Not too surprisingly, the implosion happened quickly.
Billed as a battle of high-profile starters, the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty and the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer did all they could to live up to the expectations. Flaherty served up two solo home runs in the second, but gave no other hits. Bauer shut the Cardinals out for five innings, yielding just one hit to that point.
But Trevor blinked a bit in the sixth – allowing two home runs of his own – and suddenly St Louis was in front, 3-2. Flaherty, though, didn’t get to enjoy the lead. The Cardinals removed their talented right-hander for precautionary reasons after he felt a pull in his side – trusting their precarious one-run lead into the hands of a bullpen that has been more than a little precarious itself lately.
When Trevor re-took the mound for the seventh inning, his 3-2 deficit had magically evolved into a 6-3 lead. More about the struggles of the Cardinal bullpen in a moment.
Los Angeles’ own bullpen came into play before Bauer could get out of the seventh. With one out, he served up a third home run, and surrendered a single with two outs that brought up the tying run, occasioning his departure from the game.
In stark contrast to the Cardinal bullpen, the three Dodgers called upon to close out the game came in throwing strikes. While the LA batters continued to pad their lead (and they mounted a total of seven runs over the three innings that St Louis’ relievers worked), Victor Gonzalez, Nate Jones and Phil Bickford had the Cardinals seven up, and seven retired. Along the way they threw 20 of their 25 pitches for strikes (80%), including first-pitch strikes to all seven hitters.
They were the mostly overlooked heroes of Los Angeles’ convincing 9-4 win over the Cards (box score). Including Bauer, the Dodger pitching staff combined to throw first-pitch strikes to 24 of the 33 Cardinals who came to the plate last night. St Louis was 3 for 23 (.130) with a walk in those at bats.
With the loss, St Louis officially surrenders first place in its division. Following a two-game sweep of Pittsburgh on May 18-19, the Cards sat 3.5 games ahead in the NL Central. But over the last 11 games, the caliber of the opponents faced has risen sharply, and the Cards to this point have not risen to the challenge. Their recent 5-6 skid includes losing two-of-three to the Cubs, two-of-three to the White Sox, and now the first game of their current series to the Dodgers.
At the heart of the stumbled has been a collapsing bullpen. But their exploits have been heightened by fading contributions from an offense that has scored just 3.64 runs per game over their last 11 games – a streak in which they have seen some aggressive pitching, with 63.5% of the batters seeing first-pitch strikes.
One of the hitting stalwarts for most of the month, Paul Goldschmidt faded toward the end. Hitless in three at bats last night, Goldy finished May in a 1-for-13 skid. Over the last 11 games, Paul is just 8 for 39 (.205). He is hitting .182 (4-for-22) in those games with one extra-base hit when thrown a first-pitch strike.
Nolan Arenado – who was terrific overall in May – also faded during the Cardinals’ recent downturn. Nolan (0-for-4 last night) has played in 10 of the last 11 games, hitting .175 (7-for-40) with a .205 on base percentage (1 intentional walk and 1 hbp).
Throughout the season, Arenado is one Cardinal you don’t want to fall behind. In 87 at bats this year when the pitcher starts off with ball one, Nolan is a .356 hitter with 8 home runs. Lately, though, that dynamic is changing. He was 0 for 2 last night after the pitcher missed with the first pitch, and is now just 1 for his last 14 after getting ahead 1-0 in the count.
Yadier Molina also went hitless in four at bats (the 3-4-5 spots in the Cardinal order combined to go 0-for11), bringing to an end his five-game hitting streak. Yadi hit .391 (9 for 23) and drove in 5 runs (including 2 game-winners) during the streak.
The Bullpen Goes Boom Again
When Flaherty was deemed unable to pitch the sixth, Mike Shildt sent Ryan Helsley to the mound. I’ll admit that my heart sank a bit. Helsley – whose struggles I’ll document below – hasn’t pitched well enough lately to merit a high leverage opportunity. But, in Shildt’s defense, who else could he send out there? Excellent for much of this early season, one by one all of the talented set-up arms in the bullpen have hit on hard times. If this team can get to the eighth, Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes are still performing at high levels. Everyone else has just been spreading line drives around the stadium (and walks, of course).
After Flaherty faced 18 batters over five innings (leaving with that 3-2 lead) four relievers faced 20 batters over the last three innings, serving up 7 runs on 8 hits and 3 walks. The Los Angeles batting line after Jack left the game was .471/.550/.882.
Over the last 11 games, Cardinal relievers have sunk to a 5.26 ERA – while unintentionally walking 5.26 per nine innings. They ended the month of May with a 4.55 ERA and 5.75 unintentional walks per nine innings. During the just concluded month, Cardinal relievers allowed 39 of 72 inherited runners to score – a distressing 54.2% that includes all 3 of last night’s inherited runners.
Ryan Helsley faced 68 batters over his first 17 appearances this season without allowing an extra-base hit. He’s given 6 to the last 31 to face him. In the fateful sixth inning last night, Ryan faced 3 batters, allowing a double and a single after getting the first batter to ground out. Both of those runners came home to score.
Helsley has now allowed runs in 5 of his last 7 games, giving 10 total runs on 10 hits and 5 walks in his last 5 innings. The last 31 batters to face him have prospered to the tune of a .400/.500/.720 batting line.
The only batter that Ryan didn’t throw a first-pitch strike to was the last batter he faced – Justin Turner – who stroked a 3-1 pitch into left for a single. When Ryan misses with his first pitch this season, batters are 10 for 30 (.333) with 13 walks – a .535 on base percentage.
Ponce de Leon
The Dodgers salted the game away against Daniel Ponce de Leon in the eighth. Just a two-run game at that point, LA chased Daniel with a home run, a double and a single – with that runner eventually coming around to score after Ponce de Leon left the game. Daniel has now given runs in 3 of his last 4 games, giving 6 total (5 earned) on 7 hits over his last 4.2 innings. The last 24 batters to face him have prospered to the tune of a .350/.458/.650 batting line.
Of the 9 batters he faced last night (he had taken over in the seventh), 5 saw ball one on the first pitch to them. For the season, Daniel has thrown ball one to 43 batters and strike one to 43 others. The league-wide average shows pitchers getting that first pitch in as a strike about 60% of the time.
Of the 20 batters the pen faced last night, 11 saw ball one on the first pitch to them.
Seth Elledge came in to get the final out – which he did, but not until he had given the double that drove in the final run. Seth has now let all 7 runners that he’s inherited cross the plate.
Seth got ahead of both batter to face him 0-1 before allowing the double and getting the final groundout. For the season, batters are 7 for 14 against Elledge when he throws a first-pitch strike.
St Louis had a string of five straight games in which they scored the first run of the game snapped last night.
The sixth-inning comeback means that the Cards have now led at some point in 6 straight games.
The game-time temperature of 70 degrees was the coolest temperature the Cards have played in since May 18 when they also played in 70 degree temperature at home against Pittsburgh. The last road game they played that was cooler came two days before that when they played in 64 degrees in San Diego.
My Designated Hitter Rant
Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter. Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH. While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it. So, I have re-written it here. The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks. I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.