Finding Some Fortune in the West

Years ago, young men went out west searching for gold, riches, and glory beyond measure.  The 2018 Cardinals?  Yeah, they understand that.

When you have a West Coast swing this late in the season, it doesn’t always bode that well for your chances.  Add to the time lag and different rhythms for your body the fact that both teams St. Louis would be facing were strong wild card contenders of their own and you wouldn’t have gone amiss if you spent anytime before the games started on Monday repeating that ever-present Star Wars mantra “I have a bad feeling about this.”  Sure, the Cardinals had been on a legendary tear, but keeping that up against great competition in foreign environments?  Wasn’t that asking a little too much?

Apparently, not so much.

The Cardinals ran through this supposed tough stretch by sweeping the Dodgers and taking two of three from the Rockies.  Granted, the one loss was pretty ugly and a lot of the other folks in the playoff race (for instance, the Cubs) did a lot of winning as well, but if you can win five games on a swing like this, you take that every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Let’s do the recap!

Monday (5-3 win at Los Angeles)

Hero: Jedd Gyorko.  I get that you could make a strong case for Matt Carpenter, what with his three hits and his insurance home run in the ninth off of Kenley Jansen.  However, it was the stunning blow of Gyorko that broke the 3-3 tie in the ninth in his only at-bat.  You have to think that blast probably stunned Jansen enough to leave him open to Carpenter’s shot.  To come into the game late and have that kind of impact gets you some Hero love.

Goat: Paul DeJong.  An 0-4 night with three strikeouts will usually get you plenty of consideration here.  Though you could give a lot of thought to Jordan Hicks in this situation, as he came in with two on and two out and immediately gave up a base hit, allowing Dakota Hudson‘s runner to come in and tie the game up.  To his credit, after he walked Chris Taylor, he did get out of the inning and got two outs in the eighth, but that felt like a bit of a dagger at the time.

Notes: Obviously Carpenter got a bit out of that slump he was working on, though I wouldn’t say it was completely snapped given some of the days to come.  Still, very nice to see that MVP Carpenter raising his head again.

Jose Martinez had himself a great night as well, homering in the first to put the Cardinals on top early, then singling in a run in the fifth and coming around to score himself when Patrick Wisdom walked with the bases loaded.  With Marcell Ozuna (who also had two hits in this one) out for a little while, that whole “Martinez or Tyler O’Neill” discussion doesn’t have to be one or the other, but even if you did have to choose, with the team back in the race it has to be Martinez, right?  He’s not hurting the team in the outfield and his bat is one of the best ones that shows up night after night.  I know that O’Neill needs to play and develop and I’m sure he’ll get some time even after the return of the big bear, but right now development has to take a back seat to winning and Martinez helps the team win more regularly than O’Neill does.  (Then again, that idea might have taken some shots in Colorado.)

While Kolten Wong had only one hit, he made his presence felt with his glove.  In the first inning, Austin Gomber was in a bit of trouble, loading the bases with nobody out after hitting Manny Machado with a pitch.  He got Clay Bellinger to pop out, but then Matt Kemp hit a little sawed-off flare that looked like it was going to get through the infield and probably score two.  That was the Wong idea.

Given the situation, given the dive, this might have been the best play I had seen all year. That didn’t last, as we’ll see, but it was a remarkable play that looked more routine that it was.  That was an Ozzie Smith-like play and Kolten even looked a bit like the Wizard in how he dove and how he got up.  That set a tone for the game and let Gomber get a little steadier.  I doubt he goes five innings and allows just two runs without that play.  (Of course, since he gave up five hits, four walks, and a HBP in those innings, it’s pretty surprising he only allowed two runs anyway.)

Tuesday (5-2 win at Los Angeles)

Hero: Marcell OzunaYadier Molina had a two-run shot in the first, but Ozuna’s two-run blast gave some cushion in the seventh, plus he had another hit earlier on.  Ozuna’s shoulder obviously worsened and this was the last game he played before going on the DL, but that means he gets to put pause on a five game hitting streak that had him hitting .389/.476/.722 with two home runs.  Hopefully he’ll be able to keep that going after he returns in 10 days or so.

Goat: I guess we’ll go with Tyler O’Neill given that he went 0-3, even though he scored a run.  As with a lot of games over the past five weeks, it’s not really an obvious player or two that get the job done but it’s more of a team effort.  O’Neill was the only starter besides Kolten Wong to go hitless (and, as we’ll see, no way Wong was getting this tag) while the pitching staff did more than its fair share.  So the short straw lands on O’Neill, unfortunately.

Notes: I said that Kolten Wong made the best play I’d seen all year on Monday.  He topped it Tuesday.

It’s probably about this time that they had to apply the smelling salts to revive my Gateway co-host and president of the Kolten Wong Fan Club Tara Wellman.  I mean, how is that even possible?  It’s like he slowed down time for a bit and then made the play.  Absolutely outstanding.

Daniel Poncedeleon is probably going to want to stop making major league starts.  His first one, seven no-hit innings, got him sent to Memphis right after.  This one wasn’t as great, but it was four innings allowing one run and striking out eight.  It got him….sent to Memphis, though most likely only for the 10 days until rosters can expand.  Still, it was good to see Poncedeleon follow up on his first start and his good bullpen work by again taking the mound and giving his team and excellent chance to win.

Unfortunately, with all the strikeouts, Poncedeleon racked up 90 pitches in those four innings, so we saw Luke Weaver come in for his first appearance out of the bullpen in 2018.  Weaver gave up a base hit immediately to Yasmani Grandal and allowed Yasiel Puig to reach on his own error, but he kept the Dodgers off the board in the sixth and got touched for a Manny Machado home run in the seventh, but 2.1 innings of one run baseball is fine.  With all the arms coming (such as Michael Wacha and possibly Adam Wainwright, plus the return of Poncedeleon), it seems unlikely we’ll see Weaver back in the rotation this season but he definitely is going to be a strong option in the pen and allow Mike Shildt to be very aggressive with the starters.

Carlos Martinez also made his bullpen debut, throwing an inning and a third with one hit and two walks.  He also took a shot back off his body that wound up ending the inning but also his night.  Given Carlos’s track record of coming off the DL only to return soon after to it, it was a little surprising that he didn’t wind up worse for wear.  Again, like Weaver, he’s going to be a huge weapon in the bullpen as we saw here and in the Colorado series.  It’s kinda crazy that three-fifths of the starting rotation (Weaver, Martinez, Wainwright likely) will be in the bullpen come September while all of these Memphis starters have taken their place.  That may mean, however, that we see a lot of piggy-backing, a lot of three inning starts, a lot of wins attached to middle relievers rather than the first pitcher that goes out there.  There’s going to be a very full bullpen as Allen and I discussed on this week’s Meet Me at Musial and there are a lot of guys that can eat innings down there.  Couple that with some young arms that might need a little innings management and September could be pretty wild.

Wednesday (3-1 win at Los Angeles)

Hero: We’ve already talked about this game a bit in lyrical verse, but the Hero has to be Paul DeJong.  His two-run blast off of Kenley Jansen ruined another outing for the Dodger closer and was as close to a walkoff as you can get on the road, especially when Jordan Hicks came in and just dominated three Dodger batters for the save.  DeJong’s average might not be all that great, but he’s been pretty consistent to get a hit a night and oftentimes that hit has some pop behind it.

Goat: It was a very, very rough day for Matt Carpenter.  After sitting out Tuesday, he got back into the action by striking out all four times he came to the plate in this one.  While the returns in Colorado were pretty solid, we’ll have to wait and see him working on sea level to make sure that he’s really starting to heat back up.

Notes: Jack Flaherty was working on something special here, but it seems like we say that so many times when he takes the mound.  He’s thrown seven starts since the All-Star Break and struck out at least seven in each of them, putting up a 2.45 ERA in the 40.1 innings he’s thrown.  He took a no-hit bid into the sixth inning for at least the second time this season, having it come to an end when Joc Pederson golfed a mistake slider out to center field.  Unfortunately, not only did that break up the no-no, it gave the Dodgers the lead as Walker Buehler was keeping the Cardinals off the board as well.

Give a lot of credit to the Cardinal bullpen.  With the Dodgers up one, Brett Cecil, Dakota Hudson, and Hicks kept LA from scoring any more and allowing the offense to rally enough to win the game.  We say this a lot about a lot of different things but it’s truly worth pondering if that would have happened before the big bullpen shakeup.

Tyler O’Neill provided the power that the Cardinals needed to tie things up, pinch-hitting in the eighth and smashing a Scott Alexander offering to knot the game at 1.  Once that happened, you could feel the pendulum swing back to the Cardinals and it felt like more when than if they’d win this one.

Remarkably enough, the Cardinals had waltzed into Los Angeles and come out with three wins, cutting the division lead to 2.5 and taking over the top wild card spot by 1/2 game.  The way Colorado was playing, especially as they walked off a game against the Padres on Thursday down to their final out, the weekend felt like it’d be much tougher.  And, I guess it was.  I mean, they didn’t sweep.

Friday (7-5 win at Colorado)

Hero: Tyler O’Neill.  His home run to lead off the second got the Cardinals going and he tacked on another hit, run, and RBI in the big fifth inning.  If the Cardinals were going to make a serious play for Nolan Arenado this offseason, you have to figure the Rockies would really like to see O’Neill’s big power 81 times a year in the thin air of Denver.

Goat: Miles Mikolas.  Man, it’s tough to give the Goat to a guy that hit a two-run homer for his second bomb of the year, but when you are staked to a 7-0 lead and can’t get through the fifth, that really hurts.  It’s always tough to know how much the big dimensions and the thinner air affects pitchers, especially their endurance, but it was strange to see Mikolas go from rolling along to out of the game with only two outs in between.

Notes: Kolten Wong had a three for three night and had both a run scored and a run driven in, but he did make an error in the fifth that helped that inning continue.  I know Kolten thinks that he should have the Gold Glove in the bag and he’s probably right but there’s still six weeks to play.  A lot of things can happen and hopefully he returns from his injury and puts a few more notches on that old highlight reel.

Kudos to the bullpen, starting with Chasen Shreve.  Shreve came into the game with a seven run lead down to two and a runner on first.  He got Tony Wolters to fly out on the first pitch, ending the rally.  After that, Carlos Martinez, Jordan Hicks, and Bud Norris combined for four scoreless innings, four strikeouts, and three walks.  Most of that came from Hicks, who allowed two walks and a base hit before getting Carlos Gonzalez to ground out and keep the Cardinals in the lead.  Hicks has those moments like in LA where he just dominates, but it seems like those are becoming more and more obscured by tightrope-walking outings like this.

Jose Martinez was the only other Cardinal to reach double digits as the offense tended to be spread around a bit.  Then again, when you score four runs in one frame, three in another, and that’s all, I guess it can’t be too clumped around one person.

Saturday (9-1 loss at Colorado)

Hero: John Gant.  You can’t tell it by the final score, but for most of this game it was a great pitcher’s duel between Gant and German Marquez.  Marquez went seven scoreless, allowing just three hits and striking out nine.  Gant was almost as good, though, allowing a two-out homer to old friend Matt Holliday in the bottom of the seventh as his only blemish.  He also allowed three hits and struck out six, though he did walk five.  You get that out of your starter and, with the way this bullpen has been for about a month, you like your odds.  Every once in a while, though, that roll of the dice craps out.

Goat: While the offense didn’t do anyone any favors by being kept quiet at a hitter’s paradise, you still have to pick one of the bullpen pieces that went in the eighth as our Goat and my choice is the one that started it off, Dakota Hudson.  The Cardinals had tied it in the top of the eighth in one of those remarkable ways that they have done so often in the second half and you felt like the tide had turned.  I was a little leery about Hudson being the choice just because we’ve talked often about him not really being a strikeout guy and, to me, it feels like Coors Field is not the place you want a lot of contact.  (I know the Rockies have tried about every style of pitching and haven’t had much success in any of them, so maybe that’s just me.)

In his first three batters, Hudson allowed a single and two doubles, immediately taking the game to 3-1 and, given how hard the Cards had worked for just that one, the game already felt like it was slipping away given they only had one more shot in the ninth.  Hudson was able to get Trevor Story and then was replaced by Brett Cecil, who allowed the inherited runner to score and putting three runs on Hudson’s ledger.

Notes: Cecil, who had been so good coming back from the disabled list, ran into a mountain-size roadblock on his path to being that pitcher we hope he can be.  He faced three batters and allowed an RBI single, another single, and an RBI double, with the last two batters also coming in to score after Mike Mayers took over.  It’s possible that his curveball didn’t have much in the thin air–we know about Darryl Kile‘s career there–and hopefully he’ll be better at sea level this week.  Given that he’s talked about how much he’s had to work on the mental side of things, I hope that such a setback isn’t something that lingers for him.

It’s not often you have to use four pitchers to get three outs, especially when none of them are coming in to face one batter, but that’s the way the eighth went.  Mayers came in and gave up two doubles and a single, all of which drove in runs, and left injured with shoulder inflammation.  Given how much use that Mayers has had this year (42 games, 45.2 innings) compared to the rest of his career (he was in 38 games between St. Louis and the minors last year, which was well high of any other year), it’s possible that he’s just going to need some rest.  I don’t know if it will keep him out the rest of the season–it sounds like some tests will be done today to see how much of an issue it is–but Shildt has relied a lot on Mayers in a lot of different situations.  Hopefully he can perhaps do what the plan is for Marcell Ozuna, take a shot, get a bit better, and come back for the stretch run with an eye of addressing the issues in the offseason.

Luke Weaver finished off the game by getting a ground ball that Matt Carpenter made an error on, a single that loaded the bases, then a strikeout and a groundout mercifully ended it all.  The Cardinals had given up more runs in that inning than they had in the three previous games combined.  This was their largest loss since July 13, two days before the change.  They lost by more here than they had their last five losses combined.  There are going to be those kind of nights.  How you respond to them is a pretty big indication of what kind of team you have.  As we’ll see, they responded well.

If there was an offensive highlight, it was Harrison Bader.  In the eighth, he doubled and Greg Garcia bunted him to third (and was safe himself in the process).  An out later, ball four to Matt Carpenter barely got away from the catcher, but he couldn’t find the ball.  Without a single bit of hesitation, Bader roared down the line, sliding in safe to tie the game.  It’s not the first time this season we’ve seen Bader pounce on a catcher’s mistake from third base and it is an indication of just what speed can do in a game.

Other than that inning, the Cardinals had three hits and a walk.  Not much going on with the bats in this one.

Sunday (12-3 win at Colorado)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  Four hits, all doubles which tied a major league mark.  It’s not often a player can have three doubles in three innings, but Carp did that with a two doubles in the first and another in the third.  He drove in two, scored two, and set the tone for a fun day.

Goat: Honestly, everyone really contributed, but like we said above, you gotta pick someone here.  Yairo Munoz, starting because of the injury to Kolten Wong, wound up going 0-4, but he did score two runs and drive in one, plus he drew a walk.  Sure, the walk was intentional to get to Austin Gomber, but it’s still a walk and it was a walk that led to another amazing play in a month of amazing plays.

Notes: Gomber came up in the first with two outs and the Rockies just trying to escape the inning allowing three runs.  Instead, this happened.

Gomber beating that out was nice enough, but look at Harrison Bader flying around the bases.  Honestly, if Jedd Gyorko had been a step slower, Bader might have passed him.  You have to think Gyorko scored, then happened to turn around and was pretty surprised to see a play happening behind him.

We talked about seeing how a team could respond to the sort of beatdown the Cardinals had on Saturday night.  If they had come out and lost to the Rockies again on Sunday, some might have been concerned that the team had peaked, that they were going to be on some sort of a downhill slide for a bit and with a close playoff race, downhill slides can be death to playoff hopes.  Instead, St. Louis put up six runs in the first to make the statement that they aren’t going away, that they haven’t been just getting by, that this is who they are–not a hot team, not a team on a remarkable run, but a good quality team that can beat you regularly.

Offensively, 16 hits, seven for extra bases.  Tyler O’Neill hit another home run and had two hits.  Gyorko had three hits. Yadier Molina and Jose Martinez had two hits.  You know it’s a blowout when Francisco Pena gets into the game, though he didn’t come in early enough to get an at bat.  Let’s not get crazy here.

It was a remarkable win and a great bounceback.  Unfortunately, this weekend saw a lot of winning by teams around them.  The Cards have dropped 1.5 games to the Cubs since Wednesday, sitting four games behind them.  St. Louis does still have the first wild card, but just by 1/2 game over the Brewers.  This week, at least when you judge the records of the opponents, should be a little easier and they should still pile up some wins, but the Cubs have three with the Mets before a makeup game with the Braves in Atlanta and then a trip to Philadelphia.  The Brewers have the Reds and the Nationals.  The Rockies go to the Angels and then the Padres.  We’ll see if this all works out in the Cards’ favor.

Off day today as we cheer for the Mets and Angels.  Then back to Busch to take care of business!

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