Where Were These Guys in April?

And yes, I know, the literal answer to the post title’s rhetorical question is in large part “Memphis”, but that’s not exactly what I’m going for here.  Back in April or May or heck, possibly even July, this team would have made a key error and never recovered.  Now, with postseason within sight, the Cardinals still make a key error, but this time are able to rally in the ninth to keep their October hopes on more than life support.

After sweeping Cincinnati, the Cardinals went into PNC Park to take on a team that has been a tough battle the last couple of years.  That said, this Pirates squad isn’t really resembling that team that made the playoffs and pushed the 2013 squad to the brink.  St. Louis swept them in Busch Stadium just a couple of weekends ago and now hope to do the same in their ballpark.  They’ll probably need to do that given the strength of the last week and the motivation of who is coming into St. Louis.  Whether they can do that or not may rely on the resiliency they showed last night.

Let’s talk about the last third of the game first and we’ll work our way back if necessary.  With the score tied 2-2 in the seventh, Ryan Sherriff comes in to start the frame.  Sherriff, as we’ve talked about before, has been pretty solid against lefties in his major league career, but righties have figured him out.  (Currently, his OPS vs. those that hit on the predominant side is 1.143.)  He gets Gregory Polanco (L) to strike out swinging.

So then there are two righties up.  Given the way Mike Matheny uses the bullpen, I’m sure he thought his options were limited, even with 12 relievers out in the pen.  John Brebbia had already been used.  Tyler Lyons wasn’t available.  Brett Cecil has the same issues against righties.  And there seem to be about 9 relievers down there that can only be used if things have gotten out of hand.  So Sherriff stayed out there.  Which, in fairness, I could see giving him one guy to see if he was able to get him.  Unfortunately, catcher Elias Diaz then doubled off the wall, just missing a home run by a foot or so.

The go-ahead run in a critical game is now on second and another right-hander in Jordy Mercer coming up.  Mercer’s not an overwhelming threat, but he’s a solid hitter with some pop.  When you have a guy like Sherriff that’s struggling against right-handers, this is probably not a matchup you want to see.  If it’s in August and less critical, maybe you let him work through it to try to learn.  You can’t do that with less than two weeks left and less than two games between you and October.

Matthew Bowman would have been a solid choice and, indeed, came in a batter later when Mercer singled, putting runners on the corners.  I don’t know that I’d been terribly confident in him, but Seung-hwan Oh did have a clean outing last time.  Jack Flaherty hasn’t yet seen time out of the bullpen, but he was so effective first time facing batters that he could have been an option.  You even have Adam Wainwright out there, though you’d probably want to start an inning with him.

Plenty of options with differing degrees of quality, but Matheny stuck with Sherriff until Mercer singled, then went to Bowman.

Matheny seems to think that Bowman is a double play specialist in the mold of Seth Maness, though he’s only got a double play rate of about 13% for his career.  Maness is 19% for his career and 30% in his first year in the bigs, when he got that label.  Yes, Bowman gets ground balls, which does up the double play chances, but I don’t think of them being hard hit grounders all the time.  And, as we know, if you get ground balls, some of them go through.  Or the defense has to deal with them.

Because Matheny is a truly blessed person, Bowman came in and got a double play ball.  Unfortunately, Paul DeJong–who had a decent offensive night but is still our Goat because of this–completely spasmed while trying to flip the ball to a covering Kolten Wong.  If it had been a covering Shaquille O’Neal, maybe there would have been a chance.  As it was, it went flying over Wong’s head, the go-ahead run scored, and Bowman had another jam to work out of.  He did it, getting another groundout and a strikeout, but the damage appeared done.

The game stays that way until the ninth, when the Pirates bring in their closer Felipe Rivero.  Rivero has had a fine season and is doing well in the closer role, getting his first save June 10 and posting a 2.23 ERA and 18 total saves from that mark, blowing only one opportunity.  Facing the bottom of the lineup, this seems like a real bad thing for the Redbirds.  Before the inning started, Pittsburgh had an 84.6% chance of winning the game per Fangraphs.

Stephen Piscotty had looked pretty bad in two of his three at bats on the evening, but he roped a double down into the corner to lead off the frame.  Matheny, working all the angles like he feels like he learned from Tony La Russa, replaced Piscotty (who, as we know, has had his running issues this year) with Harrison Bader.  This was a smart move as that extra speed could have been crucial.  I mean, unless you were going to bunt the runner to third or something, in which case it wouldn’t really matter who was on the bases and you could replace them on third if you wanted.  But who would do that after pinch-running, right?

Oh.

I know that Carson Kelly is pretty rusty, given that he’s had all of 48 plate appearances since he was called up a couple of months ago.  (Which also goes to why you shouldn’t have him bunt, but that’s another story.)  Still, giving up an out when you only have three is a pretty dicey move in the first place.  You don’t have to worry about the double play.  The runner is already is in scoring position (and is a fast runner now to boot).  Let Kelly swing away with the idea of going to right.  Thankfully, after two ugly attempts to bunt, Kelly worked his way back to a 2-2 count and flew out deep to right, which moved the runner over.  You know, like you would hope they would.  Again, Matheny is a blessed man.

It was pretty fascinating to see Jedd Gyorko pinch-hit for Matt Carpenter in this situation, runner on third with one out.  There’s no doubt that Carpenter has struggled against lefties this year, but I never really expected Matheny to acknowledge that in a key place like this.  You just wonder, he makes moves like this when it is crunch time, but why can’t he do it during the rest of the season?  Then, maybe, you don’t have to HAVE a crunch time.

(That being said, I take issue with those that think that 60% or whatever of Carpenter that we have now is not as good as the alternatives.  I would agree in general that a damaged player probably shouldn’t be out there, but Carp’s hitting .286 with a 1.148 OPS since he returned from his cortisone shot and seems to have gotten more where he’s just being patient and not where he’s looking for a walk, like we talked about before.  The throws look tough, but so far I can’t think of a defensive play of his that has cost the team a game.  With Gyorko unable to play third and Jose Martinez doing so well at third, this is really the only option.  I know, I know, Luke Voit should play more, but honestly, the team isn’t going to be better with him out there than what we are seeing.  Though with Martinez going back to St. Louis due to his thumb, we’ll probably have Voit at first for at least the rest of the weekend.)

Gyorko got the big RBI single that tied the game up, then Tommy Pham singled pinch-runner Randal Grichuk to third.  With the runner going (because the Cardinals had hit into four double plays and even with Dexter Fowler up they could do it again), Fowler hit a ball to shortstop that probably would have been a double play if 1) Pham wasn’t running and 2) Mercer could have ever gotten a handle on it.  He was and he didn’t and the go-ahead run scores.

With the lead secured and given that Juan Nicasio had only thrown five pitches in the eighth, Matheny elected for him to bat instead of pinch-hitting for him with runners on.  This was a typical Matheny move that at times has blown up, but there is the legitimate argument that if you pinch-hit for Nicaiso and don’t get the runs, who do you trust to take the ninth?  We’ve talked about this above, but there really wasn’t a great option.  Depending who was left on the bench (and I think it may have just been Voit, who was coming into the game anyway and probably would have been the option, and Alberto Rosario, who would have had to have been wheeled out of storage somewhere), the odds weren’t great you were adding on. I probably would have gone with Voit and seen if you could have pieced together a ninth, but I can understand this and, again, it worked out.

We’ll give the Hero tag to Stephen Piscotty, given that he had two hits and his double set the whole ninth in motion.  Fowler was the only other player with two hits and Carpenter, who doubled to lead off the game, was the only other with an extra-base hit.

It was a fairly solid start out of Michael Wacha.  Two runs in five innings and he could have gone longer (only 73 pitches) but there was a scoring opportunity in the top of the sixth and so Matheny pinch-hit for him.  I think that was a time I’d have let it go, since there were two outs and a runner on first and you were sending up Greg Garcia, but hey, it’s something.  If there had been a runner at second there, I’d have understood it more, but Garcia’s not going to likely double a runner in or anything.  (The runner was Wong, so a double might have actually worked.)  Especially with a stocked bullpen you don’t want to actually use, leaving Wacha in for another inning might have been the better move.

An eventful night in Pittsburgh and one that at least moved the Cards into second when the Cubs took care of the Brewers in extra innings again.  San Diego couldn’t be quite as helpful, so the Redbirds stayed 1.5 back and their odds of making the playoffs held steady at 23.6%.  Let’s take a look at what’s happening today.

Given how late I started this and how long it’s taken me to finish, the Cubs and Brewers are just about to throw their first pitch.  It’ll be Kyle Hendricks, who did a number on St. Louis last weekend, versus Brent Suter.  You’d think the edge was to the Cubs here, which now that the Cards have passed Milwaukee doesn’t help as much.

The Cardinals will go tonight in Pittsburgh with Lance Lynn matched up against Gerrit Cole.  Cole is always one that is tough for the Redbirds to figure out.  They didn’t face him in the sweep two weeks ago, but the three times they have seen him this year, he’s always thrown six innings and allowed either one or two runs.  He has a loss, a win, and a no-decision to show for all of that.  Cole’s on a bad stretch where he gave up five to Milwaukee and four (in only five innings) to Cincinnati, so maybe they are catching him at the right time.

Lynn, on the other hand, is Lance Lynn, likely making his penultimate start in a Cardinal jersey.  The last time he saw the Pirates was in July, when he threw 6.1 scoreless innings against them.  Lynn’s also scuffled a little bit over his last couple of starts, at least for him, but maybe he’ll be on track.  The odds would seem to slightly favor the Cards tonight, but that’s never been a great thing for them this season.

Then in the late hours Colorado and Chad Bettis go up against San Diego and Jhoulys Chacin.  Bettis allowed five runs in a third of an inning last time and I think we’d be perfectly fine if he wanted to try that again.  Chacin’s home ERA is a shade under 2.  I’m hopeful the Padres can help the club out, but that’s not going to mean as much if the Cardinals don’t win this evening.  So let’s get a big red W, why don’t we?

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