Is This What They Call Momentum?

All year long, we’ve talked about this team being allergic to momentum.  Big wins are followed up by terrible losses.  The most you could seem to hope for was a couple of games in a row.  Nothing that made you think that this was more than a slightly-better-than-.500 team.

And yet, over the last week, the Cards have won five of seven, including a sweep of the Astros right after a dramatic come-from-behind win over the Cubs.  Even the game they lost in that span was a reasonable one, not one of terrible apathy and angst.  It’s possible, however unlikely, that this team is starting to jell.  After all, that last week of August is the traditional time for it, right 2011?

Friday (4-3 win in 11)

Hero: Jedd Gyorko.  There were a lot of heroes in this one, but some of their work would have been for nothing and some of their work wouldn’t have even happened had not Gyorko launched a ninth-inning, game-tying homer.  While Jon Jay had an OK season for San Diego before being injured, I think it’s safe to say that John Mozeliak won that trade.

Goat: Matt Carpenter.  Tough night for Marp, who went 0-5 with two strikeouts.

Notes: The line doesn’t look all that great for Adam Wainwright, but it really wasn’t a terrible start.  He allowed one run in the first, then back-to-back homers in a ballpark known for the longball in the sixth.  Given some of Waino’s recent outings, this was very acceptable.  If the offense had been able to solve Adam Morgan to the level you would have expected given his statistics, Gyorko’s homer probably wouldn’t have been necessary.  It took Wainwright 100 pitches for those six innings, but he did strike out five and walk two, which would up the pitch count.  Obviously you’d always like the staff ace to go seven or more, but a solid six isn’t something to sneeze at.

Some key work by Zach Duke in this one.  Jonathan Broxton relieved Wainwright and again showed why you can’t trust him in close games, especially of late.  He may come through, but he’s just as likely not to and that’s what was going on in this one.  A single and a walk (with a strikeout in between) put two on with one out.  The first batter Duke faced wound up with an infield single, but then he struck out Odubel Herrera and Freddy Galvis to end the threat.  The Duke trade may still be up in the air when it comes to evaluating, but that put some more evidence on the positive side of the scale.

Randal Grichuk had him a game as well, hitting a home run early in the game to tie it at 1, then doubling in the winning run in the 11th.  Since his latest return from the minors, he’s had a hit in every game up to this point (he did go 0-fer the last two games in the series) and was doing so with some power.  Five doubles, one triple, and three homers are making it easier for Mike Matheny to leave him out there and let him not worry about playing time.  It’s interesting that the club is doing that here, in a pennant race, rather than earlier in the season, but of course things like the Matt Holliday injury have freed up playing time as well as forced their hand a little bit.  And, as we’ll talk about later, what’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander.

Seung-hwan Oh picked up the win in this one with two excellent innings in relief.  Given Oh’s history, I guess we probably shouldn’t worry about overuse too much, but as the games increase in meaning and the bullpen continues to have shaky spots, you have to figure Matheny is going to turn to him as often as possible.  It was good to see the manager not save Oh for a lead, though.  I still think that Matheny shows improvement in his bullpen usage over when he began in 2012, though maybe not as much as some of us would like.

With Oh used, someone had to come into protect the lead after Grichuk had put the Cards ahead.  Again, the options were limited–I’m pretty sure everyone else would have had to be spent for Matheny to use Jerome Williams in that spot, for example–but it was a positive thing to see him turn to Alex Reyes in this situation.  It was only Reyes’s fourth outing and it made him unavailable for the next night in case Luke Weaver couldn’t go very deep, but the manager went with him and his remarkable repertoire anyway and was justified.  Reyes picked up his first save–we’ll have to see if he gets any others down the line.

Kevin Siegrist got into this game as well, having had four days off since walking off the mound in Wrigley.  He allowed two hits but got two strikeouts, so the “dead arm” must have gotten some more life into it.  It wasn’t the only time that we saw Siegrist this weekend, so he better be OK because he may get used like he is regardless.

Saturday (4-2 loss)

Hero: Jhonny Peralta.  Three hits, though nobody behind him could drive him in.

Goat: Brandon Moss.  0-4 with three strikeouts, which is particularly tough when you follow Matt Carpenter in the lineup and he goes 2-3.  There were some run opportunities there that just didn’t pan out.

Notes: This, obviously, was the loss referred to above and again, I don’t feel all that bad about it.  Last I checked, nobody wins them all and while you’d have liked to see them do better, there is a reason that Jeremy Hellickson was a trade target at the deadline, even if he didn’t get dealt.  There’s no doubt he has talent and some days you just tip your cap.  I’ve definitely seen worse losses.  (Though, to be fair, I didn’t get to watch much of this one, which may also be leading to my equanimity.)

Luke Weaver made it a little farther into the game here in his second start, going five innings and allowing three runs.  He gave up a home run to lead off the game, then a fluke run later in the first.  Otherwise, a fairly solid outing for the young man.  Nine hits is a little high but he didn’t walk anyone and struck out six, which helped make sure things didn’t flare up.  His next outing will be at home against the A’s, which will be his most pitching-friendly outing yet.  We’ll see what he does with it.

Jeremy Hazelbaker had a two-run homer that tied up the game early, but nobody else could join him with the longball.  That meant that the Cardinals’ streak of nine straight games with two or more home runs–which tied a major league record–came to an end.  It’s often been said that pitching and defense wins pennants, but power surely helps you get to the playoffs and after that, who knows?

Broxton came into this one as well–given how much the bullpen was used the night before, I guess that wasn’t a surprise–and allowed a run.  Sam Tuivailala got a chance to pitch the ninth and did much better this time out.  He’s not going to be a late-inning option right now, but perhaps he doesn’t have to be buried back there with Williams.  We’ll have to see how his next few outings go.

Sunday (9-0 win)

Hero: Mike Leake.  We’ve often referred to the saying that “momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher” and usually we use that in a negative manner when it comes to Mr. Leake.  However, he came out and showed that while he may not be the top of the line when it comes to consistency, he can have a game with the best of them.  Seven scoreless innings, eight strikeouts, and he had a two-run single to top it off.  If we saw more of that from Leake, things would be a whole lot smoother, I think.

Goat: Pretty good game all the way around, but we’ll go with Yadier Molina here.  0-4 for Molina before he was pulled late in the game to give him a little extra rest with the big lead.

Notes: In the top of the eighth inning, Kolten Wong pinch-hit with two outs and flew out.  Of course, the Cardinals had scored four runs in the frame to push out to their final margin, so it wasn’t a big deal.  When people hit in such situations, you kind of expect that they’ll come into the game for the last couple of innings.  It’s garbage time, sure, but it’s playing time.  Especially when said players were considered enough of your future plans that you gave them a five-year contract before the season started.

Wong, however, returned to the bench.

Now, Matheny did use that opportunity for a double switch, because you know how vital it is to make sure a pitcher doesn’t come back up in a 9-0 game.  Otherwise, the pitcher would have come up seventh in the ninth, just in time to kill a major rally.  Also, the idea behind a double switch is to be able to use the pitcher for more than an inning, but Matheny used Matt Bowman in the bottom of the eighth then went to Jerome Williams in the ninth.  So even if the pitcher’s spot had come up, he could have pinch-hit and had the same pitching usage.

Wong hit for Carpenter, which meant Brandon Moss came in to play first while Hazelbaker, who had pinch-hit and smashed a two-run homer earlier in the frame, could stay in the game.  I get wanting to leave Hazelbaker in there, though he had started two of the prior three games so it wasn’t like he was getting rusty.  Even so, perhaps removing Greg Garcia and shifting Jedd Gyorko to short for a couple of innings would have been an option.  Or just replacing Gyorko with Wong, making the pitcher come in at Gyroko’s spot.  (That would have made the pitcher come up fourth in the ninth, but as we’ve seen, that wouldn’t be a big deal.  Heck, it’s 9-0, you could let Bowman hit and not have an issue.)

It’s a minor thing, but sometimes the details add up.  When you’ve got a guy like Grichuk, who is going to get every opportunity to play and not have to worry about daily success dictating the next day’s lineup, and then you have a guy like Wong, who has made seven starts this month and only twice in back to back days.  Is the treatment of Wong some major offense?  I wouldn’t say so and I get there are some reasons for it, but it looks strange when you compare it to the way things are going to go for Grichuk now.

And it’s not like Greg Garcia is lighting the world on fire, folks.  He had two hits in this game, which means he is hitting .167 in his last 30 games.  In Wong’s last 30, he’s hitting .253 in about 15 fewer at bats.  Yet Garcia made a great initial impression this season and did a great job coming off the bench, spot starting, etc.  That seems to give him a little leeway on things, which is understandable, but it’s surprising that it’s coming at the expense of a guy that many thought at the beginning of the year would be a core part of this club.

When you have a situation like that, you do start to wonder if Matheny and Mozeliak are on the same page.  If they are (or perhaps even if they aren’t), it would seem a strong possibility that Wong is part of some package this offseason and he gets a fresh start elsewhere.  I’d personally hate to see that, but when you don’t let a guy play the last two innings of a blowout, a game where you’ve already taken out Iron Man Molina, then I don’t know that there’s a lot of future for him there.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words on a topic that probably doesn’t deserve them, but that struck me pretty hard while watching the game on Sunday and, well, it’s my blog.

Lots of homers in this one to make up for just one on Saturday.  Moss, Hazelbaker, Stephen Piscotty, and Gyroko all went yard.  Some of that is Citizens Bank Park, of course, but most of those homers weren’t cheap ones.  After years of watching a power-challenged team, it’s so amazing to see the Cardinals fourth in the majors and first in the NL in home runs.  Even the legendary 2004 team was seventh and trailed three other NL teams.  The ’98 squad did rank second overall and first in the NL, but when Mark McGwire hits 70 of them, that tends to help.  (Plus the team wasn’t in the race, so it’s a little different than this year’s club.)

Cardinals start a stretch of nine straight, six at home, tonight with the Mets.  Now obviously home hasn’t been that kind to the Cards this season, but this would be a great week to make that record even out a little bit.  The Mets are coming in likely playing for their playoff lives in this series.  They trail St. Louis by 4.5 games and sit at an even .500.  If they lose this series, that’s 5.5 out with two teams between them and the final spot.  If they are swept, they are out 7.5 and have to start looking at teams like the 2011 Cardinals for inspiration.  On the flip side, they could close within 1.5 of St. Louis and perhaps pass either Pittsburgh (playing Houston) or Miami (playing KC) in the race if they could win them all.  It’s a big three games for the Mets, so we’ll see how that develops for them.

Jon Niese goes for the Mets, which given their rotation is probably a bit of a break for the Cards.  St. Louis saw him three times while he was with the Pirates this year and his combined line was 16 innings, 14 runs (13 earned), three walks, 15 strikeouts.  His last start against the club, back in July, was his best as he allowed only one run in 5.2 innings then.  Since joining the Mets, he has typically worked out of the bullpen, with this just his second start in the orange and blue.  Last time out, he gave up four runs in 4.2 innings out in Arizona.  All of this means the offense should be able to get to him tonight, though we know what that has meant in the past.

Cards counter with Jaime Garcia.  Garcia’s coming off of a rough outing in Houston, allowing five runs in five-plus innings, but the two starts before that were gems, albeit gems against lesser competition.  Garcia faced off against New York last month, allowing three runs (two earned) in five innings while taking the loss.  Even with the recent off days, it would be nice if he went deeper than that this evening.

If you are keeping track of the scoreboard already, it’s Joe Musgrove for Houston vs. Ivan Nova for Pittsburgh, Yordano Ventura for KC vs. our favorite Andrew Cashner in Miami, and Madison Bumgarner vs. Kenta Madea as the Giants visit Los Angeles for a big series that has first wild card implications.  Things are heating up!

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