Finally on the Brink

We’ve written off this team many times during the season, only to see them put together a little run or to see opponents in the race stumble.  Hope has reappeared, only to be dashed again.  Finally, though, this team is on the edge of the precipice.  One more loss and they are home for the winter.  One more Colorado win and they are home for the winter.  Sun’s getting real low out there and today may be the last day that the Cardinals are “relevant” to the postseason picture.

I put that in quotes because even though they are technically still alive, their relevance has been minimal since those two losses to the Pirates this weekend.  The sweep by the Cubs the weekend before didn’t help it either.  You look at this team and see that they have gone 39-30 in the second half and think that’s pretty solid (which is it, especially in comparison to the first half) and September is 15-9 which is great, but then you realize that seven of those nine losses have come in the last two weeks and you start to wonder if the team ran out of gas or what.  Then you think that five of those nine losses came against the Cubs and you realize just how much work needs to be done for this team to get back to being the class of the division.

You look at the world and how terrible it seems today and you can’t help but tie that to the fact that the Cards have lost their place as the top team to the Cubs, can you?  I mean, before 2015 things weren’t great, but they weren’t this bad.  We always knew that Chicago winning the World Series would cause the end of the world, we just thought it’d be a little more dramatic and less gradual.  (Wait, this is only my crackpot theory?  Umm, nevermind.)

We’ve got two games to look at, including a rare win against the baby bears.  Let’s get to it.

Tuesday (8-7 win)

Hero: Zach Duke.  The team scored eight runs, but it wouldn’t have mattered had it not been for Duke’s outstanding work in a critical time.  Carlos Martinez got nicked for single runs in the second, third, and fourth, but was holding a 5-3 lead when the fifth started.  He walked Willson Contreras to start the inning, then got Ian Happ to fly out.  With Kyle Schwarber, who easily could tie the game with one swing, ready to bat, Mike Matheny showed some urgency (that, as we will discuss, he really DIDN’T show last night) and went to Duke instead of letting Martinez try for the win.  It probably helped that Martinez was at 92 pitches, of course.

The Cubs countered by pinch-hitting Albert Almora (which is a swap that the Redbirds would take any time, I think) and Duke struck him out then got Jason Heyward to ground out.  He then threw another scoreless inning with a couple more strikeouts to keep things as they were.  Duke’s been a bit up and down this year and I expect he’ll have to find work somewhere else, but he still seems to have something in the tank as a LOOGY and whoever gets him next year will probably get a solid piece.

Goat: John Brebbia.  We’ve often said that Brebbia has outpitched his peripherals this season and regression happened hard in this one.  Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons worked a scoreless seventh, but started the eighth by hitting Happ and walking Leonys Martin.  Watching it, I will say that Lyons seemed to have lost a little command, but the Cubs still had three lefties and a switch-hitter coming up.  It would seem to make sense to leave your best lefty in to face these guys, especially since that’s probably why you had him start the inning in the first place.  If you have to switch, perhaps you go with Ryan Sherriff, another lefty.  (I’d say Brett Cecil but we know that he’s had his own issues with those from the sinister side this season.)  Brebbia has done OK against lefties, but not as well as he has against righties.  With an 8-3 lead at the time, leaving Lyons in for at least another batter would have been the better play, especially since Jason Heyward didn’t have great career numbers off of him.

Heyward, of course, homered off Brebbia, who then went on to strike out Mike Freeman and get Jon Jay to ground out before giving up another long ball to Ben Zobrist.  Matheny then went to Juan Nicasio and Brebbia’s night was done but not before the lead was almost erased.  Which feels like a synopsis of the Cards/Cubs series this year.  St. Louis can play with them for a bit, but eventually things explode and it’s not good.

Notes: This was the kind of game that gets people talking about Martinez not being an ace.  And while his stuff is very good and he’s clearly the best pitcher the Cards have and one of the better ones in baseball, if you need reliability and consistency out of your ace, a guy that’s going to take the game by the horns and just shut it down, Martinez still has room to grow there.  The Cardinals scored three runs off Jake Arrieta in the first, but gave one back in the second on a Happ triple and a groundout.  St. Louis put up two more in the bottom of the second, but Martinez walked in a run in the top of the third after a double, a hit by pitch, and a walk had loaded them up.  He gave up a run in the fourth as well, though that was in large part to Carson Kelly‘s catcher interference eliminating a double play.  When you give a starter five runs, you want to see him come out and put up zeroes.  The Cubs have a very good lineup, but it felt like Martinez could have done a bit more to keep them in check.  He’s young and that part of the game will come, I think.

Offensively, Matt Carpenter led off the game with a home run, just his second career hit off of Arrieta (both homers).  Before the game, there was a lot of complaining about Carp being in the lineup leading off with his woeful career against the Chicago hurler.  I continue to say that Matheny is one of the most blessed individuals out there, because so often a bad process winds up as a good result.  Tommy Pham had two hits, including a long two-run homer, before being plunked (in his mind, intentionally) in the sixth and then getting picked off because everyone in the ballpark knew Pham was going to try to retaliate by stealing a base.  The HBP left him unable to bat in the eighth with two on and one out and an insurance run in dire need, leading Stephen Piscotty to pinch-hit and fly out.

Jedd Gyorko and Randal Grichuk had two hits and both of them hit a home run.  Paul DeJong snapped out of it a bit with two hits as well.

Wednesday (5-1 loss)

Hero: Paul DeJong.  He had two hits again, which was 40% of the total team hits, and drove in the only run.  For a while, the only run that was actually needed, though that finally crumbled.

Goat: Dexter Fowler.  0-4 with four men left on base.  Fowler’s done pretty well against his former team this year.  Unfortunately, it didn’t happen in this one.

Notes: All right, let’s get right to the biggest issue of the night.  Michael Wacha was on cruise control through most of this game.  He made it through six scoreless innings and had only thrown 60 pitches.  That’s incredible, when you think about it.  Two hits and one plunk (Anthony Rizzo, who I swear actually stands on home plate.  How he’d doesn’t have a 1.000 OPS and a ton of bruises from where he stands, I don’t know) was all that he’d allowed.  It was a masterful Wacha performance.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Obviously, Wacha was going through the lineup for the third time.  Rizzo was leading off the seventh, so he was going to deal with the heart of the order.  Wacha’s barely pitched past the sixth this year (a total of 5.2 innings, three of which came in that shutout of the Mets) and third time around opponents have a .900 OPS against him.

I don’t quite think anyone was suggesting that Matheny should pull Wacha after the sixth.  I mean, maybe if you have a shutdown bullpen, a 7-8-9 three-headed dragon, then you think about it.  The Cardinals not only don’t have those guys, the closest guys they do have–Tyler Lyons and Juan Nicasio–were probably unavailable.  You had Matthew Bowman but that’s about all you feel real confident in.  So if Matheny pulls Wacha and the bullpen gives up the game, most fans are irate that he didn’t stick with Wacha.

Wacha gave up a scratch single through the shift to Rizzo to start the frame.  I think most people were believing that someone should have started warming in the bullpen then, which I probably agree with.  There definitely needed to be someone up after Ben Zobrist singled, putting runners on the corners.  I don’t know that anyone could have been warm enough to face Addison Russell if they’d gotten up after Rizzo, but you probably could delay enough to get them warm.  (You’d think Bowman stays warm as much as he has pitched this season.)

So I can understand Wacha facing Russell.  That inning was a quick one and Wacha had been so good you’d want to see if he could get a double play.  I also would have understood Wacha getting pulled before Russell, but not before, if someone had gotten warm in time.

Wacha gave up a three-run homer to Russell, of course, as he curved it just fair.  Which was a huge blow and probably the game no matter what right there.  You would think that was his last batter, because again, he’s not pitched past six before and he wasn’t really fooling anyone this time around. Pat him on the back and go to the bullpen.

Except, as far as I can tell, there’s still nobody warming up.

I know the bullpen is shaky.  I know that you don’t really want to use a lot of them when you don’t have to.  But this is basically your season right here.  With Colorado already winning, you are dancing on thin ice and that ice is spiderwebbing under your feet right now.  How can someone not be ready to go after the Russell home run?  That’s inconceivable and I do know what that word means.

So Wacha faces Javier Baez and allows a double.  Now Derek Lilliquist goes out to the mound but either still nobody is ready to come in (which is again mind-blowing) or they want to give Wacha another chance, because Lilli trots back to the dugout and Wacha stays out there to give up another double to Jason Heyward.  He’s STILL out there to issue a walk to Rene Rivera before finally being pulled.  Honestly, if the Cubs hadn’t pinch-hit for Lackey there, he’d have probably faced Lackey just to see if he could get an out in the frame.

Bowman comes in and gives up a double that lets Heyward score, so Wacha’s line went from 6-2-0-0-8 to 6-7-5-1-8 in the span of 20 pitches by Wacha and three by Bowman.  Zach Duke had to come in and finish putting out that seventh inning fire and Sam Tuivailala and Brett Cecil threw scoreless frames, but the damage was done.  The fire had gone out of the universe, as it were.

This is frustrating in isolation, but the problem is we’ve been saying this about Matheny since he took over the team in 2012.  It made a little more sense back then that he didn’t really know how to use a bullpen, that he deferred to his starters and let them try to work through things or go for the win or face a batter or two (or more) than they should have.  It’s been six years, though.  I think Matheny has gotten better in a lot of things over his time here.  I mean, he doesn’t bunt NEARLY as much as he used to and while he still wears out one bullpen arm a year it used to be a very rigid end of the game, no matter how often those guys had pitched or what the score was.  He’s somewhat better.

Nights like this, though, kinda show that he’s not better enough.  You’d think that a bench coach would help him out here or perhaps adding Mike Shildt to the mix would improve it, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Of course, didn’t it come out at one time that Matheny doesn’t tend to listen to those guys or you have to manipulate him into seeing it your way?  I can’t quite remember the quote or when it was or I’d look it up, but if that’s the case, it would explain a lot.

Mike Matheny has a three year extension that hasn’t even kicked in yet.  (Sorta like how everyone bagged on that old Ryan Howard contract the Phillies signed way before the current deal was over.)  He’s not going anywhere.  Bill DeWitt has come out with a public vote of confidence and I don’t see him backtracking on that.  I also don’t think that the organization is discontented with him enough anyway to move him.  I’m not exactly sure what the fascination with Matheny is and I’m sure there’s a lot we don’t see, but what we do see indicates that the Cardinals might be better served going in a different direction.

It’s true that Mike’s had six winning seasons, something that’s not easy to do.  The question is, would any other manager have NOT had winning season in that time period?  After all, we are talking about teams that won 88, 97, 90, 100, 86, and whatever this season winds up to be, probably about 84.  Are you telling me that someone else wouldn’t have gotten a winning season out of the 2012 team coming off the World Series?  That Matheny was worth 10 or more games in that recent stretch?  I’m not really buying it.  Matheny maybe should get credit for keeping things on an even keel and perhaps his leadership did get a couple of extra wins out here and there, but it feels like his bullpen management at the least would negate that and perhaps run a deficit.

I don’t know that I’m on the “Fire Matheny” bandwagon and I’m definitely not one of these that, if he cured cancer, would gripe that he took too long and he’d have figured it out sooner if he’d not stuck with “his” lab assistants.  That said, I’m not sold on the idea that Matheny is a net asset to the organization.  We continue to talk about shakeups in the offseason and while it won’t happen, a shakeup in the dugout might be part of the solution.

Lance Lynn goes up against Kyle Hendricks today in a desperate attempt to keep the Cards relevant for another day.  Colorado doesn’t play so it would take a loss to end this continual cycle of hope and disappointment permanently for the year.  You figure Hendricks will have an abbreviated start now that things are clinched and maybe that’ll help the Redbirds, assuming that they can come out with any sort of fire and aren’t just going through the motions.  You couldn’t really blame them if they did, though.  I think we are all ready for this to come to an end!

  • West Coast Redbird

    Rizzo absolutely stands right on the plate. Look where his back foot is – it’s essentially on the back corner of the batters box, closest to the catcher. How he gets around on any inside pitch to drive with authority I don’t know and greatly respect.

    • Cardinal70

      It looks like if he’d step into the pitch his foot would be on the plate. You are right, turning on a pitch has to be tough. I wonder how that might change as he gets older and not quite as quick. I also wonder if pitchers are a bit hesitant to pitch inside (thereby plunking him) and wind up catching more of the plate with their inside pitches because of it. It obviously works, but anyone complaining about him being hit is disingenuous at best.

  • Alan in Sarasota

    Carlos drives me nuts. He seems to make an egregious fielding blunder per start and loses focus as well. He’s a wannabe ace.

    • Cardinal70

      He’s not perfect, but when you think of where Chris Carpenter was at his age, where Max Scherzer was at his age, he’s definitely got the potential to be that upper echelon ace in a couple of years. He’s needs a little more experience and focus, but I think he can get there. It’s definitely worth having patience on him.

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