Starting To Get Interesting

Is the Cardinals' current surge for real and how far can it go?

The Cardinals have seemingly found their footing, going 6-0 on a road trip and 8-1 in their last three series. Of course, those series were against Kansas City and Pittsburgh, two teams that are a combined 52 games under .500 as of the end of play Sunday. Which then begs the question, is this run for real?

On the one hand, the entire product looks better. There’s been a notable decrease in walks, there’s not been any terrible bullpen blowups (well, the last game against Pittsburgh wound up getting a little dicey), and the offense has started clicking, with the team scoring four or more runs in 11 straight games.

On the other, you’d expect it to look this good against teams with sputtering offenses and not-so-great pitching. Pittsburgh traded off many of their interesting pieces and Kansas City didn’t have much that attracted folks. Even a .500 team should look like world-beaters against these guys.

Even with all this, the divisional lead hasn’t really dwindled. The Cardinals have made up one game over the last 10. Even with the Brewers coming to town, looking at the top of the NL Central seems a bit foolhardy.

The wild card race, though…..

I’ll admit, I never thought it would get to this point. San Diego seemed like a team that was at least a notch above the Cardinals and that was before they were active at the trade deadline. Yet they are 5-6 in their last 11 counting last night’s game against the Rockies and somehow the Cards are closing.

Perhaps the next three games will help us solve a little bit of this quandary. If St. Louis can take two of three from the Brewers, even though it wouldn’t make much of a dent in the division race it would give me hope that the second half surge is real and we perhaps shouldn’t write off this team too quickly. Lose the series and all the wins against Pittsburgh and the like won’t mean nearly as much.

It’s not quite a season-defining series, but it’s close. If it doesn’t go the right way, it could be the last one of these we see.

The Last Time We Met…..

It’s been so long since the Cardinals and Brewers met up that it was St. Louis, not Milwaukee, that was in first place. The Cards lost two of three in St. Louis back in April, but met up with the Brew Crew at American Family Field in May with some different results.

Game 1 pitted Kwang Hyun Kim against Freddy Peralta and it was a doozy. Neither team was able to break through until the sixth, when Lorenzo Cain led off with a double and, one batter later, Travis Shaw switched places with him. The score stayed that way until the eighth, when the club took advantage Devin Williams by getting a leadoff single from Harrison Bader and a walk to Matt Carpenter, then two fly balls that moved the runners up and in, tying things up at 1. It went to the 10th and things went nuts. Paul Goldschmidt hit a two-run homer and Tyler O’Neill hit a three-run blast, taking the drama out of things and winning the game 6-1.

Game 2 saw things swing Milwaukee’s way late. They got their first run in the sixth when John Gant—you won’t believe this—let the first two batters reach via hit-by-pitch and walk. Genesis Cabrera came in and got Travis Shaw to fly out, but Harrison Bader made an error trying to get the advancing runner and Lorenzo Cain scored. The Brewers, perhaps wanting to avoid what happened the night before, let starter Brandon Woodruff start the eighth inning. After he struck out Yadier Molina, Tyler O’Neill homered for the second time in the series, tying things up.

Then things got crazy. Ryan Helsley got Kolten Wong to line out, Lorenzo Cain to fly out, and Daniel Vogelbach to strike out….and didn’t get out of the inning. Strike three to Vogelbach got away from Molina, allowing him to reach. Travis Shaw then doubled, scoring pinch-runner Pablo Reyes, then Avisail Garcia homered, making the score 4-1 and letting us spend the day arguing about whether the dropped third strike rule needed to be in baseball or not.

Thankfully that momentum didn’t carry over to game 3, in part because Jack Flaherty was on the mound and determined to shake off his demons about facing Milwaukee. The Cardinals got to Corbin Burnes in the first in the YouTube afternoon game via a Tommy Edman leadoff single, a stolen base, and a Nolan Arenado two-out single. St. Louis got another run in the ninth when Angel Perdomo tried to pick off Lane Thomas from third and threw it away. In between, Jack Flaherty went six scoreless and the big three relievers kept the Brewers off the board.

The Opponent

I hate to break it to you, but the Brewers are good. Milwaukee has a history of getting to around this point in the season and then hitting a wall, but they’ve built up enough of a lead that they could slip some and still be fine. However, they also brought in some reinforcements at the deadline (Eduardo Escobar, Daniel Norris) to go along with the moves they’ve made throughout the year. A fade from them looks less likely than ever.

That’s in part because in the past, Milwaukee didn’t really have pitching. They do now. Three of the top five ERAs in baseball belong to starting pitchers for the Brewers. For the season, Milwaukee’s hitting has been more mediocre (18th in OPS, just 14 points ahead of St. Louis) but their team ERA is third in baseball and batters are hitting just .215 against them, which is second.

The last 30 days haven’t shown much difference on the pitching side, but they’ve picked up the bats. Milwaukee has an ERA of 2.93 in that span which leads MLB and they have an OPS of .799 that ranks third. Granted, in that span (which is basically since the All-Star Break) they’ve faced the Reds, Royals, White Sox, Pirates, Braves, Pirates (again), Giants, the decimated Cubs, and the Pirates a third time. They’ve had a lot of squish in their recent schedule as well.

The Mound Men

Tuesday: Corbin Burnes (7-4, 2.23 ERA, 1.52 FIP, 1.76 xERA) vs. Adam Wainwright (11-6, 3.27 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 3.92 xERA)

Wednesday: Freddy Peralta (9-3, 2.26 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 2.49 xERA) vs. Jack Flaherty (9-1, 2.65 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 4.39 xERA)

Thursday: Brandon Woodruff (7-6, 2.18 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 2.99 xERA) vs. TBD (likely Jon Lester, possibly Miles Mikolas)

xERA courtesy of FanGraphs

This is probably going to be a series of 2-1 and 1-0 games and the offensive firepower that we’ve seen over the last week or so is most likely going to wither on the vine. Burnes recently struck out 10 batters in a row against the Cubs in route to striking out 15 and throwing eight scoreless innings on the same night Wainwright was throwing a Maddux against the Pirates. We noted above that the Cards were able to barely get to Burnes last time they faced him, but that’s a rare thing. Only six of his 20 starts this season have seen him allow more than one run. Granted, when he flames he flames (five of those outings he allowed four or more runs) but it doesn’t happen often.

Peralta, as noted above, was excellent in the game he faced the Cardinals back in May. He has only once this year given up more than three runs in an outing and the last time he did that was against the Reds right before the All-Star Break. His last start was in the first game of a doubleheader against the Cubs and he allowed two runs in 5.1 innings. (Peralta’s only gone past six innings four times this year, just FYI.)

The final starter, Woodruff, is having a season that rivals the other two. Woodruff was the only starter to pitch in a win back in May, even though he wound up with a no-decision after striking out 10 in 7.2 innings. He had two games in a row where he allowed three runs at the end of July, but seems to have bounced back. Last start saw him throw just three scoreless innings at the Cubs, but it seems like that was more the fact that he’d already thrown 74 pitches (and the Brewers had a 5-1 lead on the way to a 17-4 win) than anything else.

The Hot Seat

Win six in a row and eight of nine and nobody’s seat is too warm. There’s still questions about how Mike Shildt runs his bullpen and his lineup construction, but those are sort of baked in by now.

Scoreboard Watching

I said I’d bring this back if things got interesting and I think the current situation qualifies. The Padres, who are so hard up for pitching they are signing Jake Arrieta, started a four game series in Colorado on Monday night as noted above. The Reds began a homestand hosting the Cubs for three Monday-Wednesday (they won last night) and will have the Marlins for four starting Thursday.

Keeping an eye on the teams right behind the Cards in the Wild Card race, the Phillies are in Arizona for three starting tonight and the Mets hit the West Coast, facing the Giants for three starting last night (where they dropped another one) and the Dodgers for four after that.

Assorted Crudités

We’ve talked all year about Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt getting hot at the same time. For August, Nolan’s slashing .255/.339/.608 while Goldy is going at a .320/.373/.420 mark. Since the end of the Atlanta series, though, Arenado’s OPS is 1.067 while Goldy’s is .914. This might be the most in sync they’ve been all year.

The Cardinals are 20-32 against teams over .500, a record that won’t get much chance to change until September. They are 32-25 at home, though, and they’ve reduced the deficit in their run differential by more than half (-49 to -21) over the past nine games.

Adam Wainwright, last five games: 5-0, 1.95 ERA, over seven innings a start, .539 OPS against, five total walks, .191 batting average against. Much like the Millennium Falcon, the old man has it where it counts and just gets better with age.

Random Links

Currently listening to: My podcasts are backing up, but I’m just getting to Chirps and then the next Cardinals Off Day that promises to teach much about the agricultural heritage of Iowa. However I’m also interested in checking out a newcomer to the somewhat crowded podcast landscape. Carter Zehr, who goes by CardinalsChat18 on the Twitter, has started up one called, unsurprisingly, Cardinals Chat. I’m very interested to hear a new voice and see how it compares to the rest of the regulars.

School started back up yesterday around here, with my kids starting ninth and eleventh grade. That’s always the sign that, while it’s not here yet (and it may really not be here for weeks), fall is on the way. Not sure exactly where this year went but I assume the same place all the rest of them did.

The new Meet Me at Musial and the new Gateway to Baseball Heaven. I wasn’t sure the last part of Gateway was recording, so apologies for the abrupt end to everything.

2 Corinthians 2:5-11