“We Have To Play Better Baseball.” OK. How? When?

I should have written on the Fourth of July.

If I’d sat down that morning to write about the Cardinals, I’d have had a much more upbeat post for you.  A sweep of the Brewers, running their winning streak against National League teams to 11.  The Cubs had struggled over the weekend, and while we still shouldn’t be looking at the division and the fact that they got swept by the Mets didn’t help St. Louis’s wild card chances, it still was enough to put a smile on your face.  Plus it allowed for a little, “hey, if they continue to struggle and the Cards get hot…..” thinking.  All in all, the morning of July 4 was a good time to be a Cardinal fan.

Of course, it didn’t last.

Two losses to the Pirates and the Redbirds find themselves, oh so stunningly, three games over .500.  We’ve talked about it often, but this team just doesn’t seem to be able to get much past that mark.  They’ll run out ahead a little bit but, like a child ahead of their parent, they’ll eventually wait around until that mark catches back up to them.  It’s frustrating, annoying….pick your adjective, most likely some more colorful than we use on this blog.

And then, after two winnable games that weren’t won, we get quotes from Mike Matheny saying, “We have to play better baseball.”  Adam Wainwright before the game with Jim Hayes was saying that, for the second half, he believes we’ll see players play better.  All that is well and good, but what evidence are we going to see that these things are going to happen?  I’m sure that a lot of the adjustments and such are not for public consumption, but you can only hear “we have to play better” so many times before you entertain the idea that there’s no game plan for making that happen.

On Twitter last night I said that Matt Carpenter‘s being the only All-Star representative for the Cardinals was understandable, but disappointing (especially when anyone associated with the Cubs seems to be going to San Diego, including some of the peanut vendors).  Someone responded that this is what happens when you have a collection of slightly above average players and that’s so true.  This team isn’t the “stars and scrubs” approach that we’ve seen in the past, where there were some luminaries supplemented by some role players.  This is a team that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of weakness, but it doesn’t have a lot of strength either.

For instance, we talk about all the home runs and, as a team, this has been a potent group.  Yet the team leader, Brandon Moss, sits in a large tie for 13th and given that he’s on the disabled list until after the All-Star Break, most likely will slide down that list.  Matt Holliday is second, tied for 20th.  Even in the power department, individually they aren’t anything special.

There’s good things about that approach, don’t get me wrong.  You don’t want to be reliant on just one person to win games, obviously.  However, having a couple of superstars and some other regular players may be the better way to go about things.  (Then again, maybe not.  When you think of San Francisco no big names spring to mind, yet they are leading the NL West and are just percentage points behind the Cubs for the best record in the National League.)

Basically, this team is talented, but as we’ve said before, the sum of the parts isn’t anything outstanding.  When Waino says that he thinks we’ll see players play better in the second half, it’s difficult not to see that as just positive talk or a faith in his teammates without anything solid to back that up.  They can play better, they have played better, so surely they will play better.  It’s going to happen, just watch.  That is a good attitude for the players to have, but without any evidence that it’ll happen, it’s hard for the fan base to rally around that.

I think the biggest problem is that they don’t necessarily know HOW to play better baseball.  I’m sure they’ve made adjustments throughout the year, but none of them seem to have been effective.  Perhaps they’ll make some more.  Perhaps Matheny will juggle the lineup some more.  Perhaps Derek Lilliquist will help pitchers like Mike Leake make some sort of breakthrough.  It could happen.  However, it just feels like if it could happen, it would have happened by now.  Barring a shakeup by John Mozeliak, this seems to be the team that we have.  It’s hard to argue that “it’s early” or “it’s a small sample” when you are now past the halfway point.  Sometimes you just have to wake up and realize it just not going to happen.

I was listening to the STL CardGals podcast from the Kansas City series and Holly and Laura mentioned in passing how there wasn’t one or two players that were the cause of all our woes.  They believed that was a good thing from the perspective of clubhouse morale and chemistry, which it is, but if there was one obvious problem, if all the problems could be solved by sending Trevor Rosenthal to Memphis or trading for a first base bat, at least we’d have some focus and some idea of how things could get better, especially around the trade deadline.  As it stands, what do you do if you are Mo?  There’s no one piece that’s going to fix this puzzle, it doesn’t seem like.

The platitudes of “things will get better” don’t placate when things, in fact, don’t get better.

Here I’ve written almost 1000 words and I’ve not even gotten into the review of the last five games.  I get verbose when I get frustrated.  (Also when I get angry, happy, hungry, and most any other attribute.)  Let’s take a quick look at them and see if maybe something is in there to be happier about.

Friday (7-1 win vs. Milwaukee)

Hero: Jaime Garcia.  If Garcia could pitch against Milwaukee all the time, he might be a Cy Young contender.  After throwing a 13 K one-hitter at them earlier in the season, he goes eight innings here, allowing one run, four hits, and four walks while striking out six.  If it wasn’t for a home run by Chris Carter–which is nothing to be ashamed of–he might have been allowed to go nine and get the shutout.  Plus he had a base hit, scored a run, and garnered an RBI, so it was a complete outing for the lefty.

Goat: Brandon Moss.  Tough night for Moss, who went 0-4, struck out twice, and left four on base.  He did draw a walk, so it wasn’t a complete waste, but not a great evening.

Notes: I heard, somewhere along the way, that a baseball rule of thumb is that the winning team will often score more in one inning than the opposition does in the entire game.  That worked out here, as the Cardinals put up five in the fourth and really were never challenged afterwards thanks to Garcia’s good work.  When your top three in the order (Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz, and Holliday) each have two hits, you are likely going to put some runs on the board.  Yadier Molina also had two hits, though he did have his sixth passed ball of the season, which seems awfully high for Molina.

This was the kind of game you’d like to see the Cardinals play against Milwaukee.  It’d been nice if the offense was more spread out, but getting a big inning early, coupled with a strong start from Garcia, meant there was much less stress in this one than others.

Saturday (3-0 win vs. Milwaukee)

Hero: Adam Wainwright.  There wasn’t a lot of offense in this one, but when Wainwright is on his game, there doesn’t need to be.  Seven scoreless innings with five strikeouts, though he did allow seven hits.  The club turned four double plays in the game, though, which helped offset some of those baserunners.  Wainwright was probably pretty disappointed he went 0-3 at the plate, though.

Goat: Matt Holliday.  The only Cardinal without a hit in this one, save the starting pitcher.  0-3, though he drew a walk.  Over his last 12 games (counting last night) Holliday is hitting .204/.278/.388, though he has five extra-base hits in that span.  Since those back-to-back three hit games in early June, his line is .183/.272/.394.  Perhaps in this idea of playing better baseball, the idea of Holliday as an anchor in the third spot in the lineup could be reexamined.  Holliday definitely has value to this team–again, 15 home runs and he’s had some timely hits even in this stretch–but at the top of the lineup might not be the best place for him.

Notes: A solid bullpen outing here, as Jonathan Broxton and Seung-hwan Oh combine for two scoreless innings, one walk, and two strikeouts.  This was the kind of performance that 1) we’d like to regularly see and 2) what we expected from Oh in the ninth inning/closer role.  As we saw Sunday, so far this is the aberration, not the regular.

Stephen Piscotty was the only person with two hits, as the Cardinals clustered their offense into one inning.  Thankfully, with good ole Uncle Charlie going, that was all that they needed.

Sunday (9-8 win vs. Milwaukee)

Hero: Stephen Piscotty.  Three for four with a grand slam that should have put the game on ice, running the Cards out to an 8-2 lead.  A fine day for Piscotty overall, but that slam was a beautiful thing.

Goat: Which bullpen firestarter do you want to give it to?  My first thought is Trevor Rosenthal, because without his “pitching” perhaps we don’t have to deal with the others that came in and made this a nailbiter.  However, since Matheny had a quick enough hook on Rosie, who allowed three hits and a walk while recording no outs, Matthew Bowman got him mainly out of trouble and the Cards still had a comfortable lead even after all of that.

Sam Tuivailala, who had come up when Kevin Siegrist hit the DL due to mononucleosis, made his 2016 debut by loading the bases and also not getting any outs.  When you have TWO pitchers out of your bullpen face at least three hitters and not get anyone out, that’s an issue.

However, my Goat goes to Seung-hwan Oh.  Yes, he got a “save”, but it only goes to show you just how meaningless the save statistic really is.  First, coming into a five run game really shouldn’t be a save situation, even if the bases are loaded.  Then, when you allow a run of your own in said situation, meaning you’ve let the three inherited runners score, you’ve not saved the game in any way except the very technical.

Oh walked his first batter, forcing in a run, then allowed a double to Kirk Nieuwenhuis that plated the other two.  A strikeout and a groundout that brought in the fourth run, then another walk before the game-ending strikeout.  It was good to get the win, but giving up four in the ninth tends to put a damper on things.

Notes: The Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons came into the game during a driving rain and proceeded to strike out the side while allowing just one hit.  At least some parts of the bullpen worked!  Actually, Bowman and Broxton had fine outings as well.  Bowman allowed one of Rosie’s runners to come in, but that was just on a groundout.  He did his job as well as he could do it.

Thank goodness for some offense in this one.  Besides Piscotty’s slam, Aledmys Diaz had a solo homer in the first and Brandon Moss, Tommy Pham, and Kolten Wong all had doubles.  Piscotty was the only one with multiple hits in this game, though that’s somewhat due to the fact the hitters drew eight walks from Brewer pitchers.

Let’s talk a little about that bullpen, though.  There was a lot of grief given about Rosenthal pitching in this one, but if you can’t throw Rosie in a six-run lead, when are you going to throw him?  I get that many think he should be in Memphis and maybe I’d agree with that, but the simple fact is he’s on the roster and he needs to pitch occasionally.  Six runs should be safe for him.  The fact that it wasn’t may need to lead to a reevaluation of his major league-ness, but that doesn’t seem to be the path Mo and Matheny are going to take.

There’s a lot of angst around the pen right now and it makes sense, but what changes are you going to make?  Tuivailala looked rough in this one, but pitched OK against Pittsburgh (as we’ll see).  Even so, if Siegrist gets healthy Tui is likely headed back to Memphis.  Lyons and Bowman are good enough for what they do, obviously.  There’s the obvious issues around Rosenthal, so you might be able to swap him for Miguel Socolovich.  Oh isn’t going anywhere, even with his stumbles.  Neither is Broxton, who has been good if unremarkable of late.  Seth Maness had a good outing followed by a bad outing.  I’m not sure what the Cards have there.

It would seem to be that Mo would make a deal for a bullpen arm, but does that fix this team?  I don’t think so.  You could put Aroldis Chapman in this bullpen and I would be surprised if they’d rip off 10 of 12.  Remember, the bullpen was a strength of this team until the middle of June and they still sat at three games over .500 for the most part.  While the pen probably should be worked on (as Tara said on Sunday, Ryan Sherriff has a 2.13 ERA at Memphis–though he strikes out less than a batter an inning, which might be problematic–so he’s an option if you want to add him to the 40-man), there’s no silver bullet for this squad, unless it’s getting to see a lot of bad teams to get on a run.

This might be less of a problem if the Cards could have the guys they are paying actually pitch for them.  That contract to Jordan Walden looks worse by each passing day and you have to wonder, given him and Jason Motte and others, whether the Cardinals will ever give out a multi-year deal to a reliever again.

Monday (4-2 loss vs. Pittsburgh)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  The lone All-Star had three hits and drove in both of the Cardinals’ runs.  He just didn’t have much help in the offense department.

Goat: Matt Holliday.  0-5, one strikeout, six left on base.  We talked enough about Holliday above, but as much as the broadcasters talk about him being frustrated with his results, they aren’t changing.  He’ll probably get on some sort of run eventually, but if he finished the year at .265 with 25 homers, would anyone be surprised?  Not saying even that it’s a bad year.  That just seems like what Holliday may be now.

Notes: Brandon Moss had two hits, including an infield single where he sprained his ankle and eventually wound up on the DL.  As much as some folks aren’t fans of Moss, he’s been a fairly reliable source of offense over the last few months and they could be missing him while he’s out.  Hopefully it’s just a 15-day thing and, with the All-Star Break in the middle of that, it won’t be a major loss.

Carlos Martinez also had two hits and pitched another great game.  He got burned by Gregory Polanco, who had a two-run homer, but Polanco on the whole is 1) good and 2) a worthy successor to the Sith Lord mantle.  Otherwise, Martinez was pretty much the guy that had put up an ERA of about 1 in the six starts before this outing.  You could argue he shouldn’t have been out there in the seventh or he should have been pulled before allowing that third run, but given the state of this bullpen, are you really wanting to go down that road?  I thought that he’d struck out John Jaso on the 2-2 pitch, though some (including the umpire) disagreed.  Still, right now I’m not sure there’s anyone in the bullpen that we trust enough to replace Martinez in that spot, especially since probably a few arms were off limits after the debacle the day before.

Maness came in and allowed the fourth run, which didn’t inspire folks with confidence about him “being back”, but Tuivailala pitched a perfect ninth.  Too little too late, of course, but it was nice to see.

Tuesday (5-2 loss to Pittsburgh)

Hero: Jedd Gyorko.  There’s little reason for Gyorko to start at first–while there are plenty of issues with Holliday, have we given up on him playing first?  Remember when that was a thing?–and he did move off of that later on when Jhonny Peralta left the game with an injury, but Gyorko at least made it worth having him out there with two hits and an RBI.  When the whole team only has six hits, that’s a powerhouse performance.

Goat: Kind of a toss up here, but we’ll go with Matt Carpenter, given that he went 0-5 with two strikeouts and an error to boot.  Perhaps he was focused on that trip to San Diego, but this was a very atypical Carpenter game.

Notes: I didn’t get to see much of this one, which always makes it tough to judge a Mike Leake start.  Leake is so reliant on ground balls and doesn’t strike out many hitters (just three in this one) so misplays that don’t show up as errors in the box scores or ground balls that get through as hits that shouldn’t have aren’t easy to see.  That said, Leake allowed a good bit of hard contact, it appears, and that’s not what you want to see out of any starter but especially going up against your closest wild card competitor.

Leake’s a fifth starter, maybe third or fourth in a weaker rotation.  He’s probably going to fluctuate between the strong starts like he had last time and starts like this one.  You just have to hope that you get more of the former, but every time out, there’s a possibility for a rough one.

It’s rare when you get to see the negative repercussions of a decision so quickly.  As we all know, Eric Fryer was designated for assignment when Brayan Pena returned from the disabled list, even though Fryer was having a very solid season as Molina’s backup.  Given their recent catcher injuries, the Pirates put in a claim on Fryer and he was in the starting lineup last night.  All he did was have two hits and three RBI, pretty much the difference in the game.  Pena?  He did have a hit, but also had a passed ball and Leake had a wild pitch that, again not seeing, I don’t know if he should have corralled.  I love Pena’s personality and I do appreciate the fact that if he’s going to be Leake’s personal catcher, it’s a great way to get Molina that rest we’ve been wanting to see, but on the whole I’m not seeing that his addition as a positive yet.  Maybe the Army will, though.

Tyler Lyons threw another scoreless inning, which means he has a 2.08 ERA with a .434 OPS against and a strikeout an inning since the first of June.  Trevor Rosenthal didn’t give up any runs in this one, but he did allow two hits in his two innings of work, which actually improved his WHIP.

Peralta left the game with a thumb injury, which doesn’t inspire confidence given that he’s still recovering from that first thumb surgery.  Right now, they are “just being cautious” but it wouldn’t seem, given that .237 average Peralta is sporting, that it would take much for that injury to flare back up and put him back on the disabled list.  Again, we saw how long it took for Molina to look right after his injuries and surgeries.  Hopefully Peralta avoids the DL but the way this year is going, I’m not sure I’d hold my breath.

Randal Grichuk returned yesterday when Moss hit the DL.  Mozeliak said before the game that his success in Memphis was somewhat due to him playing every day….so he immediately is on the bench when he returns.  Again, you’d think that you could have put Holliday at first yesterday and put Grichuk into the outfield, but that’s just not the way things work around here.  We’ll see if he’s out there over the next couple of days.

The Cardinals ran into Pittsburgh last month when they were scuffling and took advantage.  Unfortunately, those struggles have ended since then and Pittsburgh again looks like that contending team that we expected that they would be.  Their bullpen has been on lockdown as of late, meaning that you have to get to the starters and St. Louis hasn’t really been able to do that.

All that means that, if the Cardinals lose today, they slip to third place in the division and drop another spot in the wild card race.  There’s not much further they can go down, as they are six games up on the Brewers in the division and five up on the Phillies and the Rockies in the WC, but it’s still would be a little disturbing to hit that level.  Garcia goes for the Cardinals, trying to get another win on this homestand, while Jeff Locke goes for the Brewers.

Andrew McCutchen 12 11 4 2 0 0 1 1 4 .364 .417 .545 .962 0 0 0 0 0
Josh Harrison 7 6 0 0 0 0 1 0 3 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 1 0 0 0
Jung Ho Kang 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Erik Kratz 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Starling Marte 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .333 .000 .333 0 0 0 1 0
Jordy Mercer 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Sean Rodriguez 3 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1.000 1.000 1.333 2.333 0 0 0 0 0
Juan Nicasio 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Total 36 33 8 3 0 0 2 1 11 .242 .278 .333 .611 0 1 0 1 0
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/6/2016.

Garcia hasn’t faced the Pirates this season, which could be a good thing, I guess.  He faced them last September and threw seven scoreless innings against them.  Let’s put an order in for that, shall we?

Matt Carpenter 21 16 4 1 0 0 3 3 3 .250 .381 .313 .693 0 1 0 1 0
Matt Holliday 20 16 5 0 0 1 4 4 3 .313 .450 .500 .950 0 0 0 0 2
Yadier Molina 20 17 3 1 0 0 3 2 1 .176 .250 .235 .485 0 1 0 0 0
Jhonny Peralta 16 14 1 0 0 0 0 2 6 .071 .188 .071 .259 0 0 0 0 0
Randal Grichuk 14 14 4 1 0 0 2 0 2 .286 .286 .357 .643 0 0 0 0 0
Matt Adams 10 9 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 .111 .200 .111 .311 0 0 0 0 1
Adam Wainwright 10 9 4 2 0 0 3 0 2 .444 .444 .667 1.111 1 0 0 0 0
Jedd Gyorko 8 8 3 0 0 1 5 0 1 .375 .375 .750 1.125 0 0 0 0 0
Brayan Pena 7 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .143 .143 .143 .286 0 0 0 0 1
Stephen Piscotty 6 5 3 1 0 1 2 1 0 .600 .667 1.400 2.067 0 0 0 0 0
Kolten Wong 6 5 2 0 0 1 2 1 0 .400 .500 1.000 1.500 0 0 0 0 0
Carlos Martinez 4 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 1 0 0 0 0
Aledmys Diaz 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Tyler Lyons 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Mike Leake 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Total 147 128 31 6 0 4 24 14 22 .242 .317 .383 .700 2 2 0 1 4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/6/2016.

Locke faced the Cardinals in May, giving up three runs in six innings and getting a no-decision in a game St. Louis eventually won.  He went up against the A’s last time out and gave up three runs in five while getting a win.  He can be really good (6.2 scoreless innings against the Giants) or really bad (11 runs in 4.2 innings in Colorado) so hopefully we get more of the latter than the former tonight.  I wouldn’t put any money on it, though.

We need a win to get a little better outlook around here!

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