Onward and Upward

That’s one way to spend a long weekend in Chicago.

A team that was wondering how it would manage innings for five games then went ahead and played two consecutive extra inning affairs.  They also covered all those innings with  no reliever appearing in more than one game.  I mean, when was the last time you saw a stretch of games like this?

Except for Whitley, no reliever got less than four outs.  Cabrera and Thompson went as long as Andre Pallante (4.0) and longer than Matthew Liberatore (3.1) went in their starts.  The starters went 24.1, the relievers 21.2.  To be able to do that without overusing anyone, at least by appearances, says a lot.

Of course, it also says a lot that they didn’t use people like McFarland and Wittgren after Thursday as well.  Oli Marmol seems to have at least learned his lesson with McFarland, only using him in games that are seemingly out of hand.  Except for the one out he got at the end of the Padres game on Wednesday (which gave a collective heart attack to Cardinal nation), Nick Wittgren’s not appeared in a game the Cardinals won since May 5.  It feels like those guys are your “white flag” relievers, though, and with good reason.  Wittgren has a 6.60 ERA (though a 4.74 FIP) since the beginning of May and McFarland’s issues have been well-documented (though for comparison, his ERA/FIP since May 1 is 8.79/5.79).  (It’s a little surprising Packy Naughton didn’t make it into the series, especially by Saturday.)

If John Mozeliak is going to go make a move that shores up this team, most likely it’s a few arms that allow a lot more mixing and matching in high leverage situations.  Obviously Marmol is fine with doing that anyway–I know Mike Matheny and maybe Mike Shildt would have gone with Gallegos last night in the bottom of the 11th no matter that he threw two innings the day before (though actually that only happened once in 2021, in early April)–but being able to use just about anyone in any situation would make days like yesterday a little more comfortable.

If you are running eight relievers–and at some point it does seem the rule will go into place that makes a 13/13 split a requirement–you have your “hold the lead” guys in Helsley, Gallegos, Cabrera.  You have your “keep it close” or “chase” (as Derrick Goold terms it) reliever in VerHagen.   Pallante could probably fall in either category there.  That’s five guys you really can rely on.  You are always probably going to have that one spot that can rotate for a fresher arm–Jake Walsh is there now, but Junior Fernandez could take his spot without too much difference–so getting at least one more guy that can slide into the “hold the lead” category would be ideal.  The Kodi Whitley we saw last year and at the early part of the year was that guy in my mind, but it doesn’t look like he’s the same guy now.  Could Thompson develop into something like that?  Feels like he might be more of a chase guy, able to bridge the middle innings and keep you in it, but that sort of guy can be used with leads as well.

There’s also the possibility, of course, that Jordan Hicks returns from his injury and slots into the bullpen.  He’d get into that Helsley/Gallegos/Cabrera mix almost immediately.  With Jack Flaherty looking like he’ll be returning by the end of the month and Matthew Liberatore now on the 40-man and having some major league experience, it would seem very strange if Hicks wasn’t in the bullpen when he returned, with the idea of using him for two innings every 2-3 days if the situations warranted.  I know the regular usage was for his health and hopefully they could approximate something like that in the bullpen, but a rotation of Flaherty/Adam Wainwright/Miles Mikolas/Dakota Hudson/Steven Matz (when he returns) would be hard to crack for Hicks.  Baseball finds a way, of course, but I have to think someone like Liberatore might be ahead of Hicks now, at least a little bit.

While we are talking roster moves, give it up for Corey Dickerson, who picked the exact right time to get injured.  With Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson likely to return by the end of the week, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Dickerson would be designated for assignment for one of those guys.  Instead, he’s guaranteed at least 10 more days of major league service time.  It’s hard to imagine that they won’t just DFA him when he comes off the IL, but there could be another injury in that span that keeps him gainfully employed.  It feels like it’s just delaying the inevitable but I guess you never know.

To go into Wrigley Field and win three of five is an accomplishment no matter what the Cubs are playing like.  (That four game sweep in 2019 was remarkable and there’s a reason we continue to remember it.)  I think it’s more remarkable the way the team battled through every one of the games.  The first game on Saturday was 6-1 but if that infamously bad call goes the right way, it’s 3-2 right then with a chance to tie.  It feels fair to say that the game would have been approached differently had it gotten that close.  No matter, for them to fall behind in the eighth last night only to immediately rally in the ninth was heartening.  It helped that the Cubs were basically worn out in pitching but St. Louis took advantage of it, something we don’t always see.

There’s no real reason not to be excited about this club right now.  They are 1/2 game back of the Brewers, they have a run differential double that of Milwaukee, the Brewers have started to see tougher opposition and while they haven’t collapsed, they’ve slowed down.  (The Cardinals are now the only NL Central team with a winning record against teams over .500.)  With major contributors like O’Neill, Carlson, and Flaherty a couple of weeks (if not actually days) away, it feels like things are just starting to kick into gear and we’ll see some very good baseball going forward.


Thursday (7-5 loss)

Hero: Harrison Bader.  Two hits, including the two-run homer that narrowed the lead, though unfortunately no one was able to take advantage.  It’s a lot of fun to see Cub fans hate Bader, much like we hate Ian Happ and the like.

Goat: Matthew Liberatore.  It can’t be easy making your first start at Wrigley, but Liberatore didn’t do himself any favors by leaving some pitches in very hittable places.  3.1 innings to start the series when you needed deep starters didn’t look promising either.  Oli Marmol didn’t have much choice after three homers led to four runs, though, if he wanted to stay competitive.

Notes: Albert Pujols went 0-3 with a double play ball.  Since his two-homer game in Pittsburgh, he’s 3-22 in eight games (six starts) with no extra base hits.  Yadier Molina went 1-4 in this one with his one RBI coming on a bases-loaded groundout that somehow didn’t turn into a double play.  Over his last 12 games he’s 7 for 45 with a double.  I love both of these guys and I get they need to be out there, but it’s to the point that I know it takes a line drive for a single and it feels like all we see are ground balls, which those guys aren’t ever beating out.  Limiting Pujols to lefties (against whom he’s hitting .355 with an OPS right over 1.000 this season) is the right thing to do.  I get he needs to make an appearance, maybe a start in series where he may not return to the locale, but Marmol has to be better about he’s using these guys.  I know that Andrew Knizner hasn’t necessarily been setting the world on fire but at least he’s got fresh legs and I wouldn’t be as shocked to see a ball land for a hit for him.  Perhaps when the other outfielders are back we can see Juan Yepez or someone else take over the regular DH duties when righties are on the mound….Happ homered in this one and always seems to be a thorn in the Cardinals’ side, but I’m also thinking this Christopher Morel guy may wind up being a pest for a long time….game got out of hand with Nick Wittgren and T.J. McFarland, but you take that sacrifice for what it allowed later in the series.

Friday (14-5 win)

Hero: Corey Dickerson.  The second one may not really count as much, coming as it came off of DH Frank Schwindel, but a two-homer day is nothing to sneeze at, especially when the first one gave the Cards a lead they would not relinquish.

Goat: Miles Mikolas.  The offense bailed him out and the wind probably didn’t help, but eight hits and four runs in five innings could have been a lot more damaging than it was.

Notes: Nolan Gorman picked up his third career homer in a big way, blasting a three-run shot that staked the Cards to a five run lead.  It was his only hit of the day but it was worth it….three hits for Tommy Edman, who set the table for the sluggers behind him and scored three runs in the process….the bottom four in the lineup went 7-18 with seven runs, five RBI, a walk and a strikeout….great debut for Zack Thompson, going four innings and allowing just one run on a day that could have been wild.  Gotta think that he’s in the mix for a start perhaps this week if necessary.

Saturday, Game 1 (6-1 loss)

Hero: Oli Marmol for going nuts and showing Bruce Dreckman just how bad his calls were?  Rules say I have to pick a player, but I’m tempted to change them.  We’ll go with Tommy Edman, who homered for the only run the Cards got and was robbed after a great at bat from forcing in a second run via walk.  His walk rate has dropped some but it’s still at 9.8%, easily the highest of his career.  If he can keep that up, he’s going to be an above-average hitter this season.

Goat: Bruce Dreckman should in by all rights be here, but I’m going to go with Andrew Knizner, who went 0-4 with three strikeouts and left five men on.  I know, I know, I advocated for him to play more and in my defense he was good in that Friday game.

Notes: Seriously, that bases loaded, full count, completely botched call is going to stick with me for a while….Paul Goldschmidt walked twice, keeping his on-base streak alive, but the hitting streak ended…Harrison Bader continued to torment Cubs fans by getting two hits after replacing (indirectly) Corey Dickerson….Johan Oviedo made his first start of the year and it was much like his starts of past years.  Five innings, 103 pitches, eight hits, five strikeouts, three walks.  It did feel like he settled in after the first couple of innings, which was encouraging, although the hits came when the walks didn’t….Jake Woodford gave up three runs in his three innings, but he’d not had a chance to work on the stuff they sent him to Memphis for anyway.

Saturday, Game 2 (7-4 win in 10)

Hero: Brendan Donovan.  Kyle Reis kept telling us to watch out for this guy and, unlike his thoughts on The Last Jedi, he was right.  He doubled in two runs early in the game, then doubled in two more in the extra frame, giving the team not only the go-ahead run but needed cushion given the zombie runners.  He tossed in a single to go with all that and is quickly becoming indispensable.

Goat: Lars Nootbaar.  Noot’s had a rough go of it when he’s been in the bigs and he went 0-4 here with a strikeout.  It’s not like he can get a lot of extra reps, though he was pretty solid off the bench last year.  He’ll probably wind up back at Memphis when Tyler O’Neill or Dylan Carlson returns, but I know he’ll get another look.  (Of course, it’s also possible, depending on what happens at the deadline, that he’s a piece that interests another team.)

Notes: Edmundo Sosa got two hits but was this close to being the Goat when he missed third base on a Nolan Gorman single in the ninth, meaning he couldn’t score and was stranded when Paul Goldschmidt grounded out on the first pitch….speaking of, Goldy got a hit in this one and a couple of hits Sunday but the scorching bat we saw in May has, understandably, slowed a bit….Yadier Molina went 1-5 but had three strikeouts….Ryan Helsley wound up blowing the save and allowing one of Drew VerHagen’s runners to score, but he held the line there and gave the Cards the chance to win….big kudos to Giovanny Gallegos for pitching the ninth and the 10th.  He wound up letting the zombie runner score but given the lead the Redbirds had at the time, it wasn’t a big deal.

Sunday (5-3 win in 11)

Hero: Genesis Cabrera.  Look, it’s true that Cabrera allowed two doubles off of Cabrera in the eighth, giving the Cubs the go-ahead run.  After that, though, Cabrera gave everything he had and was pretty much dominant.  Four innings from a guy that hasn’t gone that long in years.  Throwing double as many pitches as his season high.  Finishing things off in the 11th with the tying run always at the plate.  Five strikeouts when the Cubs didn’t strikeout at all against Adam Wainwright.  Truly a remarkable performance.

Goat: Nolan Gorman.  Not only did he go 0-2, his lapse after striking out on a wild pitch in the 10th kept Tommy Edman from scoring the go-ahead run.  If he’d taken off for first as soon as he’d swung, he probably beats it out.  I get that it probably didn’t register the ball got away for a second but it was a painful thing to watch.

Notes: We talked about seeing less of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, but I don’t think anyone thinks the same about Waino.  I feel like there are going to be a few more games that are going to be labors, that he might get hit a little more (especially if he’s not getting the edges of the zone) but more often than not, he’s going to do fine or more than fine.  In this one, seven innings of two run ball is more than fine, even if he gave up nine hits and two walks but struck out nobody.  He made the pitches he had to and kept the team around to take the lead.  He didn’t wind up with the win, but it was a winning performance….Brendan Donovan again in on the action, getting two hits including the one that plated the insurance run in the 11th….kudos to Lars Nootbaar as well, pinch-hitting in the ninth with Harrison Bader on third and one out and driving a base hit up the middle to tie the game up….props of course to Bader, who tripled to start that inning….very good to see Juan Yepez drive in the go-ahead run in the 11th.  He’s 10 for 50 since his three-hit game against the Mets with 15 strikeouts, but you know spending that much time with Pujols things are going to improve for that young man very soon.

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