After that unfulfilling playoff series, after all the drama and hype of the offseason, the Cardinals and the Cubs finally met on the field last night. It was not the result Cardinal fans wanted. In fact, it was much closer to their fears and nightmares.
Over the past 10 days, as the Cardinals have put up run after run, bludgeoning folks with their bats, the question was often debated about how much of it was the offense and how much of it was the fact they were facing lesser pitching lights. If last night is any indication, there was much more of the latter than we wanted to admit. Former teammate John Lackey–who, along with Jason Heyward, seemed to be the only two Cub players on the field if you read the leadup and watched the broadcast–completely dominated the Cards, allowing only four hits in seven innings and striking out 11 in that span. The Cards had actually seemed to do better in regards to the strikeout of late before regressing last night.
Lackey, who always was comfortable at Busch Stadium, is probably the best pitcher the Cardinals have seen since the Pittsburgh series concluded. Seeing the bats turn cold when stepping back in against that sort of pitching level doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. It could be just Lackey and the Cardinals do miss Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester if so, but it’s a troubling data point nonetheless.
I thought before the game that if Mike Leake really wanted to endear himself to the people of St. Louis, he’d go out and have a great start. A solid win last night against Heyward and company, with the stakes what they are, would have gotten him a lot of goodwill. To be fair, he did have a pretty good outing. He worked out of trouble in the first and the game was scoreless until Dexter Fowler took him deep in the sixth. There’s not much more you can do as a pitcher up to that point.
Leake’s trouble started actually in the bottom of the fifth, when he couldn’t get down a suicide squeeze. (Thankfully Kolten Wong made that an incorrect title by eluding the tag and getting back to third.) He allowed back-to-back singles to start the seventh, which put him in a bad spot, but that spot was about to get worse.
I hate to give him the Goat tag, especially since he did double in the fifth to put runners on second and third with one out, but the error Aledmys Diaz made in the seventh was a game breaker. Two errors, actually, though he only got “credit” for one. If he picks the ball up cleanly, it’s a double play and there’s a runner at third with two outs and Addison Russell up. Instead, he bobbles it enough that the runner going to second is going to be safe, so then he airmails the throw to Brandon Moss, meaning that a run scores and there are runners on second and third with nobody out, a situation that would have been very difficult for Leake to extract himself from without allowing a run. Indeed, he couldn’t, giving up a sacrifice fly and then, inexplicably, a single to Lackey to drive in the fourth run. To be fair, three was going to be plenty for the Cubs and the extra run that Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons gave up in the eighth really didn’t make any difference either.
Finding a Hero in that morass isn’t easy, especially when nobody had multiple hits and one of the two extra base hits came from your Goat. I guess I’ll go with Yadier Molina, who had a hit and a walk plus guided Leake well through the Cubs order, at least for the most part.
The big story, obviously, was the return of Jason Heyward to St. Louis. It sounded like he got a solid, if mixed, reception last night, but then I also realized later there were a lot more Cub fans in the stands for a Monday night game than I was expecting. It’s hard to know if it was Cubs cheering and Cardinals booing, though I did see some Cards fan giving him a standing O when he was announced. Whatever your reaction to Heyward, I don’t think anyone was terribly disappointed to see him go 0-4 and drop his average to .188. Of course, after 13 games in St. Louis last year he was hitting .193, so it might be about time for him to start heating up. As long as he does it after he leaves Busch Stadium.
The Cardinals activated Ruben Tejada from the disabled list yesterday, sending out Greg Garcia. Obviously, this was just a roster crunch decision as Garcia had done quite well in limited time. However, Tejada was healed up and the Cards aren’t in the habit of just throwing away $1.5 million. There was a lot of Twitter angst about this move yesterday, but it was really the only move that could be done besides delaying it a bit and keeping Tejada on the rehab assignment, something that doesn’t often happen.
Some wanted Tejada just to be waived outright, but beyond the noted fact that St. Louis tends to limit situations where they pay someone not to play for them, especially before they actually get a chance, you have to keep Tejada around for a while in case Diaz is a small sample size fluke. I don’t think he is and I don’t think the club thinks he is, but in case the league starts to adjust and Diaz doesn’t, you want to have someone who can take on the role on a regular basis. Jedd Gyorko is much more suited to second, so there’s not a true shortstop behind Diaz. Now, once Diaz gets out of the small sample size realm (or we get a little closer to the return of Jhonny Peralta), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tejada let go depending on what he does here. As I said yesterday, by the end of the season I’m betting Garcia is on the roster and Tejada is looking for work, but we are assuming a lot for a guy that hasn’t gotten into a game with the team yet.
Then there was the contingent that wanted to banish Matt Adams. It’s true, Adams has struggled and it’s difficult to find him playing time. It’s also difficult to think that Memphis would be much good for him. Look, two years ago Adams hit .288 with 15 home runs. Granted, a lot of that was in the first half (.329 with 11 HR) so it’s not surprising people have a long-running negative opinion of him. Last year was a tough year, sure, but he was out for a large portion of the season with the quad injury. Adams has value to a major league team–witness the two-run pinch-hit bomb he hit on Friday night–and while I don’t know how long he’s a Cardinal, to completely write him off because he’s struggled and been injured is a little strong.
The idea that he’d get regular at-bats in Memphis does have merit, but again, Adams has over 1100 AB in the big leagues. I’m not sure what hitting against minor league pitching does for him. You also don’t see four-year vets with that much experience go down to the minors all that often, either. It’s just not a typical baseball practice. Not saying it doesn’t or can’t happen, just that it’s not common. Add to that you’d have five middle infielders on your roster (Tejada, Diaz, Gyorko, Garcia, and Kolten Wong) and that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the optimal roster configuration. I know many disagree and that’s fine, because I understand where you are coming from, but I just don’t think there was any other move that was going to be made. Now, when Tommy Pham returns–if he does, of course–that’s a different conversation, though Jeremy Hazelbaker is 0 for his last 10, so we’ll keep an eye to see if that situation doesn’t resolve itself. (I’m not saying Hazelbaker is done by any means, but folks do tend to watch slumps by surprising players a little more than ones with more of a track record.)
Tonight’s a big game for the Cards, assuming you can actually have a big game in April. I don’t think they want to hear more conversation about “the torch has been passed” and “there’s a new kid in town” and “it’s their year” and those choruses only get louder with every Cub win over the Redbirds. The pitching side of things should be handled, as Jaime Garcia returns to the bump for the first time since his one-hitter against the Brewers. Save for one inning against the Braves, Garcia’s had a very strong 2016 and there’s no reason to think that can’t continue.
Jason Hammel goes for the Cubs. He’s made two starts and only allowed one total run, which isn’t really what you think of when you think of Hammel. The Cards got him for two runs in three innings during last year’s NLDS and have had some success against him previously, so we’ll see if that holds true tonight.
It was a tense game last night, at least for most of it. It could be that way all season long between these two teams, but let’s hope today it’s St. Louis’s turn to come out on top!