Much like the newly dubbed Darth Vader following the orders of his new master, the St. Louis Cardinals marched into Pittsburgh over the weekend and took no prisoners. While sweeping the Pirates may not rank high on the lists of accomplishments when 2021 is over, this still was an important series because how teams treat a team that is expected to struggle can be the difference between playing in October or not playing there.
Before the season, the NL Central was expected to be this four-team race, with everyone but the Pirates having a legitimate shot at the division. That hasn’t been the case in the first month, though as I noted in my series preview, the Pirates were 12-12 in 2019 and wound up losing almost 100 games. Still, if the Cards, Reds, Brewers, and Cubs were evenly matched (or even just two or three of that number), rolling up the wins against Pittsburgh might be enough to separate from someone that doesn’t do as well against them. Let’s see how the divisional rivals have done against Pittsburgh so far this year.
The way the first month has shaken out, it’s looking like the Brewers might be the toughest competition, with them a game up on the Cardinals for first place. Milwaukee doesn’t face Pittsburgh again until June, when the Pirates might look more like the Pirates, but even the early missteps could be a problem. A team that goes 14-4 against the Pirates has a decided advantage over a team that goes 10-8, especially when the division might be won by less than four games.
As for the games themselves, when the team gives up only eight runs on a weekend, it’s probably a good one. When you have a weekend when you score 22 runs, it’s probably a good one. Put them together and you start to see what this team can do when it’s clicking on all cylinders. The only real disturbances in The Force for the weekend was Tyler Webb on Friday night and Jordan Hicks leaving the game on Saturday with an arm issue. The club believes the latter is not necessarily serious, but I do think they’ll probably decide to put him on the 10-day IL for precautionary reasons given that it was the Tommy John arm we’re dealing with here. If nothing else it would allow them to bring back Johan Oviedo before the very end of this 17 game stretch to get another start.
Harrison Bader made his return this weekend and, well, looked like Harrison Bader. He was flying all around the outfield, which caused problems at least once has he tried to get to a ball that I believe Tyler O’Neill would have caught had he not backed off to let Bader come in and dive quite short of it. His big contribution was the three-run homer yesterday, which was all the runs the Cardinals got (and all that they needed) and we’ll see how the offense goes as he continues to get into the routine. After all, he didn’t have a competitive at bat since March before Friday night.
I missed a good portion of Sunday’s game so I didn’t realize that the Cardinals had hit another batter and, most notably, again in the head. I knew that Carlos Martinez had almost clipped someone like that earlier in the game, but the batter–I don’t remember who it was–had been bent over looking for the pitch and continued ducking as the ball went over his head. Mike Shildt was asked about it and said he wouldn’t necessarily read much into it and it wasn’t intentional. No opponent has acted liked like they believed it was, save perhaps the over-the-top histrionics of Nicholas Castellanos, but it’s still a concern. Is it the crackdown on sticky substances that helped with getting a grip? Is the ball smoother? I asked for ideas over at this Substack thread last week and I’d be glad to hear your thoughts.
After so much early struggle (and as an artifact of it still being early), the Cards now are four games over .500. They’d lead the NL East by two games with that record over the 12-12 Nationals and 11-11 Mets, who come into Busch starting tonight. The Cardinals actually have the fourth best record in the NL right now, if you can believe that. While it’s still early, the flip of the calendar means that things start to become more serious and there’s less use of that excuse. Hopefully what we’ve seen this weekend can carry on and this team can start to fire on all cylinders.
Friday (7-3 win)
Hero: Tyler O’Neill. Since his return from the injured list, O’Neill has found his groove for a slash line of .371/.389/.743. He’s had five multi-hit games, including all three in Pittsburgh. In this one, he went 3-4 and smashed a solo homer in the fourth that gave the team a 3-0 lead. This is a slightly exaggerated line of what we thought O’Neill might be able to put up if he could get consistent time. We’ll see how long it lasts and, more importantly, if he’ll be able to get out of a slump once he gets into it, but for now it truly helps this offense to have someone clicking like this.
Goat: Kodi Whitley. You could argue that Tyler Webb deserves to go here, since he created the mess that Whitley was charged with cleaning up. I probably would have had it not been for the way that Whitley did his business. Bases loaded and one out is a tough place to come into a game, but balking in a run, then throwing a wild pitch for another? Yikes. At least Whitley got the batters that hit the ball out.
Notes: Webb did me dirty after I spent the week defending him, walking two guys and allowing a hit. Webb’s been an underrated piece of the bullpen and was coming off of four scoreless outings before giving up a run against the Phillies and getting charged with two runs here. You never want to base a bullpen on a guy like that, but he’s still valuable and I’m hopeful he’ll get back to being that underrated but effective arm next time out….Matt Carpenter with his second straight three-run pinch-hit homer boggles the mind. His BABIP is .077 because three of his five hits this season are homers and as such don’t count. It’s probably not going to be a great season for Carpenter but if he can contribute in a bench role, that’s better than nothing….two doubles for Nolan Arenado, both driving in a run early on….John Gant‘s line wasn’t terribly pretty (five walks) but he made the pitches when he needed to and only gave up one run in his five innings. When that’s the worst outing your starting rotation has given you in probably two weeks, that’s saying something.
Saturday (12-5 win)
Hero: Nolan Arenado. Three hits, including a double and a triple, and three RBI. Too bad he couldn’t have gotten a homer and the first Cardinal cycle since 2005.
Goat: Andrew Knizner. Knizner’s been great with Yadier Molina down but everyone has an off night. 0-5 with four men left on base, though he did manage to score a run.
Notes: A three hit night for Paul Goldschmidt, which is always good to see. Hopefully this truly was one of those “slow starts” and not anything serious….three RBI from Paul DeJong with a home run. DeJong may not get a lot of hits, but they seem to be productive ones when they come….a four hit night for Tommy Edman, who keeps being a force in the leadoff spot….total runs scored in Jack Flaherty six starts: 61. The club has put up double digits in four of them. They have not scored double digits in any other game. Granted, some of those runs come after he’s left the game, but not a lot of them. Three runs in six innings with nine strikeouts will play pretty well, I think….Whitley rebounded here to throw a scoreless frame….good for Justin Williams, crushing a pinch-hit homer late to add a little more padding.
Sunday (3-0 win)
Hero: Carlos Martinez. Eight scoreless innings just adds to Martinez’s turnaround. He’s got a 0.84 ERA over his last three starts. Wonder if Ben Fredrickson still thinks he shouldn’t be in the rotation? Martinez is figuring out how to pitch without striking people out, which is good given the defense he has behind him. Then again, that defense has failed him a number of times this year, but he’s keeping his focus more and getting out of jams. Really great to see.
Goat: A toss up between two players that are usually more in line for Hero roles. I’m going to go with Dylan Carlson over Arenado. Both went 0-4 but Carlson had a strikeout.
Notes: Another save for Alex Reyes. I asked Katie Woo this weekend whether the team would feel comfortable switching horses mid-stream if Reyes continued to be this sort of dominant closer. My feeling is, honestly, they wouldn’t be, especially if Jordan Hicks continues to take time to get back to what he was (and the injury issue isn’t going to help there). Which means that reaching that 100 innings for Reyes is going to be real tough. He’s at 13.1 with 28 games gone. That is a pace that gets him to 75-77 innings. Maybe they’ll give him more two inning saves here and there, but that’s going to be something to watch….Matt Carpenter got the start and drew two walks. It’s funny, we hear over and over that “batting order doesn’t matter”, at least until Carpenter is batting third. Sure, you don’t want to do it regularly, but for one game you could probably draw names out of a hat and have as much success as a carefully designed lineup. Not shifting everyone around to fill Paul Goldschmidt’s off day is defensible to me. Keeping people in their roles, especially after 19 runs the past two days, would seem a reasonable goal.