Eighteen games ago, everything was light and fair. The season was about to start and optimism abounded. How could you not be excited about Cardinals baseball?
It’s been a long eighteen games.
The Last Time We Met…..
The omen came in that first series with Cincinnati. A blowout win, then two losses with decreasing offensive contributions. That didn’t include the dustup between Jake Woodford (now at the alternate site and as such will not be a part of this week’s festivities) and Nicholas Castellanos, who is fresh off serving a suspension for his part in those proceedings. We haven’t seen any other bench clearing situations, but the series loss with one big boom game and two bust games is very familiar by now.
Yet, for all of that, the Cardinals are still hanging around the rest of the NL Central. They sit at 8-10 and sit in last place in the division, 1/2 a game behind the Pirates. I know Alex Crisafulli can tell us the last time a season ended with the Cardinals behind Pittsburgh, but when was the last time they were behind them in the standings? Has to have been a while, right, unless it was some point in 2015? But if they can win two of the next three games, they’ll be tied with Cincinnati and possibly in second place. Early baseball standings watching in
After that series in Cincinnati, when Castellanos especially torched the club, the Reds kept the bats hot against Pittsburgh, putting up 25 runs in the last two games. Since that first homestand, though, the Reds have gone 4-8 and were averaging right under four runs a game until their bonkers 14-11 series finale with the Diamondbacks yesterday. They’ve slipped out of first, looking up at the Brewers. Castellanos has cooled some but still has a .921 OPS, which trails Tyler Naquin (.985) for the team lead among qualified batters. The third? Joey Votto. With a .699 OPS. All these stats were before yesterday, when Castellanos and Votto both homered. While the Reds lost, the offense woke up. Maybe they are like St. Louis and can’t score the day after a big outburst?
The Mound Men
Friday: Sonny Gray (0-0, 4.15 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 5.07 xERA) vs. Kwang Hyun Kim (0-0, 9.00 ERA, 2.42 FIP, 11.48 xERA)
Saturday: Wade Miley (2-1, 2.25 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 3.26 xERA) vs. John Gant (0-2, 3.21 ERA, 4.73 FIP, 7.17 xERA)
Sunday: Luis Castillo (1-1, 6.05 ERA, 4.69 FIP, 4.47 xERA) vs. Jack Flaherty (3-0, 3.80 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 4.87 xERA)
—Stats courtesy of FanGraphs
I think everyone will want to skip to the Sunday matchup, the rematch of Opening Day. Since then, Castillo has allowed just seven runs (five earned) in three starts, but that itself is skewed by the fact that his second start of the year was seven scoreless innings against Pittsburgh. His two starts after that, he’s combined for just nine innings. Flaherty, of course, has seemed more of his old self of late, as long as he doesn’t get a huge lead to work with.
The other two matchups could be intriguing as well. Kim should, in theory, be able to throw closer to 100 pitches this time. Of course, Cincinnati is one of the few teams that has seen Kim before, so we’ll see how that goes. Like Kim, Gray has only made one start after injury. The Cards scored six against him in less than an inning the last time they saw him so maybe they have a good game plan to put into practice.
Miley would seem to be pitching over his head but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals are the team that’s going to bring him down to earth. They saw him last year and scored three runs in five innings, so they have that going for them which is nice. If anyone in this matchup is dancing with regression to the mean, though, it may be Gant. If I understand xERA (and I am not saying I do by any means), it would seem he’s been fortunate his hard contact has found gloves. At some point, that may cease to happen.
The Hot Seat
Not much change here. Matt Carpenter did get a hit in the Nationals series (though was thrown out trying to supersize his order) but struck out and flied out with the bases loaded on Wednesday. The metrics seem to say that the last ball he hit normally drops for a hit or clears the bases, but watching it on replay it looked like an easy fly ball to catch. I don’t know if that means Carpenter’s more predictable so that even the outfield can shift with good results against him or there’s more to it than that. Whatever the case, with Tyler O’Neill returning, Carpenter shouldn’t get a start this weekend. He likely will, but he shouldn’t.
Dispatches From The Front
I got in touch with Wick Terrell, who writes over at Red Reporter, and shot him a few questions about the Reds
What's going right for the team right now and what's going wrong?
The offense, while not running away at the record-breaking pace it was on to begin the season, is still certainly a strength of this team. Mike Moustakas is currently on the IL with a non-COVID illness, which hurts, but they've even gotten solid production from his fill-ins at 3B so far. Even the starting pitching has been mostly rock solid, with Jeff Hoffman having settled in and Sonny Gray returning healthy after two weeks on the sidelines.
That's two vital aspects of the team that are going great! Surely there's not something that could neutralize those on its own, right?
Wrong. The bullpen is an abject disaster at the moment, with virtually nobody able to get big outs consistently. There's ample arm talent down there, but Amir Garrett has botched a pair of games of late, Carson Fulmer is inching back towards a pumpkin, and too much has been asked of Lucas Sims early. It's a group that needs to find some answers, and fast, since they've already cost the Reds a handful of games that, on paper, should've been very hard to give away.
Who's hot, who's not?
Tyler Mahle is on a tear on the mound, so naturally your Cardinals are going to get to miss him.
Offensively, Jesse Winker has been an absolute dynamo since getting back into the everyday lineup after some calf issues, and is picking right up where he left off last year as the team's most potent, consistent bat. Being backed by Nick Castellanos - back after his BS suspension - has made the top of the lineup outstanding, and Joey Votto has firmly joined that mix over the last 8-10 days, too, with 4 dingers and a handful of XBHs in that time, too.
Eugenio Suarez, though, has struggled. Perhaps it's the move over to shortstop and a focus on defense that has his bat on the back-burner right now, but even after his homer on Thursday he's limped to just a .664 OPS so far with one of the worst K-rates in all of baseball. I firmly expect him to turn it around at some point, though, so hopefully that dinger gets him jump-started.
Do you expect altercations?
I truly hope not, nor do I expect them in this series. I think there should have been enough time to let this kerfluffle abate for the time being, though I do think that if these two clubs are battling in the standings later on this summer there's a very, very good likelihood of it simmering back to the surface.
I think what I'm saying is that my best bet for this weekend is that the Reds/Cards animosity is dormant for now, but certainly not extinct at all.
What are you going to be watching for this series?
Not to keep harping on it, but I'll be staring lasers through the bullpen all weekend. Anything other than three straight bullpen disasters and the Reds roll into St. Louis on a 3-game win streak. They had each of these three games against Arizona in their hands on multiple occasions, and the bullpen failed each and every time. Their best arms failed, their worst arms failed, and a bullpen that already had experienced tremendous turnover from 2020 and featured a litany of very inexperienced arms now, from top to bottom, is struggling.
I honestly don't know who the closer is, or which setup man aside from Lucas Sims they can count on for now - and Sims just pitched for three days in a row for the first time in his career, so we likely won't even see him until Sunday at the earliest. I'll be watching for who they turn to in which spots, for one, but also obviously how they perform, since it's a complete mess right now in all facets.
As noted above, Tyler O’Neill is expected to join the team in time for the series. It’s possible that will force out Justin Williams, should there be a desire to keep Carpenter in the lineup, but that would be a shame. Williams had a bad throw on Wednesday but has made some very nice catches in the outfield, plus has two homers and a .943 OPS over the last week. Williams is already going to have his time reduced when Harrison Bader returns. He shouldn’t see it reduced until then.
Paul Goldschmidt sat out the home opener with a back injury. Since that time his slash line is .196/.229/.326. He did have a three hit game in the rout of the Nationals on Monday, but he’s been hitless in six of those 11 games. Hopefully it’s a slump he’s about to come out of and not a sign of some lingering back trouble.
The recent road trip wasn’t kind to Nolan Arenado either. He went .167/.231/.333 and drove in just two in the six games against Philadelphia and Washington. It’s possible a little bit of the adrenaline and excitement about a new season with a new team is wearing off. Still love to watch him hit and field, though.
Jordan Hicks warmed up twice in the Nationals series but didn’t get into either game. I was thinking that they had determined that if they got him hot, he came in, but looking around I can’t find that documented so it’s probably just in my head. As Hicks get farther from his injury and more established back in the league, that sort of thing is less of an issue anyway.