You can’t do a real spring cleaning without a broom and the Cardinals did some real cleaning this weekend at Busch.
They did it by getting back to what we’ve come to know as Cardinal baseball. They didn’t break out the bats in a game, scoring a ton of runs and then going quiet. They got quality starts from every one of their starting pitchers. They locked it down with a bullpen that bent–bent more than was healthy for many fans with heart issues–but didn’t break.
The Cardinals scored as many in this entire series as they did in the first game against Washington, for instance. They just did a better job of spreading them out instead of clumping them together. Mike Shildt tinkered with the lineup before the first game of the series, elevating Dylan Carlson to the spot that many of us had him written into back in February. It seemed to work for the young man, who apparently picked up a Big Gulp going 7-11 in the series. He also seemed to tailor his approach to that spot as well. Only one of those hits went for extra bases (a double on Sunday) but he got solid line drives that, often, advanced Tommy Edman to either second or third.
Now, obviously you don’t want Carlson turning into a singles hitter (though if he’s going to do it at a .636 clip, we can make exceptions) but it was really great to have that threat at the top of the lineup. It was a rare at bat this weekend when Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado didn’t come up with runners on base, which is what you want to see. Goldschmidt went 3-11 but had four RBI in the series, Arenado 2-12 with two RBI. If either of them had been clicking, the run total would have been pushed even higher.
The return of Tyler O’Neill for the series also forced Matt Carpenter to the bench. “Forced” might be a little strong of a word, since Shildt could have put Justin Williams on the bench and left Edman in the outfield. After the serious miscommunication in the ninth on Friday night, you’d could see where the manager might have had the cover to do that. I’d like to tell you that paid off, but Williams was 0-5 with a walk in the last two games after striking out all three times in the first game. I would not be surprised to see Edman back in the outfield tonight with Carpenter at second, in part because these opportunities are dwindling rapidly. Harrison Bader is expected to return in 7-10 days, which if I were to guess means we’d see him when the Cards return from their weekend in Pittsburgh to face the Mets. At that point, that outfield of O’Neill, Bader, and Carlson would seem to need some run, putting Edman back in the infield and Carpenter back on the bench.
However, that gets ahead of ourselves a little bit. On the whole, the offense did a fine job this weekend. They were somewhat kept in check by Wade Miley, of all people (which really isn’t fair since Miley has a 2.45 ERA on the season, but it feels like a pitcher they should hit) but they were able to put runs up early on each pitcher and ride their pitching to a win. They scored in the first inning in two of the games and in the second in the third one so they were always able to get an early upper hand.
The pitching was delightful. If it wasn’t for Kwang Hyun Kim getting removed with two outs in the sixth, they would be on a run of six straight quality starts (though the first one in that stretch was only quality because of three unearned runs behind Jack Flaherty). KK allowed just one run and struck out eight on Friday, the John Gant experience continued to be positive when threw six scoreless innings with five strikeouts (and only two walks, which was key), and Flaherty was Flaherty on Sunday, allowing one run on three hits and striking out six in seven innings. While we had questions about the starting rotation going into this season, especially when KK and Miles Mikolas were not going to start the year healthy, things seem to be stabilizing now. That doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way, but it feels like the starters have their feet under them somewhat.
That just leaves the bullpen. If you ignored the very late innings, it was a fine weekend for them as well. Of course, they didn’t have to work many innings given the quality of the starters, so that helped. On Friday Ryan Helsley, Genesis Cabrera, and Giovanny Gallegos combined for 2.1 scoreless innings with four strikeouts. Saturday, Cabrera and Gallegos returned to give the Cardinals three scoreless, with Gallegos getting the two-inning save.
The problem came, on Friday and Sunday, when Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes came into the game. That’s not a sentence you really expected to be writing in 2021, but there it is. Friday, with the Cardinals up 5-1 in the ninth, Hicks walked a man, saw him score with one out on a triple that should have been a fly out, then walked another. With the score 5-2 and runners on the corners, Reyes came in and walked two batters in a row, forcing in a run. He struck out Nicholas Castellanos, but did so on a wild pitch that allowed another run to score. He finally got Eugenio Suarez to strike out to end the game, but it was a roller coaster that really didn’t need to happen.
Sunday, though, it happened again to a lesser extent. Hicks got the eighth this time, this time in a 4-1 game, and walked the leadoff batter. He was able to get a strikeout and a double play ball, but Edman threw the relay away and the runner wound up at second. Hicks then uncorked a wild pitch, moving the runner to third, and allowed an RBI single before getting out of the inning with a groundout.
The Cards tacked on another then handed the ball to Reyes to secure a 5-2 game. Reyes struck out the first batter, then Castellanos (of course) hit a ground-rule double and Votto followed that up with a four pitch walk. Suarez then flew out, but Nick Senzel also received a four pitch walk, loading the bases for Tucker Barnhart, who thankfully grounded out to end the game.
The big issue in both of those games, of course, was the fact that neither Reyes or Hicks were consistently in the strike zone. That’s in part because they have significant movement on their pitches. It’s also in part because they didn’t some calls from the umpires, pitches that should have been strikes that weren’t called as such. However, 100 mph heat doesn’t help you much when the batter isn’t even interested in swinging. Hicks, of course, is working his way back off of the significant layoff and perhaps we should expect that sort of rust. He’s always been a little wild (5.2 and 3.5 BB/9 in his first two seasons) but this year in the small sample of eight innings he’s at 9.7, which is a higher rate than his K/9 of 8.6. (It’s always a little surprising that Hicks doesn’t strike out as many people as you’d expect with his heat, isn’t it?)
Reyes has less of that excuse, given that he pitched regularly last year. Yet in nine innings, he also has a higher BB/9 (9.6) than K/9 (8.7). So far it hasn’t burned the Cardinals too much–the only game where the bullpen’s wildness came into play was the second game in Washington and that was Gallegos, who has a 2.9 BB/9 rate in 2021–but if those guys don’t find the zone, it’s going to eventually.
All in all, though, it was a great weekend, showing just what the Cardinals could be if they put it all together. They moved from last in the Central to second and should have a little more confidence going into the four game series with the Phillies. If we can see this team regularly, the fun is just beginning.
Friday (5-4 win)
Hero: Yadier Molina. Two for three with a home run before having to leave the game with a foot issue. It doesn’t look like it’s severe and Yadi will probably be back in the lineup tonight. Still so remarkable what he’s doing at this stage in his career.
Goat: Justin Williams. The three strikeouts were bad enough, but it appeared to me that Carlson tried to call him off that ball in the ninth and he didn’t respond.
Notes: Matt Carpenter went 0-2 with a walk and a strikeout. While I’m sure all the metrics are still there, it’s probably pretty telling that Shildt didn’t sit Williams for Carpenter on Saturday….It’s good to see Kwang Hyun Kim have success against a team that has seen him before. He’ll be facing a lot of NL Central teams again this year and if he only succeeded on novelty, it’s going to be a huge problem.
Saturday (2-0 win)
Hero: John Gant. Six scoreless is a good way to make sure Johan Oviedo doesn’t immediately slot into your spot.
Goat: Paul DeJong. 0-4, though he didn’t strike out which is a good thing.
Notes: Andrew Knizner looked good behind the plate and contributed an RBI double as well. We’ll see if that helps him get a little more playing time once Molina returns….Tyler O’Neill got to start in this one and went 0-3, but drew a walk and didn’t strike out. Since he was closing in on a 50% K rate before he went on the IL, that’s a positive step.
Sunday (5-2 win)
Hero: Tyler O’Neill. Two solo home runs that were almost identical. Good to see him getting on track.
Goat: Nolan Arenado. Tough day for the third baseman, going 0-4 and leaving two men on.
Notes: Scott Hurst got another at bat but still hasn’t been able to get his first hit, going 0-5 so far. It feels like most of the Cardinal rookies get that first knock out of the way fairly quickly. I wonder what the record is for a position player for the Cards.