A Variety of Ways to the Same Destination

There was a lot of trepidation on the off day last Thursday.  The Cardinals had just finished up playing three last place teams in the National League and wound up going 4-5 against them.  The next six series were against teams over the .500 mark and some significantly over.  Would the Cardinals be able to step up their game and play with the big boys?

The early returns are yes and no.  Save for the first game of the set, they’ve been in all the games and had chances to win.  The unfortunate part is they are 1-3 to kick off this stretch and they got the variety pack of losses, with each one having a different flavor.  Let’s dive in.

Friday (13-5 loss to Chicago)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  Two hits, including a solo home run, plus a walk and he drove in two.  There wasn’t much to be excited about in this one but Carpenter did good work.  It’s nice to have him clicking again.  Through Monday night, he’s hitting .254 in June, which isn’t a great number but much better than the sub-.200 work he was putting up.  He also has four homers, though he has five walks and 17 strikeouts in that span.  Take out the Pittsburgh series to start the month (where he went 0-11) and he’s hitting .308 over his last 12 games, which is more in line with what I felt like he was doing.

Goat: Michael Wacha.  Everybody stumbles and Wacha had been going so well that he probably was due for a bump in the road.  I don’t think it necessarily was going to be this big, however.  Four innings, nine runs (eight earned), four walks, two strikeouts, and a game score of -1.  I am sure I’ve seen negative game scores before, but I don’t remember when.  (Probably one of those Adam Wainwright blowups like this.)  One of those runs scored after Wacha left, as he didn’t retire anyone in the fifth and Mike Mayers came in and immediately let his inherited runner score.  There’s no particular reason to think Wacha can’t bounce back to closer to his earlier work tomorrow against the Phillies, but we’ll wait and see.

Notes: It was a blowout loss to the Cubs.  I don’t think we want to dwell on it much.  Marcell Ozuna had a home run that put the Cards on the board (after trailing 5-0) and Tommy Pham got one in garbage time late.  Matthew Bowman was the only pitcher not to be scored on, but I think everyone wishes he’d saved that scoreless outing for later.  Otherwise, there’s really not much we want to rehash about this game.

Saturday (6-3 loss to Chicago)

Hero: Marcell Ozuna.  He only had one hit, but it was a two-run homer in the first that got the Cardinals a lead and at least temporarily helped wipe the taste of Friday’s beatdown out of their minds.  The two runs didn’t hold up, but he did his part.  There’s a reason he was named NL Player of the Week on Monday.  Four longballs in that span will usually do that.

Goat: Matt Carpenter.  I know, I know, I just said a lot of nice things about Carpenter, but this was one of his rare hitless games as of late.  0-5 and he left four men on base, including striking out in the ninth with two on and one out.

Notes: Carlos Martinez didn’t really alleviate any concerns folks might have had about his control, walking six in five innings along with allowing seven hits.  The fact he just gave up three runs with all those base runners is fairly remarkable.  The numbers since his return from the disabled list are not, though.  Batters have a .500 OBP against him in those three starts.  I don’t have to tell you what that means, but I will anyway.  That means that every other batter is reaching base against him.  In 12.2 innings he has 18 walks and 15 strikeouts.  He has a 7.11 ERA and a .908 OPS against.  The only good thing is his GB rate is 1.43 over that span, which is why he’s not been even worse, as he continues to get double plays to curtail the threats.  Still, that’s a big problem and three starts is enough of a sample to start getting a little worried.  Maybe he’ll be more like Carlos next time out but if he’s not……well, I have no idea.

Austin Gomber threw a scoreless inning and is moving up the trust ladder in the bullpen.  Matthew Bowman went 1.2 scoreless, which means counting Monday he’s thrown in three of the four games since he returned from the disabled list.  Wow, some things really don’t change, which can come back to bite you, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Sam Tuivailala might have taken the loss with his work in the seventh, though he didn’t have as bad an outing as the line suggests, since the walk was an intentional pass of Kyle Schwarber and he was one out away from getting out of trouble, but the story afterwards was that Jordan Hicks was more mortal than we thought.  He cleaned up Tuivailala’s mess, then started the eighth and saw the first batter reach on an error by Yairo Munoz.  It’s not the first time Hicks has had a runner on, so there wasn’t any reason to think it’d be a problem, especially with Jason Heyward coming up.  Heyward has struggled over the last few years with hard throwers–heck, he’s struggled against everything–but quietly he’s turned things around.  Perhaps Chili Davis made a tweak in his approach, I don’t know (I watched the game muted), but he got every bit of a Hicks fastball and crushed it out into the bullpen, putting the game on ice for all intents and purposes.

Munoz did have three hits, which mitigates his defense a little bit.  I still think everyone’s ready for a return of Paul DeJong, though that could make for some interesting decisions as well.  Munoz has hit well enough to be a good bench option, but they may want him to work on his fielding in Memphis.

Sunday (5-0 win vs Chicago)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  The Cardinals needed a stopper.  They needed someone that could give a little bit of hope.  They needed not to be swept by the Cubs.  And Flaherty–along with a cadre of bullpen folk–did the job.  Five innings were all he could go since he wasn’t as efficient as some, but he allowed just two hits and struck out seven.  He was even able to get out of trouble, like when he loaded the bases in the third on a hit-by-pitch, a walk, and a single (not in that order).  With Kris Bryant up and two outs, fans could have been forgiven for feeling a bit of “here we go again”, but Flaherty struck out the Cub slugger and gave a boost to his team.

Goat: It actually is tough to find one, which is a nice change, but we’ll go with Luke Voit.  The only starter not to get a hit, Voit struck out twice and was double-switched out of the game late.  Voit did less with this callup than he did before, going 0-7 for the weekend and returning to Memphis when Jose Martinez came off the paternity list on Monday.

Notes: Two hits for Marcell Ozuna and two hits for Harrison Bader.  A home run for Matt Carpenter.  There are times where you can see a reasonable offense in this team, just not all that often.

The bullpen, for as much as we deride it, worked like a charm in this one.  John Brebbia pitched the sixth and worked around a couple of hits.  Austin Gomber threw a perfect seventh and Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris followed it up with scoreless frames of their own.  I keep thinking there’s some hope in the bullpen.  I like what Gomber brings and, as I’ve said many times, he needs to be more than just a LOOGY.  I don’t want Brebbia pitching the ninth or anything, but he’s done well enough that those middle innings can be less concerning when he’s out there.  As I said on Gateway, if you can have four guys you can really rely on in certain roles, that allows you to weave in the guys you may be less confident in, like Brett Cecil, in games where either it is out of hand and give them a chance to get right.  It becomes much easier not to overuse folks or feel like you have to use Hicks every night if you have a few arms that you feel confident in.

Monday (6-5 loss in 10 at Philadelphia)

Hero: Tommy Pham.  By all rights, we should be celebrating a dramatic shot by Mr. Pham.  It was his only hit of the night, but it came at just the right time and, being that it is his second homer in four games, you get encouraged that his power is returning.  If it is, couple that with Carpenter going and Marcell Ozuna hitting like we thought he would, plus a solid season from Yadier Molina, and there’s something there.  Whether it’s enough and whether the pitching staff will be able to continue what they are doing to make it worthwhile are different questions.

Goat: Marcell Ozuna.  Even if Ozuna hadn’t been 0-5 with three left on, he’d have gotten the Goat here.  After taking the 5-4 lead, the Phillies–well, and the Cardinals, but we’ll talk about that in a minute–put two runners on.  Matt Bowman gets two outs then gives up a sharp fly to left.  With two outs, the runners are going.  The biggest thing is to keep the ball in front of you.  If it drops, with Ozuna’s arm, it’s possible that the bases are loaded.  At worst, the tying run scores and you have a chance to go to the 11th.  If you are going to leave your feet, you have to come up with it.  I’m sure Ozuna thought he would.  He didn’t.  And it was pretty much worse-case, because if he doesn’t get a glove on it and flip it over his shoulder, he might have been able to make a play on the go-ahead runner.  (Probably not, but maybe.)  The way it happened, there was no chance.

Notes: All right, let’s talk about Mike Matheny‘s intentional pass of Carlos Santana, breaking the rules of baseball to put the go-ahead run on base.  The tying run was on second with one out.  I’m going to confess, my initial reaction was to walk Santana as well to set up the force, especially since Bowman isn’t likely to get the strikeout you really want here.  A number of people pointed out on Twitter that Santana is only hitting .226 on the season, but that’s mainly–like Matt Carpenter–because he had an atrocious April.  He hit .281 in May and .265 in June so far with eight of his 10 homers coming since the end of the first month.  I’m not saying he’s a world beater, but there’s a reason he’s batting fourth on a team led by a sabermetrician.

Santana’s also, on the season, hitting .294 with runners in scoring position and was hitting over .300 for the past week.  His OBP is strong for the entire year.  He’s also has a 1.131 OPS against groundball pitchers this season.  Mr. Bowman would probably be considered a ground ball pitcher.

All that said, I don’t think much of that may have factored into Matheny’s decision.  I think Matheny thought, “Bowman’s my double play guy, let’s get him a chance to get a double play.”  Yet in 20 games this season, Matt Bowman has induced one (1) double play.  It’s a simplistic way to look at it, because obviously not all plate appearances are double play possibilities, but in 2016 Bowman got a double play every 35 plate appearances, which was about what it was in 2017 as well.  He’s gone 95 PA this year with just one.  Maybe he was due for one, but you can’t plan on Bowman getting those kind of plays.

Especially when he doesn’t have his stuff.  Bowman was staying up high in the zone much of the inning, not getting down where a ground ball should be.  Honestly, my bet is this wasn’t going to work out well for the Cardinals no matter what.  Odds are, Santana would have come through.  Not saying that putting him on was right and you do tempt fate by doing it, but I’m not going to say that was the reason the Cards lost this one.

The choice of Bowman here–again, in his third appearance in four days–might be more of an issue.  Some wanted to see Jordan Hicks here, but you know what I think of running him out there three days in a row and after Bud Norris pitched on his second day, chances are he’s not going tomorrow.  If Hicks also pitched, you are kicking the problem down a day.  I mean, who would close tomorrow if Hicks and Norris are both out?  I get it, you win the game you have, but you do have to be planning somewhat down the road.  Otherwise you wind up with Hicks pitching every day and that’s Bowman’s job.

It would have been Austin Gomber’s third day in a row as well, so he was out of the picture. Mike Mayers and Sam Tuivailala had already pitched.  That left Bowman, Brett Cecil, or John Brebbia.  With Brebbia having just gone Sunday (but been off Saturday), that probably would have been my choice.  That said, he has been worked hard of late, so it’s possible he wasn’t as available as it would appear.

All of this might have been a moot point had Miles Mikolas not had a completely uncharacteristic first inning.  A single, a walk–only his third in June–and then a three-run blast from Odubel Herrera before he even got an out meant that he gave up more runs there than he did in four May starts combined.  He settled in eventually, though not until he gave up another run in the frame, and looked more like Mikolas the rest of the way.  While that is two games in a row where he’s given up three or more runs, I don’t think we can claim that “the league is figuring him out”.  He probably isn’t as amazing as he was early on, but he’s still going to be a good pitcher going forward.  The fact that he was able to check the Phillies for the rest of his night helps tell us that.

(It’s amazing that we talk about all this and not the fact the Cards should have lost the game when Yairo Munoz struck out–something the Cardinals did a lot of last night–but the ball got away from Andrew Knapp allowing Yadier Molina to score from third.  Then Kolten Wong pinch-hit and did what Kolten Wong does best, getting a big late inning hit to tie the game.  All those dramatics kinda faded a bit after the 10th.)

So the Cards have lost a blowout, they’ve lost a game where they led early, they’ve lost a game where they made a late comeback.  There’s hope there if you poke around, but there’s also a lot of worry and a lot of possibilities that this could all go south in a hurry.  The Cards are still just four games out of the division and a game out of the wild card, but it also feels like the season might be balancing on a tipping point.  At least to us–apparently not so much to John Mozeliak.  There’s no doubt that he knows much more than we do and has a good track record of being right, but I don’t know if I’m quite on board with what he’s selling.  Especially when the first returning player is likely to be Greg Holland today after showing nothing in a minor league rehab.  Holland says he wants to be in “uncomfortable situations” and pretty much anytime he’s in the game for a while, fans are going to be uncomfortable.

Luke Weaver goes today, still trying to find that form we saw earlier in the year.  Hopefully he can find it faster than Mikolas did last night and the Redbirds can find a way to win instead of a new way to lose.

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