C70 At The Bat

Marking McGwire: #25

Home run #: 25

Date: May 25

Opponent: Colorado Rockies

Location: Busch Stadium

Pitcher: John Thomson

Score: 3-0

Inning: 1

Outs: 2

Runners on: 0

Distance: 433 feet

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 11

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 18

The number 25 never has been retired in St. Louis, given the suspicions and eventual confirmation of Mark McGwire‘s steroid use.  It wasn’t given out for a while, but it finally came back into use when McGwire returned to coach.  After he left for the Dodgers, David Bell picked it up as a coach as well before Dexter Fowler became the first player to wear it since McGwire left when he signed for the 2017 season.  That said, the number is still closely tied to Big Mac because he wore it during this campaign.

It also has a different meaning, one we referenced yesterday.  When McGwire went yard against the Rockies for #25, it set the record for most home runs before June 1.  It was another mark that Barry Bonds took down in 2001, but it’s still worth noting that McGwire’s number put him in the record books, which would not be the last time there were some interesting numerical connections in this historical season.

As for the game, there really wasn’t much to talk about.  Mike Busby had the Cards in quite a hole before they even got a chance to bat.  It was the year of the Blake Street Bombers and they put it on Busby to start the game.  After Neifi Perez and Ellis Burks got out, the big guys got to work.  Future Cardinal Larry Walker doubled, Vinny Castilla was hit by a pitch, and Todd Helton walked to load the bases for Dante Bichette, who promptly unloaded them with a three-run double.

The Rockies took that 3-0 lead to the bottom of the frame, where Ron Gant grounded out and Delino Deshields struck out.  That brought up McGwire against John Thomson, who was in the second year of what would be a fairly undistinguished ten year career.  Thomson came into this game with a 6.47 ERA and had given up six homers in 48.2 innings.

Make it seven in 49.  After starting McGwire off with a ball, he got the big redhead to swing through a pitch to even the count.  After a foul ball, Thomson missed the plate to bring it to 2-2.  Then he came in to McGwire, and well, that went the way you’d expect.

That was the highlight of the game.  Busby would give up another run when Thomson would get him for a single and Burks would double him home, then leave in the fifth when he felt something in his elbow.  He’d not pitch again in the big leagues until September and never made another start.

Rockies got another in the seventh on an RBI double by Walker versus Sean Lowe and one in the eighth when Jeff Reed had an RBI single against Curtis King.  That was it as McGwire popped out, lined out, and then drew a walk in the eighth.  A fairly uneventful loss for the Cards, marked only by Mark.

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A day removed from the loss to the Royals, things are still disappointing but not quite as frustrating and aggravating as they were in the moment.  Wednesday afternoon was full of snarky remarks, invective hurled, and doomsaying.  Now, while it’s still not a game to really want to revisit, it’s not quite as immediate.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve slept on it.

That’s probably where we should start, huh?  Marcell Ozuna was a late scratch and for a while nobody knew why.  It only came out after the game that Ozuna had wound up oversleeping and was late to the ballpark.  He must have come in soon after first pitch or maybe right before it, but obviously much later than he was supposed to be there.

I know my cohost Allen Medlock will have plenty to say about this on Meet Me at Musial tonight and Ben Fredrickson wrote a column going off about it, but while it’s frustrating and not anything you want to see, I can’t really get as worked up about this because mistakes do happen.  If Ozuna was seen at 4 AM at a club and then didn’t make it to the game, that would make me pretty upset and there’d be some questions.  However, there’s nothing out there that contradicts that the guy went home after a night game, probably getting home after midnight, and then wound up oversleeping due to an early (and even earlier than normal–usually afternoon games are 1:15, not 12:15) start time.

As some have pointed out, if Ozuna had 12 homers right now instead of three, this probably gets passed over by a lot more people.  As with so many things in baseball, how things are going on the field determines the narrative off of it.  A winning team is “loose”, a losing team “has no discipline”.  A guy hitting .340 using unorthodox methods is “creative”, a guy hitting .140 the same way needs to “get back to basics”.  Look no farther than Manny Ramirez.  It was “Manny being Manny” when he was a force in the middle of the lineup, a liability when he wasn’t.

Fredrickson says that Ozuna basically ended his honeymoon period with this stunt.  My feeling is, if you were still on the Ozuna train by this point, you didn’t get off at this station.  If this was the deal-breaker, you probably were pretty much done with the honeymoon period anyway.

What surprises me is that nobody seems to have worried about Ozuna’s health in all this.  Maybe they did and I’ve not seen the quotes, but it was noted the last time this happened was with Felipe Lopez in 2010 and I remember the talk that the players were all concerned and worried because they remembered Darryl Kile.  They remembered him not showing up and what the results were of that.  This clubhouse doesn’t have anyone left that played with Kile and very few that even were around for the Lopez incident.  So maybe that wasn’t their first reaction but I think, if the fans had known why the scratch, a lot of us would have had concern very quickly.

Oh, and then there was the game, which most of the Cardinals actually slept through.

The Hero has to be Michael Wacha, basically because there’s such a limited pool to choose from.  Wacha continues to be a rock in the rotation this year, which is a bit surprising to some of us that worried about his injury history and what we’d get from him.  Wacha went 6.2 innings, allowed just four hits and two runs (one of which was unearned) and struck out six.  Not that he was really the one in the rotation that has the most to worry about with the return of Alex Reyes, but it’s possible that motivation is there as well.  Wacha deserved better than a no-decision in this one.

The Goat could be a wide variety of folks.  Bud Norris gave up the runs that lost the game, so he’d be a fair target, but he was in his second inning of work and while he did have a few days of rest, last appearing on Saturday, he has 10 recorded innings this month after having 12 in April.  The last two times he had to get over three outs and was trying to do the same here.  If fatigue is starting to get to Norris, the club is going to go south pretty quickly, I’m afraid.  That said, he last gave up runs May 4, so these things do happen, and he wasn’t hit all that hard.  Though the fielding error on his part didn’t help matters.

Still, the game never should have gotten to that point.  This was a Royals team well under .500 and last in a weak AL Central.  After barely putting a run on them Tuesday night, the offense should have come out and put something together on Wednesday and just didn’t.  When a third of your hits come from Francisco Pena, it’s not a good day, though kudos to Pena for two more hits.  Carson Kelly is going to return Saturday it appears but the way that Pena has been going, I’d be surprised if he got an extended run of starts.  Maybe they will, and they should, but Pena has forced himself into that conversation.

A bit of a tangent there, sorry.  Anyway, Tommy Pham gets our Goat again because of an 0-5 with three strikeout day at the plate, but it could have been plenty of others.  Pham is in a rut, going 0-13 with nine strikeouts over his past three starts.  Even the day off Tuesday didn’t help.  Maybe when he gets to Pittsburgh and a team he’s more familiar with, he’ll break back out.  With Pham, you always worry about the contacts and his vision (especially with this high number of strikeouts) so if that was the case maybe he got them adjusted during the off day.

Matt Carpenter went 0-4 to drop back below .200 with his average.  It’s not surprising that he dropped off from that torrid pace that saw him hitting almost .600 for a week, but hopefully he’s not returning to what we saw the first six weeks.  It doesn’t feel likely but, again, let’s see what this weekend holds.  If he’s 1-for-Pittsburgh, we may need to up the worry level.

The other reason that this game doesn’t reside in the same place in our consciousness?  Alex Reyes pitched last night.  Oh, boy, did he pitch.  Josh kept you posted last night but the final line was seven innings, zero runs, 13 strikeouts, including an amazing nine in a row.  Nine in a row!  If that’s not dominance, what in the world is?  In the fifth inning, he struck out the side on nine swinging strikes.  From all accounts, it may have been the most dominant game folks have seen in Memphis ever.

You look at Reyes’s combined line for his rehab starts: 23 IP, 0 ER, 44 K, 7 BB.  Yes, it was against minor league competition but by time you get to Memphis especially, you are seeing some major league caliber players.  While Breyvic Valera wasn’t any great shakes with the Cards last year, he did get some playing time in the bigs.  He was on the opposing side last night and probably really wished he wasn’t.  We’re always supposed to temper expectations, to believe that Reyes isn’t going to be as good as our fevered imaginations want to make him out to be.  Be reasonable, we tell ourselves.  Then he strikes out 13 at Memphis and it becomes impossible to be rational about what could happen.  Heck, you start to wonder if he could win the Cy Young even after spotting the league two months!  (No, no he can’t.  Calm down, Daniel.)

Besides the need for innings, it’s pretty clear why this arm needs to be in the rotation and he will be starting Tuesday in Milwaukee.  There’s no telling how the club will make this work, but they’ll make it work.  There’s a lot of talent in the rotation, but none of it–save Carlos Martinez, maybe–tops what Alex Reyes can bring to the table and we are finally, after years of anticipation, going to see that on a regular basis for a while.

Cards are in Pittsburgh for the weekend, as mentioned.  John Gant, in what should be his last start for the big club, goes up against Joe Musgrove, who is making his season debut after some shoulder problems.  He was a starter and reliever for Houston the last two years so the Cards have barely, if ever, seen him.  That’s just great.  Don’t forget to fill out your Cardinal Six for the series!

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Marking McGwire: #24

Home run #: 24

Date: May 24

Opponent: San Francisco Giants

Location: Busch Stadium

Pitcher: Robb Nen

Score: 4-6

Inning: 12

Outs: 2

Runners on: 1

Distance: 397 feet

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 9

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 18

Mark McGwire had a blast or four facing the Giants in this series, but the home run he hit in this one might have been the most dramatic.  It didn’t win the ballgame, but it sure kept the Cards from losing it for a while.

The starters in this one were Mark Petkovsek and Shawn Estes, not that either of them would be around by time this got decided.  Petkovsek started off with a clean frame while the Cards struck in the bottom of the first when singles by Ron Gant and McGwire, followed by a walk to Ray Lankford, loaded the bases with one out.  Willie McGee then singled in one run, but the rest were stranded by the bottom of the lineup.

The one run held up until the third, when the Giants responded with a Bill Mueller single, a Barry Bonds walk, and a Jeff Kent double.  They took the lead in the fifth when Bonds singled in Estes with two outs.

That lead lasted until the bottom of the frame, when Gant walked with one out, went to second on a botched pickoff, then scored on a Delino Deshields double.  The Giants then intentionally walked McGwire–not the last time that sentence will be relevant–and then unintentionally walked Lankford again to load the bases again.  McGee got his second RBI of the night with a groundout and the Cards were up 3-2.

The scoring settled down then and Petkovsek and his relievers held the Giants at bay through the eighth inning.  In the bottom of the eighth, McGee singled leading off against Julian Tavarez, moved to second on a groundout, then after an intentional walk to John Mabry to create a forceout, Clayton grounded into what looked to be a 5-4-3 double play, but the throw from Kent was offline and McGee scored while Clayton was safe at first.  An insurance run never hurts, right?

Especially when facing the top of that potent Giants lineup.  Rich Aurilia started the inning against Juan Acevado with a walk, something you never want to do in this situation.  Acevado got the next two outs, but couldn’t get past Barry Bonds.  Bonds hit a drive over the right field wall and suddenly, after holding the lead most of the game, the Cards saw themselves knotted up at four apiece.  Gant walked in the bottom of the ninth and, after one out, McGwire was again intentionally passed.  After a Lankford groundout, McGee was intentionally walked to load the bases, but Tom Pagnozzi couldn’t make them pay.

On to extras!  St. Louis got the first two batters on in the 10th against Danny Darwin.  Darwin got Brian Hunter to pop out, but then was replaced by closer Robb Nen.  Nen threw a wild pitch, moving the runners up and putting the winning run 90 feet away with one out, but Gant struck out.  Delino DeShields then walked to load the bases in front of McGwire, which was crazy dangerous the way that McGwire was going.  Nen had his number this time, though, striking him out to get out of the inning.

The top of San Francisco’s lineup did damage again in the top of the 12th.  Mueller, who could pass some of these hitting tips along to his current charges if you know what I mean, doubled to start it all off.  John Frascatore did get Bonds to strike out, but couldn’t get past Jeff Kent, who homered to put the Giants up 6-4.  Frascatore got two groundouts (including Nen, which is interesting and important) but the damage was done.

Tom Lampkin started the bottom of the 12th with a foulout and Gant flew out, leaving the Cards one out away from a tough loss.  Deshields kept hope alive with a single, which brought up McGwire.

Nen started McGwire off with a strike, then a foul ball was sandwiched between two balls.  As Mike Shannon likes to say, deuces were wild with two balls, two strikes, two outs, down by two.  Nen, who was into his third inning of work here, threw a pitch that hung in the zone and Big Mac, well, there’s a reason we have this series.

According to the clip above, McGwire tied Ken Griffey Jr. for most homers through May with this blast, a record he’d soon hold on his own.

On to more extras!  Both teams had chances in the 13th but were unable to capitalize.  In the bottom of the 14th, with two out and nobody on, McGwire was intentionally walked, a move that almost backfired when Lankford followed with a single, but McGee struck out to end the threat.

Nothing in the fifteenth.  Nothing in the sixteenth.  Finally, after a really long Sunday of baseball, the Giants broke through in the top of the 17th, plating three runs against Kent Mercker on a walk, a single, a bunt that was thrown away, and another single.  McGwire led off the bottom of the frame and, with a three run lead, the Giants pitched to him, but he struck out.  St. Louis couldn’t come up with anything and fell for the 23rd time in the ’98 season.

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Home run Pitcher Score Inning Outs Runners on Distance
22 Rich Rodriguez 7-4 4 1 0 366
23 John Johnstone 8-8 5 2 1 477

Opponent: San Francisco Giants

Location: Busch Stadium

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 9

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 17

Just like a summer rainstorm in the midwest (and even this far south), sometimes it’ll come out of the blue but when it comes, it comes hard.  That was Mark McGwire‘s power at the end of May.  After spending about a week hitting a home run every other day, Mac turned it up a notch by going for three in one game and then had a stretch of six home runs in five days, not even counting that game.  It was like it was just part of the game for a while.  You had the national anthem, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and a Mark McGwire home run.  You just knew that was going to happen going in.

And, at times, you got even more like it in this one, a wild one by any standard.  We’ve talked a lot about Manny Aybar over the season and there’s really no reason to rehash how bad he was, but suffice it to say this was his last start until mid-June.  An ERA in the upper 9s will do that to a pitcher.  Aybar started off this one by again allowing runs.  Darryl Hamilton singled to lead off the game and Bill Mueller followed that up with a walk.  Because baseball is a strange sport, Aybar got Barry Bonds to pop out (yes, somehow the guy he gets out is one of the most legendary players in the game), but Jeff Kent followed with a triple that put the Giants on top 2-0.  Kent would later score on a sacrifice fly by J.T. Snow and the Giants had a three run lead before the Cards ever came to bad.

However, while the ’98 Cards couldn’t pitch, they sure could hit.  Danny Darwin was on the hill for the Giants and he did even worse.  Ron Gant popped out to start the game, but then Delino Deshields and our featured slugger singled.  Ray Lankford followed that up with a walk to load the bases, then Brian Jordan and John Mabry followed with RBI singles to tie the game up.  The Redbirds went ahead when Royce Clayton had a sacrifice fly to score Jordan and somehow, after the first inning, the Cards lead 4-3.

Aybar had a clean second and Lankford, following a Gant single and a McGwire walk, crushed a three-run shot to right center to make it 7-3.  Brian Jordan followed with a double and that was all for Darwin.  Sadly, even though the club had a four run lead this early, Darwin would not factor into the decision.

Aybar gave up a run in the fourth on a couple of walks and a single by the new pitcher, Rich Rodriguez.  However, in the bottom of the frame, Mark McGwire got that back, smashing a home run on a 1-0 pitch over the left field wall on a similar trajectory as one that would become famous in September.  Like that one, it was one of the few McGwire homers that didn’t go over 400 feet, but it still counted and put the club up 8-4.

Of course, the good times couldn’t last.  Aybar returned to the mound in the fifth and by this time the Giants had his number.  With one out, Bonds walked, Kent singled, and then Stan Javier grounded out.  Aybar was one out away from not only getting out of the inning but being eligible for the win when the bottom fell out.  J.T. Snow singled in a run and Rich Aurilia doubled in two.  That was all Tony La Russa could watch, but Kent Bottenfield came in and allowed an RBI single to Brent Mayne.  Suddenly, the game was knotted at 8.

Again the Cardinal offense–most notably the big man in the middle–came through.  Brian Hunter pinch-hit against John Johnston and singled to start the frame.  Gant flew out but Delino Deshields drew a walk to put two runners on for the major league home run leader.

McGwire swung through the first pitch, then took two more out of the zone.  Ahead in the count, he fouled one off, then got a breaking ball that hung in the middle of the plate and, well, you pretty much know what the redhead did with those throughout his career but especially in 1998.  When the ball landed somewhere in the left-center field bleachers, it was 11-8.

This game, though, was far from over.  Lance Painter threw a perfect sixth but was tagged with a J.T. Snow homer with a runner in the seventh.  11-10.  Thankfully, Curtis King threw two perfect innings to keep the Giants from another late rally and the Cards had another win.  McGwire was up to 23 on the 23rd with much, much more to come.

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A Royal Letdown

With a weak Kansas City team, at least by the standard of their record and place in the AL Central, coming into town and a Cardinal team that felt like it was starting to be what it was supposed to be, you’d have liked to have seen St. Louis just run rampant throughout this series.  While the opener of the series fed into that, last night crushed a lot of hopes and raised a number of questions.  Let’s take the good game first.

Monday (6-0 win)

Hero: Miles Mikolas.  There were a few other options in what was really a good overall game, but nobody can top St. Mikolas.  Nine innings, nine strikeouts, no runs.  It was a tough chore following Jack Flaherty‘s outing on Sunday, but Mikolas did that and then some (though, as folks that responded to my Twitter poll pointed out, it was against lesser competition so that probably should factor in a little).  Mikolas was in control all night long and at least a couple of the four hits he allowed were weak bloops.  After his first two starts this season were a little rough, Mikolas has put up a 1.30 ERA in the seven outings following.  Again, John Mozeliak and company know what they are doing.  Usually.

Goat: A really rough night for Tommy Pham, who went 0-4 with four strikeouts.  If there was anyone you wouldn’t expect to get the golden sombrero, it’s SuperPham, but it happens.  Putting that with his game on Sunday, where he was also 0-4 with two K, it’s not surprising he got a night off Tuesday night.  Of course, perhaps there’s not a coincidence that the team only scored one run either…..

Notes: Another night, another homer from Tyler O’Neill, who is quickly becoming a huge fan favorite.  O’Neill has raw power we may not have seen since the Mark McGwire days (Albert Pujols had a ton of it as well, of course).  His three-run blast basically sewed up the game but he added an RBI double later on.  I don’t know how long this run will last before the pitchers adjust and force him to adjust as well, but it’s a fun thing to watch until it does!

Matt Carpenter appears to be back on track.  Three hits in this one, including a double and a home run, and he was batting something like .524 in his last 24 AB or so, plus he’s still drawing the walks.  It was back-to-back nights with three hits and the smart people seem to think that he’s starting being more aggressive in the strike zone.  Carpenter’s always had a good feel for the zone but he was trying to go deep into counts, thinking he could always hit a two-strike pitch.  He seems to have changed his approach to start swinging at the first good one that is in the strike zone and he’s wearing out pitchers who have started to be accustomed to his more passive outlook.  He’ll cool off a bit for sure but right now, there’s hope that Carpenter can be Carpenter going forward, even if the final numbers are overly depressed because of this terrible six week start.

Besides Carpenter and O’Neill, Marcell Ozuna had two hits, but I want to talk a little about Ozuna in Tuesday’s game discussion, so we’ll hold off on him for a while.  Also of note, Greg Garcia started this game, meaning up to this point Yairo Munoz still barely had any time on the field, much less the starts that John Mozeliak thought he’d be getting.  Garcia did leave this game with back spasms which led to Munoz finally getting a start on Tuesday.  Garcia’s grandfather also sadly passed away Tuesday, which may require him to be away from the team for a day or so, though I’ve not heard that officially yet.

Tuesday (5-1 loss)

Hero: Marcell Ozuna.  Ozuna had three hits in this one and while a couple of them were just flares that found no man’s land patches of grass between the infield and the outfield, the trajectory of those seemed interesting to me.  Zach Gifford wrote Monday at Birds on the Black about Ozuna needing to get to more of an uppercut in his swing to get back to the power numbers that we have expected from him.  Someone on Twitter yesterday, perhaps Jim Jones, noted that Ozuna seemed to be working on something like that in the cage before the game.  Then he goes out and hit high popups that fall rather than the ground balls that he’d been usually hitting.  Put that all together and I like the possibility that Ozuna’s going to figure this out and get going soon.

Goat: Dexter Fowler.  I actually got to sit down and watch a lot of the game last night and so drew baseless and probably wrong thoughts from my viewing experience.  What I felt like I saw watching Fowler, besides a guy that seems to radiate defeat at the plate, was a stiff and rigid guy in the batter’s box.  I tried to find some old AB to see if he had a similar look when he was going well (which meant I was reading a lot into things knowing how the season was going for Dex) and the little I found seemed to confirm that he used to be more fluid, but that also was just a couple of AB and I’m no swing analyst.

What I do know is that Fowler went 0-4 in this one leading off, including swinging at a 3-0 pitch when the Cards were down two and needed base runners.  I can understand what Fowler was thinking, though.  That could be the best pitch he’ll see for days and if he could hit it hard, maybe it’d get him on track.  Instead, he flew out to left, which probably only added to the burden he’s carrying.

It’s frustrating because I think most everyone likes Dexter Fowler as a person.  He seems like a fun guy, he’s got a great smile, his family is adorable.  If that’s not enough, his contract runs another 3 1/2 years, so even folks that don’t care for Fowler have to want him to get going because it’s unlikely that the contract is that tradable (and Fowler does have a no trade clause) and the Cards aren’t going to cut him, no matter what some fevered folks online may want.  It’s possible he gets a loss in playing time or becomes an expensive backup, that I’d grant you, but Fowler is still going to be in the conversation somewhere.

Being in the conversation at leadoff, though, is a fairly crazy idea.  My guess is that Mike Matheny thought that, with a revived Carpenter hitting behind him, maybe Fowler would see some pitches and get a bit of a jumpstart.  Instead, it (and the fact that Carpenter also went 0-4 mainly against Jason Hammel, whom he has a rough history against) seemed to throw a wet blanket over the hitting instead.

All this worry about Fowler, but we should note that after his 41st game last year, he was slashing .205/.302/.409, which is better than this year’s .155/.274/.284, of course, but perhaps there’s still a chance he’ll have another surge like he did in 2017.  It’s all we have to hope for right now, it feels like.

Notes: Plenty of interesting things in this one, but let’s tackle the ugly first.  Greg Holland came into the ninth inning while the Cardinals were down two runs to face the bottom of the Kansas City order.  I really don’t have too much of a problem with this, because it was the bottom of the lineup coming up against the Royals’ closer.  Not saying they couldn’t put something together, especially the way Yairo Munoz was going last night, but the odds were pretty long.  Finding spots for Holland to work could be difficult at times–Monday night’s ninth inning would have been fine, but Matheny chose to let Mikolas finish the game.  Waiting for a blowout either way to get him in could make for a long wait for him, which isn’t likely to help him get on track.  It wasn’t optimal to put him in last night’s game but it wasn’t the worst decision either.

Of course, you’d have like to see Holland go out there, get three outs, and quickly get to the bottom of the ninth.  Instead, he allowed a leadoff single to Abraham Almonte, then a hit-and-run single (on a pitch low and probably out of the zone) to Alcides Escobar.  He followed that up with what seems to be a staple of the Greg Holland experience, a walk.  So bases loaded, nobody out.

Now, with Holland struggling so much now, you probably should have someone getting loose about the time he leaves the bullpen.  He’s got to be on a short hook and I get that having someone warming would be a blast of cold water on Holland’s confidence, but until he proves that he’s earned a longer leash, you just have to deal with that.  Instead, after a trip to the mound, Matheny left him in to face Jon Jay and the former Cardinal did what he did a lot as a Redbird, take a high pitch and smack it for a solid single, this time plating two runs.  Holland leaves with no outs recorded and John Brebbia comes in to clean up the mess, keeping the Royals from adding any more.

Every time I watch Holland pitch, I don’t like what I see.  I’m not talking about results, although those are ugly and, with six runs in a total of an inning over his last three outings, aren’t getting any better.  No, I don’t like the way he pitches.  I don’t know that I can describe it, but it kinda looks like he’s pushing or shot-putting the ball.  It doesn’t look like smooth mechanics.  I’m sure that’s the way he’s always done it and he’s had success in the past, but it just doesn’t feel right to me.  Again, though, I have no expertise on anything like that.

Luke Weaver did look good, even though he suffered in comparison to Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas.  Weaver allowed three runs in seven innings and was very good at throwing strikes.  Perhaps too good, honestly.  At one time I heard Dan McLaughlin say something about “19 of 21 first pitch strikes” or something like that and I immediately thought that, eventually, they are going to do some damage on the first pitch if he doesn’t mix it up a little more.  Sure enough, Salvador Perez smacked his homer on the first pitch of the sixth inning.  Not that I fault Weaver’s approach and you definitely want strikes from your pitcher, but that is the downside of being that much in the zone.  Eight strikeouts in seven innings for Weaver and for the most part he got beat by good hitters, so there’s something.

We continue as fans to be looking toward Alex Reyes and where he’s going to fit into this suddenly overflowing rotation.  There’s a line of thought that says Weaver goes back to Memphis while Flaherty stays up.  I’m not sure that’s much less painful than sending Flaherty down.  That’s the problem, really–everyone in the discussion deserves to be in the big leagues.  But I’m not sure that everyone can be.

Munoz had four hits, raising his batting average 150 points (fun with small samples!) but for some reason Matheny (I assume) twice tried to hit and run with Francisco Pena behind him, causing Munoz to be the back half of two strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double plays.  Not necessarily the greatest way to go about things, even at the bottom of the order.  Of course, the offense was sputtering so I guess you try anything.

Four hits from Munoz, three from Ozuna, and four from everyone else.  Tyler O’Neill had his homer streak stopped and struck out three times, though he did have a hit in the other at bat.  Jose Martinez scored the only run on a delayed double steal with him and Ozuna.  At least that looked like what it was.  It could have been Martinez just getting too far off and getting lucky when the Royals dropped the throw, but we’ll take what we can get, right?

Games like last night are going to happen.  Kansas City is not 0-for-2018 and bad teams beat good teams all the time.  You would have thought, with Hammel struggling of late with an ERA close to 8 on the road, that they’d have lost a game where the offense was good but the pitching wasn’t, but a loss is a loss.  The key is not losing the series, which the Cards will try to avoid doing this afternoon when Michael Wacha takes on Jakob Junis, a pitcher I’m not familiar with but who has pretty solid stats (5-3, 3.51, 1.08 WHIP) for the season.  Hopefully Wacha pitches as well as he has been and the bats come alive, because losing a series to the Royals is not the way any of us want to go into an off day.

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Marking McGwire: #21

Home run #: 21

Date: May 22

Opponent: San Francisco Giants

Location: Busch Stadium

Pitcher: Mark Gardner

Score: 0-1

Inning: 6

Outs: 1

Runners on: 1

Distance: 425 feet

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 9

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 17

When Mark McGwire hit three home runs in a game in April, it took a while before he added to the total.  Not so much the second time he pulled off the feat.  McGwire actually took the next day off, then had a 1-4 game against the Giants before seeing them again and adding them to his roll of honor.  And you have to wonder if history began to change in this series.

The Giants were seven games over .500 while the Cards were just a game over but there was little attention paid to the visitors.  All eyes were on McGwire, wondering what he could do tonight to add to his mystique.  In the outfield, there was a guy by the name of Barry Bonds.  One of the greatest players already in the game, Bonds would see the McGwire bandwagon up close in this game and, by all accounts, it was McGwire and Sosa’s attention-grabbing act that changed his approach to chemical assistance.

Mark Gardner went for the San Francisco squad up against Kent Merker and overall it was a well-pitched game, which was something of a rarity for the Cardinals in this season.  Both teams went quietly in the first, with Gardner walking McGwire on a full count.  The Giants broke through in the second when Jeff Kent and Charlie Hayes led off with singles, with Kent then coming home on a Stan Javier groundout.

It remained that way until the bottom of the sixth.  Ron Gant led off the inning with a strikeout, which was the 11th straight batter that Gardner had retired.  Ray Lankford snapped that string with a single to center, bringing up the man of the hour.  Lankford’s speed bothered Gardner, who made a number of throws over to first.  His first pitch to McGwire was fouled off, his second taken for a ball.  His third pitch was on the outside part of the plate and in a prime hitting zone.  McGwire didn’t miss many of those in 1998 and sent this one out to left field, putting the Cards on top 2-1.

Merker stayed in the game and held the lead through until the ninth.  In fact, Lankford added on with a home run off of Steve Reed in the eighth, giving him a two-run edge.  (McGwire would strike out immediately following.)  Bonds, though, led off the ninth with a double and Tony La Russa went to the bullpen to get the closer, Jeff Brantley.

I know Brantley is a fan favorite in Cincinnati, but I have absolutely no good memories of him in St. Louis, and finding out later that he was hurt during his season here didn’t endear him anymore to me.  Without looking up the numbers, because we are talking about McGwire here, but it seemed like Brantley blew more games than he saved.  Nonetheless, La Russa called for him.  He got Jeff Kent to strike out, but current assistant Cardinal batting coach Bill Mueller, a St. Louis native, pinch-hit and smoked a two-run homer to right center, tying the game at three.

The Cards did nothing in the bottom of the frame and Juan Acevado took over for the tenth.  He gave up a couple of one-out singles, forcing TLR to do his bullpen magic again.  Lance Painter came in and struck out Alex Diaz, but he walked Bonds on four pitches (which might have been one of those unintentional-intentional types, but it did load the bases.)  John Frascatore, another name we’ve seen a lot of in this series, got Kent to line out and keep the game tied.

The game kept going.  St. Louis had a chance in the 11th, as Willie McGee pinch-hit with two on (one of those a McGwire walk) and two out, but he grounded out to first to end the threat.  San Francisco wasn’t doing much either and the game proceeded to the 12th.

In his third inning of work, Julian Tavarez finally buckled.  Royce Clayton grounded out, but David Howard and Tom Lampkin both singled, putting runners on the corners.  The Giants went to their closer, Robb Nen, to try to keep the game knotted up, but Ron Gant hit his second pitch into left field and the Cardinals pulled one out.

McGwire wasn’t done with the Giants, as we’ll see.  And that left fielder certainly took notice.

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You could say a lot of things about this past weekend’s series with the Philadelphia Phillies.  Consistency wouldn’t necessarily be one of them.  With a win-loss-win-loss pattern and some things looking bad on one day and great on another, you hate to draw too many conclusions.  That said, there were some tantalizing possibilities throughout the four games–and away from it, down in Springfield.  Let’s get into it.

Thursday (6-2 loss)

Hero: Luke Weaver.  With no margin for error, Weaver made just one, allowing a home run to Carlos Santana.  Otherwise, he was in control, going seven innings and striking out six.  In the middle of the month, the demotion of Weaver to make room for Alex Reyes in the rotation when he was ready seemed to be a no-brainer.  Since that four-run first against the Cubs, though, he’s thrown 15 innings with just that home run given up.  He seems to have righted the ship a bit and the seven innings was his longest outing of the year.  He’ll have one start, maybe two before the Cards really have to decide how to fit in Reyes.  He’ll be up against the Royals next, which should be a good matchup for him.  If he doesn’t stumble, the front office’s decision is going to be so tough.

Goat: Jordan Hicks.  Look, we love the guy and there’s no doubt he continued to wow us over the rest of the series, but the three runs he gave up without giving up an out wound up being big.  It didn’t feel as much at the time since the offense was doing that “score no runs” thing that they do at times, but eventually they put a couple on the board and things might have been different had the game stayed close.  Hicks didn’t get hit hard and one of those runs charged to him came in after Sam Tuivailala had taken over, but it still was a reminder that for as great as Hicks has been, if you don’t strike people out, you run the risk of things like this, especially with a defense behind you that is OK but perhaps not great.

Notes: As we said, the Cardinal offense seemed to again be allergic to the plate.  In the third, Francisco Pena ran into an out trying to go to from second to third on a grounder to the left side by Tommy Pham, turning that into a double play.  In the seventh, the Cards had runners on second and third with one out, but Pena hit a ground ball and, because of that contact play that I swear costs more runs than it creates, Dexter Fowler was out at home.  Even in the eighth, when they did get a couple of runs, they could possibly have had more because they had the bases loaded and nobody out after Paul DeJong was hit on the hand (a painful HBP that will cost the Cards their shortstop for a couple of months, most likely).  They got their first run on a groundout, but then Jose Martinez was out at home on another contact play when Fowler hit a grounder.  If it weren’t for Jedd Gyorko getting a single next, they’d have had only one run to show for that situation.

It was notable, as we I believe talked about on Meet Me at Musial, that Mike Matheny pinch-hit for Matt Carpenter with a lefty on the mound and runners on in the eighth.  Harrison Bader, who has significantly better numbers against lefties, flew out, but it was a decision you’d not expect Matheny to make given that it was Carpenter involved.  It was the right decision, though some wanted to point to Carpenter’s fluke double in the seventh as a reason to let him hit there.  It just was surprising.  (And, given the rest of the series for him, perhaps a little motivating.)

Three hits by Martinez and, extremely remarkably, Pena.  Interestingly, he seems to be taking to the starting catching job now that Carson Kelly is on the DL and Steve Baron will probably only get a start a week.  It’s probably more of a fluke and the pitchers not having to adjust yet, but we’ll see how long it runs.  Another 0-fer night for Ozuna, though he did get that RBI.  Figuring out a way to get him going should be a top priority for the club.

Friday (12-4 win)

Hero: Plenty of offensive heroics in this one but we’ll go with Tommy Pham, who was 3-3 with two walks, a double, three runs scored, and an RBI.  That’s a full line in the box score, which is usually a good thing.  Hopefully Pham stays in the leadoff role all year long because he’s definitely taken to it and, as they said about Dexter Fowler, when he goes, they go.

Goat: Dexter Fowler.  In the midst of all these baserunners, Fowler went 0-4, though he did draw one walk.  Marcell Ozuna was 0-2 before he was replaced, but he did draw two walks which was a bit of an encouraging sign given his lack of discipline this season.

Notes: Not much to say about this except you’d like to see this all the time.  Jake Arrieta is a solid pitcher so to get him out of the game after three innings was pretty helpful.  The Phillies bullpen wasn’t able to handle the onslaught and the Cards got their first double-digit score in about a month. Francisco Pena had another three hit game, including a home run, for more hits in two games than Matt Carpenter had in about a month, it felt like.  Though Carpenter did continue his emergence in this one with two hits and an RBI, so maybe I shouldn’t say anything.  Jose Martinez and Kolten Wong also had home runs as the runs fell like the rain did before the game.

Michael Wacha didn’t need all that support, though I’m sure he was glad to get it.  Six innings of two-run ball is a solid outing no matter what the offense is doing.  Over his last six starts, Wacha has a 2.06 ERA with 32 strikeouts to 11 walks.  At one time, you’d have thought that Wacha’s spot might be the one that Alex Reyes would take over, but it’s hard to argue moving him, especially with the youth of the rotation.  With Carlos Martinez out, Wacha’s the grizzled veteran of the rotation, having been around since 2013.  There was a graphic this weekend that showed the Phillies’ rotation was the fourth youngest in baseball.  The Cardinals were the very youngest with Martinez and Adam Wainwright not currently in the mix.

John Brebbia and Mike Mayers both pitched and both gave up a run in garbage time.  That’s really concerning about Brebbia because he’s allowed runs in each of his last four appearances, totalling six in six innings over that span with home runs in back-to-back outings against the Phillies.  He may right the ship soon and I know our pitching guru Joe Schwarz is high on him, but with a quick trigger on guys returning to Memphis, that’s not exactly the stretch you want to have.

Saturday (7-6 win)

Hero: Honestly, for the fact the Cards should have one this one, nobody really stands out.  Tommy Pham had two hits, but he also struck out more than anyone not named Steve Baron (who did get his first major league hit in this one, so congrats to Steve!).  I guess we’ll give it to Matt Carpenter, because his double in the seventh scored Pham and put the Cards on top.  What happened next, well, that wasn’t his fault.

Goat: Greg Holland.  There’s a strong argument for not throwing Holland in one-run games right now.  However, the first four outings of May, he had four scoreless innings (though the three to one walk to strikeout rate is a significant concern).  There are times that Holland looks like he’s gotten back to that All-Star form that he had, but about the time that happens and the Cards start trusting him late again, things blow up on him.  The outing before this one was the one in Minnesota where he gave up two runs in 1/3 of an inning.  It’s tough to know what to do with him.

That said, I won’t blame Mike Matheny too much for bringing in Holland here, because he’d used a lot of the bullpen and you aren’t likely to use Bud Norris for a two inning save if you don’t have to.  Holland did get the first two batters out, but then he walked Nick Williams.  Given Holland’s struggles, having someone warming even if he’s doing well wouldn’t be a bad idea and as soon as he walked someone, I think Matheny probably should have bounced out of the dugout to make a pitching change.  I mean, I get that there were two outs and he’s worked around a walk before, but this was feel-good, come-from-behind game that you wouldn’t want to risk.  Four outs from Norris is something he’s done a lot this season and is a little better than six.  Instead, Holland then gives up a triple and a single and the game goes from victory to defeat in a Thanos snap.  Norris comes in then and gets out of the jam, but it was too late and, unsurprisingly, the offense wasn’t able to muster a rally.

Again, I don’t know what you do with Holland.  The “no spring training” excuse is thin now and the fact that he’s still got more walks than innings pitched this late in the year is very troubling.  Holland has to probably move back to those sixth/seventh inning roles when the team is up by a couple of runs and has a short leash even then, trying to work his way back to the end of the games.  It feels like there’s probably no real way that he actually becomes the closer (like he’s being paid for) assuming Norris continues to go the way he is.  The best you can realistically expect would be him to be a solid eighth inning guy.  That has value, though I’m not sure that value is $14 million.  It didn’t feel like a necessary signing and if the rumors are true that Matheny badgered the front office until they got him that proven closer, it’s another tally on the wrong side of the ledger that he may have to justify at the end of the year.

Notes: Tyler O’Neill showed that his power plays in the big leagues, smashing his first big league homer to tie the game up at 5.  Jedd Gyorko also had a key single that drove in two runs, but he also made two errors (though one of them could have gone to Jose Martinez instead).  When Paul DeJong went down, the club called up Yairo Munoz and John Mozeliak said that he’d get the bulk of the time at shortstop.  Yairo Munoz got one at bat this series and played the last inning of that 12-4 game in the field.  Matheny said that Gyorko would be the starter at shortstop and, so far, that has happened.  Which is another thing he may have to justify at some point, because going against what your boss says publicly isn’t necessarily a great strategy.

I told my Meet Me at Musial co-host this weekend that there are only so many positions you can sacrifice defense for offense at the same time.  I think you could have Jose Martinez play first or you could have Jedd Gyorko play short, but I don’t know that putting them in the lineup at those spots together is a great idea.  You are going to get plays like the one in this game that should have been made but turn out to be costly.  Of course, I also don’t think that the Cards can legitimately run Gyorko, Munoz, and Greg Garcia (who started Sunday’s game) out there and cover DeJong’s absence for an extended period of time.  We’ll see if the front office agrees.

Sunday (5-1 win)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  7.2 innings is impressive enough out of the righthander, but one run is even better.  Thirteen strikeouts?  That’s amazing.  Flaherty has had one iffy start in the four that he’s made in the big leagues and outings like this show why there’s no obvious spot for Alex Reyes.  Flaherty may get the short end of the stick initially, because of options and everything else, but he’s not going to deserve it and the club is going to have to do something to get him a spot in the big league rotation.  Martinez, Miles Mikolas, Wacha, Weaver, Reyes, and Flaherty all should be in the rotation but it seems unlikely you’d want to go to a six man and minimize any of these guys.  Figuring out who doesn’t get a chair when the music stops is why they pay Mo and Michael Girsch the big money.

Goat: Tommy Pham.  A rare off day for Pham, who went 0-4 with two strikeouts.  The offense was pretty concentrated–two guys had six of the 10 hits on the day–so it’s not like he’s the only one.  Aaron Nola is a pretty good pitcher, coming into the game with an ERA a hair under 2.00, so that’s kinda to be expected.

Notes: Those two guys that did all the damage were Matt Carpenter and Tyler O’Neill.  Carp continued his resurgence with a single and two doubles and looks better even by the eye test.  He’s not quite to the .200 mark yet but he’s much, much closer than he was even a week ago.  If he gets on track up there with Pham, life will be pretty good.

Marcell Ozuna got the day off and O’Neill made sure they didn’t miss him, getting three hits of his own including yet another home run.  Someone noted that Ozuna, in 80+ AB, still doesn’t have a home run in front of the home crowd while O’Neill, in a bare handful, has two.  Tara and I talked about it on Gateway to Baseball Heaven last night and it’s tough for any manager to do a five-man outfield rotation when everyone needs starting time, but it also is true that O’Neill’s power potential is something this team could use.  Most likely he’ll go back to Memphis sometime soon, but until then Matheny needs to find a way to get him in the lineup regularly so he can start to adjust to major league pitching.  So far, so good.

There was also the little matter of the fact the manager, in consultation with Mike Maddux, let Flaherty throw 120 pitches, which was the fourth most by ANY starter this season, much less a rookie pitcher.  Joe Trezza says the last time a young guy threw that many was Julio Teheran in 2013.  The most telling part was that Matheny, after the game, said that going into the game 120 was the limit they had for him.  Say what?  How do you plan for that?  How do you say, even with a taxed bullpen, that you are going to throw someone that young that many?  I get that they were relatively stress-free and he was in a groove, but when he’s at 107 or so after seven innings, you don’t send him back out there for the eighth.  Ruining prospects (and using Jordan Hicks again for the fourth time in five days may go in this bucket as well) would seem to be a real good way to get on Bill DeWitt’s bad side.

Hicks threw 105 miles per hour.  Twice.  In the same at bat.  It’s insane his speed, but what’s perhaps more insane is that Odubel Herrera kept putting his bat on the ball.  Hicks has to become a pitcher, not a thrower, and use that speed in the right way.  It feels like now, in my uneducated view, that he’s not mixing things up enough to alter timing.  As we talked about on Gateway, if he throws 105 and then goes to an 89 mph slider, that’s going to mess with some timing.  Instead, he pumped five 103+ pitches out there, which is incredible and amazing but also allows for timing.  I worry a lot about Hicks’s development the longer he stays in the bigs.

Oh, and Alex Reyes struck out 13 in a scoreless outing in Springfield.  So yeah, there’s that.  Young guys, man.  They are coming and they are going to be incredible!

Cards take on the Royals tonight.  Get your Cardinal Six entry in!

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Home run Pitcher Score Inning Outs Runners on Distance
18 Tyler Green 1-0 3 1 1 440 feet
19 Tyler Green 3-2 5 0 1 471 feet
20 Wayne Gomes 8-8 0 0 1 451 feet

Opponent: Philadelphia Phillies

Location: Veterans Stadium

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 8

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 16

As we’ve mentioned, Mark McGwire really heated up in the middle of May.  While he’d been hitting a home run every other day, he decided to clump a few together on a Tuesday night with the Phillies in town.  It was his second and last three-homer game of the season, but since a large majority of players never have a three-homer game in their career, I think that’s pretty reasonable.  It started off as a slow night, however, with McGwire looked at strike three to end the first inning.  Tyler Green might have thought he had Big Mac’s number with that one, but it quickly was apparent he did not.

Green and Mark Petkovsek traded zeros for the first two innings, then Petkovsek led off the top of the third with a single to short.  Ron Gant followed with a double and then Delino Deshields drove in the first run of the game with a sacrifice fly, with Gant moving over to third.  With one out and a runner on third, it was an interesting decision to pitch to McGwire instead of trying to get Ray Lankford to hit into a force or a double play, but that’s what Green did.

Green started McGwire off with a couple of balls, then tried to go on the outside of the plate where he struck McGwire out in the first.  The big redhead was ready and waiting though and launched one to center field, putting the Cards up 3-0.

The Phillies got back into the game in the bottom of the fourth, when Petkovsek allowed a couple of singles then, with two out, Royce Clayton booted a ball that allowed a run to score.  Desi Relaford then doubled in the other runner to make it 3-2 before Green struck out to end the threat.

Thankfully for the Cardinals, McGwire was due up in the top of the fifth.  Deshields led off with a double but since there were no outs, even first base being open didn’t encourage Philadelphia to give Big Mac the free pass.  McGwire swung and missed at Green’s first pitch and then took strike two before connecting on the third pitch from the Phillie hurler and sending it deep into the left-center field bleachers, making it a 5-2 game.  Ray Lankford followed that blast with a walk and, after a couple of ground outs, Clayton made up for his miscue by doubling him in.  Tom Pagnozzi followed and reached on an error by Relaford, scoring Clayton.

Normally, you’d think a 7-2 lead in the middle innings would be fairly comfortable, but as we’ve seen in this series, pitching wasn’t exactly the ’98 Cardinals strong suit.  In the bottom of the fifth, Petkovsek allowed two-run homers to future Cardinal Scott Rolen and never a Cardinal Mike Lieberthal to make it a one run game.  In the sixth, Petkovsek hit pinch-hitter Kevin Sefcik to open the frame and was removed for Lance Painter, who promptly allowed a single and then a sacrifice fly to tie the game.  After walks to Rolen and Rico Brogna, Painter was taken out for John Frascatore, who got two groundouts to get out of the frame, albeit with another run scoring.

Now having blown a five run lead and trailing by one, the Cards got to work in the eighth versus Wayne Gomes.  Ron Gant led off the inning with a solo shot to tie things up.  Deshields then singled, bringing up McGwire, the last person anyone in a Phillies uniform wanted to see.  On the first pitch, McGwire launched one in the same direction as his second blast, putting the Cards up two runs.  (Gomes had pitched the seventh with little issue, but he threw four pitches in the eighth and allowed three hits and two homers.)  Juan Acevado pitched the last two innings without much incident and the Cards, as they say, had ’em all the way.  You can watch the three homers below–it’s cued up to the first one.

McGwire had reached 20 homers before Memorial Day, usually the traditional quarter mark of the season.  It was an amazing feat, but while we didn’t quite know it yet, there was someone out there that was going to hit 20 homers in a much more compressed period of time.  And that time was getting much closer.

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Marking McGwire: #17

Home run #: 17

Date: May 18

Opponent: Florida Marlins

Location: Busch Stadium

Pitcher: Jesus Sanchez

Score: 0-5

Inning: 4

Outs: 0

Runners on: 0

Distance: 476 feet

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 8

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 16

Whether it was the warmer weather, a great groove, or some mix of the two, with the middle of May rolling around Mark McGwire started going nuts, hitting basically a home run every other day.  It may not have done a lot for the Cardinals’ record, but it definitely helped a lot for the overall home run total.

As we’ve noted a few times this season already, Manny Aybar started this one and, again, it didn’t go very well.  This was his first start in 22 days, most likely due to a stint on the DL though I can’t seem to find anything to confirm.  The first inning saw him allow an RBI double to Mark Kotsay, scoring Edgar Renteria.  He was able to hold off the Marlins’ attack until the fourth, when the floodgates opened.  Former Cardinal Todd Zeile singled in Mike Piazza (in his third of five games with the Marlins before moving on to his destiny with the Mets).  After a walk to Derrick Lee, current Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell doubled in Cliff Floyd and Zeile.

Aybar was able to get his opposite number, Jesus Sanchez, to strike out and finally record an out in the fourth frame, but Todd Dunwoody singled in Lee and that was all for Mr. Aybar, who left the game sporting a season ERA of 9.12.  It was pretty obvious what the problem with the 1998 Cardinals was if Manny Aybar made 14 starts for them.  (Then again, he was 10-0 with a mid-2 ERA at Memphis, so I guess there’s a reason they kept giving him chances.)

As seemed to be his custom of late, McGwire led off the fourth inning.  With the Marlins already up 5-0, Sanchez wasn’t going to get cute with anyone, much less a slugging redhead.  After all, he’d gotten McGwire to fly out in the first.  Sanchez’s first two pitches were outside the zone.  The third wasn’t.

Sanchez’s pitch was launched out toward Big Mac Land (huh, I guess I was wrong in an earlier post when I indicated it didn’t exist yet) but wound up more to the right of it.  Still, it was a towering blast that put the Cardinals on the board.

Unfortunately, as we noted last time, distance doesn’t count for extra points.  The Cards still trailed 5-1 and that became 7-1 in the seventh when Piazza had a two-run triple off of Rich CroushoreRon Gant semi-answered in the bottom of the frame with an RBI groundout that scored Brian Jordan and Ray Lankford went yard in the ninth, but it never was a close ballgame.

McGwire hit all of his balls in the air but only one made an impact.  This also put him ahead of Ken Griffey Jr. for good.  McGwire would be tied a couple of times but never be passed again on the chase for immortality.

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The Offense DOES Exist!

My Meet Me at Musial cohost Allen Medlock messaged me yesterday, asking if I thought the bats would wake up in the last game of the series with the Minnesota Twins.  My gut feeling was that the fact they were very familiar with Lance Lynn and the fact that he’d be throwing 90% fastballs coupled with the fact that those fastballs weren’t necessarily blow-you-away ones, might be what they needed to put up a few hits and runs.

It’s possible facing Lynn primed the pump and the offense just started rolling from there, but Lynn left after three long, laborious, fodder-for-the-not-signing-him-argument innings and the hitting didn’t entirely stop.  Which is good, because the bullpen wasn’t what you call “lock down” either.  That’s the state of the Cardinals these days–even wins can get you concerned.

I’m going to give the Hero tag to Matt Carpenter.  Yes, Matty C is back again, or at least was for one day.  Three hits, starting with an opposite-field single that messed with the shift and then two doubles after that.  I’m not going to pronounce Carpenter cured after one outing–remember, the last game before this recent abysmal drought was a double-homer game against the White Sox that had everyone thinking he was on his way–but this is a real good sign.  Hopefully Mike Matheny will leave him in the seventh hole for a few days to make sure this sticks before moving him right back up to the top three.  I’m fairly sure nobody actually expects that, but we’ll see.

Joining Carpenter in the turn around game was Dexter Fowler.  Fowler drove in the first two runs of the game with a single, then singled and drew two walks later in the game.  Fowler said he knew from first pitch that he was good mechanically and that had to help mentally as well.  Again, we need more than a one game sample size, but it was really good to see both of these guys hitting well.

Unless, of course, they drained their magical mojo from the pool Miles Mikolas was using.  Mikolas, who had been so sharp over his last five starts, posting a 1.30 ERA and walking just three batters, didn’t make it out of the fifth in this one.  It’s a little interesting to see Matheny pull Mikolas with two outs in the fifth inning with runners on the corners and the Cardinals clinging to a one run lead when he left Jack Flaherty in the game in roughly the same situation (the sixth instead of the fifth, but Mikolas also had fewer pitches) the night before.  Not saying there aren’t reasons to treat the situations differently, but I also wonder if he really needed to get a win in this one after letting last night slip away.

Unfortunately, that left 5.1 innings for the bullpen to cover, with mixed results.  Brett Cecil got out of Mikolas’s jam, which was nice.  Jordan Hicks threw a scoreless frame (though he walked one) and Bud Norris locked it down with 1.2 innings of work (though he threw a wild pitch that let in a run).  That was the good side.

The bad was bad enough to cast more of a pallor over this bullpen that, in theory and thought, could be a strength.  Matthew Bowman continued his struggles by allowing a home run to Logan Morrison that counteracted the RBI double Paul DeJong had an inning before.  Bowman has allowed a run in four of his five May outings and since April 10 he has an ERA of 6.17, an OPS against of 1.017, and has only had two consecutive scoreless innings once (and one of those was just a third of an inning).  I know Bowman is one of Matheny’s favorite tools but the manager hasn’t turned to him quite as often as of late (though he’s still made appearances in five of the last 10 games).  With the fact that he has options and the fact that there are a lot of bullpen arms that are going to need room (whenever the Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons comes off the disabled list, for instance) may mean that Bowman won’t spend all season in St. Louis.

At least Bowman comes at the minimum and has options, though.  Greg Holland doesn’t and, while he has options, they aren’t going to be exercised.  Holland was starting to look like he was coming around–just yesterday pitching guru Joe Schwarz wrote an optimistic piece on Holland for The Athletic–and was riding a four-game, four-inning scoreless streak where he allowed just one hit (though walked three and only struck out one, which were still warning signs).  Holland came into this game in the eighth and immediately set to work becoming the Goat of the game.  He walked the leadoff batter, which you never want to see your eighth inning guy do even if the score is 7-3.  He got Max Kepler to pop out, but then allowed two singles, including a run-scoring one from Morrison, and then walked Robbie Grossman to load the bases.  Thankfully, Matheny had seen enough and went to Norris, who got out of it, though he did have that wild pitch.

Players are going to have bad days and I know that they are magnified when they are late inning relievers.  That said, it’s continually hard to trust that Holland is going to turn the corner and just be dominant.  So far this season he’s pitched 11.2 innings.  He’s allowed right at a hit an inning (12) and even more walks (13).  You put two runners on every frame, that’s going to be a problem when you are holding a slim lead.  It doesn’t get much better when you factor out that first horrific outing, which is the issue.  It’s hard to find a frame that makes things look like they are going to be good.  Better than this, sure.  Good, not so much.  For me, the biggest thing is the lack of strikeouts.  He’s got eight on the season and none in his last three outings.  He has only one the entire month of May.  He’s not getting the ball past people and that means he can’t get out of jams of his creation very well.  Perhaps he’ll start improving and get some strikeouts, but until then he’s going to be a danger and a worry.

Overall, it was a good day.  Besides Fowler and Carpenter, Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez also had multi-hit games (Pham also hit the Cards’ only homer) and most everyone contributed in some way besides our Goat, Marcell Ozuna.  Ozuna went 0-5 and left seven men on base, runs that might have been very useful had Norris not gotten out of that late mess.  Ozuna is hitting .250 for May and currently on a 0-11 skid.  We continue to hope that with the warmer weather, Ozuna’s bat starts warming up.  Right now, he’s basically on pace for 12 homers, which wouldn’t replace Randal Grichuk and barely would outdo Stephen Piscotty in that category from last year.  That’s not what Cardinal fans were wanting when the trade was announced, though there definitely was a fear of regression.  Even with regression, his career has shown him be more powerful than this.

Cards come back home tonight to take on a Philadelphia Phillies team that has a similar record and a similar place in the standings, sitting second, just one game behind the Braves for the NL East lead.  Luke Weaver tries to extend his recent good work against Vince Velasquez.  Velasquez is 3-4 with a 5.05 ERA on the year but last time struck out 12 Giants while allowing three runs in six innings.  Could be an interesting matchup.  Before first pitch, don’t forget to get your picks in for the Cardinal Six!

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Marking McGwire: #16

Home run #: 16

Date: May 16

Opponent: Florida Marlins

Location: Busch Stadium

Pitcher: Livan Hernandez

Score: 1-3

Inning: 4

Outs: 0

Runners on: 0

Distance: 545 feet

End of day Sammy Sosa total: 8

End of day Ken Griffey Jr. total: 16

If there is one lasting image from 1998 that doesn’t come from September, it’s probably this one.

On a night in mid-May, Mark McGwire captured imaginations with a blast that set a distance record for Busch Stadium II that lasted until it was demolished in 2005.  While the measurement might not have been 100% correct (and how many of them are, even today), there’s still a mystique around 545.

While most of McGwire’s home runs that year fade into obscurity or are mixed in our memory with the myriad of others that he hit, #16 stands out.  Todd Stottlemyer had started the game for the Cardinals and quickly put the team in the hole, with a Ryan Jackson triple bringing in two runs in the top of the first.  Future Cardinal shortstop Edgar Renteria then drove in another run in the third to raise the lead to 3-0.

In the bottom of the third, however, the Cardinals started their comeback on a home run….but not THAT home run.  David Howard took a 2-2 pitch from Livan Hernandez and put it over the right field walk, breaking up Hernandez’s shutout.  Hernandez, of course, had starred in the 1997 playoffs that led to the Marlins’ first World Series title, but was scuffling to start the year, bringing a 5.37 ERA into this one even after throwing eight innings of two-earned-run (five total runs) ball the last time out.  A 3-1 deficit wasn’t necessarily a death sentence.

The memorable moment came in the fourth.  McGwire led off the frame and took ball one.  The second pitch Hernandez threw was completely obliterated.  Many of McGwire’s homers from ’98 are hard to find as a solo YouTube clip.  Not this one.

I imagine, after Hernandez did that jump spin and watched that ball sail far, far, FAR into the Missouri night, that he consoled himself by saying, “It doesn’t matter how far it goes, it only counts as one.”  And it’s true, that only cut the lead to 3-2.  However, the Cardinal offense wasn’t done, not by a long shot.  (OK, yes, that pun was intended.)

Brian Jordan followed up the blast by singling to right and Willie McGee followed with a double in that direction.  With runners on second and third, Hernandez got jittery and balked in the tying run.  John Mabry then grounded out but McGee came in to score, giving the Cards their first lead of the night.

Stottlemyre settled in and was unscored upon until the seventh, when Mike Piazza, in that week of time where he passing from LA to New York, had a sacrifice fly to knot everything up at 4.  Unfortunately for the Marlins, Jordan homered in the bottom of that frame, putting St. Louis back on top.  Stottlemyre went the rest of the way, retiring the last eight batters (starting with Piazza) he faced.

McGwire’s homer might not have ever tied the game or given the Cards the lead but, twenty years later, it’s all anyone remembers from this game.  They remember that night when McGwire swung–and dreams took flight.

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The broad side of the barn is safe.  I’m not sure anyone on the Cardinals could hit it.

We’ve got five games to cover here.  The Cardinals scored nine runs in one of them.  They scored seven runs in the other four combined, including one that went to 13 innings.  While there was a glitch here and there with the pitching staff, losing three of the five (and, if you go back to the end of that Cubs series, losing five of seven) against sub-.500 teams is squarely on the offense or the lack thereof.  Which is a trend, it feels like.

I think most of us remember 2015, when the offense was basically terrible but a legendary pitching staff pushed the Cardinals to 100 wins.  Let’s quickly take a look at the last three-plus seasons and see where the club ranks offensively.

Year BA MLB Rank OBP MLB Rank SLG MLB Rank
2015 .253 12 .321 13 .394 23
2016 .255 18 .325 11 .442 4
2017 .256 14 .334 8 .426 17
2018 .226 29 .311 21 .378 28

I’ll admit, I expected most of those ranks in prior years to be a little bit lower than they were.  That said, while the Cardinals have obviously focused on OBP, they’ve not had a top-third offense overall in that span.  This year has cratered, of course, and you can expect a bounce-back of some sort but just how much?  We’re at the quarter pole of the season.  After 39 games last year, the line for the Cards was .259/.355/.422, which is pretty much in line with how they finished the season.  (In 2016, they were actually ahead of their final line at this point.)

Which does start to raise the question of just how much longer John Mabry should feel secure in his job.  The Cardinals have people like Mark Budeska in the organization that have a sterling reputation of working with hitters.  While I get that there is value in having folks like that work with the players coming up so that they can have the foundation and the skills to succeed at the big leagues, the fact is people aren’t succeeding at the big leagues and that’s the main objective for any organization.  The offense is legitimately to the point where scoring more than one run feels like a major triumph.  Eventually, that have to at least try to address that.

I didn’t mean for that long of an intro.  Let’s get to the games.

Thursday (2-1 win at San Diego)

Hero: Tommy Pham.  Without Mr. Pham, the trip to San Diego would have been worse than it already was.  Pham singled, went to second and third on wild pitches, then scored on a Jose Martinez sacrifice fly in the first, then homered in the fifth.  That was your offense right there.

Goat: It feels like a broken record, but you’ve got to go with Matt Carpenter.  0-4 hitting second with three strikeouts.  We talked a lot about Carpenter at the end of last week and I get that he probably should be out there and he’ll probably start hitting, but there’s nothing that says he needs to be hitting in the second spot in the order.  I realize others are struggling and finding a good 2 hole hitter may be difficult, but it’s honestly tough to be worse than what Carp is bringing to the lineup right now.

Notes: Another very solid outing from Miles Mikolas, which is another big reason the Cards were able to get a win here.  Six and two-thirds of one-run ball will win a lot of ballgames.  Mikolas has a 2.51 ERA going into this afternoon’s game with the Twins, which has to be at least a run better than most of us expected.  And remember when so many folks lost their minds after his rough spring training debut?  Seems a long time ago, doesn’t it?

The bullpen did well, with Jordan Hicks getting one out, Greg Holland pitching a scoreless frame (though he did issue a walk), and Bud Norris locking it down.  That’s how it is supposed to go and it’s nice when everything clicks.

Marcell Ozuna did have a couple of hits in this one, though they were both singles, as did Paul DeJong.  The Cards managed to get six or more hits in every game in San Diego but, save for our next game, never by very much.

Friday (9-5 win at San Diego)

Hero: Jedd Gyorko.  Surprisingly not in the lineup against his former team on Friday night, Gyorko added to the legend that is him against the Padres with three hits in four at bats, drilling a home run in the third, and scoring two runs.  While the magic dissipated some the next couple of nights, the line against San Diego was incredibly strong.

As I said elsewhere, probably on Meet Me at Musial, if you want to make the case that Gyorko shouldn’t have played Friday because the opposing pitcher that night struggled with lefties or that his success rate against the Padres really is a small sample, that’s fine.  I get that and there’s a lot of logical sense there.  However, Mike Matheny stated that, at least in large part, the decision came down to Gyorko’s line against Jordan Lyles.

1-6 with a strikeout and two walks.

Now, given this offense, a guy that can reach base 38.5% of the time against a pitcher would seem to be valuable but the larger point is making decisions based on six AB is fairly ridiculous.  I hope it played less of a role than it looks like it did.  I’m not optimistic.

Goat: I’m going to go with John Brebbia, though Luke Gregerson is also a possible answer here.  Handed a 9-1 game, Brebbia gave up three hits, including a double and a triple, before getting out of the jam.  Gregerson also gave up two runs and did so in the ninth, but one of those came on the weirdest play we’ve seen in a while, what apparently was a balk but one that was called by the second base umpire well after the pitch was thrown.  It never made any real sense and thankfully it didn’t wind up leading to anything bigger, but between that and Jordan Hicks’s quick pitch earlier in the season, it’s been a strange year for Cardinal pitchers and their relations with the umpires.

Notes: Paul DeJong hit a three run homer in the second that got everything going and Harrison Bader, Marcell Ozuna, and Gyorko all went deep in the third.  Tommy Pham, who had another three-hit night, tacked one on in the sixth.  Even Greg Garcia, who pinch-hit and stayed in the game, had two hits.  If the offense looked like this more often, we’d have a lot less worries.

Luke Weaver got the start in this one and threw five scoreless.  It did take him 92 pitches to get through those five, which isn’t ideal, but coupling that with his last start, where he settled in after allowing a lot of runs early to Chicago, gives us some thought that maybe he’s back on the right track.  Going up against the Phillies tomorrow will probably be a solid test of that.  If he gets back in line, the decision about where Alex Reyes goes in this rotation is a lot trickier.

Saturday (2-1 loss in 13 at San Diego)

Hero: I’ll give it to Jose Martinez, who had three hits and drove in the only Cardinal run, but you could easily just say “the bullpen” if you were allowed to give these awards to a group.  Until the last frame, which we’ll talk about in a bit, they pitched six scoreless innings, allowed three hits, walked two, and struck out nine.  When you know that any mistake is likely the last–and, once it got into extra innings, that was even more true–they held the line well.

Goat: Dexter Fowler.  Like Carpenter, it feels like we’re picking on him, but it was an 0-6 night with four men left on base.  I’ve got no solutions for Fowler or Carpenter.  For Fowler, he’s not making hard contact and hitting the ball in the air more, which if he was hitting them hard maybe it would work out but right now they are just routine flies.  I don’t think he has the speed to turn around his GB/FB rate and have that be successful like it was earlier in his career.  Could an adjustment help?  If so, does there need to be a new voice to come in and find that adjustment?

Notes: While I didn’t catch all this game (and fell asleep for a few minutes as Eric Hosmer won it in the 13th), there’s been a lot of discussion about Mike Matheny leaving John Brebbia out there for a third inning, especially after he pitched one frame the night before.  Obviously, the team was holding John Gant in reserve, as we’ll see when we talk about Sunday’s game, but Mike Mayers was out there and hadn’t thrown since the Cubs series.  If anyone could go multiple innings, it’s Mayers.  We’ve seen that.  So why stretch Brebbia?  Why stay with him after a leadoff walk?  It took another walk for Matheny to finally get Mayers, who then allowed a double on the first pitch he threw that won the game.  Because baseball.

Again, if they thought they were going to have to use Mayers on Sunday, holding him off until the very end makes sense.  But given that Gant was out there, not going to Mayers a little sooner makes less sense.  (Honestly, even without Gant, using Mayers in this one before Brebbia gives another day of rest to Brebbia, which makes him more likely to be able to backstop Adam Wainwright.  The whole thing was a little off.)

The Cardinals did get nine hits, but Martinez and Paul DeJong combined for five of them.  With those guys hitting back to back in the lineup, you’d think that would have accounted for more scoring.  Just spaced out wrong, I guess.  Along with Fowler putting up a goose egg, Tommy Pham went 0-5 with a walk, but I don’t think anyone believes Tommy Pham is a problem.

Sunday (5-3 loss at San Diego)

Hero: Harrison Bader.  Bader had the only two extra-base hits the Cardinals could muster, a triple in the sixth that scored Tommy Pham (Bader later scored on a Jose Martinez single) and a home run against Brad Hand in the ninth.  Given Hand’s reputation as a tough lefty, that should help cement the idea that Bader needs to play against southpaws on a regular basis.  It doesn’t need to be a strict platoon with Dexter Fowler (Bader should face some righties as well) but that needs to happen the majority of the time.

Goat: John Gant.  We will talk about Adam Wainwright in a bit, but while I get that Gant was put in a tough position, he did allow an inherited runner to score (given the bases were loaded with one out, that’s not a terrible thing) but gave up two runs of his own in the next frame.  If he doesn’t do that, the game probably plays out differently but the Cards feel better being down 2-0 than 4-0, especially the way things are going.

Notes: I’ll admit, Gant got the Goat tag in part because I didn’t want to assign it to Wainwright in what might have been his last Cardinal start.  Wainwright, who was activated from the disabled list before this game and put back on it yesterday, said he felt a pop in his elbow as he threw his warmup pitches.  The result was late-2017 Wainwright, where the velocity wasn’t there, the command wasn’t there, and sheer guile and smarts kept things from completely blowing up.  You have to give him credit for that, at least.

Tara and I spent a lot of time talking about Uncle Charlie and his outing on Gateway this week and there’s not much else to say.  It’s a very sad thought that we might have seen the last of Adam Wainwright, who has been this bulwark for the Cardinals for so long.  If you got into baseball at 10 in 2005, you are closing in on your mid-20s and all you really know is Wainwright wearing Cardinal red.  Even for some of us old fogies, it’s hard to remember a time before Wainwright was flashing that curveball.  It hurts to see him struggle and it hurts to feel like he may never return.

However, with Alex Reyes making his inexorable march on St. Louis with another stellar outing in Peoria on Monday night and with Jack Flaherty not only pitching well in Memphis but now making good starts in the majors, it’s hard to see how Wainwright displaces either of them should they grab hold of that fifth spot in the rotation.  It’s hard to see why Wainwright would be a good choice in the bullpen–some folks say he could “air it all out” and “keep nothing back” but that’s assuming that he has something to air out.  Wainwright’s problem is not that he wore down, it’s that (before this last setback) he had control problems and the like.  That’s not really something you want in the bullpen.

The best case scenario for the Cardinals, most likely, is for Wainwright to stay on the DL until rosters expand in September, then let him have a couple of relief outings at Busch Stadium so the crowd can acknowledge him before sending him into retirement.  I know Wainwright is going to work hard to be a relevant force in the second half of the season but it seems harder and harder to believe that, even for the man that is relentlessly optimistic about his possibilities.  As Allen Medlock texted me Sunday, there was a sense of finality when Mike Matheny relieved Wainwright in this one.

Tuesday (4-1 loss at Minnesota)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  Given absolutely no margin for error, Flaherty came within an out of leaving with a lead at the end of his day of work.  He only struck out three, but walked just one and gave up five hits.  On a better day, with more support, the fact that he allowed a run at the end of his tenure wouldn’t be a big deal.  Instead, it tied the game and, given the way the Cardinals were hitting, pretty much doomed them to a loss.

There was a bit of a debate last night about the end of Flaherty’s start.  Flaherty got the first two guys out in the sixth before giving up a single to Brian Dozier, then another one to Eddie Rosario.  With two on and two outs, with Flaherty in the low 90s on pitch count, this seemed to me the time to go get him.  Brett Cecil was warming up and a fresh arm was probably better than continuing to go third time through the order.  Instead, Mike Matheny just sent Mike Maddux out to talk to him.  Flaherty stayed in the game and had a solid AB against Eduardo Escobar, but on the sixth pitch Escobar laced a single, tying up the game.

It’s not the worst decision Matheny has made as a manager in regards to the bullpen, of course.  It hardly even registers on the list and there were some smart folks that thought that leaving Flaherty in there was the right call.  I just think that, with a young guy out there, giving him the chance to leave the game with a lead when he’s likely getting tired is a good thing.  I don’t know if Cecil would have gotten Escobar out–he allowed a double to Logan Morrison to lead off the next inning that wound up being the winning run–but I’d have felt better about the decision had they made the move.

As noted, Cecil allowed the double to left-handed Morrison.  Super small samples of course, but before last night lefties were 1-5 with two strikeouts against him, so I guess they are 2-7 now.  Cecil’s the only lefty out there and as such, no matter what the splits might be, he’s likely to be run out there to face left-handed batters.  I hope that he can do better against them than he did last year.  Something to watch for sure.

It’s becoming harder to justify the Luke Gregerson signing.  After his issues in San Diego, which included giving up a home run and having that runner on third to be balked home, he came into this one and threw away a dribbler to the mound that allowed the go-ahead run to score, then gave up a two-run homer to Bobby Wilson to seal the deal.  (Truthfully, even 2-1 seemed too big of a mountain.)  I thought he was turning the corner when he had five straight scoreless outings and he’s still thrown less than nine innings this season so there’s hope this is somewhat of a small sample, but an 8.64 ERA is not ideal for anyone, much less a reliever that was bandied about as being a closer possibility when he was signed.

However, it’s really tough to win a game with one run.  The Cardinals had two hits last night, which means that in three games against the Twins over the last week, they’ve totaled seven safeties.  Seven.  I get that they ran into some good pitching with the Twins, including Jose Berrios last night, but that’s fairly ridiculous.  The team needs something because this is bordering on ridiculous.  I don’t know if it’s a new voice in the coaching staff or what, but it’s starting to look like “just give them time” isn’t necessarily the best option.

The Cards get to see old friend Lance Lynn this afternoon.  Lynn has had some rough outings, including four runs allowed in 4.2 innings his last time out against the Angels.  No doubt he’ll be focused and a bit motivated facing his former squad but we can hope his fastball-centric approach will work in St. Louis’s favor.  Right now, that’s about the only hope we have!

 

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