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Late in this oh-my-lawd of a Tuesday night, the Cardinals were casually boxing up a win, leading the inert Cubs by five runs, needing only three perfunctory outs to seal a 6-1 victory.
Well, someone forgot the sealant. The Cardinals failed to close the box or the game, and manager Mike Shildt couldn’t find a roll of masking tape to assist with the final wrap-up of his team’s fourth consecutive win.
The Cubs crawled through the opening to bushwack the Cards at Busch. Final score: 7-6, and the mean season continues for the Cardinals.
The Cubs went from hibernation to liberation — turning Tuesday upside down and leaving the Cardinals dazed, dizzy and sickened.
From the fourth inning through the eighth, the Cardinals dominated the Cubs. And then they were humiliated by the Cubs.
This was, unquestionably, the worst loss of the season for a middling St. Louis team that slipped again in the lunge to save their season.
This had to be the most embarrassing and maddening night for the home team at Busch Stadium since the defending World Series champion Cubs clinched the NL Central title on St. Louis turf on Sept. 27, 2017. The Cubs put on a special show, flaunting their triumph with an especially boisterous celebration on the Cardinals’ lawn. And then the Cubs all but flooded the visiting-team clubhouse with their beer and champagne. The damage was done in more ways than one.
Another low point comes to mind: the Cincinnati Reds coming to town to give the slothful Cardinals two demeaning beatdowns — winning 9-1 on Friday, and 8-2 on Saturday. That was the final weekend series before the 2018 All-Star break, and manager Mike Matheny was fired after Saturday’s stomping. The next day Mike Shildt managed his first game as the new leader of the Cardinals.
Now, back to the here and the now and the sad for the 47-48 Cardinals.
A 47-48 team that has resided below the .500 level on 22 of the previous 23 days. A team that cannot afford to donate wins to opponents.
This seemingly imminent victory over the Cubs blew up in slow motion, and the implosion was extreme:
Top of the ninth.
Luis Garcia pitching for the Cardinals.
As the 9th inning begins, the Cubs have a Win Probability of one percent.
FIRST BATTER, THE CUBS RECEIVE A GIFT: Patrick Wisdom strikes out. The pitch eludes catcher Yadier Molina, who takes a stab at the ball with his mitt — and whiffs. Wisdom runs to first, reaches without a throw. And here we go. Molina is playing with a painful foot that’s been bothering him for many weeks. And he just doesn’t move much behind the plate, especially when side-to-side movement is necessary to block pitches.
The lack of movement explains why Molina ranks so poorly in the pitch-blocking metrics this season. Among 16 catchers that have received at least 7,500 pitches this season, Molina ranks 14th in pitch-blocking runs saved above average at minus two runs. That, according to data at Baseball Prospectus. Ignore it if you’d like; just about everyone else does.
Needless to say, Molina is an intimidating presence, and Shildt isn’t about to risk offending Molina by putting him on the bench for more days of rest. And I get it; even a hobbling Molina can call pitches and calm pitchers. (Then again, the Cardinals have walked and hit more batters than any staff in the majors.) And Molina is batting .302 with runners in scoring position — and even better (.324) with RISP and two out. The Cards want to have that element in the lineup. OK, OK. But should the defensive decline be ignored? Molina is a Hall of Famer but at this stage of his career his lack of mobility is glaring.
SECOND BATTER, SOMETHING’S BREWING: Nico Hoerner reaches on an infield single. Shortstop Paul DeJong can’t gather the baseball in a sure, quick way. He then sails a throw (E-6) that allows Wisdom to scoot to third base. The Cardinals should have had one out (the Wisdom strikeout) and could have had two outs. But they recorded no outs, and the Cubs have two runners on.
THIRD BATTER, UH-OH. Jake Marisnick walks, bases loaded, and the Win Probability is up to 7%. But the Cardinals are still leading 6-1, and Shildt brings Reyes into the game to replace Garcia. Shildt conveys his obvious alarm by summoning Reyes, who gets to work on what was supposed to be a rest day for him.
FOURTH BATTER, YA GOTTA BE KIDDING: Yes. Reyes walks Sergio Alcantara to give the Cubs a free run, making it 6-2. Is anybody surprised by these walks? This season the Cardinals’ bullpen has the second-highest walk rate by a MLB ‘pen since the NL expanded in 1962. And Reyes has the highest (as in worst) walk rate by a qualifying MLB reliever this season — 19.4 percent. Anyway, the bases remain loaded. With the walk, the Cubs’ Win Probability jumps from 7% to 14%.
FIFTH BATTER. EXHALE. A MOMENT OF CALM: Reyes strikes out Willson Contreras. One out. Bases still loaded. With the strikeout, the Cubs’ Win Probability drops to 8%.
SIXTH BATTER, RED ALERT: Reyes walks Anthony Rizzo. Of course he did. And Rizzo was happy to just watch the wayward pitches go by. Another run scores. It’s 6-3. Bases are still loaded. The Cubs’ Win Probability rises to 16%.
* BERNIE CALLS TIMEOUT HERE: At this point … why not have Giovanny Gallegos ready to go? Shildt later said he had planned to rest Gallegos in this game. But Shildt wasted little time in hustling Reyes into the game. And Shildt had wanted to keep Reyes seated in the bullpen. But Reyes was laboring. Not throwing strikes. Not sharp.
Why leave Reyes in there? Oh, that’s right … I forgot … in the modern game, the robotic-manager regulations strictly prohibit replacing your closer UNTIL IT’S TOO LATE and your team’s lead has already gone up in smoke. These managers are remarkable in their faithful adherence to outdated orthodoxies.
1–Save situation: Must use the officially licensed closer.
2–Must stay with the closer, even if he should take a night off and you have a solid alternative.
3–Can’t replace the closer once he enters the game.
4–Replace the closer only after the closer fails and your team’s lead is obliterated.
If Shildt felt urgency to have Reyes handle the ninth-inning emergency, then why wouldn’t he feel the same level of urgency to have Gallegos prepared to take over for an off-form Reyes?
Gallegos pitched Saturday and Sunday in the narrow wins over the Giants. And true, Gallegos threw 25 pitches in Sunday’s victory. But Gallegos didn’t pitch Monday. And if Shildt felt compelled to utilize Gallegos AFTER Reyes blew the lead, then why would he hesitate to call on “Gio” BEFORE the lead melted away?
I mean, a reliever is available — or he’s not. If a manager declares a reliever a no-go and off limits, fine. I really do accept that. But if the manager is leaving open the possibility of using a reliever that he wanted to rest, then doesn’t it make sense to put him into the fray before an almost-certain win turns to ashes?
SEVENTH BATTER. CALL 9-1-1!!! A ground-ball single up the middle by Javy Baez brings in two runs, and the St. Louis lead is down to 6-5. The Cubbie Win Probability leaps from 16% to 27%. Reyes remains in the game. The Cubs have runners at first (Baez) and second (Rizzo.)
EIGHTH BATTER: A BURNING RING OF FIRE. Ian Happ strokes a double down the right-field line, and into the corner. Rizzo scores. Baez scores. Cubs lead 7-6. The Happ double lifts his team’s Win Probability from 27% to 86%.
Shildt finally pulls Reyes after 30 pitches and considerable trauma. Reyes retired one Cub, walked two, gave up two hits, allowed three inherited runners to score, and was charged with three earned runs of his own. Thirty pitches. After all Reyes has been through with his sequence of terrible injuries, you’d think the Cardinals would be more careful and responsible.
Anyway: Gallegos ends the uprising and the insanity on nine pitches: a Jason Heyward ground-out, and a Wisdom strikeout.
JUST TO PUT A SEAL ON THIS:
1) In the first three months of the season, Reyes, Gallegos and Cabrera combined to make 106 appearances, pitch 117 innings, face 469 batters and had a collective ERA of 1.84 — with a 12% walk rate and 30% strikeout rate.
2) So far in July, Reyes, Gallegos and Cabrera have combined for 21 appearances, 19.1 innings and have faced 93 batters. Collectively they have an 8.37 ERA this month, with a 18.2% walk rate and 26.8% strikeout rate. (Note: Gallegos has a very healthy strikeout rate this month, 40%.)
3) In the first three months Reyes, Gallegos and Cabrera allowed only 24 earned runs combined. This month the three already have been rocked for 18 earned runs, with nine more games to play until July ends. But go ahead, Shildty. Let Reyes throw 30 pitches in an inning. Unreal.
4) The individual earned-run averages for July: Gallegos 6.42, Reyes 9.00, and Cabrera 9.94. Here were their ERAs for the first three months: Reyes 0.62, Gallegos 1.93, Cabrera 2.56.
5) A cause for concern, or just a phase? Reyes had a 32% strikeout rate during the first three months. In July, his strikeout rate is only 15.6%. And his walk rate this month is 21.8%.
6) Shildt could have stayed longer with starting pitcher Johan Oviedo, who was terrific in his five innings (plus one batter in the sixth.) But in his postgame video conference, Shildt mentioned something about Oviedo having an issue with a finger. That often means a blister but Shildt was mad about the question directed at him, and he never elaborated on the finger reference.
7) Shildt could have turned to John Gant, who has generally pitched well in relief (1.93 ERA in eight appearances.) But Gant still has the walking problem — with a walk rate of 12.8% as a reliever. And Gant did pitch 2.1 innings to finish off a Monday’s 8-3 win over Chicago. That said, was Gant off limits? He did throw 36 pitches in Monday’s contest. But that was also his first appearance in a game since July 10.
8) Another consideration: use Justin Miller for two innings on Tuesday. He’d breezed through the eighth inning, retiring the side in order on only 13 pitches. Miller has looked pretty good for the Cardinals. He hasn’t allowed a run in five of his six appearances for St. Louis. In his five scoreless relief stints Miller has worked four combined innings allowing only one hit and a walk with three strikeouts. The Cardinals could have tried to get a second inning out of Miller on Tuesday but the trust factor isn’t there (yet) for Shildt.
9) I don’t blame Shildt if he’s feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or a little of both. The Cardinals have needed legitimate bullpen help since the early part of the season. Pardon my latest attempt at using a metaphor, but the front-office idea of help is the baseball equivalent of a salvage crew in a pickup truck, roaming through city alleys and back streets, looking for soiled couches, and worn-out chairs and burned-out lamps that were discarded by others. And, of course, rummaging through a few dumpsters for a find. And when the delivery van drops off another used reliever or two, Shildt is left to figure out what he has and what he can do with it. The trust will develop slowly, if it develops at all.
10) But Shildt’s dependency on Reyes-Gallegos-Cabrera is evident in these basic stats:
— Among NL relievers Cabrera is tied for second in most appearances (45) and is eighth with 43.2 innings pitched.
— Reyes and Gallegos are tied for ninth among NL relievers with 41 appearances. Gallegos has thrown the third-highest number of innings by an NL reliever (49) and Reyes is tied for eighth with 43.2 IP.
11) Has the St. Louis bullpen been overworked as a group? That’s a popular belief but it really isn’t true. Most NL teams are short on innings by starters and have to ride the bullpen more frequently. The Cards bullpen has pitched 340 innings this season; seven other NL pens have more IP. And so far in July, only three NL bullpens have thrown fewer innings than the Cardinals. Sure, more innings from St. Louis starters would be swell. But the innings shortage (if you want to call it that) by Cards starters isn’t severe, or unusual. Not in 2021. Coping with tired bullpen arms is a common challenge for most if not all teams.
12) However: Reyes, Gallegos and Cabrera have combined to pitch 39.2 percent of all innings provided by the St. Louis bullpen. If you include Ryan Helsley, that percentage of total innings rises to 49.7%.
13) In the Cards’ 47 wins this season Reyes, Gallegos and Cabrera have combined to pitch 62% of the total innings by relievers. If you include Helsley, the four relievers have combined to provide 74% of the total bullpen innings when St. Louis wins. That’s a lot.
14) Quick note about the rotation: with Oviedo allowing only one run in five innings Tuesday, the Cardinals have a rotation ERA of 2.37 since June 28, a span of 18 games. That’s the best ERA by a MLB rotation over that time, and the STL starters also rank 11th in the majors for most innings pitched over the last 18 games.
Thank you for reading!
Check out Bernie’s 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 live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
The weekly “Seeing Red” podcast with Bernie and Will Leitch is also available at 590thefan.com.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @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.