Welcome to The Redbird Review

Lo and behold, everything has fallen into place for the 2021 St. Louis and Cardinals. This agonizing and frustrating process required four-plus months, countless bottles of headache medicine, and more cursing than you’d hear in a barroom brawl.

The Cardinals aren’t all the way there. They lead the No. 2 wild-card standings but haven’t clinched anything. They’ve passed the big-game test with series wins over other wild-card huntsmen. Nothing is perfect, but the essential parts to this team are clicking. But with seven games left against the NL Central kingpin Brewers and another seven versus the mischievous, upset-minded Cubs, the Cards have more work to do.

This run has been fun.

Offense: Since the Redbirds began making their move on Aug. 6 — they’ve won 26 of 40 games since then — their offense is fourth among the 15 NL teams in runs scored, and ranks second in batting average, fourth in onbase percentage, third in slugging, second in OPS, and has the league’s best batting average (.285) with runners in scoring position. The recent power surge has given the Cards the second-highest homer count (29) and third-highest number of doubles (34) in September.

Pitching: Well, there’s been a little turbulence in the rotation as of late but keep the bigger picture in view. Since Aug. 6 the Cardinals are third in the NL in rotation ERA and third in bullpen ERA. With the supreme support of MLB’s best defense, the Cardinals have allowed an average of only 3.6 runs over their last 40 games.

Defense: Still there, still great, leading MLB with 77 defensive runs saved … and this STL defense has shown its finest form of the season in recent weeks.

Baserunning: The Cardinals continue to move up the charts, now ranking fifth in the majors in net baserunning game. And no team in the majors has made fewer outs on the bases than the Cardinals when trying to advance on a batted ball in play. (Excluding force outs.)

Managing: Mike Shildt’s lineup adjustment that put Tyler O’Neill between No. 2 hitter Paul Goldschmidt and No. 4 hitter Nolan Arenado is working very well. Since Aug. 22 the Cardinals are 15-4 in games that have featured Goldy, T.O. and Nado in the 2-3-4 slots. Shildt also has stayed with Edmundo Sosa at shortstop and avoided giving into the feeling-sorry for Paul DeJong thing. And Shildt’s reordering of the bullpen has largely been successful. He’s worked with pitching coach Mike Maddux to cobble together a rotation under challenging circumstances. When Shildt gets away from the Mister Rogers stuff, plays his best lineup, and stops worrying about hurting feelings, he’s a much better manager. Let’s just hope he stays in this mode. And one wish: be more proactive during in-game strategy decisions. I still worry over Shildt’s tendency to wait too long to heat up the bullpen in time to make a quicker pitching change.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak: I’ve talked plenty — to the point of excess at times — about the offseason failures and the inactivity through most of June when the front office failed to aggressively seek help for a battered starting rotation. But the July pickups of relievers T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia and starters J.A. Happ and Jon Lester have clearly made a positive difference in the team’s recovery to make a run for the NL’s No. 2 wild card spot. And to deny that would be petty and childish.

The Fans: Showing up in stronger numbers. Showing up with more energy, and passion. Making more noise. Loving their team, and not holding back in showing it. The weekend sweep of the Padres presented the best baseball atmosphere of the season at Busch Stadium. And the weekend festival was enhanced by the joyful return of the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals.

Adam Wainwright had the best perspective — and quote — on the lively scene at Busch.

“That was the best crowd of the year,” he said after making Saturday’s start, a 3-2 win over the Padres. That was the best crowd that we’ve seen since 2019, without question, and they were on their feet, rowdy. I know that we played some wretched ball throughout this year … thanks for sticking with us. I know it’s been frustrating. We’ve been frustrating for you, but we love you. Glad you’re back.”

That’s classy and honest and accurate.

The last thing any Cardinal player or person should be doing is pulling out the stupidly weak “Everybody Wrote Us Off,” garbage. No one wrote the Cardinals off. They just offered no compelling reason to WRITE THEM IN.

Not when the Cards spent much of the season hovering around .500 — two or three games over, two or three games under, and progress followed by backslides. Wainwright was excellent in his summation of the season. Fans were just waiting for the Cardinals to make their move — and make it last.

That’s been happening lately.

The Cardinals (79-69) have won eight straight, 10 of their last 11 and have flown to a season-high 10 games over .500. In the chase for the second wild card, the Cards lead the Reds by 3 games and are 3 and ½ ahead of the Padres and Phillies.

On Aug. 29, the Cardinals walked slowly off the field with a 66-63 record after closer Alex Reyes got blasted for a walk-off homer and a blown save in a Sunday afternoon game in Pittsburgh. The ambush left the Cardinals with a demoralizing 2-2 series split against the Pirates, and at that point STL had lost seven of the last 12 games.

Since then, the Cards are 13-6 and have the second-best record in the NL since Aug. 30, with only the Dodgers (14-5) doing better over that time. And over the same stretch, the Padres are 7-11 and the Reds are 6-12.

The Cardinals jumped out of the pack. And the last nine games have transferred the authority in the No. 2 wild-card race, with the Cardinals taking control by going 8-1 against other contenders — the Reds, Mets and Padres.

All 13 St. Louis wins came against teams that were playoff-bound or in wild-card contention at the time the Cards played them.

And let’s go back a bit …

Since Aug. 30 the Cardinals have won four of six games from the Reds, split a four-game set with the Dodgers, and rolled through the Mets and Padres for three-game sweeps. The Redbirds have lost only one series this month, dropping two of three at Milwaukee during the first weekend of September. The Cardinals were in position to take two out of three but squandered a 5-1 lead in the ninth in the third game of the series.

It’s been quite a ride. On Aug. 5 the Cardinals were 55-56, ninth in the NL. They were eight games behind the Padres and 4.5 to the rear of the Reds. But since Aug. 6 the Cards are 26-14 and tied with Brewers for third in NL behind Dodgers (31-10) and Giants (28-13.)

The Cardinals actually fell behind the Padres by a larger deficit of 8 and ½ games — and trailed the Reds by five — after losing the series finale on a Sunday in Kansas City on Aug. 8. But since then the Cardinals have won 24 of 37. They’ve played more to their potential and have reduced their inconsistency on offense and cut down on the maddening bullpen blowups that knocked them back.

Bring on the next 14 games.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: No question about it; the Cardinals have taken advantage of the collapses by the Reds and Padres. But the Cardinals gave the Reds, Padres and Mets a shove to set off the free-falling trend.

The Cardinals effectively ended the Mets’ season with last week’s three-game sweep at Citi Field. And the Cardinals gravely damaged the Padres who had to win at least two of the three games at Busch over the weekend. But the three-game series was a disaster for the Padres, and reality set in Saturday night when Manny Machado began hollering at Fernando Tatis Jr. in the San Diego dugout. The Cardinals beat on the Reds and Padres for a combined 7-2 record in nine games played against those teams since Aug. 30.

A LOOK AT THE REDS: Since Aug. 24, a going-backward Cincinnati team has lost eight consecutive series and are 8-16. The problem is an offense that’s averaged only 3.5 runs with a .645 OPS over the last 24 games. The Reds are down to only 12 games remaining on their schedule. They could rally by jumping on the Pirates (six games) and Nationals (four games.) But the Reds have lost a huge lineup presence again; Jesse Winker is back on the IL with a strained intercostal.

“The fact still remains that we have really important games left to play,” Reds manager David Bell said via postgame Zoom on Sunday, following a second straight loss to the Dodgers. “There is just no time to think about it. No time to dwell on it. There is just no choice to make. The only choice is to move forward. That’s how I’m choosing to think about it and that’s how our team will approach it the rest of the way.”

A LOOK AT THE PADRES: The Padres are 10-24 since Aug. 11, scoring 3.5 runs per game with a .641 OPS. They marked their 10-game road trip on the calendar as a must-win excursion to Dodger Stadium, San Francisco, and St. Louis. Their record: 2-8. This was no escapade.

“Just a brutal road trip,” manager Jayce Tingler said. “But we’ve got to regroup.”

Good luck with that. The San Diego Union Tribune’s Kevin Acee reported that Tingler is probably on the way out because he doesn’t command respect in the clubhouse. The view is that the Padres need a stronger, more experienced manager. You know, like Bruce Bochy — who is said to be interested in a return to managing.

Of the lost weekend in St. Louis, Padres reliever Craig Stammen said: “Definitely an opportunity lost. The team that was the team we’re chasing and a chance to get back at them and hopefully take the lead, and we just dug ourselves a bigger hole. This is just going to make the next two weeks tougher than we thought it would be.”

Indeed. The Padres will play only three teams — Giants, Braves and Dodgers — during their two-week stagger to the season’s finish line.

DYLAN CARLSON, GROWING UP: Actually he’s already a mature dude at age 22, and soon to be 23. But the first full year of major-league baseball presents many challenges: getting tricked by experienced MLB pitchers, pushing through the grind of (almost) 162 games, dealing with mental and physical fatigue, and enduring fluctuations of confidence during slumps.

But Carlson looks strong in the late days of the season. In his last 20 games he’s batting .278 with a .325 OBP and .458 slug for a .783 OPS. He homered from each side of the plate, the second a grand slam, to put the Padres away Friday night. “DC” made two outstanding defensive plays in right field during the next two games to deflate the Padres. During the Cards’ 10-1 streak Carlson is 5 for 9 with runners in scoring position (.556) and has banged for 10 RBIs in those situations.

Three observations on Carlson:

1) Carlson has gradually improved his right-field defense; after the weekend he’s up to plus 3 in defensive runs saved for the season.

2) Carlson is a natural righthanded hitter who became a switch hitter a youth. This season he has an extreme platoon split, doing much better against LH pitchers. In 125 plate appearances vs. the lefties Carlson is batting .345 with a .914 OPS. In 391 PA vs. RH pitchers, Carlson is hitting .233 with a .706 OPS.

3) Busch Stadium is tough on hitters in 2021, mostly in suppressing slugging. The Cards have a .382 slugging percentage at home, and a .423 slug on the road. But Carlson is an exception. He’s slugging .387 with a .706 OPS on the road but has a .448 slug and .802 OPS on the road.

BOOM BOOM O’NEILL: Big homer early in Friday’s win to give the Cardinals a 3-0 lead. Big, game-winning homer on Saturday to give the Cardinals a 3-2 victory. Stellar defense; Tyler O’Neill he covers more ground than an All-Pro safety in the NFL. He runs the bases like a bullet train. There is nothing he can’t do going forward except stay healthy and improve on his outstanding performance in 2021.

Sep 18, 2021; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Tyler O’Neill (27) acknowledges fans after hitting a two-run home run against the San Diego Padres during the eighth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

In park-and-league adjusted runs created, O’Neill has been the NL’s fifth-best hitter since Aug. 1 among 37 players that have at least 150 plate appearances over that time. This includes his No. 7 ranking in slugging (.798) and OPS (.984.)

Going into the season the Cardinals could reasonably count on Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado to be their most productive, impactful hitters. But O’Neill has emerged as a robust third source for upper-level offense, and it’s given the Cardinals a more capable and dangerous lineup. O’Neill leads the team in OPS and slugging, is second in batting average, homers and onbase percentage, and ranks third in RBI.

THE ROTATION: In winning 10 of 11 the Cards starting pitching had a 2.93 ERA that ranks fifth in the majors since Sept. 8. I assumed the innings count was on the low side. But thanks to Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester — who combined for an average of nearly seven innings per start — the St. Louis rotation has pitched the third-highest number of innings since Sept. 8.

Lester and Wainwright have combined for a 2.70 ERA over their last five starts. Miles Mikolas had a positive turn Friday against the Padres, pitching 5 and ⅔ scoreless innings.

And while Shildt has been careful about letting Jake Woodford go too deep into starts, Woodford has a respectable 3.38 ERA in his last two starts — but while pitching only four innings in each assignment.

With a tip of the cap in a sign of respect for J.A. Happ, I have to admit to having some concern. After crafting a 2.22 ERA in his first five starts for St. Louis, he’s been roughed up for a 8.22 ERA in his last four outings.

Even if we toss out JA’s worst start as a Cardinal — seven earned runs in one inning on Sept. 1 in Cincinnati — he still has a 4.40 ERA in his other three starts this month.

After two alarming outings after he joined the rotation, Lester has impressed with a 2.72 ERA in his last seven starts for the Cardinals. His performance is even better (2.12 ERA) in his last five starts. He’s impressive.

BOTTOM LINE ON LESTER & HAPP: They were added at a time when the STL rotation was leaking oil. Burning oil. The two veteran lefties have provided a valuable service and exceeded expectations.

The background: between the end of the All-Star break and Aug. 2, the Cards rotation had a 3.97 in 15 games. That isn’t bad, but we have to look closer for the signs of increasing trouble. Wainwright and Wade LeBlanc pitched well during that time but the other three starters — Kwang Hyun Kim, Johan Oviedo and Woodford — combined for a 4.77 ERA in eight starts and averaged fewer than five innings per undertaking.

Oviedo couldn’t stop walking hitters and put extra stress on the bullpen with his short starts. The rookie had to be sent to Triple A Memphis for a reset. LeBlanc injured his elbow and hasn’t pitched since Aug 12. His least healthy start came on Aug. 5. Kim, dealing with a tender left elbow, has a 4.91 ERA since the All-Star break and was relocated to the bullpen. Woodford has been OK, hanging a 4.04 ERA in his five starts. But innings are an issue, and Woodford is vulnerable when going through the opponent’s lineup for the second time in a game, getting hit for a .343 average and .942 OPS.

So when we assess the impact of Happ and Lester, it’s really a two-step process. First, we look at their individual performances. Next, and even more important, is this question: if the Cards hadn’t picked up Lester and Happ at the end of July, who would be in their places, making the starts?

That’s the best way to understand their value to this team. Lester and Happ have a combined 18 starts as Cardinals. I’m thinking of how the rotation would look without them. A rotation that would have to find another way to cover their 18 starts.

Woodford, yes. Oviedo, maybe — but he’s been awful at Memphis. Mikolas returned to the rotation on Aug. 20 and has a 4.82 ERA in six starts. LeBlanc went on the IL after his abbreviated Aug. 12 start at Pittsburgh, with his absence creating another void. Kim lacks durability and didn’t seem like a solution because of the recurring elbow miseries. Jack Flaherty (IL) was unavailable. So was Dakota Hudson (IL.) And management doesn’t believe prospect Matthew Liberatore is ready for the majors.

When we look at it that way, the value of Lester and Happ can’t be overlooked or understated. Trying to cut the deficit and grab the lead in the wild-card race couldn’t be done with two or three starters and a bunch of questions in the other rotation spots.

Obviously there are better rotations out there than Wainwright, Mikolas, Woodford, Lester and Happ. But again, that’s missing the point.

Without Lester and Happ in place to produce so many starts, this team would still be in a state of desperation to scramble and fill rotation holes. Just look at the Padres, who are trying to survive after scrounging for street pickups Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez.

This isn’t about a level of dominance, either. Because no one is comparing Lester and Happ to, say, Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer. Or to Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta.

With the Cardinals, the essential need was stability. And Lester and Happ have solidified a shaky rotation that almost certainly would have fallen apart without them. That’s the point. That’s what we should focus on when looking at the contributions brought forth by Lester and Happ.

Lester and Happ have provided above-average performances in 12 of their 18 starts. (That, based on the game-score accounting devised by Bill James.) That’s commendable, because the Cardinals have a 62-26 record this season when their starting pitcher turns in an average or above-average game. When the starter is below average, the Cards are 21-43. In two-thirds of their starts, Happ and Lester have given the Cardinals a good chance to win the game.

I’ll take it. Especially after expecting so little from Lester-Happ when John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch made the trades to plug them into a fraying rotation. Their pitching arrived at the right time. And on top of that, their veteran presence is an added bonus.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated 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 by streaming online or by downloading 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 available at 590thefan.com

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

 

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.