Do They Know It’s a Playoff Race?

Given the last couple of games, you’d be forgiven if you came to the conclusion that the answer to that question is “no”.  At a time when wins are paramount, it’s seemed at times that the club is just going through the motions.  While we might not want to, we probably should talk about the last game against the Cubs and the first game against the Giants.

Wednesday (7-0 loss to Chicago)

Hero: There were only four baserunners and the pitching was either inadequate or irrelevant.  So it’s not easy to put someone here, but I’ll go with Stephen Piscotty in a coin-flip over Yadier Molina.  Both were 1-3 and didn’t strike out, but whatever fraction of the responsibility Molina should have for the pitching makes him lose out here.

Goat: Carlos Martinez.  We’re already holding Carlos to a higher standard as befitting his talent.  Four runs in six innings with nine strikeouts would be perfectly expected from Mike Leake or Jaime Garcia, but the Cards really needed more out of their de facto ace.  It wouldn’t have likely mattered, given the way Jon Lester pitched, but it would have been nice.

It seems like it Martinez’s last few starts that the first 2-3 innings, he’s going so well that you start dreaming about a no-hitter, only to see him crater (relatively) in the middle frames.  Martinez allowed a homer in the third, but then three runs in the fifth and sixth to keep that pattern going.  I don’t know if it’s the end of the season fatigue or what, but it seems to be happening more and more often.

Notes: The less said about this one the better.  Michael Wacha was activated and got tagged for three runs, including Anthony Rizzo‘s second longball.  (Rizzo is working his way higher and higher on the Cardinal killer list, if he’s not almost at the top already.)  You’d like to think that was because he’d not pitched since over a month and hopefully that’s all it was, but we won’t really know until the next outing, whenever that may be.  Other than that, I don’t have much to say here.

Thursday (6-2 loss at San Francisco)

Hero: Randal Grichuk.  The only player with two hits in either of these two games, which indicates exactly how badly this vaunted offense is sputtering.  Grichuk also scored one of the two runs and drove in the other.

Goat: It has to be Adam Wainwright, doesn’t it?  Four runs in 5.2 innings.  Nine hits.  Three walks.  Sure, he got burned a little bit by Jhonny Peralta being unable to hold on to Piscotty’s throw to get a runner at third and by his manager’s questionable decision to walk the eighth place hitter with two on and one out, but still, a good Wainwright gets out of a lot of these messes.  The home run to Hunter Pence was a tough way to start, though Pence is another one of those that always seems to have a great game when he plays against the Cardinals.  To give those other runs up right after the club had tied the game for you, though, is just not what we’ve come to expect from Uncle Charlie.

Perhaps we need to start expecting it, though.  Jenifer Langosch pointed out that he has the next-to-worst road ERA in the league.  Let’s look at this a little bit.

Start Opponent Road IP Road R
1 Pittsburgh 6 3
2 Atlanta 5 5
3 San Diego 6 3
4 Arizona 5.1 4
5 LA Angels 5 7
6 Washington 7 4
7 Cincinnati 6 2
8 Chicago 6.2 3
9 Kansas City 5 6
10 New York 6.2 4
11 Cincinnati 5 2
12 Chicago 2 7
13 Philadelphia 6 3
14 Milwaukee 7 1
15 Pittsburgh 5 4
16 San Francisco 5.2 4

That’s not a pretty line, folks.  Twice he gave up more runs than innings pitched and once they equaled.  Most of those teams aren’t exactly cream of the crop, either.  Getting pounded by Chicago makes some sense (although not that badly) but Atlanta?  Barely getting a quality start in San Diego?  Struggling against a Giants team that doesn’t have much in the way of offense on a regular basis?

I’m not anywhere close to a pitching expert and Joe Schwarz looked at this in much better detail and experience back in June, but it really all seems to boil down to the fact that Wainwright’s signature pitch, the curve, isn’t working.  Brooks Baseball does a great job with things like this and I went to check out Wainwright’s batting average against on the curveball.  Here’s the chart:

brooksbaseball-chart

 

As you can see, the entire 2016 season the batting average against on the curve has been much higher than in the past.  He’s only had one month this season (April, which is a bit surprising given his return from injury and still settling in) that the BAA was under .225.  In 2014 he had five such months.  In 2013 the highest he allowed on the curve was .229 in October.

We’ve seen that all year long.  The curve either is hanging up there and getting pounded (his isolated power on the curve is notably higher than any other time in his career) or it’s not in the strike zone and batters can wait for the fastball.  The good old days of seeing Waino drop nasty curve after nasty curve past hitters that look like statues is probably over.  He can still flash it at times and he can have nights where it might be on, but those nights aren’t going to be the norm, it doesn’t seem like.

Wainwright just turned 35.  He’s had two major injuries.  He’s pitched in the postseason six different years.  Age comes for us all, it just comes more quickly for others.  And it’s hard to believe when we’ve watched a guy be so good for so long that time may have come for him as well.

Now, with all that said, does that mean Wainwright is done as an effective pitcher?  That’s not necessarily the case.  I’m sure he’s going to work very hard this offseason to try to figure out what to do and how to adjust.  I just think he might have to come back with a mindset of being the crafty veteran instead of a guy that’s an ace and can go to his big weapon at any time.  I definitely want him on the Cardinals next year (and, since he’s got two more years on his contract, he’s not going anywhere).  He’s just not going to be the Cy Young guy we saw before.  And that’s OK, even if it takes some getting used to.

Notes: Let’s talk a little about Mike Matheny‘s decision in the fourth.  Wainwright walked Brandon Belt to lead off the frame, which is the worst thing you can do when your team just got you the tying run.  He gets Brandon Crawford, but then allows a double to Eduardo Nunez.  Runners on second and third, one out, and Denard Span coming up.

As you know, when the Giants and Cardinals get together, I spend a little time at THE San Francisco Giants Blog.  Unsurprisingly, given the way the second half has gone, there’s some grumbling about things and one of the things was the fact that Span is not hitting at all.  Bruce Bochy, like Matheny, didn’t seem to recognize that and left him at the top of the order until last night, when he finally had to make a move.  He was hitting .068/.146/.159 in the month of September before last night.  So, instead of going after him and getting an out, Matheny walks him intentionally to get to Johnny Cueto.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense at all.  Sure, Span is more likely to get a hit than Cueto, and with two outs this is a no-brainer of a decision.  But there’s only one out.  Even if you get the most expected outcome, a Cueto strikeout, you then have the top of the order coming up with the bases loaded and two outs.  Maybe you think you can get out of that one, especially since Angel Pagan has been struggling as well and you’d already gotten him out twice tonight, but it seems like a risky bet the way that Wainwright was going.

Of course, Cueto winds up getting a sacrifice fly (for some reason Piscotty’s throw wasn’t as strong as the one he made later to third, though I don’t know if it would have mattered) and Pagan singled in a run anyway.  Because that’s the way things are going for the Cardinals.  (To be fair, they have been going that way for the Giants as well, just not last night.)

The Cardinals always have trouble with Cueto, but the Giants bullpen has been a dumpster fire, especially of late.  So the hope would have to be to keep the game close, wear down Cueto, and win it late with this offense that has scored so often in the 7-9 innings.  Instead, Cueto retires the last 17 men he faces (nobody after Grichuk’s RBI single reached base) and goes the distance.  Not exactly the way St. Louis drew it up.

It seems to me that the outliers the Cardinals have had over the last few seasons always seemed to fail them late or in the postseason.  In 2013, the legendary RISP year, that seemed to fade in October.  Last year, it was the historic starting pitching, but it stumbled in September and wasn’t there in the playoffs.  This year, the offense has been the story, but as we’ve noted recently, it’s been quiet late in the year.  Perhaps Black Widow mentioned that the sun’s getting real low and they’ve turned back into Bruce Banner.

Last Cueto note: I’m pretty sure nobody that was around in 2010 ever expected to see Molina and Cueto laughing together.  There are few players in baseball I don’t care for and I’m fine with the Reds, but I always want to see the Cardinals beat Cueto.  They just can’t do it often enough.

Before the game, there was a lot of angst around lineup time because Aledmys Diaz wasn’t in it.  Matheny explained that Diaz had a scheduled day off due to his returning from the DL earlier this week.  I get that and there’s logic there, though as some point out it doesn’t seem like it is logic that gets applied to everyone else.  The problem is that there are just 2 1/2 weeks left of the season and every game is huge right now.  In May, June, July you can get away with that more than you can now.  My guess is Diaz really needed the rest and it wasn’t a precautionary thing, and it may pan out if that means he can play the rest of the way, but it’s tough when one of your best players is sitting in a very important matchup.

There was also some confusion pregame as Trevor Rosenthal was reported to be activated, then reported that he was not going to be activated, then finally activated.  Rosie didn’t know that he was, which might tell you how prepared he was to go into a game last night.  (Give Matheny credit, he didn’t immediately throw him out there like he did Wacha, though perhaps it would have been a good idea for him to throw the eighth or ninth since they weren’t coming back anyway.)  I’m very interested to see how Rosenthal does now that he says he’s pain-free for the first time this season.  (Whether or not he actually is pain-free is a totally different topic.)  If he’s effective, the pen gets much better.  Now if the starters could improve…..

Speaking of starters, Alex Reyes is officially pitching Sunday, moving Jaime Garcia to the bullpen for the moment.  In a recent blog, you might remember that I suggested skipping his start against the Giants then juggling so his next start was at home against the Reds.  I don’t know if that’s what we’ll see–probably depends on if they stay in the wild card race–but it’s interesting that they are making this move.  I still think they pick up the option, though I do think he’s a tradable asset, even if it’s not at the level he would have been last year.

Cardinals send out their other top rookie, Luke Weaver, to face the Giants tonight.  Weaver looked good against the Brewers, but he has really looked good against basically everyone.  There’s no particular reason to think he can’t do the same tonight.  The Giants counter with trade deadline acquisition Matt Moore, who allowed just two runs in seven innings against Arizona last time.  ‘Course, the time before he gave up six in 2.2 in Colorado.  On the whole, though, Moore’s been quite a good addition to a team that needed an infusion of pitching.  Unsurprisingly, given his time in the AL East, the Cards aren’t all that familiar with him.

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS SH SF IBB HBP GDP
Brandon Moss 5 5 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 .200 .200 .200 .400 0 0 0 0 0
Jhonny Peralta 5 5 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 .400 .400 .600 1.000 0 0 0 0 1
Brayan Pena 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 .000 .500 .000 .500 0 0 0 0 0
Total 12 11 3 1 0 0 1 1 0 .273 .333 .364 .697 0 0 0 0 1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/16/2016.

I see no reason why this won’t be a good pitcher’s duel.  Moore has only gone past the sixth twice as a Giant, so keep it close and beat up on the bullpen.  Hopefully that’s a winning strategy!

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