When an author sits down to write a script or a novel or some other work of literary fiction, they can set the narrative. If they want their characters to fall in love, they’ll have them “meet cute” and develop their relationship. If they want the princess to be rescued, they’ll have her been kidnapped and let the heroes find out about it. Narrative in fiction is, well, the underpinning of the story. Without narrative, there is no story.
Sports, however, are the complete opposite. There’s the famous xkcd comic that equates trying to weave a thread through games to doing the same to random numbers. What we’ve seen are four baseball games. Four, which is 2.5% of the entire season. The Cards have won four games in a row before, which is usually when we start talking about corners and clicking and things of that nature, only to see them slide back into their bad habits.
This time seems a bit different, however. For one, the Cardinals are in first place, which makes everything seem brighter and more cheerful. It’s much harder to be disgruntled or cynical when your team has, for the first time this season, moved ahead of all the other teams in the division. Secondly, all the facets of the game seem to be going well for St. Louis right now. They’ve hit much better, with even those usually derided for their continuing baseball existence (hello, Daniel Descalso!) being a positive offensive contributor. The pitching has not necessarily been as good as we’ve seen (the first couple of months of the season were outstanding) but the starters have kept the team in the game and the bullpen has done an exceptional job. The defense has been sharp as well, with fewer mental lapses. Put it all together and it’s hard not to say that the switch has been flipped.
Yet it is just as likely that they’ve happened to play four good baseball games and that nothing really has changed. Momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher and all that. When we retroactively look for a narrative, it works up until it doesn’t. We can’t predict when that time will be.
Last night, the Cards took down the Pirates 6-4 while Milwaukee was losing again to the Cubs, meaning St. Louis moved out to a two game lead in the division and guaranteed that they’d be in first place when the two teams meet on Thursday. Adam Wainwright allowed three home runs, allowing many of the “Yadier Molina makes a difference” skeptics to have a field day on Twitter. Maybe they are right, but even with the home runs, that seemed like the best Wainwright start we’ve seen in a while. For instance, last time Wainwright allowed eight hits and a walk in six innings, so he seemed to be always working with runners on. This game, two of the three shots were solo and there was rarely anyone on. Wainwright allowed seven hits, but of the four outside of the long balls, two were end of the bat flares and at least one other came with two outs.
I’m not saying that Molina was the whole reason that Wainwright was scuffling and I don’t think any of the folks that espoused that opinion believed that either. However, Ricky Horton may have said it best last night–when a pitcher is going well, it doesn’t matter who he’s throwing to, but when he’s got another issue like a dead arm, that’s when a catcher earns his money. Wainwright looked better last night, even if he wasn’t completely Waino. That improvement might be related to Molina, at least in some small part, given his knowledge of Adam and how to call the game to maximize what he had.
Still, Wainwright did allow four runs, but when you drive in three on your own, you are staying out of Goat territory. That would go to Matt Adams, who continued to scuffle by going 0-4. Adams also had probably the worst at-bat of the game in the first inning.
Jeff Locke had just walked the two previous hitters and so Adams came up with the bases loaded. I know some people gave B.J. Rains grief on Twitter when he in the past has emphatically declared that a hitter should take a pitch after a walk and I understand where they are coming from. That said, after two walks, it seems even more conducive for the batter to be patient. Add to that the fact that Locke is a left-hander and Adams has struggled all year against lefties and there’s no doubt he should have waited for a strike. Instead, he swings at a pitch well inside and pops it straight up, playing a huge part in the Redbirds being unable to capitalize on that big opportunity. It turned out not to matter, but it easily could have. Since Adams had three hits in the first game of the Cincinnati series, he’s gone 6-49 (.122). Whatever the reason, whether pitchers are adjusting to him, his elbow is hurting, or just a bad slump, giving him a few more days off wouldn’t be a bad thing, especially whenever Memphis’s season ends and Xavier Scruggs becomes available.
While Wainwright did have a better night on the mound and a good night at the plate, that last home run to Starling Marte took him out of the running for the Hero tag. There were a couple of options for that award, but the best of them was Randal Grichuk. Grichuk had himself a game last night, tallying three hits and one really big diving catch in the third that kept the game tied at the time. A number of our minor league experts and folks that have kept an eye on Grichuk do not expect he’ll ever develop into a starter, that he still hasn’t adjusted to breaking pitches. That well may be the case, but since his return, he’s pushed Oscar Taveras to the fifth outfielder slot, I believe.
Right now, many of us would go with Matt Holliday–Peter Bourjos–Jon Jay in the outfield, given the way they are playing. Bourjos had two more hits last night and, as we’ve always said, brings speed and defense to the table. With September games so vital, having Bourjos’s defense could be huge and, right now, the offense seems to be going well enough that it could handle his bat (which, at least lately, hasn’t been that bad–he’s 7-19 in his last 10 appearances). Grichuk looks good at the plate and has been hitting the ball pretty well, making him the more likely selection when someone needs a day off.
Does that mean Taveras needs to be buried? Not at all. Obviously, most everyone agrees that Taveras will be good at this level. The question is whether the Cards can afford to have that develop now while they are in such a heated pennant race. We’ll still see Oscar and I still believe he can be huge in St. Louis, but it just may not be this year.
Other general observations from last night’s game: After stating that this offense goes the way Matt Carpenter goes, he of course went 0-3 as the team scored six runs. He did chip in with a sacrifice fly, but most of the time the 7-9 hitters aren’t going to get on five times, score four runs and drive in three. Also, Holliday seemed to be feeling his recent hot streak. I noticed him swinging very aggressively a few times, including on pitches he needed to leave alone. He went 0-3, but was robbed by a very nice catch by Andrew Lambo on a ball that would have driven in two. I don’t think his hot streak is over yet unless he tries to force its extension.
Wainwright’s night would have looked better if Mike Matheny had gone ahead and pulled him after the ninth with 91 pitches thrown. After all, your ace has been talking about a dead arm, so bank the quality start and let the expanded bullpen take over. Once they did come in (and since Wainwright didn’t get an out, they covered the same territory) Seth Maness and Pat Neshek did quality work. There aren’t many arms out there in that pen that you worry about when they come in right now, which is a great feeling to have as the season comes to a close.
Matheny announced before the game yesterday that Michael Wacha will be the starting pitcher on Thursday. We already knew that Justin Masterson was taken out of the rotation, but most figured Marco Gonzales would get the start. Wacha will be limited to around 60 pitches (at which time Gonzales will come in) in a move that some think seems desperate. I think it would seem more desperate if the Cards were two or three games behind the Brewers still with this series looming. With a lead in the division, there’s less reason to push him back if you don’t think he’s ready. If the minor league seasons were still going, they might have done another rehab start. They could have put him in Memphis’s rotation for the playoffs, but if he’s going to play in a meaningful game, it might as well be in the bigs.
Now, let’s be honest when we talk about today’s action. The Brewers have lost seven in a row, so while it’s still a gambler’s fallacy to suggest they are more likely to win today, baseball winning and losing streaks rarely get much longer. If I picked games daily like my friend William Tasker, I’d pick they’ll snap that and win tonight against the Cubs. (Though Kyle Hendricks is going for the Cubs against Matt Garza. Could be a tight game no matter who wins.)
On the flip side, it’s tough to sweep a team, especially a team that’s contending like Pittsburgh. The Pirates would be five back if they lost today with no direct shot at the Cardinals for the rest of the season. We know about the struggles Shelby Miller had last year against the Pirates–struggles so large they impacted his entire postseason–and he allowed four runs in five innings to them back in July, the last time he saw the black and yellow in the batter’s box.
I’m not sure it’s a complete coincidence that Pedro Alvarez has sat the last couple of nights and the Pirates have lost. He’ll be back in there today, I can almost guarantee it. Miller’s going to have to keep the ball in the yard and his recent control streak going to have much of a chance against this team, I think.
On the opposing side is Edinson Volquez, which is a pretty big cipher. Sometimes St. Louis gets to him early and often, sometimes he shuts them down. Last time out against the Redbirds he allowed one run in a complete game. He’s in a stretch of good starts as well as apparently living right–two starts ago, he allowed 11 hits in 5.2 innings but just two runs. He’s going to be a tough nut to crack for the Cards today.
If you combine a hot Holliday with a pitcher he’s hit well before, what do you get? I’m quite anxious to find out, actually.
Best odds are that the Cards go into Milwaukee tomorrow with a one-game lead, which is much better than many of the alternatives that we expected even a week ago. That said, if they could go in with a three game lead, we’d all be much happier. Enjoy the afternoon baseball!