The Heat Is On

All year long, the St. Louis Cardinals have been honoring their 1985 National League Championship team.  The latest?  Reaching 85 wins before September.

For a little perspective, 85 wins ties this team for 52nd overall in season wins by a Cardinal team.  They’ve already won more games than the 2006 Cardinals, who won just 83 before going on a postseason tear.  No other Redbird team in the modern era has won with 85 wins or less, but there are a number of strong finishes in that mix.  And this team still has a month-plus to go.

If what we’ve seen over the last week or so is a representation of what we are going to see in September, you better buckle up because this is going to be a fun ride.  While the pitching has finally been a little more human (not a lot, of course–in the eight games before last night the team ERA was 2.14), the bats have started to come around and clicking in a way that we thought we’d see earlier in the season.  Not only that, they are starting to show the resiliency and ability to rally that were the hallmarks of some of the best teams of the past few years, including that 2011 team.

Last night was just another case in point.  Rallying from down 1-0 wasn’t that special, but after Goat Kevin Siegrist (and it’s strange that the Goat is the one that gets the win) allowed the Nationals to take back the lead, the club came immediately roaring back, scoring five runs in the bottom of the seventh to make the lead bigger than it was before.  Two weeks ago, scoring five runs in a game was unfathomable.  Now they are doing it in one frame?  Who are these guys and what have they done with the 2015 Cardinals?  I’m not asking for their return, mind you, just curious in which dimension they might be.

Of course, if you wanted to be negative, you could say that St. Louis hasn’t exactly faced top-notch pitching over the past nine days, leading to some of this offensive explosion.  It’s true they missed Madison Bumgarner and haven’t seen folks of Clayton Kershaw‘s ilk, but all I have to say is Matt Cain.  You remember Matt Cain, right?  The Matt Cain that had a 6+ ERA before he faced the Cardinals two weeks ago?  The Matt Cain that got destroyed in his first start after facing the Cards and now is on the DL?  The Matt Cain who, with all those factors and a history of being hit around by the Cards, limited them to two runs over six innings two weeks ago?  It doesn’t matter that the pitching isn’t the strongest, because this team this year has had trouble with just about any pitcher.  Now they are finally hitting the folks that they should hit, which is a major step in the right direction.

Besides, while Gio Gonzalez is struggling of late, he’s still a pretty talented guy and a lefty to boot.  The Cardinals got to him for three runs in six innings, which was nice and enough for a lead, but where they really got going was the bullpen.  If this team puts up some quality at bats, they are going to get into some bullpens sooner rather than later and when they do, hopefully they can feast.

I’ll say this and I believe everyone reading will agree: if the offense will get going for the next two months, it will make all the angst about it over the first five months totally worth it.  I’d take that trade every day of the week, especially with this pitching staff.

It wasn’t all fun and games, of course.  Siegrist looked rough for the second time in three outings, allowing a leadoff walk before striking out Jayson Werth and getting Anthony Rendon to pop out.  He then showed no control, walking Bryce Harper on four pitches to bring up Ryan Zimmerman.

It’s been overshadowed somewhat with the rally that came after, but there was a lot of first- and second-guessing of Mike Matheny in this inning.  I kept waiting for him to go out to the mound, but neither he nor Derek Lilliquist even went out to talk to Siegrist (though Yadier Molina did make a trip out there).  The bullpen didn’t make much sense either.  Randy Choate was warming up, but if he was going to come into the game it would have been for the left-handed Harper.  It would have also been strange to see a LOOGY replacing a left-hander, but Siegrist has a pretty pronounced reverse split this year: .161/.217/.255 versus righties and .308/.420/.446 against lefties before last night’s game.

So I guess, in theory, you could see why he left Siegrist in to face Zimmerman, given his success with righties.  That said, he hadn’t looked good in that inning, save maybe the strikeout of Werth, and the go-ahead run was now at first.  This is a time that Seth Maness has been used effectively, but Matheny didn’t have him warmed up.  Honestly, I’m not sure what he was thinking there.  Did he decide he didn’t want to challenge Harper?  Then why was Choate warming up?  I guess I can see a little bit of the logic of leaving him in there, given that there were two outs and the odds were in Siegrist’s favor, but he’d given up runs in two of his last five outings and has been the most used reliever in the majors this season.  It really feels like when he’s on, it’s 1-2-3.  If he allows a runner, especially before two outs, you need to think about replacing him as it could go south in a hurry.

I would hope, with the rosters expanding today, we’ll see a lot less usage of Siegrist this month.  As noted, his 66 appearances put him first in the majors, two ahead of Maness and Mark Melancon of the Pirates.  (Choate, as noted before, is also in the top 10, though way too many of his appearances are of the 0.0 inning variety.)  Siegrist really needs to be right for October so he can be that potent eighth inning guy.  We’ll see if Matheny can utilize a larger bullpen well and get him the rest he needs.

A number of folks could be considered the Hero of last night’s piece.  Five players had two hits and every starter save John Lackey had at least one.  Lackey, of course, pitched a very good game, allowing an unearned run in the first when his defense slipped behind him again (Kolten Wong couldn’t pick up a two-out grounder) and a run in the sixth, his last inning.  He did walk four, but he only allowed four hits to go along with it and got the outs when he needed them.

I’ll go with Jason Heyward for the Hero.  Not only was one of his hits a two-run double that gave the Cards the lead, he then scored from from second with a beautiful sprawling slide on a flare hit by Wong, scoring that last insurance run.  Every day it’s a joy to watch Heyward go about his business.  Those April struggles are well behind and while he still seems to hit a lot of grounders to second, he does a lot more than that nowadays.  I continue to hold out hope that, one way or another, the Cards sign him to a deal and we’ll see much more of him in the years to come.  Surely an atmosphere like the club has now helps.

By the way, can you say enough about Stephen Piscotty?  Hitless on the night, he comes up in the seventh in a key spot with two outs and two on, gets somewhat fooled on a pitch, and still lines a single that gets the scoring started.  I know Matt Holliday may be returning soon, but as we say just about every day, Piscotty will play somewhere.

Speaking of those injuries, it sounds like Jon Jay might be back before the weekend but Matt Adams had what John Mozeliak termed a “mild” setback in his rehab.  Of course, at this time of year even a mild setback can be enough to put you out for the rest of the season.  It sounds like he’ll still make it back, just later in the month.  Also Randal Grichuk did some throwing yesterday, so maybe he’s not out for the year, though I still think the clock might be working against him enough that we won’t see him this season.

Hey, here’s a quote from Matheny that’ll get everyone riled up!  “They bring in the stat pack and I throw it away because I just don’t need to look at that stuff. We know if we’re playing well.”  Given the context, the fact that he was talking about he didn’t know a win tonight would make the club +40 on the year, I think he was talking about historical stats, where the club stands, milestones, etc.  I do not believe he meant statistical analysis of the players and opponents.  That could be me being generous, of course.  Your mileage may vary.

St. Louis does look to go 40 games over the .500 mark tonight and keep that march for 100 wins going.  Carlos Martinez has a bit of a sore back and could use the rest, so Marco Gonzales will get called up with the first wave of September reinforcements and make the start tonight.  Gonzales has had a rough year, a long way from being the guy that was competing for the last spot in the rotation in the spring.  Injuries and such will do that to you.  Gonzales, in his short major league career, has never faced the Nationals.

Joe Ross is not one of the big names in the Washington rotation, but he’s put together a pretty solid season for the club.  He’s only 5-5, but Siegrist is only the latest example that pitcher record doesn’t mean much of anything.  His ERA is 3.24 over 11 games this year and last time out he gave up only one unearned run in six innings against the Padres.  He’s had his missteps, of course–there was a two game stretch in the middle of August where he gave up nine total runs in 8.2 innings–but on the whole he’s been a bright spot for a team that’s not had a lot of them.  Going for the Cardinals is the fact that he’s had worse results on the road, with an ERA almost 5.00 away from Nationals Park.  As long as his brother Tyson Ross didn’t call for tips on how to beat the Redbirds, they should be OK against him, especially the way things are going now.

September is here, the Cardinals are up five on the Pirates (who head to Milwaukee tonight) and all is right with the world.  The heat is on!

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