Cardinals Not Holding Own

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The NL Central’s “Big Three” may be reduced to the “Big Two” sooner rather than later.

After falling 2-1 to the Chicago Cubs last night, the St. Louis Cardinals are now 0-5 against other members of the division’s elite.

In fact, taking away a 5-run outburst in an extra-inning loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in game 2 of the season, the Redbirds have totaled just 3 runs in 4 other games.

The Cardinals still lead the National League in runs scored per game (6.1), but it’s been feast or famine.

Against the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, they have averaged 8.7 runs per game. They scored 10 or more runs in 4 of their 9 games against the league’s lesser teams.

Against the Cubs and Pirates, it’s just 1.6 runs per game.

Jason Hammel improved to 2-0 for the Cubs (11-3), going 6 innings to give the team a run of 14 consecutive games to start the season in which the starting pitcher went 6 or more innings.

(For all the mythology about how “in the old days, everybody went the distance!” this is actually historic – it’s been over a century since the last time a Cubs team accomplished that feat.)

Hammel also got it done at the plate, with a 2-RBI single off of Jaime Garcia in the top of the 4th inning accounting for all his team’s runs. Cubs’ pitchers now have driven in 7 runs this season, putting up a .660 OPS. That’s better than the Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and San Diego Padres teams have hit this season.

Garcia (L 1-1) looked sharp early on, but the Cubs did what they’ve been doing to everybody else – grinding out long at bats and working the pitch count up.

Garcia ended up leaving the game after just 5 innings of work, having thrown 98 pitches already.

That’s an average of nearly 20 pitches per inning, compared to 14 per inning that were offered by Hammel.

The Cards had their chances but were done in by some problems on the bases.

Matt Adams was inexplicably picked off of 2nd base by Hammel with two men on and none out in the 2nd inning. It looked like a run and hit was called with Yadier Molina at the plate, but Adams simply took off well too early and was dead.

In the 4th, Matt  Holliday was thrown out at the plate by Jason Heyward at the back end of a fly out/throw out double play. (Heyward nearly had two assists on the day, but Addison Russell dropped a throw at 2nd base earlier in the inning.)

St. Louis put the tying run at 2nd in the bottom of the 8th, but the Cubs intentionally walked Adams to set up slider-happy reliever Pedro Strop to face the slider-weak Randal Grichuk.

Even with the bad match-up, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny allowed Grichuk to bat and the result was predictable.

84 mph slider – called strike.

84 mph slider (again) – fouled off.

85 mph slider (again) – swung on and missed.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but even watching the game in real time you were thinking Matheny had to get Grichuk out of the game in that situation. He’s not hitting well and the deck was stacked against him given Strop’s bread and butter is the slider.

Although St. Louis would get yet another lead-off man on base to start the 9th, Cubs closer Hector Rondon was still able to buckle down, throwing for the first time in eight days and ending the game with a strikeout of pinch-hitter Jedd Gyorko.

The game had a real playoff atmosphere and we’re right back at it again in just a few hours.

The Cubs – now the only team in the division who is above .500 – go for a sweep shortly after noon.


Highlights

Cubs Take Round 1

$_1.JPGThe St. Louis Cardinals fell to 0-4 against fellow members of the division’s Big Three, ending on the low end of a 5-0 shutout at home against the Chicago Cubs last night.

John Lackey returned to last year’s stomping grounds and erased his first two starts of the season with an 11-strikeout performance, tossing 7 shutout innings.

True, Lackey entered the game with a 2-0 record. But this is a blogger who feels won-loss records for pitchers are some of the worst commonplace statistics out there, so we’re not going to focus on that. Would a pitcher with an ERA over 6 have a 2-0 record if he pitched for a team with an average offense? Hell no.

Lackey escaped a jam in the bottom of the 5th, when the Redbirds put runners at 2nd and 3rd with one out and Cardinals starter Mike Leake at the plate.

On a botched squeeze play, Kolten Wong was halfway down the line at 3rd and hung out to dry.

Cubs catcher Miguel Montero ran Wong back and had him dead at 3rd base, waiting to throw the ball down there to Addison Russell covering the bag for the tag.

Problem was that Kris Bryant was also near the bag and essentially intercepted Montero’s throw, allowing Wong to make it back to the bag.

Never mind, though, because Lackey came back to whiff Leake and then retire Matt Carpenter on one of the more impressive efforts on the night, ending with another strikeout.

Leake kept pace through 5 innings until Dexter Fowler broke up the double shutout with a solo homer in the top of the 6th.

In the 6th, St. Louis shortstop Aledmys Diaz made a costly error, air-mailing a throw over first baseman Brandon Moss‘ head and into the dugout.

It was Diaz’s 4th error as the 3rd string shortstop for the Cardinals. Backup shortstop Ruben Tejada was activated from the disabled list and starting shortstop Jhonny Peralta is still out another month or two.

The Cardinals have now made 15 errors, which is worst in the league. Their .970 fielding percentage is 2nd worst, one point ahead of the woeful Cincinnati Reds.

Their 7 errors at the shortstop position are 3 more than any other team in the big leagues and the .868 fielding percentage at the position is about as awful as anything you’ve seen outside of 19th-century baseball.

Diaz’s error allowed Bryant to score and Montero to move to 3rd.

Montero would then score on a sac fly by Russell – again, a nice at bat in which he was clearly only trying to loft the ball and get the run home. Lackey followed with an RBI single that made it 4-0 and the Cubs ran away with things.

New Cub Jason Heywardreferred to as “the turncoat” by St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jeff Gordon this morning – continued his typical rough-hitting April with another 0-fer in his return to Busch Stadium (where he played just one season) but also had a couple of nice defensive plays in right field.

The Birds get a good chance to pick up their first 2016 win against one of their major divisional rivals tonight when Jaime Garcia (1-0, 2.40) takes the mound against Jason Hammel (1-0, 0.75).

Garcia has Cy Young stuff when healthy – the problem being that his arm usually falls off at some point.

Hammel had an All-Star first half for Chicago last year before a miserable second half that saw him routinely yanked before he completed five innings. Part of that may have been due to a leg injury suffered mid-way through the season which he never fully recovered from.

Regardless, Hammel supposedly had a renewed focus on nutrition and exercise this off-season, guided by teammate and workout addict Jake Arrieta. So far Hammel has had two nice starts to show for it.

It’s always a good time for baseball fans when these two teams face each other. 18 more match-ups remain between the two.

The bell on Round Two rings at 7:15 tonight.

Cubs / Cards, Round 1

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The second match-up of the NL Central’s “Big Three” kicks off this evening, with the division-leading Chicago Cubs (9-3) visiting the 2nd place St. Louis Cardinals (7-5).

Some Cardinals fans were in a panic after an 0-3 start to the season, getting swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates to kick things off.

Not to worry, I pointed out. Upcoming series against the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds would turn things around for you.

Sure enough – the Redbirds went 7-2 in those games.

The Cubs are coming off of a somewhat surprising home series loss to the Colorado Rockies over the weekend. Of note, their often ridiculous lineup went missing, scoring one run in the Friday loss and then getting shutout yesterday.

You picture the 2016 Cubs lineup against any Rockies pitching staff and figure there are runs to be had, but it didn’t turn out that way.

The big story line in this series will be the return of a few ex-Cardinals showing up in enemy blue.

One of those guys, right fielder Jason Heyward, is off to another cold April, putting up a .205/.314/.250 slash line thus far.

For his career, he has put up a line of .223/.315/.394 in April.

Starting pitcher John Lackey also makes his return to Busch, now as a member of the Cubs.

The two teams come into this series pretty similar in terms of their numbers they’ve put up this year, so don’t let the early .167 point difference in winning percentage fool you.

The Cardinals lead the National League with 7.1 runs scored per game, with the Cubs in 2nd place at 5.9 runs per game.

On the flip side, the Cubs are 2nd in allowing just 2.6 runs per game. Meanwhile, the Cards are 6th with 4.2 runs allowed per game.

Pythagorean records have the Cubs at 10-2 and Cardinals at 9-3.

Also, check out the pitching match-ups:

  • Monday, 7:09 PM – [CHC] Lackey (2-0, 5.68) @ [STL] Leake (0-1, 6.97)
  • Tuesday, 7:15 PM – [CHC] Hammel (1-0, 0.75) @ [STL] Garcia (1-0, 2.40)
  • Wednesday, 12:45 PM – [CHC] Hendricks (1-1, 2.84) @ [STL] Martinez (2-0, 3.46)

Note that the Redbirds get to avoid facing the Cubs 1-2 punch of Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Meanwhile, they get to put Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez out there.

It could line up for a pretty happy start to the week for Cardinals fans.

We’ll dissect game one over here tomorrow morning.

Mysteries of April

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I’m not sure what to take from April.

I’m speaking about baseball in particular, not my life per se.

The Chicago Cubs are off to an 8-1 start, which is not entirely surprising given the national love they received from just about every writer worth a damn.

But before I can anoint their hot start as the second coming of the 1984 Detroit Tigers, I’m very mindful of their opponents.

The Los Angeles Angels have perhaps the best player in the game and he’s joined by 24 other guys who are not exactly world-beaters. Maybe a pitcher or two who is semi-decent. But the lineup outside of Mike Trout is not well regarded.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are thought by some to be a playoff team. Maybe. Getting Zack Greinke is great and all – even if he’s been roughed up so far – but Shelby Miller might have been a reach. Paul Goldschmidt? Great. The others? Meh.

The Cubs just swept the Cincinnati Reds, but they’re largely expected to battle for the bottom of the division.

So the 8-1 start isn’t too thrilling for me yet.

The Cubs play the St. Louis Cardinals next week, which is an interest test for both teams.

And in early May they finally face the other member of the NL Central Trio of Terror, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

So let’s pump the brakes on the Cubs until mid-May. Then we’ll see what we’ve got.

Similarly, what Jaime Garcia did yesterday afternoon was astounding.

A 1-hit shutout to go along with 13 strikeouts. Ouch.

But, again… it’s against the Milwaukee Brewers, who aren’t too far removed from being a AAA team.

Also, there’s this weird feeling with Garcia that we’re always just waiting for his arm to fall off. He’s averaged just 14 starts a season for the last 4 years.

But when he’s healthy, he’s damn good.

Anyhow, back to theme – too early to crown him a Cy Young Candidate, given the opponent and his history of arm problems.

Then there’s the Pirates…

They were just swept by the Detroit Tigers in a 3-game inter-league series.

They’re 5-5, which is fine for now. But I still am starting to feel a little bit uneasy about them.

With 39 runs scored and 45 allowed, their Pythagorean record is 4-6, so they actually may be “lucky” to be at .500 right now.

In the 3 games against the Bengals, they allowed 22 runs. Not good.

They’ve issued 40 walks so far, which is 2nd worst in the National League.

And the 12 long balls surrendered are 5th worst in the Senior Circuit.

They have a home series this weekend against the maligned Brew Crew followed by a 3-game set visiting the San Diego Padres, so they can turn this ship around pretty quickly.

It’s only April.

Walk This Way, Cubs

AR-304139696.jpgSaw this cool article on Fangraphs yesterday, exploring the Chicago Cubs walk rates relative to the league average.

Essentially, you take the team’s walk rate – walks divided by plate appearances. You then divide that by the league’s walk rate – so a number of 1 equals exactly average, higher than 1 is more than average, and less than 1 is less than average. Then multiply by 100 so your perfectly average score is 100.

The Cubs projected rate is 130, which would be good enough for 2nd best in the post-expansion era.

That article was written up before last night’s game.

They drew ten freaking walks last night.

Unreal.

They were projected in the article for 10.0 BB%.

Currently, they’re at 14.5%.

14.5%!!!!!!!

The league average thus far is 8.7%, giving them a BB%+ of 167, well above the 134 mark set by the 1993 Detroit Tigers.

It’s only 8 games, and they’re facing some lighter opponents in April, but still something interesting to keep an eye on.


The St. Louis Cardinals lost to the Milwaukee Brewers (seriously) when Trevor Rosenthal served up a two-run homer in a non-save situation, pitching the 9th inning in a tie game at home.

I don’t have the stomach to read any articles dissing Mike Matheny for throwing his closer in a non-save situation. I am not a Matheny fan, but there’s nothing wrong with what he did.

I abhor the save statistic and I abhor the thought that “closers” can only pitch in save situations.

I’d rather see my best arms throwing in the highest leverage situations and if that means burning them in the 8th inning, so be it.

Also, tie game at home in the 9th inning? There will literally never be a save situation from that point forward. You’re not allowed to throw him at any point in the game now?

Ridiculous.


The news feeds were cluttered with injury news since yesterday.

Jung Ho Kang is expected back in just another week or two, where he’ll take over third base duties for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Excited to see big Cardinals pitching prospect Marco Gonzales finally make it to the Big Leagues? You’re out of lock. Gonzales is out for the season with Tommy John surgery. This is the third injury to his left arm that he’s suffered in the last 12 months.

The Cincinnati Reds Zack Cozart and Devin Mesoraco are hoping to return soon and help guide the team to a 72-90 season.

And Cubs “leftfielder” slash “catcher” Kyle Schwarber is planning to hang around the team throughout his rehab from major knee injuries that are sidelining him for the remainder of the season. Utility-man-in-the-making Javier Baez is expected to be promoted soon as he rehabs from a thumb injury.

Nicasio Roughed Up In Bucs’ Loss

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The Juan Nicasio love story was derailed yesterday afternoon as the Pittsburgh Pirates lost to the Detroit Tigers, 8-2.

Nicasio, who converted a spectacular spring training into a spot in the Bucs’ rotation, allowed 4 runs in 3 innings of work.

Nicasio allowed 11 of the 19 batters he faced to reach base.

Ex-Tiger Now-Pirate Kyle Lobstein fared little better out of the pen, allowing 3 runs and 8 runners in another 3 innings of work.

In more bad news for the Pirates, Francisco Liriano was scratched from his start tonight with hamstring tightness.

All in all, a pretty miserable day for Pittsburgh.

On the plus side, the team is still off to a 5-3 start. A .625 winning percentage gets you a 101-win season.


On a walk back to my office on my workplace campus I overheard a snippet of a conversation between two colleagues. All I caught was the tail end – “but that’s my favorite ballpark, for sure. I’ve been to Wrigley Field a few times and it’s nice, but…”

I had to interrupt.

“Sorry, I was eavesdropping. I’m sort of a baseball nerd. Which park were you saying is your favorite?”

“Well, I’m sort of biased because I grew up in Pittsburgh, but…”

High fives were exchanged between strangers.

PNC Park is freaking gorgeous. Highly recommended.


It’s back to a full slate of games in the division today, with the Chicago Cubs (6-1) hosting the Cincinnati Reds (5-2) at 7:05 PM. John Lackey (1-0) gets his second start for the Cubs, matched up against Alfredo Simon… The Pirates (5-3) host the Tigers again. They’ll kick the day off at 6:05 PM. Ryan Vogelsong gets the spot start with Liriano out for the night. Vogelsong went 9-11 with a 4.67 ERA for the Giants last season. The 38-year old hasn’t posted an ERA+ above 100 since 2012… The St. Louis Cardinals (4-3) host the Milwaukee Brewers (3-4) at 7:05 PM. Mike Leake (0-1) to start for the Redbirds against Chase Anderson (0-1). The Cards have won four straight as they continue a 9-game swing against some of the worst teams in Major League Baseball…

Cubs Wear Down Reds

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I’ve written about it before, but the Chicago Cubs offense – even sans Kyle Schwarber – is still a deep, dangerous thing.

I turned on the game last night and found them down 3-0, on the bad side of an ongoing no-hitter through 6 innings.

Somebody in the room with me said “I thought you told me the Cincinnati Reds were a bad team.”

I told them “Hang on. The Cubs will win this one.”

Those who know me, know that I’m not a particularly positive person, but there’s something about this Cubs lineup that reminds of the way you felt growing up in Chicago during the 6 Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen-led championships for the Bulls.

Even when the team was down fairly late, you had a feeling of “Sure, but they’ll decide to flip the switch now and come back and beat your ass.”

Sure enough, even though left-handed Brandon Finnegan was keeping guys from getting hits, the Cubs were grinding out long plate appearances and wearing him down.

Watching his shoulders and body language, Finnegan had the composure of somebody was exhausted at the start of that 7th inning. His post-game comments to the press confirmed what your eyes told you.

Though he had that no-hitter coming into the 7th inning, he had also walked four batters and had a pitch count nearing 80.

He retired the first two batters in the bottom of the 7th before David Ross broke the no-no up with a soft hit into left-center.

But the plate appearance before Ross’ single is what really started things in motion.

Although it ended with a strikeout (on a called strike painted on the corner low and away), Addison Russell worked a 7-pitch at bat off of Finnegan.

After Ross singled, pinch-hitter Matt Sczcur drew another Finnegan walk (his 6th of the game) and that was the end of the pitcher’s night.

Jason Heyward followed with a 2-RBI single that made it a one-run ballgame.

Fast forward to the bottom of the 8th where things continued to be not so great for the Reds’ bullpen.

Tony Cingrani walked Ben Zobrist and then threw a pitch that bounced 15 feet in front of the plate before it jumped up and hit Jorge Soler to put two men on with one out.

Then Russell stepped up and did this…

Hector Rondon came on and threw a perfect 9th for the save.

A good start so far for the Cubs closer, about whom there was plenty of the usual unnecessary concerns about meaningless spring training numbers.

Why folks get worried about numbers a guy puts up in games that don’t matter, particularly when it’s put by a player who has a roster spot locked up already, I’ll never understand.

But that’s a topic for another day.

Cubs win, 5-4.

Those two teams are at it again on Wednesday.