Through the first two swings of his at bat, you could see that Matt Wieters was just trying to take Kyle Hendricks up the middle or to the opposite field. On the fourth pitch of the at bat, Matt accomplished his goal, floating a soft single into short center. It was Matt’s first hit of the season and it drove in the only Cardinal run against the untouchable Mr. Hendricks in a 5-1 loss (boxscore) to the Cubs yesterday that left the two teams tied at 5 wins each at the conclusion of their season series.
As usual, there was the post-game hat tipping to a pitcher that the Cardinals – genetically incapable of hitting a changeup – have rarely had anything approaching success against. The comment that made me chuckle most came from manager Mike Shildt, who noted that Hendricks never gives into the hitter. No, Mike, of course he won’t. Not until the hitter makes him. But Kyle never has that issue against St Louis. A particular batter may take that changeup out of the strike zone once. Or maybe even twice. But eventually he will have to hack at it. They just can’t help themselves.
It is up in the zone. It is slow (comparatively). It’s about six inches outside. And it must be destroyed. Adding to Kyles’s ease of conquest, when the Cards do chase that change, they put their best fastball swing on it. They refuse to do what Wieters did. They will not go with the pitch. The result is an endless string of easy groundballs to the infield.
After Wieter’s hit made it a 5-1 game, the Cards did have an opportunity for more. They had runners at first and second with only one out. But the next batter (Matt Carpenter) came out of his shoes to attack that changeup over the outside part of the plate and stroked in nicely to the second baseman for the easy inning-ending double play – one of three Hendricks got from Cardinal hitters.
It’s the same story everytime we face him. This was, I believe, his twentieth start against this franchise and we haven’t figured anything out yet.
What really kills me about Kyle, though, is his demeanor on the mound. He is absolutely expressionless as he mows the team down. Don’t get me wrong. I 100% prefer this to the showboat style. Give me Hendricks and his stoicism any day over Carlos Zambrano and his ego-stroking. But Kyle displays all the enthusiasm of a day clerk putting away files. Watching him and trying to guess what’s going through his mind, I came up with two possibilities – either of which would be appropriate.
1 – Boredom. The Cardinals are just so easy and willing to play into his hands that it’s all that Kyle can do to stay awake while he’s on the mound. Perhaps it’s of mild interest to him to find out just how far off the plate – inside and outside – he can throw his magical changeup and still get the batters to hammer at it. But mild interest at best.
2 – Embarrassment. Also possible is that Kyle maybe feels a little bad about how easy this team is for him to dominate. Possibly he’s a little embarrassed by the ease with which we submit. In fact, in that seventh inning when St Louis did score its lone run – and this is probably my imagination – but I almost thought I saw a hint of a smile, as if to say, “Oh, that’s nice, at least they’ll have something positive to remember.” Again, I’m sure that’s my imagination. But I can see how Kyle might feel a bit awkward in a situation where any effort on his part – no matter how minimal – is met with overwhelming success.
Are there college lineups that would give Kyle more trouble than we do? Probably.
Still, I maintain hope that one day we will piece this together. Maybe Matt Wieters should do a clinic?
The Bullpen Rises
While the Sunday finale was disappointing, the Cards did, nonetheless, take three of the five games and head home just 2.5 games out. Rising to the occasion during this series and for the early games of the month is the hard-ridden Cardinal bullpen.
During the 21 August games, it was the rotation that held things together on the pitching side. They pulled together a 2.62 ERA, with principle contributions from Kwang Hyun Kim (0.57), Jack Flaherty (1.54), Dakota Hudson (1.66) and Adam Wainwright (2.89).
For the bullpen, August was an immense struggle. Coming out of quarantine with the same lack of repetitions that the rotation had, the bullpen was tasked, additionally, with picking up all of the innings left by a rotation not yet able to extend deep into games. Coming into the season, the bullpen was regarded as one of the team’s strengths. But under the considerable abuse of the first 21 games as they averaged nearly 4 innings a game, they staggered home with a bloated 4.78 ERA.
With those days behind them, now, it’s the bullpen that has come to the fore while the rotation has taken a step backwards. Three of the 5 starts during the series against the Cubs lasted less than 5 innings. In their last trip into Chicago, Cardinal starters managed just 21.1 innings over the 5 games, and were pushed around a bit to the tune of a 4.64 ERA. The Cubs hit them at a surprising .273 clip, drew 11 walks in those 21.1 innings, and hit 4 home runs against them.
To the rescue came the pen. Over the 17.2 innings they worked this long weekend in Wrigley, they stymied the Cubs to a 1.02 ERA, a .161 batting average, and a .226 slugging percentage. Until the first game of today’s double-header, it had been 10 games since St Louis had allowed a run in the seventh inning (when they gave up the last couple of runs in the 14-2 beating they absorbed from Cleveland on August 28). The last earned run they surrendered in the eighth inning came two games before that on August 27 in the double header against Pittsburgh when the eighth inning was an extra-inning. They’ve played fewer eighth innings than sevenths due to all the doubleheaders. Still, this makes 9 straight clean eighth innings.
Assuming that the workload against the Cubs and through today’s doubleheader against Minnesota doesn’t compromise them again, the bullpen looks like it’s primed to be the weapon the team envisioned. Now, if we can just get the rotation back on its feet.
As with most of the relievers, Genesis Cabrera had some difficulty with his command the first few times out, but he is among the relievers who have really started to find his groove. He threw two scoreless innings against the Cubs – striking out 5. Over his last 8 games, Genesis has struck out 14 batters, has an 0.90 ERA and a .091 batting average against.
Getting Them On is One Thing
During the early part of the season – including the mid-August reboot – the Cardinal offense was repeatedly hamstrung by their inability to get their leadoff batter in an inning on. Going into September, Cardinal leadoff hitters were limping along at a .200/.293/.337 clip. To make matters worse, St Louis was only able to chase 49% of the ones who did get on home.
Then came the 16-run game against Cincy. In that game, Cardinal leadoff hitters were 5 for 8 with a walk and 4 runs scored. Since then, we have done notably better getting that leadoff runner on. In the 40 offensive innings they had against the Cubs, 15 of their leadoff hitters reached (a .375 percentage). But only 7 scored (47%). A case in point is Harrison Bader – who had a nice bounce-back series against the Cubs. He led off 4 innings during the series, reaching base 3 times, a single a double and a hit-by-pitch. He didn’t score on any of those opportunities.
One of the bright spots in an inconsistent offense (that supplied the pitching with just 18 runs during the series) was leadoff hitter Kolten Wong – a .333 hitter during the series (6 for 18). Wong has caught fire a little bit, lately. He has hits in 6 of his last 8 games, getting multiple hits in 5 of them. Since the calendar turned Kolten is hitting .423 (11 for 26).
Several days ago, I mentioned something about Paul DeJong trying to work his way into a leadoff spot. It was tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the numbers suggest that this wouldn’t be a terrible plan – at least as far as getting on base is concerned. Paul reached in 3 of the 6 innings he led off in Chicago, and for the season, Paul has a .391 on base percentage when he leads off an inning.
A significant indictment of the lower middle part of the order is that after DeJong reaches to lead off an inning, he only scores 22% of the time.
Matt Carpenter’s struggles continue. He did hit a home run in the first game (a fly ball that just found its way into the over-hanging basket), but that was his only hit of the series. He struck out in 5 of his 8 at bats, and grounded into a double play. And, he made a damaging throwing error in the last game. Over his last 16 games, Carp is hitting all of .109 (5 for 46).
Brad Miller came in hot off the end of the Cincinnati series – he was 6 for his last 9 – but was immediately cooled down by the Cubs. He was 1-for-13 during the 5 games.
At 75 degrees, the Friday game broke a 14-game streak of game temperatures above 80 for the Cards. One of the, perhaps, under-mentioned aspects of the onslaught of games the Cardinals have played since coming out of quarantine (and Thursday’s day off ended a streak of 23 games played in 19 days) is that they played them right through the blazing heat of the summer. Now that September has arrived, perhaps at least the weather will be a little kinder to them.
Saturday’s second game was even cooler. In fact, at 72 degrees, it was the coolest game-time temperature the Cards have played in this season. The previous coolest game temperature for the Cards occurred the last time they faced Yu Darvish. He beat them 6-3 in 73 degree temperatures (also in Chicago) back on August 18.
With the Sunday game also checking in at 72 degrees, the entire series averaged 75.8 degrees, nearly 2 degrees lower than their first visit into Chicago (77.6) which had been the previous coolest series by average temperature.
Yadier Molina had started at catcher for the first 17 games after he returned from COVID isolation. It was the longest current streak of starts by a Cardinal at one position until Matt Wieters started the second game of Saturday’s double-header. The new current leaders for consecutive starts at the same position are Paul Goldschmidt at first and Paul DeJong at short, both with twelve consecutive starts.
To be clear, Goldschmidt has started every game, but not all at first base. He has served as the DH three times.
My Designated Hitter Rant
As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably). If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH. Here is the link. If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.