 hits and no home runs over his six innings.  He has now allowed just 1 home run over his last 4 starts (23.2 innings), while holding opposing batters to a .185 batting average.  Walks have been a problem for him recently, though.  He walked 5 last night and has walked 12 over his last 16.2 innings.

While Cardinal batsmen have done well – mostly – in RISP situations, of late the Cardinal pitchers have not been so fortunate.  One of the numbers underpinning the 4-9 start to the month of May has been a general inability to get people out with runners in scoring position.

Atlanta scored 3 runs last night on only 3 hits because they were 2-for-4 against Flaherty in RISP situations.  Thus far in May, opposing hitters are 5 for 12 (.417) against Flaherty with runners in scoring position, and 28 for 81 (.346) against the entire staff in those situations.

NoteBook

Marcell Ozuna’s first-inning home run held up as the game-winning-hit – his sixth this season.  No other Cardinal has more than 3.

With his 3-run homer in the ninth, Kolten Wong now has 22 runs batted in this year.  He had 38 all of last year.  His career high is just the 61 he drove in in 2015.

Kolten has also already drawn 20 walks this year.  Last year he walked only 31 times, and has never walked more than 41 times in a season.

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.

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.

Offense, Bullpen Continue to Fade

It was, in many way, the kind of game that Mike Matheny would have felt right at home in.  It was, in fact, a microcosm of the season’s first half.  The blueprint went like this: a more than credible effort from the starting pitcher, undermined by an overmatched offense that spent the game waving at breaking pitches out of the strike zone, with any hope of victory dashed at the end by bullpen shenanigans.

In particular, Jack Flaherty gave the Cardinals – struggling to cling to a playoff spot – all that the team could ask for.  After six excellent innings, Jack left the game having allowed just one run.

It would be more than his offense would manage all night – and almost more hits that his offense would garner in the game.  The close game then slipped away as two more runs scored over the last three innings, and the Dodgers finished erasing St Louis’ wildcard lead with a 3-0 victory (box score).  The game featured two Cardinal singles and 10 Cardinal strikeouts.

Throughout the amazing month of August (during which the bullpen posted a 2.82 ERA and a .214 batting average against), Cardinal relievers worked a total of 92.2 innings, allowing a total of 30 runs and 6 home runs.  The two runs allowed by the pen last night, bring their September total to 31 runs allowed, and the home run launched by Yasiel Puig off of Tyler Webb was the eighth allowed already by the bullpen this month in just 50.1 innings.

The St Louis bullpen now boasts an ERA of 5.01 in September, with a .289/.374/.489 slash line  If you are looking for the biggest difference between the 22-6 Cardinals of August and the 5-8 Cardinals of early September, the bullpen would be where you would start.

Flaherty

The inadequacies of the team, though, cannot dim another excellent performance by young Jack Flaherty.  Not quite to his 23rd birthday, Flaherty, at least, has come down the stretch pitching like a champion.  With 6 more innings of 4-hit, 8-strikeout ball, Jack has reduced his second half ERA to 2.42 over 63.1 innings in 11 starts.  Opponents have hit .167 against him since the break, while he has piled up 81 strikeouts – 11.51 per 9 innings.  While the Cardinals seem to be fading fast, the future is still very bright for this organization – and nowhere more bright than the right arm and competitive nature of Jack Flaherty.

With those strikeouts, it should come as no surprise that Jack has the team’s best swing-and-miss ratio.  Last night, the Dodgers missed on 18 of the 47 swings they took against him (38.3%).  Since the All-Star break, batters miss 32.8% of the time that they swing against him, and 30.3% of the time this season.

A point of improvement for the young right-hander could certainly be pitch efficiency.  As good as Jack has been, he has managed quality starts only 10 times in his 25 starts, mostly because his pitch counts haven’t allowed him to work past the fifth inning in many of these games.  Even as Flaherty finished six last night, he did it at the cost of 103 pitches – a hefty 4.48 per batter faced.  For the season, Jack is throwing 4.22 pitches per batter.  Of Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 100 batters, only Daniel Poncedeleon (4.37) throws more.  The team average is just 3.88 pitches per batter.

Dominic Leone

When Dominic Leone walked Justin Turner with one out in the eighth inning, Manny Machado came to the plate in a double-play opportunity.  It was the twenty-third time this season that Leone faced a batter with an opportunity to get a double play.  He is still looking for his first – although this one was close.  Dominic got the ground ball he needed, but could only get the out at first.

Leone also threw first-pitch strikes to all four batters he faced – in spite of the fact that he walked two of them.  Walks are a rarity from Dominic, who has walked just 7 (3 intentional) in 21 innings this year.  A lot of this is due to the fact that Leone isn’t afraid to throw strike one.  Since his return from the DL, 63.2% of the batters Dominic has faced have seen first-pitch strikes.

In general, batters have been willing to play along with Leone.  Last night, 2 of the 4 he faced offered at that first pitch.  For the season, 37.6% of the batters that Leone has faced have chased after that first pitch.  It is the highest ratio of any pitcher on the team that has faced at least 50 batters.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris was called on in the eighth to face Yasmani Grandal with a couple runners on.  His first pitch was a fastball – up but just a bit away.  Grandal took it (for a strike).  Increasingly, batters are not offering at Bud’s first pitch.  During the season’s first half, 35.5% of the batters to face Norris chased after his first pitch.  Since the break, that ratio has dropped to 27.4%.

Of the 5 swings he took, Grandal only missed once.  This has been another notable drop-off for Norris as the season has worn along.  In the first half, batters missed connections on 30.4% of their swings.  That number is down to 17.8% swung-and-missed since then. (Only 15.6% in September, as Bud has only 5 swinging strikes all month.)  Since the break – among Cardinal pitchers who have faced at least 20 batters – only Tyson Ross (16.3%) has missed fewer bats.

Tyler Webb

The first 29 batters that Tyler Webb faced as a Cardinal saw 19 first-pitch strikes (65.5%).  This includes 11 who swung at the pitch (37.9%).  Last night, none of the 5 Dodgers he faced offered at his first pitch, and only 2 of the 5 were called strikes.  Through the month of September, so far, Webb has now faced 22 batters, throwing only 10 first-pitch strikes (45.5%) and having only 4 batters swing at them (18.2%).

Did I Mention the Cards Had Only Two Hits?

After pushing all year to get the team batting average up to .250, the Cardinals are working hard to get it to fall from there.  They are still hitting .250 as a team (.249503 to be precise, which is about as narrow as you can still be hitting .250), but have put that mark in jeopardy hitting just .229 (99 for 433) this month.

Matt Carpenter

The league’s leading home run hitter, Matt Carpenter is fighting through a harsh September.  After 4 hitless at bats (during which he struck out 3 times), Carpenter is hitting .208 for the month (10 of 48).  He has just 2 doubles and is still trying for his first September home run.  Carpenter has 2 home runs over his last 29 games.

Matt Adams

In his second tour wearing the birds on the bat, Matt Adams has had some nice moments – most recently a big home run against Pittsburgh.  Overall, though, Matt has been less than torrid in his return.  With his 0-for-4 last night, Adams is hitting .167 (8 for 48) as a Cardinal.

Marcell Ozuna

One of the casualties of last night’s loss was the end of Marcell Ozuna’s impressive 9-game hitting streak.  While this has not been the season envisioned, in Marcell’s previous 9 games he was every bit the offensive force the Cardinals were hoping for.  He had multiple hits in 5 of the 9, hitting .410 (16 for 39) during the streak.  It wasn’t a quiet .410 either, as Ozuna’s 16 hits included 2 doubles and 5 home runs.  He drove in 13 runs during the streak, while slugging .846.

Kolten Wong

Amidst the recent offensive struggles, Kolten Wong has returned to the lineup from the disabled list.  He has yet to re-discover his stroke.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Wong is hitting .211 (4 for 19) since his return with 1 run batted in and 1 extra-base hit.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina’s September has been interrupted by an elbow injury, and he has yet to find the range either this month.  He was hitless in 3 at bats last night, falling to .235 (4 for 17) for the month.

Lost Opportunity

As I was finishing this up, the Dodgers were wrapping up the Saturday afternoon contest against the Cardinals with a message-sending, 17-4 humiliation of the home-town team.

While starting pitcher John Gant didn’t deliver his best game, the game (once again) got away when manager Mike Shildt went to the bullpen.  St Louis actually held a 4-3 lead at that point (one out in the fifth), but LA had the bases loaded, and Gant was scuffling – having made 75 pitches already.  So Mike played the bullpen card.

In addition to allowing all 3 of Gant’s inherited runners to score, the bullpen outdid themselves the rest of the afternoon, finishing their 4.2 inning adventure allowing 11 runs of their own (7 earned) on 10 hits – including 3 home runs.

September’s bullpen line now reads 11 home runs allowed in 55 innings, a 5.73 ERA, accompanied by a .305/.394/.531 batting line.

This tumble (and the Cards have now lost 4 straight – tying their longest losing streak of the season) represents a sizeable lost opportunity.

Back on September 5, the Cards had just overcome Washington by a 7-6 score.  At that point, they were 78-62.  They were a manageable 4.5 games behind Chicago for the division lead (considering there were 22 games to go).  They held the second wild-card spot over the Dodgers by 2 games, and were only a half-game behind Milwaukee for the top spot.

And the 22 games before them couldn’t set up any better.  They started with 3 in Detroit against a Tiger team that had already lost 83 games and sat 22.5 game out in their division.  Following that, the Cards would play 13 of their next 16 at home, ending the season with 3 in Chicago against the Cubs.  If during the preceding 19 games they could manage to strike a couple of games off the Cubs’ lead, those last three might well be for the division title.

To this point, the Cards have done their best to waste that opportunity.  Including today’s loss, the Cards have lost 6 of the first 9 of those games.  They have lost their entire lead over LA –and in fact now trail them – also losing 2 games to Chicago, and 4 games (at the moment, pending the result of their game) to the Brewers.

Since management removed the “interim” tag from Shidt’s title, the Cards are 8-10 and fading fast – being dragged down by the same flaw that doomed Matheny – an ineffective bullpen.

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.

Heavy Pitches Humble Cardinal Hitters

On the fourth pitch of the bottom of the first inning, Jon Gray’s slider stayed a little up and just inside enough for Matt Carpenter to get around on it.  Matty got just enough lift on the pitch to pull it over the wall in right.  One batter into the game, and the Cardinals had a quick 1-0 lead.

At the time, you wouldn’t have guessed that this would be a singular event.  Gray’s ERA coming into the event (5.16) wasn’t dazzling (take into account, of course, that he pitches his home games in Colorado), and the Cardinals – of late – have shown a little pulse at the plate (including the 5-4 comeback win from the night before).

Nonetheless, when Gray finally ran out of gas after 92 pitches with one out in the eighth, he walked off the mound with a 6-1 lead – on his way to a 6-3 victory (box score).

Not only was the Carpenter home run an anomaly in that it accounted for the only Cardinal run to that point, it also turned out to be rare because he was actually able to pull the ball in the air – something the Cards managed only 3 times all night.  Yadier Molina stroked a couple of fly ball outs to left during the game.

Velocity and location are not the only pitching factors.  Some pitchers throw what batters refer to as a “heavy” ball.  Even when left in locations and at velocities that batters can normally handle, these pitches don’t really jump off the bat.  It creates the illusion that this particular ball is made out of granite or some other weighty material.

This is who Jon Gray was for most of the evening last night.  He didn’t shy away from the strike zone with a fastball that held at about 94-mph and a slider about 10-mph slower.  But both pitches ran heavy, resulting in many groundballs – especially in key situations.

About the only time that Gray was ever in trouble during the first seven innings was the fifth, when an infield hit and a walk put two on with just one out.  But that heavy slider got the double play grounder (after a review) off the bat of Greg Garcia.

When he wasn’t getting ground balls, he was getting fly balls hit to the opposite field.  Between Gray and the two relievers – ex-Cardinal Seunghwan Oh and Wade Davis – the power-hitting Cardinals were left with 7 opposite field fly balls – several of them quite well hit – that they couldn’t get around on enough to get them over the fence.

As the Rockies walked off the field congratulating each other after the last of these opposite field fly outs (a soft fly to right by Jedd Gyorko) with a win that was more dominating than the final score suggested, the scoreboard showed 3 runs for St Louis on only 4 hits.  Other than the home run, the Cards had two infield hits, and one ground ball that snuck its way through the infield.

Gray – and the pitchers that followed – didn’t complicate things.  They threw strikes and kept their heavy pitches low and away.  They made it look easy.

Tyler O’Neill

The first opportunity to occupy the spot of the departed Tommy Pham fell to rookie Tyler O’Neill.  He finished his first game back in the majors with two infield hits.

In his 3 plate appearances, Tyler ended up in two strike counts twice, striking out once.  Power hitters in general – and rookie power hitters in particular – find themselves in this situation frequently.  O’Neill’s rookie season is now just 50 plate appearances deep, but he has ended up in two-strike situations in 64% of them – and of the 32 times that he has seen strike two, he has subsequently seen strike three 21 times (65.6%).

Yadier Molina

Molina finished a very strong July (.315/.357/.472) with a disappointing 0-for-4.  Twice during the game, Yadi put pretty good swings on the first strike he saw, but neither resulted in base hits.  Over all of baseball, batters are hitting .338/.402/.585 when they hit the first strike.  Yadi’s July ran quite contrary to that.  With his 0-for-2 last night, Molina finished July 4-for-20 (.200) when hitting the first strike.

In his first at bat of the game in the first, he fell quickly behind in the count 1-2.  But Yadi fouled off one pitch and took a ball before hitting the sixth pitch in play.  Molina continues to be difficult to strike out.  Strike two only leads to strike three 27.9% of the time with Molina at the plate.

Paul DeJong

Still feeling his way back from his injury, Paul DeJong took another 0-for-4 last night.  Paul is now hitless in his last 14 at bats, and finished July just 18 for 83 (.217) with only 6 walks (.264 on base).  Since being moved by new manager Mike Shildt into the third spot in the order, DeJong is hitting .182 (10 for 55) with only 4 walks (.230 on base).

Paul hit a couple of those “heavy” fly balls to right.  His first time up, he jumped a first pitch fastball, but the drive ran out of steam and came down well short of the fence.  Since his return from the DL, Paul is another who has had poor luck when hitting the first strike.  He is now just 2 for 18 (.111) on those pitches.

Marcell Ozuna

Among the casualties of last night’s loss was Marcell Ozuna’s six-game hitting streak.  He hit .346 (9-for-26) during the streak, with a double and 3 home runs.  He drove in 7 runs during that streak, while slugging .731.  The recent revival from Ozuna’s bat has been one of the most encouraging recent developments.

Jedd Gyorko

In general, the Cards struck out slightly less often in July than in the months leading up it – one of the reasons why the offense up ticked.  Through the season’s first three months, the Cards averaged 8.77 strikeouts per game, striking out 43.4% of the time that they found themselves in two-strike counts.  Over the last month, those numbers declined to just 7.46 strikeouts per game, and strikeouts in just 38.0% of their two-strike plate appearances.

Jedd Gyorko, in particular, is getting more and more difficult to fan.  Jedd – who didn’t strike out at all last night – struck out only 8 times in July, and on just 21.1% of his two-strike plate appearances.

Greg Garcia

Struggling lately off the bench, Garcia got a start last night to try to help his timing.  For one night, at least, the results were not quite there – Greg was 0-for-2 with that important double play.  Garcia finished July in a 2-for-20 slump.

Jack Flaherty

Last night’s starter, Jack Flaherty, didn’t make it out of the sixth inning again.  He finished July tossing just 28.2 innings over 6 starts, with a middling 1-3 record and a 4.71 ERA.  Since tossing seven innings of one-hit ball against Milwaukee on June 22, Jack has a 1-4 record and a 5.23 ERA over 7 starts.  His loss was his second in a row and fifth in his last seven decisions – although in fairness to Jack, he was twice betrayed by his bullpen, and has had more than two runs scored for him only once in his last 9 starts.

Flaherty is still not giving up a lot of his – only 5 in his 5.1 innings last night (albeit they included a home run and a double).  With that performance, the Cardinal starters finished the month of July with an opponent’s batting average of just .225.

Jack also struck out 7 batters in those innings, and is now averaging 11.06 strikeouts per nine innings.  Flaherty throws a lot of strikes, and almost always gets hitters in two-strike counts.  Last night, 14 of the 23 batters he faced ended up in two-strike counts.  For the month of July, he put 65.6% of the batters to face him (80 of 122) in two-strike counts.

Following Jack’s lead, the Cardinal pitching staff in general constantly kept Colorado in two-strike counts.  Of the 39 batters the Rockies sent to the plate, 26 (66.7%) ended their appearance with two strikes on them.  Only 4 of them got hits, although those hits included the two-run home run by Charlie Blackmon in the fifth (on a 1-2 pitch) and the very damaging double struck by Gerardo Parra (also on a 1-2 pitch) in the sixth.  That blow – from the first man faced by newly acquired Chasen Shreve – drove in a run to make it a 4-1 lead.

Speaking of the Bullpen

After an impressive series against the Cubs and a good first game against Colorado, the Cardinal bullpen ended July pretty much as they pitched through most of the month.  With Flaherty out of the game, the Rockies padded their advantage with 2 more runs on 4 more hits – including a home run – over the last 3.2 innings.  St Louis thus finished the month of July with a 5.98 ERA and a .306 batting average against from the bullpen.

John Brebbia

At one time, perhaps, the best pitcher in the Cardinal bullpen, John Brebbia finished a rough July by serving up a two-run homer in two-thirds of an inning.  He pitched 7 innings in July, allowing 6 runs on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs.  Opposing batters hit .323 against him in those innings, with a .581 slugging percentage.

With two-outs in the seventh, Brebbia started Parra off with an inviting fastball – perhaps just a little lower than Gerardo might ideally like it.  Parra jumped it, but only flew out to left.  John has had some ups and downs, but this is one thing he has managed to do pretty well – throw that first strike just slightly better than the batter expects.  For the season, batters are hitting just .160 (4 for 25) when hitting John’s first strike.  Not only are all four of the hits singles, but two of them are infield hits.

Mike Mayers

Throwing a quiet eighth inning, Mike Mayers faced three batters and got two strikes on all of them, but was unable to get a strikeout.  Mike throws the ball hard enough that one might expect more strikeouts.  Of the 19 July batters that he got two strikes on, only 4 ended up striking out (21.1%).  For the season, that percentage is a modest 35.8.

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 . . .

Rotation Continues to Spiral

After the game, Michael Wacha described it “like a little stitch or a cramp or something in my left side.”  What the long-term effects of this injury will be remain to be seen – both for Wacha and the Cardinal rotation.  As for last night, it prompted an early exit for Wacha after only 75 pitches and 3.2 innings of a not terribly effective start.  He had already allowed 3 runs (1 earned) on 6 hits (including a home run) and two walks.  He wouldn’t figure in the decision in a game the Cards eventually lost 4-3 (box score), their sixth loss in their last eight games.

For Wacha (who is now headed to the disabled list) this is an added concern as this effort came on the heels of what was arguably the worst start of his career.  In 4 innings against the Cubs his previous time out, he was battered for 9 runs (8 earned).  He allowed 7 hits (3 of them home runs) and 4 walks.

Through his first 13 mostly excellent starts, Michael fashioned an 8-1 record and a 2.47 ERA.  Batters were hitting just .201 against him.  In 76.2 innings he had allowed just 5 home runs and 9 doubles – leading to just a .288 slugging percentage.

In the 7.2 innings he’s managed over his last two starts, he has served up 4 home runs while being hit at a .382 clip with a .794 slugging percentage against.  His ERA over these last two starts sits at 10.57 (with three more un-earned runs allowed).

Diagnosed, now, with an oblique strain, it is anyone’s guess what the future holds for the talented Michael Wacha.

This stumble comes in the midst of the rotation’s worst stretch of the season.  They have now gone 7 games without a quality start.  During these contests, Cardinal starters have made it through just 33 innings, allowing 27 runs on 43 hits and 21 walks.  The rotation’s ERA through those games has risen to 6.55 with a .316/.417/.544 batting line against.  For most of the season, the rotation has been the one reliable element in the equation.

Through the first 18 games this month, the Cardinal rotation has cobbled together just 5 quality starts, posting a 4-6 record and a 4.47 ERA.

Given the inexperience of the current rotation – especially given the uncertainty now surrounding Wacha – it is impossible to say how soon – or even if – the rotation will regain its footing.

Mike Mayers

Leading off a decent bullpen performance last night was Mike Mayers.  An impressive arm in spring training, Mayers has been back and forth to AAA several time already.  In many ways, he seems to be getting better every time he returns. 

Last night, he allowed no hits in his 1.1 innings.  Since his latest recall, he is holding batters to a .174 batting average.  He allowed no home runs.  He served up 3 in his first 10.2 innings this season.  He has now allowed none over his last 13 innings.  He struck out only 6 batters through his first 11.2 innings.  With his three strike outs last night, Mayers has 16 over his last 12 innings.  Mike has a live arm.  With each outing, Mayers suggests that he might be one of the answers in what has been a struggling bullpen.

Mike is also one of the Cardinal relievers who is proving that he can work multiple innings.  Last night was the ninth game this season that Mike has finished an inning and gone out to start the next inning.  In the 10.2 additional innings he has worked, he has 12 strikeouts, a .158 batting average against, and a 1.69 ERA.  Mayers – you will remember – did a lot of starting in the minors.

It is also interesting that the Cards tied the game with two runs while Mayers was the pitcher of record.  In the 14 innings he has pitched this month, his offense has now scored him 12 runs (7.71 per nine innings).

Brett Cecil

The good news for struggling left-hander Brett Cecil is that he allowed no runs for the first time in his last four outings.  Even so, a few reminders of his season-long struggle remained.

For one thing, it was another high-effort outing for Brett.  By the time he had finished his inning, he had thrown 19 more pitches.  In his 7 June innings, he has averaged 20.14 pitches per inning.  For the season, his 12.2 major league innings have cost him 231 pitches – an elevated average of 18.24 per.

Additionally, the one hit he surrendered was another double.  Six of the 16 hits he has allowed this year have been for extra-bases – leading to a .531 slugging percentage against him.

One of the factors tilting against Brett, now, is the infrequency of his appearances.  No longer trusted with many important situations, Cecil almost always pitches on three or four days’ rest.  In those games, he averages 20.14 pitches per inning.

Sam Tuivailala

Heading in the opposite direction from Mayers is last night’s losing pitcher, Sam Tuivailala.  It was his hanging slider to Odubel Herrera that accounted for the difference in the game.  Through his first 12.2 innings this season, Sam held a 2.13 ERA.  He has now allowed runs in 5 of his last 9 appearances, totaling 9.1 innings.  During this span, he holds a 5.79 ERA and a .308 opponent’s batting average.

The early returns on Sam’ season seem to suggest that he (unlike Cecil) prospers with more rest.  Last night was the eleventh time this season that Tuivailala has pitched with less than two days’ rest.  In those 11.2 innings, Sam holds a 5.56 ERA, with a .348 batting average against.  With at least two days (over only 7.2 innings I grant), his ERA is just 1.17 with a .258 batting average against.

Yadier Molina

Yadier Molina was the offensive spark last night.  He hit two home runs and drove in three.  The rest of the team combined for 5 hits and no runs batted in.

Yadi has now played (and started) 14 games since his return from surgery.  He is hitting a respectable .277 in those games (13 for 47), but 6 of those hits have now been for extra-bases (3 doubles and 3 home runs) adding up to a .532 slugging percentage.

Greg Garcia

Greg Garcia has been making a recent bid to earn more playing time – especially as Yairo Munoz’ bat has cooled a bit.  Greg had 2 hits last night and is 6 for 18 (.333) this month, and hitting .304 (14 for 46) over his last 29 games (9 starts). Only one of those hits is for extra-bases, but Greg holds a .377 on base percentage over his last 53 plate appearances.

Tommy Pham

Among the casualties of last night’s loss (along with Wacha) was Tommy Pham’s very quiet 13-game hitting streak.  Tommy went 0-for-5 last night, grounding out to end the game with the tying run at second.

During the streak, Pham had only 3 multi-hit games, and hit a modest .291 (16 for 55).  He only drove in 3 runs during those games – all on solo home runs.

Pham has walked just 3 times this month, during which he holds a .289 on base percentage.

Dexter Fowler

The season’s highlight, so far, came on Sunday night May 6.  Trailing by one run in the bottom of the fourteenth inning, Dexter Fowler served a walk-off, two-run home run that sent St Louis on to a 4-3 conquest of the Chicago Cubs.  That blow gave the Birds a season-long five-game winning streak (a feat they have subsequently matched) and put them a season-high eight games over .500 (20-12), a mark they have also reached since.  It also pushed their lead in the division to 1.5 games – rarified air that they haven’t seen since.

It was also significant because it was Fowler swinging the bat.  Dexter – enduring a miserable start to the season – could well have used that swing as advance notice that things were about to turn around.

That was now 40 games ago.  Last night’s loss was the twenty-second in that 40 game span, dropping the Cards back down to 4.5 games behind the Cubs and Brewers who are in a virtual tie for first.

And, of course, it was virtually the last noise heard off the bat of Fowler.  Since that singular moment, Fowler has 15 hits (12 singles and 3 doubles) with 4 runs batted in in 87 at bats – a .172 batting average, coupled with a .207 slugging percentage.

Amazingly, Fowler’s season seems to be getting even worse.  His 0-for-4 last night drops him to just 1 for his last 23 (.043).

Kolten Wong

The night before Fowler’s home run sent the Cards home victorious, it was Kolten Wong’s two-run tenth-inning home run that gave St Louis the walk-off win.  Wong – also off to a terrible start – had been a notable contributor to the May 6 victory as well.  He had 3 hits (including a triple) and a run batted in.

Kolten also looked like he was about to turn his season around.  He was hitless in four at bats last night, and is only 14 for 88 (.159) over the team’s last 40 games.

Over the last 40 games, Fowler and Wong have combined to strike out 42 times in 175 at bats.  Their unending struggles continue to hamstring an offense that still believes itself to be among baseball’s best.

Recent Scoring Changes

In the 5-1 loss to Kansas City on May 22, Jose Martinez and Marcell Ozuna were originally credited with a double steal of home and second respectively.  That has since been reversed.  Martinez has actually now been charged with a caught stealing at home, and safe on an error – with Ozuna advancing on the throw.

In the May 28 loss to Milwaukee, Brewer pitcher Brent Suter was originally credited with a 2-run double when his fourth-inning ground ball eluded Martinez at first.  That was changed to an error for Martinez, and two unearned runs against Luke Weaver.

Ozuna Turning it On

The moment was pregnant with opportunity.

The Cardinals had just recovered from their second deficit of the game, and finally – on an RBI double by Matt Carpenter – had taken their first lead of the afternoon in the seventh inning of their May 19 game against Philadelphia.  It was now a 6-5 Cardinal lead.  A groundball had pushed Carpenter to third.  He was there with one out representing a critical insurance run.  And to the plate came Marcell Ozuna.  This would be his moment. 

Phillie reliever Tommy Hunter could have put him on, but with Jedd Gyorko on deck, he decided to come right at Ozuna.  Before the crowd could even get into the at bat, it was over.  Marcell topped Hunter’s second pitch to short, and Carpenter was dead at the plate.  More than 44,000 sat quietly as Gyorko ended the inning with a fly-ball.

True to form, Philadelphia scored two in the eighth off of struggling reliever Greg Holland.  Ozuna never came to the plate again, and St Louis lost 6-7 (box score).

The ground ball capped another 0-for-4 night for Ozuna – stretching his hitless streak to twenty-two at bats going back more than five games.  At this point Ozuna – a 37-home run man the season before when he slashed .312/.376/.548 – was skidding through his first season as a Cardinal.  His line fell to .234/.275/.316 with only 3 home runs through 171 at bats.

Where – Cardinal Nation wondered – was the real Ozuna?

After sitting out the finale of the Philly series, Marcel was back in there on Monday, May 21 against Kansas City and Ian Kennedy.  After drawing a walk his first time up, Marcell ended his hitless streak with a sharp grounder into right field.  The hit drove in a run – Carpenter, as it turned out – and sent the Cards on their way to a 6-0 victory (box score).  Marcell also singled his next time up.

He hasn’t stopped hitting since.

There were few Cardinal highlights in last night’s humbling 4-2 loss to San Diego (box score), but Ozuna was one of the few.  He finished the night with two more hits – including the two-run home run that accounted for all of St Louis’ scoring.  The hits pushed his current hitting streak to seven games – three of which have been multi-hit games.  The home run was his third during the streak, and he has now driven in 8 runs over his last 7 games.

He has now also hit safely in 11 of his 12 June games – starting the month as a potential player of the month candidate.  He is now 18 for 45 (.400) in June with 5 home runs and a triple – a .778 slugging percentage.  He has 14 runs batted in in his 12 June games.

Stretching back to that game against Kansas City, Marcel has hits in 17 of his last 19 starts. He is 29 of his last 70 – a .414 batting average

Since this is the first time we’ve ever seen Ozuna really hot, I thought we might compare some of the “under the radar” numbers from his early season struggles against those same numbers now that things are going better for him.  The attempt here is to try to get a kind of statistical signature for Marcell.

In his first 182 Cardinal plate appearances, Marcell appeared over-ready for that first pitch.  While the entire team swings at the first pitch of an at bat just 28.1% of the time, Ozuna was cresting at an aggressive 38.5%.  Beginning with the Kansas City series, Marcell has chased that first pitch a more normal 30.8% of the time.  This little bit of discipline has given Ozuna a significant advantage in his recent at bats.  Before, he was getting first-pitch strikes 65.4% of the time.  Of late, though, only 51.3% of the first pitches thrown to him are strikes, putting him in early hitter’s counts more frequently.

The numbers also suggest that Ozuna is commanding the strike zone exponentially better as the season wears on.  Since the Kansas City series, only 22.6% of the pitches that Ozuna has taken have been called strikes, while 44.1% of all pitches thrown him have been balls.  The team-wide benchmark for those numbers are 32.8% of pitches taken called strikes and 37.3 % of all pitches thrown being balls.  What this means, simply, is that Ozuna is not letting strikes go by, while not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.

Most remarkable, though, has been Marcell’s recent ability to put the ball in play.  Through his first 182 plate appearances, he missed entirely on 25.3% of his swings, fouling off another 36.8% of his swings, and putting the ball in play just 37.9% of the time.  The team averages are 23.8% missed, 37.8% fouled, and 38.3% put in play.  Over his last 78 plate appearances, Ozuna has swung at 117 pitches.  He has missed with only 19 swings (16.2%), while producing just 32 fouls (27.4%).  This means that on 66 of those swings, Marcell has put the ball in play – an impressive 56.4%.  By comparison, Jose Martinez leads the team, putting the ball in play 45.3% of the time that he swings.

This portrays Ozuna as an aggressive-in-the-strike-zone hitter, who infrequently chases balls and has excellent enough bat control that he puts the ball in play most of the time.  And he can do this with power.

The down-the-line results of this approach include shorter at bats.  Even though he more frequently takes the first pitch, his pitches per at bat have dropped from 3.82 early in the season to just 3.49 over his more recent at bats.

The other side-effect of this efficiency is fewer strikeouts in general, and fewer times caught looking.  Marcell struck out 40 times in his first 182 plate appearances – with 13 of those coming on called third strikes.  Over his last 78 trips to the plate, Marcell has just 5 strike outs – being called out just once.

It’s been an impressive run.  Now, the question is how long we can keep him in this zone.

Little Help for Ozuna

While Ozuna kept up his heroics, he had few supporters.  The team managed just 6 other hits (all singles) and no other runs.  Over the first 12 games in June, the offense still shows no signs of sustaining anything.  They are now scoring 3.67 runs per game this month, and hitting .244.

Yadier Molina

The team has, of course, missed the leadership of its captain Yadier Molina – who missed a chunk of time recovering from surgery.    He hasn’t returned to the lineup as sharp as he left it.  Hitless in three at bats last night, Molina has had 32 plate appearances this month.  He’s managed 5 singles, 1 double, 1 walk, 6 strikeouts, one hit by pitch, and one sacrifice fly.  This works out to a disappointing .207/.250/.241 batting line.  Yadi’s is one of the bats that the Cards are hoping will get well soon.

Yairo Munoz

Provider of a big lift to the offense when he first took over for the injured Paul DeJong, Yairo Munoz has hit the skids as the calendar has turned to June.  He has been to the plate 41 times in 11 games so far this month, supplying 5 singles, 1 home run, 2 walks (1 intentional), 10 strikeouts, and 1 sacrifice fly – a .158/.195/.237 June batting line.

Yairo’s free-swinging ways served him fairly well earlier. Lately, though, not so much.  He swung at 6 of the 11 pitches thrown him last night, missing on two of the swings.  For the season, Munoz hacks at 56.9% of the pitches thrown to him (the highest ratio of anyone on the team with at least 90 plate appearances).  He misses on 30.7% of those swings – second on the team only to DeJong among players with at least 70 plate appearances.

Kolten Wong

Hitless in three at bats, Kolten Wong’s season just cannot gain any kind of traction.  Down to .182 for the season, Kolten is now at .192 (5 for 26) for the month and struggling to get chances in the lineup. 

The numbers suggest that Wong is really pressing now.  Last year, when he had it working, Kolten took pitches, worked counts, and didn’t swing and miss very often.  Through the first two months of this season, Wong saw 3.78 pitches per plate appearances, and only missed on 17.4% of his swings.  This month, he is missing 28.9% of the time when he swings, and is only seeing 3.47 pitches per appearance.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver suffered through his third shaky outing in his last four.  He took the loss, lasting just 5.1 innings while giving all 4 runs on 9 hits.  He hasn’t made it through six innings in any of those last four games, and has a 5.12 ERA and a .304 batting average against over the last 19.1 innings that he has pitched. 

Clean innings have been few and far between for Mr. Weaver.  Last night, of the six innings he started, only one was a three-up, three-down inning.  Through his three starts this month, he is averaging 4.57 batters faced per nine innings, the most by any member of the staff that has pitched at least ten innings in June.  This month he has been throwing 18.26 pitches per inning.  This has raised his season average to 17.33 pitches per inning – the most by any pitcher on the staff with at least 19 innings pitched.

John Brebbia

With the Cardinal offense already shut down for the day, all that was left for John Brebbia to do was to hold the game close.  He did so with two perfect innings, striking out three.  In a bullpen that has been struggling, Brebbia has to start getting noticed.  Over his last 4.2 innings he has struck out 8.  In his 6 June appearances, he has allowed no runs on just 2 hits over 6.2 innings, and he has now thrown 8 consecutive scoreless outings – totaling 8.1 innings.  Twenty-one of the last 62 swings taken against him have missed – an impressive 33.9%.

John threw strikes with 16 of his 19 pitches last night (84.2%).  He has now thrown strikes with 68.2% of his pitches this month.  Of all pitchers with at least 5 innings pitched this month, only Miles Mikolas (71.9%) and Jordan Hicks (70.2%) are throwing more strikes.

NoteBook

The San Diego series was only the eighth of St Louis’ first 22 series that went to a rubber game.  The Cards start the season just 3-5 in rubber games.  They are also just 2-5-1 in series against teams that had won their previous series.

The Cardinals drew no walks over the last two games of the series.