Up two. Even. Down two. Even. It seems like the Cardinals can’t get away from the pull that is sea level. They’ve been 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 11-11, 13-13, and now 14-14.
By all measures, this is a .500 team. They’ve put together a winning streak, defined as “more than one win in a row”, four times this year. Their longest run is three games (August 22-24, the last two of a Cincinnati series and the first of the Kansas City one, and August 30-September 1, the end of the Cleveland series and then the first two against the Reds). Of course, they don’t lose many in a row either, thankfully, but they can’t seem to find enough thrust to get them out of this orbit they’ve settled into.
You dream a bit about a consistent offense being pared with this pitching staff. Except for that outlier against the Indians, the Cardinals have been in pretty much every game, with many games decided by just a run or two. They are low-scoring affairs, which would seem to play into the hands of a team that isn’t scoring a ton of runs. However, that makes every loss that much more gut-wrenching, with a lot of possible “if onlys”. For instance, if only Tommy Edman‘s ball in the fifth against the Reds on Wednesday had dropped. It was a flare right over second base and in the pre-shift era, that’s a hit all day long. Even in the game, it took a good play by Mike Moustakas to pull it down. If that drops, Kolten Wong scores, the Cards get up 4-1 and even if the game plays out like it did, with Tucker Barnhart hitting the home run, the Cards would have still had a lead.
You don’t get to replay games, though, and so now the Cards settle back at that .500 mark while gearing up for their biggest series yet and probably the biggest series left in the season.
The Cardinals stand 3.5 games behind the Cubs as they get ready to play five games in four days at Wrigley. After this, two games with the Twins are the only games with a team above .500, though currently the Tigers (who they still have two with) are sitting even up. Even at .500, the Cardinals are in second place and are sitting in good position to make the playoffs. If they want to win the division, though, they probably have to win this weekend to have a reasonable chance. The Cubs have a little harder schedule left (in quality, the Cards’ seven doubleheaders will make the actual schedule tougher for them) and, honestly, they’ve shown themselves not to be world beaters. After starting 13-3, the baby bears have gone 9-12 and haven’t looked great doing it. Their pitching rotation isn’t great, though it remains to be seen if the Cardinal offense will make them look better than they are.
Which gets us back to the real problem. When you look at it, you wonder a bit how this lineup is struggling. Paul Goldschmidt is having a season more in line with what we expected when the Cardinals traded for him. Brad Miller has somehow been a huge addition, though it remains to be seen if he can continue to be as valuable. Paul DeJong has gotten through his COVID-related rust and is producing. Kolten Wong has been heating up as of late. Tommy Edman has been solid enough that Mike Shildt has been finding him room in a crowded outfield. Dexter Fowler, until he went on the injured list, was having possibly his best season as a Cardinal and definitely his best since 2016.
However, you have a lot of spots in the lineup that, if they aren’t black holes, certainly are the beginnings of a vacuum. Tyler O’Neill was possibly the bright spot of the pre-COVID Cardinals but hasn’t found that regular thump since the return, to the point where he’s sat consecutive games Dylan Carlson has shown flashes of promise, but hasn’t really been able to deliver on it yet. Harrison Bader finally became a weapon at the plate after many futile games, only to have his progress set back with migraines. Matt Carpenter is hitting .175 and, as John Mozeliak said this week, unlike in 2018 the underlying metrics (hit rate, exit velocity, etc) don’t encourage the bounce-back possibility.
I think it shows just how much a weak spot in the lineup can wear things down. The Cardinals are second to the Mets in on-base percentage, but getting runners on doesn’t work so well if the guys coming up to the plate can’t get the job done. Even the players having a good season seem to have a tendency to have a strikeout with a runner on third and one out, making it difficult to score. When they get it going, like we saw against the Reds, it can lead to big innings. It just doesn’t get going all that much.
Allen asked in the latest Meet Me at Musial whether this team goes as far as its hitting takes them or as far as its pitching takes them. I still think that if they get the pitching that we’ve seen from Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Kwang Hyun Kim, even Johan Oviedo, with the potential of a Carlos Martinez return to make things even stronger, that they are very dangerous in a postseason setting. However, you do have to score at least one run to win. Hopefully Shildt can find a combination that works more often than it doesn’t and the thrusters can be engaged.
Friday vs. Cleveland (14-2 loss)
Hero: Dexter Fowler. His two-run home run was the only scoring the Cardinals could muster in this ugly affair.
Goat: Daniel Ponce de Leon. You could argue that Junior Fernandez had the worse pitching line, but he was also making his first appearance since coming off the COVID list and the game was already probably gone before he came in. In part because Ponce couldn’t get out of the first inning. Four runs in 0.2 is bad enough, but when it comes mainly on the basis of four walks, you know there are issues. Ponce de Leon never made it out of the fifth in any of his starts and rarely got through the fourth. There’s still a lot of good there, but with the talent the Cards have in the rotation, it seems like Ponce will be a bullpen piece whenever he returns from Springfield, where he was optioned after this one.
Notes: As noted, Fernandez struggled as well, giving up six runs in one frame of work….hidden in all of this was Jake Woodford‘s outing. Pressed into service to salvage things, he got the last out of the first and went three more, giving up only two runs in the process. Honestly, this game might have been different had Woodford started it! I’ve been surprised at how well Woodford has done being that middle innings long reliever….Ricardo Sanchez pitched two innings, wound up allowing two runs, then wound up on the IL with his season over….the only perfect line in the box score? Max Schrock, who retired all three batters he faced in the ninth….Paul DeJong had three hits and Brad Miller two, with Fowler’s homer being the only other hit the Cards could get.
Saturday vs. Cleveland (2-1 loss in 12)
Hero: Giovanny Gallegos. I’m giving it to Gallegos as sort of a representative of the entire bullpen. The pen went seven innings and the only run allowed was the final one, when Alex Reyes gave up a double with that cheap, stupid, juvenile runner on second to start the inning. If we’re playing by real rules, this game might still be going on. The pitching deserved so much better here.
Goat: Paul DeJong. 0-5 with three strikeouts and three left on. That said, there were a lot of options in this one.
Notes: Paul Goldschmidt had two of the four Cardinal hits….Brad Miller walked three times and scored the only Cardinal run on a Matt Carpenter single….Jack Flaherty went five, struck out five, and allowed just a first-inning home run….again, kudos to Gallegos, Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, Austin Gomber, and John Gant.
Sunday vs. Cleveland (7-2 win)
Hero: Adam Wainwright. Like there was another option. When a pitcher throws a complete game on his 39th birthday, it’s pretty special. When he texts his manager the night before saying, “I’ve got this” and commits to a minimum of 120 pitches to saveGi the bullpen, it’s even bigger. There’s no doubt that Wainwright is a special person and would have gone 120 even if he was getting beaten around to help the team after the past two days. The fact that he was basically able to shut down a good Cleveland team was a wonderful bonus.
Goat: Only two batters didn’t get a hit and Kolten Wong at least drew a walk, so we’ll go with Brad Miller. 0-4 with a strikeout and a runner left on.
Notes: Big day as well for Dexter Fowler, who had two hits including a homer in the seventh that made it serious. Wouldn’t have necessarily thought these a year or two ago, but the team is going to miss Fowler while he’s out….another three-hit day for Paul DeJong, his second of the series….two hits for Yadier Molina, who you knew was going to support his brother on the mound….also two hits for Tommy Edman.
Monday at Cincinnati (7-5 win)
Hero: Paul DeJong. You could just see the slam coming, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable when it happened. DeJong had two hits, including his first career salami, and that slam was pretty necessary since the offense stopped after that.
Goat: Brad Miller. It didn’t wind up costing them, but Miller went 0-4 again and left five men on base. He did draw a walk this time and scored on DeJong’s slam, but that’s a lot of runners to leave.
Notes: Paul Goldschmidt was 3-3 with a walk because that apparently is just what Paul Goldschmidt does these days….the top three in the lineup went 7-13 with a walk, which helps put runs on the board….I was starting to thing Official Prospect of the Blog Dylan Carlson was starting to find his footing, but an 0-4 here dropped him back to .176….Dakota Hudson continues to prove me wrong, this time not even running into trouble via walks as he didn’t walk anyone and struck out seven in his seven innings of work….Jake Woodford got touched for a three run homer late that made the game close, but Giovanny Gallegos came in to make sure the game didn’t get away.
Tuesday at Cincinnati (16-2 win)
Hero: Brad Miller. A two-homer, seven-RBI night will get you here, for sure. Miller also threw in a single and a double to get to four hits and scored one run that wasn’t via his own bat.
Goat: Ryan Helsley, I guess? I mean, really, it’s not fair to pick a Goat in a game like this but we’ve been doing this for more than a decade and we’re not stopping now. Helsley gave up a home run as one of the two runs the Reds got, though it was his first post-COVID outing.
Notes: Every Cardinal starter had a hit and two of the three bats that came off the bench did as well. Andrew Knizner (yes, he is still on the team) actually went 2-2. Maybe we’ll see him again before the next blowout….Tommy Edman had seven at bats. Not seven plate appearances, seven at bats. Which is kinda the knock on Edman, he doesn’t walk, but he got three hits out of those seven so it’s not all bad….Kolten Wong went 4-4 and was hit by a pitch, so a perfect night at the plate (depending on how painful he found the HBP, I guess)….Yadier Molina had three hits and shifted to first base for a while before finally coming out of the game. Man’s going to play 90% of the innings this year even after missing a week….all of this meant that Kwang Hyun Kim’s start was a footnote, but it was another excellent one. Five scoreless innings, four strikeouts, three hits. I’m really liking KK in the rotation….I said on my weekly radio hit with Dave O’Hara before this game that it looked like it’d be a 3-2 game but baseball has a way of turning things expected on its ear. Boy, did it.
Wednesday at Cincinnati (4-3 loss)
Hero: Brad Miller. Two hits, including yet another home run. Who knew that Mo went out and got a cleanup hitter this winter?
Goat: Really hard not to give this to Tyler O’Neill. Granted, the Cards probably shouldn’t have been tied at 3 in the ninth anyway, but with bases loaded and one out you have to put the ball in play. The strikeout was a killer (and Lane Thomas following it up with another was tough as well). O’Neill did get a hit but it feels like after an early run where he was striking out less than expected, the Ks are starting to pile up again.
Notes: The Cardinals had their opportunities, but once that top of the ninth happened, it was just a matter of time before the Reds won it. However, I wouldn’t not have put money on the “Gionvanny Gallegos walks the first two batters” scenario. Gallegos hadn’t walked a batter all year long. Truth be told, I think ball four on the first batter was strike three, but following it up with another walk just meant things weren’t going to end well….Not the best start we’ve seen out of Johan Oviedo, but not the worst. Three runs in 4.2 innings, two on a home run by Tucker Barnhart on a pitch that was at least low in the zone. He’s still got rough spots but I like what I’ve seen so far….Genesis Cabrera, Austin Gomber, and John Gant seem to be the top combo, as they again pitched in this one and again allowed nothing over 3.1 innings…Yadier Molina had another home run, because he’ll beat up on Cincinnati whether there are fans to boo him or not.