Everyone knows that the third in a series tends to be a bit off. Return of the Jedi wasn’t as strong as The Empire Strikes Back. No one even mentions Major League: Back To The Minors. Pulling off three straight dramatic and entertaining anythings is a tough act to manage. The Cardinals did their best to break that reputation last night, but eventually succumbed to it.
The fact that they had the tying and winning run on in the ninth and came thisclose to another come-from-behind victory was pretty impressive given the idea that Mike Matheny didn’t care if they won the game or not. I don’t say that in a pejorative way and it’s a little extreme–he cared if they won, don’t get me wrong, but there was only a minimal amount he was going to do toward that. Again, that makes plenty of sense. Before this game, St. Louis was 40 games to the good side of the .500 mark, they had a six game lead on their closest competitor, and they have a day off today. It’s a good time to rest, refocus, and get ready for October. That doesn’t mean you can write off September, but it does mean you can be judicious in how you use your personnel.
So the first step was, hours before the game, to announce that Michael Wacha wouldn’t be going but instead the Patron Pitcher of the Blog would be recalled from Memphis and get the start. Thankfully Tyler Lyons had a lot more notice than we did–roughly 20 hours. Here, kid, want to play in the bigs? Better be ready.
And Lyons was. Given the crazy standards that this rotation has set during this season, perhaps some saw his start as a disappointment, but that’s just because they’ve been spoiled. Six innings, three runs is a quality start and should usually keep your team in the game, which is what he did here. Lyons has often been susceptible to the long ball–he’s now given up 17 in 132 major league innings–and that got him again last night as he gave up three of them. They were all solo shots, though, and he only gave up three other hits during his time. He struck out six, though three of those came in the first and a fourth in the second, meaning the Nationals apparently adjusted to him as the game went on. All in all, it wasn’t a terrible outing, even if a couple of those home runs came at pretty terrible times.
Throughout this series, one question has resonated. That question has only grown in loudness, in import, as the series has progressed. That question is, what in the world has gotten into Ryan Zimmerman? He hit a home run in all three games, including two in this one, and his RBI double off of Jonathan Broxton was the difference in this game. All of Zimmerman’s hits came after the Cardinals had tied up the score, so if we named Heroes from the other team, he’d walk away with it.
We don’t, though. We only name Heroes and Goats from the current Cardinal players and last night the Hero was Brandon Moss again. Three hits, including the longest home run ever hit in Busch Stadium by a left-hander and the fifth longest ever overall. It was….words don’t describe. Let’s go with video.
The home run meant that Moss edged out Jhonny Peralta (who also had three hits) for the title. Kolten Wong also had three hits and Jason Heyward and Stephen Piscotty had two. Getting runners on was not the issue last night. Getting them in was. Of the 16 hits the Cardinals put up, only Moss’s homer and Matt Carpenter‘s double were of the extra-base variety. Bend but not break was the watchword of the Nationals last night.
We’ll give the Goat tag to Tommy Pham. Pham had a hit and drove in a run, tying the game at 2 in the fifth, but he struck out in his other four times at the plate, including a key K in the ninth against Jonathan Papelbon. No doubt trying to work a walk like he did in the ninth the night before, Pham got the count to 2-2 but then looked at a pitch over the heart of the plate, putting a serious damper on the burgeoning rally going on, as there were runners at first and third with just one out. A fly ball or base hit there and the game is tied again, which given the grief Matt Williams has gotten over not using Papelbon the last couple of nights, would have been deliciously ironic.
The second indication that Matheny might not be going all out in this one was in the seventh. With two outs, Wong singled in the run that tied the game at three. Moss went to third on the hit and Wong made second on the throw. There’s a chance here to take the lead, but Tony Cruz is coming up. I think if Matheny was winning this game no matter what, he pinch-hits Yadier Molina for Cruz there to give you a better chance of a two-out hit. Instead, he gave Molina the entire night off and let Cruz bat for himself, which wound up being a strikeout to end the frame. Again, I’m not blaming Matheny nor am I casting aspersions, just saying in more critical situations he probably goes a different direction there.
Still, there’s been a paradigm shift in the fanbase, I think. Admit it, you were much more optimistic last night. Up to about three weeks ago, a 2-1 gap looked like a canyon. To have the Cards fall behind twice, the first time losing the lead in the process, would have been courting death. Nobody would have thought they had a shot in the ninth.
Now….now we don’t panic quite as much, I don’t think. We’ve seen the bats start to come around. We’ve seen them rally from deficits. This team looks and feels like a different team than the one that built up this gaudy record and that’s a good thing. How is that even possible that it’s a good thing? The team that we’ve seen all summer has been almost historically great, and now they’ve taken it up a notch? That’s what it seems like with the offense finally clicking. Since that shutout in San Diego, the fewest runs they’ve scored in a game was three, in a win against Arizona and last night. That, coupled with what got them here in the first place, makes them a hugely dangerous team.
Before we look ahead to the Pittsburgh series, another note. I just realized this morning that, if I’m correct, Lyons is out of options after this season. He’s going to either have to stick with the big league club or pass through waivers to be sent to the minors, and he won’t pass through waivers. I hope we aren’t seeing the end of #70 in St. Louis!
Pittsburgh tends to find Milwaukee to be a terrible place and that continued last night. Another loss in Miller Park should be added to the following infographic:
Great time to regurgitate this gem from late last night: pic.twitter.com/OE39603Kxu
— Dejan Kovacevic (@Dejan_Kovacevic) September 3, 2015
With another loss last night, the Cards stay six up on the Bucs. While the Cardinals have a day off to get ready for the big series this weekend, Pittsburgh has to try to salvage at least one from the land of cheese. I expect they will (though I’ve not looked at matchups or anything) and that will mean they’ll come into St. Louis with a 5.5 game deficit to try to make up. At the worst, St. Louis will still be up 2.5 after this series. With just one win, they’ll finish up 4.5. A sweep? Well, a sweep will pretty much end the pennant race. That’d put them 8.5 back with basically four weeks to play. That’s not a situation you want to be in. It’s not insurmountable, as 2011 proved, but it’s not likely.
The series will start with Carlos Martinez, who gets an extra couple of days of rest after being scratched from the Washington series. Martinez has faced the Pirates three times this season and, to quote Star Lord, “something good, something bad, bit of both.” The first time he saw them, he gave up seven in 5.1 innings. The next, nothing in 7.1. The last time was August 11 and that’s the only other time he’s faced them in Busch. In that start he gave up three runs but went eight full.
|Jung Ho Kang||10||9||3||1||0||0||1||0||3||.333||.400||.444||.844||0||0||0||1||0|
J.A. Happ will be on the other side of the equation. Happ came over from Seattle at the trade deadline and has yet to face the Cardinals in 2015, though they’ve seen him in the past when he pitched for Philadelphia and Houston. Happ’s 3-1 with an ERA about 2 since he joined the Pirates, but that’s not typically who he is. He gave up four runs to the Cubs in his first Pittsburgh start, then just two more total in four starts against the Mets, Diamondbacks, Marlins and Rockies. I feel like the Cardinals, especially with this offense churning, can get to him.
Not a lot there but I don’t worry as much about him shutting down this lineup as I would have a month ago. It still crosses my mind, don’t get me wrong, and it could still happen, but it doesn’t feel as inevitable as it used to. Hopefully the bats will keep working and they can get this big series off on the right foot!