THE REDBIRD REVIEW

The Big Picture: The Cardinals rebounded from two straight ugly losses in Cincinnati by going to Miami to take the first two games of a three-game set, winning 4-1 on Monday and 4-2 Tuesday. After holding the Marlins to 3 runs in the first two games the Cardinals go for a sweep today. The Cardinals are 3-2 through five games. 

John Gant, Escape Artist: With the long hair and flair for the dramatic, doesn’t Gant look like a dude who could be performing on a stage in Vegas, wowing audiences with his mind-freak ability to defy danger and death? OK, he’s not Houdini being padlocked and submerged in a deep tank of water. He isn’t Robert Gallup doing the “Sixty Seconds to Live” stunt, wriggling out of chains while hanging upside down from burning ropes. Gant doesn’t do the David Blaine stuff, like encasing himself in a block of ice for 63 hours. 

But in the tweeted words of teammate Adam Wainwright, Gant does have “The best dang hair I’ve ever seen.” And it’s a hair-raising experience for Cardinals fans to watch Gant put himself in precarious situations, then dodge disaster. 

Gant was up to his familiar tricks on Tuesday night, repeatedly sidestepping peril over four innings, making the Marlins’ run-scoring opportunities disappear. 

The Marlins put four runners on base in the first inning, and Cards left fielder Tyler O’Neill made two errors on the same play — but Gant got out of the trap and allowed just one unearned run. He got a double-play grounder. He got a strikeout. End of threat. 

The Marlins put Gant in another box in the third inning, chaining him to a no-out, bases loaded squeeze. Gant faced imminent doom — how could this pitcher possibly pull another Criss Angel act? Here’s how: strikeout, pop out, strikeout. 

The Marlins cornered Gant with nine base runners in four innings. They had 10 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. They had 13 PA with runners on base. One big rip, one big blow, and the Marlins win this game. But time and time again, the Miami hitters were left confounded and frustrated as Gant freed himself from the manacles. 

Gant returned to his performance art. Making 19 starts for the Cardinals in 2018, Gant walked too many batters, frequently put himself in trouble, and usually slipped away with the skill of an illusionist. (In his case, the illusion is his vulcan changeup.)  That season Gant allowed a .205 batting average with runners in scoring position, a .221 average with runners on, and a .200 average in high-leverage situations. 

The Escape Artist was back on stage Tuesday night, taking his show to South Florida. 

See all of those Miami base-runners?

Now you don’t.

Gant made them disappear.

Almost like they never existed.

Two Nights In Miami: In their 12 combined innings, top three starters Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez were strafed by the Reds for 16 earned runs, eight extra-base hits (four homers), a .327 batting average and 1.051 OPS. In two nights in Miami replacement starters Daniel Ponce de Leon and Gant allowed one earned run in 9 innings, with the Marlins batting .219 and posting a .600 OPS against them. 

That Said, A Mandatory Warning: I know that the Cardinals believe they can win a lot of games by relying heavily on their bullpen. And this bullpen should be very good. But through five games the starters have provided 21 innings, and the relievers have thrown 22 innings. The Cards are a bullpen-heavy, bullpen-ready team, but they’ll have to get more innings from their starters. Should the Cardinals end up with a burned-out, broken-down bullpen, the results would be ruinous. 

Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks + Alex Reyes Are Mean To Hitters: They’ve combined for 9.1 scoreless innings so far. They’ve faced 33 batters, with only five reaching base. They’ve struck out 10. (Gallegos has a 53.3 percent strikeout rate.) In the two wins at Miami, this three-man, late-inning security force swiftly handled the Marlins with 6.1 innings, two hits, a walk and seven strikeouts. 

Ryan Helsley And Pitcher Wins: He was credited with the “win” in Tuesday’s 4-2 victory. Just another example of why individual-pitcher wins can be terribly misleading. In last night’s appearance Helsley got four outs, gave up two hits, two walks, and a run. The Marlins got to Helsley in the fifth inning to extend their lead to 2-0. Fortunately for the visitors, Helsley was rescued on a sprawling catch by left fielder Tyler O’Neill. Helsley is talented and will get better, but he’s off to a bruising start. He’s allowed 11 of 18 batters to reach base (seven hits, four walks) and has a 16.88 ERA in 2.2 innings. It’s early, but Helsley is an important bullpen piece. 

If You Can’t Do It With Power, Then Be Resourceful: The Cardinals used their smarts, their sharp instincts, to cabbage three runs in the sixth. With imposing Marlins starter Sandy Alcantra stifling their offense, the sneaky Cardinals made their advance by taking bases to take a 3-2 lead. 

Infield hit by Tommy Edman. Infield hit by Paul Goldschmidt. A walk by Nolan Arenado. A chance to break through. 

Edman scored on a passed ball, with Goldy and Arenado moving up a base. Paul DeJong up. Goldschmidt scored on a seemingly routine grounder to third, sprinting home as soon as Marlins 3B Brian Anderson triggered his right arm to make the throw to first. Goldy’s aggressiveness clearly caught the Marlins off guard. Arenado shrewdly scooted to third base on the play, then scored on Yadier Molina’s sac fly. 

Very nice. Very well done. 

The Cardinals thievery on the bases set off the usual “This Is A Team That Can Manufacture Runs!” narrative — as if we’re about to see the return of Whiteyball in 2021.  When you have two of the most intelligent players in the game in Goldy and NA, and a fast and astute runner in Edman, they can make things happen. Absolutely. But as a whole, the Cardinals have been a resourceful base-running team for a while. 

That’s largely because of manager Mike Shildt. For those who may have experienced a few memory lapses, the Cardinals improved dramatically in their base-running approach and aptitude when Shildt took over before the 2018 All-Star break. 

The impact soon became evident; the Cardinals increased their net base running gain by 25 in the second half of the ‘18 season. In 2019 and the shortened 2020, they had a net base running gain of 82, one of the best in the majors over that time. This season — already! — the Cardinals have a BR gain of 13. Through five games, they lead the majors with 15 bases taken. They led the majors in bases taken last year as well. 

I enjoyed watching the Redbirds create offense on the bases in that sixth inning Tuesday. And who doesn’t appreciate heads-up baseball? But it’s nothing new. Not since Shildt came in to enhance his team’s base running. He turned a weakness into a strength. Tuesday night’s display was the continuation of what we’ve seen by a Shildt team in his 294 regular-season games as Cards manager. 

The Cardinals Need To Be Early Birds And Get After It Sooner: After pounding Reds’ opening day starter Luis Castillo, the Cardinals have been quiet against opponent starting pitchers. In the last four games the Cardinals have batted .167 with a .259 OBP and .306 slugging percentage against Cincinnati starters Tyler Mahle and Jeff Hoffman and Miami starters Trevor Rogers and Sandy Alcantara. The four starters had a 3.15 ERA against the Cardinals, with an average of 14 strikeouts per 9 innings. Those four starters faced 81 STL hitters and struck out 31 of the 81, or 38 percent. Yikes. Not good.

Speaking of the Reds… 

Ya’ll Better Stand Back Because The Reds Are A Swaggering, Load Of BadAzz Brashness! Several days later, Cincinnati remains in a highly-aroused state over Nicholas Castellanos flipping his bat, taunting a rookie STL pitcher, and standing over the same pitcher to flex and scream like a pro wrestler. These were no isolated incidents.  No, sir. This was a reinvention, a movement, a Redlegs rebellion! 

“Everybody is going to feed into it,” Reds reliever Amir Garrett informed Cincinnati media on Tuesday.  “I want everybody to think of the Cincinnati Reds as the most cockiest team ever. We’re some bat-flipping, showboating sons of guns. I want everybody to know that.” 

But on a more serious note, give The Rollicking Reds some credit. They improved to 4-1 after beating up the poor Pittsburgh Pirates 14-1 on Tuesday night. Outfielder Tyler Naquin smashed two homers and had seven RBIs in the romp. The Reds lead the majors with an average of 9.2 runs per game. Their 46 runs are the most scored by a Reds team through the first five games of a season. 

Tracking The Outfield: Dylan Carlson homered in the 9th to give the Cardinals a 4-2 lead Tuesday. Both of Carlson’s hits this season are homers. After homering in the first game of the season Tyler O’Neill is 1 for 16 with eight strikeouts in the last four games … Among MLB’s 30-team outfield groups, St. Louis outfielders have the worst strikeout rate at 42.4 percent. (Second worst? Milwaukee’s outfielders at 39%) … Cards outfielders rank 28th in OPS (.466). 

Bird Bytes: Yadier Molina is off to a fine start, batting .313. And he has the most RBIs on the team (5) when batting with runners in scoring position … Arenado is batting .400 with a 1.029 OPS, three RBI, and four runs … with runners in scoring position, Paul DeJong and Tyler O’Neill are a combined 2 for 12 with six strikeouts … with Goldschmidt batting second and Arenado hitting third, the Cardinals so far have a .357 average and .900 OPS from the No. 2 and No. 3 spots (combined.) But the No. 4 and No. 5 spots are batting a combined .167 with a .712 OPS and a 35% strikeout rate … lefty Tyler Webb was hit for a leadoff double in the 8th inning, but he did a good job of keeping it right there, getting a strikeout and deep fly-ball out before turning the game over to Reyes for a four-out save. 

Coming Up Soon, Like, This Afternoon: Jack Flaherty will try to find his 2019 form with a 3:10 p.m. start (STL time) against Marlins RH Pablo Lopez. A quickie note on Lopez: since the start of the 2019 season, RH batters have a .204 average and .571 OPS against him, but LH batters have hit .287 with a .811 OPS.

As always, thanks for reading … 

–Bernie 

Please 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.