The calendar turns to September and the Cardinals start winning. We have seen that act before.
— Tom (@Haudricourt) September 3, 2014
What is it about the stretch run that invigorates this franchise so? It doesn’t always happen, of course, but it seems more likely than not that when the seasons start to change and the games begin to get precious, the Cardinals have a way of finding that extra gear and roaring ahead.
Now, let’s still not get to far ahead of ourselves. It’s still just five games. Five games that have thankfully coincided with a tailspin of epic proportions by the Miller Park crew. We have seen September pushes look good and then fall by the wayside, just not many of them. (I honestly thought 2010 was that way, when the Cards swept the Reds in the famous brawl series to take the divisional lead, only to fritter it almost immediately away. Looking it up, though, that was early August. Not sure why I thought it was later.)
I always credited the strong stretch runs under Tony La Russa to his penchant for mixing and matching lineups earlier in the year so folks were rested come September and TLR could start running them out there more regularly. However, Mike Matheny doesn’t do that–Matt Adams can testify–and yet, here we are, early September and the Cards are starting to look like the team we thought they could be.
Of course, yesterday couldn’t be easy. After four games where they’d scored at least five runs, the offense again went into hibernation. Now, to be fair, Edinson Volquez has been pitching well of late, but taking a no-hitter (well, no base hits, though two Cardinals in a row were plunked) into the fifth was a little extreme. Then, of course, the few favorable offensive situations they did get into, such as runners at second and third, one out, top of the lineup coming up, went quickly by the wayside as well.
Meanwhile, the Pirates had their own issues. Five times, including each of the last three innings, Pittsburgh got its leadoff man to reach base. However:
The Cardinal pitching staff got it done and stranded every one of those runners in one fashion or another. All it took was for a well-timed hit and the Cards aren’t using their brooms today. Instead, the well-timed hit came from an unexpected source.
I say unexpected, but Peter Bourjos has been playing much better of late. Over his last 10 games, he’s hitting .389. He may not be showing any power (three extra-base hits since the beginning of August) but that’s not what they need from him. Leave the doubles and homers to the big bats (hopefully), but getting on base and getting key hits can win just as many games.
I said yesterday that I think most people would be pretty satisfied right now if Bourjos played center and Jon Jay played right. Both of them had significant contributions yesterday (though Bourjos does get the Hero tag for ending the game with a walkoff single) and I would hope we would see that again tonight in Miller Park.
Bourjos got the Hero tag, but Shelby Miller really deserved it as well. Anytime Miller can go seven innings, you know you are getting something good, but to get seven scoreless innings? That’s even more impressive. Miller allowed just three hits (though he did walk three batters) and struck out five in one of his best pitching performances of the season. That’s back-to-back starts where Miller has gone seven and he’s only given up two runs total in that span. It would be amazing if things started clicking for him right now, because that would give the Cardinals some great insurance if Michael Wacha isn’t going to be able to be available or effective come the postseason. A resurgent Miller could also be an effective long man in the bullpen, allowing Matheny to go TLR 2011 and pull his starting pitcher early if necessary.
When you are looking for a Goat from yesterday’s game, you are probably going to look at the top of the lineup. Batters one through six in the St. Louis lineup went a combined 1-20 with two walks. One of those walks, granted, was the pass to Yadier Molina that started the final rally, but on the whole it’s tough to win a game when only your seven and eight hitters are actually hitting.
Kolten Wong and Jhonny Peralta had the exact same line yesterday–0 for 4, two strikeouts, three left on. However, Wong made a spectacular play in the eighth inning to perhaps save the game, so we’ll go with Peralta for the Goat today.
By the way, one of the reasons I never was highly impressed with Bobby Cox, at least for a long time, was the fact that he didn’t pinch-run someone like Tom Glavine for Sid Bream in the 1992 NLCS. It worked out–Bream slid in safely with the game-winning run when Orlando Cabrera got his unlikely hit–but it wasn’t smart managing. I’d say the same about not pinch-running for Molina yesterday. Granted, you’ve burned through a lot of bench already, but you have two catchers sitting there and a guy with speed in Pete Kozma. If you go into extras and all that entails–perhaps messing up your bullpen for the Milwaukee series, even with the extra arms–because Molina’s out by a step or two, is that really smart managing?
Matheny has his reasonings–part the fact that Molina’s experience could be big in extra innings, part loyalty to his player–but I’m not sure they really stack up. Do you want Molina, still only back about a week, to catch deep into this game? We know he can do 20 innings or so, but should he with a big battle against the Brewers this weekend and especially since this was a day game after a night game? Weren’t we sold on the fact that Tony Cruz was like a sponge and had soaked up a ton of Molina knowledge? So why couldn’t he catch the extras? Again, it worked out–we’ve noted before that Matheny seems to live a charmed life–but I’m not sure it was the wisest decision.
Speaking of iffy decisions, Jay was caught stealing third in the seventh inning of a scoreless ballgame with one out. After the game, Matheny said Jay was “encouraged to go” because Tony Watson was slow to the plate. I don’t care if he pitched like I run, it’s highly questionable to be running there. Get a nice lead, fine, but Jay is going to be able to score on a base hit and the way yesterday was going (and turned out), one run could win you a ballgame. Third is nicer than second, but it’s not THAT much nicer than second. An inning that started nicely then went up in a puff of smoke as Randal Grichuk (who had a 3-1 count before swinging at the pitch while Jay was running, making folks wonder if it was an insane hit-and-run) struck out for the final out.
All I can say is that I hope the Cardinals don’t play too many more important games where one run is the difference. Much of the fanbase has some real questions about the decision making process in the dugout. Obviously, it’s much easy to second-guess than first-guess and it’s easier to make these calls from the couch than the top step of the dugout, but hearing the reasons doesn’t necessarily fill folks with confidence. Then again, this isn’t exactly new, is it?
As for the whole Andrew McCutchen flap, I don’t know what to say. If the Cardinals did try to hit him, that’s ridiculous. Yes, Volquez plunked Holliday and Adams back-to-back, but it’s pretty obvious (given no score and the fact he was no-hitting the club at the time) that it wasn’t intentional. Did Miller mean to go inside and the ball got away from him? It’s possible, though given Matheny didn’t explain it away like that makes me wonder. Not only was there no reason for it, the game situation didn’t warrant it either. Sure there were two outs, but putting a runner on in any situation when it’s 0-0 and your team is struggling to even get hits seems like tempting fate. We saw in the ninth what could happen in that situation. So if Matheny did request a message pitch, that’d be a third questionable call from him yesterday. How St. Louis managed to pull it out beating both Pittsburgh and their own manager is beyond me.
In the span of a couple of weeks, the Cards have gone from trying to get over the hump to having the second-biggest lead in the National League and actually being within shouting distance of the best record in the NL. They are just 3 1/2 behind the Nationals for that mark, 1 1/2 behind the Dodgers to at least host an NLDS. Though folks will tell you differently, there’s not just a ton of baseball left to be played (23 games, which is about 15% of the season) and the Redbirds are peaking at the right time.
Of course, momentum is today’s starting pitcher. The Cards could stumble today against the Brewers and a lot of this era of good feelings would start to come unraveled. I was 0-2 picking games yesterday, which made me happy as that means St. Louis goes up to Milwaukee with a three game lead, needing to win only one to guarantee going to Cincinnati as a first place team. However, it seems unlikely that the Brewers are going to run out their losing streak to 12 games, so the Cards will probably fall at least once this weekend. Still, a series split does wonders for St. Louis, much more than it would have this time last week.
A split seems reasonable as well with the starting pitching the Cardinals have lined up. Today we see the return of Wacha to the mound. Wacha will only go about 60 pitches and then be followed by Marco Gonzales, which is a spring training way of approaching September baseball but it makes sense. If all goes well, this will probably be the only time they’ll have to do this piggy-back approach. Let’s hope all goes well, though that’s no slight against Marco.
We’ve not seen Wacha since he left the mound against the Mets on June 17 having thrown six innings of one-run ball and garnering seven strikeouts. We won’t see that again this evening, but there’s no reason to think that Wacha can’t be effective in the limited time he’s out there. Gonzales looked quite good last time out as well, so the one-two punch of former #1 draft picks should make for an interesting game. Wacha’s only game against the Brewers this year (in Busch) saw him strike out nine and allow three runs in 6.1 innings. His roughest outing last year was at Miller Park, when he allowed three runs in one inning of relief.
Cardinal bats will have to get going against Wily Peralta and that’s easier said than done. Peralta is 15-9, though the ERA is working its way to 4.00 territory. That ERA has gone up over half a run after his last two outings, seven runs in five innings against the Pirates and six runs in three innings against the Giants in the pitcher’s haven that is AT&T Park. That said, he’s started twice against the Cards since the All-Star Break and his combined line is 2-0, 13.2 innings, eight hits, two runs, four walks, eight strikeouts. No one said it would be easy.
The Redbirds have done OK against him in the past, but given that Peralta is really just now coming into his own, it’s hard to know how much of that past history you should factor in. Odds are this is going to be another tight affair tonight, though probably not 1-0 like yesterday’s contest. Still, if you have a seat belt on your couch, this might be the time to buckle up!