After two games, we still don’t know much more about the St. Louis Cardinals than we thought we did in the spring or even before. We thought the offense was going to be iffy. Check. We thought the bullpen would be lockdown. Check. We didn’t know what we’d get out of Michael Wacha. Check. Two games isn’t a lot to try to get answers, of course, but you’d still think there might be a sign of what kind of team there is. If there has been one, it’s not been a positive one.
Over the last two or three years, the games against Pittsburgh have been tight, often extended affairs and last night was no different, with the Cardinals losing 6-5 in 11 innings. There are so many different things about the game and the season so far that I want to touch on that I’m not sure where to start, so perhaps we should just start at the starter. We saw Wacha struggle for an extended period of time last year, posting a 4.03 ERA after July 1 last season, not including his four runs in 4.1 innings outing against the Cubs in the postseason. We’ve not really seen that Wacha that burst on the scene in 2013 for a while and I do think it’s fair to wonder if we ever will again.
Many may say that we’re overreacting to a bad loss and perhaps that factors in, but Wacha was originally billed as a guy that may not have a high ceiling, but that could reach that ceiling quickly. It could be that Wacha hit his apex early in his career and now, with the league adjusting, he’s not going to be quite as special. The key seems to be his fastball command, and while I leave pitch analysis to the professionals such as Joe Schwarz, Wacha threw almost 100 pitches in less than five innings last night. It would seem that the command would still need a bit of work. The Cardinals twice dug out of a hole he created and twice he started shoveling again. Granted, last night was a cold night in Pittsburgh and his first start of the season, so maybe we’ll see better going forward. However, with the run of starts he’s got going, it’s definitely a concern. For us, at least. Wacha says he’s not worried about it, though if he did say he was, it’d be a first for an athlete.
Wacha gets the Goat for last night, though Randal Grichuk was seriously in the running. Grichuk, who of course is one of the “ifs” that the Cardinals seem to be relying on, the if that he can be the slugger he’s shown in the past, went 0-5 with two strikeouts and five left on base. He’s 1-9 on the young season, which may be just a rough start, though it wouldn’t be surprising if he’s not pressing just a little bit. When you are on the cover of the paper’s special about the season, you know how much people are relying on you. That can’t be easy to manage.
Last night’s game might have had its frustrations, but the bullpen really wasn’t one of them. We had this idea (especially if Jordan Walden was healthy) that this would be a shutdown staff and it proved its worth last night. Starting with the Patron Pitcher Tyler Lyons and all the way through Seth Maness‘s second inning of work, the bullpen didn’t allow a single base runner, retiring 18 in a row before Maness walked Gregory Polanco, who wound up being the winning run. Lyons did come in with the bases loaded and give up two fly balls, allowing the tying run to score, but given the situation things could have been much worse. (I was pretty scared seeing him leave pitches up, though.) Seung-hwan Oh was extremely impressive, striking out the side in his inning of work. Kevin Siegrist looked pretty dominant as well and there were no hiccups from Trevor Rosenthal. This bullpen really does look like it’s going to live up to the expectations.
I guess you can’t argue with Mike Matheny‘s bullpen usage too much, given that Clint Hurdle ran through five guys as well, but given the way these teams have played, you might think that you could use some of these guys a little longer than just one inning. I mean, Lyons is a former starter, a guy that’s on the team to be a long man. He could have pitched the sixth, then the pinch-hitter comes in. Oh pitches the seventh, Siegrist the eighth, Jonathan Broxton the ninth and Rosenthal the 10th and 11th. Again, I understand Matheny’s usage and some of this is hindsight, but he got to a situation where he had to stay with Maness because the only other option was Matt Bowman and he understandably didn’t want to put the Rule 5 pick in that situation. It might have put someone off limits for tonight’s game, but especially using a rested Lyons for just two batters seems like a bit of a waste, especially since it was tied then. It wasn’t like Matheny was trying to protect a lead and Pittsburgh tied it up late.
Of course, bullpen management was way down on the list of things to be frustrated about with the manager last night. At the top of the list were two very questionable bunts in the late innings. Honestly, I thought we were past this. I don’t remember nearly as many of these kind of frustrating bunting decisions last year. I was giving credit to Matheny for growing in his knowledge and use of tactics in this area. Perhaps I was a little premature.
The first one came in the seventh. As noted, it was a tie game and it was getting late. I understand the underlying idea here, that if the Cardinals could get a run across, they felt confident (and rightly so) that their bullpen would protect that lead. They didn’t need a lot, but they needed one. Kolten Wong pinch-hit for Oh to lead off the seventh and singled. (Off Tony Watson, a tough lefty reliever, so kudos to Kolten there.) Wong’s hitting in the ninth spot, which means Matt Carpenter is up. Carpenter then bunts him to second. Stephen Piscotty walks, then Matt Holliday strikes out on a check swing and Grichuk flies out. A wasted opportunity.
Look, I know Carpenter might have had a rough spring and is now 1-7 to start the year. However, it’s still Matt Carpenter. He’s the best hitter on the team, even if he’s hitting leadoff. If you want to frame your tactics over the idea that he’s slumping a bit in a couple of games, that’s crazy, but even so, DON’T LET HIM HIT LEADOFF THEN. If he’s good enough to hit leadoff, he’s good enough to move the runner over. Besides, Wong does have some speed even if he’s not been terribly efficient with it. You could at least try to steal there, then see if Carpenter could either move him over with a ground ball or single him in. With first base open, they can be more selective with Piscotty, especially seeing who is coming up after him. I think most of us grasp how quickly 0 outs becomes 3 outs and there’s no need, most of the time, to help it make that progression.
It’s hard to imagine that there would be a more egregious bunting decision, but the one in the ninth probably was. Jeremy Hazelbaker dropped a flare into no man’s land to start the inning and found himself on second after his first major league hit. So nobody out, runner on second, only need one run. Instead of trying to get Wong, who was up next, to hit behind the runner or give him a crack at hitting Mark Melancon (which, granted, is a tough task), Matheny had Wong bunt. Wong then popped it up, making the situation runner on second two out, a situation that didn’t change when Carpenter and Piscotty flew out. Again, I get it, you want the guy on third so that maybe one of those flyouts gets you a run, but there would seem to be better ways to do it, especially with a squad that’s had their issues bunting in the past.
Of course, Matheny might have been trying this smallball stuff because it’s starting to look like this squad has a tough time making contact in general. A day after striking out 14 times, St. Louis whiffed 13 yesterday, meaning that 27 of their 60 outs (45%) have come via the K. The Cards were able to get a few more hits yesterday and those hits counted for more damage, but that’s a lot of strikeouts, more than anyone in the National League. (The Blue Jays have 36 but they’ve also got another game in there.) Hopefully that’s just a factor of seeing a couple of lefties and tonight will be better, but it’s a troubling trend.
It was a mixed night for Aledmys Diaz making his major league debut. He singled in his first at bat, getting that out of the way, but then made a costly error in the fifth. With the bases loaded and one out, Francisco Cervelli hit a grounder to Diaz at short. It was a bit of a tough play, but it looked more like he tried to decide what to do with it before he got it, and so couldn’t get a handle on it. A smooth pickup and he probably gets a double play, meaning Wacha leaves the fifth up 5-3 and the game probably goes differently, especially with the bullpen going the way they did. Diaz’s reputation was that defense was not his strongest suit and we saw that come into play, unfortunately. Still, it’s good to see him starting and hopefully he will be out there again tonight.
All this way and we’ve still not named a Hero. While you could see any of the bullpen guys (except Maness, obviously) in that slot, I’m going to give it to Jedd Gyorko. I was stunned to see the At Bat notification that not only had the Cardinals taken a 4-3 lead but they’d done so on a home run and by Gyorko to boot. I doubt anyone had him down for the player to go yard first for the Redbirds, though he was obtained in part for his offense, of course. Nice to know the club won’t start the season with an extended home run drought as well. Gyroko also had a single, tying Piscotty with two hits to lead the attack last night.
Brayan Pena had his knee surgery yesterday and it looks like he and Tommy Pham both may be out for a month. If I were to guess, and since I’m nothing close to a medical professional I pretty much am limited to that, I’d say Pena is back before Pham. Pena needs to rehab his knee, get that strength up, things like that. Those obliques, though, tend to be something that linger and nag and take a long while to heal up completely. Given Pham’s injury reputation, I’d much rather him be at 100% before comes back, because otherwise odds are he’ll just reinjure himself.
This is the first time the Cardinals have started 0-2 since the 2011 season. We know all about that year, of course. (Which reminds me, I really need to get back to that 2011 Revisited series.) Mike Leake looks to make his Cardinal debut a winning one tonight. Leake looked strong in the spring and obviously has seen the Pirates plenty in the past. He’s 8-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 24 starts against the Buccos, which is a nice history to take into this one.
St. Louis will face Juan Nicasio. Last time they saw him, he gave up two runs in a third of an inning last June. I think we’d like to see more like that, wouldn’t we?
Here’s hoping for the first win of the year!