The Heat Is On

We said last week that sweeping wasn’t an easy thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

All season long, we’ve wanted the Cardinals to win the games they should win, beat the teams that are down.  It’s true that the schedule has been favorable for the Redbirds as of late, but they’ve taken advantage of that advantage.  Since the beginning of the last road trip, they are 10-3 and now sit just two games out of the division and three games out of the wild card (because the Dodgers have completely forgotten how to win, it seems).  They are tied with the Brewers in both aspects, which makes for some interesting possibilities coming up in the next couple of weeks.

Right now, according to Fangraphs, the Cardinals have a 16.2% chance of winning the division and a 8.5% chance at the wild card, giving them almost 1 in 4 odds of making the playoffs.  Compare that to where they stood at their last off day, before this current run, where the overall odds of them playing in October were 13.3%.  Their 23.7% mark may not mean you should start buying playoff tickets but they surely are trending in the right direction.  The next three weeks will decide the fate of the 2017 season, something we’d have never believed back in June or July.

As I said last night on Gateway to Baseball Heaven, we often use the 2006 and 2011 teams as the “anything can happen” rally points.  This team isn’t at all those teams, but I think they have a chance to be a more realistic example for hope in the future.  2006 was a better team than most folks give it credit for, leading the division all year long and being about nine games over .500 as September opened, plus it still was the basic core of the two 100-win teams that had come before.  (Interestingly enough, that ’06 squad was 76-67 after 143 games, compared to this team’s 75-68.)  2011 was that once-in-a-lifetime run that’ll never be duplicated, but that team also was solidly over .500 for most of the season, needing the run not to get to respectability but to chase down a solid field.  (They were also 76-67 at this point in the schedule.)

The 2017 team, though, if they can complete this comeback, could be used as a fairly real example for teams in the future.  “Look, 2017 was under .500 at this point in a year and they made the playoffs.  Things can turn around!”  That’s fair.  And sure, some of this is schedule and some of this is the fact that the Cubs haven’t played like they did last year, but every year is going to have its unique twists and conditions.  If this team makes it into October (or even falls just short, perhaps), I think we’ll be using it as an example for a while to come.

Anyway, that’s enough preamble.  We have a couple of games to take a look at.

Saturday (4-3 win)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  I’m still not so sure that the shoulder isn’t continuing to bother Carpenter.  Since his return from his three days off, he’s hitting (counting Sunday) 1-7 with five walks and four strikeouts.  That means just three times this weekend the at-bat ended with him making contact, which makes me think he’s more hesitant than normal to be swinging.  (And let’s not get into how weak and awkward his throws still look.)  Thankfully, one of them was a game tying home run in this one, setting the stage for the comeback win.

Goat: Dexter Fowler.  There were a number of possibilities here and Fowler did wind up scoring a run, but he overall went 0-3 with two strikeouts and two left on.  Plus he tried to catch Adam Frazier‘s ball at the wall and came crashing down, forcing his removal from the game.  Fowler’s been good this season–that early stint overshadowed a lot of what he’s done–but especially of late it feels like he’s been injury-plagued.  It’s not like he’s brittle or they aren’t reasonable injuries–he came down hard on his back on this play–but it seems like if something can happen, it’s going to happen to Fowler.

Notes: This was a game that I’m not sure this team wins a month, two months ago.  Chad Kuhl kept them in check, but Carlos Martinez did the same to the Pirates for the most part.  Frazier’s inside-the-park homer was a fluke (when Harrison Bader has to run over from right field to get a ball that has wound up in left, you know it’s a weird play) but overall the pitching staff kept it close.  If they’d lost, I think that it would have been a tough one, but an acceptable one.  Thankfully, the late heroics meant we didn’t have to debate the semantics.

Martinez went six, gave up two, struck out eight.  With a solid bullpen–and more and more, the Cardinal bullpen is looking solid–you’ll win a game like that a majority of the time.  He had a bad second, including giving up an RBI double to his opposite number, but other than that was outstanding.  Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons got the win with a scoreless eighth and newest Cardinal Juan Nicasio locked down his second save, quickly becoming a fan favorite just by providing some stability to the ninth inning.  What the Cards will do in the playoffs if they get there is still undetermined, but it’s nice to have this option right now.

Yadier Molina went two-for-four with two RBI.  I looked it up last night and, not counting Sunday (which was a big day for him, as you’ll see), Yadi’s hitting about .284 with six homers since telling his manager on Instagram he’s not tired.  Point to the catcher, I believe, though it hasn’t been great for Carson Kelly.  And you really wonder why they bothered with Alberto Rosario, who has been up for 10 days and still doesn’t have an inning played.

Credit also to Paul DeJong, who may be in a bit of an overall slump but still seems to make his hits count.  In this one, he doubled to lead off the eighth then moved along and scored on a couple of groundouts.  One of which came from Randal Grichuk, who didn’t strike out in a situation that he really couldn’t afford to strike out.  In June you know he’d have whiffed.

Sunday (7-0 win)

Hero: Yadier Molina.  Two hits, five RBI.  His three-run homer in the third really felt like the slamming of the door the way the pitching staff has been going of late.  Turns out, all Michael Wacha really needed was his RBI single in the first.

Goat: Another tough day for Stephen Piscotty.  He did reach and score a run, but his line is 0-4 with two strikeouts and three left on base.  I had hope that Piscotty’s success against the Padres might get him kick-started a bit, but apparently that was not to be.  Right now, it feels like when they are healthy (and able to see) the outfield should be Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, and Harrison Bader.  What that means for Piscotty’s playing time is unknown.  That said, even with all these outfielders, playing time hasn’t been as much of an issue yet since injuries keep creating openings.  If everyone is healthy as the season winds down, then some decisions may need to be made.

Notes: As noted, Wacha basically did it all here.  Eight scoreless innings plus he chipped in a sacrifice fly.  He was efficient as well, throwing eight in 95 pitches.  I don’t know that you can rely on Wacha having good starts, but you know that it is a very good possibility, which makes you feel somewhat better.  Right now, the entire rotation has created confidence which is a big reason they are where they are.  If Wacha, who dropped his season ERA under 4.00 for the first time in a month, can be on for his next three starts, you like the Redbirds’ chances.

Yadi did most of the damage, but Randal Grichuk had a home run and Paul DeJong had a couple of hits.  Just a perfect Sunday afternoon under the arch, getting cheap drinks for everyone to enjoy today.

The Cardinals are off today but they could still gain some ground.  The Pirate team they just swept moves on to Milwaukee, where Steven Brault faces Brandon Woodruff.  It might be asking a bit for Pittsburgh to help St. Louis out, but maybe it’ll happen.  The Rockies will face a tougher test as they got to Arizona, sending Kyle Freeland against Zach Greinke.  You have to like the chances there to gain 1/2 game in the wild card race.  (Of course, they could slip to third in those standings if Milwaukee wins and picks up a full game.)

Tomorrow, the Cardinals get to face a Reds team that has bedeviled them all year long.  With our favorite club playing better and the Reds short Billy Hamilton and one of their top starting pitchers, maybe St. Louis can do a little better this time around.  Mike Matheny has juggled the rotation with today’s off day so Lance Lynn will go instead of Jack Flaherty, which probably is a wise move.  Robert Stephenson will be on the other side of things, coming off limiting the Brewers to one run in six innings.  He hasn’t faced the Redbirds since his first start of the year back in April, when he walked six and allowed three runs in 1.2 innings.  We’d take more of that!

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