The Cardinals faced a tough assignment for their first series of the new season. Toronto was in town and three good starters lined up to subdue a hyped-up St. Louis offense: Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt.
It wasn’t much of a rumble. In the three-game matchup, this is what Cardinal hitters did to the Toronto’s top-three starters:
* 14 earned runs in 12.2 innings (9.95 ERA.)
* Six home runs, or one every 11 at-bats.
* Twenty-seven hits.
* .429 average, .448 onbase percentage, .730 slug, 1.198 OPS.
* The Redbirds struck out only 15% of the time against Manoah, Gausman and Bassitt.
The Cardinals clinched a 2-1 series victory by shelling Bassitt for 10 hits and nine earned runs in 3.1 innings Sunday. In the home team’s 9-4 cruise, Bassitt pitched to only 19 batters and got whomped for four home runs.
“I’ve never had a game in my career where six different pitches are getting hit hard,” said Bassitt, who won 15 games for the Mets last season. “I tip my hat to that lineup. It’s a great lineup.”
In the three-game set the Cardinals scored 22 runs and sprayed 41 hits. They struck out in only 13% of their plate appearances. Twelve position players saw action for the Cards, and all 12 had one hit or more. Ten of the 12 scored a run.
Add it all up, and St. Louis averaged 7.3 runs per game, batted .373, reached base 43% of the time, slugged .591 and put up a 1.017 OPS against Toronto. Even in their only loss, the Cardinals banged out nine runs in Thursday’s season opener at Busch Stadium.
In 25 innings of at-bats in the first series, the Cardinals led the majors in adjusted runs created (wRC+), exceeding the league average by 102 percent. 102 percent above league average offensively according to park-adjusted runs created (wRC+). No. 1 among the 30 MLB teams during the opening weekend.
It was all there: power, plate discipline, timely hitting, depth. The St. Louis attack was so ridiculously good, you probably didn’t notice that Lars Nootbaar (thumb) didn’t play in the final two games, or that Tyler O’Neill went 1 for 8 in the series after homering in his first at-bat, or that Willson Contreras (knee) missed Saturday’s game. This entertaining spree was all-encompassing and had something for everyone.
Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
The Young and the Wreckage: The Cardinals received a load of offense from players aged 24 years old or younger and/or playing in their first or second MLB season.
That group – Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, Dylan Carlson, Alec Burleson and Jordan Walker – collectively punished the Blue Jays for 19 hits, a.404 average, three doubles, five homers and 14 RBI.
Left-handed Hitters: Bulls on Parade. Remember when we used to talk about the Cardinals’ problems against right-handed pitching? Or how they needed to add one or two left-handed hitters to have more of a chance to do damage to the righty pitchers?
Against the Blue Jays, Cards LH batters hit .392 with five homers, 12 RBI, a .448 onbase percentage, .725 slug and 1.174 OPS. My goodness. The contingent consisted of Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, Alec Burleson, Lars Nootbaar and switch-hitters Dylan Carlson and Tommy Edman.
Specifically against RH pitching, the group batted .375 with a .729 slug and 1.116 OPS and five home runs in 48 at-bats. Badass stuff right there.
The Outfield Competition: It’s still going. And if anything, it heated up during the opening series. Partially because of Nootbaar’s injury, manager Oli Marmol used all five outfielders against Toronto. Rookie Jordan Walker (13 plate appearances) was used the most, followed by O’Neill (nine PA), Burleson (8) Nootbaar (6) and Carlson (4.)
The outfield delegation combined to hit .361 with a .611 slug and 1.039 OPS. They rocked three doubles and two homers and drove home six runs.
Burleson strengthened his bid for playing time by blasting the Blue Jays for two doubles and a two-run homer in Sunday’s win. Walker was the only outfielder to start all three games and batted .333 with a .801 OPS. Carlson quietly had three hits in his four at-bats. Nootbaar should return tonight (Monday) or Tuesday. O’Neill will be looking to heat up. Doesn’t matter how we look at this; the competition for playing time is intense. And that should make everyone better. They can’t take anything for granted.
Exceptional Two-Out Hitting: This was a major factor in the Cards’ successful weekend. In two-out scenarios the Redbirds batted .425, slugged .650, thumped three homers, and scored half of their runs (11) in the series.
Moving on …
1. Nolan Gorman. He went 4 for 9, walked four times, whammed two homers and led the Cards with six RBI. Gorman’s improved plate discipline was on display. The four walks were a great sign. Last season Gorman chased pitches out of the strike zone at a rate of 34 percent. In his first three games of his second MLB season, he chased only 13.5% out of the zone.
2. Brendan Donovan: This past offseason he refined his swing, picked up a heavier bat, and prioritized hard contact. So far, so great. Donovan batted .357 in the first three games, cracking two homers in the process. The two early home runs are noticeable because Donovan had only five HRs in 391 at-bats as a rookie in 2022. No coincidence there. His offseason work has led to results. Small sample, sure. But …
– Donovan has barrelled four pitches. Last season he barrelled only 11 all year.
– Last season Donovan had a 37.7 percent hard-hit rate. In the opening series against Toronto, his hard-hit rate was 53.8%.
— Donovan had an average exit velocity of 87.7 mph last season. So far this season: an average of 90.4 mph.
3. Paul Goldschmidt: Goldy was overshadowed a bit, but he had six hits in 12 at-bats (.500) with a walk, double and RBI. After three games his OPS stands at 1.115.
4. Wilson Contreras: 4 for 8 with a double in his first two games as a Cardinal. And he threw out one of the two runners who tried to steal on him. (And the stolen base wasn’t the catcher’s fault.) That 50% throw-out rate was notable on an opening weekend where MLB runners took advantage of the enlarged bases and the pitch-clock implementation to steal 70 bases in 84 attempts – a success rate of 83%.
5. Jordan Walker: at no point over his first three big-league games did Walker look overwhelmed or lacking in confidence. The 20-year-old rookie came out of the experience with a .333 batting average, two RBI, a double and a stolen base. Sure, Walker has to get used to playing in right field at Busch Stadium. And his 81% ground-ball rate is something to monitor; his tendency to hit too many grounders in the minors was noted by scouts and prospect pundits.
6. Three relievers: It wasn’t a good overall series for the St. Louis bullpen. They had a poor strikeout rate (19.7%) and a poor walk rate (10%.) But don’t put anything bad on Drew VerHagen, Packy Naughton and Zack Thompson. They combined for 5.2 scoreless innings against a dangerous Blue Jay lineup – allowing just three hits and no walks. The three relievers struck out eight of 19 batters faced for a 42% strikeout rate. Well done, gents. By the way: the other STL relievers struck out only 4 of 42 batters faced. Ugh.
Moving On …
— The starting pitching had a shaky start, posting a 5.40 ERA in 13.1 innings. The Blue Jays batted .296 with a .400 OBP against Cards starters.
Thursday: Miles Mikolas allowed 10 hits and five earned runs in 3.1 innings. Toronto had a blistering 50 percent hard-hit rate against Mikolas.
Saturday: In one of the weirdest pitching lines we’ll see this season, Flaherty walked 7 and hit a batter in five innings of labor … but did not give up a hit or a run. That’s a dangerous, risky way to pitch and Flaherty can’t be doing that. But I definitely appreciate and respect him for keeping the Blue Jays off the scoreboard. Jack competed his arse off and the Jays went 0 for 7 against him with runners in scoring position. Flaherty easily could have cracked – but didn’t. The Cardinals don’t win Saturday’s game (4-1 score) without Flaherty fighting off the opposition. (Quick note: I apologize for my typo; in an earlier version of this column, I wrote that Flaherty had walked 10 hitters. He walked seven. I regret the error.)
Sunday: Jordan Montgomery wasn’t special, or anything. But he held the Blue Jays to three runs, six hits and a walk in five innings. His 2.62 Fielding Independent ERA is probably a better indication of how he pitched. We’ll take it.
Moving On …
1. After getting drilled for 10 runs, 19 hits and a .442 batting average in Thursday’s opener, St. Louis pitchers gave up an average of 2.5 runs, 6.5 hits and a .203 batting average in the two consecutive victories that locked up a series win. The Blue Jays were 3 for 16 with runners in scoring position (.188) in the final two contests.
2. Toronto kept in the yard: The Blue Jays sent 126 hitters to the plate during the three-game series and failed to homer.
3. Cards reliever Jordan Hicks had a messy first series. Appearing in the first two games, Hicks faced 11 batters and seven reached base. He walked four of the 11 batters faced (36.4%) The Blue Jays hit .429 batting against him. In all, Hicks was slapped for three earned runs in 1.1 innings for a 20.20 ERA. So much fuss is made over Hicks’ velocity; people go bananas when he throws at 100+ mph. It makes for an entertaining side show, but what about his bottom–line pitching? Well, with so many people shrieking over Hicks’ high velocity, we don’t hear much about his entire performance.
Since the start of the 2021 season Hicks has worked 72.2 innings and given up 42 earned runs for a 5.20 ERA. His strikeout rate over that time is 23.4 percent. That’s nothing special. More pertinent is his 15.4% walk rate over the same stretch – and that’s horrible. Using the ERA+ metric, Hicks is 25 percent below the league average in pitching performance since returning from elbow surgery in 2021. But yeah, let’s keep hyperventilating over how hard Hicks throws it.
4. Closer Ryan Helsley blew a ninth-inning save opportunity in the opening game. He was better in the second game, working 1.2 innings to notch the save in the Cards 4-1 win Saturday. But Helsley has struck out only two of 13 batters faced in his two assignments for a strikeout rate of 15.4 percent. Last season Helsley had a 39.3% strikeout rate.
5. Where are the strikeouts? Earlier we mentioned how many strikeouts were piled up by VerHagen, Thompson and Naughton over the first three games. But the other relievers in the bullpen struck out only four of 42 batters faced. Yikes.
6. After three games the STL pitching staff ranks 22nd in the majors with a strikeout rate of 19.8 percent. That won’t do for an entire season.
7. It’s too early to talk about how MLB’s restrictions on defensive shifts are impacting the hitters, but … last season the Cardinals batted .248 on ground balls. Through three games this season, they’re hitting .326 on grounders. And when they pull ground balls, the Cardinals are batting .182 this year compared to .165 last season. We’ll know a lot more by the end of the first month or two.
8. Starting tonight, Atlanta is in town for a three-game series against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Jake Woodford makes his first start of the season for St. Louis. Charlie Morton starts for Atlanta. The Braves opened the season by winning two of three at Washington. The franchise has won the NL East five years in a row and captured the World Series in 2021.
9. Oli Marmol on winning the series against Toronto: “This wasn’t an easy series. That’s a really good club across the way. They pitch it well and they’re very good offensively. They’re managed well and they play the game the right way. I felt pretty good about the way we opened up.”
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. We posted a fresh Seeing Red on Monday, April 3.
All stats used in this column were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and Bill James Online.
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.