A Big Time in Hotlanta

After the Cardinals had been run through by the Dodgers, only spared complete annihilation by an apparently time-traveling Adam Wainwright, the series with Atlanta loomed large in front of the team from St. Louis.  Could they go into the home of a division leader and be effective?  Would they be able to hold on to their wild-card hopes?  Would the bats show up after being fairly quite for a week?

After two games, the answer to all of those questions is a resounding yes.

It’s not necessarily been easy, no matter what the scores look like, but the Cardinals have proven that they can play with the big boys.  True, after the last two games St. Louis now has a slightly better record than Atlanta, even though they sit third in the NL Central, but getting these wins should help bolster the confidence of the fan base that they aren’t completely done yet.  (I don’t know that the players ever doubted.)  With Los Angeles continuing to take care of business against the Rockies, Wednesday morning dawns with the Cardinals 1.5 games clear of a playoff spot with just 10 to play.  Fangraphs has them at 78.5% to be playing in the playoffs (and, interestingly enough, a 1.7% chance of being champions).  Nothing is guaranteed but things look much rosier than they did after that football game on Saturday.

All right, let’s look at the last two games.

Monday (11-6 win)

Hero: Kolten Wong.  Three hits, three RBI.  Last time I talked about how Wong seemed to be still off from his time on the disabled list and obviously that didn’t sit well with him.  He had a double in the first that plated two runs and got the Redbirds off to a 3-0 lead, then homered in the fourth to make it 4-2.  The Cardinals were able to pile on some runs late–a recurring theme–but it was Wong’s early work that helped them keep the lead that may have led to some different decisions being made by the Braves.

Goat: A rough night for Yairo Munoz.  Inserted into center field to give Harrison Bader a rest, Munoz went 0-4 and struck out twice, plus made errors on back-to-back plays in the sixth helping Atlanta score two runs and cut the lead to 6-4.  Plus the guy that he was supposed to replace pinch-hit and, well, he did OK.

Notes: Bader’s three-run homer was huge, giving the team the cushion they needed to rest a few of their bullpen arms.  It was nice to see Bader come through because he was hitting .191 in September before that with 21 strikeouts in 53 plate appearances.  Bader’s defense is outstanding and we love seeing his speed, but he’s got to get on base to fully use that and that’s been an issue of late.  Still, you can’t help but to root for him and seeing him take advantage of a 3-1 fastball was outstanding.

Paul DeJong had two hits, including a home run in the fifth.  So far September has been one of his better months this year, as he’s hitting .254 with three homers (and this doesn’t count Tuesday night!) after hitting under .230 the three months prior.  You appreciate DeJong’s power and he plays a solid defense at short, but there’s this nagging feeling that if the Cards wanted to try to upgrade in the offseason, that might be a place they’d look.

Matt Carpenter drew two walks but went 0-3 in his other appearances, though the walks were enough to get him two runs added to his total.  As we know, in Carpenter’s first 35 games he hit .140 with a .558 OPS.  In his last 35 games through Monday? .214, though the OPS is at .728 due in part to five homers.  I said it last time but the discussion about Matt Carpenter this offseason is going to be interesting, depending on how you look at his final results.  Of course, if he gets hot these last 10 days and into October, all would be forgiven!  (For a while.)

Miles Mikolas got the start and was a bit shakier than usual but still gave up just two runs in five innings.  Usually 97 pitches would get Mikolas a little deeper into the game but six strikeouts helped to run up the pitch count a bit.  We often think of Jack Flaherty and some of the other guys when we talk about innings limits but the Cardinals are trying to be careful with Mikolas as well as he’s reaching career highs, especially with playoffs looming.  I wouldn’t be surprised if his next outing stops at five as well, which makes the bullpen so important.

That bullpen bent but didn’t break on Monday night.  Tyler Webb got victimized a bit by Munoz’s errors, giving up two unearned runs, but he allowed two hits in a third of an inning before being replaced by Dakota Hudson.  It’s notable that Mike Shildt has said he’ll go with Bud Norris against left-handed batters when Norris’s hand heals up.  That tells you a lot about how much the club trusts Webb, Chasen Shreve, and Brett Cecil when it comes to the big lefties of the opposition.  Norris has had a lot of success against left-handers this season and while I doubt they use him as a LOOGY, they’ll probably save him for innings where the big left-handers are coming up.

Hudson allowed a run in 1.2 innings, giving up three hits in the process.  Carlos Martinez, staked to a 9-6 lead, then made that lead feel infinitesimal by giving up a hit and walking three guys before getting out of the jam by striking out Freddie Freeman with the bases loaded.  A couple more insurance runs meant John Brebbia took the ninth and he struck out the side, though he did have a walk in the process.

Tuesday (8-1 win)

Hero: Paul DeJong.  His two-run blast off of Anibal Sanchez got the club out of their early daze (it was only the second hit of the game, the first being Jose Martinez right before him) and, for a long time, was all the offense this team had.  DeJong also drove in the third run of the game in the eighth, which opened the floodgates for much more in that inning and the one to come.

Goat: Jedd Gyorko.  I could have gone with Matt Carpenter here, but at least Carpenter drew a walk in the eighth to keep that inning going and scored on DeJong’s hit.  Gyorko went 0-3 and struck out twice before being double-switched out of the game when Jordan Hicks came in to pitch the seventh.

Notes: As noted, not only did Carpenter go 0-4, marking his fourth straight game and 15 straight at bats without a hit, but he also struck out three times while doing it.  We’ve talked enough about Carpenter above and there’s no need to rehash it, but if there was anyone else that the club thought could lead off regularly, it might be worth shaking him up a bit.  Not likely to happen, given where they are in the season, but I don’t know if the “Carpenter at leadoff” decision is as settled as we thought it was a few weeks ago.

Huge hit by Yadier Molina in the eighth.  With the Cardinals up 3-1 and the bases loaded in the eighth, Patrick Wisdom pinch-hit and struck out, leaving Molina up with two outs and needing a hit to get some insurance.  Molina worked the count to 2-2 and fouled off some pitches before driving one out to left field.  Ronald Acuna Jr. couldn’t completely handle the hot shot and so all three of the baserunners scored, making it serious and providing a lot of breathing room for the late innings.  I don’t know that Dominic Leone and Mike Mayers (who did combine to throw two scoreless innings, though they both walked one and Mayers also allowed a hit) would have been pitching in that situation had the insurance runs not scored, though I’m not sure who would have since Carlos Martinez was basically off-limits and Bud Norris still was dealing with that blister.

While the final score of this one was comfortable, the game for the most part was a terrifying tightrope act where one slip would cause disaster.  Austin Gomber threw five innings of one run ball but always seemed to be one pitch away from losing his tentative lead.  Of course, the fact that he allowed six hits and three walks in that span is probably why.  Gomber made the pitches he needed to get out of the jams he created but it was a very tough, very grindy five innings.

Which meant that he had to turn a 2-1 game over to the bullpen, which is not going to make anyone feel any better, really.  However, John Brebbia and Jordan Hicks threw two innings of scoreless ball with three strikeouts combined before Leone and Mayers did their job with a bigger cushion.  Brebbia has a chance to be a big key in those middle innings, especially if the Cards go into the playoffs and do well.  There’s got to be someone that can be counted on between the starters and Hicks/Martinez and he may just be that guy.

Two hits for Jose Martinez, including a double that missed being a home run by a couple of feet.  Given the struggles of Martinez over the last few weeks, that’s a good thing to see.  It doesn’t mean that the problem is solved–he had a three hit game in LA and didn’t follow that up–but at least he’s not completely lost.  Two hits for Kolten Wong as well, which doesn’t count the one in his back when he was drilled by Sanchez.

You couldn’t ask for better results and now today’s game sets up well with Jack Flaherty going for the sweep and probably both big arms (Hicks and Martinez) available late.  The Cardinals are also calling up Giovanny Gallegos today now that Memphis is National Champions (congrats to them on that win last night!) which should give them another arm that, if nothing else, nobody has seen yet.  A sweep would be great so why don’t we get one?

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