The Confounding Cardinals

Baseball is an unpredictable thing.  We know that, of course, but the game continues to provide example after example.

How could a team that went 2-8 against the Tigers, Pirates, and Rockies come out and not only beat the best team in baseball, but the pitcher having the best season this side of Jacob deGrom?  I’m not a betting man and I don’t understand all the terms, but this was retweeted into my timeline yesterday and from what I gather it was saying the safest bet of the day, in their opinion, was the Giants scoring five or more runs.  As we discussed in the series preview, this Giants team doesn’t really have obvious flaws to exploit.  After losing three of four in Colorado and doing so by barely scoring runs in the most hitter friendly park, the idea that the Cardinals would go in and score more in the first game there than any nine innings in Colorado was crazy talk.  Yet that’s exactly what they did.

Not only did they do it, they did it with a lineup that looked pretty ugly.  I love Yadier Molina, but I have enough issues with him batting fifth.  He was fourth yesterday.  Tommy Edman was fifth.  Matt Carpenter was sixth.  How does this work?

In fairness, for six innings it didn’t work.  The only thing that kept that no-hitter buzz from building was that the Giants hadn’t scored any either.  The hits wound up coming and the big blow came from an unlikely source.  When Matt Carpenter has two strikes, you aren’t thinking two-run triple, or at least I wasn’t.  I was very, very glad to be wrong.

It’s good to get a win, good to get back to single digits behind Milwaukee, good to be just 1/2 game behind the reeling Cubs (for all the Cardinals’ faults this year, they haven’t lost 10 in a row like the baby bears).  However, we’ve seen this movie before.  A big win that you like to think will turn the ship around.  That was Friday night in Colorado, where the Cardinals were down to their last strike before tying the game and exploding in extra innings.  They lost the next two games 3-2.  Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher and while you like the fact that Adam Wainwright is going today, this is still the same team that can’t get out of its own way.  The idea that they are going to run through the Giants, beat up on the Cubs this weekend, and go into the All-Star Break on a high note is a great dream but an unlikely reality.

Five years ago today, I wrote about how the Cardinals could continue to talk about playing better baseball but eventually they have to show it.  There’s a lot in that post that seems relevant today, including the players saying that they think things are going to turn around, that they haven’t played their best baseball yet, etc.  Of course, we know that the 2016 wound up being the first team in a long while to miss the playoffs.  They went 40-34 in the second half, which would be a dream for this team but was only slightly better than the 46-42 they put up in the first half.  I can’t imagine there’s ever been a struggling team that came out and said, “Man, you know, I think we played our best baseball in May.  I don’t know that we can get back to that.”  Baseball players, by necessity, have to be somewhat optimistic about future events, even if the current data doesn’t support it.

Who knows, maybe Wainwright throws a gem today and the bats put up enough runs to get everyone cheap drinks tomorrow.  I sure hope so, because it is always good to beat Kickin’ Johnny Cueto.  Maybe they win this series and the next and look a little stronger and go into the break at .500.  I just don’t know that I can trust them to follow up on a game like that.  We’ve been burned too many times not only this season but over the past half-decade.

Friday (9-3 win at Colorado in 10)

Hero: Yadier Molina had a big game.  Harrison Bader had a grand slam.  However, none of it would have mattered (and, indeed, the slam wouldn’t have happened) had not Jose Rondon channeled 2011.  Rondon took an 0-2 pitch with two outs in the ninth and turned it into the game-tying run, driving in Tommy Edman.  It was remarkable to see life in a team that so often goes quietly.

Goat: It was one of those games where everyone really chipped in one way or another.  I think I’ll go with Edmundo Sosa.  Sosa didn’t start the game but came in after Tyler O’Neill was hit on the hand and had to leave the game.  Sosa went 0-2 and left three men on base, more than any other player not named Paul DeJong.

Notes: Bader’s grand slam was huge, but his walk in the ninth right before Rondon’s at bat might have been even more crucial to the outcome.  Still, it was nice to see that huge blast from Bader….it was one of those days where we criticized Mike Shildt for batting Yadier Molina fifth given his struggles (from his return in May through yesterday, he’s put up a .609 OPS, which isn’t as nice as you’d like) but Molina does what he does when questioned.  He went 3-5, had a two-run homer to start the scoring (and almost end it) and drove in another run in the 10th….Johan Oviedo didn’t look quite as good as he did the last time out, but still limited the Rockies to three runs in six innings and only walked one batter.  If he gets his command to stay that well, he’ll get that elusive first major league win soon enough….the bullpen did a good job of keeping the Rockies off the scoreboard and Alex Reyes pitched two innings to get the win.  As we’ll see, it feels like Shildt is to the point where he has to win every game that he can and that means going to Reyes if at all possible.

Saturday (3-2 loss at Colorado)

Hero: Wade LeBlanc.  A journeyman pitching at Coors could be a rough thing, but LeBlanc had no trouble with it, allowing no runs in 5.2 innings of work, his longest outing as a Cardinal.  LeBlanc is starting to feel like one of those Dave Duncan reclamation projects, though I don’t know that Mike Maddux has actually tinkered with him or it is just the fact that he throws strikes and the Cardinals can catch whatever is hit.

Goat: Genesis Cabrera.  Cabrera feels like the good reliever most likely to have a bad night.  Most of the time, he’s solid and he only has five outings this season where he’s allowed two runs or more, but I still get a little iffy wondering which Cabrera is going to be coming in.  It was an off night for him here as he allowed a single, a walk, got an out, then Trevor Story went deep.  After the game, when folks were wondering why he didn’t go to a warmed up John Gant, Mike Shildt quoted statistics that showed how effective Cabrera had been against right-handed batters, especially with his changeup.  Story did have a higher OPS against lefties (in fewer plate appearances) but it wasn’t a huge gap.  Plus, honestly, I’m still not sure how I feel about John Gant.  He might have gotten Story, he might have walked him.  I don’t know if there was a situation where the Cardinals get out of that.  Trevor Story is just really good.

Notes: Cardinals rallied immediately after giving up those runs, though they weren’t able to get them all back.  Paul Goldschmidt was a big part of it, driving in one and scoring one….two hits by Tommy Edman, who led off with a lefty on the mound….Gant did come in and finish the eighth, getting two outs without incident…..LeBlanc did walk three and the team walked more (5) than they struck out (4).

Sunday (3-2 loss at Colorado)

Hero: Harrison Bader.  His second home run of the series, this one a two-run blast in the second, almost held up the entire way.  He also had a single as well.

Goat: Alex Reyes.  Moments after he was named to the All-Star Game, he gave up a two-out single to Joshua Fuentes, wild pitched him to second, and then allowed Elias Diaz to bookend the series with walkoffs.

Notes: It was the rare game where both Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes gave up runs….counting Monday’s game, Gallegos has allowed runs in three straight outings and has an ERA of 13.50 over that span.  However, those are the first runs that he’s given up since the beginning of June.  (Maybe calendar flips are bad for him.)  Something to keep an eye on….two hits for Matt Carpenter, including a bunt single that beat the shift.  Not exactly what you plan for a cleanup hitter, as Carpenter was here, but it’s something….Carlos Martinez was looking like the good Carlos, only allowing a Trevor Story homer as he pitched into the fourth, but he had to leave with a bruised thumb.  But give him credit for the maturity to realize he shouldn’t try to pitch through that, especially in that sort of game.  Sounds like he’ll be fine for his next start….Patron Pitcher of the Blog (The Next Generation) Brandon Waddell took over for Martinez and threw 1.2 scoreless innings, then we saw the debut of Justin Miller, who threw a scoreless frame.  Of course, as he was heralded as a strike thrower, he walked the first man he faced on four pitches.

Monday (5-3 win at San Francisco)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  Seriously, a two-out, two-strike triple to put the Cardinals on the board?  That was so out of the blue.

Goat: Yadier Molina.  0-4 with three strikeouts and four left on base.

Notes: Kevin Gausman no-hit the Cardinals through six innings, but thankfully the bats finally showed up just enough to get him out of the game.  The two runs he gave up actually raised his ERA….Kwang Hyun Kim had his best start of the year, going seven scoreless against a strong Giants team.  He threw less than 90 pitches to do it, which was also outstanding given that he’s had trouble going much past five due to inefficiency….Alex Reyes pitched in this one, even though it was 5-1.  That’s four innings in four days.  He struggled again, giving up two runs on two hits and a walk.  Mike Shildt is going to have to figure out a way to win a game without going to Reyes especially all the time, but I can’t blame him for being gunshy of anyone else…..two hits for Nolan Arenado and Tommy Edman.

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