Has the Bubble Burst?

Quite a number of things have happened since last we got together.  Let’s dive right into the recaps and see what threads we want to tug on as we go, shall we?

Thursday (8-6 win vs. Kansas City)

Hero: Dexter Fowler.  Two hits, including the third grand slam of the week, which made up the bulk of his five RBI.  I was listening to the Bird Law podcast yesterday and they pointed out just how good Fowler has been since those first couple of weeks.  Since May 1, he’s got a line of .259/.374/.505, which is pretty much in line with what we thought we’d be getting.  Maybe a bit less batting average but that’s counteracted by a surprising amount of slugging.  You can argue whether the Cardinals should have gone that route, but I don’t think it’s as easy to make the case that Fowler isn’t living up to expectations.

Goat: Brett Cecil.  It’s not the only time we’ll have issues with Cecil in this recap, as I got to see him make an impact on a game in person the next night.  I’m as confused as anyone about Cecil.  It looked like he had a handle on things for a while, but then he’s blown up again lately.  From June 13, after he had a few days off to mentally reset after some bad outings, to the end of July, he had an ERA of 1.31 and batters had a .611 OPS against him.  He still wasn’t a strikeout monster–13 in just over 20 innings–but he only walked three so it worked out in the Cardinals’ favor on balance.  In his five games in August, though, he’s got a 9.00 ERA, a OPS against of .827, while actually being more effective with the strikeouts–nine K and one walk in seven innings.

It could be just a few bad innings, it could be he needs another reset.  Whatever it is, the Cardinals need to figure it out.  There’s a lot of clamoring of Internet folks to just cut him and eat the contract.  Which isn’t going to happen.  If there was a few months left on the deal, a la Jhonny Peralta, maybe that’s an option.  With three years and change on it, that’s just not how business is done.  Right now you can’t pitch him in close games and, to his credit, Mike Matheny seems to know that.  In this one, he was handed a 7-3 lead in the eighth inning.  That’s about as safe as you can do, yet Cecil did his best to ruin it, putting the first two on before striking out Alex Gordon and being removed for Seung-hwan Oh.

In fairness (and something that I’d forgotten as I started this section), Oh allowed those runners to score, being foolishly allowed to pitch to left-handed Brandon Moss with the bases loaded.  Moss came a foot away from a slam of his own.  Still, if Cecil had been able to get his guys, maybe Oh doesn’t come into the game and he certainly doesn’t have to face Moss with as many runners on.

Notes: Lefties have an 1.056 OPS against Oh this season in 100 plate appearances.  That is a higher OPS than any one player has in the majors this year.  Joey Votto has a 1.048 and Bryce Harper has a 1.034.  (Technically, Mike Trout has a 1.154 OPS, but he didn’t make the leaderboard given he missed a few weeks.  Not that anyone believes he wouldn’t have basically that even if he hadn’t.)  There is NO situation where Oh should face a lefty, especially one with power, with runners in scoring position.  OK, maybe if the Cards are up 10, but even that’s iffy.  Don’t do it, Matheny.  Just don’t.

Fowler’s slam gave Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons the win for his two-thirds of an inning of work.  Joe Schwarz wrote a great look at Lyons over at The Intrepid and showed that one of the reasons he’s being effective is that his two pitches tend to “cross”.  Check it out to see what he’s talking about.

Paul DeJong had two hits, including a big insurance-RBI double in the eighth inning that let Cardinal fans breathe a bit easier.  Kolten Wong went 2-2 with a walk and drove in a run.

Lance Lynn had a pretty solid outing, especially for the fact that his head was grazed by a comebacker early on.  Six innings, three runs (two earned), with the main blemish being that he walked five while only striking out three.  Still, he limited the damage and the offense came back and took him off the hook.  This made the winning streak serious at six games.

Friday (8-5 win vs. Atlanta)

Hero: Paul DeJong.  Two doubles and three RBI.  The last two were the big ones, again giving fans a bit of a breather by doubling home extra runs in the eighth inning.

Goat: Brett Cecil.  I probably should have gone with Oh above, but this was all Brett.  With two outs and a runner on second, he allows a single to Kurt Suzuki, then a single to Matt Adams (making his return to Busch, where he got the normal standing ovation) that drove in a run.  Right there, he should have been pulled.  He wasn’t, and Ozzie Albies hit his second career homer to cut the lead to 6-5.

We talked about Fowler mainly living up to what reasonable expectations were of him.  Cecil was signed to be that left-handed specialist.  Yes, he could get right handers out as well, but he was going to be the guy that we could count on to shut down the big lefties.  That hasn’t happened at all.  Cecil’s line against lefties: .333/.393/.538.  He’s given up as many homers and more doubles to left-handed batters and done so in almost 30 fewer plate appearances.  Thank goodness Zach Duke has returned and really gives a strong LOOGY option to this team.

Notes: I was at this one and it was a great night for baseball.  No Cardinal homers, unfortunately, but seeing the big second inning was a great tonic.  That said, the offense shut down after they got their second run in the third.  From the third to the eighth, IIRC, they only had like one batter reach and that was on a hit-by-pitch.  Luke Jackson came in for the Braves and just dominated, striking out six of the seven batters he faced.

Adam Wainwright was lucky to survive five innings in this one.  Even sitting in the ballpark and not looking at the radar gun, you could tell there was nothing on his pitches and he didn’t really have much command either.  Afterwards, he spoke of some arm issues, issues that have apparently cleared up as he had a session yesterday with no problems.  It definitely proves that he’s reaching the “crafty veteran” stage of life, though, to be able to win when you really have nothing.

Yadier Molina almost got the Goat here, being that he went 0-5 with two strikeouts.  It was a tough night for a guy that’s been rolling as of late.  Also, the Cards scored eight runs for the sixth consecutive game, a club record.

Saturday (6-5 win vs. Atlanta)

Hero: Randal Grichuk.  A home run early to tie up the game, plus he got a hit and scored another run later on.  Since Grichuk returned from Memphis on July 21, he’s put up a .310/.341/.607 line with five doubles, one triple, and six homers.  He’s still striking out (26 K in 88 plate appearances) but it feels like he’s got a little bit better approach at the plate these days.  Of course, as we’ve said before, you can’t keep sending him to Memphis to try to fix him.  Memphis’s season is about done and he’s got no options next year.  Still, this little run is pretty encouraging.

Goat: Yadier Molina.  We’ll go with Yadi here since he was 0-4 with four men left on base.  Since the Rally Cat slam, Molina is 1 for 16 through Saturday.  Maybe there wasn’t as much magic in that old gray cat they found after all.

Notes: Carlos Martinez again struggled out of the gate, allowing two runs in the first, but settled in and limited the Braves to just one more tally over the next five, striking out seven in total.  If he could ever start off games right, he’d be outstanding.  Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons followed him and pitched two scoreless innings, with two walks and two strikeouts.

Trevor Rosenthal has been lights out lately, but he was shakier here.  In fairness, if Matt Carpenter catches a routine toss to him, much of this might not have happened.  With a runner on and one out, a grounder was hit to Kolten Wong, who routinely threw it to first, hit Carpenter in the mitt, and watched as it just fell right out.  Carpenter has been better at first of late–I really enjoyed his double play on Friday–but that was about as bad of an error as you could see.  So instead of one on and two out, there were two on and one out.

Rosenthal struck out the next batter (which should have been the third out) but then walked Brandon Phillips and, after getting two strikes on him, allowed a single to Freddie Freeman that drove in two runs.  He got Nick Markakis to strike out and preserve the victory, but it wasn’t exactly the way they drew it up.  Surprisingly, Rosenthal was not quoted after the game as saying Carpenter “had to make that play.”

Two hits in this one by Dexter Fowler and Paul DeJong.  I never would have thought Fowler was the solution to the cleanup spot, but he’s done pretty solid work since he’s been put in that position.  It’s only five games, but Fowler has a gaudy .500/.652/.875 line in 23 plate appearances as the cleanup guy.

The Cubs lost on Saturday night, meaning that, for a few hours, the Cardinals were tied for first place in the NL Central.  Hopefully that’s not the high water mark of the season.

Sunday (6-3 loss vs. Atlanta)

Hero: Paul DeJong.  Three hits, including his 18th home run.  I’m not saying he’s the starting shortstop next year nor that he’s not going to get figured out by the league, especially with a winter to work up a book on him, but man, he’s been fun this year hasn’t he?  Pauly D goes deep more often than anyone and seems to be making some adjustments as he goes along as well.

Goat: Matt Carpenter.  0-5 and three left on base really gets highlighted in a loss like this.

Notes: While you knew that the winning streak was going to come to an end sooner or later, this was still a better loss than we’ve seen out of this team much of the year.  For a while, it looked like a reversion, with no offense coming after getting down early.  However, they battled back against the Braves’ bullpen and had the bases loaded with one out in the eighth down two.  A big hit in that spot could have tied the game or even given the club the lead, but with Jedd Gyorko hobbled and Luke Voit and Dexter Fowler already used, there weren’t any bench options to replace Greg Garcia except for Yadier Molina, who came up next to hit for the pitcher.  As noted, with Molina’s slump it might not have made a difference–indeed, Yadi might have hit into a double play–and it would have taken some juggling to cover third in the field after that.  Garcia struck out, Yadi grounded out, and the threat was over, but it was still more fight than we’d seen in a lot of games.

Michael Wacha struggled a bit, giving up four runs in five innings, including a two-run homer to Brandon Phillips.  Wacha’s been better of late, though he may be coming down from some highs that we’ve seen.  Still, you are going to have days like that.  Most of the time lately the offense has been able to pick up a starter with that sort of outing.  They just weren’t able to do it here.

Two hits each by Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong.  Wong’s been having a solid season and it’s been a consistent one.  His batting average, on base percentage, and OPS are almost identical in the second half as they were in the first half.  When you can hit over .300 and get on base at close to .400, you are doing mighty fine.

Tuesday (10-4 loss at Boston)

Hero: Dexter Fowler.  Three hits, two RBI.  It might not have been enough, but Fowler seemed to enjoy Fenway Park.

Goat: Yadier Molina.  I don’t know the last time I saw a GITP in the box score.  When your two at bats for the night result in five outs for your team, it’s not your night at all.

Notes: Running a Mike Leake who is talking about being physically compromised out into a hitter’s park against an AL team leading their division and, well, you probably aren’t expecting much.  Leake held it together for a while, allowing just one run until the fifth, but when it unraveled, it unraveled quickly.  Even erstwhile reliever Matthew Bowman couldn’t stop the bleeding, coming in with the bases loaded with one out and a 5-0 deficit and immediately surrendering a double and two singles to move the game to 9-0.  There was no coming back from that and while the Cards made a bit of a rally, scoring three in the sixth, the outcome never really was in doubt.

Carson Kelly got to come into the game after Molina had done his damage and singled in a run in his first at bat.  I’m sure Molina will get back on the upward swing soon, but it might not be a bad idea to let Kelly take a bit more of the workload when he can.  Kelly got the start Sunday and most of the game here, but I don’t think that’s any sign of a change in catching philosophy.  Molina will be back out there and hitting fifth again tonight.

So, now that we are closing in on 2400 words, maybe we should try to tackle the question the title posed.  Has the bubble burst?  You so often see it in sports where a team makes a rally in a game or in a race and they get so close to the top, maybe even a tie, before stumbling and being unable to find that gear again.  The Cubs won on Sunday and on Monday while the Cardinals were off, so St. Louis now sits 1.5 games back in the NL Central, tied with Milwaukee for second (though three games over Pittsburgh).  Was that all this team had?  Did they come at the king and miss?

I don’t necessarily think so.  Sure, you’d have like to see them get ahead of the Cubs and change the dynamics of the race.  However, unlike what we thought right after the All-Star Game, it doesn’t seem like the Cubs are going to just run away with things.  They’ve not found that 2016 gear yet and with less than 50 games left in the season it doesn’t feel like they are going to.  Chicago is 5-5 in their last 10, five of which came against the Giants and Reds (they went 2-3 in those).  They’ve had the Diamondbacks and Nationals, which are tougher teams, but you’d think if they were going to be this Best Team in Baseball like everyone dubbed them in the offseason that they’d be able to more than hold their own against those teams.  This stretch right now is pretty easy for them (their next 11 games are against the Reds, Blue Jays, Reds, and Phillies) but there is no guarantee they are just going to rip through that soft underbelly of a schedule.

I think the Cardinals can stay at least close to the Cubs and, with seven games left against them in September, they have a shot.  This team–even with last night’s pain–still feels different than it did before that infamous dinner meeting in Cincinnati.  Losing against the second-best (by record) American League team in their ballpark isn’t the most unheard of thing in the world.  What’s going to be more telling is this four gamer coming up with the Pirates.  If the Cards can’t at least split and hopefully win three of the four games then you start to wonder if they are going to start sinking back into the muck.

A win tonight would do a lot for the psyche of the fanbase, though.  Lance Lynn will take the mound against Eduardo Rodriguez, a left-handed starter who beat the Cardinals when the Red Sox were in Busch earlier this year, allowing three runs in six innings.  His last start was six scoreless innings against the Yankees, so the Redbird hitters might have their work cut out for them here.  Hopefully they can get the split and head to Pittsburgh with a little momentum!

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