Enjoying This Version of Cardinal Baseball

All right, we’ve gotten behind and there’s a lot of catching up to do, but before we get into recapping the games, let’s point out a few things.

One, Cardinal baseball is fun again.  Whether it’s the smart baserunning, the competent offense, the solid starting pitching, a bullpen that doesn’t make you hide your eyes, or a managerial style that presses instead of reacts (probably, it’s some parts of all of this), there’s excitement and fun with the birds on the bat again.  While the hill to climb is still a tough one–even with three straight series wins, the Cards still sit four games out of the wildcard and 6.5 out of the division–you can start to feel like October baseball is at least possible, even if it’s still unlikely.

Two, it’s fun to hear about people griping about runners left on base because for so long this season, St. Louis had trouble even getting runners on base.  Yes, Friday night’s game was probably a bit frustrating since it was a one run game and 16 or so were left on, but they still scored six runs.  In Mike Shildt’s 19 games as manager, they’ve scored six runs or more eight times.  They didn’t score six in eight games until May 11 and did it just 25 times in the first 93 games of the season.  They’ve gone from hitting the serious mark every 3.72 games to doing it every 2.38.  You start getting that kind of offensive production, there are going to be some people left on.

Three, the front office again has tailored the roster to the manager’s tendencies, but it’s working here.  That bullpen being stocked with minor league starters allows Shildt the freedom to take advantage of an opportunity early or pull a struggling pitcher before things get out of hand.  It’s probably not a coincidence that the bullpen blowup happened a week into his tenure as manager.

We’ll have more notes going forward, but let’s talk about the games.

Tuesday (6-3 loss to Colorado)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  I think we’ll be calling Carp’s name a lot here, which isn’t unexpected given that he was player of the month in July and shows no signs of slowing in August.  This was one of the rare quiet nights for the bats, with only four hits, but one of those was Carpenter’s leadoff shot that set the club record for leadoff homers.  He also got another RBI later with a sacrifice fly.

Goat: A slew of 0-4s at the top of the lineup and a mediocre starting pitching line makes this tough to determine.  It’s really a coin flip, but I’ll go with Yadier Molina because his last out came with a runner on second.  A base hit there makes it 6-4 most likely and Paul DeJong (who was also hitless) coming up as the tying run.  Really, though, you could go a lot of different ways here.

Notes: Jack Flaherty had a good first four innings, but stumbled a bit late in his start.  He allowed a two-run homer to Charlie Blackmon, which there is no shame in even if there were two outs in the inning.  In the sixth, he got Nolan Arenado to start the inning but walked Carlos Gonzalez and gave up a double to Trevor Story that plated the third run.  Flaherty got victimized by good hitters and didn’t get a lot of support.  Especially for a young pitcher still learning, that’s going to happen.

Chasen Shreve made his Cardinal debut and initially it was a bit shaky as he gave up a double to Gerardo Parra, but Parra does tend to bite the Cardinals and the ball was a flare that hit just fair down the line.  A couple more inches and it’s probably foul.  He then walked Ryan McMahon but struck out the next two batters to keep the game where it was at.

It might have been a very interesting game late had not John Brebbia walked Ian Desmond and allowed a homer two batters later to Gonzalez.  Making the game 6-1 at the time felt like the nail in the coffin and while the team did rally, the game might have felt different if the gap had just been three runs.

Tyler O’Neill had half the team’s hits, starting in center after the Tommy Pham trade.  Before the game, John Mozeliak indicated that O’Neill and Harrison Bader would split time in center.  Baseball changes plans, though.

Wednesday (6-3 win against Colorado)

Hero: Yadier Molina.  I pointed this out earlier in the season, but Yadi doesn’t go back-to-back games without a hit.  He went four games in a row in April, then just two or three more since then, and even in those he’s picked up an RBI or scored a run.  Matt Carpenter is the best hitter on this team but from Opening Day until now, there might not be any one more consistent than Yadi.  In this one, he went three for five, drove in two insurance runs late, and score a run early.  He’s a legend, plain and simple.

Goat: Dexter Fowler.  0-4 with two strikeouts and three left on base.  While the point is moot now, the numbers weren’t looking very favorably on this extended run that they were giving Dex.  We talked about it on Meet Me at Musial and his line post-Matheny and his line with Matheny were starting to look very similar.  I’m not saying that they had to pull the plug right here but it was starting to get to the point where you had the conversation on how long that would last.

Notes: Luke Weaver is 24.  Daniel Poncedeleon is 26.  Austin Gomber is 24.  Dakota Hudson is 23.  Jordan Hicks is 21.  Mike Mayers is 26.  When you talk about the Cardinals and young pitching, this is what you are talking about.  Those are the arms that took care of this game, shutting down a very potent lineup with relative ease.  Well, all save Weaver, who only lasted 2.2 innings and threw 70-plus pitches while doing it.  Weaver can put together some great outings, but he tends to stub his toe pretty often as well.  Again, young pitching will have that sort of inconsistency.  It was great to see the other youngsters be able to hold the line and let the Cardinals rally.

Marcell Ozuna and Harrison Bader both had three hits as well in this one, with Bader having a double among his tallies.  Tyler O’Neill pinch-hit and drove in a run and you wonder that, even though both of them should get regular time going forward (assuming O’Neill’s groin injury clears up quickly) if there won’t be a little bit of friendly competition spurring them throughout the rest of the season.  After all, it’s beyond possible that only one of them can be starting in 2019, at least for the Cardinals.  That may get them fired up as well.

Carpenter got no hits in this one but did walk three times.  It’s quite interesting to see teams intentionally pass him in certain situations these days, though that probably has more to do with Molina, a strong double play candidate, hitting behind him.  That said, Yadi’s hit into just one double play since moving into the second spot in the lineup, so that intentional walk thing can backfire on folks.

Thursday (3-2 win against Colorado)

Hero: Jose Martinez.  After being a regular starter, Martinez’s role now must be a little difficult to adjust to.  We’ve talked about people like Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong who need regular playing time to keep their offensive skills sharp.  Martinez has gone from playing every day to occasional starts and regular pinch-hitting, but not only has he not complained, he actively spoke about wanting to stay in St. Louis even if that’s his role.  He’s actually just hitting .231 as a pinch-hitter this season, which belies his past history in the role, but he came through in this one, driving in the tying and winning runs with a double off of Wade Davis in the ninth.

Goat: Yairo Munoz.  Munoz and Yadier Molina had the exact same line in the box score, going 0-4 with a strikeout and three men left on base.  We’ll give Yadi credit for shepherding the pitching staff as to not continually be highlighting him in one of these sections in this post.  Plus Molina was involved in a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play so that’ll work in his favor as well.

Notes: Another strong start by Miles Mikolas, the old man of the staff.  Seven innings and two runs, though one of them was unearned due to his own error, which you would think would flip it back to earned, but that’s just one of baseball’s quirks.  Mikolas does what he always does, kept the team in the game and saved the bullpen, which had been pretty well used the day before due to Weaver’s short start.

Tyler O’Neill got the start in right here and not only did he have a hit, a walk, and a sacrifice fly, he made two spectacular plays in the outfield.  Of course, it could be that is where the groin injury is stemming from, but Statcast rated them four and five stars, so you know if he did get hurt, at least it was a worthy catch.  Given his power and muscular build, I think it’s easy for me to being that O’Neill is a one-dimensional player, but he’s got a glove out there.  I mean, you aren’t able to play center field if you can’t go and get it.  Putting him and Harrison Bader side-by-side might give you that defensive outfield we’ve been talking about for a while.

Credit should be given to Greg Garcia, who had a one out single in the ninth and then went to third on Bader’s single, and to Bader himself for stealing second, taking the double play off the table and putting himself in position to score on a single.  He probably would have been able to score from first with his speed on Martinez’s hit after all, but there was no guarantee of that at the time.  As someone noted, in the past there would have been a need for either two singles or there’d have been a bunt and an attempt at a two-out hit.  Having Bader’s speed and the willingness to use it probably won the game in comparison to the past.

Friday (7-6 loss at Pittsburgh)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  Two hits, including a double and another leadoff homer off of the Pirates’ big trade deadline acquisition, Chris Archer.  You have to think Pirates fans went “uh oh” when Carp went yard immediately.  It wasn’t a great debut for Archer, but he wasn’t the only pitcher that had problems.

Goat: John Gant.  The Cardinals claimed Tyson Ross off of waivers from the Padres this weekend and you have to figure he’s going to slide into Gant’s slot, with Gant probably returning to Memphis to be a depth piece.  It’s not that he’s been bad in the rotation, though he was rough here giving up six runs in four innings, but he’s not going very deep into games.  In July, he had a 2.76 ERA but only got into the sixth twice in five starts, finishing it just once.  Part of that is due to Mike Shildt’s aggressive approach to pitchers, but long-term that’s going to cause some innings issues, a situation the Cardinals have already been dealing with.  It remains to see if Ross is really a solution to that problem, but if nothing else he provides a little breather for some of the young guys.

Notes: I honestly didn’t get to watch a moment of this game nor much more than a couple of innings of the Pittsburgh series overall.  It was good to see the Cardinals not get into an early hole and just stay down, though.  That’s been a trademark over the last month as well.  They may not win games, but they seem to be in everything whether it’s keeping it close before it gets away late or rallying back from a deficit.  Here, they were down 6-2 after three innings but pushed across the tying run in the eighth before letting the Pirates score in the bottom of the frame.  It’s disappointing they weren’t able to do more, given that they had 16 left on, but this is a much better outing given the circumstances than we’ve come to expect.

A three-hit night for Yairo Munoz with a double mixed in there and three hits for Tyler O’Neill as well.  Dexter Fowler had two hits before leaving the game with what turned out to be a broken foot.  (Which was a strange coincidence since Tommy Pham had done the same in Tampa the night before.)  You feel for Fowler, who really is having a lost season, but from a baseball-only perspective, this does clear the path for Harrison Bader and O’Neill to play regularly.  You don’t want to see it happen this way and if Fowler is done for the year, which seems a strong likelihood, it’s going to be a tough offseason for him to deal with all this and for the Cardinals to really know what they want to do with him next season.

John Brebbia and Tyler Webb combined for three scoreless innings but Jordan Hicks was off in this one, allowing two hits and a walk for the winning run.  Remember when we were talking about Hicks having found that strikeout mojo?  Since the beginning of July he has 13 in 17.1 innings with five walks and 16 hits in that span.  Obviously that’s still good but it’s not the overpowering, dominating force that we thought he was going to be after making a few adjustments.  It’s probably not a surprise his ERA is 4.15 in that span, either.

Saturday (8-4 win at Pittsburgh)

Hero: Jedd Gyorko.  At times it feels like Gyorko’s been a forgotten man on the Cardinal roster, but with Matt Carpenter now completely ensconced at first, we’ll see plenty of Uncle Jedd on the hot corner.  Gyorko doubled in two runs to give the Cardinals the lead in the third and added on another tally in the fifth with another double.  He also scored a run for a well-rounded box score line.

Goat: Marcell Ozuna.  The only difference between Ozuna’s line and Paul DeJong’s is that DeJong was able to score a run, breaking that tie.  Both of them went 0-4 and left seven men on base, a number that would have loomed large had the score been different.

Notes: Austin Gomber got the start here and ran into trouble in the fourth inning.  He almost got out of it after two singles put runners on the corners with nobody out when he got Josh Harrison to ground into a double play that Francisco Cervelli didn’t score on, but the next four batters all reached safely, with the biggest blow a two-run double by Adam Frazier.  Again, young pitching.  It’s not going to be there every night.

Give a lot of credit to Dakota Hudson, though.  Hudson took over in the fifth and threw three hitless innings, letting the Cardinals have some breathing room to go expand their lead.  Mike Mayers and Bud Norris closed it out.  Getting five scoreless innings from the bullpen two weeks ago would have been like seeing Halley’s Comet.  Now, it’s almost par for the course, it feels like.

Another three hit night from Yadier Molina, because it’s Yadi and time and aging have no hold over him.  Kolten Wong made his return from the disabled list and also picked up three hits and an RBI.  Harrison Bader, Matt Carpenter (with another home run on a swing that was tailored to loft the ball over that huge wall in right), and Jose Martinez all had two hits.

Sunday (2-1 win at Pittsburgh)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  We have continued to talk about the inconsistency of young pitching, but the reason you put up with some inconsistency is because when it is on, it is wonderful.  Six scoreless innings here for Black Jack Flaherty, who has never gone by that name before and probably never will again.  He had seven strikeouts in that span with just three hits and one walk.  We’ve seen some remarkable performances out of Flaherty and if–and now it’s a big if–Alex Reyes can be what we think he should be in 2019 and forward, this could be the new Chris CarpenterAdam Wainwright aces at the top of the rotation bit that we’ve been looking for.

Goat: Chasen Shreve.  Shreve’s time in St. Louis has been a bit up and down and this one could have cost the club as he allowed a home run to Adam Frazier in the seventh.  Thankfully the Cardinals had two runs and the rest of the bullpen was able to keep the Pirates at bay, but that was a blemish on what was otherwise a pretty good series for the relievers.

Notes: Even in a game where the Cardinals only scored two runs, they still put up 10 hits and a walk.  It feels like there are very few 1-2-3 innings these days and a lot fewer times where an opposing pitcher gets on a run of setting down Cardinal hitters in order.  Maybe that’s just an impression, but given the numbers, I think it’s probably truth as well.  Two hits for Yadier Molina and Jose Martinez.

Matt Carpenter hit another home run.  Because it was a day that ended in y.

After what we said Friday, it should be noted that Jordan Hicks threw 1.1 scoreless innings in this one with a strikeout.

All in all, the Cardinals are probably their best run of the year.  They are 7-3 in their last 10 and have done so against teams that they are contending with for the postseason.  Now they get to face lesser lights in Miami and Kansas City.  If this was the same team from earlier this year, you’d now expect them to go and lose both series or at best go 3-3 through the six games.  I don’t think this is the same team, though.  I’m looking forward to seeing if they can keep this up and at least give us some more wins and more happiness even if they find it tough to cut games off of their deficit.  We’ll find out starting tonight!

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