I’m tired of Chicago teams. Perhaps more clearly, I’m tired of the Cardinals losing to Chicago teams.
Allen and I have discussed in the past on Musial how there was a concern that some of the good fortune for the Redbirds was due to a weaker schedule. The series win against Milwaukee, as close as it was, seemed to assuage those fears somewhat. However, soon after that the Brewers slipped under .500 and as of today are at the break even mark. Perhaps they were only good in relation to the rest of the division. (I don’t believe that to be true, but it’s hard to understand why they are struggling the way they are.)
To go 1-5 with one game remaining in back-to-back series against a Cubs team that, as of right now, is only 1/2 game behind the Cardinals and a White Sox team that is a couple of games better, record-wise, is not helpful if you are one that argues that St. Louis is a good team no matter the competition. Injuries are definitely taking their toll, of course–three of the last four hitters in the lineup last night had batting averages under .140 even after some hits in the game–but I don’t know how far that excuse goes in covering the problems.
In some regard, it doesn’t matter if it is injuries because you have to live with those right now anyway. Harrison Bader went on the IL yesterday with a rib fracture and Tyler O’Neill may return this weekend but he’s not there yet. That means you have to see some mix of Justin Williams, Lane Thomas, Matt Carpenter, and Max Moroff. None of those guys inspire excitement, even though one of them was the Hero last night. When you have to use two or more of them? That’s a black hole at the bottom of your lineup that creeps upward to the middle of your lineup like a spreading oil spill.
That doesn’t even talk about the pitching issues, how the rotation has a weak link and the bullpen is untrustworthy. There are a lot of spots where a hole could be plugged by a trade or a callup. The question is, would such a move work? There’s a lot of calls for someone like Lars Nootbaar, which makes sense given his 1.023 OPS in Memphis, but Nootbaar has less than 150 at bats above High-A. This run at Memphis is well above what he has done before and we need to determine whether it’s for real or just an early surge. It’d be fun to see him in St. Louis but there’s no guarantee at all that he could sustain this against major league pitching.
Can they hold out until the regulars get back? Does that even solve all the ills? A lineup with Bader and O’Neill helps a lot (the return of Paul DeJong is less pressing given the likely unsustainable surge of Edmundo Sosa) but even that won’t help if the big bats aren’t clicking. Paul Goldschmidt hasn’t hit a home run in 12 games (though he’s hitting .283 in that span). It’s been almost a week since Nolan Arenado had that four game homer streak and since then he’s hit .167 with only one walk. Tommy Edman isn’t a home run hitter, of course, but since they finished with Milwaukee he’s hitting .244/.271/.311. If the top of the order can’t generate runs, they aren’t likely to be bailed out by the bottom of it.
Then there’s a game like last night, which defies all explanation.
It was almost if the Cardinals wanted to do too much for Jack Flaherty in this vaunted matchup between him and his high school teammate. Just in the first inning, Sosa and Edman made errors that led to runs (and Flaherty, not immune, hit a batter). In the second, Dylan Carlson had a ball bounce off of him and the next play Arenado made an error. Toss in a Flaherty wild pitch and it seemed St. Louis had some sort of allergy to the baseball.
Getting down 5-0 to Lucas Giolito and a team like the White Sox, especially when part of your lineup wouldn’t be out of place at AAA, isn’t really a recipe for success. Give some credit to the Cardinals, they were able to take advantage of some of Chicago’s own miscues and get some offense from unlikely sources to try to make it a game. Though when you have to scratch and claw for two runs and then your ace gives them immediately back on a long and deep bomb, you can pretty much write off the night. The bases loaded, nobody out thing that Garrett Crochet fashioned in the ninth was cute, but you can’t really expect much when Liam Hendriks is available. Tony La Russa went to his closer which felt like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant. Thomas and Moroff had no chance and Edman also succumbed to the strikeout.
In fact, this felt like a bit of a mirror universe game. The defense failed, Flaherty got knocked around a bit, and the biggest success stories were Matt Carpenter and Tyler Webb. Carpenter gets the Hero tag for going 2-3 with a double and a walk. (Arenado was the only other Cardinal with two hits.) Webb took over for Flaherty in the fourth and stranded a runner, then pitched a very uneventful fifth, with the only runner he allowed being erased on an attempted steal. He got one out in the sixth before turning it over to Junior Fernandez with a runner on first. Given that Webb had a WHIP of over 2.3 before this game, allowing just two runners in almost two frames was a remarkable step forward. If Fernandez had not allowed that runner to score, it would have been Webb’s longest scoreless appearance of the season.
Now, that doesn’t mean Webb is fixed or should be trusted in anything but large deficits (or maybe leads) for a while, but there was at least some evidence that he was completely broken. If you can keep a lineup like the White Sox in check, even briefly, there’s still some hope there. We won’t see him for a few days, I don’t imagine, but I’m interested to see if this was a fluke or if it’s the beginning of a return to form.
Fernandez had a rough first inning (a wild pitch, balk, and single allowed that inherited runner to come in) but worked through the next two innings with no damage. The fact that the Cardinals only used three pitchers, especially in a game where they were down 5-0 after two innings, is remarkable and probably keeps John Mozeliak from making any roster move for the bullpen today. They have Jake Westbrook and probably (though he’s gone three of the last five days) Daniel Ponce de Leon if things get out of hand and all of the major arms are rested for close games or a lead.
Interestingly, the team actually got 10 hits, which is more than I expected. Everyone got a hit except Lane Thomas, so we’ll give him the Goat. He did leave six on, though he really had no chance there in the ninth with the bases loaded.