No One Said It Would Be Easy (But No One Said It’d Be This Hard)

The Cardinals won another series!  Since it wasn’t against the Reds, that shouldn’t have been a big surprise, should it?  Yet nothing about this series was assured or given.  The Cards really should have swept it–we’ve already talked about Monday’s game–but for the fact that they piled up leads (and large leads at that), they almost could have been swept.  You like seeing the two games in the win column, the fact that they are 1/2 game from the top wildcard, and the bit of breathing room between them and non-playoff teams (if the season ended today), but there is no doubt that cracks and blemishes are starting to show and October feels less like a given.  It feels like those cartoons where the car has to go really fast not only to win the race but to stay together, falling apart as soon as it stops.

Tuesday (11-8 win)

Hero: Yadier Molina.  It would seem fair to say that the workload of this season is finally getting to Molina a little bit.  Before this game, he was .177 since August 15 with two double plays in 69 plate appearances.  Numbers like that are why I suggested on Twitter that he drop down to five or six and, when the corrected lineup came out, it looked like Mike Shildt had read my Twitter feed, moving Molina from second to sixth.  That put him in position in the ninth to come up with the bases loaded and two outs.  Thankfully, instead of putting the ball on the ground, he got a pitch to drive out of the park for a grand slam that seemed to put the game out of reach at 11-5.  He also had another hit and scored another run, hopefully being rejuvenated a bit by dropping in the lineup.

Goat: Jose Martinez.  While I thought about going with some of the relievers (and we’ll get to those in a minute), a lot of what they did was with a big lead and that will change approaches.  Martinez, on the other hand, was the only starter without a hit, going 0-5 with two strikeouts and leaving five men on base.  Until he got a little bit of redemption Wednesday, it had been a really rough September for Jose.  He is well into his most at bats ever in a big league season, but given his career and his minor league experience, you wouldn’t necessarily figure fatigue is part of the question but it could be.

Notes: I missed some of the early parts of this one but was watching the later innings.  Once Molina hit the slam that put them up 11-5 in the ninth, I felt it was safe to turn it off and watch something else with my wife.  It was, but apparently just barely.

The bullpen decision making of Mike Shildt lately has called back to mind for many the previous manager.  While I understand that and I think that’s somewhat fair, we weren’t complaining about Mike Matheny‘s bullpen usage 40-plus games into his career.  (We were too busy losing our fool minds over ALL THE BUNTING.)  Granted, Shildt has more managerial experience than Matheny and as such is fairer game for some of these complaints.  The biggest thing in my mind is I believe Shildt is trying to juggle fatigued arms and arms they don’t want to put many more innings on.  When Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Mike Mayers return, we might see a little different approach but now I think Shildt is trying to stretch things as far as he can.  Sometimes that works.  Sometimes it breaks.

Dominic Leone pitched the eighth inning of a 7-5 game and did so well, giving up a one-out single to Wilmer Difo but striking out Matt Wieters and Mark Reynolds to end the threat.  With the extra padding, it’s not surprising too much that Shildt wanted to see if he could save other arms by letting Leone take the ninth.  However, it should be noted that Leone hadn’t gone two innings all season (1.1 is his high) and that counted his time before the DL.  I understand trying to do a lot with a little and, even though Jordan Hicks was warm, if you could get by without using him in a six-run game, that’d be optimal.

So I can at least see why Shildt may have wanted to start the inning with Leone.  I don’t know if he planned to get the whole frame out of him or just wanted to see how far he could go.  The first two batters, Adam Eaton and Trey Turner, singled.  After that, knowing the entire situation with Leone, I think I make the move.  You have Bryce Harper up and even though he could only make it a three-run game, he still easily could make it a three-run game.  I’m not necessarily saying I’d go ahead and get Hicks, but I might since he had been fully warmed up anyway.

Shildt left Leone in there and he got Harper but Anthony Rendon doubled, making it 11-6 with two runners on.  That got Shildt to go to the bullpen and signal for John Brebbia.  Again, I can see that move.  You’d rather save Hicks for the next night if you can with a game that should be under control.  I don’t know when they started warming Brebbia (it’d have been smart to have him getting ready even before the inning started as a precaution) but this made sense and looked good when he struck out Juan Soto.  However, Ryan Zimmerman got him for a double, making it 11-8, and then Brebbia walked Difo (who was a bit of a pain this series).  With the tying run at the plate, Shildt had no choice but to get Hicks, who got Wieters to ground out to end the inning.  Six run games are not supposed to be this nerve-wracking.

Offensively, Marcell Ozuna got into more of a groove that we’ve seen all year, belting two home runs.  Both were solo shots, as befitting this year’s King of Singles, but it was nice to see the power display.  Ozuna’s second home run came after the Nationals had tied the game at four and was the front end of a back-to-back with Paul DeJong and three homers in four batters with Patrick Wisdom.  Seeing that kind of lightning strike isn’t usual for this team but it sure it fun.

John Gant started this game after swapping spots in the rotation with Miles Mikolas and looked good in the early going, throwing four scoreless innings at the Nats.  The fifth opened with a fielding error by Yairo Munoz, though, and things quickly went downhill from there.  It wasn’t quite as dramatic as Daniel Poncedeleon against the Reds but it was very similar.  Difo lined out to get Gant his first out but then Pedro Severino singled, Andrew Stevenson (who was pinch-hitting for the pitcher) walked and suddenly the bases were loaded.

We complained a bit about Shildt’s bullpen management above but give him some credit here.  Even though Gant had done well and even though they had a four-run lead, he didn’t hesitate to bring in Tyler Webb to face the lefty Eaton, who he struck out.  The Cards were an out away from getting out of the jam, but Webb walked the righty Turner to force in a run and gave up a ground-rule double to the lefty Harper to plate another two.  Webb intentionally walked Rendon with a base open, but there was some debate about that as well.  It made some strategic sense as it brought Juan Soto, another lefty, to the plate, but given Webb’s control issues here, having no margin for error wasn’t necessarily the best thing.  Webb proved that by walking Soto, tying the game.

That was it for Webb, as Tyson Ross came in and does what Tyson Ross does–cleans up everyone else’s mess, this time by striking out Zimmerman.  Ross threw another inning and allowed a home run to Difo (told you, huge pain) but as the Cards had gotten three in the top of the frame, that wasn’t that painful.  The Ross acquisition isn’t going to get enough attention given all the other moves that have been made and all the talented arms out there, but I’ve really enjoyed his steady, solid work.

Dakota Hudson threw a scoreless inning with a walk and a strikeout.  This will be relevant later.

Wednesday (7-6 win)

Hero: Matt Adams.  The lineup juggling before this game looked interesting as Jose Martinez moved to second and Matt Adams hit third.  There was not a lot of hope there for offense at the top, but that means of course Martinez goes 3-5 and Adams cranks two home runs and drives in four.  His first shot meant the Cards were up 3-0 before the first out was recorded.  His second put them up 6-0 and supposedly cruising to a victory.  Supposedly.

Goat: Dakota Hudson.  There was a consensus on Twitter last night and that consensus was Hudson is worn out.  He threw 152 innings last year in his first full minor league season and has thrown 130 this year, but he’s adapting to the relief role and it’s getting later in the season that he’s ever gone.  Mike Shildt brought him in last night because they only needed one out and he wanted to leave the eighth and ninth to Carlos Martinez.  7-2 game and even with two runners on, one out should be easy enough, right?  Not so much.

He started off by walking Juan Soto, which is a terrible way to start things.  Then he gave up a double to Ryan Zimmerman that just got over the head of Harrison Bader.  It looked like Bader might pull off another one of his remarkable catches, but it was just too hard and a couple of inches too high.  That cleared the bases, making it 7-5.  Difo followed that up with a single on the next pitch and while the throw from Bader looked to be on time, it was just on the wrong side of the plate and Zimmerman snuck under Yadier Molina’s tag.  Hudson got Pedro Severino to line out to Bader (on a ball hit pretty well) to survive, but that really wasn’t the outing the team was looking for.

Notes: Marcell Ozuna continued his offensive exploits, though he returned to his roots by banging out four singles in five at bats.  It was also interesting to see Shildt remove him with one out in the game to bring in Adolis Garcia.  There were two runners on, so Garcia’s arm could have been the difference between a win, loss, or tie in that situation.  Ozuna’s unleashed a few throws that looked pretty good, even after his return from the DL, but I don’t imagine the club wants to push it.

As noted, Jose Martinez got three hits, so hopefully that’ll get him going in the right direction.  Matt Carpenter also had a couple of hits and is now 3-8 over his last two games, so maybe he’s getting out of his little funk as well.  Get those two clicking and baby, you’ve got a stew going.

Carlos Martinez got the eighth and the ninth and looked like a guy that could take that closer role and have no trouble with it.  He ran into a spot of trouble in the ninth but that wasn’t really of his making.  Rendon led off with a flare single on an inside pitch that just got over the infield.  It wasn’t a good swing and it wasn’t a bad pitch, it was just, well, baseball.  Soto then hits a sharp ball to first and I think Carpenter was focusing on having a shot at getting Rondon at second and it just bounced off of him.  Martinez was able to get to it but nobody was at first and suddenly two were on with nobody out in a one run game.  If you are looking to test a guy for closer potential, this would do it.  Martinez struck out Zimmerman on a pitch even Zimmerman knew was a strike immediately after he took it, then got Difo to fly out.  Finally, Michael Taylor pinch-hit and took the first two balls, then swung at three of the next four pitches even though at least two of those weren’t even close.

The Cardinals get a really needed day off today, which will help reset the bullpen.  Here’s the number of appearances for each reliever since September rolled around:

Brebbia 2 (Monday and Tuesday)
Brett Cecil 1 (Sunday)
Hicks 2 (Monday and Tuesday)
Hudson 3 (Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday)
Leone 2 (Sunday, Tuesday)
Martinez 3 (Sunday, Monday, Wednesday)
Bud Norris 2 (Sunday, Monday)
Daniel Poncedeleon 1 (Saturday, as a start)
Ross 2 (Saturday in very long relief, Tuesday)
Chasen Shreve 1 (Monday)
Luke Weaver 1 (Saturday, as a start)
Webb 3 (Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday)

Nobody’s getting necessarily Matt Bowman-levels of usage, but you can see that also means nobody is terribly fresh.  With the day off, you have to figure Poncedeleon, Cecil, Weaver, Shreve at the least and probably most of the rest will be good for Friday against Detroit.

Speaking of Friday, that’s when Norris would be next available according to Shildt’s comments, so the fact that he’s not been used in the last two save opportunities shouldn’t mean that he’s completely off the ninth.  I do think that Shildt is going to perhaps rotate the ninth a little more.  I know that Norris’s underlying stats haven’t been trending in the right direction, which is a fairer reason to remove him from the ninth than two rough days giving up home runs.  After all, Kenley Jansen gave up homers in his first two outings off the DL (we remember those, right) and the Dodgers stuck with him.  There turned out to be a medical reason, an excuse Norris doesn’t have, but you can’t toss a guy that’s been that successful all year completely aside.  I hope that Shildt will be creative in how he uses his relievers going down the stretch.

The last interleague series of the year finds the Cardinals in Detroit playing the 57-83 Tigers.  It tells you how bad the AL Central is that the Tigers are sitting third in the division at the moment.  It better be another series win if the Cards want to stay in this race!

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