Welcome to The Redbird Review
For many weeks now, interested if confused observers have tried to make sense of the straggly, goofy wrangle for the NL’s No. 2 wild card.
This bewilderment often leads to a familiar question.
My baseball-writing friend Bob Nightengale of USA Today recently reached his point of exasperation and wrote:
“Ok, so maybe you can’t blame anyone in the National League for not wanting to earn the second spot. Who wants to be embarrassed by the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Francisco Giants in the wild-card game?
“There are three powerhouses in the NL – the Giants, Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers – and the second wild-card winner must travel to California to play the runner-up in the NL West.
“Come on, if these NL wild-card entrants were all that interested in making the playoffs, would they really be playing like this?”
Well, for whatever it’s worth the Cardinals seem to be heading in the right direction. They are going forward with pep. They appear to be churning up something that resembles momentum. They are declining to take a break to pause and lollygag or doodle. There is a bounce to their step. There is a sharper edge to their competitiveness.
The manager calls this “scratching and clawing.”
I prefer to call it “pitching and defense and smart baserunning and timely hitting.”
The manager calls this “fighting their tails off.”
I prefer to call it “the bullpen is getting those hugely important outs again.”
Let’s not haggle over the verbiage.
Is this the streak we’ve been waiting for?
I’ll get back to you on that. This Cardinals is becoming much easier to like, but I don’t know if I’m ready to trust their recent record — or my eyes, for that matter. We’ve been through this cycle a few times this season: the mighty Redbirds appear for a week, turn into birdbrains, and fly into a brick wall.
Since flapping through four consecutive losses, the Cardinals have won five of six games from the Dodgers, Reds and Mets.
And the recent trends among the wild-card wanderers looks like this:
If you’d like to step back and take a wider view, here you go. Since June 28 the Cardinals have the fifth-best winning percentage (.569) in the National League, following the Dodgers, Brewers, Giants and Braves.
Compared to fellow wild-card petitioners, the Cardinals have been winning more and losing less for a longer period of time.
And that is well and pretty good … just peachy … unless, of course, the Cards implode during their final 19 regular-season games.
As the quadragenarian righthander Adam Wainwright offered late Monday night after grinding through six shutout innings in a 7-0 victory over the Mets:
“All of these games are just so important it feels like a playoff game,” Wainwright said via postgame Zoom conference. “We have to win all of them, I think. We have to have that intent to go out and win all of these games. We can’t have any slipups the rest of the way. We’ve got to bring our best — just like in a playoff series.”
Listen to your elders, children.
So what are the reasons behind their 5-1 mini-run?
First, an obligatory teeny-weeny sample size warning. Now let us continue…
1) Their pitching staff is being cruel. They are refusing to allow runs. By the end of Monday’s win at Citi Field, the Cardinal arms had zipped through 24 consecutive scoreless innings.
In Saturday’s 6-4 win over the Reds, the Cardinals held the team that reps the spirit of WKRP to no runs over the final six innings. Sunday, the Cardinals all but confiscated the Reds’ bats while proceeding to pitch a 2-0 shutout. And Monday night in Queens, the Mets were shushed by Wainwright and three relievers in the 7-0 vanquishment.
Opponents have batted .172 (13 for 84) while being shutout by St. Louis pitchers.
Just an opinion — and I don’t know much about this here game of baseball — but I’d imagine a team’s probability of winning is enhanced by 24 consecutive innings of suffocating, shutdown, pitching.
And yes, I’m being sarcastic.
2) A fantabulous bullpen. I just wanted to use that word. But seriously, over the last six games St. Louis relievers have teamed for a 0.98 ERA in 18 and ⅓ innings. The bullpen grip includes a .148 opponent batting average, 0.65 WHIP, and a 32.3 percent strikeout rate, and striking out six of nine hitters that tested them with runners in scoring position.
T.J. McFarland was the only reliever to come away with a bruise, allowing two earned runs in Friday’s 4-2 setback to the Reds. (All is forgiven.) But Luis Garcia, Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, Genesis Cabrera and Kodi Whitley haven’t yielded a run in 14 and ⅓ combined innings during this positive stretch.
3) A related note: The Big Three looks like the Big Three again. Reyes, Gallegos and Cabrera were suffering from late-inning burns for a while, but the healing process is going well, and the situation seems to be returning to normalcy. During the team’s 5-1 roll, Reyes, Gallegos and Cabrera have combined for 10 and ⅔ scoreless innings with a strikeout rate of 42 percent. Yep, 42%. And only two walks, both by Reyes.
4) Starting pitchers: 2.78 ERA in the six games. Fine work (especially) by Wainwright, Jon Lester, J.A. Happ and Jake Woodford. Miles Mikolas is still sharpening after his lengthy residency on the IL.
5) Timely hitting: The offense hasn’t been great over the last six games, averaging 4.0 runs, batting .240, and turning in a low .291 onbase percentage. But the bat men have made up for it with doses of timely hitting. Namely, a .318 average and .910 OPS with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals have scored 24 total runs in the six games; 15 came in through deliveries of runners in scoring position.
6) Big names are paid to do big things. And familiar names have led the charge during this 5-1 mini-surge.
Nolan Arenado: two game-winning homers, seven RBI and five runs scored.
Paul Goldschmidt: one homer, four RBI and five runs.
Yadier Molina: two homers, five RBI, five runs.
Tyler O’Neill: two homers, two RBI, five runs.
With runners in scoring position Arenado, Goldschmidt and Molina are a combined 5 for 12 (.417) with eight RBI over the last six games.
7) Smart baserunning and above-average defense. This stuff matters, especially in tight games that narrow and set the line that separates winning from losing.
That’s my report on the six-game turnaround that’s left put the Cardinals into a tie with the Padres in the wild card derby — with both teams only a half-game behind the Reds.
WAINWRIGHT, MAKER OF WINS: Since May 29, the Cardinals are 16-4 when their wisest of men starts a ballgame. And in the non-Waino starts since May 29, the Cards are 29-43. It isn’t a coincidence, either.
So here’s another one: Since July 21 the Cardinals are 10-1 in Wainwright’s 11 starts. Otherwise they’re 17-20.
For the season: STL is 55-59 when Wainwright doesn’t start and 19-10 when he pitches. But the full impact of Waino’s value surfaced in late May and early June, around the time Jack Flaherty went on the IL for the first time this year. And if anything, he’s gotten stronger and stronger.
PRAISE FROM THE METS MANAGER: Luis Rojas was impressed by the pitcher-catcher partnership of Wainwright and Molina in Monday’s game. The battery has been charging the Cardinals since Waino and Yadi first worked together in the big leagues back in 2005. They’ve had plenty of practice. But it’s still a magical thing, watching them mess with the minds of the hitters by changing pitch-selection patterns, tinkering with velocity levels and location points — and other feats of legerdemain that keep batters off balance.
“Those two, Wainwright and Molina, they do a good job changing sequences,” Rojas said via postgame Zoom. “I believe that you’ve got to track one pitch, especially the pitch that he’ll throw in the zone the most. But he was able to mix a lot of different pitches in the zone in different at-bats. He changed sequences. They take good reads on guys’ swings. I’m saying ‘they’ because it’s the battery, for me. Those two guys just pair up so well.”
UNDERRATED ROTATION? The Cardinals are 37-28 since June 28. And as I mentioned earlier, that’s the fifth-best record in the NL over that time. Wainwright is the clear leader of the pack, but all in all the rotation has performed better than most realize since late June. That’s when lefty Wade LeBlanc was added to the rotation. A month later, two more lefties joined the band: Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. LeBlanc (elbow) isn’t part of it now.
This season the three lefthanders have combined to give the Cardinals 24 starts. And they improved the rotation by turning in 16 above-average Game Scores in their 24 starters. Game Score was developed by the esteemed Bill James and I like to use it as an alternative to the Quality Start. (That’s because the Game Score is a more appropriate reflection of current pitching conditions, such as lower innings-pitched totals in starts this season.
Anyway, here’s why the percentage of above-average starts (67%) from LeBlanc, Lester and Happ have mattered for the 2021 Cardinals:
When the Cards receive the benefit of an average start or better this season, their record is a superb 59-26. In games with a below-average start, the STL record is 15-43. BIG difference.
As for Wainwright: he’s turned in an above-average Game Score in 76% of his starts this season, 22 of 29. And the Cardinals are 18-4 in those 22 games.
Since June 28 the St. Louis starting rotation has a 3.53 ERA that ranks third in the majors behind the Dodgers (2.50) and Brewers (2.74.) The overall St. Louis ERA since June 28 is 3.73; that ranks fifth in the majors over that time..
THE POOR, POOR PADRES: These dudes can’t get a lucky break. And they can’t make their way back to stability and success after absorbing weeks and weeks of beatdowns.
— Just as Yu Darvish was pitching better, he got trashed by the Giants on Monday night. In San Diego’s 9-1 loss. Four innings, four home runs, eight runs, three walks. His command was way off. His velocity was way down. He may be hurting again. Darvish has a 7.67 ERA in his last 11 starts. He’s been strafed for 27 home runs this season; 17 have landed in his past 10 starts. My goodness. You think that bitter Cubs fans might be changing their view on the ownership-ordered trade that sent Darvish and his massive contract to San Diego.
— Just when starter Chris Paddack returned to the rotation to offer a couple of encouraging showings — well, forget about it. He’s returned to the IL with elbow inflammation. Length of stay, TBD.
— And the Padres still don’t know if starter Blake Snell can take his next scheduled start Friday in St. Louis. Snell has groin tightness. Padres manager Jayce Tingler is minimizing it, but those who cover the team are skeptical of a quick return.
— The Padres have lost 20 of their last 28 games. This hideous stretch began Aug. 11, and during the collapse the Padres have averaged a MLB-low 3.29 runs per game, been shut out six times, and are hitting .203 with a .287 OBP and .323 slug. The sting got worse with the loss of infielder Jake Cronenworth (fractured finger.)
— In going 8-20 the Padres have been outscored 147-92. They’re 0-8 against the Dodgers and Giants since Aug. 24 and have been outscored 45-10.
— Since July 1, old friend Tommy Pham is batting .187 with a .282 OBP and .310 slug. In 213 plate appearances over that time the former Cardinal outfielder has four homers, 14 RBI and a 25.4% strikeout rate. During the team’s 8-20 funk Pham is hitting .156 with a .281 slug.
If the Cardinals can’t overtake the Padres — and I believe that they’ll do it — then this 5-1 stretch was just another tease.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.