Meaningful September Baseball

That’s what we always want, right?  We want the Cardinals to be playing the last couple of weeks in September with something on the line that’s not just playing time or trying out the new guys.  We don’t want to see that E next to their name in the magic number column.  You want to see an x or a y or a z (whatever they use these days) in front of it denoting a playoff berth or at least having a chance at it.  For all the faults of the Mike Matheny era, it was only last year when they played games that didn’t matter.

We also want to see them playing well when they are playing these meaningful baseball games and, for the most part, that’s what we’ve seen this week.  They took two of three from the Braves (we’ll talk about that last game here in a bit) and then swept the Pirates.  Hey, nine game winning streaks are possible, right?  Sweep the Brewers, then the Cubs….  Nah, the Cubs will probably eliminate the Cardinals from the division Wednesday or Thursday and if the Cards swept the Brewers, that’d probably mean they’d be clinching the division as a whole then unless Pittsburgh could lend a hand.

Let’s not think much about the division.  Honestly, I’m not worrying terribly much about the first wild card spot.  The Cardinals would have to sweep the Brewers to take over that spot, though winning the series would at least get them to within a game, meaning a sweep by the Cards over the Cubs would mean the Brewers would need to do the same to the Tigers, which would be a lot easier task.  While all of those options are on the table, let’s look a little more closely at the team behind them.  After all, you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your slowest friend.

The Rockies just swept the Diamondbacks, sending Arizona home for the winter while staying 1.5 games behind St. Louis.  They finish up at home with the NL East, facing Philadelphia for four and Washington for three.  Even if the Cards split their week, reaching 90 wins, the Rockies would need to go 5-2 to tie, 6-1 to overcome them.  October baseball isn’t assured, but it’s looking pretty solid.  As Allen wrote yesterday, this is what we’ve been wanting, an exciting and meaningful last week.

We can’t just toss away the last four games, though.  If nothing else, we need to record the Heros and Goats, right?  So let’s get to looking at a disappointing loss and a very nice sweep.

Wednesday (7-3 loss at Atlanta)

Hero: Jose Martinez.  The only Cardinal with multiple hits, Martinez scored two of the three runs on two hits and one walk.  Unfortunately, both of them came after the Braves had jumped out to a big lead and weren’t as helpful as they could be.

Goat: Allen and I had talked about it and you couldn’t draw it up any better to go into a game for a sweep with Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks, and Carlos Martinez either scheduled or available.  So to have Flaherty give up five runs in 4.2 innings, that’s 1) extremely disappointing and 2) pretty much the way baseball works.  We’ve talked all year about the inconsistency of young pitching and down the stretch Flaherty has seemed to buck the trend, so having a dud for a game (against a division winner, it should be noted) is probably not a cause for alarm.  If the Brewers, a team Flaherty has done well against, are able to get to him today, then maybe you start looking for that panic button.

Notes: Harrison Bader had a home run that got the Cards on the board.  It was his second home run of the series, after that big blast on Monday night, but it still had him hitting .227 over the last two series with the Dodgers and Braves.  He’s lost about 20 points on his batting average in the last month but his defense keeps him out there and that allows for some special moments to happen when we aren’t expecting them.

Tyler Webb and Brett Cecil both pitched an inning and both allowed a run, though Webb’s was unearned.  There would seem to be no way Cecil is on the playoff roster (and I have no idea what you do with him going forward) and Webb’s a bit shaky as well.  It could well be that Chasen Shreve (who also pitched in this one, only going 2/3rds of an inning in relief of Flaherty, walking one while striking out two) is the only left-hander on the October roster should there be one, with Bud Norris also getting a chance against tough lefties.  It’s not ideal but it is probably the best option.

The Cardinals had a chance to sweep a team with a similar record that was on the verge of clinching their division and weren’t able to come up with the third win.  That’s not really that surprising–sweeps of even bad teams are hard to do.  But not impossible, of course…..

Friday (5-3 win vs. San Francisco)

Hero: Matt Adams.  Big City has been a big acquisition for the Cardinals.  With two outs in the eighth, Harrison Bader walked and Yairo Munoz singled, bringing up the pitcher’s spot.  Obviously John Brebbia, who was in the game at the time, wasn’t going to take the AB so Adams came in to pinch-hit.  The Giants tried to counter with left-hander Tony Watson, perhaps wanting to see if Mike Shildt might burn Adams for someone else.  Shildt trusted Adams to come through and he did, lining a double down the third base line that scored the two tiebreaking runs.

While Adams has struggled a bit over all, hitting .167 in 57 plate appearances for St. Louis, he does have three homers and this double to make his slugging .352, which isn’t bad given the lack of hits overall.  Surprisingly enough, as far as I can tell that was his first pinch-hit since returning to the Cardinals, making him 1-9 in that spot.  I felt like he’d been succeeding more as of late, but that double was his first hit in 14 at bats.  It’d be nice if Adams could get on a bit of a roll before the playoffs but if nothing else he is a threat other teams have to take seriously.

Goat: Jordan Hicks.  With the score 3-1, Shildt turned to Hicks in the seventh.  I don’t know if the plan was to get two innings out of him and then turn it over to Martinez, especially since he was going to be facing the bottom of the Giants’ lineup, but whatever the plan was, it didn’t work.  The first three batters–again, that’s 8, a pinch-hitter for 9, and a 1 that Giant fans are continually screaming about being in that position–reached and the game was 3-2.  Hicks somewhat righted the ship, getting a strikeout, but a wild pitch moved runners over and an Evan Longoria groundout brought in the tying run.  Brandon Crawford was intentionally passed and Hicks got Nick Hundley to line out and end the threat.

Tara and I talked about this last night on Gateway but the bullpen at times seems like it’s really just Hicks and Martinez and, as we’ve said before in this space, you can’t always be sure what you are getting with Hicks.  Out of his seven September games, he’s had two where he’s been charged with multiple runs.  His ERA for the month is 4.70.  He’s had one perfect outing, his inning against the Braves, though the two innings in relief of Adam Wainwright in his Dodger start were pretty solid as well with just a hit and a walk scuffing them up.  Hicks is definitely an asset to the team and it’s not surprising a young arm might not be as strong and fresh in September, especially when control has been his issue all year long.  I just don’t know what that’ll mean for our nerves if the Cards are in the playoffs.

Notes: Kolten Wong had himself a nice game, going two for three and driving in two of the non-Adams runs.  Unfortunately, he left with a hamstring issue, one that likely led to the Sunday callup of Edmundo Sosa, and there’s no guarantee when he’ll return.  After initially struggling with the bat when he came off the disabled list, he’s had three multi-hit games in his last six outings and was hitting .381 in that stretch with a double and a homer.  Obviously this team needs Wong’s glove to be at its best come postseason baseball but his bat is an asset they could use as well.  Which means you have to be concerned if Wong sits out very much of this upcoming Milwaukee series.

Jedd Gyorko also had two hits.  Since coming off the DL (and through Saturday, because B-Ref hasn’t updated for yesterday’s game yet and it’s too early to do the math), Gyorko is slashing .333/.424/.407,  Perhaps some of the time off this season due to injuries has kept him fresh for a stretch run or maybe he’s been put in the right situations, but right now Gyorko is one of the better hitters on the squad and should be playing regularly.  Him at third, Wong at second, and Matt Carpenter at first would seem to be the best configuration and, in truth, it’s one we’ve seen pretty often as of late.

It was nice to see the Cardinals be able to win a Madison Bumgarner start.  It’s not that Bumgarner is necessarily as overwhelming has he has been in the past, but he’s still a top-tier pitcher and the Giants have been able to do a lot of damage to Cardinal postseason hopes over the last decade.  Kicking the series off with a win against Mad Bum was a great sign that this team is still ready to take on whatever they may face.

Saturday (5-4 win in 10 vs. San Francisco)

Hero: Tyler O’Neill.  The young Canadian provided the 11th walk-off moment of the 2018 season for the Cardinals, smashing a Mark Melancon pitch deep into left field with two outs in the 10th.  O’Neill had come into the game in the seventh as part of a double switch and things lined up perfectly for a winner.  That’s O’Neill’s ninth of the season in the big leagues and it’d be nice to see him get to double digits sometime this week.

Goat: Marcell Ozuna.  We’ve not seen too many tough days for Big Bear since he returned from that stint on the DL to help his shoulder, but this was one of them.  Not only did he go 0-4, leaving two men on base, but he also had an error in the outfield and grounded into a double play.  A game Ozuna would like to forget, for sure.

Notes: If that was the last start in Busch Stadium for Adam Wainwright, it was something for him to be proud of.  Over six innings, Wainwright allowed just one run on four hits while striking out six.  The seventh didn’t go as well for him, as he only retired one, but the two-run single by Aramis Garcia was on a flare after Garcia was just able to get under a Waino curve.  (That’s where Ozuna’s error became costly as the batter before had taken an extra base due to Ozuna’s throwing miscue.)  Now, giving up a single to Dereck Rodriguez, the opposing pitcher, after that to drive in the fourth run was less understandable.  Still, Wainwright deserved better than a no-decision but he proved that the game against the Dodgers wasn’t a complete fluke and, most likely, cemented a spot in any postseason rotation the Cardinals might have.  We should also note that the Cardinals got their first run from the bat of Wainwright, who made sure he didn’t go hitless on the year by singling to left in the second to bring in Gyorko.

It was also completely fitting that Yadier Molina made sure Waino didn’t leave Busch Stadium a loser.  Rodriguez walked Gyorko to lead off the bottom of the seventh and Molina took his 0-1 curveball out of the yard, tying things up at four.  Molina, extending his “day game after a night game” record, only had that one hit, but he made it very, very valuable.

We talked a minute ago about how the bullpen seemed to be just Jordan Hicks and Carlos Martinez.  Martinez got the win in this one and definitely made some big pitches when it counted, but he dealt with some ugly situations as well.  He took over in the ninth and immediately gave up a single to Garcia, who was sacrificed to second.  He got Gregor Blanco to ground out, moving Garcia to third, and then intentionally passed Joe Panick to get to Evan Longoria.  Longoria did a lot of damage the night before and but was 0-4 in this one and that became 0-5 when Longoria’s flare carried just a bit more than Garcia’s did in the seventh and Harrison Bader was able to catch it (rather than overrun and not be able to pick it up, like he did with Garcia’s).

Obviously, Martinez stayed in there for the 10th.  After a strikeout, noted pain in the Cardinal backside Hunter Pence singled off of Martinez–literally–and then Matt Carpenter completely brain farted, misplaying Gorkys Hernandez‘s ball to let him reach then throwing the ball away as Pence went for third.  Martinez got Alen Hanson to strike out but Hernandez stole second in the process, which meant that the club walked Nick Hundley to get to the pitcher’s spot.  Austin Slater got to a 1-2 count and fouled off one pitch but was frozen by Martinez’s slider that caught the corner.  So, basically, while Martinez did allow a couple of hits, he was able to right not only his ship but the ship of his teammates.

Paul DeJong had two hits, including an RBI double that broke the 1-1 tie in the third, responding to San Francisco’s response of St. Louis’s initial tally.  Also, Dakota Hudson should get kudos for going 1.2 innings in relief of Wainwright, dealing with the runners he left on and allowing just one hit and a walk in his time on the mound.  I’ve given Hudson a lot of grief over the past few weeks and it’s good to see him come through.

Sunday (9-2 win vs. San Francisco)

Hero: Miles Mikolas.  Mikolas took a no-hitter into the fifth, where Nick Hundley broke it up, and wound up going seven innings, allowing two runs (one unearned) and striking out eight.  There’s been some concern on the Cardinals’ part about how Mikolas will survive his longest season to date but if Sunday is any indication, he’s going to be just fine.

Goat: Marcell Ozuna.  I hate to give it to Ozuna again but he was the only starter to not record a hit and the bullpen didn’t give any reason for a Goat tag either.  Ozuna did draw a walk but went 0-4 and struck out twice.  Hopefully it’s just a little lull and not the cortisone shot wearing off.

Notes: Two doubles for Jose Martinez, who drove in two as well.  Two hits for Harrison Bader, who scored twice and drove in one.  Two hits for Yairo Munoz, who scored once, drove in two, and made two errors at second base which made folks really want Kolten Wong to return.  It’s amazing that, with all this offense, it was a 2-0 game in the bottom of the sixth.  It feels like the Cardinals are doing a better job–if that’s even something you can do rather than just randomness–of clustering their offense and thereby producing bigger innings.

Two players made their major league debut in this one.  (EDIT: I stand corrected.  Josh Gilliam notes that Gallegos has pitched with the Yankees before.)  Edmundo Sosa was called up before the game, as noted above, and got to pinch-hit in the eighth, drawing a walk and scoring on Matt Carpenter’s first home run of the month.  (That’s something you really don’t want to say over three weeks into said month.)  With the lead comfortable, Mike Shildt turned to Giovanny Gallegos to pitch the ninth and he took to it well, striking out Brandon Crawford and Nick Hundley before Chris Shaw singled.  Unperturbed, he came back to get Alen Hanson to fly out.  He didn’t run a three ball count on any of his four batters.  I hope that he’ll get a little more play this week so we can see if the Cardinals have something they can use in October here.  You might laugh at a guy that made his major league debut with seven games left being on the postseason roster, but remember it took less time than that for Jordan Hicks to make the roster out of the spring.  A live arm plays and it’s not like they can’t make room for him.

Even with these guys getting in, Carson Kelly still sits on the bench.  He got in for an inning against the Dodgers last Saturday in the rout but nothing since.  Of course, Francisco Pena has only played two games since then and doesn’t have any plate appearances to show for it so I guess it’s less a “they aren’t playing Carson Kelly” and more a “Yadier Molina is actually a robot.”  Which, in fairness, we already knew.

So here we are.  Six games away from postseason baseball for the first time in three years.  Your opinions on the wild card game may vary but I think most of us would rather see the Cardinals play in that than not play anywhere after next Sunday.  Jack Flaherty has had the Brewers’ number this season and may get to face them in back-to-back starts depending on how this week pans out.  He’ll definitely see them tonight and a win could really be a great way to get this stressful week started.  So let’s get it!

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