That’s Bull….Pen

I’ll admit, I was one of those that thought it’d be different.

I thought Mike Maddux would make a difference.  I thought that the new bullpen arms would be extremely effective.  I thought we’d seen the end of consistently losing games in late innings, especially with questionable decisions.

Instead, it’s like 2017 got dressed up and stayed a while.

We’ve got three games to look at.  One of them was fine but the other two…..some of this discussion could be cut, scrubbed of names, and posted in just about any year from 2012 until now.  Draw your own conclusions about what that means and what should be done about it.

Saturday (5-3 win vs. Arizona)

Hero: Jose Martinez.  It seems to be feast or famine with Jose this season.  He has four multi-hit games on the year and he has six games where he’s hitless.  There’s nothing in between for the first baseman of the Cardinals.  Thankfully, this was feast day as Martinez had two hits, with the big one being a three-run homer off of Zack Greinke in the third, part of the four-run inning that gave the Cards the lead and they were–unlike the rest of this post–able to keep.

Goat: It was a rough stretch–and depending on your point of view, maybe still is–for Paul DeJong.  After striking out four times in the home opener, he followed that up with an 0-4 with three strikeouts in this one.  We knew the strikeouts were going to pile up but I don’t think we expected quite so many in such a short period of time.

Notes: Let’s just stay with the offense as we look at the box score.  It was actually a pretty solid day for the hitters, even though they scored four of their five runs in one frame (which also feels like something we’ve seen before, a concentrated offense instead of one that adds on).  Everyone but DeJong and Kolten Wong had a hit and Marcell Ozuna (3) and Yadier Molina (2) had multi-hit days.  Of course, all of hits were singles except for Dexter Fowler‘s double and Martinez’s homer, but I guess we shouldn’t be too picky.

If Adam Wainwright wasn’t in the rotation, there might be a bit more focus on Michael Wacha.  He got the win here with five innings of work but he’s still not looking like that effective Wacha we thought we might be getting this year.  There’s not been a chance to even wonder about him going deeper into games as the pitch count continues to be high.  He was at 89 pitches in this one, which actually wasn’t as bad as it could have been given that he walked five batters.  Three of those came in the first, so things got better from there, but it’s still not a situation that I, at least, have a lot of confidence in.

The bullpen did OK in this one, holding the lead and allowing just one run because Jordan Hicks was a little less in control than we’ve seen him, walking two and allowing an unearned run since Paul Goldschmidt led off the inning by reaching on a Matt Carpenter error.  However, look at the names used.  Dominic LeoneMatthew Bowman.  Hicks.  Bud Norris.  Pitchers have to go on back-to-back days, of course, and the use of Norris so far feels about right, but some of the seeds for Sunday were planted here.

It was fun to see that, for all the offseason carping and the focus on his spring stats (that, as we know, were pretty skewed by a couple of bad frames), Norris got the first–and still only–save of the Cardinals’ season.  While there’s a lot to be said for the high-octane arms that down in the ‘pen, it’s also been comforting to see a veteran just go out there and do his job without much incident.  Something that, sadly, we don’t get to see enough of.

Sunday (4-1 loss to Arizona)

Hero: Luke Weaver.  There have been a lot of things this season that, so far, haven’t matched up with our winter expectations.  Weaver, however, isn’t one of them.  His second straight solid outing left him with a 1.59 at the end of it, giving up one run on three hits in 6.1 innings, with seven strikeouts to boot.  Well, he was charged with a run, he didn’t actually give it up.  Which is the problem……

Goat: For as much as the controversy came earlier, you probably still look to Dominic Leone as the Goat in this one.  Allowing a single and a homer to the two batters you face in what was a 1-1 game when you came in will do that probably every time.  Leone’s given up four runs this season and all have come via the home run ball.  I asked resident pitching guru Joe Schwarz about it and he replied it’d just been three bad pitches.  I don’t doubt Joe, but I also note that Leone has allowed eight hits in 4.2 innings.  While half of those hits were stranded, it still seems like a high total to me for a guy that should be able to pitching 1-2-3 innings on the regular.

That said, there’s a bit of an extenuating circumstance in this one.  Most of us noted it with Bowman (which we’ll talk about in a bit) but this was also the third straight game–against, significantly, the same opponent–that Leone had thrown in.  Chris Owings, who singled to start the inning, was seeing him for the third straight day (and got two hits off of him in that span).  One of the great things about relievers is that, in theory, the batters can’t get used to them because they don’t see them as long as a starter.  However, when the same guy is out there on a regular basis, a lot of the mystery is erased.  Teams have a fresher game plan for going after them.

Notes: All right, let’s get to the Bowman issue.  As noted above, Weaver left in the seventh having allowed a one-out single to A.J. Pollock.  With Daniel Descalso–feared slugger Daniel Descalso–coming up, Mike Matheny went to Tyler Lyons to match up lefties.  Which is fine, especially since Weaver was at 97 pitches.  I am not suggesting at all that Weaver should have stayed in there nor do I ever complain when the Patron Pitcher makes an appearance.  This move was fine on the face of it.

Lyons strikes out Descalso.  Two outs and everyone is feeling fine.  Until Matheny comes out of the dugout.

Now, as Tara said on Gateway Sunday night, there’s no reason to treat Lyons as a lefty specialist when we’ve seen him go three innings at times.  He’s a converted starter and last year basically was your eighth inning guy.  Sure, right now with Ryan Sherriff and Brett Cecil on the disabled list you don’t have a real LOOGY type, but you don’t have to have one.  Bring Lyons into get a lefty, but leave him in.  Heck, in limited sample size this year, lefties are hitting Lyons much better than righties.  Using a guy like this, a guy that can face both sides of the plate and have success, in a one-run game late (which means a strong possibility of extra innings), for one batter is almost malfeasance.

Pollock had stolen second on Lyons, though, and so there were two outs and a runner in scoring position.  Perhaps you want to go to a righty because Christian Walker is a lefty masher–well, in some universe; in this one he has all of 39 MLB at bats in his career and this was his first appearance of the season, so there’s absolutely no reason to think Lyons couldn’t have handled him.  If you have to go to your bullpen, with a runner on second in a tight game, you go get some guy that’s bringing the heat, that has significant odds of striking a guy out, a fresh fireballer (because there are a lot of those down there) that can reduce the chances of a bloop hit driving in the tying run.

That’s what you do.  That’s not what Matheny does.  Matheny does what he does in any situation–he goes and gets Matt Bowman.

Look, Matt Bowman has his uses.  He’s a fine pitcher, even if he is overrated by the manager.  Bring him into the sixth or seventh to start a frame and, assuming proper rest, I don’t have much problem with it.  Runner on first and one out?  Less enthused, because Bowman isn’t the double play Seth Maness that Matheny seems to think he is, but it’ll probably be OK.  This situation?  Compounded by the fact that, like Leone, he was pitching in his third consecutive game against the same team with only Friday’s off day in the middle?  Nobody in their right mind is going to make that their first choice.

The thing about these bullpen blowups is that, even though I’m writing this a couple of days later, these aren’t takes that are looking back and second-guessing.  This is the immediate reaction of a huge swath of fans as the manager is walking out to the mound and calling for the righty.  It’s like the Farmers Insurance ads.  We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two and we’ve seen this play out especially over the last couple of years.

Maybe if Mike Mayers or Norris or John Brebbia (who was called up for Sherriff before this game) had come into the game here the result would have been the same or worse.  Maybe if Lyons had been left in Walker would have roped a double and things would have started downhill.  I don’t know.  I just know that the decision making for any of those choices would have been stronger and more defensible than bringing in a tired Bowman, who of course walked Walker and gave up a bloop to Nick Ahmed to tie the game.

Mayers did pitch in this game, allowing a home run in the eighth in relief of Leone.  He got three outs around that homer, which was better than much of Mayers’s games in the big leagues, but that didn’t help his confidence, I don’t imagine.  Whether that is because spring training was a bit of a fluke or if it was relating to the fact that he literally hadn’t pitched since Opening Day–not the home opener, but that game in New York over a week before–it’s tough to say.  And being that he was (unsurprisingly) the roster casualty when Greg Holland was activated before yesterday’s game, it’ll be a while before we find out.

Monday (5-4 loss in 10 to Milwaukee)

Hero: Dexter Fowler.  Hopefully Dex is starting to heat up a bit.  Two hits in this one and two RBI, with the big one being a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth to bring home the tying run.  That euphoria didn’t last long, though.

Goat: Greg Holland.  Welcome to St. Louis, Mr. Holland!  I’d say take a walk around downtown, but you probably don’t have any more walks in you after issuing four free passes–including an intentional walk, in one-third of an inning.  An extra inning, even, which makes the complete lack of control even more painful.

Notes: Holland spent the winter looking for a job.  He spent spring training trying to find employment, which meant he didn’t work out or play in any spring training games.  He got two innings down in the minor leagues to tune up before coming to the Cardinals on the first day he was eligible to do so.

All that to say that perhaps easing Holland into things instead of throwing him immediately into high-pressure situations might have been the better move.  That is a bit of hindsight, though.  I can’t say that I, at least (perhaps Twitter did but I wasn’t on there at the time), though this was going to be a problem.

Walking Travis Shaw on a full count to start the inning probably should have at least gotten some folks stirring in the bullpen.  Going to a full count and walking Domingo Santana next definitely should have.  When Eric Sogard bunted the two runners over, that would have been a good time to think about bringing in Norris.  Matheny then ordered an intentional walk of Manny Pina to load the bases.

Now, overall, I’m not sure that was a bad move.  Pina seems like he’s done damage against the Cardinals, it gives you the force play at home as well as a double play possibility, you already have the runner at third, etc.  However, if you are going to do that, you can’t leave in Holland who has shown that he’s not quite fine-tuned.

You can’t.  I can’t.  Matheny can.

And, as almost everyone saw coming, Holland walked in the go-ahead run.  On four pitches.  I know it’d have been an issue for Norris to inherit the count, but at 2-0 on Orlando Arcia, I’d have been tempted to pull the pitcher then.

After the run scored, Norris came in and quickly got a strikeout and a flyout.  Again, I get it, you’ve got Greg Holland, you just spent $14 million on him, you want to see him in the game.  However, expectations might have been a bit too high for his first outing and, unfortunately for Holland, a number of people soured on him last night.  Hopefully this will be a game that gets washed away with a slew of strong outings but for some, anytime that he issues a walk, they are going to think “Here we go again.”

That decision overshadowed the game but there wasn’t a lot of interesting things in it anyway.  Save for their ninth inning run (which in and of itself was a little disappointing since Matt Albers gave up three straight singles to start the frame, including a bunt by Kolten Wong, but all they got was Fowler’s sacrifice fly), all the others came in the third, on RBI hits by Fowler (single) and Marcell Ozuna (double).  Other than that, the offense was fairly quiet and only Paul DeJong had an extra-base hit besides Ozuna.  The offense still isn’t clicking the way we would like it to but it feels like there are flashes, moments that might come together to make something soon.

Miles Mikolas was serviceable in his second outing, again allowing four runs to the Brewers but this time having less success with it.  He pitched into the seventh, though, which was nice to see.  If more pitchers can start completing six frames and if Holland gets on track, that means just two innings need to be covered by the other seven arms down there in the bullpen, which should (SHOULD) mean less of Mr. Bowman.

I’ll admit, I was a little surprised to not only see Sam Tuivailala out there but to see him go two innings.  Tui actually did quite well, allowing just two hits in his scoreless outing.  There’s the idea that Tui is going to take on the Mayers “gather cobwebs in case of emergency” role, but I wonder if that’ll be the case or not.  On the one hand, Tui seems to be the guy that Matheny has the least confidence in, but on the other he’s not really had the career where he’s a multi-inning solution.  He did go two here, but it feels like the manager usually holds out pitchers that have some starting experience in case they need to pitch three or four innings.  (A situation that rarely comes up, which is why these folks rarely get used.)  That’s not really Tui but that doesn’t mean he won’t get put in that slot anyway.

Let’s talk about who we didn’t see in this game or in Sunday’s game and that’s Jordan Hicks.  It’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  For a while there, it felt like Matheny was very enamored with the kid and was going to start using him more and more.  Actually, I believe he currently has as many innings as Bowman, which should tell you something.  However, even in situations over the last couple of games that could use a flamethrower, Matheny didn’t use him.

Which leads me to wonder–is Mike Maddux picking his battles?  We continue to hope that the pitching coach is going to make an impact on the decisions and so far we haven’t seen many of them.  Part of me would like to believe Maddux surveyed the landscape and decided that he was going to protect the young arm of Hicks above all else right now, letting Matheny go his way on a lot of things but holding firm on Hicks’s usage.  It’s a passing thought and I don’t know if we have anything to back it up, but if that’s the case, I think I can live with that.

Cardinals sit two games under .500 and need to win the series to get back to break even.  That starts tonight when Carlos Martinez, who was so dominant against the Brewers last time out, goes up against Brent Suter.  Suter is making his third start and has a 6.30 ERA in 10 innings so far this season.  St. Louis saw him last on August 2 of last season (great day, that) and got to him for five runs (two homers) in 5.1 innings.  On paper, this is a mismatch in the pitching department.  That so often blows up in our faces but let’s hope it holds this evening!

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