Off On the Wong Foot

The St. Louis Cardinals started the 2019 season yesterday.  No matter the result, that was a positive thing.  Our spring, summer, and fall obsession is now back and most every day we’ll have a new game to watch, more things to dissect, complaints and cheers to be made.  Baseball is back and that is a glorious statement.

It would have been more glorious had the Cardinals won, of course.  After jumping out to a 3-0 lead, the Brewers pounded their way back and wound up taking the game 5-4.  Even though the Cards are 0-1 on the young season, there’s still a lot of positives that came out of yesterday’s game.

The first is, of course, Kolten Wong.  Our 12th season of naming Heroes and Goats starts off by naming the second baseball the Hero of yesterday’s game due to his two home runs, the first Cardinals since a man named Albert Pujols to go deep multiple times in the opener.  This is not a surprise at all to my Gateway to Baseball Heaven co-host (well, maybe Tara was surprised at TWO homers) and I think there’s a growing number of people that are coming around to the idea that a confident and relaxed Wong is a fun thing to watch.  I don’t think this means that Wong is going to be a 30 home run guy or anything, but with less pressure on him this year than in the past, he’s able to let his true ability come out.  I think we’re in for a real good year out of Mr. Wong.

Secondly, the Cardinals took on the divisional champs and were a foot away from tying the game on a Jose Martinez blast.  It’s a small sample, of course, but that seems to confirm that the club is right there with the top teams.  That’s what we’ve said all winter, right?  The Central is going to be a dogfight mainly between the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals (with the Pirates and Reds a rung below but still competitive).  This game could be that divisional battle in a microcosm.  It may come down to who gets the good break, who makes the big play, who does things just slightly better than their opponent.  This could be a pretty dramatic season if that pans out.

Third, the bullpen did its job.  It wasn’t even the big guns that did it either.  We’re still waiting to see Andrew Miller, Jordan Hicks, and Alex Reyes make their debuts.  Instead, Dominic Leone, John Brebbia, and John Gant threw three scoreless innings and allowed just two hits and a walk.  We didn’t see the fireballing potential there–Leone and Brebbia both struck out one but that was it–but if the “soft” side of the bullpen can be this effective, the unit as a whole has some amazing potential to shorten games.  We’ll wait and see if this is foreshadowing or a fluke, but I’m leaning more towards the former.

Finally, it boils down to what Mike Shildt said after the game, “Overall, a well-played game.  Just not good enough.”  I didn’t get to watch the game, but listened to much of it via the MLB At Bat app before a family appointment pulled me away.  From what I heard, though, it sounded crisp, it sounded solid.  Also, the Cards didn’t just roll over once they lost their 3-0 lead.  Down 5-3, Wong hit his second home run and they had a shot to tie it up late.  Facing Josh Hader is always going to be tough–and his line of four strikeouts indicates THAT hasn’t changed–but they almost pulled it off.

So what didn’t work?  Well, Miles Mikolas, for one.  Our first Goat of 2019 was staked to a 3-0 lead and then let the long ball ding him.  Of course, that’s baseball.  Mikolas didn’t lose on the road last year, didn’t lose to the Brewers last year, and allowed only 16 homers in the entire season.  So now, of course, he’s got a loss in both of those categories and he’s almost a quarter of the way to last year’s homer mark in just one outing.

Having Jhoulys Chacin not only single but homer off of him rubbed some salt into the wounds.  I don’t know if Mikolas let up a little bit expecting an easy out (which is understandable since Chacin had all of one home run in 10 years before yesterday and he played in Colorado!) but it always seems like the opposing pitcher can do damage against the Cardinals and that narrative didn’t change.

Give Mikolas some slack, though, as the ball was jumping yesterday.  Wong’s two homers, Harrison Bader‘s blast, and Martinez’s ball that almost left the yard on one side and then the three for the Brewers as well.  The closed dome has always seemed to provide a good hitting environment and Mikolas struggled in some of his early outings against Milwaukee last year, even though he didn’t take an L.  I don’t think there’s any sort of panic that needs to go on with Mikolas.  He wasn’t probably going to repeat last year, but one outing (or, if you want to count some of his later work in Jupiter, a couple of outings) shouldn’t have folks jumping off the bandwagon just yet.

The other thing that seemed to be an issue after one day?  Boom or bust.  The Cardinals had five hits and three of them were home runs.  Marcell Ozuna got a single and Bader, like Wong, had a two-hit day.  That was it.  There were only two walks (though one of them was Dexter Fowler‘s key two-out walk in the second that allowed for the Wong/Bader back-to-back show) versus 11 strikeouts.  11!  The first three Cardinals of the game struck out and while they were perhaps aided by the umpire, that’s still not the way you want to start the season.

Again, not watching it, but there did seem to be some umpire issues.  Paul Goldschmidt struck out looking his first two times up and the second time had some words for the umpire.  It would have been ironic if this guy that’s been sold as a stoic, no-nonsense, boring guy got tossed in his first Cardinal game.  Still, if Goldschmidt is getting irate, there is probably something to it as he’s got a good handle on the strike zone.  Maybe not Matt Carpenter level (who had some words for the ump after his first strikeout as well) but solid enough to know he’s got a point if he’s grumbling.

The great thing about baseball is that yesterday was just one game and tonight there’s another one.  The Cards try to get their first win of the season with Jack Flaherty, who dominated the Brewers last year (though, as noted, that didn’t carry over for Mikolas) going up against Freddy Peralta.  Peralta faced St. Louis a couple of times last year and held his own.  I would imagine that tonight will be another exciting game.  Hopefully the Redbirds are able to come out on top!

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