Still Looking for Footing

Last year, I said that I was going to try to do better about writing regularly and not having as many big huge recap posts that covered entire series and the like.  I made no such vow this year.  I’ll see about doing better but I make no promises, which is kinda where we are with the Cardinals as well.  They should do better, they can do better, but we’ll see if they do do better.

Since we last got together, they’ve had another extra-inning affair and then were on the borderline of being swept at home by the Padres for the first time in almost 40 years.  They avoided that fate but, with the Dodgers coming into town, they need to figure out how to be their best selves quickly or things could be rough heading off to Mexico this weekend.  Let’s take a look at the last four games and see what they tell us.

Wednesday (5-4 win in 10 at Pittsburgh)

Hero: Harrison Bader.  His two-run blast in the eighth tied the game up and gave the Cards some new life.  He also drew a walk and scored in the 10th inning on a wild pitch, giving the club a two-run cushion that they eventually really needed.  Bader, like the rest of the team, seems to lie fallow a lot of the time, but can come up with some big moments.

Goat: It almost turned into Alex Reyes, but since the Cardinals didn’t completely blow the lead in the 10th, we’ll go with Dexter Fowler.  0-3 with a strikeout and an error, though he did manage a stolen base as well.  Fowler needed to get off to a hot start and it’s probably only the early struggles of Marcell Ozuna that is keeping everyone off his back.  (Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of people focused on him, but it could be worse.)  There are still some signs that Fowler may be able to get back to some form that is helpful for the Cardinals, but he’s not there yet.

Notes: We’ll talk a little more about Reyes during our recap of the home opener, but some of the same issues were on display here.  Reyes came into the game with a two-run lead and gave up a leadoff hit to Francisco Cervelli and, after an out, a walk to Jung Ho Kang.  Now, to be fair, ball four was strike three here and it wasn’t really that close, but given Reyes’s control issues, it’s not surprising that umps might miss a call on him occasionally.  This one was pretty egregious, but he followed it up by walking Colin Moran on five pitches, so it’s not like he didn’t have a chance to get out of it.  Dakota Hudson came in and walked a batter, forcing in a run, before getting the next two Pirates.

Inefficient pitching in general and walks in particular have been a big issue for this club.  Even in the spring, there were games where they walked double digits.  You could blame some of that on the umpires getting in shape as well and some of it on the Florida weather but it’s seeming like a serious issue in the first couple of weeks of the season.  Tara and I talked about it some on Gateway to Baseball Heaven this week, but before the show we did a little poking around with the stats.  The Cardinals are 27th in having pitches find the zone, ahead of just the Marlins, Braves, and Royals.  They are 25th in swinging strike percentage, as less than 10% of their pitches are swung on and missed for strikes.  It all adds up to long games (this one took three and a half hours, down noticeably from the almost five hour affair on Monday) and a lot of baserunners.  It also led to the first real roster move of the season, though we’ll get to that later.

Paul DeJong got the scoring started with a home run in the seventh as again the Cardinals waited until late in the game to start their offense.  On the one hand, that shows that they aren’t giving up, aren’t shutting it down when they are down mid-game.  However, it’s also a symptom of the feast-or-famine output they are having.  Three of the five runs here were tied to the home run.  They did manage to strike out just eight times, which was their best number of the season, even with an extra frame.  Right now though it’s boom (they are eighth in the majors in homers) or bust (they’ve actually dropped to eighth–and second in the NL–in strikeouts) way too often.

Miles Mikolas started this one and had a better line than he did in his first outing, going five innings and allowing three runs, though he did get touched for seven hits and a couple of walks.  I didn’t see this one but I heard he walked the tightrope and got a little help from his friends.  We’ll see him tonight against the Dodgers and if he isn’t more of the Mikolas of 2018 this could be a rough outing given the potent firepower of LA.  The bullpen backed him up well, save Reyes, and gave the Cards a chance to get back into it.  Mike Mayers went 1.1 innings as it’s starting to look like he might turn into the long man.  Andrew Miller had two uneventful batters with a strikeout.  Something to keep in mind as we go forward.

Friday (5-3 loss vs. San Diego)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  An extra day of rest may have helped the young Flaherty or at least perhaps counteracted any nerves he might have, because he went out there and gave the Padres nothing.  Six strikeouts and no earned runs in five innings.  The only issue was that he ran some deep counts to get there, throwing 98 pitches in those five frames.  Still, it was a good day for the pitcher and has you excited about what he can do when he can throw strikes more consistently.

Goat: Alex Reyes.  Everyone loves Alex Reyes and is rooting for him to complete this comeback.  There’s little doubt that he will eventually but it’s also clear he’s not there yet.  After Dominic Leone had been touched for a two-run home run that gave the Padres the lead, the club had come back to tie it up on a Marcell Ozuna single.  Especially since Ozuna was involved, emotions were high and people were excited about being right back in the game.

Reyes then walked the first two batters he faced, threw a wild pitch, then got Wil Myers to ground out.  A few of those balls probably should have been strikes, but as noted above, Reyes isn’t likely to get the benefit of the doubt in any situation right now.  (Though, to be fair, there shouldn’t have been any doubt on a couple.)  Franchy Cordero hit a sacrifice fly that put San Diego on top, but that also meant a runner at second with two outs which should have been a reasonable situation.  Instead, Fernando Tatis Jr. made his dad proud by hitting Reyes’s first pitch into the bleachers, making it 5-2.  Reyes then walked the next batter before getting former Cardinal Greg Garcia to ground out.

The Cardinals on Sunday sent Reyes to Memphis along with Yairo Munoz to bring up a couple fresher bullpen options.  It was pretty clear that Reyes needs to find whatever he’s missing in a place where the stakes are lower.  I don’t know if they’ll put Reyes in the rotation in Memphis or not–I’ve been out a lot over the last couple of days and haven’t seen it (EDIT: I note that they are going to script multi-inning relief appearances)–but no matter how they use him there, giving him a chance to really figure it out without worrying if he’s costing the team a game makes a ton of sense.  As for Munoz, he had options and they needed an arm.  With Jedd Gyorko back, there was some redundancy in the middle infield and he had to take the fall.  Both of these guys will be back before terribly long, I imagine.

Notes: Paul Goldschmidt homered in his first game in St. Louis as a Cardinal, showing that the script writers still know what they were doing.  It didn’t turn out to mean much, as it just cut the lead to two, but it was still nice to see.  Goldschmidt is hitting just .125 (3 for 24) since his big three-homer game, though two of those hits have been long balls.  I think we’d worry more about that if it wasn’t 1) that he’s Paul Goldschmidt and likely it’s no big deal and 2) pretty much everyone on the team is struggling at the plate except for maybe Kolten Wong.

John Brebbia looked sharp finishing this one off, striking out four of the six batters he faced.  While Mike Shildt tended to try Reyes in some high leverage situations, with that option off the table you wonder if Brebbia will get some more looks in the eighth, especially given what we are about to discuss with Andrew Miller.  Also, the promotion of Giovanny Gallegos and Tyler Webb gives two more pitchers that have options, meaning that he’s more likely to stay put when, say, Luke Gregerson needs to return.  (Gregerson has started his rehab and, assuming no setbacks, will need to be added to the major league roster about the first week of May at the latest.)

As noted, Gyorko was activated before this game and Drew Robinson sent to Memphis.  Overall, that makes the bench stronger, but we’ll see how long it takes for Gyorko to really get back to major league level.  He wound up grounding out in his first at bat.

Saturday (6-4 loss vs. San Diego)

Hero: Dexter Fowler.  Two hits, a walk, and he reached on an error that could have also been ruled a hit.  He did get tossed out on the bases, but even that had a potential explanation.  His error went past second baseman Ian Kinsler when Yadier Molina was on first.  Yadi turned the corner and chugged on to third but watching it on TV, I was almost certain he was going to be tossed out.  I believe Fowler thought so as well and so was trailing Yadi to be on second if that happened.  Unfortunately for Fowler, the throw was pretty short and it left the Padres no chance for Yadi but they were heads-up enough to get Fowler.  It didn’t truly matter as Kolten Wong followed him with a sacrifice fly, but it would have been nice to have had runners on the corners.  Still, having Fowler on the basepaths was a good thing and hopefully a sign of things to come.

Goat: Andrew Miller.  The Cardinals went into the eighth inning with a 3-2 lead.  On paper, this is where you go to Miller for an inning and then Jordan Hicks to lock it down.  Mike Shildt did that and it blew up in his face.  Miller walked Fernando Tatis Jr., then gave up a go-ahead home run to Austin Hedges.  That was Hedges’s first extra-base hit of the year.  Miller got a ground out, then (aided by a dropped popup by Paul Goldschimdt, making his second error of the season) walked Kinsler.  He got Eric Hosmer to fly out but wasn’t so lucky with Manny Machado, who launched the second two-run shot of the inning.  That was all for Miller, who was replaced by Mike Mayers.

With the track record of Brett Cecil, Greg Holland, and even Jonathan Broxton looming over the organization, it’s real easy to see Miller as another reliever bust in a line of reliever busts.  It’s also easy to think that when his ERA is almost double-digits after six outings, when he’s allowed three home runs in the first eight games when he allowed three all of last year and three all the year before, when he’s walked four and only struck out two in 3.2 innings.  The fact that those 3.2 innings are over six outings probably says something as well, given that Miller isn’t supposed to be a lefty specialist.  Which is good, because lefties have a 1.389 OPS against him this season.  In fairness, that IS lower than what righties have against him.

It’s probably too early to write this experiment completely off, but as Alex Crisafulli would say, this is hung on the scaffolding of all the other failed relievers.  The comparison to Cecil is especially strong–a reliever that had been dominant, had an injury and was ineffective, but the idea is that he’s far enough from the injury that he’ll return to at least some level of effectiveness.  At the time of the Cecil signing, it was thought that the Cardinals were doing a great job shoring up their middle relief, targeting those players that might not pile up the saves but were extremely successful in that seventh/eighth inning role.  It hasn’t panned out for Cecil and early returns aren’t great on Miller.  Like Cecil in 2017, Miller’s had some occasional strong appearances, but they get overshadowed by the ugly ones very quickly.  Again, it’s less than four innings of what will probably be 60-80, but it’s an indication that you might want to be really careful when going after relievers.  Maybe you pay for a Craig Kimbrel, (you don’t do it now when you probably wouldn’t see him until mid-May and you have to hope the layoff hasn’t affected him) but otherwise developing your own might be a better strategy for the Cardinals.

Notes: On the positive side, Michael Wacha only allowed one run in his 5.2 innings.  He also struck out seven and if you took those numbers and paired them with his first start, you could see a lot of optimism for Wacha’s 2019 season.  You still can, of course, but the fact that he walked eight in this game puts a little bit less shine on everything.  We talked about the team issues with walks above and, to his credit, he got out of basically all of the jams that he got himself into, with John Gant rescuing him from the last one.  So far, Wacha’s been the best pitcher in the rotation and, if that keeps up, he probably will find work this winter even with the cooling free agent market.  (He also threw about 120 pitches, but given Wacha’s track record, I don’t know that would be egregious.  I wouldn’t want to see him go much over 100 next time, though.)

Another good relief outing by Mayers, who again went 1.1 innings and didn’t allow a run.  Mayers may slot well into that low-leverage, need some innings kinda role.  I don’t know if you want to see him coming in with the tying run on second, but if you are up a couple or down a couple, he’s likely to hold the line for you.

After his single on Friday drove in a run, Marcell Ozuna unloaded on one Saturday for his first home run of the season which, at the time, put the Cards up 4-1 and made everyone feel really good about the ballgame.  I don’t know that Ozuna has turned any sort of corner and the fact that he continues to get double-switched out is worth noting, but it’s possible that he’s starting to make some progress.  Not sure it’s likely, but it’s possible and that’s more than we had last week at this time.

Two hits for Fowler and Molina, the first Cardinals to have a multi-hit game since Harrison Bader on Monday.  As Dan McLaughlin said at one point this weekend when (I believe) Fowler was on first, “Shildt would like to run, but he’s not had many baserunners to run with.”

Sunday (4-1 win vs. San Diego)

Hero: Adam Wainwright.  “Vintage” is probably trading high on the word market today after Wainwright came out and put the team on his back.  Six innings, one run, no walks, and nine strikeouts.  That’s the type of Wainwright game we always want to see but that have been fewer and fewer over the past few seasons.  I don’t know that this is any indication that we are going to see an improved Wainwright but it is good to know that, when everything is working, he can still get major league hitters out.  The Cardinals needed a performance like that yesterday desperately and it’s outstanding to see Uncle Charlie provide it.

Goat: We’ll go with Marcell Ozuna, who doesn’t have it all figured out, it seems.  0-4 with two strikeouts and three men left on base.  Dexter Fowler had a similar line, but he only had three at-bats.  Fowler was the one double-switched out of the game early this time, though Ozuna left when Jordan Hicks came in to finish the eighth.

Notes: Apparently there was something invigorating everyone yesterday as Yadier Molina had almost as many hits in that game (3) as he’s had all season (4).  You wonder if Mike Shildt had talked to him about actually letting Matt Wieters play and Yadi took that as an indication he better do something to keep his spot as Iron Man.  We are nine games into the season and Wieters does not have an at bat, having been hit by a pitch his only time to the plate.  Not that there’s been a glaring spot for him that he’s not been used, but I did think we’d see Wietere as more of a pinch-hitter.  Right now, there’s no reason to have gone out and gotten him instead of using Francisco Pena.  This is really about the same usage–Pena made his debut in game 10 last season, catching the 10th inning of a game against the Brewers.  His first start happened in game 12.  I expect Wieters will start Thursday in the day game, which would be game 13 for the Cardinals.

Harrison Bader and Kolten Wong did some damage at the bottom of the lineup, both acquiring two hits.  Bader drew a walk and had a beautiful outfield assist, throwing out a runner trying to tag and go to third.  He was caught stealing third himself earlier in the game, though it took replays to confirm it.  Wong drove in a run and scored a run, which helped give some cushion later on in the game.  You start to wonder, especially with Wong, if he wouldn’t help spark the offense a bit by moving up.  Put him hitting second and maybe things could start being strung together.  It will be interesting to see when Shildt starts tinkering with the lineup.  It still may be a week or so.

The bullpen was excellent backing up Wainwright.  John Brebbia continued to shine, though he allowed a hit and a walk in his inning and a third.  Andrew Miller got the one guy out that he faced, even if that was on a line drive.  Then Jordan Hicks did what he does, including an epic battle with Manny Machado that ended the eighth and got a hat tip from Machado.  Game respects game or something like that.

The Cards now sit at 4-5 and in third in the division.  Interestingly enough, they’ve not played anyone under .500 yet and the task doesn’t get any easier this week with the Dodgers coming to town for four.  The same Dodgers that are 8-2, tied with Milwaukee for the best record in the NL, and are hitting .307 AS A TEAM in the early going.  That’s 80 points better than our favorite team.  Maybe Miles Mikolas can cool those bats tonight.  We’ll have to wait and see!

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