Tag Archives: Wong

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).

Behind a Lot Lately

There is this moment in Groundhog Day.  Phil (the Bill Murray character) has just driven his truck off a cliff, where it landed upside down at the bottom of a gorge.  Andie MacDowell’s character (Rita) shudders a bit at the horror, and Larry (played by Chris Elliott) tries to comfort her by saying, “He . . . might be okay.”  One second later the truck explodes in fire.  Larry then adds quietly, “Well, no.  Probably not now.”

There was a moment like that in last night’s game.  The Cardinals began the top of the second by throwing the ball around a bit, and gift-wrapped the first two runs of the game for Philadelphia.  The bases were now loaded with one out, but with the score still just 2-0, one could reasonably think “we might be okay”.  Of the 20 batters to put the ball in play against Cardinal starter Dakota Hudson on this evening, 17 would hit the ball on the ground.  A well-placed ground ball here could very well stop the bleeding.

But Philadelphia’s next hitter – Bryce Harper – turned out to be one of the three who got the ball in the air.  When it finally came down (in the right field bullpen), the Phillie lead grew to 6-0.  Well, no, probably not now.

May has been playing a little like Groundhog Day for the Cardinals.  Especially the last week or so.  In losing 5 of their last 6, the Cards have been falling behind early and often.  Thursday night in Washington they fell behind 2-1 in the fourth and never recovered.  Friday in Chicago, it was 3-0 Cubs after 3.  The Cards went quietly after that.  On Sunday, it was 1-0 Chicago after 2.  St Louis would never catch up in that one either.

Up until the point that they were waxed by Cincinnati 12-1 on April 26, this edition of the Cardinals had never trailed by as many as ten runs in a game, and had faced a deficit as large as five runs only once.  They have now trailed by double-digits three times in the last 12 games.  Last year’s team – on its way to a modest 88-win season – only trailed by as many as ten runs three times all season (a 13-5 loss to Jon Lester and the Cubs on June 15, an 11-4 loss to Max Fried and Atlanta on June 30, and a 17-4 spanking at the hands of Rich Hill and the Dodgers on September 15).

By way of comparison, the 2018 Cardinals pitching staff faced 6,246 batters.  They faced 2,558 of them while holding a lead (41.0%), faced another 1,671 (26.8%) with the game tied, and 2,042 (32.7%) while trailing in the game.  All last season, the pitchers faced just 21 batters (0.3%) with a deficit of ten runs or more.

In March-April of this year – even including the blowout against Cincy, the Cardinal pitching percentages were: ahead – 44.1%; even – 22.3%; and behind – 33.6%

Over their last six games, they have one win – the 6-0 win on Monday during which they never trailed – and have had brief leads in 2 of the 5 losses.  All included during this losing skid, the Cards have only been ahead 16.9% of the time and tied another 29.6% of the time.  Cardinal pitchers have trailed in the game 53.5% of the time.  In just the last six games, they have already pitched to 4 batters (1.9%) while trailing by at least ten runs.

I have quoted the pitching staff numbers.  The hitters in all these cases, of course, will be similar.

One of the immutable baseball truths is that you are never as good as you look when you are winning and never as bad as you look when you are losing.  Truly, this team isn’t as helpless as it has seemed over the last week or so.  But the losing is taking, I think, an emotional toll on this young team.

In April, this team hit .281 when they were trailing in a game.  They erased one four-run deficit, and came close to doing that on two other occasions. 

Recently, though, the bats have been very quiet once the team has fallen behind.  Over the last six games, they are hitting just .231 while trailing in games.  Over their last 5 defeats, they have scored just 7 runs after they have fallen behind.  Only three of those runs scored while the games were close enough to matter.

Of course, you would like to see the team stop falling behind early.  You would also like to see some of that early season bounce-back from the bats on those occasions when they do fall behind by a few runs.

Dakota Hudson

In spite of last night’s debacle, Dakota Hudson has been trending upward over his last several starts.  After beginning the year with a 6.08 ERA, a .350 batting average against, and a .633 slugging percentage against (courtesy of 5 home runs allowed over his first 13.1 innings), Hudson has been better over his last 4 starts.  He still surrenders more home runs than he should (4 over his last 21.2 innings), but with a more palatable 3.74 ERA.

Paul Goldschmidt

Things will certainly start looking better once Paul Goldschmidt figures things out a bit.  After another hitless evening (0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts), Goldschmidt has sunk to .245 for the season.  Over his last 10 games (9 starts) Paul has had 41 plate appearances.  He has 6 singles, 15 strikeouts and a groundball double play to show for it – a disappointing .146/.146/.146 batting line.  It has been 12 games since Paul’s last extra-base hit, 13 games since his last run batted in, and 14 games since his last home run.

Marcell Ozuna

After a torrid early-season streak, Marcell Ozuna is another Cardinal who has fallen on hard times of late.  After his 0-for-3 last night, Marcell is now 2 for 19 (.105) over his last five games.  He falls to .222 for the month (6 for 27).

Marcell did have a first-inning opportunity – while the game was still scoreless – with a runner at first and two outs.  He grounded out to end the inning.  Over the last 6 games, Ozuna is 0-for-9 when the game is tied, and 6 for 31 (.194) for the season in that situation.

Harrison Bader

When he first returned from the injured list, Harrison Bader provided a little pop with his bat.  Lately, though, he has been affected by the general offensive downturn.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Bader is 3 for 16 (.188) so far this month.

Kolten Wong

The disappearing act of second baseman Kolten Wong also continued.  Hitless, again, in 3 at bats, Wong is now 0 for his last 13 and is hitting .091 (2 singles in 22 at bats) this month.

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.

Third Inning Woes Bedevil Flaherty and the Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dangerous Third and Fourth Innings

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

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

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

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

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

Questions of Character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Gant

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

Dominic Leone

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

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

Dexter Fowler

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

Paul Goldschmidt

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

Conquest of Reds Closes Out 7-2 Home Stand

Home has not always been where the heart is for the St Louis Cardinals over recent seasons.  In fact, during their three-year playoff absence, one of the galling factors has been their struggles at home.

Through the first 16 years of this century (2000-2015), the Cardinals were 835-519 (.617) at home (counting playoffs).  During that same span (including playoffs) they were only 694-668 (.510) on the road.

Over the last three seasons, though, that home field advantage has all but completely disappeared.  Between 2016 and 2018, your Cardinals have played just .514 ball at home (125-118).  This number includes the only season in this century when the Cards finished with a losing record at home (38-43 in 2016).  During those same seasons, they are 132-111 (.543) on the road.

The most apparent reason for the home issues seems to be the largeness of the ballpark.  Busch has always played large – especially as far as getting baseballs to sail over the wall.  As the Cardinals have become more and more reliant on the home run ball over the last few years, they have – at times – seemed out of place in their own ballpark.

From 2000-2015, St Louis averaged 4.75 runs per game at home and 4.73 runs per game on the road.  Home runs still came easier on the road (1 for every 31.93 at bats, vs 1 per 34.11 at bats at home), but a more diversified Cardinal offense was capable of finding other ways to score.  Over those 16 seasons, they hit 173 more home runs on the road (1492) than at home (1319) – an average of 10.8 more home runs on the road than at home per season.

Since 2015, The Cards have averaged 4.38 runs per game at home, against 5.08 runs per game on the road.  While they have improved to 1 home run per 28.92 at bats at home, those blasts are still significantly easier away from Busch – where St Louis managed a home run every 24.37 at bats.  Over the last three years they hit 72 more home runs on the road (349) than they did at home (243) – an average of 24 more road homers than home runs in their home park each year.

So, one of the most encouraging notes of the very early season has been the Cardinals prowess at home.  Sunday’s 5-2 conquest of Cincinnati (box score) concluded a 7-2 home stand that pushed the Cards to 12-4 at home so far this season.

The early results shows no more success hitting the ball out of their home park than in any past season.  In fact – if anything – the home runs at home have regressed a bit so far in 2019.  In the first 16 home games, the Cards have managed just 16 home runs – 1 every 32.44 at bats.  They have been home run machines on the road.  In 11 road games they have driven 23 balls over the wall – 1 every 17.17 at bats.

But – as a team – the Cards are hitting .277 at home, scoring 5.69 runs per game.  During the just-completed home stand, St Louis collected 90 hits and scored 54 runs while hitting just 9 home runs during the 9 games.  But they managed 6 runs per game on the strength of their .302 team batting average.

In spite of the home runs, St. Louis is hitting just .258 on the road, scoring a still-impressive 5.27 runs per game.

Yes, the season is still very, very young, and this is a trend that could completely disappear as the season rolls on.  The early read on this team is that they will certainly hit their share of home runs.  But this edition of the Cardinals may not be as dependent on the long ball as some of their predecessors.  That would be a huge step in the right direction for this franchise.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter – bedeviled for most of the season by the shifts that he has been trying to hit against – has picked up a few hits to the other side in recent games – some on bunts and some on floaters into short left.  This part remains a work in progress (Carpenter doesn’t have an extra-base hit in his last 7 games).  But the on-base part of his game is definitely coming back.  He has drawn 6 walks (and scored 6 runs) over his last 5 games – a span during which he holds a .455 on base percentage.  He was 2 for 5 against the Reds with 3 walks – reaching base in 5 of his 8 plate appearances.

In his first 61 plate appearances at home, Matt holds a .393 on base percentage.  All of his first three home runs this season have come on the road.

Dexter Fowler

The Dexter Fowler resurgence continued over the weekend against the Reds.  Dexter went 3 for 8 with 3 walks – a .583 on base percentage during the series.  Dexter basically tore things up during the home stand.  In his 32 plate appearances, Fowler contributed 7 singles, 3 doubles, 1 home run, 5 runs scored, 6 runs batted in, 5 walks and a hit-by-pitch.  This translates to a .423/.531/.654 batting line – a 1.185 OPS.

Dexter has hit in 13 of his last 15 games, batting .396 (21 for 53) with 6 multi-hit games.  He is also now hitting .333 at home (15 for 45) so far this year.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez wrapped up a 3-for-9 series against Cincinnati with 2 hits and the game-winning RBI on Sunday.  Finding his way back into the starting lineup, Jose has now started 11 consecutive games, and is hitting .400 (16 for 40) in that span.  In the 9 games of the home stand, Jose hit .438 (14 for 32).

Martinez is now the Cardinals’ leading hitter at home.  He is a .435 hitter (20 for 46) at his home ballpark.  Up next for Jose is a road trip into Washington and Chicago.  His early season struggles mostly came on the road.  In his first 24 road plate appearances, Jose has managed just 3 singles and 1 double, while striking out 9 times and grounding into 2 double plays.  Martinez carries 3 runs batted in and a road batting line of .167/.167/.208 into tonight’s contest against the Nationals.

Paul DeJong

Going 4 for 12 against the Reds, Paul DeJong has now pushed his hitting streak to 8 games.  Paul is hitting .382 (13 for 34) during the streak, with 6 of those hits going for extra-bases (5 doubles and a home run) – a .618 slugging percentage.

DeJong now carries a .397 batting average at home (25 of 63) with 13 extra-base hits (10 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs) – a .683 slugging percentage.  In just 48 road at bats, DeJong has 3 road home runs.

Kolten Wong

Not everyone prospered during the Cincinnati series.  After a very hot start, Kolten Wong continued to regress to his norms.  Wong finished the series just 2 for 11.  It has been 9 games since his last multi-hit game.  In that span, Kolten is hitting just .167 (5 for 30).  Only one of those hits (yesterday’s double) was for extra-bases.

Wong might be one of the few Cardinals looking forward to the road trip.  Almost all of his early success came away from Busch.  After this last home stand, Wong is now a .154 hitter in his home park (8 for 52).  His 8 hits include only 2 for extra-bases (both doubles), for a .192 slugging percentage.

On the road (through 11 games) it has been a different story for Kolten.  In his 44 plate appearances away from home, Wong has achieved 8 singles, 2 doubles, 1 triple, all 4 of his home runs, 7 walks (1 intentional) 2 hit-by-pitches, and 3 stolen bases.  Kolten has driven in 10 runs while grounding into no double plays in his 11 road games.  His batting line there is an impressive .429/.545/.886.

Pitching Better than the Numbers Suggest

In the conquest of the Reds, the Cardinal pitching numbers continued to suffer.  Cincinnati finished the set hitting 5 more home runs and scoring 17 runs – leaving the Birds with a 5.67 team ERA for the series.  The numbers – of course – are skewed by the beating the team took on Friday night – a 12-1 shellacking (box score) that featured all five of the home runs Cincy hit this weekend. 

In truth, the series showcased some of the finest Cardinal pitching to date.  Subtract three pitchers who struggled (Miles Mikolas, Dominic Leone and Tyler Webb) and the rest of the pitching staff posted a 1.33 ERA over 20.1 innings.

The 73 batters who faced the rest of the staff managed just 12 singles, 1 double, 3 walks, 1 sacrifice hit and 1 sacrifice fly – a .188/.219/.203 batting line.

Over the course of the home stand, the starters (3.73 ERA) out-performed the bullpen (4.75 ERA) for one of the few times this season.  During the upcoming road trip, the starters will be very much under the microscope.  In the early days of the season, they have been very much Jekyll and Hyde.  They are 9-2 with a 3.49 ERA and a .240 opponent batting average at home.  They are 1-4 on the road (for a 5-6 Cardinal road team).  They have served up 17 home runs in 52 road innings while struggling to a 6.58 ERA, a .307 batting average against, and a .628 slugging percentage against.

This will be a big opportunity for them.

Jack Flaherty

The clear pitching highlight for the weekend was the effort of Sunday’s starter – right-hander Jack Flaherty.  A revelation last year, Jack has been as inconsistent as most of the Cardinal rotation.  But on Sunday he shut out Cincinnati on 4 hits over his 7 innings, walking just 1.

Flaherty is now 3-0 at home with a 1.88 ERA.  He has walked just 4 batters in his 24 home innings, holding the rest to a .184 batting average.

Jordan Hicks

Closer Jordan Hicks came in to a 2-0 game in the eighth inning – ostensibly to record a four-out save.  After St Louis added three runs in the bottom of the eighth, Hicks was removed – as the game seemed well under control (it would get more interesting at the end).

Nonetheless, Jordan finished the series pitching in both the Saturday and Sunday games, retiring all four batters faced (with two strikeouts) and claiming a save (on Saturday) and a hold (on Sunday).  Hicks has been good all year long – but especially at home where he is 6-for-6 in save opportunities and has surrendered just one run in 6 innings.  Batters are hitting just .105 against him at home.

Dominic Leone

Dominic Leone, with a second chance to make a first impression, was really having a terrific year.  Having lost almost his entire first season in St Louis to injury, Dominic’s first 11 appearances of 2019 hinted at the pitcher the Cardinals believed they were signing.  After 11 innings, Leone held a 1.64 ERA and a .111 batting average against.

He appeared in two of the weekend games against the Reds and was batted around.  He entered the ninth inning of the first game, trailing 6-1.  Thirty-four pitches later, he left the mound trailing 12-1 with still only two outs in the inning.

He returned for Sunday’s ninth inning, this time holding a 5-0 lead.  Again, he couldn’t finish the inning as he gave hits to 3 of the 5 batters he faced and turned the game over to John Gant with the Cards still holding a 5-2 lead.  In all, he faced 14 batters over the two games who hit .692 against him and slugged 1.154.

It is hoped that these two nights against Cincinnati were a blip.  But his next trip out of the pen will certainly be worth noting.

Cards on Fire When Runners on Base

The game had been taut and tense all along.  After two-and-a-half scoreless innings, Atlanta rookie sensation Ronald Acuna gave the Braves an early lead with a home run.  In the top of the fourth, resurgent Cardinal shortstop Paul DeJong one-upped the Atlanta rookie.  His home run came with a runner on base (a recurring theme lately).

Now it’s the eighth inning, score still 2-1 Cards. But now St Louis is rising against the Atlanta bullpen.  A walk and a double put two runners on base ahead of an RBI single off the bat of DeJong (again).  Now its 3-1, but the inning isn’t over yet.  Another walk loads the bases and brings ex-Cardinal Sam Freeman out of the bullpen.  Sam got his first man – striking out rookie Patrick Wisdom.  He wouldn’t survive the next batter.

Catcher Yadier Molina smoked a grounder past diving shortstop Charlie Culberson.  Two runners scored on the hit, with the third also crossing the plate after the ball eluded Acuna (who at first glance looks more polished in the batter’s box than in left field).  Suddenly, it was a 6-1 Cardinal lead, and St Louis was on its way to a deceptively easy 8-1 victory (box score).  

For the game, the Cards were only 4-for-21 (.190) when they hit with no one on base.  But, lately runners on base have had the same effect on them that blood in the water has on sharks.

Over the last ten games, the Cards have pushed 62 runs across the plate in spite of the fact that they have only hit .245 as a team.  The difference has been that as a team they have hit .358/.424/.562 once a runner reaches base.  During that same span, they are hitting just .167/.233/.258 with the bases empty.

Last night, they were 7 for 16 (.438).

In no situation have they been more deadly than the situation that Molina found himself in – hitting with the bases loaded.  Over the last ten games, the Cards are 5-for-11 (.455) with the bases loaded.  In the 58 games since the All-Star Break (during which they have been scoring 5.24 runs per game) the Cards are 22 for 67 (.328) with the bases loaded.

It has been impressive to see.  Last night, doubly so as Atlanta has as many damaging opportunities.  Of their 40 plate appearances last night, 18 of them came with at least one runner on base – 5 of them with at least 2 runners on base.  The Braves finished the game 0-5 with runners in scoring position, and 2-for-15 (.133) with no runs batted in with any runners on base.

This last achievement was quite a relief compared to recent efforts.  For the month of September, opponents are hitting .286 (79-for-276) against Cardinal pitchers when batting with one or more runners on base.

A lot of times, it isn’t so much how many hits you manage, but when you do or don’t get them.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez was one of the Cardinal’s most proficient bats in the second half of last season, and is following along much of those same lines this year.  With a single and a double last night, Martinez is leading the team in batting average after the All-Star Break.  Jose is hitting .313 (56-for-179) over his last 54 games.

In his only opportunity to hit with a runner on base, Martinez set the big eighth inning in motion with a double.  Jose is now 6 of his last 14 (.429) and 33 for 89 (.371) since the break with at least one runner on base.

DeJong

More than a little lost for most of the season, Paul DeJong has been much of the driving force behind the recent offensive upsurge.  DeJong has two hits in each of his last two games, and has hit safely in 10 of his last 11, hitting .317 (13-for-41) in those games.  His hits include 2 doubles and 3 home runs.  Paul has 11 runs batted in and a .585 slugging percentage through those last 11 games.

DeJong could well serve as the poster child for the Cardinals’ recent split-personality with runners on base.  He was 0-for-2 last night with the bases empty and 2-for-3 with runners on.  Over the Cardinals’ last ten games, DeJong is just 3 for 19 (.158) with 1 extra-base hit (a double) when batting with the bases empty.  He is 9 for 18 (.500) with a double, 2 home runs, and 10 runs batted in in those games when batting with one or more runners on base – an .889 slugging percentage.

Wong on the Rise

Another element of the second half offensive revival is Kolten Wong.  Wong had two singles, a walk and a hit by pitch last night – bringing his season average back up to the .250 mark.  Wong is hitting .330 (35 for 106) in the second half.

Included in that second half resurgence is a .438 on base percentage when batting with the bases empty (21 hits in 57 at bats – a .368 batting average – 6 walks, and a hit by pitch).  He reached all three times he was up with the bases empty last night.  On a team that frequently doesn’t do much until someone gets on base, Kolten is a welcomed table setter.

Matt Carpenter

It was the fifth inning of the September 13 game against the Dodgers.  Facing nasty left-hander Clayton Kershaw, Matt Carpenter, the National League’s leading home run hitter, dropped down a bunt, beating it out for a hit.

He hasn’t had a hit since.

Carpenter – after his 0-for-4 last night – is now hitless in his last 17 at bats.  He has struck out in 8 of those 17 at bats, and is now hitting .169 for the month of September with no home runs.  Matt’s last home run came off of Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey in the second inning of the August 31 game.  That was 62 at bats, 77 plate appearances, and 332 pitches ago.  At one time in the MVP discussion, Carpenter has fallen back into the pack.

Time to Talk About Batting the Pitcher Eighth?

I’m not a big fan of batting the pitcher eighth.  All things considered, I think it handicaps the offense as much as it helps.  But there are some situations where it is worth the discussion.  In spite of his recent slump, Matt Carpenter still lists as the Cardinals’ most dangerous hitter.  But he can’t hit anywhere but leadoff.  Would it surprise you if I pointed out that Carp leads all Cardinal hitters in percent of plate appearances with the bases empty at 66.0%?  If he can only hit leadoff, maybe batting Wong ninth might get him at least a few at bats with a duck or two on the pond?

More Good Starting Pitching

Rookie starter Austin Gomber worked in and out of trouble all night.  His 5 innings cost him 98 pitches – too many.  But at the end of the day he had allowed just 1 run.  With the second half of the season now 58 games old, Cardinal starters have consistently given the team a chance.  With Gomber’s effort, Cardinal starters hold a 3.37 ERA in the season’s second half.

Throughout what has been a somewhat struggling month of September (and Austin has a 7.07 ERA after 3 starts this month), Gomber has had persistent trouble in keeping the bases clean.  Last night, the Braves were 5 for 10 with a double and a home run when hitting with the bases empty.  For the month, now, the 29 batters that have had their shot at Austin with the bases empty are hitting .385 with a .448 on base percentage.

John Brebbia

Earlier this season, John Brebbia went on a streak where he started to look like a top-echelon reliever.  I pointed that out in a post, and he immediately started to get hit.  At the risk of jinxing him again, I will note that Mr. Brebbia is once again stringing together quality bullpen innings.  Since the All-Star Break, John has thrown 13.1 innings over 14 appearances with a 1.98 ERA and a .191 batting average against.

He threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning last night, striking out 2.  He has 20 strikeouts, now, over his last 13.1 innings – an impressive 13.17 per 9 innings.

Jordan Hicks

In spite of apparent over-use, Jordan Hicks has been one of the bright spots in the second half bullpen.  He threw a 1-2-3 seventh last night.  In 26 innings over 25 second half games, Hicks holds a 2.08 ERA, a .227 batting average against, and a .268 slugging percentage against.  With his strikeout last night, Jordan has struck out 18 over his last 11.2 innings.

Mike Mayers

Mike Mayers pitched the ninth inning last night in a mop up role.  He ran into trouble (again) but worked his way out of it.  Mayers’ recent efforts haven’t filled anyone with overwhelming confidence, but the hard-thrower is starting to miss some bats – an encouraging sign.  With his 2 strikeouts last night, Mike has 19 in his last 11.1 innings.

After striking out the first two batters, Mike surrendered a walk, bringing Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis to the plate with a runner on.  This has been a sore spot recently for Mayers.  He would get Markakis on a pop fly to center, but not until Freeman had put two runners in scoring position with a double.

In the season’s second half, batters are hitting .371 (13 for 35) against Mayers when hitting with runners on base.  They are now 6 for 11 (.545) against him this month in those opportunities.

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.

All Things are Possible at Coors

Pitchers, as you know, rarely hit home runs.  And when they do, they are rarely 426-foot moon shots.  And if a pitcher should launch one that far, it would almost never be to the opposite field.

Conversely, if one team only scores in one of the nine innings, and the other team only scores in two of those innings, the game’s final score rarely reaches double figures.

And, of course, seven-run leads rarely disappear.  In modern baseball, usually any lead of five or more runs is nearly impossible to overcome.

And yet – in the rarefied air of Coors Field Colorado, all feats are possible.  On a balmy evening last night in the heart of the Rockies, the red-hot Cardinals erupted for 4 second-inning runs – highlighted by pitcher Miles Mikolas’ opposite-field, 426-foot, two-run homer.  They would not score again until adding 3 more runs in the fifth inning – and that would be all they would get.

Still, with a seven-run lead going into the bottom of the fifth, the Cardinals and their fans were probably feeling fairly comfortable.

Until Colorado stormed back with 5 of their own in the bottom of that inning – driving Mikolas (who had been awarded the seven-run lead) from the game before he could qualify for the win.

Now trailing just 7-5, the denizens of Coors Field put the tying run on base in three of the last four innings – even getting that tying run as close as second base once.  But the resilient – and re-born Cardinal bullpen was equal to every challenge as the Cards held on for a hard-fought 7-5 victory (box score).  At Coors Field, it seems like every game ends like this.

The win gives St Louis its fourth straight victory, its eighteenth in 22 August games, 21 wins in 27 games since the bullpen was re-invented, and a 24-11 record since the All-Star Break.  All this good enough to push this team into the WildCard lead.  Where once the Cards trailed the Cubs by 8.5 games, they have now trimmed that lead to just 3 with still 33 games left to play.

Things have suddenly gotten very interesting in St Louis.

The Bullpen’s New Norm

Earlier this year, a “typical” bullpen performance would have featured a heart-breaking late-inning comeback by whoever we happened to be playing.  Since the Great Bullpen Flush of July 26-27, the new “typical” bullpen performance has featured a starter leaving the game way early, only to have a group of electric arms shut the other team down the rest of the way.

In Colorado last night, a quartet of Cardinal relievers quieted the Rockies (in Coors, no less), allowing no runs and just 3 hits over the last 4.1 innings.

Through the month of August, so far, the Cardinal bullpen holds a 1.86 ERA over 77.1 innings.  This features a .181 batting average against, and a .258 slugging percentage against.  Only 5 home runs have been hit against the Cardinal pen in those 77.1 innings. 

These numbers are eerily consistent with the bullpen’s performance overall since the late-July facelift.  Over the last 27 games, Cardinal relievers have thrown 97 innings with a 1.86 ERA, a .190 batting average against, and a .280 slugging percentage against.

Even though – in once sense – these were dominant innings, they weren’t without their drama.  Four walks in those 4.1 innings kept the bullpen one pitch away from disaster.  This, too, I’m afraid has been somewhat typical.  With many very young arms throwing many important innings, the walks continue to allow teams back into games.

Throughout the month of August, Cardinal relievers have walked 40 batters.  Even though 2 of those walks have been intentional, that is still 4.42 un-intentional walks every 9 innings.

In the hitter friendly environment of Coors Field, 4 walks in 4 innings will almost always spell disaster.  But again, in Coors, you never know what will happen.

Second-Half Hicks on Point

Continuing his second-half resurgence, Jordan Hicks kept Colorado off the scoreboard in the eighth.  In 16 appearances since the All-Star break, Hicks has allowed just 3 runs in 17.1 innings (1.56 ERA).  Two walks complicated the inning – and, in fact, provided the Rockies their best opportunity to win the game.  Jordan made the crucial pitch that got Carlos Gonzalez to end the inning on a ground ball, but this is a recurring issue for the hard-throwing right hander.  Jordan has walked 7 batters in his 10.2 innings this month.

It will be interesting to see – as he matures as a pitcher – if he will need to trade any of that velocity for increased command.

Jordan came in to preserve a two-run lead.  He has now pitched 28.2 innings this season with a lead of at least two runs – posting a 1.26 ERA, a .168 batting average against, and a .178 slugging percentage against.  His ERA is only 4.42 in the 36.2 innings in which he has pitched with less than a two-run lead.  This includes allowing 7 runs over the 11 innings he has pitched trying to preserve a one-run lead (5.73 ERA).

Bud Norris

On, again, in the ninth, Bud Norris seems to be getting better as the season winds down.  He is now unscored on over his last 5 games, and holds a 1.42 ERA over his last 12.2 innings.  During those innings, opponents are managing just a .178 batting average and a .200 slugging percentage against him.

Offense Still On Track

Although they only scored in two innings, the offense enjoyed its first look at the hitter’s palace that is Coors Field.  Finishing with 7 runs on 11 hits, the Cards are now averaging 5.14 runs per game this month, and 5.03 runs per game since the All-Star Break.  They have hit 49 home runs since the break, and 32 in 22 games this month.

Kolten Wong

Among the offensive heroes was Kolten Wong – who finished with 3 singles and drove in a run with a fly ball.  Since his return from the DL, Kolten has played in 18 games – making 16 starts.  He has hits in 13 of those 16 starts- getting multiple hits in 5 of them.  He has contributed a .368 batting average (21 for 57) during those games.

Kolten was 2-for-2 while the Cardinal lead was less than three runs, and 3-for-3 while the lead was less than five runs.  Since the All-Star Break, Wong is 11-for-21 (.524) when the Cards are ahead by one or two runs, and 17-for-36 (.427) if the lead is between one and four runs.

Jose Martinez and Tyler ONeill

When things are going well for your team, sometimes even injuries work out for you.  While Mike Matheny held the reigns, all of the injury luck was bad – Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina, Paul DeJong, Michael Wacha, Wong, almost his entire bullpen, etc.

As Mike Shildt has taken over, not only have many of these missing pieces returned, but he has also benefited from a timely injury or two.  Just days after publicly committing to Dexter Fowler as an everyday presence in right field, Fowler goes down with a broken foot.  This injury opened a lineup spot for Jose Martinez.

Jose had two hits last night, and has now hit safely in 11 of his last 12 starts, and 12 of his last 14 games – 6 of those being multi-hit games.  During that stretch, Martinez is hitting .404 (21 of 52), raising his average for the month of August to .370 (27 for 73).

Similarly, a recent injury to Marcell Ozuna – who, in fairness was starting to come around with the bat – has opened playing time for another very promising youngster.  Tyler O’Neill added two hits to the Cardinal attack last night – including the second-inning home run that got things off and running.

Since his last call-up, O’Neill has been hitting .375 (12 for 32) with 2 doubles and 2 home runs (.625 slugging percentage).

That second-inning home run (in his first plate appearance at Coors) makes Tyler 8 for 16 (.500) in the second half with the Cards either even in the game or trailing by a run.  For the season, Tyler is 13 for 35 (.371) either even in the game or trailing by one.  Three of those hits are now home runs – giving him a .629 slugging percentage in that situation.

Matt Carpenter

So torrid for most of the summer, gravity has caught up with Matt Carpenter a bit this month.  His 0-for-5 last night makes him 0-for-10 with 6 strikeouts over the last 3 games.  He has hit 8 home runs this month, but is hitting just .217 (18 for 83) while doing so

Paul DeJong

Although he has teased at times, Paul DeJong has never managed to shake his post injury slump.  His power has come back somewhat.  He has hit 6 home runs in 34 second-half games.  But after his 0-for-4 last night, Paul is hitting just .198 (26 for 131) since the break.

And Just a Dash of Memphis Magic

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

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

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

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

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

Offense Front and Center

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

Leading Off

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

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

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

Jedd Gyorko

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

John Gant

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

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

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

Mike Mayers

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

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

Jordan Hicks

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

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

Some Revisionist History

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

Well, not exactly.

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

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

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

NoteBook

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

Efficient Gant Quiets the Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bullpen

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

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

Dakota Hudson

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

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

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

Mike Mayers

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

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

Some Late Inning Runs

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

Second Half Yadi

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

Kolten Wong

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

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

NoteBook

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