St. Louis Wasn’t Built in a Day

The Cardinals went into Wrigley as a bit of an unknown quantity.  Mike Shildt had taken over for Mike Matheny and had won his first game with some different tactics but then the All-Star Break had intervened.  The five game set in the “Friendly Confines” is also a small sample, but much more data than we had beforehand.  Before we get to the individual games, a bit of an overview of what seems to be the team right now.

They seemed to have more energy.  This is probably in the eye of the beholder, but they didn’t really seem to be lagging or just going through the motions.  The results weren’t always there, but there weren’t any of those miserable games like the game in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago or the game against the Reds that turned out to be Matheny’s last.

The offense seemed to be less stagnant.  Even with a two-hit game mixed in there, the Cards still hit .301 for the series and while it’s not surprising that the number might be a bit swollen when you have an 18-run game in there, the fact is they put up double digit hits in each game save the first game of the doubleheader.  I’ll admit I didn’t get to watch all of the series, but the parts that I did it never felt like the game was over early, that they just weren’t going to put anything together.  I don’t remember huge stretches of nobody getting on base.  That’s possibly selective memory but for me, things seemed to be clicking more offensively.

They also seem to be scoring early.  It felt like the Cardinals had the early lead in every game in this series.  While they didn’t always hold it, of course, it was good to see them up 1-0, 2-0 early instead of putting up zeroes until it was too late.

The manager is more open.  Check out this story from Ben Fredrickson at the Post-Dispatch, outlining how Shildt walked the media through a lot of his decisions in Saturday night’s win.  You could say that it’s easy enough to do that in a come-from-behind victory, but 1) he was doing it as well after the loss on Sunday and 2) getting Matheny to talk about any of his decisions in anything more than cliches was like pulling teeth.  We’ve all seen the post-game conferences and there is a wonderful difference between “just didn’t make plays” and “I did X because of Y and was thinking Z, it just didn’t work out”.  Besides the fact that you are going to get a ton more favorable press being open than you are being walled off, fans are much more likely to at least understand and possibly agree when you spell it out versus making them guess (and perhaps assigning you motives and reasoning that you weren’t subscribing to).

The bullpen is…the same.  Tara and I talked a good bit about this last night on Gateway to Baseball Heaven.  The bullpen has gone in spurts this year.  We’ve had moments where things looked like they were going to click, especially right after Greg Holland got off the disabled list, which was at a time when Sam Tuivailala was also going well and John Brebbia and Mike Mayers looked sharp.  Heck, even Brett Cecil had a 0.82 ERA in his 11 outings before this series.  Yet, probably because of the volatile nature of relievers, the pendulum has swung yet again and things got ugly basically anytime Shildt waved for an arm to come into a game.  He didn’t let that stop him Sunday, still going for a shot at a run early, but it was very frustrating seeing close games turn into definite losses by the late-inning crew.

According to my quick calculations, the Cardinals got a 4.13 ERA out of their starters, with the bulk of that coming from Carlos Martinez.  They got an 8.50 ERA out of the bullpen, not including at least three unearned runs.  Those kind of results crammed into a small number of innings makes for a miserable experience.

Overall, I’m still excited about the Shildt era and what it means for the Cardinals, but we do have to realize there’s only so much he can do.  As much as we could hope that he got things clicking and all of the sudden a stalled engine would turn over and start racing, we need to accept that this is still a flawed team, possible of doing a lot of good things but also not just one managerial change away from being elite.  Let’s get to the recaps.

Thursday (9-6 loss)

Hero: Tommy Pham.  It’s convenient to be able to mark Pham’s resurgence to the managerial change.  After all, since Shildt took over, Pham is hitting .500/.583/.700 with a double, a homer, eight RBI, and four walks.  I know that Shildt has had a relationship with Pham for a while, as he talked about it on the podcast with Dan McLaughlin, with both of them dealing with the same eye condition.  Pham’s also been hitting lower in the order, which may have helped him get on track.  Whatever the case, he had three hits in this game, including that home run that put the Cards up 2-0.

Goat: Carlos Martinez.  When you get past the first inning of a Tsunami start with no runs on the board, you start to think it’s going to be a good night.  And it was, right up until the fifth inning.  Martinez mildly strained his oblique at the beginning of the inning, but apparently that wasn’t the cause of lesser velocity in the frame.  Martinez (and, you’d assume, Yadier Molina) had the plan to attack the Cubs with off-speed pitches in that inning but that was an attack that blew up on them.  A single and a groundout was followed by a double, single, single, sac fly, homer through the heart of the Cubs order.  Martinez went on the disabled list a day or so later, putting any potential trade talk to bed.

Notes: Molina had a four-hit game and scored two runs.  Matt Carpenter continued his hot hitting (well, we only THOUGHT it was hot hitting at this point!) by hitting a home run in the sixth inning.  Kolten Wong had two hits and two RBI and you’d think he’s building confidence every day knowing he’s producing and he’s going to be out there every day.  Wong’s hitting .309 in the month of July and has started almost every day.  It feels like Wong’s going to have a great run through the end of the season.  Marcell Ozuna also had two hits, though you will not be surprised that both of them were singles.  He did drive in a run, though.

The bullpen in this one was less of an issue than in other, but they still didn’t help things any.  Sam Tuivailala did throw a scoreless frame, but Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons gave up a couple of hits and a run (while striking out two) and then Matthew Bowman, who returned to the big leagues as Miles Mikolas went on the paternity list for a few days, gave up two runs in his inning of work.  Bowman threw again Friday then was demoted back to Memphis and you wonder, especially with what seemed to be one of his biggest champions in Matheny now gone, if Bowman’s time in St. Louis is going to be a lot shorter.

Friday (18-5 win)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  At one point during the game, I had to step away from the TV for a moment.  When I returned, my daughter, who doesn’t always watch games with me, said, “He hit another one and now it’s 15-1”.  I honestly thought she had gotten a bit confused, that FSMW had just shown a replay of one of Carpenter’s other home runs on the day, but she was completely accurate.  Three home runs, two doubles, four runs scored, seven RBI, and he did all of that in just six innings.  That’s a week for a lot of folks (and he should get the NL Player of the Week award for sure) and, if it is true Carp asked out because he didn’t want to pad numbers or possibly set a record against a position player pitching, you have to give him a lot of credit there as well.  It was a remarkable and amazing thing to watch.

Goat: Brett Cecil.  Handed a 16-1 lead and realizing that there was a doubleheader coming up and that bullpen arms were precious, Cecil was only able to record one out before Shildt had to go out and get him.  Two walks and three hits led to three runs and he threw 26 pitches to get to that point.  I don’t think he could have blown a 15 run lead, but he was well on his way to it.  The two walks are most especially egregious–with a lead like that, make them hit their way on.  (Of course, they were doing that as well, so maybe it wouldn’t have mattered much.)

Notes: As much as Carpenter did, the rest of the team had some fun with Jon Lester and the relievers.  Lester in particular didn’t seem to have much.  While he was probably squeezed occasionally, a number of his pitches were well out of the strike zone, leading to five walks in just three frames.  The Cubs turned to Tommy La Stella in the sixth, the first of three position players to throw in this game.  (I do wonder if something in the game today, whether it is protecting arms or something else, is leading to a rise in position players throwing.  Arizona had the game earlier this year that they turned to Daniel Descalso in like the fourth inning.  The Cards have had two games this year they’ve gone to a non-pitcher to pitch.  The Brewers used two players–Hernan Perez and Erik Kratz–just yesterday.)

Tommy Pham had another three-hit game and had three RBI to go along with them.  Harrison Bader came into the game to replace Marcell Ozuna when the score started piling up and still managed two hits of his own.  Kolten Wong had another two hits.  Greg Garcia only had one hit, but it was a towering home run off of La Stella.

Then there was Dexter Fowler, who had a double and a single, scored twice, and drove in two.  There’s been a lot of talk about Fowler getting the regular playing time after the managerial change and it’s not like Fowler has turned it on the way that Pham has since Shildt took over, though his numbers (.227/.250/.455) are better than his season numbers.  It is interesting to see Shildt decide to try to rebuild Fowler’s confidence and demeanor, especially at the possible expense of games this season.  However, you could make the argument that this season is pretty much lost anyway but Fowler is going to be around for a while.  If you can get him plugged in, if you can get him at least a reasonable contributor, perhaps that helps for future seasons.  I don’t know, I will admit I would have expected more Bader than Fowler, but I also trust Shildt to have a reason for this.

Saturday (7-2 loss in game 1)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  When the club only gets two hits and allows seven runs, there’s not going to be a lot of options for this spot.  Carpenter continued his streak by homering in the third, tying the ballgame up for a few frames.

Goat: Paul DeJong.  While it wasn’t completely his fault and there were a number of folks that put up a miserable batting line, DeJong’s at bat in the fifth inning may have been the turning point.  Tyler Chatwood has had control issues all year long and it continued somewhat in this one.  In the fifth, he walked Greg Garcia, then Luke Weaver bunted him to second.  Given how insanely hot Carpenter is and the speed of Yadier Molina behind him, the Cubs intentionally passed Carpenter, a move that looked to blow up on them when Molina was hit by a 3-2 pitch.  Bases loaded, one out.  A sacrifice fly gives the Cardinals the lead, a base hit scores two and keeps the inning going.  Chatwood ran the count to 2-0 to DeJong, but DeJong swung at the third pitch, a strike on the outside part of the zone, and bounced back to Chatwood who started a 1-2-3 double play.  The Cubs, perhaps rejuvenated by the close call, came out and put up two runs in the bottom of that frame and the moment was lost.

Notes: Weaver continued his struggles against the Cubs, giving up three runs in four-plus innings to them while allowing seven hits and five walks.  (It’s a little surprising he didn’t give up more runs with that line.)  Was this just a case of him not being able to beat a personal nemesis or are we going back the down side of the Weaver roller coaster?  His next outing is also against the Cubs, so that probably won’t tell us anything either.  With a ridiculously young starting rotation at the moment–Miles Mikolas would be the grizzled vet and he has minimal MLB experience–having the good Weaver out there on the mound every five days would be really helpful, I’m just not sure it’s going to happen.

While he’s still the Patron Pitcher of the Blog, it’s getting harder to defend our good friend Tyler Lyons.  We know he’s not a lefty specialist, which wouldn’t be as much of an issue if anyone else in the bullpen was.  I’ve thought that he should get more full innings, but while it looks like Shildt may want to use him that way, he can’t get enough outs to get a full frame.  In this one, he gave up three hits and two walks in 0.2 innings, leading to four runs and put a game that hung in the balance out of reach.  At least Mike Mayers and Luke Gregerson pitched fairly well here, though with Lyons’s ineffectiveness, it really didn’t mean much.

Saturday (6-3 win in game 2)

Hero:  It really is a toss up here as two players had pretty identical lines and made key contributions to the ninth inning that led to the win, but I’m going to go with Tommy Pham here instead of Paul DeJong.  Both had doubles in the ninth inning that were key to the Cardinal win.  Both had two hits, two RBI, and a run scored.  However, Pham had a walk and DeJong had a key error, so we have to go with Pham here.

Goat: Greg Holland.  Shildt has shown himself to be very aggressive removing starting pitchers, which will be great when the Cardinals have a lock-down bullpen.  They don’t right now and Holland sent all those plans awry with another tough outing.  Yes, he could have gotten out of the frame had DeJong fielded a grounder cleanly and started a double play.  That said, a veteran reliever can’t then walk the next guy, forcing in the game tying run.  The other runners came in while Jordan Hicks was pitching, but it was pretty noteworthy that Shildt didn’t allow Holland to try to work his way out of it at all but went to Hicks to try to limit the damage.

Since that blowup against the Giants where he allowed five runs (and, please note, I’m not counting that one here), Holland has a 6.23 ERA in five appearances, walking four and striking out three in 4.1 innings.  Now, three of those five appearances were scoreless and, as we said, some of those runs here are charged to him but scored after he left, but when Holland is right the walks aren’t there. That stretch where he looked “back” after he returned from the disabled list?  6.2 innings in eight games and one walk and eight strikeouts.  Whether it is something mechanical that has gotten out of whack, if players have adjusted to him again, or he’s dealing with another injury, given that he only has another two months on his contract the specter of DFA does start to take on a little more substance.  I don’t know that he’s the worst pitcher out there, but if you need a 40-man roster spot it might be the easiest move to make.  I also don’t know how much front office support Holland has, given that it was apparently the former manager that wanted to bring him in.

Notes: It was very good to see a rally against the Cubs here.  So often, giving up those three runs would have led to quick, unimpressive innings by the offense and another loss.  Instead, Matt Carpenter came in and homered, giving a little life, and they put together a two-out rally in the eighth that tied up the game.  I’m not saying that they didn’t have those kind of games under the old regime, but they did seem to be rare.  And, who knows, maybe they’ll be rare under Shildt as well, one just happened to come in his first week.

Pham and DeJong were the only players to have multiple hits, but the team did put 10 of them on the board along with seven walks so they kept having baserunners.  I think every game save the first one of this doubleheader saw the Cardinals in double digits in hits, which is a solid way of putting up runs.

John Gant threw five innings of scoreless ball before being taken out of the game.  It is interesting that Shildt would do that given the doubleheader and the extra work the bullpen was having to do, but if you followed that link above, you know that he thought the Cubs were starting to get to Gant with better swings and he obviously subscribes to “rather an inning too early than an inning too late” philosophy, which is kinda nice.

Except for Holland (and the hit that Hicks allowed to Anthony Rizzo as soon as he came in the game, plating another run), the bullpen did fine there.  Hicks had a scoreless frame after trying to clean up Holland’s mess, Sam Tuivailala got a scoreless inning, and Bud Norris finally got to pitch in the series, earning his 18th save.  If only they could do that every night.

Sunday (7-2 loss)

Hero: Yairo Munoz.  Munoz had two hits, including an RBI that put the Cards up 2-0.  He also had a walk and has continued to show that he can be effective even when he’s not getting regular playing time, which was something that was in question when Paul DeJong returned.

Goat: Marcell Ozuna.  0-4 and left two men on.  I don’t know if it’s completely fair to put this one on Ozuna, but it’s representative of the year that he has had.  He played in all five games of the series but hit just .211, though he did walk three times.  The last time he doubled was July 5 (hitting .176 in that span) and his last home run was June 16, which was during that week where he was on fire and we all thought things were fixed.  Not so much.  Ozuna could hit .310 for the year (and he’s not) and he still would be disappointing because he wasn’t brought in to hit a lot of singles.  He was brought in for doubles and home runs.  We knew there’d be a dropoff.  We didn’t realize he’d be about a third as productive as he was last season.

Notes: Brett Cecil again came in, got one out, and gave up three runs.  Now, as noted above, Cecil had been doing fairly well before this series, even though he also can’t be that lefty out-getter that we’d like him to be.  (Although he’s much better against lefties than righties this season.)  It’s also hard to believe that the Cardinals would give up on him with two years plus left on his contract, especially when he does have spells where he’s an effective option out of the pen.  The problem is he’s not been effective long enough and often enough to be someone you want to see out there.  I just don’t know that there’s anything the Cards can do but try to shore up things around him and limit him to some low leverage spots.  Then again, a large majority of his time has been low leverage and that’s where the ugly stats are.  He’s got a .411 OPS against in high leverage spots, but that’s only eight plate appearances and I don’t think anyone wants to gamble that he’s that guy.

We talked about him above, but another two-hit day for Dexter Fowler.  Yadier Molina also had two hits, though he left five men on base.

The Cardinals get a bit of a breather now, going to Cincinnati before heading home to face the Cubs again.  As we saw the weekend before the All-Star Game, Cincinnati’s no pushover anymore and the Cards are going to run out two guys making their first major league start, including Daniel Poncedeleon tonight finally making his major league debut, then following it up with fellow rookie Jack Flaherty.  You have to figure the bullpen will come into play again here which could be an explosive thing.  Things might be improving, but this is a deep hole that the team has dug.  They aren’t likely to get out of it this season but you have to look for signs that the hole is getting smaller.  I think it is, slowly but surely!

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