I don’t know what we expected with the Padres, the Cardinals’ (at the time) closest competition for the second wild card, coming into Busch. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that, though. Nobody expected a three game sweep that put St. Louis firmly in the driver’s seat for another postseason appearance. A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.
The Padres have their own issues, of course, and a series win probably wasn’t going to be a terrible shock given the starting pitchers they were running out there. Yu Darvish did what Yu Darvish usually does to the Cardinals (he has a 2.64 career ERA in seven starts against them after the one on Saturday) but Vince Velasquez pitched like a guy that has a 5 career ERA and Jake Arrieta may have walked off the mound for the last time when he left injured in the first on Sunday. Beating those two guys wasn’t exactly headline news, I guess.
Still, all three of these wins were different, showing the versatility of the Cardinals when everything is clicking. Friday, the Cards got multiple runs in the first, tacked on another a couple of innings later, then used strong pitching to make that stand up (with some grand insurance from Dylan Carlson in the eighth). Saturday, Adam Wainwright went toe to toe with Darvish and the Cardinal offense pounced once he was out of the game, capped with a dramatic home run from Tyler O’Neill, his second game-saving homer of the week. Yesterday, the Cards get five in the first, then the pitching staff turned it into a taut affair before Giovanny Gallegos closed it out with a flourish.
All of the sudden, the Cardinals look like an assured, collected front-runner. Which is one reason why there aren’t articles written about the dustup between Daniel Ponce de Leon and Yadier Molina while a certain discussion this weekend got plenty of ink (The Athletic, so it’s a subscription, but it’s a good article if you have one). Of course, it also helps when over $600 million is seemingly having a spat, two guys that are big MLB names. Pretty sure no one can pick Ponce de Leon out of a lineup. Mike Shildt certainly can’t pick him out of the bullpen, which is not a flaw by the manager.
The lack of use of some of these arms (Ponce, Andrew Miller, Kwang Hyun Kim) is not exactly an issue, as the Cardinals haven’t necessarily been in a situation where you could feel comfortable going to them. Kim got the save in the middle game of the New York series, but there weren’t many options and he wound up allowing two runs to score of the three he had to give. Miller came into an 8-3 game and didn’t get anyone out. We all remember Ponce walking three of the four batters he faced, which without O’Neill’s late home run could have been the difference in the ball game.
You can’t blame Shildt for not wanting to insert these guys very often. If J.A. Happ hadn’t given up three runs before he left yesterday and the cushion had been greater, maybe you’d have seen one of those guys. Instead, Happ left with a 5-3 lead and the manager didn’t feel comfortable running the risk with anything less than his best. Shildt has mashed down the accelerator, gone for the jugular, whatever your metaphor. With a chance to have a win count for double, he wasn’t going to give it up. That philosophy, which I don’t disagree with, almost did cost them because the big arms (Alex Reyes, Luis Garcia, T.J. McFarland) all wound up giving up runs and Genesis Cabrera allowing an inherited runner to score and putting the tying run on third. They bent, but they didn’t break and the Cards walked out with a three game lead over the Reds and 3 1/2 over the Padres, with the Phillies joining them that far out after losing to the Mets last night.
The Cardinals have 14 games left, all against the Brewers and Cubs. If they go 7-7, which would get them to 86 wins, Cincinnati would have to go 9-3 in their last 12 to tie and the Padres and Phillies would have to go 10-3 in their last 13. Perhaps the Reds can get their act together and get that done, given that nine of their last games are against Pittsburgh and Washington, but they have been hurt by Jesse Winker being out and their pitching is unraveling. The idea that this Padres team could win 10 in a schedule that sees them face the Giants twice and the Dodgers once, plus a series against the Braves, doesn’t seem like something a reasonable person would believe. (The Padres do have perhaps a win in hand, as they have a suspended game against the Braves that they have to complete on Friday–they lead 5-4 in the bottom of the fifth of a seven inning game.) As for the Phillies, they have the Orioles, Pirates, Braves, and Marlins and they are also fighting for a divisional title. They may be the strongest threat to what the Cards are aiming for.
Still, if you’d told any of us in even mid-August that the Cardinals would be the wild card leader by three games on September 19 (and will be at worst tied for the WC on September 22 with 10 days left in the season) I don’t think anyone would have believed you. This team has finally gelled into something similar to what we thought we’d see all year long from them and it’s a great thing to see. Even though they aren’t likely to sweep the Brewers, especially in a four game set, they’ve shown that they can play on that level with them and even the Dodgers. You have to like what you’ve seen from the team over the last couple of weeks and here’s hoping they have at least another couple of weeks of that sort of thing in them!
Friday (8-2 win)
Hero: Dylan Carlson. Huge game for the rookie right after I said that his season hadn’t been spectacular on the latest Meet Me at Musial. I plan to dog many more players if this is the results we get! Two home runs, including the grand slam that put the game away.
Goat: T.J. McFarland. I’m really wondering if McFarland is starting to lose his effectiveness. Perhaps it’s a bad stretch he can bounce out of, perhaps it’s a bit of overuse, perhaps it’s just the league finally adjusting. For the month of September, he’s got a 5.17 ERA and that number would have been higher had Lars Nootbaar not saved that three-run homer against the Mets. While his FIP is just 3.27, he is allowing a .303 batting average against this month. In this one, he got a ground out but then allowed a single and a double before exiting for Luis Garcia, who wound up letting the runners score. Maybe I should have gone with Garcia here…..
Notes: A two-run blast from Tyler O’Neill in the first. O’Neill hit almost .400 this week and had three homers, two of which were critical. If he’s not player of the week, there’s something wrong with the system….Paul Goldschmidt was the only other Cardinal besides Carlson to have two hits, which is remarkable given the eight runs. The Cardinals only had six hits total, with Tommy Edman getting the other one. It was just that five of them went for extra bases….pretty solid start for Miles Mikolas. No runs and only three hits allowed in 5.2 innings. If St. Louis gets that every time out, nobody’s going to complain a bit….Carlson’s slam did give a day off for Giovanny Gallegos, allowing Kodi Whitley to pitch a scoreless ninth.
Saturday (3-2 win)
Hero: Tyler O’Neill. “That ball just had to go. It had to go for the boys.” I’m not sure if Tyler O’Neill is the MVP of the team for the season, but he sure is for the last week.
Goat: Nolan Arenado. 0-4 with four left on base. I have no doubt that Arenado was amped up this weekend, getting a playoff race and being around the 2011 team and the pageantry that went along with that. Sometimes when that happens, it seems like Arenado presses a bit.
Notes: Adam Wainwright was also pretty amped, it seemed, and wasn’t quite as sharp as he has been since May ended. Two runs in six innings is a fine night, don’t get me wrong, but it’s gotten to the point that if Waino doesn’t go seven, you are slightly disappointed….Matt Carpenter broke his 0-31 with a double (of course), meaning that the thought I had two weeks ago that we might have seen Carpenter’s last hit was mistaken. I expect that Carpenter starts the season finale if the Cards have clinched a playoff spot by then, but I don’t know if he gets another one. So that means, what, probably 17-18 more at bats in his Cardinals career? We’ll see if that one was the last hit….Justin Miller pitched a scoreless eighth and got rewarded with the win, his first of the season. He’s thrown two scoreless innings total since coming off the injured list, but I don’t think he needs to move in the pecking order….Harrison Bader‘s contributions to the eighth got overshadowed by O’Neill, but leading off the inning with a double and coming around to score on two fly balls was key.
Sunday (8-7 win)
Hero: Giovanny Gallegos. After getting to a 5-0 lead in the first, losing that game would have been crushing. The good Gallegos showed up, though, striking out two including Fernando Tatis Jr. to lock down the ninth.
Goat: Luis Garcia. After allowing the inherited runners to score Friday, Garcia snapped his own scoreless streak in this one. He came in and allowed another one of McFarland’s runners to score, then one of his own when Tommy Pham doubled in them both. After getting out Austin Nola, Shildt then went to Cabrera, who allowed Pham to score. Really, almost any reliever could have gone here.
Notes: Cards scored eight runs and didn’t have a home run in the bunch….Nolan Arenado went two for four but his most memorable at bat was his first inning popout to center, which Tatis completely dropped and then threw to the wrong base, setting up a big inning….Paul Goldschmidt is hitting .327 with an OPS near 1.000 in the second half and continued it here by going two for four with a double….Edmundo Sosa probably would have gotten the Hero tag because he went two for four with two doubles and two RBI, but he also wildly threw after Pham’s double, letting Pham go to third with nobody out. Sosa’s been outstanding all the way around, but his one flaw is he believes he can always make the throw even when he should put it in his pocket….Lars Nootbaar picked up his first career stolen base, which was fun.