THE REDBIRD REVIEW
I’m looking forward to a weekend of hardball at the beautiful PNC Park in Pittsburgh, watching the Cardinals and the Pirates try to rearrange the standings in the loopy, goofy NL Central.
It’s only June 2 – way too early to sweat over a division race that will remain open for claiming all summer long.
Still, this three-game series feels big to me. It isn’t a showdown. Nothing consequential is at stake in the ballpark by the Allegheny River. But from a St. Louis standpoint, you’d like to see the Cardinals use grappling hooks and ropes to board the Jolly Roger and raise hell.
For the Cardinals, the priority is to win the series. That applies to every series. But this weekend presents an opportunity for the Cardinals to extend their winning trendline and keep the Pirates down.
After the close of business on May 6, the brash Pirates (20-14) were sitting atop the NL Central and held a 10–game lead over the 10-24 Cardinals.
The math has changed. Since May 7 the Cardinals have the NL’s best record at 15-8. After their 20-8 ambush to start the season, the sinking Pirates have only eight wins in the last 27 games.
But the NL Central is a charity that gives hope to tired bats and poor pitching. Despite winning only one of their nine series in a dreadful May, the Pirates (28-27) are clinging to second place and are only a half-game behind the first-place Brewers.
The Pirates finally won a series in May at the end of the month, taking two of three from the Giants in San Francisco. They begin June with their lengthiest homestand of the season playing a string of nine games against the Cardinals, A’s and Mets.
The Pirates are eager to have a chance to strengthen themselves by weakening the Cardinals.
The Cardinals see the Pirates and may think about the Bucs coming into Busch Stadium to split a four-game series in mid-April. Sure, the teams fought to a draw, but the Pirates sent a message in a bottle. Hey, we’ve improved. We’re better. Just at the standings. We aren’t afraid of you.
The Cardinals can use this series to reaffirm that they’re making a comeback, and it’s real. Open the stadium games. Here we come. Pittsburgh’s 10-game lead over St. Louis has been cut to four games.
In the 8-19 stretch that began on April 30, the Pirates have scored only 3.2 runs per game, batted .223, slugged .352 and homered only 19 times in 884 at-bats. That’s an average of one homer every 86.5 at-bats!
If the St. Louis starters and relievers can’t shut down the Pittsburgh offense, they’ll be back to answering questions about their inconsistency and frustration.
The Pirates are anxious to build on the series win at San Francisco by coming out fast and hard to have a successful June.
“We struggled in May, but it’s a win if you ask me,” Pirates DH Andrew McCutchen told reporters at the end of the Giants series. “Would you rather have those struggles in May? Or would you rather have those struggles in September, when you’re trying to push for a playoff spot? It’s something we learn from. You learn, grow through it. Two months in the books, I feel pretty good about where we are.”
No. 1 prospect Jordan Walker has been summoned from Triple A Memphis to put some muscle in a lean, short-handed outfield. The Cardinals could use a spark right now.
The Redbirds have lined up Jack Flaherty, Jordan Montgomery and Miles Mikolas to start against the Pirates. These are their three-best starters right now, and that tells us a lot about how Marmol views this series. (I didn’t forget about Matthew Liberatore who will get his chance to claim a rotation spot.)
It’s the Cardinals vs. the Pirates.
It’s inspection time.
If the Cardinals screw up this weekend, they’ll immediately pivot into a three-game series at Texas. The Rangers are 35-20 for the second-best winning percentage (.636) in the majors.
Or let me put it another way: The Cardinals gotta win this series at PNC Park.
FIVE THINGS THE CARDS MUST DO
The fellers are coming off a rare, two-day break in the schedule. They’re rested. But are they ready? This is what I’d like to see this weekend.
1. Get the offense going. In their final seven games before reaching their rest stop, the Birds averaged 2.1 runs, batted .177 overall, slugged .303 and went 4 for 42 with runners in scoring position. Nap time is over. Willson Contreras, Nolan Gorman and Paul DeJong really need to crank it up.
2. Three good, solid starts in a row by Flaherty, Montgomery and Mikolas. Montgomery has been awful lately, and that must change.
3. It would be fantastic to see Jordan Walker deliver instant impact. If he can hammer Pirates pitching all weekend, it would help the Cardinals and be a boost to Walker’s confidence.
4. A meltdown-free weekend for the STL bullpen, especially Ryan Helsley. And it would be nice if Steven Matz can begin to evolve into the lefty reliever that this team needs. Genesis Cabrera can’t do it alone.
5. Clean up the defense. This project will be done over time, but the Cardinals can’t be careless against the Pirates. The Cardinals have fumbled and stumbled their way to 24th in the majors with a horrendous minus 11 in Defensive Runs Saved. And yes, I worry about a scary weekend for the outfield defense.
Thanks for reading!
Best wishes for a happy weekend.
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 are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
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.