THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Dodgers put the Cardinals through a spell of cruel and unusual punishment on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, scoring seven runs in the final three innings to overcome a six-run deficit to pull off a stunning 7-6 victory that crushed the home team.
It was the worst loss of the season for the Cardinals, a team that’s endured too many sad and sorry days over the last month while losing 16 of their last 27 games. The Redbirds needed nine outs to protect their 6-0 lead, put the Dodgers away, and clinch a series win.
Well, that six-run lead was blown to smithereens. LA hitters pulped the St. Louis relievers in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings by lashing eight hits in 16 at-bats, drawing two walks, ripping two doubles and a homer, and lofting a sac fly. And when a blue-smoke haze cleared, the Dodgers had secured their 26th comeback triumph of the season, most in the National League.
A STL bullpen that had performed magnificently through the first 11 games of July got knocked around for a second consecutive evening. The Cardinals survived and escaped with a 7-6 win on Tuesday but couldn’t do it again 24 hours later.
In the first two games of this three-game series against the NL’s No. 1 team, Cardinal relievers have gotten crunched for 13 runs (12 earned) in 11 innings. Before the implosion, STL relievers had allowed only four earned runs over their previous 36.2 innings for a 0.98 ERA.
I have some things to say …
1) Wednesday’s loss belongs to the St. Louis front office. STL Cards Twitter went off on manager Oli Marmol after Wednesday’s horrendous loss … simply because the manager is the easiest target and the automatic scapegoat. He shoulda done this. He shoulda done that. He shouldn’t have done this. He shouldn’t have done that. OK. No offense, but this is a perfect example of missing the point entirely. I’ll explain.
2) The Cardinals used seven pitchers to win on Tuesday, with Marmol going with the “opener” format by starting reliever Jordan Hicks. In yesterday’s Redbird Review, I questioned the decision. But I also recognize that Marmol chose to open with a reliever and implement a nine-inning bullpen format because he lacked confidence in rookie lefty Matthew Liberatore to make the start and navigate his way through the dangerous LA lineup over four or five innings. And when Libby walked in as a reliever, the Dodgers got him for three runs in 2 and ⅓ innings. So what was the point of the opener? It comes down to this: When the front office doesn’t provide the manager with a better option than this, then the manager is left to his own devices and must scramble solutions to cover the built-in shortages and flaws.
In other words: the front office is failing to do its job. By using seven pitchers Tuesday, the Cardinals had to pay a price on Wednesday because several guys who worked the series-opener against the Dodgers were placed on the no-pitch for the second game. Not ideal … and the bullpen could be busy again Thursday night when Dakota Hudson starts for St. Louis.
2a) Having said that, I have to circle back on Marmol’s Tuesday decision. Sure, the Dodgers are loaded with RH batters. But last week Liberatore started against the Braves and pitched four scoreless innings in a game won by the Cardinals 3-2 in extra innings. In that start Liberatore faced RH hitters in 14 plate appearances, giving up two hits (both doubles) and walking three. Not great … but Liberatore battled through four innings without yielding a run to the brawny Braves. If you can start Liberatore on the road against the Braves, I don’t see why the manager had the yips about starting Libby at home against the Dodgers.
Was this really a crisis that required Hicks to start against LA? No. The drama was unnecessary. And because Hicks started Tuesday’s game, he was unavailable to pitch Wednesday … and the Cardinals needed Hicks to be there a helluva lot more as a late-inning reliever Wednesday’s giveaway. One clear consequence of The Opener was putting so many relievers put of action for Wednesday’s game. But again – this happened because Marmol didn’t believe he had a better option.
3) Whether we agree or disagree on Marmol’s choice for Tuesday’s start, the episode only reaffirmed the team’s shortage of quality and reliable starting pitchers. When the manager and the pitching coach don’t trust the fifth starter – because the No. 5 starter gets pummeled by RH batters – then you don’t really have a legitimate fifth starter. And the Cardinals have been trying to wiggle through a blatant problem since Steven Matz went to the IL (left shoulder) on May 23.
3a) I don’t mention Jack Flaherty here. Why? Because of what we know now, it was idiotic to believe he’d rejoin the rotation and pitch well. This was a bad bet all along. And the front office should have had a backup plan in place. It did not have a backup plan in place. So predictable. And even with Matz returning to the rotation this weekend, the Cardinals would be foolish to assume they’re all set. They’re not. This rotation has underlying flaws that could wreck everything — including the bullpen.
4) Adam Wainwright went only 5 and ⅓ innings against the Dodgers. And even though he didn’t allow a run, the short start put the Cardinals in a vulnerable position: having to fight off the Dodgers with a bullpen that was low on options. Wainwright shouldn’t have to be a pitching savior every time he starts, but his team really needed him to go deep into Wednesday’s game. The Dodgers followed the lead of the Phillies and Brewers and other smartly-run teams by laying off pitches out of the strike zone. It’s been a successful tactic for opponents that seek to drive up Wainwright’s pitch count, and the Dodgers made it work on Wednesday.
Los Angeles chased only 22.8 percent of Waino’s pitches out of the zone. The Dodgers drew four walks and were twice hit by pitches. Wainwright rolled through 114 pitches to record 16 outs. And when Wainwright ran out of fuel, it gave the Dodgers to do what they wanted: the chance to attack the St. Louis bullpen earlier than expected. One start back, Wainwright pitched a complete game in Friday’s loss to Philadelphia; because of that he may have been running low in his start against the Dodgers. In his last two starts (Phillies and Dodgers), Wainwright had a chase rate of only 24.3 percent and got opponents to swing and miss only 4.1% of the time.
5) I won’t blast the bullpen; through much of the schedule the St. Louis relievers have pitched effectively under difficult circumstances. Even after two rough games against the Dodgers, the Cardinal bullpen ranks 4th in the NL with a 3.59 ERA and leads the NL in Win Probability Added.
Here’s the stinky part: just when the bullpen was functioning at its highest level all season, the front office had to mess with the strength and the positivity by cycling lefty T.J. McFarland and righthander Drew VerHagen back onto the 26-man roster after each spent time on the IL. Sad. And to make space for McFarland, the front office sent the impressive and successful rookie lefty Zack Thompson back to Triple A Memphis. I’m thinking he would have provided valuable service in the challenge of stopping the Dodgers.
The repercussions of reinstalling McFarland and VerHagen hit the Cardinals right away. In his first appearance since returning from the IL, VerHagen served up a two-run, two-out homer to Will Smith in Wednesday’s 7th inning to reenergize the Dodgers. And why would VerHagen throw a first-pitch fastball to Smith when the slider was looking so sharp? So foolish. That homer cut the STL lead to 6-2, and Los Angeles was alive and well and highly capable of taking down relievers Genesis Cabrera, Junior Fernandez and Giovanny Gallegos. Cabrera, who recently recovered from a hit of Covid, labored through his performance Wednesday, showing a decline in velocity. Fernandez, pitching for the third consecutive day, looked gassed. And Gallegos is obviously fatigued.
In the 9th inning Marmol went with the struggling Gallegos and stayed with the fading right-hander. Why? Because at that point McFarland was the only reliever available to pitch. And McFarland is so awful – he has the worst reliever ERA, 7.43, in the majors – it’s an enormous risk to lose him unless the score is 17-2 or something.
6) This season VerHagen and McFarland collectively have allowed 38 earned runs in 47.2 innings for an acrid 7.17 ERA. The two relievers are responsible for 25 percent of the home runs, and 28 percent of the earned runs, allowed by the St. Louis bullpen this season. All other Cards relievers have combined for a 2.80 ERA. That tells us all we need to know.
6a) McFarland and VerHagen are taking up two bullpen spots for one reason: the front office signed them as free agents and won’t own up to the mistake. McFarland got a one-year deal for $2.5 million; VerHagen was recruited out of Japan with a two-year deal worth $5.5 million. Their continued presence has absolutely nothing to do with performance – obviously – and everything to do with payroll politics.
7) If this front office is fully committed to winning, it can’t keep two hideous relievers around to sabotage the good and dependable work by the bullpen. And again, this is why the last two stormy bullpen nights can be traced back to serious errors committed by the front office.
8) There was the front-office failure to put together sufficient starting-pitching depth. Not only did the negligence weaken the rotation and leave it more vulnerable – and prompt the manager to go with a reliever as a starter against the NL’s best team – the dereliction often puts the bullpen in adverse positions. The failure to sign free-agent relievers of a higher caliber will make it difficult for this bullpen to thrive after the All-Star break – especially if the front office continues to undermine its own manager by having relievers on the John Mozeliak Scholarship.
9) Asking Ryan Helsley to pitch on a more frequent basis isn’t the answer. Bluntly speaking: that would be incredibly stupid. It’s incomprehensible to me how so many people seem to have forgotten Helsley’s breakdown and two season-ending surgeries in 2021. And those good folks seem to have forgotten the way the team’s previous manager chicken-fried Helsley, and Alex Reyes, and Gallegos … and pushed Cabrera a little too hard.
Running Helsley out to the mound to appease howling fans and short attention-span media would likely lead to calamity. As is, Helsley ranks 29th among MLB relievers this season for most innings pitched. That’s not exactly slothful. He’s been valuable as is. He could make more appearances, yes. But for that to happen, Marmol would have to cut down on using Helsley for more than one inning in a game; he’s done that 12 times in Helsley’s 30 appearances. So Helsley can’t keep turning in two-inning gigs and also add more one-inning appearances. Unless, of course, the Cardinals want to pay for another surgery.
Call me nuts, but I’d prefer to have Helsley keep pitching and sawing off bats in a responsible way instead of being worked like a pack mule and blowing out his elbow or shoulder. This dude must be handled with care; if Helsley stays healthy and sharp for the entire season the Cardinals will have a better chance of winning the division. So the cautious touch makes sense. A little less now should lead to a lot more later.
And if Helsley tells the manager that he can’t go – that was the case Wednesday – what would you like to see? Marmol force Helsley to pitch? Have the police walk Helsley to the mound and make him stay there and throw? Have Helsley go to the IL for a nice, long stay?
I’ll tell you what I’d like to see …
10) Helsley’s work schedule ain’t the issue or the problem. Again, look to the front office. If Mozeliak and his crew had acquired extra firepower to utilize at the end of games, you wouldn’t have fans and media yapping at Marmol to use Helsley for the fifth time in seven days … which would have been the case had Helsley pitched Wednesday. He wasn’t feeling good enough to go.
Abusing Helsley and increasing the risk of injury by grinding him more intensely isn’t the answer. The answer is having the front office correct its bullpen miscalculations by removing the weakest links and then trading for a shutdown reliever that can close games. That’s especially important now that Gallegos has come undone.
Hudson makes the start Thursday night (6:15) as the Cardinals try to win the third game – and the series – from the Dodgers. Stand by for more bullpen drama. More than anything I’m curious to see how the Cardinals respond to Wednesday’s demoralizing defeat.
NOTES ON MY SCORECARD
The Accounting Department: Milwaukee lost at Minnesota yesterday afternoon. But by losing to the Dodgers the Cardinals failed to cut the Crew’s lead to one game in the NL Central. The gap remains two games … in the hunt for the NL’s third wild-card spot, the Cardinals lead the Phillies and the Giants by a game … Now that the Orioles have a winning record (45-44) on the season we have to adjust one aspect of the STL record: the Cardinals are now 23–30 this season in games against teams that have a winning record. The O’s took two of three from the Cardinals in a series played in St. Louis May 10-12 … The Cards are 5-9 in their last 14 and 19-22 since sweeping the Padres in a three-game series that ended June 1 … based on run differential, the Cardinals’ record for the season should be 52-39 … the Cards are 13-12 in one-run games this year … With one game to go in the 14-game stretch against the Phillies, Braves and Dodgers the Cardinals are 5-8, So the Cards will finish the block of schedule with a record of 6-8 or 5-9.
Fun With The Standings: Here’s the NL Central since May 7. Hint: you won’t find a winning record in the bunch:
Cardinals … 32-33
Brewers … 30-32
Reds … 30-33
Pirates … 28-37
Cubs … 25-39
Giovanny Gallegos: He was the losing pitcher in Wednesday’s debacle, with the Dodgers roughing him up for three hits and two earned runs in the 9th inning to tie the game and take the lead. It was the sixth blown save of the season by Gallegos. In his last eight appearances Gallegos has a 7.56 ERA and has been torched for a .656 slugging percentage and .990 OPS … in his last four appearances (4 IP) Gallegos has a 11.25 ERA and has allowed two homers, two doubles, a .412 batting average, .882 slug and 1.282 OPS … Gio’s six blown saves are the most by a major-league closer this season … in his last four games Gallegos has blown two saves and been charged with a loss.
Thumping the Dodger Starting Pitchers: The St. Louis hitters did boffo work against LA starting pitchers Mitch White and Tony Gonsolin in the first two games of the series. In 10 combined innings White and Gonsolin allowed 11 earned runs (9.90 ERA), a .370 batting average, three walks, three homers, five doubles, a .408 OBP, .674 slug and 1.082 OPS.
Nolan Arenado: Since putting a cold month of May behind him, the brilliant third baseman is batting .320 with a .388 OBP, .560 slugging percentage and a .946 OPS since June 1. Over that time Arenado has seven doubles, a triple, nine homers and 26 RBI. For the season Arenado is tied with San Diego’s Manny Machado for the most WAR (4.5) in the majors. (FanGraphs version of WAR.) And teammate Paul Goldschmidt is tied for third in the majors with 4.3 fWAR.
Speaking Of The Great Goldschmidt: By his standards he’s had a quiet July so far, batting .277 with a .359 OBP, .362 slug and a .720 OPS. Goldy hadn’t had an RBI in July before driving in two runs against the Dodgers on Wednesday. But among qualifying hitters Goldschmidt still leads the National League in batting average (.332), OBP (.415) slugging (.591) and OPS (1.006.)
Albert Pujols: He extended his mini hitting streak to four games on Wednesday night. Pujols is 6 for 15 (.400) with a double, two homers, a .438 OBP, .867 slug and 1.304 in the four games.
Dylan Carlson: he’s batting .217 with a .265 OBP, .304 slugging percentage and a 32.6 percent strikeout rate in July. Carlson is 6 for 33 (.182) vs. RHP this month.
Tommy Edman: he’s reemerging from a lengthy slump … or so it seems. In the first two games of the Dodger series he’s 4-10 with two doubles.
Lars Nootbaar: has a five-game hitting streak going. He’s 6 for 12 in his last five games with two doubles, a homer and three RBI.
Andrew Knizner: After a long period of dormancy, the catcher has gone 7 for 11 (.636) in his last five games. And in the first two games against LA, Kizner is 5 for 6 with a walk and four RBI.
Notes On The STL Defense: The Cardinals continue to move up in the Fielding Bible rankings for Defensive Runs Saved. Currently St. Louis ranks 7th in the majors and 2nd to the Dodgers in the NL with 32 defensive runs saved … Arenado leads all MLB third basemen with 14 defensive runs saved and seems well on the way to his ninth consecutive Gold Glove award …. Tommy Edman, who has played second base and shortstop, leads all major leaguers with 16 defensive runs saved … Dylan Carlson has been credited with three defensive runs saved in only 176 innings in center field. Last season Carlson was a minus 2 in defensive runs saved in 501 innings in center … according to Statcast the Cardinals rank 4th in the majors in Outs Above Average (11) and Runs Prevented (8).
Drew VerHagen: In 220 MLB innings with the Tigers and Cardinals, the righthander has a 5.28 ERA and has allowed 1.4 homers per 9 innings and walked 3.6 batters per 9. This does not give me confidence. How about you?
Snippy Oli Marmol Quote: In discussing his bullpen the skipper said, “It’s easy to sit there and get on them. The reality of it is that a lot of people watching right now aren’t as good as those guys at their jobs. They just don’t have people writing about it daily.”
Oli went Full Matheny right there.
Jim Bowden On Jordan Walker: The former major-league GM, now a columnist and analyst for The Athletic, is looking forward to watching the St. Louis prospect play in the upcoming MLB Futures Game. Walker was recently tabbed as the No. 7 overall prospect by MLB Pipeline.
“Walker is my way-too-early prediction for next season’s National League Rookie of the Year Award,” Bowden wrote. “During spring training, when I saw him in Jupiter, Fla., my jaw dropped. The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder has the tools to be the Cardinals’ next phenom. Walker can really hit and has few holes at the plate, which is impressive considering his large frame. I think he’ll become a .300 hitter with .400 OBP ability, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs and that he has the potential for 25 stolen bases. His best positions are third base and first base, but with Arenado and Goldschmidt already on the corners, Walker will probably end up in an outfield corner. (He’s athletic enough and good enough defensively to play either one.) He’s special, and I can’t wait to hear the sound off his bat.”
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were 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.