The Winter Is Here

Imagine a different reality.  Albert Pujols said that, in June, he was giving some serious consideration to retirement.  Say if after an 0-2 on the Fourth of July, he decided to call it quits, hitting .189/.282/.320 with four homers.  His departure makes it more likely that Yadier Molina doesn’t return from Puerto Rico (as Adam Wainwright was afraid he might do) and the battery falls short of 325 by nine games.  Yet somehow, perhaps to honor those vets, the team rallies and winds up winning the World Series.  Do you prefer that over what we got?

A lot of people are going to say yes.  Winning the championship is everything and obviously that’s what you want to see at the end of any season.  The thing is, that’s possible every season.  Seeing 700 home runs, seeing everything Pujols did down the stretch, seeing Wainwright and Molina set their record, you can’t do that again.  You can’t have those moments every season.  This was a once in a lifetime situation.

Perhaps that’s just a little consolation after such a disastrous ending to the 2022 season.  Let’s be clear–the two options above weren’t the only ones.  It was easily possible to have your cake (the history) and eat it too (the championship).  While they might not have been the favorites the Cardinals, playing at the top of their game, would have been a legitimate challenger for the title.

The problem is, the Cardinals were playing at the top of their game in October.  Since then, things haven’t been nearly as complete.

As a team, the Cardinals slashed .227/.305/.383 in September (and those few regular season games in October), which rivaled April for their worst hitting month of the year.  They averaged 4.12 runs per game, just over the 4.1 they averaged in the first month.  The pitching staff allowed a .715 OPS in the final month, which was the highest they had allowed all year except May (.728).  The team ERA for the month, for both starters and relievers, wasn’t much out of line, so the fault really didn’t lie with the pitchers, but it felt like the few times the offense might do something, the pitching would then hit a bump.

As much as we can say that the Cardinals title hopes ended on October 4, when Ji Hwan Bae hit a comebacker to Ryan Helsley, it’s hard to imagine that even if the Cards had won Game 1 (and then the Game 3 that they would have been heavily favored in) they could have gone very deep without their offense clicking.  We said many times this season that they would go as far as Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado would take them.  That turned out to be true, but it also turned out to be unfortunate.

In Arenado’s case, some of that was just bad luck.

Arenado wasn’t perfect, by any means–he did have at least one key strikeout–but for the most part he was putting the ball in play and hitting it hard, just with no results.  Goldschmidt, however, just looked lost.  He struck out three times in Game 2, leaving four men on base.  The balls he hit had exit velocities of 89.5, 88.0, and 98.3.  That just continued a rough end of the season for Goldy, who hit just .253 with two home runs after August.  While the rest of his season was so strong that he’ll probably still win MVP, you wonder if that award will seem a little tainted, a little ironic given how the season ended for him.

We can rehash all of Oli Marmol’s decisions, whether he took out Jose Quintana too early, whether he should have been more pro-active with Helsley as things started to unravel, if Andre Pallante was the right move when he did go to the bullpen.  All of those are valid baseball debates to have, I think, and Marmol was on the radio yesterday talking about them and giving his thoughts, his side of the debate.  You could discuss whether or not they were the right reasons, but there was data and logic there, not just “Helsley’s our closer and we have to live or die with him”.  Which is something, at least.  It’s an indication that, even they don’t work out, informed decisions are being made and, in baseball, that’s really all you can ask for.

So we reach another winter with the bitter taste of disappointment in our mouths.  It’s a different flavor than last year, when winter hit on Alex Reyes‘s fourth pitch of the wild card game.  It’s similar in texture to 2020, when the Cardinals won the first game and had a lead in the second over the Padres, only for the bullpen to melt down and then the offense not show up to support Jack Flaherty in the final match.  (The Cardinals have scored one run total in their last three elimination games.)  It’s also got hints of 2019, when the offense completely failed to show up against the Washington Nationals until the last half of Game 4, when the club was already down 7-0.

We think of the Cardinals being a playoff juggernaut, always there, always making things happen.  Yet since the 2011 World Series, they have won six series (if you include the 2012 Wild Card Game) and have lost eight, with one of those series wins requiring a miracle comeback in the ninth against the Nationals.  If I’m doing the math right, they are 25-33 in that span in playoff games.  Playing 58 playoff games is pretty remarkable, especially when you realize they didn’t play any in 2016-2018, but you’d like to see a better record than that.  They’ve lost their last five playoff games in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10.

Is that enough to motivate a change in philosophy?  Should the Cardinals move from building a team to win the Central to a team that can legitimately contend for one of the best records in the game?

After all, starting next season the ability to pad your win total by taking out weak division foes is going to be curtailed.  It’s still there but you’ll only see the Cubs, Reds, and Pirates 13 times instead of 19.  Let’s look at how the Cards did against the Central this year, statistically.

Team Hitters OPS Pitchers OPS Record
Chicago .814. .644 13-6
Cincinnati .706 .663 12-7
Milwaukee .681 .689 10-9
Pittsburgh .796 .712 13-6
Overall .745 .696 93-69

Forty-eight of the Cardinals’ 93 wins (51.6%) came against the Central while only 46.9% of their total games were in the division.  Next year, only 32.1% of their games will be against those teams.  Even if you win at exactly the same clip against them (a .632 winning percentage) that’s only going to amount to 33 wins.  Where are you going to make up the other 15, just to get you back to the low 90s?  Sure, you get three against Oakland here and three against Detroit there, but as we well know, a three game set against even the worst team can be unpredictable, especially when you don’t have the familiarity of playing against them regularly.

There’s a strong argument to be made that you can’t just run this team back and hope for a more 2021 version of Tyler O’Neill, some growth from Dylan Carlson, a full year of Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty, and perhaps the early to mid-season addition of Jordan Walker.  Perhaps it takes a bold move and perhaps that means blocking a player that looks like they are a fast riser.  For instance, there will be some shortstops out there and even though you have Masyn Winn a year or so away, maybe you don’t wait on that or you figure out where you can use him when the time comes.  That’s what they did with the Nolans, after all, getting Arenado and figuring it out with Gorman.  (David Jones and I discussed this point last night on Gateway, if you are interested in listening.)

There will be time enough to go into the potential of this offseason, though.  Right now, it’s time to do some wrap-up and planning.  I’ll do the final Heroes and Goats at the end of this post.  I’m thinking it might actually be the final ones.  For 15 years I’ve written something about every game using that format, whether in a full post or just a short recap.  This season, as you see, it got away from me and I had to do more and more lengthy catchup posts.  There’s about three weeks of them below, after all.  Part of me thinks that maybe it’s time to retire that concept and just write when I can, not worrying about recapping every game.  On the other, well, I’ve had seasons like this and I’ve been able to come back and be stronger about regular writing.  Blogging is a young man’s game, though, and all of you know I’m well into middle-age.  The podcasts and the occasional post here or on Substack might have to suffice.  We’ll see how it goes.

Before all that, though, we’ll have another season of Exit Interviews.  I’ll start working up the schedule and the posts soon, but I’d imagine they’d start rolling out November 14 or 21.  (I’d lock down the 14th except that’s just a month and I’m not sure I have the oomph to get them done by then.  We’ll see.)  After that, we’ll do the Top Cards on Twitter results (you can still vote on those here and I encourage you to do so if you haven’t) as we work our way to Christmas.  Obviously we’ll have posts on any sort of news that might go on with the Cardinals–though I don’t think we have to worry about a managerial change this year–and if you haven’t subscribed to Substack, you might go ahead and do that as I may throw short bits here and there on that platform.  I need to talk about Andor, for instance.

The podcasts will be a little less regular, of course.  I know in January Meet Me at Musial will start with the special guests again but between then and now Allen and I will probably take a few weeks off here and there.  If you aren’t following the Twitter or subscribed on your podcast platform, you should do so to make sure you don’t miss an episode.  Same thing–well, the subscribing part–with Gateway to Baseball Heaven.  Tara and I usually take more time off than Allen and I do on Musial, but we’ll still have some episodes here and there.

The winter rolled in on us much faster than we expected.  It’s going to be a long wait until even the offseason, since nothing can happen until the end of the World Series, much less until next season.  We’ll get through it, though.  We always do.

RECAP (I don’t imagine anyone cares, but I’ll keep adding throughout the day or even longer)

Thursday, September 15 (3-2 loss vs Cincinnati)

Hero: Paul Goldschmidt.  A hit, a walk, an RBI.  On a quiet night for the offense, this counts as a loud line.

Goat: Corey Dickerson.  A little harsh, given that he just pinch-hit in the ninth, but he had two runners in scoring position and a hit probably wins the ballgame.

Notes: Miles Mikolas turned in a quality start by the very definition, giving up three runs in six innings.  Always wondered when they would ease back on Mikolas down the stretch and the answer as never….Andre Pallante and Jake Woodford threw the last three innings, giving up a hit and a walk each….a total of three hits by the offense, so to be able to almost pull out a win was kinda surprising.

Friday, September 16 (6-5 win vs Cincinnati)

Hero: Nolan Arenado.  Two for four with a double and two RBI, the last of which was the game winner.

Goat: Jack Flaherty.  Four runs in five innings is not exactly what you want to see, even if it is against the Reds in Great American.

Notes: One of the rare days the middle of the lineup clicked, with Paul Goldschmidt also getting two hits (both doubles) and driving in a run….Albert Pujols hit #698, a two run shot that tied the game in the sixth….solid leadoff night for Brendan Donovan, who walked twice and had a hit….two stolen bases for Tyler O’Neill even though he went 0-1 (with two walks)….JoJo Romero was the only weak spot in the bullpen, giving up a run in 2/3rds of an inning.  Otherwise, nothing….Ryan Helsley posted the third immaculate inning ever in Cardinals history, striking out the side on nine pitches in a dominating performance.

Saturday, September 17, Game 1 (5-1 win vs Cincinnati)

Hero: Dakota Hudson.  Eight innings, one unearned run.  You don’t get much better than that, especially from Hudson.

Goat: Paul DeJong.  Most everyone reached base as the Reds handed out six walks and that included one to DeJong.  But otherwise he went 0-3 with a strikeout and two left on.

Notes: Two hit day for Yadier Molina, including what turned out to be his final home run in the majors.  Fitting that it was against Cincinnati….three hits by Tommy Edman and a run batted in as well….seemed rare when Albert Pujols wouldn’t have some sort of hit, though he did walk twice.

Saturday, September 17, Game 2 (1-0 win in 11 vs Cincinnati)

Hero: Jose Quintana.  Eight scoreless innings with just two hits and six strikeouts, capping a great day by the starters and really putting Quintana in the postseason rotation discussion.

Goat: Paul Goldschmidt.  0-5 with four strikeouts and four left on base, symbolic of his rough end of the season.  The one time he did hit the ball, he put it in play for the fielder’s choice that won the ballgame when Andrew Knizner avoided Austin Romine‘s tag, but that’s small consolation.

Notes: Hunter Greene is definitely good, but 11 strikeouts in six innings good?  I guess we’ll see over the coming years…the Reds bullpen, though, should not have been able to hold down the offense as well as they did, but as we will see they were going through a rough patch right here (the Cardinal offense, not the Reds bullpen)….three of the five Cardinal hits were from Tommy Edman….Steven Matz made his return from the injured list and his bullpen debut, pitching a scoreless 11th and then picking up the win.

Sunday, September 18 (3-0 loss vs Cincinnati)

Hero: Jake Woodford.  In relief of a solid if unspectacular Jordan Montgomery, he threw 2.2 scoreless innings with three strikeouts, keeping the game close.

Goat: Corey Dickerson.  0-4 (which was pretty common, given the Cards only got two hits) and left four on base.

Notes: When your only hits come from Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong, you know it’s a rough day….the Cardinals only struck out twice, but nothing they hit found a hole….Montgomery went 5.1 innings and struck out nine, but allowed three runs on seven hits and two walks….Patron Pitcher of the Blog Packy Naughton got into some trouble by allowing two hits in 1/3 of an inning, but Chris Stratton cleaned it up.

Tuesday, September 20 (5-0 loss at San Diego)

Hero: Albert Pujols.  2-3 with a walk.

Goat: Corey Dickerson.  0-4 with two strikeouts and three left on.

Notes: Adam Wainwright struggled again, giving up four runs in six innings and striking out only one….non-Pujols Cardinals only managed three hits….one of those was a double by Paul Goldschmidt.

Wednesday, September 21 (1-0 loss at San Diego)

Hero: Miles Mikolas.  Six innings, three hits, two walks, six strikeouts….and one lousy unearned run due to a Tommy Edman error.  No respect, I tell ya.

Goat: Tommy Edman.  Not only did he have the error, he went 0-4 in the leadoff spot.

Notes: Albert Pujols had a hit.  Juan Yepez had a hit.  That was it….JoJo Romero came in with two Jake Woodford runners on and got out of the inning, then threw a scoreless eighth.

Thursday, September 22 (5-4 win at San Diego)

Hero: Brendan Donovan.  His grand slam in the seventh flipped the game and stopped the losing streak.

Goat: Andrew Knizner.  0-4 with a strikeout and two left on.

Notes: Lars Nootbaar stopped the excessively long scoreless streak with a home run in the fifth inning….Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado both had two hits, with one of Arenado’s being a double….Jack Flaherty continued to try to find his form, allowing three runs in six innings but striking out nine in the process and looking much sharper toward the end of his outing….Ryan Helsley got touched for a home run but Giovanny Gallegos locked down the save.

Friday, September 23 (11-0 win at Los Angeles)

Hero: Albert Pujols.  #699 and #700.  The man has always had a flair for the dramatic.  Five RBI as well, which got him within shouting distance of Babe Ruth in that category.

Goat: Nolan Arenado.  He couldn’t join in the offensive exploits, going 0-5.

Notes: Alec Burleson pinch-hit for Pujols in the eighth and homered as well, becoming the rare player to hit his first career homer off of a position player….big night for Lars Nootbaar as well, with a single, a double, and a homer, plus three RBI….two hits for Juan Yepez (including a homer) and Dylan Carlson….Jose Quintana was the recipient of all this largesse, but he threw 6.2 scoreless frames and probably didn’t need all that support….Corey Dickerson has two homers off of position players, so he finally got a chance to be on the other side, throwing a scoreless ninth.

Saturday, September 24 (6-2 loss at Los Angeles)

Hero: Nolan Arenado.  HIs two-run homer off of Clayton Kershaw was the only scoring, plus he chipped in another hit and a walk.

Goat: Jordan Montgomery.  Six runs in four innings is hard to swallow at any time, much less against a Dodgers team that isn’t likely to allow for a comeback.

Notes: A night after history, Albert Pujols went 1-4 and scored on Arenado’s homer, though he did have two strikeouts….Tommy Edman had another 0-4 leading off…Paul DeJong got a hit, which was nice for him….Dakota Hudson had three scoreless innings in relief.

Sunday, September 25 (4-1 loss at Los Angeles)

Hero: Juan Yepez.  Two hits and he scored the only run on a Yadier Molina single.

Goat: Adam Wainwright.  Four runs in just three innings on the back of six hits and three walks.  That dead arm phase cost him another shot at October.

Notes: Zack Thompson came in and kept things close, throwing two scoreless innings….the entire bullpen did well, with only Jake Woodford allowing a base runner….Paul Goldschmidt was 0-4 with two strikeouts, continuing his slide.

Tuesday, September 27 (6-2 win at Milwaukee)

Hero: Paul Goldschmidt.  He drove in the first run with a sacrifice fly, drove in the fifth run with a single, and had another hit to boot.

Goat: Corey Dickerson.  0-4 with three left on.

Notes: The Cardinals clinched the NL Central in this one, since this gave them the tiebreaker on the Brewers….Dylan Carlson had two doubles….Andrew Knizner had probably the biggest blow, bouncing a two-run homer off the top of the wall to push the lead out to 4-0….Miles MIkolas did what Miles MIkolas does, a run over six innings with nine strikeouts.  OK, maybe he doesn’t always do that last part.

Wednesday, September 28 (5-1 loss at Milwaukee)

Hero: Andrew Knizner.  For the second straight night, hit the top of the wall for a homer, this time the only run the Cards got.  It was part of a two hit night for the catcher.

Goat: Dylan Carlson, who went 0-5 with two strikeouts and left six men on.

Notes: The night after the clincher, so there was a hangover lineup in place and nobody much cared about the outcome….for all that, it was a close game for the most part, as Jose Quintana gave up just one run in five innings….JoJo Romero probably should have gotten the Goat, as he didn’t get anyone out and left with the bases loaded….however, Giovanny Gallegos did him no favors, allowing all three runs to score….two hits for Ben DeLuzio, which was cool for him….Juan Yepez went 0-4 with two strikeouts and might have been the Goat on another day.

Friday, September 30 (2-1 win vs Pittsburgh)

Hero: Albert Pujols.  #701 off of former teammate Johan Oviedo tied the game in the fourth.

Goat: Juan Yepez.  0-4 with a strikeout.

Notes: Nolan Arenado singled in the go-ahead run in the fifth….Jack Flaherty looked very good, allowing just one run in six innings while striking out six….the bullpen held the line, with Ryan Helsley locking down the save with his red lights….two singles for Paul Goldschmidt.

Saturday, October 1 (13-3 win vs Pittsburgh)

Hero: Corey Dickerson.  A grand slam in the bottom of the first sent the game into serious territory before the third out of the frame.

Goat: Paul DeJong.  0-4 with two strikeouts, the only starter to play the whole game and not to have a hit, walk, or run.

Notes: Albert Pujols started the scoring with a two-run single, getting ever so close to Babe Ruth’s RBI total….for the fact they scored 13 runs, only Dickerson had two hits….of course, the Cardinals also walked eight times….Dylan Carlson pinch-hit and drove in two….Alec Burleson also drove in two with a base hit….Jordan Montgomery cruised with the huge lead, allowing two runs in six innings.

Sunday, October 2 (7-5 loss vs Pittsburgh)

Hero: In his last Busch Stadium regular season game, Albert Pujols doubled in two runs in the first, then homered in the third.

Goat: In what might have been his last major league game (we’ll see), Adam Wainwright couldn’t make it through the fifth, giving up six runs in 4.2 innings.

Notes: The reason Wainwright wasn’t pulled earlier, beyond the fact it was a meaningless game, became clear when Oli Marmol went out to the mound in the fifth and not only removed Wainwright, but Pujols and Yadier Molina at the same time in a piece of baseball theater that didn’t leave a dry eye in the house….Juan Yepez replaced Pujols and went 2-3….Andrew Knizner replaced Yadi and went 1-2….Zack Thompson replaced Wainwright and left his last runner stranded before going two more innings and allowing a tally.

Monday, October 3 (3-2 loss at Pittsburgh)

Hero: Albert Pujols.  #703, the final home run of his legendary career, put the Cards out in front 2-0 and put him ahead of Babe Ruth for second on the all-time RBI list.

Goat: Giovanny Gallegos.  Fresh off his (in my mind questionable, as I talked about on this week’s Musial) extension, he got the last out of the eighth but then walked the first three batters in the ninth.

Notes: JoJo Romero finished off the bizarre way to lose by walking the only batter he faced, forcing in the winning run….tuneup game for the pitchers, as Jose Quintana threw three scoreless, followed by Miles Mikolas allowing one run in three frames….another rough night for Paul DeJong, who went 0-4 with three strikeouts.

Tuesday, October 4 (8-7 win in 10 at Pittsburgh)

Hero: It really should be someone out of the bullpen given their work let the Cards come back.  I’ll say Chris Stratton, who pitched the final two frames (which meant he had to deal with a zombie runner) and even though he gave up two hits and a walk, held the line.

Goat: Dakota Hudson.  Just about the time you start trusting in Hudson, something like this happens.  Six runs in the second, another run in the third before leaving with the bases loaded and Andre Pallante to get the final out of the frame.

Notes: In his final regular season game, Albert Pujols went out with a two-run single.  We’re going to miss that man….Corey Dickerson had two hits and two RBI coming off the bench….Juan Yepez had the game-winning single in the 10th….Andrew Knizner had two hits….good day for Paul DeJong, who had two hits and drew a walk, plus scored two times.

Wednesday, October 5 (5-3 loss at Pittsburgh)

Hero: Tommy Edman.  Three hits, one RBI, two runs scored, and his 32nd stolen base.

Goat: Matthew Liberatore.  Making the spot start, he gave up five runs in five innings, including four in the fourth.

Notes: Yadier Molina, who didn’t play at all in this series until the end, pinch-hit in the seventh and lined out, ending his regular season career.  We’re going to miss that man as well….0-4 from Paul DeJong, who is going to be a very interesting situation this winter….Lars Nootbaar continues to make a case, going one for two with a walk and a double….for a guy that had some strange usage issues this year, kinda ironic that Jake Woodford was the last pitcher used this season, throwing two scoreless innings.

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