Let’s be clear on one thing, for any Cub fans coming in here wanting to argue or anyone that might want examples of the “Best Fans in Baseball.” This is still the Cubs’ division to lose and cutting a deficit from 12.5 games to 9.5 games doesn’t change that much. The Cubs are still a very good team that will likely win the NL Central without too much trouble, though things do happen in baseball so that’s no guarantee. Anybody that says the Cardinals are now “right in the hunt” is probably deluding themselves. It’s a good start, it’s better than the alternatives, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
With that caveat out of the way, this three game set in Chicago might have been the sweetest sweep of a series that I can remember. I mean, anytime you can win all your games against the Cubs, it’s a good thing, but it doesn’t have the same impact when they are their normal also-ran selves. At those times, it’s nice but not noteworthy. This time, it’s a Cubs team that’s getting a ton of plaudits from the media about being one of the best teams ever and they are–well, were–on pace to win something like 114 games. Then you have the fact that you aren’t exactly running through the back of their rotation. Jason Hammel might be their fourth starter, but he’s been very good and tough on the Cardinals. John Lackey and Jake Arrieta are expected to be winners. It’s not like they avoided the Cubs ace or anything. Mix all that with the fact that the Cards were coming off an 0-5 homestand and going into Wrigley Field, where Chicago was 25-8 before this series, and unexpectedly winning all three games is a highlight of the season.
On Twitter after the game yesterday, someone Tweeted that since May 11, the Cubs were just a 1/2 game better than the Cardinals, with both teams being a handful of games over .500. I assume that it’s true–I didn’t check it but there didn’t seem to be any pushback on Twitter–and if so, it makes me wonder if this Cubs team is going to wind up following a similar path to last year’s Redbirds squad. If you remember, at the end of May last year the Cardinals were 33-17 and folks were talking about gaudy win totals for them as well. The Cards went 67-45 the rest of the way, which is a good pace, but not exactly legendary. The difference being, of course, that the Cubs and Pirates last season played extremely well while the Cardinals were less stellar and it remained a race all through the second half. (Interestingly, last June 22, the Cards were up 6 on the Pirates and 6.5 on the Cubs. That’s closer than 9.5, but not enough to make you rule out making a run if the Cubs do play less-than-historically the rest of the way.)
The Cubs are now playing .671 ball, which works out to 109 wins. If they do that, all this talk is moot. However, if they play at the rate that they have played since May 11 going forward, that’s 99 wins, which is still outstanding and probably enough to win the division, but is less daunting than 109!
This was an extremely wonderful series, though it had its nailbiting moments. We’ve talked about the first game, now let’s look at the last two.
Tuesday (4-3 win)
Hero: Matt Holliday. His two-run homer provided the Cardinals a 4-1 lead, a cushion that they would need every bit of. There wasn’t an obvious outstanding performance in this game, but when your only hit provides half the runs, you have a strong case.
Goat: Jhonny Peralta. Rough night for the third baseman, as he went 0-4 with two strikeouts, leaving three men on base. A key hit might have made the ninth a little less stressful.
Notes: Some people still worry about Adam Wainwright, but I think it’s safe to say that the pitcher we are used to is the one that’s in the rotation now. He may not be Cy Young caliber Wainwright, but there’s no guarantee at his age that he’ll return to those heights. What he is is a pitcher that will keep you in a ballgame, whether he’s got his best stuff or not. Wainwright wound up allowing three runs in his 6.2 innings, but worked out of jams and was determined not to give up the lead entirely. His ERA over his last seven starts is 2.72 and he’s struck out over three times the number he’s walked. I don’t worry when Wainwright takes the mound anymore.
Kudos to Jonathan Broxton, who came in with a runner on third in the seventh and, after walking a batter, got Jason Heyward to ground out to Brandon Moss who apparently (I didn’t get to watch much of this game) made a fine play to rob Heyward. Until the ninth, that was probably the closest the Cards came to letting it slip away.
Speaking of the ninth, we saw Trevor Rosenthal get his second save in as many days, but this one was a classic Jason Isringhausen save. Rosenthal struck out the first batter, allowed a hit, struck out the second batter, walked a guy, then got a ground ball to end it. In a sign that Mike Matheny isn’t quite as blind to the closer’s struggles as some might suggest, Matt Bowman was warming up during Rosenthal’s time out there, though I’m not sure how Matheny would have used him. Maybe if a hit had tied it up, but there wasn’t really a time to put Bowman in to mitigate damage before it happened. Thankfully, moot point.
Two hits, including a double, and a run scored by Stephen Piscotty, the only player to have more than one hit. A big home run by Matt Carpenter, that came a couple of batters before Holliday’s and broke the 1-1 tie. All in all, a solid game that thankfully didn’t slip away.
Wednesday (7-2 win)
Hero: Aledmys Diaz. Three hits, including a two-run home run that put a cap on the scoring and pushed the Cardinals to a 7-0 lead and got people really thinking about the sweep.
Goat: Kinda tough to find one, as the offense was pretty spread out and all the pitchers did well. We’ll go with Stephen Piscotty, who went 0-5. Piscotty drove in the first two runs, but it was on a ground ball that should have been a double play, but apparently some of the Cardinal infield defense rubbed off on Ben Zobrist. (Also, Anthony Rizzo left the game later with back issues and said without that, he probably corrals Zobrist’s throw.)
Notes: A third straight really strong outing by Michael Wacha, who threw six scoreless innings before allowing a two-run homer with two outs in the seventh at a time when the Cards already had their big lead. Wacha only allowed three hits and two walks and never ran into any trouble, at least none to really speak of. Over his last three starts, he’s got a 2.11 ERA and batters are only hitting .164 against him. I’m still not as confident as I am with Wainwright that he’ll be fine when he goes out there, but he’s getting there. And, as we’ve seen, when the starting pitching is good (save that homestand), the wins will come.
Jhonny Peralta had two doubles, which were both followed up by walks by Brandon Moss, but Yadier Molina never could make anything happen. Molina struck out three times, though he did manage an RBI as well. He could have been the Goat, maybe should have been.
It was a fun afternoon and a great way to cap a series against the rivals. Plenty of broom images on Twitter yesterday, which was a lot of fun to see.
Hard to believe that yesterday, 14 years ago, the Cardinals were also in Chicago. Of course, they wound up not playing that day for tragic reasons and many of us still remember where we were when we heard that Darryl Kile had passed away. Matheny was one of those hardest hit by Kile’s passing, so to be there on the same day had to be kinda tough.
Cardinals get today off, then they go out on a rare trip to Seattle to face the Mariners. Seattle was playing strong but are 2-8 in their last 10 to fall to an even .500. They also struggle at home (something the Cardinals can relate to) and are on a five game losing streak, another thing the Cards know about. Seattle is going to be a dangerous team, especially if the euphoria from this Chicago trip lingers as they travel to the Pacific Northwest. Hopefully Seattle snaps their streak this afternoon when they play in Detroit. As I said before, streaks don’t tend to get too long in baseball, but X out of X? That’s completely believable.
Carlos Martinez will go for the Cardinals. Unsurprisingly, the historical records don’t tell us much.
We don’t know for sure who will go for the Mariners, as the official site still lists TBD, though apparently it will be Wade LeBlanc, whom the Mariners just acquired. The Cardinals didn’t get to see Felix Hernandez when the Mariners came to Busch a couple of years ago due to an injury and the same thing is going to happen this time, as the King is on the DL. It would be nice to see Taijuan Walker and it would be his turn in the rotation, but he’s got a foot injury and will be skipped this time around. While it’s disappointing as a fan not to get to see these talented arms, hopefully that makes it easier for the Cards to get a win!