Was That Really Rock Bottom?

Oftentimes in a season, we say, “It can’t get any worse, they have no place to go but up now.”  And so often, we’re wrong.  Things might get better for a little bit and then they just revert to form.  Or they wind up going out and actually losing more games.  It’s not often that we see the turning point when it happens.

So it’s tough to really be sure that Thursday’s game, with all its ugliness, was the thing that snapped this team into focus.  We don’t know if this is just a bit of a mirage before another slide down the roller coaster.  It’s not good to live in the moment and make grand pronouncements about four games.  However, there’s no doubt that this team has gotten off the mat, at least temporarily, and looks more like a playoff contender than a team wasting a season.

Let’s take a look at the games.

Friday (2-1 loss to Milwaukee)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  While a lot of people have been excited about Flaherty for a while, it’s also true that he has been a bit overshadowed, especially by casual folks, with Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver coming up alongside him.  Flaherty has made his own name now, though, and that name seems to be “Stopper”.  He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and struck out 13 Brewers, the second time this season he’s reached that strikeout level.  His 2.50 ERA and his over 4 K/BB rate mean that he’s going to get Rookie of the Year consideration at this rate, though it wouldn’t surprise me if, like Paul DeJong last year, he’s more like third.

Goat: While Bud Norris did give up the home run that wound up losing the game, it’s tough to give him the Goat when the offense did almost nothing.  If they had, Norris wouldn’t have been in that situation.  I’m going to go with Jose Martinez here, who went 0-3 (though did draw a walk) and struck out twice.  Martinez went through a bit of a slump and there were concerns that he was still hurting, but I think as the weekend went on that worry was a bit assuaged.

Notes: Matt Carpenter kept up his hot streak, hitting a double and scoring the Cardinals’ only run.  What a different a bit over a month makes, huh?  Next year, we’ve got to be a little more hesitant about writing a player off.  To be fair, Carpenter did look very bad and we still haven’t seen a rebound out of Dexter Fowler, so sometimes you can, but occasionally these things actually work out.

Marcell Ozuna drove in the run and Yadier Molina had a hit.  That was pretty much the offense, which struck out 15 times in this one.  That double-digit strikeout total is starting to become a lot more common, isn’t it?  I don’t like that much if I’m honest.

I’ve gone over this enough on podcasts and on Twitter, but the fact that Mike Matheny didn’t get himself tossed out when Tommy Pham was ejected belatedly for arguing balls and strikes was inconceivable.  One, you defend your player in that situation against an #umpshow.  Pham wasn’t warned but was immediately tossed.  Get out there and complain about that, especially when it’s a talent like Pham!  Two, this team needed a spark, a bit of fire, and this wasn’t even a spot when you have to manufacture it.  It was an opportunity just put on a silver platter for him and Matheny didn’t take it.  It’s just amazing to me that he didn’t.

I mean, one time I saw Matheny go out to get ejected and it was so patently this “you get ejected and it fires up the team” situation.  It wasn’t even that big of an injustice but Matheny blew it out of proportion because he felt like he needed to get tossed.  I don’t know if that worked (probably didn’t) but this situation would have been much less staged and false.

Saturday (3-2 win over Milwaukee)

Hero: Yadier Molina.  Another two home run day for the GOAT, his second in about half a week.  When you think about this guy being almost 36, when you think about the fact that he’s caught over 1700 games with the Cardinals (not counting the playoffs), when you think about the fact that he missed a month due to one of the most traumatizing injuries a player can suffer, to see him being this productive at the plate is amazing.  Yadi’s a legend, whether he shows up in Cooperstown or not.  More and more, though, the argument that he shouldn’t is lacking.

Goat: Tommy Pham.  Whether it was the start of the flu-like symptoms that still are bothering Pham, whether it was a bit of a pout over Matheny not having his back, whether it was a vision problem, whether it was mechanics, whatever the situation, Pham looked terrible at the plate in this one.  Three strikeouts looking and one swinging at a pitch way out of the zone.  I guess it’s not a surprise that he’s sat since then.  Pham has struggled for quite some time–I pointed out on Twitter yesterday he’s hitting like .225 since he cracked his head back in late April–and while he seemed to be coming out of it a week or so ago, he seems to be back in the mess.

Notes: Another strong start by Miles Mikolas, which we’ve been saying pretty much all season long.  He dug himself a hole by allowing two runs in the first, but after that settled in and was pretty much the Mikolas we are used to seeing.  Three hits on the day, but two walks and a hit batter, which is a little less control that normal.  Still, I don’t think there will be any complaining.

We’ve been talking about how the bullpen looks like it is finally coming around and they did so in this one.  Jordan Hicks got the last out in the seventh and Mike Matheny didn’t feel like they needed to push him, which is a great benefit of a solid ‘pen.  Austin Gomber got two outs, then Sam Tuivailala allowed a hit to make things interesting but finished up the eighth without incident.  Bud Norris bounced back and took the ninth without a problem.  This is sort of what we have been looking for–feeling like if you have a one run lead around the sixth or seventh, you have a strong chance to win instead of feeling like you need two, three, four more to be comfortable.

Still, the offense wasn’t really clicking here either.  Molina had the two homers, but the only other hits were singles by Marcell Ozuna and Greg Garcia.  They did draw five walks, which is helpful, but struck out 13 times.  Overall, well, thank goodness for Yadi.

Sunday (8-2 win over Milwaukee)

Hero: Jose Martinez.  His three-run homer broke the game open and was exactly the shot in the arm this team needed.  It was his only hit and there’s still questions about his slump–through Monday, he’s hitting .132 over the last 10 days–but that’s also reasonable.  People go through ups and downs throughout the year.  Hopefully he’ll turn it around soon.  It’d be nice if he got hot right before the trading deadline to raise his value.  Not that I have anything against Martinez, but given his limitations and the fact Matt Carpenter is on the roster, he would seem to be a great trade asset.

Goat: Yadier Molina.  You can’t be great every day, I guess.  Yadi went 0-4 with two strikeouts and left four men on base.  Thankfully it was a day when the offense actually showed up and it didn’t hurt the team that much.  Typically Yadi, saving his good stuff for when it’s really needed.

(By the way, given the fact that Yadi has started 17 games in a row, I loved the comment Al Hrabosky said last night on the broadcast.  “Yadi probably thought, ‘Well, I thought I’d sit 30 games this year, just had 27 of them in a row’.”  Obviously it’s not wearing down yet and I don’t think there’s a lot of folks that think that Francisco Pena should be out there regularly, but occasionally he might need a break.)

Notes: Two doubles for Dexter Fowler, which was a nice sign.  I don’t know if it was a turning point of anything, but there’s no doubt that Dex needed that for his own mental well-being, I’d imagine.  It’d really be nice to see him turn it around a little bit.  I don’t think anyone thinks he’s going to hit .300 or anything for the rest of the season, but even if he could just contribute on a regular basis, that’d be a nice bump.

Harrison Bader had two hits and two walks, which was good for him as well.  There’s been a lot of complaints about Fowler playing over him but neither one of them had been doing much of anything.  Bader does bring better defense, of course, but it really was a toss up between the two guys.

A single and two walks for Matt Carpenter, who also drove in two.  Carp hit .297 in May and is hitting .265 in June with 11 home runs over those two months (six this month).  He’s had a plus .900 OPS the last two months as well.  Yeah, he’s back.

Pitching wasn’t as much of a focus in this one, given the eight runs.  Luke Weaver almost made it through the sixth and allowed just two runs (along with five hits) in one of his better starts of the season.  I thought Mike Matheny was going to leave him out there to finish the sixth when an error set up a two on, two out situation with a six run lead, but smartly Matheny went to the bullpen and Mike Mayers shut the door on that Brewers chance.  Greg Holland (who allowed a flare hit but also got a strikeout), Brett Cecil, and John Brebbia threw three scoreless innings to end the game.  Again, that bullpen is looking much better.

Monday (4-0 win over Cleveland)

Hero: John Gant.  He wasn’t the person most folks wanted.  That was Dakota Hudson.  He wasn’t the guy that you’d expect to stop a streaking Cleveland team.  Which makes his seven scoreless innings even more impressive.  He walked five, but he allowed only one hit in that span which, given Cleveland’s strong offense, that’s pretty solid.  I don’t know if Gant is going to stay in the rotation throughout the entire time Michael Wacha is on the disabled list (a time that is going to stretch after the All-Star Break) but he’s definitely earned another shot or two.

As for Hudson, I can completely understand why the Cardinals weren’t quite ready to make a long-term commitment to him.  I’m not a prospect guy, but I worry about the low strikeout rate in Memphis and how that would translate to the big league roster.  Also, there’s not a lot of fluff on the 40-man roster right now.  I know that it wouldn’t matter now, given that you can move Alex Reyes or Ryan Sherriff to the 60-day DL, but they have to be returned to the 40-man this winter.  Now, you don’t know what the 40-man is going to look like this winter, but as it stands right now you might have to lose someone like Edmundo Sosa or Luke Voit to keep Hudson, who doesn’t have to be added to the 40-man by rule until next off-season.

If Hudson was a slam dunk, sure, go for it.  But he’s not a guy like Jordan Hicks who is so amazing, so dominant, with such a blazing fastball that you want to gamble on him.  I don’t see him like that, even with his success at Memphis.  Again, I know pending colleague Colin Garner (and it’s fun to say that!) is big on Hudson so he well may disagree with me, but the Cardinals’ reasoning makes plenty of sense for me.

Goat: Greg Garcia.  Garcia went 0-3 with a walk, the only starter without a hit.  I haven’t read the game stories this morning so I don’t know if it came from him or the manager, but the most frustrating part of the game last night (that I watched–I had to turn it off in the sixth as it pushed late because of the rain delay) was in the first inning.  Matt Carpenter led off with a double (that just missed being a home run) then Garcia decided to drop down a bunt.  Carpenter may have been surprised about it as well, because he was thrown out at third by half a mile.

I felt like we’ve gotten past doing things like this.  Bunting is questionable in most any situation (though there are times where I can understand it), but if you don’t feel like your second hitter can at least hit a ground ball to move over the runner and don’t have the confidence that he can get a hit, why is he hitting second?  I get that Tommy Pham was still out due to the flu, but is Garcia really the guy that should be hitting there?  Thankfully it didn’t cost the game (though the Cards didn’t score in the first after the bunt) but it was still terrible to see.

Notes: The Cardinals only struck out five times in this one!  I imagine tonight against Corey Kluber will be different so it’s good to see this.

A great night for Carpenter, who had two other hits besides that double.  Marcell Ozuna doubled in the first two runs and had another hit to boot.  Harrison Bader also had two hits as St. Louis wound up getting to the Indians’ staff for 11 knocks.

I was glad to see that Gant hitting in the bottom of the sixth didn’t burn the Cardinals in the top of the seventh.  (I wasn’t on Twitter then but I bet there were plenty of folks pointing out that tends to burn the Redbirds, especially when there is a runner in scoring position when the pitcher bats.)  Jordan Hicks had a scoreless frame, though he did allow a hit and walked a guy, so that must have been a little dicey.  Speaking of dicey, Austin Gomber allowed two hits to start the ninth and Matheny wasted no time going to Bud Norris to secure the win.

So since that terrible game, the Cardinals are 3-1 and really should have won the game they lost.  All these games were against first place teams as well, kinda giving credence to the idea that the Cardinals play to the level of their opponent.  It’s crazy to think that but it really seems to be the case, doesn’t it?

Now, they could go out tonight and lose to Kluber (even if Carlos Martinez is back to being Carlos Martinez, which is not anywhere close to a guarantee) and then drop another Wednesday and we’re back to where we started.  For right now, though, let’s enjoy what we’re seeing and have a bit of optimism.  Maybe things are going to be OK after all!

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cubs8963.586 -
Brewers8766.5692.5
Cardinals8469.5495.5
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Last updated: 09/20/2018

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