When this marathon was finally over (apparently all it took was for me to finally go to bed after the 13th), both teams had to look back and say, “Seriously? We won/lost that game?” It was one of the ugliest games we’ve seen in a while, full of missed opportunities on both sides. Both teams could have won that game (comparatively) early, both teams could have lost that game late. In the end, the Cardinals took home the victory, but I don’t know that they felt proud about it.
The Pittsburgh fans had to feel that one more keenly. Besides the fact that this “meaningful August games” bit is new to them, they had this one locked up. If for some reason (and I don’t expect that they will) the Pirates go into a tailspin after this, Starling Marte‘s muffed catch might go into the vaults next to Brant Brown‘s similar misplay for the 1998 Cubs. To lead from the first inning, only to let the lead evaporate after a dropped play like that had to be gut-wrenching to Bucco fans.
While it wasn’t as tough to swallow (a glaring error in the ninth that leads to a tie game is going to take the top spot no matter what), people in the Steel City had to think 13 was going to be their lucky number after Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez singled and were on the corners with nobody out. Instead, McCutchen wasn’t going on contact when Russell Martin grounded to short and eventually the Cards–due to the amazing skills of our Hero, Seth Maness–got out of it. I’ve always hated when the Cards go on contact in similar situations, because it always seems that they get cut down at the plate. I think McCutchen probably did the right thing, because I think he would have been meat at the plate, but it gave the Cardinals a life line that they capitalized on.
However, all of that pales in comparison to the questions Cards fans had about the strategy of last night’s game. Why does Carlos Beltran get into that rundown in the ninth after Allen Craig singled in the tying run? If Matt Holliday could have batted there with two on and two out, there’s a strong possibility I’m much more rested this morning.
Why do you pinch-run for Holliday in the 10th? Yes, Holliday had done something to his ankles on an attempt to get back to first, which is frustratingly common with him. However, Mike Matheny didn’t pull him until he made it to second on Rob Johnson‘s bunt (that was thrown away by the Pirates, another gift the Cards couldn’t unwrap). Which means that you are going to go with a little extra speed to score from second, right? That makes sense.
Until Matheny undercuts that by having Jon Jay bunt the runners over. Now, I said on Twitter at the time that I didn’t like the bunt there. I know, I know, you only need one run and it gets the runner to third with just one out. In theory, I agree, that’s a time where you’d use a bunt. The problem I had with it was that Jay was one of the few people left in the lineup that was hitting. By bunting with him, you are saying you’d rather your pinch-hitter (Adron Chambers, who did come through later on but isn’t necessarily known for his bat), Pete Kozma or Daniel Descalso win this for you than Jay. It really boiled down to Jay versus Kozma, a battle Jay should win every time. Instead, the Pirates unsurprisingly walked Chambers, loading the bases, then struck out Kozma. Dirty Dan then is in the unenviable position of having a whole lot of ways to make outs and ending the threat, which he did.
Then, because you are completely out of players, Maness has to hit for himself with runners on the corners and one out after Craig was intentionally walked to get to him. A situation that screams for a bunt, one that even our super sabermetrician Pip thought was right, and Matheny, master of the bunt play, lets Maness swing away against an overstuffed outfield. As poetic justice demands, the double play guru then hits into a double play.
Finally, the Cards came through in the 14th. It’s not surprising that it took that long (surprising that they were still playing then, perhaps) given that by the 10th, you had no position players left and Holliday and David Freese removed from the game. A lineup already struggling with mediocrity got weaker for the most important part of the game. Given that Allen Craig would have had to come up with the bases loaded to see another pitch, it was really on the backs of Matt Carpenter, Beltran (and, as we saw, he could be IBBed as well if there were enough bases for him and Craig), and Jay.
Jay could have been our Hero as well, with four hits and a key stolen base in the 14th. I went with Maness because he stepped outside of what he has been asked to do this season, going 2.1 innings and keeping the team in it, especially with that key double play. I can’t fault him for his two at-bats, even with the double play, because if you are blaming a pitcher for being unable to hit, you’ve got issues.
Let’s find a Goat before we get into some more discussion, otherwise I’ll forget about it and have to come back and squeeze that in somewhere. I don’t want to give it to Adam Wainwright, because even though he dug himself an early hole, he kept the team in it. He gave up a two-out hit, then McCutchen took him deep. No shame in that, as McCutchen has a strong case for MVP. Having Jordy Mercer go yard the next inning was less excusable, but that was all he gave up. On nights where the Cards’ bats are going, that’s a winning performance.
The bullpen was on target as well, giving up no runs in seven innings. We’ve talked about Maness, but Edward Mujica threw two innings (including pitching the ninth with the Cards behind, something Matheny didn’t do last week and may have learned from), Trevor Rosenthal struck out the side in the eighth to keep it close, and Sam Freeman threw a scoreless inning to wind up with the win.
So the Goat has to come from the hitters and I’m going to go with Pete Kozma. Kozma, besides that big strikeout with the bases loaded, wound up going 0-6 and while he did make some nice defensive plays in the late innings, he’s now hitting .228 on the season. I can’t see John Mozeliak doing anything about it now–Ryan Jackson hasn’t had an extra base hit in the hitter’s league that is the Pacific Coast League in two months–but there’s no doubt shortstop is on the very top of the offseason shopping list.
Some of the stats that came out of last night’s game were just astounding. A team with an incredible offense that can get going and put up some high run totals has (now) a 2-37 record when trailing after seven innings. They’d not come back from a three run deficit all year until last night. For a team that prides itself on never giving up and battling back, those are some insane statistics.
Then again, maybe the splits explain it. Just look at these numbers.
In wins (68 games): 459 runs (6.8 rpg), .319/.383/.486
In losses (50 games): 119 runs (2.3 rpg), .211/.268/.297
This offense can either steamroll or be flat, there seems to be little in between. When the bats are clicking and the hits are coming, they come in droves and they score a ton of runs and pad the stats that make them look like one of the game’s best offenses. It’s an on-off switch, though, and when it’s off the team struggles to score at all.
We’ve talked in the past about how it’s a good thing the Cards aren’t reliant on the long ball, that with the offense spread out through the lineup and the team getting doubles and singles and the relentless attack it is harder to shut down. There’s a flip side to that, though. That means it takes two or three hits to score a run, meaning (as we saw last night) if you start off an inning with an out or two, it becomes harder to put runs across than when you can do it in one swing. At least twice last night, the Cardinals got two outs, then had two hits and looked to threaten, only to have the next batter get out. It’s tough to string three hits together, especially when this offense is weakened at the bottom and overall missing Yadier Molina.
Still, for all the flaws, the Cards won that game and moved to just two games behind the Pirates. This one was really a must-win, because I’m not sure the Cards wanted to be forced to sweep games started by Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. Both of those guys have been extremely tough on St. Louis this year and getting a split from those would be incredible. Thankfully, that’s all the team needs to do now to win the series, a series that really needs to be won.
People keep saying it’s early and there’s no need to panic or have to win this series. It may be early, but it’s not April. There are approximately six weeks left after this series. Even being down by four could be a tough road to hoe the way Pittsburgh is playing. Sure, the Cards have six more with them after Thursday, but why would you believe those games would necessarily go any better than these have? Two of those six are before the expanded rosters kick in, so even if you’d argue the club might be better because Kolten Wong would be available, that’s only for four games (most likely).
The fact is that most teams that lead by 4-5 games this time of year are going to win their division. It’s not a lock, it’s not an unalterable fact, but that’s generally how things work. Comebacks happen, but they aren’t guaranteed. It’s tough to remember that as a Cardinal fan the last couple of years, but it’s true. Getting within two games (or, dare to dream, tying the Pirates) this week significantly improves the chances that we’re not staring at St. Louis having yet another do-or-die game for their postseason to really begin.
Liriano goes tonight, looking to repeat his performance from two weeks ago, when he gave up one run in seven innings, rather than his last outing (in Colorado where Coors Field ate him up).
Holliday is the only one that’s had much success (in limited exposure) so hopefully the ankle issue won’t keep him out of tonight’s lineup.
Liriano makes it a tough assignment for Shelby Miller, who hopefully will show no ill effects from the liner off his elbow last Wednesday and will be well-rested given he’s only thrown two pitches in two weeks. Miller missed the five-game set in Pittsburgh, so he hasn’t seen the Bucs since April. He gave up three in 5.2 innings the last time he saw them, but a lot of things are different now.
He’s been able to keep Alvarez in line, which is nice to see. Alvarez has been such a Cardinal killer recently. Some of the other numbers aren’t so great, but remember there’s only two starts there and those were back at the beginning of the season.
Hopefully last night was a spur to the side of the St. Louis squad and it’ll get them galloping again. A win tonight would be outstanding!