That really wasn’t the way this weekend was supposed to go.
With the Tigers well below .500 and eliminated either technically or practically from any sort of offseason plans that didn’t involve golfing, the Cardinals were supposed to go into Detroit and at least take two of three if they couldn’t get the sweep. Instead, the offense sputtered, the bullpen did the thing again, and the Redbirds were sorta lucky to escape with one win. It could have been worse–they kept a hold of the last wild card spot by a game over the Rockies–but it could have been much, much better, given that the Brewers kept winning and the Cubs lost to the Nationals and the weather.
It feels like this team has hit a wall and are trying to push through it. The sprint of August has left them with a stitch in their side and gasping as they continue to press on through the last of the marathon. Whether they can catch their breath and get some sort of finishing kick in the next 19 games remains to be seen. Let’s get into this past leg of the journey, though, and deal with it as much as we can.
Friday (5-3 loss)
Hero: Marcell Ozuna. Whatever they gave Ozuna (cortisone, it was cortisone) seems to have done wonders for him. He has a hit in all but one game since returning from the disabled list and has hit five home runs in 27 plate appearances. The question is (and I believe a fair one at that) why did it take the Cardinals this long to work on his shoulder like this? Granted, we have no idea how long the cortisone will do its job and better to have him healthy in September and October than other times, but it feels like a lot of the complaints this year about Ozuna have been really about his shoulder and they could have been blunted with earlier action. In this one, Ozuna hit two home runs, both solo shots, to give the club a 1-0, then 2-1 lead.
Goat: It’s tough not to give it to the guy that gave up the walkoff. Jordan Hicks pitched a clean eighth and struck out Dawel Lugo to start the ninth. Then Victor Reyes singled and his pitch to Jeimer Candelario caught too much of the plate and the Cards went back to the hotel to stew over what might have been. The good thing about off days for Hicks is that they are usually spread out and that was only the second home run he’s given up this season, with the first being back in June against Jason Heyward, also a two-run shot. A bad pitch at the wrong time, that’s about all you can say there.
Notes: The offense wasn’t up to its recent normal, putting up just six hits and striking out 12 times. The strikeouts are something Tara noted last night on Gateway to Baseball Heaven, contrasting that to how the team looked right after the Mike Shildt and company takeover. Whether that’s the league figuring their new approach out or that wall we were talking about, strikeouts are up for the hitters and walks are up for the pitchers. You’d much rather it be the other way around.
Harrison Bader had two hits and Kolten Wong had a double and the only walk, plus scored the only non-homer run for the Cards when he scored on a Francisco Pena sacrifice fly. Otherwise, the bats were pretty quiet. Jose Martinez couldn’t follow up on that seemingly-slump-busting game he had Wednesday, going 0-4 with two strikeouts as the DH. Martinez is hitting .156 in the month of September with five singles and 15 strikeouts in 32 at bats and three of those hits were in the finale in Washington. Hopefully something will click back into place soon and he’ll get on another one of those rolls he’s had all season.
Austin Gomber did pretty good work, allowing three runs in six innings plus a batter. Some were surprised that Shildt would send him back out there to start the seventh only to remove him after one batter, but I think there’s enough tired arms down there that Shildt was going to try to steal outs wherever he could. If Gomber got one out, two outs, whatever, it was less that the bullpen had to get. Dominic Leone came in and began by making things worse, overthrowing first on a sacrifice bunt attempt so much that the only reason the runner on first didn’t score was a nifty play by Wong backing up first. That put runners on the corners, but Leone struck out the next two and, after an intentional walk loaded the bases (a dangerous move, it felt like), Leone got a grounder that Wong again made a great play on and threw to first to retire Victor Martinez.
The top of the seventh saw an interesting–and by interesting, of course we mean debatable–strategy decision. Harrison Bader singled to start the inning, forcing a pitching change. Next up was Wong, who bunted Bader over. Now, it’s a tie game in the seventh and while bunting isn’t necessarily usually something that you want to see, in the late innings it makes a bit more sense. This was also Wong’s first game off the DL and the new pitcher, Daniel Stumpf, was a lefty. All that said, it still is surprising that you don’t either steal Bader first or let Wong hit away. After his bunt, Bader is on second but you have Pena up next before Matt Carpenter. If Pena doesn’t get a hit, you are relying on a two-out hit from Carpenter. Bader wound up stealing third base, but Pena struck out and Carpenter grounded out. I guess the steal doesn’t matter, but it’d have been nice to see Wong swing away and see if he could have gotten a hit.
Saturday (4-3 loss)
Hero: Marcell Ozuna. When you hit a two-run home run to tie a game that was down to the last out, you get to be the Hero yet again. It was Ozuna’s only hit of the game, but everyone else just combined for three so he wasn’t that far off the pace. Unfortunately it got lost a bit after the bottom of the ninth, but it was a nice moment for a while.
Ozuna’s shoulder and this resurgence (we’ll just continue the above thread here) is going to be an interesting offseason topic. Does the shoulder need surgery? It really seems like Ozuna can’t go through another year the same way he did most of this one. If it does, that probably means the Cardinals can’t trade him (assuming they want to) but then again, this power surge, assuming it continues at some level for the rest of the year, might be enough for teams to think he’s more like September Ozuna and 37-home-run Ozuna than he was the singles hitter of most of 2018. If they believe that, your return could be somewhat decent, though the shoulder definitely is a curve ball. I personally don’t think the Cards are that interested in moving Ozuna, especially if he’s going to show this kind of power, but it’s an interesting topic for the offseason.
Goat: It’s not all his fault, but I think we still have to go with Bud Norris here. Norris came into the bottom of the ninth trying to hold a game just tied up. He got the first batter to hit a sharply-hit-but-fieldable ball to Carpenter, who botched it. Instead of one out and nobody on, there was a runner on second and nobody out, which changed the whole approach to the inning. Now, Norris compounded it by walking the next guy, but would his approach have been different had the winning run not already been on second? The Tigers then sac bunted and Norris intentionally passed their big hitter, Nicholas Castellanos, to load the bases. It seems unlikely that’d have gotten out of that anyway, but throwing a wild pitch was not the way I figured he’d lose it. (Also, I did see some criticism of how Carson Kelly blocked that pitch. Again, it seems like Norris was doomed here but maybe that’d have helped delay the inevitable.)
However, given the decline of Norris over the last few weeks, it wasn’t surprising that even before this, the Cards had said they were comfortable with no closer before naming a new one on Sunday. (We’ll get to that.) It was unlikely that we’d have seen Norris return next year but I think this makes it harder for him to find a good spot for next season. Then again, he probably could be a decent 7th-8th inning guy still so maybe someone will sign him for that. There are still a few games left for him in Cardinal red though and while he may not often be in the ninth for them, hopefully he still has some to contribute. I do wonder how that ninth would have played out if Carpenter fielded the ball because I don’t Norris is just automatically terrible but you want him in and out as quickly as possible to make sure things don’t go south.
Notes: Paul DeJong provided the other offense, a home run in the eighth that finally got St. Louis on the board. Otherwise, Carpenter had a hit and Yairo Munoz had a hit and a walk but that was all that the club could muster.
Given the offensive woes, it’d have been tough for Jack Flaherty to come out of that with a decision. It wasn’t Flaherty’s best game anyway as he just went five innings and allowed three runs, both of which were in part due to his four walks. He also had six strikeouts, which was nice, but when Flaherty is able to get it together enough to cut the walks and go six or seven innings regularly, he’s going to be amazing.
Sunday (5-2 win)
Hero: Kolten Wong. Wong’s defense was solid all weekend and we really needed to find a way to acknowledge his contributions before Tara disowned me as podcast co-host. In this one, Wong also drove in the first run of the game with a one-out single that plated Marcell Ozuna and then came around to score himself on Carson Kelly’s single.
Goat: Matt Adams. The feel-good story of Adams’s return to St. Louis hasn’t necessarily played out on the field. He’s 5-32 since returning and besides the two-homer game that he had on Wednesday, the results have been fairly non-existent. Hopefully he’ll get something going and I guess either way he’ll probably be on the postseason roster just because of his power threat, but this reunion has not gone the way at least some of us hoped.
Notes: My Meet Me at Musial co-host Allen Medlock has been on the John Gant bandwagon for a while and has speculated that he might have a leg up on one of the last 2019 rotation spots. Outings like yesterday definitely help that case as Gant went 6.2 innings and allowed just two runs, both coming after the Cards took the five run lead. When he got the second out of the inning it looked like he might be able to stay in the game and start the eighth, but a couple of doubles and that second run meant that suddenly he didn’t finish the seventh, though Dakota Hudson got him out of any further trouble (after walking another batter, which doesn’t ease my mind on Hudson at all). Gant’s ERA on the season is 3.16 and since his rough start at the beginning of August against the Pirates, he’s put together seven starts with a 1.60 ERA, a .181 BAA, and 31 strikeouts in just shy of 40 innings. He’s walked 17 and has a WHIP of 1.07. Honestly, it’s hard to say that he shouldn’t be in the conversation, even if it’s just as sixth starter/swing man. That’s going to be a full 2019 slate, though, so I don’t know if he can crack it.
Carlos Martinez locked down his second save and the club after the game made it official that he is the new closer. That’s pretty exciting, even if it’s not something that is going to affect 2019 at all. Martinez has shown a lot of flair and a lot of dominance in the late inning roles since they put him in the bullpen after his last injury and it seems like he’s taken to it well. Having that veteran presence at the end of games, a veteran presence that should have plenty of his arm given the rest the injuries have forced on him this season, can only be a good thing.
Kelly and Paul DeJong both had two hits in this one as Michael Fulmer held the Cardinals without a base runner until the sixth. Fulmer was the pitcher you worried about this weekend, so of course that’s the one they manage to score against and beat.
It’s a huge week at Busch as the Pirates come to town followed by the Dodgers. The Cards have a great chance to pad their postseason lead and make a statement that they aren’t going away. They also have the chance to slip out of the race and find it hard to return to it. Which way it will go, we’ll have to wait to see!