If Six Is Serious, What Is Seven?

At some point, this winning streak is going to end.  Could be tonight, could be this weekend, could be farther out than that but at some point and time, the Cardinals will lose again.

It’s just harder and harder to believe that with every passing night.

You think back over the last few years and you start to try to come up with the last time we felt this way about the Cardinals, this euphoric manner where, even trailing late in games, you just knew that they had a comeback in then.  When you were more surprised when they didn’t rally than when they did.  It’s been a while.  As good as the 2015 team was, with their 100 wins, I’m not sure this sort of flavor of excitement was present.  Perhaps in the early part of the Mike Matheny era, but I’m not sure even then.

I think you probably have to go back to that run of 2011 to really get this sort of excitement, because part of what this excitement is based on is the sharp contrast to what had come before.  In 2011, the month of August–until the last week–was watching the Cardinals free-fall out of the race.  They had fans bummed, for the most part.  Then the Cards caught fire, other teams started losing, and the excitement became infectious.  It would have been fun had they gone on that sort of run in August and September no matter what, but it added an extra dimension because of the sharp contrast of the preceding months.

That’s what we are seeing here.  A winning streak of seven games, winning nine of ten, that’s all well and good, especially with the fun and dramatic wins that are mixed in there.  However, I think it would be taken more as a matter of course had the team been playing to the level we expected coming into this season.  If this was a 90-plus win team in June, this sort of winning streak would still be a lot of fun and we’d get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but not quite the same way that we are rejoicing over it now.  Contrast has so much to do with it.  People say that you have to go through the bad to appreciate the good.  That seems like as good a way as any to explain things now.

It’s also remarkable how the club is winning games.  Sometimes they get ahead early.  Sometimes they put runs up in the middle innings.  Sometimes they wait to walk it off.  They’ve won with offense (a lot more often than you’d have thought a month ago), they’ve won with defense (which was unheard of), they’ve won with solid pitching in every inning.  Everyone is contributing–though Matt Carpenter a bit more than most–and there’s a passion and enjoyment from the players that is also feeding a fan resurgence.

Last night had a little bit of everything, which shows why they are doing so well.  It also had a bit of, shall we say, #CardinalDevilMagic (and you know teams around the league are noticing that it seems to have returned).  After plating a run after a Paul DeJong double, a Jedd Gyorko groundout, and a Harrison Bader sacrifice fly, the Cardinals had the bases empty with two outs.  Rather than challenging Kolten Wong (which, given the rest of his night, was probably a wise thing), the Nationals pitched carefully to him and walked him to bring up John Gant.  Hitless for his career John Gant.

At this point, I was heading home from a church meeting and had the radio broadcast on.  John Rooney noted that Gant was hitless and this would be a great time for his first knock.  Mike Shannon said, “How about a two-run homer?…..if you are going to get your first hit, might as well make it big, huh?”  Three pitches later…..

Seriously, how does that happen?  You couldn’t have scripted that and you wouldn’t because it was too cheesy, too over-the-top for a team on a run to get a home run from a pitcher for his first hit.  That just wouldn’t happen…..and yet it did.

That wasn’t the only contribution Gant made to the evening, though.  He kept Washington at bay for five and a third innings, allowing just a two-out RBI single to Matt Wieters to keep him from a complete set of goose eggs.  He struck out six and allowed four hits.  I don’t know that I’d say Gant is the overlooked man in the rotation, but he’s the one I think most folks would be fine with moving to the bullpen if things required it.  However, save that start in Pittsburgh where he scuffled and allowed six runs, he’s been pretty consistent about giving around five solid innings.  Put it this way–if he’s your fifth starter, he’s better than almost everyone else’s fifth starter.

The Nationals are a good team.  They may not be playing like one, they may have their issues especially after the starting pitcher leaves the game, but that lineup is remarkably solid so to see Gant go and allow just one run and then Chasen Shreve go an inning and two-thirds and only allow one hit is incredibly satisfying.  Many folks, including our own Rusty Groppel, suggested that Shreve would be much more effective outside of Yankee Stadium.  Whether it’s the difference in location or the fact that National League hitters aren’t very aware of him yet, the results have been what those folks expected.  He’s pitched in six games so far and allowed just one run while striking out seven to one walk.  Obviously it’s a small sample, but relievers don’t often get a large one.  Adding this piece to the bullpen makeover appears to have been another sharp move by John Mozeliak.  Not that some what to hear about Mo’s successes……

As great as Gant’s pitching/hitting combination was, I think the Hero of the night has to be Kolten Wong.  He doubled in the fourth run and he homered in the sixth one, giving the team some much-needed cushion when Goat Mike Mayers allowed a two-run homer to Bryce Harper (who so far seem to enjoy hitting in St. Louis) and then Dakota Hudson allowed an RBI single to Daniel Murphy, a run that was also charged to Mayers.  Wong is hitting .400 since he came off the disabled list on August 4 and has two three-hit games, including last night, in that span.  His OPS is 1.071 and his defense is still wonderful.  (Overall since the managerial change, Wong’s line is .333/.407/.479 in 14 games.  Of course, we’d like to say that he’s liking the change, but he hit .302/.326/.512 in the last 14 games under Mike Matheny.  So while it’s not quite Carpenter-esque, Wong’s final line for the season probably isn’t going to really show how well he did for much of it.)

The Cardinals only got eight hits (though they drew five walks) and they scored six runs.  When half your hits go for extra bases, I guess that makes it a bit easier.  A solid offense, a very good rotation, and a much more dependable bullpen.  No wonder they are shooting up the standings like a balloon that suddenly lost the anvil that was holding it down.

Speaking of, let’s talk briefly about a decision last night that probably would have gone differently under the prior administration.  The Cardinals are up two runs in the ninth, a save situation.  Bud Norris struggled on Monday, as we know, and threw 24 pitches after throwing five unnecessary ones on Sunday.  It’s possible that 24 pitches would have dissuaded Matheny, but you also know that he would have wanted to get Norris out there to “get him back on the horse” and to show confidence in him, even at the risk of losing the game.  Mike Shildt didn’t go that way at all, calling in Jordan Hicks to lock down the ninth.  Hicks hit a batter but otherwise had no problems.  I don’t believe that Norris will be stewing too hard on a game like Monday just because he hasn’t had a chance to clear the record, as it were.  I don’t believe we have a “closer controversy” or anything.  I think that Shildt knew Norris had thrown too much and weighed that much more heavily than some possible mental victory for Norris.  I guess I’m saying I think six weeks ago Norris gets the call and I’m glad that he didn’t get it last night.

With a Cubs loss and a Philadelphia loss, the Cards wake up today four games out of first and one single game out of the second wild card spot.  It is theoretically possible that the Cards could be tied for a playoff spot by the end of the night, though again, the longer the winning streak, the more likely it is to end.  No matter, the fact that we can even speak about this is remarkable enough.

The winning streak will end.  Maybe today.  Maybe tomorrow.  However, the fun and enjoyment of watching Cardinal baseball?  I think that’ll be around for a while.

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