A Sputtering Start to the Season

You know, for all the craziness, for all the issues, for all the angst around the Cardinals, if they’d been able to complete the ninth inning Sunday intact they’d be 3-2 and tied with the Brewers atop the NL Central.  As it is, they are second, the only non-Brewers team in the division with multiple wins.  Now, that’s mainly because Cincinnati and Pittsburgh had one of their head-to-head matchups rained out this weekend, but it’s still a fact.  The Cardinals have yet to find their footing in the young season.  While there are some issues (if you want a rundown, just read through @johnrabe’s timeline), there’s still so little we know about this team and how it’s going to actually perform this season.  We’re a few games behind on our recaps, so let’s jump right in.

Friday (9-5 win at Milwaukee)

Hero: Paul Goldschmidt.  It’s always great when this tag is a slam dunk.  Goldschmidt started moving up fans’ “Favorite Cardinals” lists with every home run he swatted.  At the end of the night, the damage was four hits, three homers, three runs, five RBI.  He was locked in in a way not often seen.  I think everyone, watching his first at bat, felt a home run was coming.  I don’t think anyone expected the rest of the carnage.

Goat: Harrison Bader.  0-5 with two strikeouts and seven left on isn’t the way Bader probably wanted to follow up his Opening Day home run.  For good or ill, Bader’s been seen as a test case for Jeff Albert’s abilities to work with players and it’s going to be interesting to see if Albert can unlock some things for the centerfielder.  So far, the results are fairly mixed, leaning toward negative, but it is still less than a week into the season.

Notes: Overshadowed by Goldschmidt’s barrage was, well, about everything.  Without those three homers, though, there might have been more questions aimed to Mike Shildt about him leaving Jack Flaherty in to hit in the top of the fifth.  Kolten Wong had walked and was on first with one out in a 4-4 game.  Flaherty had, as noted, allowed the four runs and was at 78 pitches.  Instead of letting Jose Martinez or someone hit there, Shildt stuck with Flaherty, who bunted Wong over but Matt Carpenter stranded him there.  Flaherty then got just one out in the bottom of the frame before being replaced by John Gant.

In the moment, you could see a case for pinch-hitting.  That said, Shildt’s position was pretty defensible.  You have a runner on first, so it’s not like it’s a prime scoring opportunity.  You have Flaherty at less than 80 pitches, meaning that another inning is reasonable, and it’s not even the fifth yet.  If this was later in the season in a pennant race, you might go ahead and make that move, but I think going that way in the first week is a little much.

The bullpen worked about the way you wanted it to, save for one exception.  Gant came in and pitched a scoreless inning and two-thirds, Alex Reyes threw a scoreless frame, and Jordan Hicks closed it out with two strikeouts in his three batters faced.  All well and good, save for the Cardinal debut of Andrew Miller.  Miller, who was acquired in part to get the tough lefties of the NL Central out, allowed a home run to Christian Yelich, the first batter he faced and one of those said lefties.  Now, granted, Yelich destroyed the Cardinals all weekend, getting a home run in each game (ironically, the Reds contained him in Great American Ball Park last night), but you worry when Miller is getting touched like that against a guy he’s going to see often.  After retiring right-handed Ryan Braun, Miller then hit lefty-hitting Travis Shaw before getting a double play that retired the side.  There’s a lot of angst around relievers signed by the Cardinals, especially after Brett Cecil and Greg Holland, and Miller didn’t do anything to reduce that in this one.

The offense wasn’t completely Goldschmidt in this one.  Carpenter had two hits and drove in a run.  Paul DeJong also had two hits and an RBI.  Wong went 1-4 with a walk, which might have been his coldest game of the series (he’s been very #good so far in 2019).  All in all, it was a fun game to watch though it didn’t turn out to be a portent of things to come.

Saturday (4-2 loss at Milwaukee)

Hero: Kolten Wong.  Three hits, including a double, and he drove in one of the runs while scoring the other.  More and more, it seems like the second half of last season wasn’t really a fluke.  Tara and I talked about Wong (shocking, I know) on Gateway to Baseball Heaven this week and, as always, it goes back to confidence and trust.  Mike Shildt seems to be giving him that and Wong is responding.  It’s going to be fun to see if he can keep things going for an entire season.

Goat: Tyler O’Neill.  There were a lot of options here, but O’Neill wound up striking out three of his four times and leaving two on base.  Really, though, you could flip a coin between him, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Dexter Fowler, though at least Fowler was able to draw a walk.

Notes: For the second straight night, Shildt stuck with a pitcher instead of pinch-hitting for him.  Dakota Hudson came up in the top of the fourth with Fowler on third and Wong on second right after Wong had doubled in Marcell Ozuna to make it a 4-2 game.  There were two outs and Hudson had allowed those four runs on three homers.  Instead of going for it right there, Shildt stuck with Hudson, who couldn’t beat out a swinging bunt and the inning was over.

You could make more of a case for pinch-hitting for Hudson, what with two hitters in scoring position and Miller Park being a launching pad all weekend, but there’s also points in Shildt’s favor.  Hudson had only thrown 58 pitches, which was pretty light, and John Gant was not available to be a long man given his use in the first two games.  It’s possible that they could have used Alex Reyes on back-to-back days, but I don’t think the club is anxious to do that early in the season and definitely not for a multiple inning stint.  That pretty much just left you Mike Mayers, who did wind up throwing almost two innings in this one.  Trying to get another inning or so out of your starter is a defensible position.

Allen made a great point on both of these situations (Flaherty and Hudson) on Meet Me at Musial this week.  Both of these guys are young guys that are still learning the game, learning how to get out of jams, learning that someone isn’t always going to come and save you.  Allen’s point is that Shildt is trying to engender some trust and confidence in them and I can completely see that.  It might be noted that Shildt pinch-hit for Adam Wainwright in Monday’s game (we’ll get there) early on, which might lean toward this hypothesis.  It’s less about misplaced loyalty and more about trying to make these guys better by going through situations.

That said, we’ve also projected a lot onto Mike Shildt, in some part because of how he managed in a do-or-die situation last July and August.  While I do have more trust in Shildt to make right decisions, he’s probably not going to be yanking his starter aggressively in the beginning of the season.  There’s a lot of season to cover and running through bullpen arms like that isn’t necessarily a great recipe for long-term success.  Will it work for a month?  It can, but asking that sort of strategy to get you through six months might be asking a lot.

Mayers and Dominic Leone threw 3.2 scoreless innings.  Overall, the bullpen was pretty solid in this series.  Offensively, Ozuna had two hits, the only person other than Wong to have multiple knocks.

Sunday (5-4 loss at Milwaukee)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  A good day for the leadoff batter, as he had a double and a homer with a walk added in there.  It’s not be a super start to the season for Carpenter, but it’s much better than what we saw last year.

Goat: Jordan Hicks.  A tough one in his first real save opportunity of the year.  Hicks got the last out in the eighth, getting Yasmani Grandal to ground out with nobody on and two outs.  The ninth was a completely different story.  It’s possible that another outfielder might have caught the ball that Ben Gamel hit in the direction of Marcell Ozuna, but it was a pretty solidly hit fly and Gamel wound up with a double out of it.  Lorenzo Cain then hit a ball back up the middle that, if Hicks doesn’t deflect, at least gives you one out and the tying run at third.  Then they probably walk Christian Yelich and take their chances with Ryan Braun.  Instead, Yelich roped one into left-center, driving in both runners and winning the ballgame for the Brew Crew.  Because of course he did.

Notes: While Hicks completed the breakdown, there’s some blame to go to Alex Reyes and Andrew Miller as well.  Reyes came into the game in the seventh and quickly went 0-2 on Manny Pina, but lost his command and walked him.  He came back and struck out Eric Thames and got Cain to fly out, but with Yelich coming up Mike Shildt went to Miller.

Honestly, I think I’d have left Reyes in there, but as we said above, Miller is paid to get the left-handers out and no doubt Shildt wanted to show him that they still believe he can do that.  Unfortunately, he walked Yelich (which, granted, was better than the last time the two faced each other).  He then allowed a single to Braun, making the game 4-2, then allowing a pop up to the lefty Shaw that fell between Carpenter and Ozuna.  It wasn’t an easy play for either of them, though it looked like Ozuna got a late break and Carpenter overran the ball.  Miller then got Jesus Aguliar to end the frame and pitched an uneventful eighth, but that left no margin for error.

Michael Wacha deserved so much better than a no-decision.  It was easily the best outing from the rotation so far this season, allowing just one run (shocking, I know, but it was a Yelich home run) in six innings.  He did walk four but struck out seven and seemed fully in command out there.  If this is the Wacha we see all year long, that’s going to be outstanding both for the Cardinals and for Wacha’s free agency bid.

Carpenter and Kolten Wong were the only two players with multiple hits.  We’ll talk a bit about the strikeouts in a bit, but it probably is worth noting that Brewers’ starter Corbin Burnes recorded his first nine outs by strikeout.  The Cards got to him quickly in the fourth, but he still wound up with 12 K in five frames.

Monday (6-5 win in 11 at Pittsburgh)

Hero: Jordan Hicks.  It’s really tough to find a Hero in this one for a number of reasons but I want to salute Hicks for getting right back on the horse.  He came into this one in the ninth, immediately after the Cardinals had tied it…again…and proceeded to show little mercy.  Even though Melky Cabrera drew a two-out walk, you’ll probably see that clip of his pitch coming so far in and down that Cabrera falls down swinging at it.  Hicks got around that walk with a double play from Francisco Cervelli and then gave the Pirates nothing in the 10th.  That’s what a closer is supposed to do, forget the last game, focus on this one.

Goat: Matt Carpenter.  There were a few choices here, but when your leadoff guy goes 0-5 with four strikeouts (though he did draw a walk) it’s tough to win.  Carpenter’s last strikeout was punctuated by him being tossed after he yelled at the third base umpire, because there just wasn’t enough weirdness in this one.

Notes: The Cardinals scored their winning run on a passed ball.  Yadier Molina made his major league debut at third in the last inning after Carpenter’s ejection.  Matt Wieters got into a game but still doesn’t have an at-bat (he was hit by a pitch).  The passed ball that led to the run bounced off the midsection (or lower) of the umpire that had just run Carpenter out of the game.  The Cards tied the game in the eighth on a Tyler O’Neill double after a wild pitch.  They tied it up again in the ninth on a Jose Martinez double after a wild pitch.  Harrison Bader completely dropped a ball in center field.  The game took almost five hours to play.  If there was ever a fitting game for April Fool’s Day, this was it.

Unfortunately, one person who wasn’t fooling was Adam Wainwright.  Granted, he got a little better after the first inning when he allowed three runs, walking the first two batters he faced and three in the frame, but the overall line wasn’t what Wainwright supporters wanted to see–four runs in four innings, four walks, three strikeouts.  Wainwright talked afterwards about having a better mindset, but there always seems to be something with Adam, doesn’t there?  I love the guy and I hope this was more a fluke than what we can expect going forward, but the last few years don’t indicate that’s going to be the case.  We’ll see–it’s not like anyone else save Michael Wacha was strong in the rotation.  He should go again against the Dodgers in St. Louis, which turned out pretty good for him last time.

Andrew Miller also struggled again.  He is also talking about mindset and maybe trying to unlearn what he learned while dealing with injury is part of the problem, but he was brought in with two outs in the seventh to face Corey Dickerson, another lefty, and walked him before hitting Josh Bell (who was batting right-handed).  Honestly, I’d have left Dominic Leone in right there.  Leone’s looked good and I believe has good splits against lefties (though I’ve not checked) and there were two outs.  Granted, there was a runner on third (who had reached on Bader’s error) but all he needed was one out and hasn’t shown any faltering yet this season.

Honestly, as Tara and I discussed on Gateway, Mike Shildt’s managing hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been really anything you wouldn’t see out of a majority of managers.  It still feels very by the book.  It may be that he’s still gathering data, starting the season in this manner to start knowing when he can deviate, but it’s not exactly what we thought we were getting after last year.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining necessarily nor do I think he’s made a lot of questionable moves in service of conformity, but it’s just, well, unexpected.  Again, things well could change as we go forward.

Ben Fredrickson pointed out that Shildt double-switched out his cleanup hitter yesterday, a move that often had people worked up with Mike Matheny did it.  However, given the struggles of Marcell Ozuna right now, hardly anyone noticed.  (To be fair, it was like the seventh-weirdest thing in yesterday’s game.)  There’s no doubt that Ozuna hasn’t necessarily been what the Cardinals were hoping for at all since the trade but the resurgence that they thought this winter might bring hasn’t shown yet either.  His arm strength is questionable at best and he’s doing a lot of what he did last year–a bunch of singles.  Which can be helpful, and he’s done a good job taking extra bases on the basepaths, but isn’t exactly what you are planning from your #4 hitter.

Not like Ozuna should shoulder (oh, sorry about that one) all the blame.  With the bases loaded and nobody out yesterday, Paul Goldschmidt walked, forcing in a run.  The next three hitters, Paul DeJong, Ozuna, and Yadier Molina–the heart of the order–couldn’t get another run across.  Molina in particular has been struggling to start the season.  The defense is fine, though if you want to give credit to Yadi for good pitching performances, you have to examine his role in this line of less-than-quality starts.  More notably, though, he is one for 20 to start the season.  He’s also started all five games, which isn’t necessarily surprising.  There was Saturday’s day game after a night game that would have seen Wieters start on a lot of teams, or Sunday’s game that could have seen him play, but given how Yadi goes it’d be surprising to see Wieters start before next Thursday’s getaway game against the Dodgers.  Then again, these offensive issues might allow Shildt the cover he needs to give Yadi a break.

If there’s one thing that we’ve taken away from the offense after five games, though, it’s this line of numbers:

11, 10, 11, 15, 17

64 strikeouts over five games.  The only reason they don’t lead the major leagues in this category is that Seattle (66) has played two more games than they did and those two games were in Japan.  The next highest NL team is the Mets with 47 (though in just four games).  They haven’t countered that with a lot of walks, either, though the games they have (seven on Friday, eight yesterday) are the games that they’ve won.  This is the highest total in baseball history over five games, and it was pointed out the last team that had 60-plus in five games was the 2003 Astros.  They weren’t good.

Obviously, there was going to be some adjusting to what Jeff Albert is teaching and you can’t call for his head after a week.  It also does feel like, strikeouts notwithstanding, this offense is more productive than last year.  Maybe that’s just the afterglow of Goldschmidt’s game and some of the home runs we’ve seen.  It’s something to watch, though.  If they have double-digit strikeouts basically every day through April, something’s got to give.  After all, Albert was supposed to increase contact as well, I thought.

After that weekend and yesterday’s game, the Cards really need today’s day off.  Miles Mikolas will go for them Wednesday, trying to shake off his first outing.  Let’s hope the second time through the rotation goes better than the first!  But if you are still struggling with this team, take comfort in this: the Cubs lost a series to the Rangers and got thrashed by the Braves last night.  It could be worse!

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