THE REDBIRD REVIEW

In their first 39 games, the Cardinals skidded to a 15-24 record. The outlook was ominous and reminiscent of the team’s savage 2023 season. Is this really happening again?

Well, the situation has improved. And the outlook isn’t as troubling. After bottoming out on May 11, the Cardinals have surged to the National League’s best record (20-11) since May 12.

How to explain the turnaround? The St. Louis offense has perked up, but not in a dramatic, season-changing way. It’s still inadequate in too many games. The lineup is missing three injured players – Willson Contreras, Lars Nootbaar and Tommy Edman. Right fielder Jordan Walker didn’t return from Triple A Memphis to lead the charge; he’s been been down there since April 28. Given the chaos, it’s hardly stunning to see the offense stall so frequently.

The Cardinal bullpen has been a strength all along, so that part is pretty much the same. More on that in a bit. The Cardinals have won 20 of their last 31 games despite getting messy during a clumsy stretch of committing too many errors and allowing too many unearned runs. The play afield has been steadier over the last 11 games, and the defense is saving runs again.

So what’s the key to the turnaround?

Pitching. Very good pitching.

Surprisingly dependable pitching.

There are flashes of perfection here and there, but perfection doesn’t last. And I’m not overhyping the pitching performance; the Cardinals still have their mediocre days on the mound. But even with the misfires, pitching has been the foundation of STL’s success since May 12.

Let’s take a look at the before and after picture:

+ First 39 games: 15-24 record through May 11. The team had a 4.33 ERA that ranked 23rd overall and 12th in the National League.

+ Last 31 games: 20-11 record grinning May 12. The team has a 3.43 team ERA since then, ranking seventh overall and third in the NL.

+ Starting pitching, first 39 games: 4.49 ERA, 24th overall and 13th in the NL.

+ Starting pitching, last 31 games: 3.64 ERA, ninth overall and third in the NL.

The improvement is pretty dramatic, yes?

During the 20-11 run that pulled the Cardinals from the ravine, they received a combined starting-pitching ERA of 3.32 from Miles Mikolas, Kyle Gibson, Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Andre Pallante.

In the 31-game upturn that’s altered their season, the Cardinal bullpen has a 3.12 ERA – but that’s just part of it. In their 20-11 reemergence, the Cardinals are 12-2 when leading after six innings, 16-1 when ahead after seven innings, and 19-0 when possessing the lead through eight. They’re also 1-0 in their only extra-innings game during this stretch.

The impact of the St. Louis pitching was on display over the weekend at Wrigley Field where the Cardinals won two of three games from the Cubs despite scoring six total runs in 27 innings of ball. Going back a bit further, the Cardinals are 4-1 in their last five games despite scoring an average of 2.8 runs.

In the three games at Chicago, Gibson, Pallante and Mikolas gave up two earned runs in 16 and ⅔ innings for a 1.08 ERA. The bullpen wasn’t as sharp as usual, giving the Cubs 11 walks with only five strikeouts in 9 and ⅓ innings. And the Cubs got to lefty John King for a two-run homer by Ian Happ to ice a 5-1 victory by the home team.

In the two wins, the St. Louis bullpen worked 4 and ⅔ tense innings. Ryan Fernandez did yield a single that scored an inherited runner in Sunday’s 2-1 triumph, but that was the extent of the damage.

In the Friday-Sunday victories Fernandez, JoJo Romero, Andrew Kittredge and Ryan Hesley had to work out of high-risk situations and didn’t rupture.

In the two games won by the Cardinals, the Chicago hitters scored one run in 18 innings, had eight hits in 62 at-bats (.129) and were 2 for 13 (.154) with runners in scoring position.

The Cubs’ offense is hardly menacing these days; they’ve averaged 2.7 runs in the last 10 games and 3.4 runs in the last 46 conflicts. But because their own offense was struggling to make runs at Wrigley, Cardinals pitchers had to tamp down the Cubs to earn their two wins. They got it done.

The St. Louis offense will have some big games along the way, and perhaps we’ll see a more capable offense surface if the Cardinals get their injured hitters healthy and productive and keep them in the lineup.

This team’s most consistent asset is the combination of stricter run prevention, advantageous starting pitching, and a bullpen that protects leads with authority.

The Cardinals are making it work for them. They have no choice. Their progress since May 12 is real and shouldn’t be nitpicked. But it’s mostly about their quality pitching, and it’s fair to wonder if they can prosper with such a narrow path to long-term success. At some point the offense must ignite.

ACCOUNTING DEPARTMENT: With Sunday’s attainment the Cardinals are 9-3 in their last 12 games against NL Central rivals. This includes a 4-1 record against the Cubs, and the Cards allowed an average of 3.4 runs per game … on May 11 the Cardinals were in last place in the NL Central and trailed the second-place Cubs by 7 and ½ games. Today the Cardinals are in second place in the division, the Cubs are in last place, and the Cubs trail the Cardinals by 2.0 games … after a winning weekend at Wrigley, the Cardinals moved into the No. 2 wild-card spot in the National League, four games behind No. 1 Atlanta. The Padres (37-38) and Nationals (35-36) are tied for the No. 3 wild card position, followed closely by Diamondbacks, Giants, Reds, Pirates, Cubs and Mets. All six of those teams are somewhere between a half-game and 1 and ½ games behind in the No. 3 wild-card derby … the Cardinals were 27-43 through 70 games last season, but have eight more wins and eight fewer losses than they did at the 70-game marker last season.

RUN DIFFERENTIAL: This season the Cardinals have been outscored 307-269 for a minus 38 run differential that ranks 24th overall and 13th in the NL. But the Cards have been cutting into that runs for-and-against deficit since they’re revival began on May 12.

Here’s what I’m referring to:

Through May 11: minus 52 run differential that ranked 27th overall and 13th in the NL. As mentioned, their record at that time was 15-24.

Since May 12: plus 14 run differential, with the Redbirds outscoring opponents 137-123 while going 20-11.

MILES MIKOLAS, METAMORPHOSIS MAN: In his first eight outings of the season, Mikolas had a 6.43 ERA and the Cardinals were 2-6 when he started a game. But no one represents the season turnaround more than Mikolas. Since his May 12 start at Milwaukee – the day Mikolas prevented the Brewers from sweeping a four-game series – Mikolas has a 2.76 ERA in seven starts, and the Cardinals are 5-2 in his turns.

That’s not all; his six quality starts since May 12 are the most by a National League pitcher. The Miler hasn’t given up more than three earned runs in a start over that time, and opponents are batting .182 with a .540 OPS against him.

In the Bill James Game Score that I look at for starting pitchers, Mikolas has turned in an above-average start in eight of his last 10 assignments. He’s had five below-average starts this season, but none of them came after May 7.

MIKOLAS IS SINKING, BUT IN A GOOD WAY: In his last seven starts opponents have gone 3 for 54, all singles when an at-bat ends with Mikolas throwing his sinking fastball. That’s an .056 batting average. In his first eight starts of the campaign, Mikolas yielded a .279 batting average and .488 slugging percentage on the sinker. Two of the 12 hits against him on the sinker went for home runs. Mikolas hasn’t allowed an extra-base hit on the pitch during his last seven starts.

STARTING-PITCHING NOTE: The Cardinals are 17-8 since May 12 in their 25 games started by Mikolas, Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn. The four starters have a collective 3.28 in the 25 starts and have yielded only 0.77 home runs per nine innings. They’ve combined for 12 quality starts since May 12.

ANOTHER STARTING PITCHING NOTE, BECAUSE WHY NOT? Cardinal starters have the best ERA (2.96) in the National League in their last 26 games, going back to May 18. The Cardinals are 16-10 in those competitions.

BULLPEN ON PARADE: The Cardinals banked two more saves over the weekend, increasing their MLB-leading save total to 27. The Cards are second in the majors with a 79 percent save rate. Their foreclosure specialist, Ryan Helsley, leads the majors with 24 saves. That’s 24 consecutive saves for Helsley, who was charged with a blown save at Dodger Stadium on March 30. That 24 in a row ties Alex Reyes for the most consecutive saves by a Cardinal in a season. Reyes did it in 2021.

That said …

Helsley has a 5.40 ERA and 16 percent walk rate in his last 10 appearances. If fatigue is an issue, then the Cardinals will have to be careful with him.

Andrew Kiitredge had a 2.14 ERA and 28 percent strikeout rate in his first 23 appearances for the Cardinals. But in his last 10 appearances, Kittredge has been struck for a 6.30 ERA and three homers and has a much lower strikeout rate of 20 percent.

Look, we gotta have something to worry about.

THE PEDRO PAGES SHOW: He pretty much was the offense for the Redbirds at Wrigley Field. He hit both of his team’s homers, knocked in three of his team’s six RBIs, scored two of the six runs, and slugged a team-best .800 among STL hitters with at least 10 plate appearances during the series. Pages gave a tremendous gift to his father Sunday with a two-run homer on Father’s Day. Papa Pages was seated behind home plate when Pedro ripped the wrapping paper off the present with his bat. Then again, that home run was a gift for all fathers, mothers, grandparents, kids and all Cardinals fans everywhere.

WITHOUT WILLSON CONTRERAS: The Cardinals are 20-14 since their starting catcher retreated to the injured list on May 8 with a fractured forearm. The Cardinals are 20-14 during his absence. A lot of that has to do with their 3.82 ERA over that time that ranks sixth among NL teams. But rookie catchers Pages and Ivan Herrera have done a good job of filling the void by combining for a .267 average and .711 OPS that includes and 13 RBIs. Both young catchers are pretty good at drawing walks; that’s why they have a combined .348 onbase percentage with Contreras on the IL.

THE CUBS HAVE ISSUES: Sunday’s loss dropped the Cubs to 17-29 since April 27 for the worst winning percentage (.370) in the NL over that time. Before that the Cubs were looking good at 17-9. But the offense has collapsed. Since April 26 the Cubs rank 14th among the 15 NL teams in runs and are last in batting average (.212), slugging percentage (.338), OPS (.634) and hitting (.171) with runners in scoring position. Recent negatives include two injuries to young starting pitchers Ben Brown and Jordan Wicks. And a vulnerable, short-handed bullpen is flammable late in games.

The Cubs have lost nine of their last 10 series played. They have not won a three-game series since wrapping up a series against the Pirates on May 12. Their only series conquest since then was a two–game sweep of the injury-ravaged White Sox. The Cubs are 10-21 since May 13 and have averaged only 3.3 runs in the last 31 games.

THE LIST OF THINGS TO DO

1. Reconnect Nolan Arenado to the power charger. He ended May with a homer in two straight games, but has only one home run in 54 at-bats in June. Arenado’s slugging percentage hasn’t been above .400 since May 4, but even then it was only .408. He’s slugging .356 in his last 35 games.

2. Reconnect Paul Goldschmidt to the power charger. In 71 at-bats over his last 18 games, Goldy has one home run, five RBIs and an unfortunate .324 slugging percentage.

Goldschmidt and Arenado have combined for two homers in 115 at-bats this month. That’s one every 57.5 at-bats.

3. Get more bang, and less whiff, from Nolan Gorman. Since May 31 he’s 11 for 62 (.177) with a 36.3 strikeout rate. He does have five homers during this stretch but otherwise is 6 for 57 (.105) with a 39 percent strikeout rate.

4. Heat up Alec Burleson. Since May 27 he’s batted .205 with a .244 OBP and .385 slug. There are four homers in the mix since then, but the Cardinals could use Burly to stroke a lot more doubles and singles and make fewer outs.

5. Drop a couple of espresso shots into Dylan Carlson’s coffee. After hitting .368 over a six-game stretch, he went 0 for 4 in the final two games at Wrigley Field.

Also: Get those damn blue socks off.

NEXT ON THE SKED: The Cardinals are in Miami for three games starting Monday night. In order, the scheduled starters are Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson. The Marlins, 23-48, have the second-worst winning percentage (.324) in the majors this year. Only the White Sox (19-54) have been more futile.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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

Please follow Bernie on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

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.