A Breath of Fresh Air

Bear with me a moment as I tell a bit of a personal anecdote that’s related to this weekend’s activity by the St. Louis Cardinals.  I attend a United Methodist church and have my entire life.  For those of you that may not be aware, pastors in the Methodist tradition are not hired by the local congregation.  Rather, the conference (in our case, the conference encompasses the entire state of Arkansas) assigns pastors and moves them at their discretion, factoring in a lot of things like where that person’s skills are needed, how long they have been at a charge, and whether they are still being effective where they are at.

Three years ago, we had one of these times of transition as a young pastor and his family came to our church.  Being young, our church was the first time he’d been the “head guy” in a church, as he’d only had a couple of years serving under another pastor before coming to us.  There was a lot of initial excitement, thinking that he’d be able to connect with a younger generation and help reverse the decline in attendance that the congregation had been experiencing.  That really didn’t happen and, without going into everything, by the end of his time here it felt like a chore for myself, as well as many others, to have to go to church and deal with an unsatisfying, unfulfilling experience.  I’ll freely admit that my head and heart was not where it needed to be.

In July, the carousel wheel spun again and we’ve received a new pastor.  Immediately, it felt like a weight had been lifted.  There’s more excitement about being in worship on Sunday.  There’s a better connection on a personal level.  There’s a lighter, brighter air about the place.  You don’t want to draw too many conclusions from just three services and a month’s worth of interactions, but at least in the short run you can see how a change in leadership can change so many things quickly.  One person can make a difference, one change can have a big impact, if it’s the right person and the right change.

I don’t think anyone is saying that the Cardinals are now going to play .700 ball under Mike Shildt and this huge weight has been lifted off everyone’s shoulders so they’ll play out of their minds down the stretch.  However, at least for the fans, Sunday felt like a lot more fun, both watching the game and watching the post-game chat on FOX Sports Midwest.  I believe it was our friend CrashSTL that said that Shildt sounded like a baseball guy rather than a politician.  I don’t know if I’d ever thought that Mike Matheny was running for office, but he never did seem comfortable talking with the press, whether it was after a win or a loss.  (And I have to say it was nice to hear someone with a little inflection in their answers on Sunday.)  Of course, it’s all fun and games when you win your first one.  We’ll see how Shildt reacts when a bullpen move blows up and the tough questions come, but I’m hopeful that we’ll get a little more openness and less “we’re going to be better” cliche speak.

Anyway, we gotta wrap these games against the Reds up, so let’s take a look at the last two games of the Matheny Era and then shift to Shildt.

Friday (9-1 loss)

Hero: Tough to find one here, given that the team only mustered four hits and the pitching wasn’t anything special, so we’ll go with Yadier Molina.  Yadi went 1-3 and drove in the only run of the game, plating Paul DeJong in the bottom of the first.

Goat: There were plenty of ugly performances in this, but narrowing it down to a Goat is a little hard.  It’s not like the game really turned in one place or another.  After the third you really wondered if the game was over (and in fact, it was).  I’m going to go with Sam Tuivailala on this one, because not only did he give up three runs of his own, he also let one of the runners he inherited from Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons to come in as well in a disaster of a seventh inning.

Notes: Carlos Martinez was pretty much Carlos Martinez in this one.  He gave up runs in the first, which he’s had a distressing habit of doing this season, but then settled in and pitched well.  The early labors ran his pitch count up and he left after five innings, which turned this over to the bullpen and, well, we saw what happened there.  All in all, it was a fine start, though nothing overly great.  If the offense had been able to help out, maybe things would have been different.

As noted, we saw the return of the Patron Pitcher as well as Luke Gregerson, both of which were activated before this game.  Gregerson gave up a hit and a walk in his two-thirds of an inning before Lyons bailed him out.  Really, though, there wasn’t anything worth talking about in this one, save maybe the fact Greg Holland threw a scoreless inning.  Not that it really mattered down by eight.

Saturday (8-2 loss)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  Two hits, including a leadoff home run that looked like it might give the team a spark but actually was the last hit until Jack Flaherty got one with one out in the third.

Goat: Jordan Hicks.  Hicks came into the game in the seventh, with the Cardinals holding a 2-1 lead, because Matheny wanted to try to get three innings out of a Hicks/Bud Norris combination.  Whether that was because he saw the writing on the wall and was pressing or just an indictment about the level of play out of the bullpen is probably up to the beholder, but whatever the motive it didn’t work out at all.  Hicks hit the first batter, walked the second, gave up a hit to the third.  That loaded the bases for the heart of the Cincinnati order and they did what 2-5 hitters are supposed to do.  Jose Perez had an RBI infield hit that Hicks just couldn’t come up with, tying the game.  After Hicks got Joey Votto looking (and it was pretty clear Votto was leaning out in the hope of getting nicked), Scooter Gennett singled in a run and Eugenio Suarez drove in two with a base hit.  It feels like the break is coming at a good time for Hicks, who has (after Sunday) allowed runs in four straight games and has an 11.74 ERA in his past seven outings.

Notes: This really was the tale of two games.  There was a rain delay of just under an hour after the first, but Flaherty came back and pitched well after it.  He wound up with five scoreless innings with five strikeouts and was just shy of 70 pitches, so he had at least one more frame in him.  However, there came an almost two hour rain delay after the fifth, precluding him from returning, and that’s where things kinda got out of whack.  Mike Mayers allowed one in the sixth and we saw what Hicks did before Greg Holland bailed him out.  However, Holland came back out for the eighth (which, hey, they were down 5-2 at the time and I don’t think anyone expected this team to score six) and proceeded to load the bases with one out.

Matheny then went to our Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons again to face Votto with the bases loaded.  Which is sort of ironic and indicative of a lot of the mindset we saw from Matheny, because Holland has probably done better against lefties this year than Lyons has.  Yes, Lyons got Votto the night before, but he was also just coming off the DL and perhaps not running him out there back to back days would have been a more prudent thing.  Anyway, Votto singled in two runs, Lyons retired Gennett and then, with the game at 7-2, Matheny decided to again go to the bullpen and get the other guy that’s just come off the DL, Luke Gregerson, to clean up the frame.

Then he turned to Bud Norris for the ninth.  Yes, Norris hadn’t pitched in a while and you definitely could make a case for having him get a little work in.  That said, when the pitches started to mount up, it might have been good to go get him a little earlier.  Now, it turns out Norris was unavailable Sunday not necessarily because of the pitch count but because of some arm issue, so it’s hard to know if it really mattered, but throwing 21 pitches would have probably limited him a little bit on Sunday no matter.  Brett Cecil had to come in and get the third out anyway, which was the capper to a rough game overall.

I don’t know if it was the rain itself or the delay or whatever was going on during the time off the field, but the team seemed to come out flat to start the sixth.  The Reds kinda had their way with every pitcher and the ball got thrown around a bit as well.  The club got a total of four hits (two in the ninth) and no walks after the delay while the Reds got that many just off Hicks (and had 12 hits and two walks in those four innings).  Honestly, the Reds were a fun team to watch this weekend except for them beating the Cardinals.  They made sharp defensive plays, kept the offense going, and don’t look that far away from at least making some noise in the NL Central.

Dexter Fowler was the only other person wearing the birds on the bat to get two hits.  It was an interesting lineup–though maybe not as interesting as Sunday’s–but it just didn’t click and while this game wasn’t what sealed Matheny’s fate, it’s pretty fitting that it was this sort of game, with flaccid offense and debatable bullpen usage, that was his swan song.

Sunday (6-4 win)

Hero: Tommy Pham.  Pham came into this game riding an 0-19 and actually started on the bench with Harrison Bader getting the start in center.  However, Bader tripped rounding third and wound up with an hyperextended knee (the severity of which seems to be low, but we’ll have to wait a day or so to be sure) and Pham took over.  His two-run single in the fourth took back the lead that the Reds had just acquired and he tacked on another hit later on.

It was good to see Pham go into the break on a bit of a high note, but a comment from Shildt after the game about his lineup might be telling.  He said something to the effect of wanting to get guys out there that were going to be regulars for the team.  If that was completely true and not a general statement, the fact that Bader was in there is telling.  Again, it could have been just wanting to let Pham clear his mind before the break, especially since he’s not going to rest during it according to his own admission, but it’s something to keep an eye on in the early days of the Shildt administration.  I’m not at all saying that’s a bad thing, given the way Pham has been going since May began.  It’s just very interesting to see whether that will happen.

Goat: Paul DeJong.  DeJong snapped his streak of getting a hit in every game since his return, going 0-4 and leaving two on base.

Notes: Miles Mikolas wasn’t his normal self, but given Monday’s news that his wife was having complications in her pregnancy, meaning he’ll completely miss the All-Star Game (he landed in Washington with Yadier Molina, then it sounds like basically immediately took off for Florida, where they live), you wonder if he had other things on his mind.  Mikolas went four innings and allowed three runs on six hits and two walks.  Everybody’s going to have an off day, of course, and hopefully Mikolas bounces back well against the Cubs.

Everyone was going on about Shildt’s decision to pinch-hit for Mikolas in the bottom of the fourth with runners on.  It definitely was different, given Mike Matheny’s preference for the starter to go at least five innings to get a win, but it’s also the day before a three-day break and you have a starter in the bullpen that can eat up innings.  It’s a confluence of circumstances that made that decision a little easier and a little more possible than it would have been on Friday or will be (especially) on Thursday, in the first game of five in four days.  I do think Shildt is likely to seize opportunities more often than Matheny did, but I can’t completely say that Matheny wouldn’t have done something similar in a situation with these parameters.

What Matheny probably wouldn’t have done was let John Gant pitch four innings, but Gant did outstanding work filling in.  Four innings and no hits allowed, with only two walks marring his line.  Given how the bullpen had been used over the last few days, giving them the breather was huge.  Lots of kudos to Gant for his work and you have to figure one way or another he has a spot on this team.  He should make a start against the Cubs and his role after that might depend on what moves are made around the deadline.

Matt Carpenter hit another leadoff homer, putting him one behind Lou Brock‘s team record for a career, and Dexter Fowler hit a home run in his first at bat post Matheny, which absolutely nobody commented on as you can imagine.  It wasn’t an overwhelming day by any means–Pham was the only Cardinal with multiple hits–but it was a good day.  It was a needed day.

Now we get a few days off to ruminate, to contemplate, to dream, to enjoy the perfection that is the Shildt era.  Some folks will use this time to come up with other managerial possibilities, but like Rusty said yesterday, this job is Mike Shildt’s to lose.  Maybe in October we can talk about other folks that should get an interview, but the Cardinals have been wanting Shildt in this position for some time.  They’ve groomed him to be ready for this moment, with his minor league experience, his teaching and coaching, and his time in the big leagues.  I do think they’ll take some time and interview some folks, but like the last interview process, the end result is probably already established unless someone blows them away.

Here’s to a fun All-Star Game and getting off to a hot start after the break!

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