After two consecutive inspiring victories over the Rockies at Coors Field, the Cardinals returned to Busch Stadium on Thursday to begin a four-game set against Pittsburgh.

By the way it looked, the home team needed to guzzle massive quantities of double-caffeine coffee before competing. Cardinals hitters were flat and lackluster and the so-called clutch hitting was non-existent. The Redbirds made Pirates starter Vince Velasquez look like the career-peak version of Dock Ellis.

A weary St. Louis bullpen was no match for the seafarers. And from now on, when Jordan Hicks walks in from the bullpen at Busch Stadium, I want to hear Arthur Brown’s “Fire” blaring through the ballpark. (Google it, kids.)

The improved Pirates made the Yinzers proud by carrying the skull and crossbones to a 5-0 victory.

ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: The Cardinals are 0-5 in the first game of a series this season, getting outscored 34-17 overall, and 24-8 the last four times it happened … at 5-8 the Cardinals are in last place in the NL Central, four games behind first-place Milwaukee … The Cards are 2-5 at Busch Stadium and among NL teams only Washington has been less successful than the St. Louis at home … The Cardinals are 3-7 against opponents that have winning records … the Cards’ overall winning percentage (.385) is 13th in the NL … after being shut out by the Pirates on Thursday, the Cardinals dropped to 21st overall in average runs per game (4.31) which is tied for 9th in the NL … in terms of run prevention, the Cardinals are 19th overall and 10th in the NL with an average of 4.92 runs given up per game.

JORDAN MONTGOMERY, BRIGHT SPOT. He pitched well against the Pirates, allowing two earned runs in 6.1 innings. The lefty is STL’s best starting pitcher so far. The rotation has only two Quality Starts in 13 games, and both were turned in by Monty. After three starts Montgomery has a 2.45 ERA and a 2.39 fielding-independent ERA. In 18.1 innings he has a terrific ground-ball rate (51%) and hasn’t allowed a home run. Opponents are hitting .217 against him with a low .571 OPS. Montgomery’s 133 ERA+ means he’s pitching 33 percent above league average.

The Cardinals have won 10 of Montgomery’s 14 starts since he came over from the Yankees last Aug. 2.

Excluding Jose Quintana, who signed with the Mets this past offseason, here are the best starting-pitcher ERAs among Cardinals that have at least eight starts since Montgomery joined the band:

  • Montgomery, 2.96 ERA in 14 starts.
  • Jack Flaherty, 3.19 ERA in eight starts.
  • Adam Wainwright, 4.99 ERA in 11 starts.
  • Miles Mikolas, 5.28 ERA in 13 starts.

Steven Matz has made only two starts (both this year) after the trade for Montgomery and worked out of the bullpen late in 2022. But Martz has a 6.20 in 11 starts as a Cardinal after signing a four-year, $44 million deal before ‘22.

STARTING PITCHING UPDATE: If you’re looking for encouragement, Jack Flaherty and Montgomery provided it in the team’s last two games. In 11.2 combined innings Flaherty and Monty allowed three earned runs for a 2.31 ERA – and walked only three with 11 strikeouts. But even after the two consecutive good starts, St. Louis ranks 26th in the majors and last in the National League with a 5.69 rotation ERA. The rotation’s fielding independent ERA (FIP) is slightly better at 5.03.

After the first 13 games in 2022, the Cardinal rotation had a standard starter ERA of 3.36 and a 3.18 FIP.

JORDAN HICKS. SIGH: Thursday manager OIi Marmol summoned Hicks from the bullpen to relieve Montgomery with runners on first and second base in the top of the 7th. The Pirates were leading 1-0. Hicks (of course) walked the first batter to load the bases. That set up a sac fly for a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead. Then came another walk, which reloaded the bases. Marmol mercifully pulled Hicks to bring in lefty Genesis Cabrera, who whipped in a strikeout to end the inning.

Hicks made 12 pitches in Thursday’s appearance, landing only three for strikes. He walked two. He did not strike out anyone. His first walk set the table for the Pirates to open their lead to 2-0.

In six appearances this season Hicks has pitched 5.1 innings, allowing eight hits, eight walks and six earned runs for a 10.13 ERA. He’s faced 31 batters and 16 have reached base. Opponents have walloped Hicks for four extra-base hits, a .361 average, and a .636 slugging percentage. They’ve posted a 1.152 OPS against him.

These numbers are glaring and scary:

  • The first batters that have faced Hicks in his appearances are 3 for 4 (.750) with two walks, a homer and no strikeouts.
  • In high-leverage situations vs. Hicks, opponents are 3 for 5 (.600) with four walks and no strikeouts.
  • Despite throwing so many 100 mph pitches, Hicks has a 16 percent strikeout rate – and a horrific 26% walk rate.
  • When he enters a game, Hicks has retired the first hitter only one time. When the first batter reaches base against Hicks, the opposing team has gone on to score six runs.
  • Hicks hasn’t had a 1-2-3 inning.
  • He has thrown 20+ pitches in an inning four times.
  • Hicks has had one shutout inning.
  • This season only 34% of his pitches are strikes.
  • Among MLB relievers that have worked at least five innings this season, Hicks’ 25.8% walk rate is the worst in the land.

I know the St. Louis bullpen was gassed after an extra-busy series at Coors Field. But a day later, I still can’t believe Marmol called in Hicks to handle a high-leverage situation.

Hicks has a 5.28 ERA and a woeful 16 percent walk rate since the beginning of the 2021 season. He’s out of options and can’t be demoted to the minors unless it’s for an injury-rehab assignment. Will and can the Cardinals trade Hicks? Is he healthy? Is there a minor injury that we don’t know about? The front office owes it to the team to do something about this.

MORE TROUBLE WITH TIMELY HITTING: A discouraging early-season trend reappeared in Thursday night’s loss when the Cardinals went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position. They left 10 men on base.

The Cardinals have left more runners on base than any National League team.

Through 13 games, here’s where the Cardinals rank in various RISP categories:

BA: .238 – 25th overall, 12th NL
OBP: .317 – 24th overall, 11th NL
SLG: .324 – 26th overall, 13th NL
OPS: .640 – 26th overall, 13th NL

In addition Cardinal hitters have a 25% strikeout with runners in scoring position (23rd overall, and 11th in NL) with runners in scoring position. And in RISP situations their park-and-league runs created (wRC+) is 22 percent below league average.

Here are the team’s best hitters with RISP, and this is where I restate the mandatory “small sample size” disclaimer:

— Nolan Arenado, .412 average and 1.156 OPS
— Jordan Walker, .364 average, .916 OPS
— Paul Goldschmidt, .333 average, 812 OPS
— Nolan Gorman, .250 average, .821 OPS

And here are the worst hitters with RISP in our small-sample inspection.

— Tommy Edman, .000 average, .000 OPS
— Brendan Donovan, .125 average, .325 OPS
— Tyler O’Neill, .125 average, .126 OPS
— Alec Burleson, .167 average, .500 OPS
— Willson Contreras, .200 average, .500 OPS

WILLSON CONTRERAS: He put a fine display of goaltending behind the plate Thursday, sealed off home plate to deny the Carlos Santana a run, and put up some tough at-bats to draw two walks Thursday. That’s a good sign for a dude who is off to a slow start at the plate. But Contreras has only one hit in his last 26 at-bats, a skid that’s dropped his batting average to .171. Contreras has one extra-base hit, a double, in 41 at-bats this season which leaves him with a .195 slugging percentage going into Friday.

Predictably, the grumbling among the more impatient fans is getting noisier. And if anyone out there wants to make snap judgements on a hitter that’s had only 46 plate appearances as a Cardinal so far … hey, have a ball. Knock yourself out. Go wild on Twitter!

Me? Well, I’d rather rely on 2,859 plate appearances to evaluate a hitter’s performance. And yes, from 2016 through 2022 Willson Contreras stepped into the batter’s box for exactly 2,859 plate appearances as a Cub.

Among the 25 MLB catchers that had at least 1,500 plate appearances from 2016 through 2022, Contreras ranked first in park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) with a performance that was18 percent above league average. He was also first at the position in OPS (.808), second in onbase percentage (.349) and fourth in slugging (.459.)

But Contreras is 1 for his last 26 while transitioning to a new club, inheriting a job held by future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina, and pressing to impress. Of course, that means Contreras stinks. No, actually it doesn’t mean that. Here’s what it means: any fan or media type who defines a player based on his first 12 games as a Cardinal … well, that’s just dumb.

More and more folks are suggesting moving Contreras from the No. 5 lineup spot, but he’s been very good in his career when batting fifth: 650 at-bats, a .375 OBP and .472 slug for a .847 OPS. And with 37 doubles, 28 homers and 85 RBI. He likes hitting there. He’s comfortable at the 5 spot.

In 1997, Mark McGwire batted .088 with a .177 slug in his first 40 plate appearances as a Cardinal. In 2002, Scott Rolen batted .150 in his first 43 plate appearances for St. Louis. If remember correctly, I think those guys did OK after that.

That’s all I have for you …

Have a swell weekend…

Thanks for reading …


Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. 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 show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used in my baseball columns were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Statcast, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

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.