A Royal Letdown

With a weak Kansas City team, at least by the standard of their record and place in the AL Central, coming into town and a Cardinal team that felt like it was starting to be what it was supposed to be, you’d have liked to have seen St. Louis just run rampant throughout this series.  While the opener of the series fed into that, last night crushed a lot of hopes and raised a number of questions.  Let’s take the good game first.

Monday (6-0 win)

Hero: Miles Mikolas.  There were a few other options in what was really a good overall game, but nobody can top St. Mikolas.  Nine innings, nine strikeouts, no runs.  It was a tough chore following Jack Flaherty‘s outing on Sunday, but Mikolas did that and then some (though, as folks that responded to my Twitter poll pointed out, it was against lesser competition so that probably should factor in a little).  Mikolas was in control all night long and at least a couple of the four hits he allowed were weak bloops.  After his first two starts this season were a little rough, Mikolas has put up a 1.30 ERA in the seven outings following.  Again, John Mozeliak and company know what they are doing.  Usually.

Goat: A really rough night for Tommy Pham, who went 0-4 with four strikeouts.  If there was anyone you wouldn’t expect to get the golden sombrero, it’s SuperPham, but it happens.  Putting that with his game on Sunday, where he was also 0-4 with two K, it’s not surprising he got a night off Tuesday night.  Of course, perhaps there’s not a coincidence that the team only scored one run either…..

Notes: Another night, another homer from Tyler O’Neill, who is quickly becoming a huge fan favorite.  O’Neill has raw power we may not have seen since the Mark McGwire days (Albert Pujols had a ton of it as well, of course).  His three-run blast basically sewed up the game but he added an RBI double later on.  I don’t know how long this run will last before the pitchers adjust and force him to adjust as well, but it’s a fun thing to watch until it does!

Matt Carpenter appears to be back on track.  Three hits in this one, including a double and a home run, and he was batting something like .524 in his last 24 AB or so, plus he’s still drawing the walks.  It was back-to-back nights with three hits and the smart people seem to think that he’s starting being more aggressive in the strike zone.  Carpenter’s always had a good feel for the zone but he was trying to go deep into counts, thinking he could always hit a two-strike pitch.  He seems to have changed his approach to start swinging at the first good one that is in the strike zone and he’s wearing out pitchers who have started to be accustomed to his more passive outlook.  He’ll cool off a bit for sure but right now, there’s hope that Carpenter can be Carpenter going forward, even if the final numbers are overly depressed because of this terrible six week start.

Besides Carpenter and O’Neill, Marcell Ozuna had two hits, but I want to talk a little about Ozuna in Tuesday’s game discussion, so we’ll hold off on him for a while.  Also of note, Greg Garcia started this game, meaning up to this point Yairo Munoz still barely had any time on the field, much less the starts that John Mozeliak thought he’d be getting.  Garcia did leave this game with back spasms which led to Munoz finally getting a start on Tuesday.  Garcia’s grandfather also sadly passed away Tuesday, which may require him to be away from the team for a day or so, though I’ve not heard that officially yet.

Tuesday (5-1 loss)

Hero: Marcell Ozuna.  Ozuna had three hits in this one and while a couple of them were just flares that found no man’s land patches of grass between the infield and the outfield, the trajectory of those seemed interesting to me.  Zach Gifford wrote Monday at Birds on the Black about Ozuna needing to get to more of an uppercut in his swing to get back to the power numbers that we have expected from him.  Someone on Twitter yesterday, perhaps Jim Jones, noted that Ozuna seemed to be working on something like that in the cage before the game.  Then he goes out and hit high popups that fall rather than the ground balls that he’d been usually hitting.  Put that all together and I like the possibility that Ozuna’s going to figure this out and get going soon.

Goat: Dexter Fowler.  I actually got to sit down and watch a lot of the game last night and so drew baseless and probably wrong thoughts from my viewing experience.  What I felt like I saw watching Fowler, besides a guy that seems to radiate defeat at the plate, was a stiff and rigid guy in the batter’s box.  I tried to find some old AB to see if he had a similar look when he was going well (which meant I was reading a lot into things knowing how the season was going for Dex) and the little I found seemed to confirm that he used to be more fluid, but that also was just a couple of AB and I’m no swing analyst.

What I do know is that Fowler went 0-4 in this one leading off, including swinging at a 3-0 pitch when the Cards were down two and needed base runners.  I can understand what Fowler was thinking, though.  That could be the best pitch he’ll see for days and if he could hit it hard, maybe it’d get him on track.  Instead, he flew out to left, which probably only added to the burden he’s carrying.

It’s frustrating because I think most everyone likes Dexter Fowler as a person.  He seems like a fun guy, he’s got a great smile, his family is adorable.  If that’s not enough, his contract runs another 3 1/2 years, so even folks that don’t care for Fowler have to want him to get going because it’s unlikely that the contract is that tradable (and Fowler does have a no trade clause) and the Cards aren’t going to cut him, no matter what some fevered folks online may want.  It’s possible he gets a loss in playing time or becomes an expensive backup, that I’d grant you, but Fowler is still going to be in the conversation somewhere.

Being in the conversation at leadoff, though, is a fairly crazy idea.  My guess is that Mike Matheny thought that, with a revived Carpenter hitting behind him, maybe Fowler would see some pitches and get a bit of a jumpstart.  Instead, it (and the fact that Carpenter also went 0-4 mainly against Jason Hammel, whom he has a rough history against) seemed to throw a wet blanket over the hitting instead.

All this worry about Fowler, but we should note that after his 41st game last year, he was slashing .205/.302/.409, which is better than this year’s .155/.274/.284, of course, but perhaps there’s still a chance he’ll have another surge like he did in 2017.  It’s all we have to hope for right now, it feels like.

Notes: Plenty of interesting things in this one, but let’s tackle the ugly first.  Greg Holland came into the ninth inning while the Cardinals were down two runs to face the bottom of the Kansas City order.  I really don’t have too much of a problem with this, because it was the bottom of the lineup coming up against the Royals’ closer.  Not saying they couldn’t put something together, especially the way Yairo Munoz was going last night, but the odds were pretty long.  Finding spots for Holland to work could be difficult at times–Monday night’s ninth inning would have been fine, but Matheny chose to let Mikolas finish the game.  Waiting for a blowout either way to get him in could make for a long wait for him, which isn’t likely to help him get on track.  It wasn’t optimal to put him in last night’s game but it wasn’t the worst decision either.

Of course, you’d have like to see Holland go out there, get three outs, and quickly get to the bottom of the ninth.  Instead, he allowed a leadoff single to Abraham Almonte, then a hit-and-run single (on a pitch low and probably out of the zone) to Alcides Escobar.  He followed that up with what seems to be a staple of the Greg Holland experience, a walk.  So bases loaded, nobody out.

Now, with Holland struggling so much now, you probably should have someone getting loose about the time he leaves the bullpen.  He’s got to be on a short hook and I get that having someone warming would be a blast of cold water on Holland’s confidence, but until he proves that he’s earned a longer leash, you just have to deal with that.  Instead, after a trip to the mound, Matheny left him in to face Jon Jay and the former Cardinal did what he did a lot as a Redbird, take a high pitch and smack it for a solid single, this time plating two runs.  Holland leaves with no outs recorded and John Brebbia comes in to clean up the mess, keeping the Royals from adding any more.

Every time I watch Holland pitch, I don’t like what I see.  I’m not talking about results, although those are ugly and, with six runs in a total of an inning over his last three outings, aren’t getting any better.  No, I don’t like the way he pitches.  I don’t know that I can describe it, but it kinda looks like he’s pushing or shot-putting the ball.  It doesn’t look like smooth mechanics.  I’m sure that’s the way he’s always done it and he’s had success in the past, but it just doesn’t feel right to me.  Again, though, I have no expertise on anything like that.

Luke Weaver did look good, even though he suffered in comparison to Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas.  Weaver allowed three runs in seven innings and was very good at throwing strikes.  Perhaps too good, honestly.  At one time I heard Dan McLaughlin say something about “19 of 21 first pitch strikes” or something like that and I immediately thought that, eventually, they are going to do some damage on the first pitch if he doesn’t mix it up a little more.  Sure enough, Salvador Perez smacked his homer on the first pitch of the sixth inning.  Not that I fault Weaver’s approach and you definitely want strikes from your pitcher, but that is the downside of being that much in the zone.  Eight strikeouts in seven innings for Weaver and for the most part he got beat by good hitters, so there’s something.

We continue as fans to be looking toward Alex Reyes and where he’s going to fit into this suddenly overflowing rotation.  There’s a line of thought that says Weaver goes back to Memphis while Flaherty stays up.  I’m not sure that’s much less painful than sending Flaherty down.  That’s the problem, really–everyone in the discussion deserves to be in the big leagues.  But I’m not sure that everyone can be.

Munoz had four hits, raising his batting average 150 points (fun with small samples!) but for some reason Matheny (I assume) twice tried to hit and run with Francisco Pena behind him, causing Munoz to be the back half of two strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double plays.  Not necessarily the greatest way to go about things, even at the bottom of the order.  Of course, the offense was sputtering so I guess you try anything.

Four hits from Munoz, three from Ozuna, and four from everyone else.  Tyler O’Neill had his homer streak stopped and struck out three times, though he did have a hit in the other at bat.  Jose Martinez scored the only run on a delayed double steal with him and Ozuna.  At least that looked like what it was.  It could have been Martinez just getting too far off and getting lucky when the Royals dropped the throw, but we’ll take what we can get, right?

Games like last night are going to happen.  Kansas City is not 0-for-2018 and bad teams beat good teams all the time.  You would have thought, with Hammel struggling of late with an ERA close to 8 on the road, that they’d have lost a game where the offense was good but the pitching wasn’t, but a loss is a loss.  The key is not losing the series, which the Cards will try to avoid doing this afternoon when Michael Wacha takes on Jakob Junis, a pitcher I’m not familiar with but who has pretty solid stats (5-3, 3.51, 1.08 WHIP) for the season.  Hopefully Wacha pitches as well as he has been and the bats come alive, because losing a series to the Royals is not the way any of us want to go into an off day.

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