Setting Up the Showdown

There’s no way this weekend should matter.

After all, the Cubs were a lock for this division, weren’t they?  The reigning World Champions with a team that was just going to lay waste to the division for a number of years.  Even with a good Cardinals team, things should be well settled by mid-September.

And, for most of 2017, this wasn’t a good Cardinals team.  They spent a great swath of the season under .500, not getting away from more losses than wins until a little over a month ago.  Put this team with the 2016 Cubs and they are back by 20 games at the trading deadline, which likely would have gone very differently.

Yet here we are, September 15, with a chance that by the end of the weekend we’re talking about the first place Cardinals.

Let’s quickly stipulate a lot of things would have to go right, starting with a sweep of the Cubs in Wrigley, but even that it is within a reasonable realm of possibility is insane given what we’ve watched this season.  A team that couldn’t get out of its own way at times now looks like the fairly well-oiled machine that we’d hoped we’d see all year.  St. Louis is 10-3 in September, 12-4 since those series losses to San Diego and Tampa Bay that seemed to nip whatever momentum the club was feeling in the bud.

Of course, the problem with digging a hole is that it’s pretty tough work filling it back in.  The Cards lost once to Cincinnati–just once–and it cut probabilities by like 10% and made the mountain steeper.  If the Cards can’t sweep but win two of three, which is a pretty nice accomplishment, they would remain two back of the Cubs with 13 to play.  Summer’s coming to an end and the days are getting shorter in more ways than one.

Before we look at the series that starts this afternoon, let’s take a look at the Cardinals beating the Reds.  If they’d done this at the beginning of the season, the hill wouldn’t loom so large, but I digress.

Tuesday (13-4 win)

Hero: Paul DeJong.  Unsurprisingly, given the number of runs and hits, there were a lot of people in consideration here.  DeJong edged them out with three hits, including a double and a home run.  He also drove in two while scoring two.  His numbers haven’t been as strong in September as they were the rest of the month (through Thursday he’s slashing .261/.333/.478 with two homers and five RBI) but he’s not done a nose dive either.  He’s contributing in the heat of a pennant race–which, actually, can be said about a lot of recently-former Memphis Redbirds.

Goat: I thought about giving it to Lance Lynn, who pitched OK but not outstanding, but most of the runs Lynn gave up were after the game was well in hand, which has to mean something.  We’ll go with Harrison Bader instead.  Bader did get a hit, like everyone else in the lineup, but he left six men on in his five AB.

Notes: Like I said, it wasn’t Lynn’s best game.  He gave up a run early, which got quickly erased, and three in the fifth.  They pulled him then even though he was at 73 pitches, which wasn’t a bad idea given the score, and you do wonder if the big lead allowed Lynn to go at batters differently than he would have had it been 2-1.  Lynn will go in the finale against the Cubs this weekend so hopefully a little bit of rest will help out there.

Yadier Molina had another strong outing, going two for three with a double that erased that early Reds lead.  Carson Kelly came into this one late (though did wind up with a plate appearance, drawing a walk) but with Molina on fire and the Cards in a race, that’s about all we can expect from Kelly.  I hate it for him, but there’s no doubt that Yadi being out there a majority of the time is best for the team.  If the Cards would get eliminated from both the division and the wild card with a week left, then yeah, Kelly should start most of those.  It just doesn’t look like that’s going to happen unless things really get disastrous this weekend though.

Jose Martinez continues to be on fire.  Two more hits in this came, including a double, and he drove in two runs.  In the second half, he’s got an OPS of 1.083 with eight homers in 126 PA.  I feel bad about dismissing him over the winter and earlier in the year, though his first half numbers weren’t nearly as strong.  Zach Gifford wrote up a nice piece about why Martinez’s increased selectivity (he has nine more walks in nine fewer plate appearances in the second half, for one thing) has helped him find the pitches he can drive.

Oh, and he’s hitting .435 with a 1.208 OPS in September while starting almost every day at first base.  I’d say he’s been contributing.

The bullpen of Brett Cecil, Zach Duke, and Sandy Alcantara threw three scoreless innings, which is good to see of course, even if the low pressure situations don’t necessarily tell us everything we want to know about these guys.  Giving them a chance to succeed and boost a little confidence surely can’t hurt, though.

Wednesday (6-0 loss)

Hero: Jose Martinez.  He had two of the team’s five hits.  That’s….really about all there is to say about that.

Goat: Jack Flaherty.  I know that Ryan Sherriff gave up the grand slam that 1) put the game away and 2) let most of Flaherty’s runs score.  However, if Flaherty fields Tucker Barnhart‘s comebacker cleanly, he gets the double play and has two on with the pitcher up and is probably in a better frame of mind so he doesn’t wind up hitting Tyler Mahle and putting him on base.  That was the thread that caused everything to unravel.

Notes: Of course, when you have seven batters on base in the first three innings and absolutely none of them score, there’s a strong chance it isn’t your night.  One of those key hits that the Cardinals got on Tuesday night could have quickly changed the entire complexion of the game.  Instead, there were a lot of groundouts to end innings and unsurprisingly the Reds finally took advantage.

I know there was a lot of grief about leaving Sherriff in the game to face Eugenio Suarez, a right-handed batter.  Sherriff, at least in the minors, wasn’t just a left-handed specialist.  He closed games and faced a number of righties.  With where we were in the game (it seemed unlikely you’d see a Matthew Bowman in the fifth) I wasn’t terribly disappointed that Mike Matheny left him in.

However, looking at the stats, I can see that Sherriff hasn’t been nearly as good against major league righties (a 1.041 OPS against them, though that counts Suarez’s blast) and apparently Suarez was significantly better against lefties as well.  Putting those facts into evidence, facts that the manager should have known, and when you have a full bullpen with expanded rosters and an urgency to win, I probably do go get someone, maybe Bowman who wound up pitching the ninth of this one when it was out of hand for his first game in about five days.  He could have finished the fifth and pitched the sixth without issue, it would seem.  Again, with the way things went in the early going, it really may not have mattered but it would have at least shown an urgency that you need this time of year.

Thursday (5-2 win)

Hero: It’s a coin flip, honestly.  In recognition of not only this game, but what these numbers mean, I’m going to give it to Tommy Pham, who hit a home run, stole two bases, drove in two runs, scored two runs, walked, and became the first 20/20 Cardinal since Reggie Sanders in 2004.  That’s a game and that’s a heck of a season.  You wonder if he’d started the year in St. Louis how close he’d be to 30/30.

Goat: Yadier Molina.  Of course, we say all those great things about Yadi above and here he goes 0-4 with five men left on base.  Maybe a day game after a night game would be where a normal catcher would rest, but again, as noted, you have to keep running Molina out there while he’s hitting if at all possible.  Besides, it’s fine.  Yadi trains for 174.

Notes: Luke Weaver almost got my Hero tag just by being the stabilizing force in this rotation.  Seriously, since Weaver slid into Adam Wainwright‘s spot and Mike Leake got traded, do you worry about who is starting that night?  I mean, you probably know the bullpen is going to be used a bit more with Flaherty going, but you don’t look at a starter and say, “Man, it’s going to be a real tough one tonight.”  Which, in my opinion, is what is really fueling this run.  Stabilizing the starters stabilized the bullpen and let folks realize that the 4-5 runs this offense has been putting up since the All-Star Break actually can win games.

All Weaver did here was go six innings, allow two hits and an unearned run, and struck out six.  That’ll do, I think.  What about you?

Jose Martinez also had two hits in this game.  Because of course he did.

Let’s talk a little about Matt Carpenter.  I plan to get into this tonight with Allen on Meet Me at Musial and we’ve discussed it a bit here as well, but since he returned from the cortisone shot, Carpenter has had 25 plate appearances.  In 12 of them he’s walked (which his why his OBP over this stretch is .600) and seven of them he’s struck out.  That means only six times in the past six games has Carpenter had a PA that ended with the ball in play.  He has three hits in those six tries, including a double and a home run.

All that is good and I don’t mean to complain about it.  Obviously OBP is huge in the game and you don’t want Carpenter up there swinging away all willy-nilly.  We’ve seen the complaints that Reds fans have about Joey Votto walking too much and felt they were pretty silly.  (Which they are, because Votto hits over .300 with about 30 homers with those walks.)  So again, I don’t want it to sound like I’m griping that all Carpenter does is walk.

But all Carpenter does is walk.  I hope I can explain this better on the show, but if Carpenter was putting up numbers like Votto, it would seem like Carpenter was being selective but willing to do damage when he got his pitch.  Watching Carp the last week, it doesn’t feel like he wants to swing the bat right now.  It feels like he just is up there to walk.  Which is fine and good, especially out of a leadoff man, but part of Carpenter’s appeal was that he was Votto-lite, that he would put up some numbers with that keen batting eye.

He does have 19 homers, but his OPS is .820 which would be almost a career low.  His OPS+ is 115, which is solid but again, not overly so (and a career low as well).  It feels like Carpenter is supposed to be more integral to the offense and that means swinging the bat more.  Walks are a very good thing (though they’d be more meaningful from a leadoff guy with speed), but it feels like the walk is the focus now, not the selectivity to find his pitch.  It probably doesn’t help that feeling when he’s got a .397 OBP since August 1 and a .193 BA in that same span.  Again, maybe that’s some weird thing I’m feeling, but it’s nagging at me.

In 2017, Carpenter has walked 101 times and struck out 113, meaning those account for 37.3% of his plate appearances.  Votto’s walks and strikeouts this year account for 30.3% of his plate appearances.  I guess what I’m saying is it feels like Carpenter is being passive at the plate right now, not patient.  Maybe that’ll change, but for me it makes it seem like his shoulder is still really bothering him and he’s afraid to do a lot of swinging with it.

The Mets couldn’t help the Cardinals last night, but the Diamondbacks could.  So let’s take a look at the standings before this afternoon’s game.

The Cardinals look pretty solid in their chance of finishing over .500 (they’d have to go 4-12 to finish at break even) which is more than we thought just a couple of weeks ago.  The road record has improved as has their record inside the division.  I’m not saying that they are going to sweep this weekend or that they’ll even win the series, but they’ve played the Cubs close all year long, even when they weren’t playing well.  There’s not a large gap between the two teams.  Unfortunately, with things being that close, that means a game can turn on one play or one pitch and there are times that has bitten the Cardinals badly.

They’ll send out Carlos Martinez to try to reduce some of those bad possibilities.  We all know Martinez can be a little erratic, but he’s the guy you want on the mound in the biggest series.  (Which is the definition of an ace for most people, though the manager might disagree.)  Martinez is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA against the baby bears this season so I’m all for him keeping that up this afternoon.  (He’s 3-4 with a 3.02 ERA in day games, which doesn’t seem to cause concern either.)

Chicago will be countering with that grumpy old former Redbird John Lackey.  Lackey has some rough numbers on the season but he’s been pitching somewhat better of late.  His last two starts, he’s gone seven innings in each and allowed a total of two runs, both against Milwaukee in his last outing.  He’s faced the Redbirds twice this year and given up a total of five runs (four earned) in 13 innings.  This could be a pitcher’s duel today, though if the wind is blowing out that seems somewhat unlikely.

It’s a huge weekend for the Cardinals.  While they are going up against the Cubs, the Brewers will be “at” Miami (Miami will be the home team but they are playing it in Miller Park due to the hurricane) while the Rockies will host the Padres.  They aren’t probably going to get any help from other teams, so they’ll need to win and win often in the Friendly Confines.  Here’s hoping they can do it!

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