Tuesday’s crisp 3-0 victory over the Phillies was a model that demonstrated how the Cardinals can win more games in 2024. And this fine presentation offered a direct contrast to their calamity-plagued 2023.

1. Better starting pitching than last year.
2. Better relief pitching than last year.
3. Better defense than last year.
4. Better baserunning than last year.
5. Better situational hitting than last year.

I would add some other aspects of performance that aren’t directly quantifiable. Playing harder and smarter and with more awareness. Staying positive. Competing with more purpose. Staying mentally tough in a tight game.

The Cardinals (obviously) weren’t perfect in battling the Phillies in a game that could have gone either way. And I’m not suggesting that we should frame this as a piece of art. It would be nice for your favorite team to win a lot of games by attacking early, scoring a bunch of runs, seizing a comfortable lead, and have their pitchers tuck away the victory with a methodical, routine finish.

Ah, but baseball isn’t like that. Not all of the time. Not with considerable regularity. On many nights, baseball makes you work for it, grind it out, handle the pressure, use your intelligence, compete like madmen to win, smile, and to get to the handshake line after the 27th out.

Baseball makes you beat the other team’s ace – Philly’s Zack Wheeler in this instance – when he’s locked in and dealing. Baseball makes you find a way to get the necessary runs despite going 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position – which the Redbirds did Tuesday night.

Baseball requires a No. 1 starter to perform to the expected standard. And Sonny Gray pitched up to his designation by splicing together five sharp innings. He conceded five hits while refusing to gift the Phillies with a walk. Gray subdued the Phillies by throwing first-pitch strikes to get the advantage in the coun. He pounded the strike zone. He struck out five. He induced seven ground balls – two of which were converted into crucial double plays. Gray vacated the injured list and entered the regular-season fray with a bang. It was a helluva performance. The Cardinals didn’t have Gray last season. They didn’t have a single starter that could match his standards. And now they do.

Baseball demands that your bullpen comes through over four innings in relief of your ace. Gray was on a pitch count, and reached his limit (65) after getting his 14th and 15th outs on a double-play grounder that closed the fifth inning. There’s your new No. 1 starter, Cardinals fans.

Gray’s premiere showcase could have been ruined by an unfortunate bullpen blowup, but Gray’s teammates wouldn’t allow that to happen.The procession of Matthew Liberatore, Andrew Kittredge, JoJo Romero and Ryan Helsley fired through four scoreless innings. These dudes were enforcers. They took on 17 Philadelphia batters and struck out eight for a 47 percent strikeout rate. What a formidable performance.

Baseball does not reward terrible defense, a reality that we witnessed – with considerable sickness – in 2023. But early in 2024, the St. Louis defense continued to be an asset, turning three double plays to repel the Phillies.

Baseball frowns upon an offense that doesn’t back the pitchers with ample support. And baseball doesn’t care that you have to overcome the other team’s best starter. Nolan Gorman’s two-out homer gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the fourth. The other scoring came in the fifth on a sequence that played out like this: leadoff single by Alec Burleson, double by Masyn Winn, an RBI sac fly from Victor Scott II, and an RBI groundout by Brendan Donovan.

Baseball insists that your lineup gets contributions from all places in the lineup, and it doesn’t matter if it’s high-paid stars or their younger baseball siblings. Someone must step up and get the damn thing done. On Tuesday it was two rookies (Winn + Scott), a second-year player (Burleson) and two third-year Cardinals, Gorman + Donovan.

In the more prestigious section of Tuesday’s lineup, Paul Goldschmidt, Willson Contreras and Nolan Arenado were a combined 1 for 11 with a walk and five strikeouts. But the 7-8-9 lineup spots – occupied by Burleson, Winn and Scott – combined for three hits and a walk, an RBI, and scored two of the team’s three runs. Yes indeed. The guys at the bottom of the order delivered valuable, timely offense on an evening when pitching dominated.

Just my opinion, but the 3-0 win was the most impressive game turned in by the Cardinals so far in 2024. The ace introduced himself in grand style. The defense made big plays. The bullpen was bulletproof. The situational hitting was on point. The baserunning was opportunistic, scoring on a fly ball and a grounder. And may I suggest – forgive me haters – that manager Oli Marmol made all the right moves, including his mound visit to Gray in the fifth? Marmol left. Gray threw a double–play grounder. And Marmol had effective bullpen pieces lined up to take care of the rest.

Let’s follow up on some of the elements that were so huge in Tuesday’s win:

STARTING PITCHING: Yeah, Kyle Gibson got knocked around for seven early runs by the Marlins on Sunday. But in the other seven games during the current 5-3 stretch, St. Louis starters had a 2.97 ERA. And the Cardinals won five of the seven games. Also: the Cardinals had a 5.68 starting-pitching ERA in their opening four-game set against the Dodgers. Since then, their starting-pitching ERA is 3.97. And that includes a couple of bad starts.

THE BULLPEN:  As a unit the STL relievers rank 13th overall in ERA (3.67). They are seventh in fielding independent ERA (3.64). They are seventh in strikeout rate (27%) and have the fourth-best ground ball rate (51.3%).

SITUATIONAL HITTING: Here are the pertinent numbers, and all of this is much improved from 2023. I know it’s early but the extra emphasis put on this stuff by Marmol seems to be working.

* The Cardinals lead the National League and are second overall for batting average (.353) in high-leverage situations … otherwise known as the most important situations. Their .885 OPS in high-leverage scenarios is third in MLB.

* The Redbirds are batting .314 with an .886 OPS in Late & Close situations.

* They are tied for first in the majors with a productive out percentage of 40.1%. They’re tied for first in the majors in sacrifice bunts, and tied for third in sacrifice flies.

* The Cardinals are third in the majors in advancing runners from second base (69.2%) with no outs. ( But need to get better at getting the runner in from third with fewer than two outs.. The Cards lead the majors in extra bases taken as runners with 26. No other team has more than 19 XBT.

* Last season the Cardinals scored 49.6 percent of their total runs on home runs. This season they’d scored 36% of their runs on homers through Tuesday. Their offense has to improve; there’s no question about that. But here’s the point: the 2024 Cardinals are more adept at scratching out runs in a variety of ways. That’s a positive. Of course it’s early and there are no definitive conclusions here. But I just wanted to acknowledge the early-season trend. And it’s a change from 2023.

DEFENSE: The pitching is improving, and defense is definitely part of that – just like a substandard defense was a significant factor in the poor pitching.

* The Cardinals have turned more double plays than any team in the majors (15) so far this season.

* The early returns on defensive runs saved and outs above average are positive. And the Cardinals rank 10th in the majors in the composite defensive rating at FanGraphs.

* Last season opponents had a .321 batting average in balls in play against Cardinals’ starters. That was the highest such batting average in a season against STL starting pitchers in franchise history. This season opponents are batting .299 against Cardinal starters on balls in play – which happens to be right with the overall MLB average of .298. Defense matters. Defense really matters.

* Because of enhanced defense and improved pitching, the Cardinals go into Wednesday’s game ranked 11th in the majors in run prevention at 4.25 runs yielded per game. Last season the Cardinals ranked 24th in the majors with an average yield of 5.12 runs per game.

“Defense has been insane – it truly has,” Sonny Gray told reporters after Tuesday’s win. “The plays they made are the reason that I was able to go out there and throw five innings on a pitch (count). They work on it. You watch them work on it. They take pride in it. It’s fun to be a part of. It makes me even more confident in a situation like that in the fifth inning to absolutely try and get a ball to their hands and force contact, knowing that there is going to be a play made behind you.”

(Philadelphia scored two first-inning runs Wednesday, largely because of an error on V. Scott II in center field. That’s how it goes in the writing game. Talk about the team’s good defense — and here comes a blunder. Bet on it. Oh well. But the Cardinals do have a good defense, and Scott is an excellent center fielder. Not on every single play, though. No one is. Anyway, had a relapse game on Wednesday and lost 4-3.) 

NOLAN GORMAN: He’s getting through his slow start. In his last five games through Tuesday, Gorman had three homers and a double with six RBIs. And in the five games he had a .263 average, .790 slugging percentage and 1.123 OPS.

JOJO ROMERO: He’s off to a fantastic start to the season. The lefty played a biig role in Tuesday’s 3-0 win, pitching 1.2 innings and striking out four of seven batters faced. Through the team’s first 12 games, Romero had a 1.35 ERA in 6.2 innings. He’s struck out 40 percent of his batters faced. That ranked first among MLB lefty relievers that had faced at least 25 batters this season. Romero’s fielding independent ERA was 0.68 through Tuesday.

PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT: Since his productive afternoon in the season-opening game at Dodger Stadium, Goldy had gone 5 for 40 (.120) with no extra base hits and a 31.2 percent strikeout rate through Tuesday.

NOLAN ARENADO: Since last Aug. 20 — in 38 games since then — the All-Star third baseman is batting .208 with no home runs, a .255 slugging percentage and .514 OPS. And 24 of his 31 hits have been singles. (The other seven were doubles.) During this stretch, which entails 162 plate appearances, Arenado has been 58 percent below league average offensively per wRC+.

IVAN HERRERA: I love watching him hit. He has a powerful presence in the batter’s box. That is all.

NEXT UP: The Cardinals (6-6) will send Lance Lynn after the Phillies (5-6) in Wednesday’s matinee. The Phillies counter with Aaron Nola. UPDATE: The Cardinals’ avoidable 4-3 loss left them at 6-7 and have them a 3-3 homestand. Disappointing.

Thanks for reading …


A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions, Spotrac and Cot’s Contracts 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.