No Streak But Still Winning

When last we got together, the Cardinals were riding an eight-game winning streak and were within striking distance of the wild card.  While they don’t have a lengthy winning streak anymore–actually, at this moment, they don’t have a winning streak–those playoff hopes are very much alive.  Let’s get into it!

Thursday (5-4 loss versus Washington)

Hero: Harrison Bader.  Bader continues to thrive, going two for three with a home run in this one and playing his usual strong defense.  Bader was the only person to get multiple hits in this game, though he did get called out on strikes to lead off the ninth which didn’t help the upcoming rally attempt.

Goat: Luke Weaver.  As we continue to point out, Mike Shildt has no compunction about going to get a struggling starter early.  As I mentioned to Tara last night on Gateway to Baseball Heaven, that bullpen is stocked with starters, which means you can get 2-3 innings out of a reliever without a real issue and that means a short start doesn’t ruin your bullpen for days on end.  That strategy has been tested lately with Weaver including here, where he allowed four runs (granted, just two were earned as the Cardinal defense relapsed) in less than four innings.  Shildt went and got Tyson Ross, who pitched almost as long as Weaver with a lot less damage (one unearned run).

Which is why it made sense Sunday when we heard that Weaver is going to the bullpen while Daniel Poncedeleon is moving into the rotation.  I don’t know why they chose Poncedeleon instead of Dakota Hudson or even Ross (though Ross’s 200K a start might have been a tiebreaking factor), but it was becoming clear that something needed to happen with Weaver.  He wasn’t giving up a lot of runs–this game was the first time since his June 30 start against Atlanta that he allowed more than three tallies–but it was the fact that sometimes he gave those up in six innings, sometimes three.  Talk about variety, look at this list of innings pitched in the last couple of months–8, 6, 4, 6, 2.2, 6, 3.2.  It’ll be interesting to see how they’ll use him out of the bullpen, especially with Carlos Martinez coming and the rosters expanding in just under two weeks.

Notes: Three errors from the Cardinals in this one which would have been unsurprising a few months ago but stands out like a sore thumb in the Shildt era.  They were on routine plays as well and they wound up costing the Cardinals quite a bit.  I guess these kind of games are going to happen and at least they are becoming more and more infrequent.

Even with their defensive miscues, St. Louis rallied from a 5-1 deficit with three runs in the sixth and had Bader on second with two outs before Greg Garcia flew out to Bryce Harper.  They also had their chance in the ninth, as Jose Martinez pinch-hit and singled with two outs and Matt Carpenter drew a walk, but Yadier Molina couldn’t come up with a hit to tie it up.  Still, that’s what we’ve come to expect from this team recently–they are never really out of a game and it’s going to be close.  Their four losses in August have all been by one run and you have to go back to July 25, the game before the big bullpen shakeup, to find a game where they lost by more than three.  Competitive games are the hallmark of this recent run and that’s really a great thing.  If we’re going to watch this team, we want to be entertained by a good game, even if they can’t pull it out.

Brett Cecil made his return from the disabled list and threw a scoreless inning with some good movement on his pitches.  It remains to be seen how effective he’ll be–he’s one of the few guys down there that’s a short-order reliever and he’s had good stretches before before blowing up–but it was a good first step.

Friday (5-2 win over Milwaukee)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  The Cardinals moved Flaherty back a day to slide Luke Weaver into the rotation but more notably to have Flaherty face the Brewers.  In part, that’s because he’s had success against them this year (one run in five innings with nine strikeouts in April, one run in seven innings with 13 strikeouts in June) and in part because Flaherty is developing into that ace that people have been projecting for him.  Miles Mikolas has probably had the better overall year, but when Flaherty is on he can dominate a team like no other.  In this one, he kept the Brewers off the board for his six innings by allowing just three hits and struck out more than double that (seven), though he did allow three walks.  You couldn’t ask for anything more from a rookie against a team you are chasing in August.

Goat: Yadier Molina.  I know Yadi doesn’t want to take a day off–Sunday ran his consecutive game streak to 27–and some like our friend Mr. Buffa would say that resting Yadi is a ridiculous concept.  However, let’s take a look at this streak–we’ll divide it into thirds first, because that seems fair.

1-9 .300 .300 .475
10-18 .325 .386 .500
19-27 .162 .225 .189

Now, I’m not saying that Yadi needs to sit twice a week and there is no guarantee that a day off would help his bat that significantly.  However, it’s pretty clear to me that the argument of “play him every day, it’s fine” is being taken to the extreme and it’s not necessarily helping the team.  After Sunday, Yadi is riding a 0-16 and he didn’t get a single hit against a Brewers team that the Cardinals needed to be at their best against.  Couple that with Matt Carpenter’s cooldown (and more on that in a bit) and the top of the lineup became almost a black hole against Milwaukee.  The fact that they were able to take two of three without those big bats is pretty remarkable.

Anyway, I get Yadi is valuable, I get that he’s better than Francisco Pena who may have actually forgotten what a bat feels like since the only complete game this month Molina hasn’t played was August 10 (though he did slide to first in the August 3 game, giving Pena another inning in the field), but a day off isn’t going to kill Molina nor sink this team.  I don’t know when you do it–by now, you probably wait until the last game against the Dodgers or the first game against the Rockies to give more impact to the empty day on the schedule this week–but Yadi can’t (well, shouldn’t) play every game the rest of the season.

Notes: Jose Martinez had two hits in this one, the only Cardinal with multiple tallies.  While a hip issue solved the problem a little bit this weekend, it’s hard to figure out how to keep him out of the lineup.  Unfortunately, that means Tyler O’Neill isn’t in it, which is that legendary “good problem to have” that the Cardinals always seem to have, though often it’s with the pitching staff.  O’Neill pinch-ran and stole a base in this one, but when Martinez is rolling, you have to play him.

Jordan Hicks scuffled in this one, allowing two runs in his inning of work that let the Brewers pull within one.  We’ve mentioned in past posts that Hicks is becoming a bit more pedestrian as of late.  On June 25, he had an ERA of right at 2 after pitching against the Indians.  Since that time, he’s got a 5.32 ERA in 22 innings with eight walks and just 16 strikeouts.  While 16 K in 22 innings isn’t bad, it’s not the strikeout machine that we thought he was turning into mid-season nor what you’d expect from a guy that hits 100 as a matter of course.  On July 20, Joe Schwarz had an article in The Athletic that referenced an adjustment Hicks could make that would improve his results.  Perhaps he made it–Hicks’s ERA since then is actually just 1.88, though in 14.1 innings he has allowed 11 hits, six walks and seven strikeouts.  It’s not surprising a guy that was pitching in A ball last year might have some ups and downs in the big leagues and he’s not been terrible by any means.  He’s just not the lockdown guy we’d like to see, but it’s very possible that will come in the future.

Kolten Wong had a big double in the eighth to expand the lead back out to three and Marcell Ozuna drove in two in the first with a single.  It wasn’t the most overpowering night for the offense but with that pitching, it didn’t need to be.

Saturday (7-2 win over Milwaukee)

Hero: Paul DeJong.  A solid night for the shortstop as he had two hits (including a double) scored a run and drove in three.  While DeJong’s average hasn’t been anything special over the last month–he doesn’t go many games without a hit, but he doesn’t get multiple ones all that often–the power has been there.  Since the beginning of the Miami series, DeJong has four home runs and five doubles among his 12 hits in 50 at bats.  Which means the five spot in the lineup seems to suit him, because if he gets into a pitch, it’s going to go for extra bases many times, which means anyone ahead of him is likely to score.  He has 13 RBI in those 13 games, so that plan seems to be working out.

Goat: Matt Carpenter.  An 0-4 night again stirs a few questions.  Before he bunted for a base hit in the sixth inning on Sunday, Carpenter had not had a hit since he was plunked on Wednesday night.  However, he was also 0-4 the night before and 0-2 that evening before being hit.  Carpenter was around 0-18 before his bunt single Sunday, which is a little concerning given the HBP but not overly so.  He’s driven a number of balls that have been caught close to the wall, including his first AB after being hit, and it seems more likely that it’s the natural cooling off after such a ridiculous hot streak.  That being said, it’d be good for both the team and his MVP chances if he had a little extra salsa while he was out in Los Angeles.

Notes: Marcell Ozuna cracked his 15th homer of the season in the second inning, quickly tying the game after Milwaukee had taken a lead.  I don’t think we expected Ozuna to just hit approximately three homers a month–he’s going to have to have a better run to crack 20 and 30 is pretty much out of the question–but Ozuna’s been productive in other ways.  He’s not necessarily a core player, but it’s been fun to watch him over the last few weeks and you at least believe that the power could show up at any time, which is better than what we were thinking in May or so.

Miles Mikolas did Miles Mikolas things here, getting burned by Travis Shaw for a homer in the second but other than that allowing nothing.  He struck out seven in six frames and has a 2.73 ERA in his last five starts, going at least six innings in all of them.  We wondered what would happen as the league got to know Mikolas.  Now we know–not a whole lot of anything different.

I still haven’t really formed an opinion on Chasen Shreve.  He allowed a home run in this one but the Cardinals were up 6-1 at the time so it didn’t really make an impact.  He’s pitched in seven games since coming to St. Louis but just 6.1 innings, allowing two runs in that time (both homers).  You can tell by that stat why it was good to go from Yankee Stadium to a more pitching-friendly environment, at least for left-handers.  He has eight strikeouts and one walk for the Cardinals, so right now it seems like he’s a pretty good short-stint reliever, especially to face lefties, but we’ll see if that continues to be the case as we see more of him.  Hopefully so!

Sunday (2-1 loss to Milwaukee)

Hero: Patrick Wisdom.  It was a pretty quiet day all around for the Cardinals, so we’ll give the tag to the rookie who pinch-hit a home run and cut the lead in half.  It was the only really offensive heroic, since a couple of other drives (including Matt Carpenter immediately after Wisdom’s blast) died at the wall.  You see Wisdom have a good week in limited run and some folks ask what took him so long to get here.  However, are you going to take Wisdom over a healthy Yairo Munoz?  Some would want to ditch Greg Garcia for him, but Garcia can play second and short, which Wisdom can’t do.  (Of course, Munoz could back those spots up so Munoz/Wisdom might work, I’ll grant.)

I just don’t think I can say after 10 plate appearances that it was so wrong that Wisdom didn’t get a shot before now.  His minor league work over the last couple of years has been solid, I grant you, but with his 31 homers last year at Memphis he hit .243.  He’d had better results this year but he was right at average age for the league.  He’ll be 27 a week from today, so this in theory is right about the peak of what he could be or at least entering his prime.  Maybe he’ll prove otherwise as the season progresses, but once Munoz returns, Wisdom probably goes down until rosters expand and will only get a handful of at bats the rest of the way.  It’s a great story and I’m glad he’s made it, but dinging the Cardinals for not bringing him up sooner smacks of recency bias.

Goat: Paul DeJong.  We spoke so highly of him yesterday, but it’s tough to ignore an 0-4 with three strikeouts and two left on, especially in a one-run game.  There wasn’t much offense at all in this one, as the Cardinals managed just five hits and didn’t walk once.

Notes: You know, if you told people before the series that the Cards would take two of three from Milwaukee, they’d probably be pretty happy.  If St. Louis had dropped the middle game but won the finale, folks would be pretty upbeat.  Win the first two and drop the last, though, and people get a bit disappointed about a sweep that didn’t happen.  (And if Jedd Gyorko‘s blast in the ninth goes a little bit further, they might have gotten it.)  The Cardinals did drop out of holding a wild card spot with the loss, but they remain a half-game back there and just four behind the Cubs for the division lead.  It’s a very good place to be in, much better than we have any right to expect out of this club.  Maybe, like Carpenter, they were just a slow starter.

It was good to see Kolten Wong pinch-hit after leaving Saturday’s game being hit on a pickoff throw and losing feeling in his arm.  Hopefully it was more a precaution to have him sit out and he’ll be ready to go against the Dodgers.  While Wong’s bat overall is nothing great, he’s hitting much better of late and his defense can spark a team as well.

John Gant did a fine job in his start but ran into some trouble in the fifth, getting his opposite number Jhoulys Chacin to ground out but, as the lineup turned over for the third time, walking Christian Yelich and giving up a hit to Lorenzo Cain.  Mike Shildt again was unsurprisingly pro-active, going to Brett Cecil (which was a surprise) and not letting Gant get into much more trouble.  Maybe if the game had been different, if the Cardinals had shown some signs of offensive life, Shildt might have let Gant go a bit farther but honestly, I’d be surprised.  I am sure Shildt recognizes the third-time-through penalty and Gant wasn’t going much farther in this game at any rate.  Cecil got a groundout and then Shildt interestingly intentionally passed Jesus Aguilar.  Not that the situation didn’t call for it, especially given Aguilar’s potential and the fact that the next batter (Travis Shaw) was a lefty, but it showed a lot of confidence in Cecil, confidence he repaid by getting Shaw to pop out.

Another long outing for Tyson Ross, who gave up just two walks over three innings.  He has a 1.46 ERA in just over 12 innings with the Cardinals.  If nothing else, these kind of moves panning out in this manner should make the league worry that the Cardinals are back.

What isn’t completely in the Cardinals’ favor is the schedule.  While they get a chance to play the teams that they are competing against, which is good, they have to do so on the West Coast in August, which is a real good way for momentum to stall.  Austin Gomber takes the mound late tonight for us Midwest fans and faces off against Alex Wood, who hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in 11 starts.  Could be a good pitcher’s duel and it may mean the Cards will have to take advantage of a scuffling Dodger bullpen, which will make for a really late night!

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