The September Magic Returns

Is this the same team?  The same team that caused heartburn medication to be at a premium, the same team that couldn’t string together quality wins if they were spotted the needle and thread?  Is that the same team we just saw roar through Milwaukee?

This last week, the Cardinals took on the two serious threats to their throne at the top of the National League Central.  They went 6-1.  Couple that with the wins in the last two games of the Cubs series and they’ve won eight of their last nine.  A team that never could seem to get out of its own way now routinely puts together complete efforts, winning with hitting, pitching, and defense.  This is a wonderful thing to watch, even if we are a bit befuddled by why it is happening now.  Let’s recap this past series.

Thursday (3-2 win)

Hero: Matt Holliday.  Holliday did all he could do, going 3-4 and scoring one of the few Cardinal runs.  He also got clocked by another pitch, but thankfully it didn’t do any damage.

Goat: Jhonny Peralta.  Not many times you’ll see Peralta completely fail, but he went 0-4 and left six men on.  In a game that became pretty gut-tightening in the ninth, one of those LOB being scored could have made a huge difference.

Notes: So, so much to come out of this game.  The first point is, of course, Michael Wacha managed to do fairly well with his 60 pitches.  He wasn’t terribly sharp–at one point, Mike Matheny had someone (Jason Motte, I think?) warming up to replace Wacha to finish an inning before Marco Gonzales could come along for the long relief–but he got the job done and didn’t have any physical problems afterwards.

Wacha had a very encouraging night and so did Gonzales.  Making his second appearance since his return to the big leagues, Gonzales did a fine job of keeping Milwaukee at bay.  His only run was a home run to Rickie Weeks in what turned out to be his final batter.  It’s too bad, to some degree, that the Cardinal rotation is so stocked because it’d be nice to get a little longer look at Gonzales in that role.

The person out of the pen that it is difficult to watch right now is Motte.  Motte did come in to relieve Gonzales, but he did little to warrant the call, allowing a hit and a walk while only getting one out and forcing Matheny go to go Seth Maness to make sure the Brewers didn’t tie it up.  Motte wasn’t used in the next three games, so we’ll have to see if and how he’s used down the stretch.  It seems unwise to put him in any sort of high-leverage situation, but bullpen management has never been listed high on Matheny’s list of attributes.

Trevor Rosenthal made it interesting in the ninth, though he didn’t get any help from the home plate umpire, seeming to strike out Jonathan Lucroy with one on and two out.  However, the pitch was called ball two and Rosenthal wound up losing him.  He pitched out of the jam, though, which is his typical MO–it isn’t going to be easy, but it’s usually going to be done.

Offensively, three hits from Matt Carpenter and two from Jon Jay and Kolten Wong.  Xavier Scruggs made his debut and got hit but didn’t get a hit.  There were a few opportunities in this one, but the Cards capitalized on just enough of them.

Friday (6-2 loss)

Hero: Peter Bourjos.  Two for four and scored a run.  Not a lot of offense to choose from, but obviously we weren’t going to the pitching staff for this spot.

Goat: John Lackey.  When the Cardinals traded for Lackey, I think they were hoping for a few less blowups.  I guess it’s hard to fault him since he’s only had two games where he’s had more than two earned runs, but in the seven starts for the Redbirds, he’s had games where he allowed nine, five (three were unearned) and now six.  We’ve ragged on Justin Masterson quite a bit–and deservedly so, because Masterson couldn’t get but one game under the five run mark–but Lackey’s not quite lived up to standards either.

Beyond his pitching, however, the game may have turned on what Mike Fiers could do and what Lackey couldn’t do.  In the top of the third, with the leadoff runner on, Lackey couldn’t get the bunt down, instead popping out to leave Daniel Descalso at first.  Carpenter popped out but Jay singled, a hit that likely would have send Descalso home had he been on second.  He wasn’t and Holliday made the third out, meaning no run scored.

In the bottom of that frame, Fiers came up with runners on first and second and successfully moved them along.  Scooter Gennett then singled them both home, putting the Brewers up 2-0 and giving them a lead they would not surrender.

I know Lackey’s been in the American League his whole life and, as such, hasn’t had much call for bunting.  Still, if he’d been able to get that down, perhaps the game would have changed.  Likely not–Lackey was off pretty much all night–but we’ll never know.

Notes: Good on Oscar Taveras to handle this lack of playing time in a positive way.  I think most of us have agreed that, for now, Jay-Bourjos-Holliday is the way to go.  However, Taveras should 1) still play and 2) is still important to this team.  We saw that with him driving a single in a pinch-hitting role, scoring Bourjos with the second run.  I think Taveras could be a great PH option in the playoffs if he doesn’t start a game, because he does tend to come through in those situations, or has a lot in my perception.

Interesting to see Masterson pitch a scoreless inning out of the pen.  Sure, it was in a four run game, but maybe there is something to moving him out of the rotation instead of just completely burying him.  If Motte can’t get things together, they well may have need of a right-handed option down there.  And, of course, we must note that Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons also threw a scoreless frame.  So many starting options, so little time.

Saturday (5-3 win)

Hero: This one is tough.  Two different players hit two-run homers and both could lay a claim here.  I think I’m going to go with Matt Adams, because his shot gave the Cards the lead (one they would immediately relinquish, but hey, better than being down 2-0 after the first) and given Adams’s insertion into the lineup was a little debatable, it was a really hopeful sign.

Goat: Lance Lynn.  Lynn scuffled all night, getting bailed out a little by Holliday throwing out Ryan Braun at the plate to keep the game tied after one (which, granted, Holliday owed him after making two errors on the same play earlier in the inning) but still walking four and not ever seeming to be in a rhythm.  In another instance of questionable Matheny management, Lynn went out there for the sixth after already throwing almost 100 pitches.  There are a lot of arms down there in the pen, so you’d think getting Lynn out of there before he could do too much more damage (he allowed his third run in that frame) would have been a priority.

Notes: Great to see Taveras respond to a start by cranking one out of the yard.  If he gets hot, it’s going to make for some tough decisions for Matheny down the stretch when it comes to playing time.  The Cards actually only got four hits–the two walks issued by old friend Kyle Lohse came back to hurt him–but they were much more potent hits than we’d been accustomed to seeing.

Oh, and we saw nasty Carlos Martinez again on the mound and this had nothing to do with his Twitter favorites.  Three strikeouts in 1.1 innings?  We’ll take that any day of the week, my friend.  Keep that going strong.

Sunday (9-1 win)

Hero: Adam Wainwright. Oh, Uncle Charlie, how good it is to see you again.  That guy that’d been wearing your number and pretending to be you just wasn’t the same.  Please don’t leave us again, will you?  Eight scoreless innings and then a minor Twitter controversy occurred when he ran out there for the ninth.

On the one hand, he only had thrown 87 pitches and had a shutout going.  On the other hand, the score was 9-0 after Peralta hit a homer and the man has been complaining about a dead arm.  I might have sent him out there, but I’d have pulled him after Gennett doubled to lead off the frame.  I definitely would have gotten him once Carlos Gomez ruined the shutout.

As Tara said on last night’s Gateway to Baseball Heaven, if 13 pitches for Wainwright become the tipping point, we have bigger problems, but still, you’d like to think that Matheny would be a bit more aware, try to save a few bullets for down the road.  That seems….unlikely.  (I did see someone on Twitter suggest skipping Waino’s next start against the Rockies and letting him pick it up again against the Brewers.  I’m for that, but I’m pretty sure Adam and his manager wouldn’t be.)

Goat: Everyone seemed to contribute something on offense, though a couple of them did it without getting a hit.  We’ll give the Goat to Matt Adams for going 0-3 behind Peralta’s big day at the plate, even though he drove in a run with a sacrifice fly.  Yadier Molina also went hitless on the day, though he scored a run after drawing a walk.

Notes: Peralta had three hits, including his 20th home run.  A Cardinal shortstop has hit 20 home runs.  Think about that for a little bit.  It’s pretty mindboggling.  Taveras went 3-4 with a run and an RBI, proving that Holliday can be rested down the stretch without a significant drop off.  The Brewers did their best to give this one to the Cards by throwing the ball all around the yard and generally looking like a team running on fumes.

After the game, Lucroy stated that he felt the Brewers were still the better team.  Of course, he’s welcome to his opinion and perhaps he can find some reasons to back that up.  However, in September, both teams are turning out to be the teams that we thought they would be.  Most everyone expected Milwaukee to come crashing back to earth, though many thought it would be before this time.  Most thought the Cards would be the class of the division, though they didn’t think they’d have to work so hard to prove it.  It’s possible if that the Brew Crew had as much fight on the field as they do off, this would have been a very different weekend.

We asked last week if the switch had been flipped.  Given the results of this weekend, it seriously looks like it has.  Whatever magic September holds on this franchise, it seems to have picked it up again.  That said, a word of caution–switches go both ways.  Just because the Redbirds tore through this section of tough teams doesn’t mean they won’t get bogged down in the soggy morass of teams that are waiting for them from now until the end of the road.

That soggy morass starts in Cincinnati, where St. Louis finds a beaten and broken Reds team.  The Reds started spiraling when the Cards went through and swept them earlier last month and they’ve not been the same since, now residing 12 games out of first and worrying about the Cubs catching them.  Shelby Miller, who has looked so good in his last couple of outings, tries to carry that momentum forward against a team that has had middling success against him in the past.

Brandon Phillips 14 14 4 1 0 1 1 0 5 .286 .286 .571 .857 0 0 0 0 0
Jay Bruce 12 8 1 1 0 0 1 3 3 .125 .333 .250 .583 0 1 0 0 1
Todd Frazier 11 11 3 0 0 1 3 0 2 .273 .273 .545 .818 0 0 0 0 1
Zack Cozart 9 9 1 0 0 0 0 0 3 .111 .111 .111 .222 0 0 0 0 0
Billy Hamilton 7 5 2 0 1 0 0 2 0 .400 .571 .800 1.371 0 0 0 0 0
Chris Heisey 7 7 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 .286 .286 .286 .571 0 0 0 0 0
Devin Mesoraco 7 7 2 0 0 1 2 0 1 .286 .286 .714 1.000 0 0 0 0 0
Ryan Ludwick 4 4 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 .250 .250 .250 .500 0 0 0 0 0
Jake Elmore 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 .000 .667 .000 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Mike Leake 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Ramon Santiago 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Skip Schumaker 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Brayan Pena 2 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 1.000 .500 1.000 1.500 0 1 0 0 0
Total 85 76 19 2 1 3 8 7 18 .250 .306 .421 .727 0 2 0 0 2
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/7/2014.

Miller last saw the Reds back in May, when he allowed four runs in five innings while taking a loss.  Again, Miller’s been looking better of late, so if that Miller shows up, the Cards should like their chances.

At least, assuming they can figure out Dylan Axelrod.  Axelrod will be making only his fourth start of the season, but he’s not exactly a prospect, having bounced back and forth from the bigs since 2011 with the White Sox.  Not exactly a huge sample size to work with then, unsurprisingly.

Jhonny Peralta 9 8 2 0 0 0 0 1 1 .250 .333 .250 .583 0 0 0 0 0
A.J. Pierzynski 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1.000 1.000 1.000 2.000 0 0 0 0 0
Total 10 9 3 0 0 0 0 1 1 .333 .400 .333 .733 0 0 0 0 0
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/7/2014.

At least he’s not a lefty, otherwise St. Louis might be well and truly in trouble.  Axelrod has done well for the Reds, striking out more than a batter per inning and keeping his walk total low, so he might have finally started to figure it out.

Whatever lineup the Cards run out there, it seems like a couple of other moves will be made to the roster now that Memphis’s season is over.  Tommy Pham seems to be a lock, but it’s interesting to see that hard-throwing reliever Sam Tuivailala is also in consideration.  Tuivailala, who I will pretty much always just call Sam in actual conversation, pitched in the playoffs for Memphis but started the year in A ball.  The Cards must be really high on him if they are willing to add him to the 40-man this quickly.

Hopefully we’ll see the team that was completely clicking this past week go on a run this week as well.  If so, we’ll be dropping that magic number quite quickly!

  • Carl September 8, 2014, 6:47 pm

    Surprise? The only surprised people are those that bought the hype, overvalued the team and didn’t take a realistic look at the Division. Cards moved guys around and signed new guys and it usually takes a year to gel but they’ve turned it up.
    Next year it will be tighter, there will be no more cruising to the title teams.

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