Five things about the Cubs Series

The St. Louis Cardinals went to Wrigley Field this weekend with a chance to put themselves neck-and-neck with the division leading Chicago Cubs and came up empty. With the sweep, the Cardinals fall to six games back in the division, just a game shy of the farthest they’ve been out of the division all season.

They will continue on the road. First headed to Cincinnati for three games and then to Pittsburgh for another three before returning home for four more against the Cubs.

This season isn’t over. No, contrary to everyone wanting to pack it in, the Cardinals’ season isn’t over. The Cardinals have 13 games remaining this season and still have four to play against the Cubs in Busch Stadium. I fully expect that when the Cubs come to St. Louis next week that the Cardinals will still have a shot at them.

Why? I’ve consistently said that one of the most infuriating things about the 2017 Cardinals is that they just won’t roll over and die. Every time I’ve been ready to declare the season effectively over, they’ve found a way to rally back to the verge of contention. So, I don’t foresee them letting me off this easy.

Struggling with the core. One of the biggest issues for the Cardinals this season has been the struggles of the three main guys they have committed to in this lineup. Often this season Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, and Stephen Piscotty have batted 1, 2, or 3 in some fashion in the Cardinals’ batting order and yet the Cardinals are just 18-28 when all three start the same game.

This has become an issue in the second half while all three are dealing with and playing through injuries and when all three start the Cardinals are 0-6 in the second half.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when Mike Matheny has to sit these guys and mix the young players in and adjust his lineup to compensate, the team as a whole seems to perform better.

Lyons gets touched up twice. Entering this series, Tyler Lyons had allowed just one earned run on 22.1 innings over 24 appearances in the second half. In the series, Lyons was touched up for runs twice. First by an Addison Russell home run with the Cards down 3-1 on Saturday and the second when Matthew Bowman allowed one of his inherited runs to score to give the Cubs the lead on Sunday.

Offense went cold. The Cardinals’ offense scored just six runs over the three game set against the Cubs. And half of those runs came on a home run by Dexter Fowler. That is the second fewest runs they’ve scored in a series this season. The only one worse was when they scored five runs in a four game series against the Diamondbacks at the end of July, but they won two of those games.

One run woes. On Sunday the Cardinals lost their 28th one-run game of the season as their record now stands at 20-28. The only team with more one-run losses are the 58-91 Phillies who are also one of the worst teams in baseball. Not exactly stellar company.

Five things about the Rays Series

The Cardinals lost yet another series as they dropped two out of three to the Tampa Bay Rays. The loss today put the Cardinals at 4-9 since they ended their 8 game winning streak two weeks ago. They continue to be 4.5 games behind the division leading Chicago Cubs who refuse to run away with the division, which is part of what makes this season so infuriating.

The Cardinals will have a day off on Monday before a two game set in Milwaukee against the second-place Milwaukee Brewers.

The Sherriff locks it down

One of the great stories of the weekend was Ryan Sherriff making his Major League debut for the Cardinals. On Friday night he came up big, throwing three scoreless innings of relief that helped bridge the gap after a short outing by Michael Wacha. After walking his first batter, he settled in, retiring his next six batters. When he came into the game, the Rays were leading 5-3. He kept the margin the same, but the offense failed to come through.

After the game, Sherriff talked about how he kept thinking about his Dad on the mound. His father passed away in 2012 and Sherriff was ready to give up baseball. Convinced by his mother to return, here he was five years later making his debut, becoming the first Cardinals reliever to throw three scoreless innings of relief in his debut since 1998.

Thanks to Player’s Weekend, we also got to see a great matchup. Sherriff, who didn’t get to pick a nickname, faced off against Kevin Kiermaier who was wearing “Outlaw” on the back of his jersey. He got the Outlaw to ground into a fielder’s choice.

DeJong continues to hit

Count me among those who are surprised that Paul DeJong is still managing to be a productive hitter in the Major Leagues. He’s had a few small cold spells, but he seems to be making the necessary adjustments to continue to hit. Zach Gifford wrote about the small adjustments DeJong has made over at The Intrepid STL this week. Through Sunday afternoon’s game, DeJong has a five game hitting streak going and has hit in 19 of his last 22 games, hitting .347/.386/.611 with 6 home runs over that span.

Brebbia and Lyons stepping into Rosenthal’s shoes

With Trevor Rosenthal down for the count, there was some question who would fill his shoes in the late innings and so far there are two obvious choices: John Brebbia and Tyler Lyons.

Brebbia pitched two scoreless innings in the Rays series, the second escaping two walks to do it after pitching a perfect inning the night before. Since the beginning of July, Brebbia has a 1.85 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP.

Lyons on the other hand has now gone 16.2 consecutive scoreless innings and since the beginning of July has a 0.95 ERA and 0.47 WHIP. Since the beginning of July he has been one of the top-5 relief pitchers in baseball.

Garcia wants a job

If there is a plus to Jedd Gyorko‘s absence with his hamstring injury, it may be that Greg Garcia will get to play a little more. While Gyorko’s performance had waned over the past two months, Garcia has been strong. He has hit .319/.430/.431 in 40 games since July 1st. He went 3-for-4 on Sunday afternoon too to give him a .400 batting average over the past 10 games.

There has been talk that they may move Matt Carpenter to third base to give some playing time to Luke Voit at first base. I think Voit can be a valuable part of this team going forward with the opportunity to play, but it is good to see Garcia hitting well and taking advantage of this opportunity.

Offense can’t back Lynn

Lance Lynn went 7 innings and allowed 2 earned runs, being barely outpitched by his Rays counterpart Chris Archer on Sunday afternoon, but it wasn’t enough as the Cardinals’ offense came up short. All five runs of the game scored on solo home runs. It’s not the first time the Cardinals’ offense has failed to back Lynn up.

Since his start on June 29th, Lynn has a 2.32 ERA over 12 starts and the team has gone just 7-5. In 10 of those 12 starts, Lynn notched a quality start.

Five things about the Royals Series

The Cardinals swept the Kansas City Royals in the annual I-70 Series between the two cross state rivals. They now carry a six game winning streak into this weekend’s series against the Atlanta Braves. They are officially 1 game behind the Chicago Cubs for the division lead, though in a virtual tie as they both have 59 wins. I know most people like to look at the loss column, however, the way I see it, any team can lose a game, but you have to earn wins.

As I said earlier, the Braves and former Cardinal Matt Adams are coming to town. Fun fact, Adams makes eight players who started the 2017 season in the Cardinals’ organization who have hit 14 or more home runs this season. And yes, you could make a lineup of all of them without forcing someone to a position they’ve never played.

#RallyCat

Was there really any doubt that this is where the Royals series review was going to start? With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 6th, a kitten ran onto the field at Busch Stadium prompting a brief stoppage in play while field crew member Lucas Hackmann ran out to retrieve the cat. On the very next pitch Yadier Molina hit a grand slam to turn a 5-4 Royals lead into an 8-4 Cardinals lead.

After the game there was some dispute as to where the cat went. Some reported he had been picked up by a local animal shelter and some reported that someone had claimed him outside the stadium. It sounds like a woman claimed the Rally Cat and then it escaped her grasped. Which, while it may seem heartless, adds to the mythology that nobody really knows where the Rally Cat ended up.

Of course, when we needed a Rally Cat moment in Thursday night’s game, Jim “The Cat” Hayes apparently did not feel the need to respond to my Twitter pleas for him to run onto the field. Dexter Fowler hit a grand slam anyway. First time the team has hit go-ahead grand slams in back-to-back games in franchise history.

Speaking of Molina

Apparently a pissed off Molina is a good Molina. Yadier Molina is already hitting .322/.366/.540 with a 137 wRC+ since the All Star Break this season, getting off to the kind of second half he had last year for the Cardinals, but the numbers show he’s also performed well over some discussion about his playing time.

Carson Kelly was promoted by the Cardinals on July 21st and Molina has hit .344/.391/.594 with a 157 wRC+ (good for 26th best in all of baseball) since.

Then Mike Matheny implied on July 27th that Molina was tired and that’s why Kelly started that night. It prompted Molina to post the comment on his Instagram with the argument that he wasn’t tired and that he trains to play 174 games a season because that’s what it takes to become a champion (162 regular season games + 12 minimum postseason wins for a Wild Card team). It could take more than 174, but I digress.

Anyway, since that he’s hit .333/.388/.644 with a 167 wRC+ (good for 24th best in baseball).

Matheny ought to keep this in mind the next time Molina falls into a slump. Just suggest he’s tired.

Offense showing the plus of flexibility

Dexter Fowler has come off the disabled list smoking hot as he hit 6-for-13 with six walks, three doubles, a triple, and a home run in the series after returning to the team on Monday night. He returned batting sixth and then settled into fourth for the last two games of the series.

Jedd Gyorko who has struggled since the All Star Break, started twice in the series and came up with hits both times, including his 15th home run of the season. But otherwise we’ve been seeing a somewhat regular diet of Greg Garcia at third base lately. He pinch hit on Wednesday, but on Monday he had one of my favorite lines. 0-for-2 with 2 walks, an RBI, and a run scored. Since the break, Garcia is hitting .300/.432/.433.

Matheny is also riding the hot hand of Jose Martinez. Martinez went 5-for-16 in the series, starting all four games batting 4th, 2nd, and 6th. Since the break, he’s hitting .316/.449/.658 with 4 home runs.

One of my biggest complaints this season has been Matheny’s insistence on keeping struggling players in key spots of the lineup so that the Cardinals essentially have built in rally killers. Injuries and subpar play have now forced him to become more flexible and we’ve seen the payoff over the last week.

Lyons proving himself in the bullpen

I’ve spoken a few times about my love for Tyler Lyons as a reliever. Not just a lefty specialist reliever, but the ability to be the kind of reliever you can entrust as a regular setup guy. His numbers in the bullpen over the past few years for the Cardinals are strong and with some comfort in the job, could step those up. And he has emerged over the summer as one of Mike Matheny’s better relief options.

In 11 appearances since the All Star Break, Lyons has thrown 9 scoreless innings and allowed just two hits and a walk while striking out 14. While Trevor Rosenthal has gotten the attention for his recent dominance (0.68 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 41% K rate, 11 G) , Lyons (0.00 ERA, 0.33 WHIP, 47% K rate, 11 G) has been even more so.

Going back two months he has a 2.16 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 25 innings out of the bullpen.

You get on base and you get on base! EVERYONE GETS ON BASE!!!

In the first two games of the series, every spot in the Cardinals’ batting order had reached base at least once. The streak reached three games, as they had done it in the series finale against the Reds as well. The streak was broken on Wednesday night as Paul DeJong went 0-for-5 in the 3rd spot while every other lineup spot got on base in the 8-5 win.

Column: Who takes Alex Reyes’ bullpen spot?

It might be the question that’s not been asked this spring by almost anyone. The focus has been on Michael Wacha whose hold on the fifth starter spot is now virtually unchallenged, but Alex Reyes was always most likely headed to the bullpen if he ended up in St. Louis this season. So instead of talking about Wacha, maybe we should be asking who is in line to take Reyes’ spot in the bullpen. Or at least an easier path to do so.

There are typically seven spots in the bullpen, two for lefties and five for righties. But with Brett Cecil and Kevin Siegrist expected to play heavy roles regardless of the handedness of the batters their facing, that rule of thumb is probably out the window when it comes to bullpen composition.

Cecil and Siegrist, along with Seung-hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, Jonathan Broxton, and Matthew Bowman are likely secure in their positions on the Cardinals’ roster entering 2017. That leaves one opening that, until pitchers reported a couple weeks ago and Reyes reported elbow troubles, likely had Alex Reyes’ named penciled into it.

There are likely four pitchers now who have their hats in the ring for the final spot in the bullpen.

Tyler Lyons. Tyler Lyons is the first player on my list. Lyons is returning from a knee injury and may not be ready on Opening Day, which complicates matters. But I’ve been a big believer in Lyons’ ability as a reliever, thinking he can be a reliever near to the level of an Andrew Miller. Over the past four years for the Cardinals, Lyons has worked 90 innings out of the bullpen with a 2.69 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP.

However you want to cut his stats, a WHIP around or less than 1.00 is pretty dominant in baseball today. Lyons’ 1.02 WHIP last season was 30th among 196 Major League relievers who threw 30+ innings last season. And second on the Cardinals only to Oh.

But he still needs to prove his health and is still not yet cleared to play in games.

Miguel Socolovich. Miguel Socolovich is the second player on my list, mainly due to the path of least resistance. Socolovich has no options remaining and will either need to make the club or pass through waivers. Socolovich has been nothing but effective when he’s been with the big league club over the past two seasons, posting a 1.89 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 48 innings of work for the Cardinals.

He has carried that dominance into this spring, throwing 6 innings so far this spring with a 0.33 WHIP, including a 1-2-3 inning where the ball never left the infield in the only spring training game I watched. He’s been getting work closing out games and has been dominant in that role. He allowed a hit to the third batter he faced this spring and has faced his next 15 batters without allowing anyone on base.

The fact that Socolovich has pitched as well as he has and hasn’t been able to elbow his way into more important innings doesn’t bode well for him. Especially as he was the Cardinals’ best reliever last September.

Sam Tuivailala. The third option is Sam Tuivailala. Tuivailala has been a reliever all of his minor league career and the last few seasons has been groomed to close. However, he’s also struggled to find his way in the Majors and last season was by and large a disaster at every level. He has a 5.47 ERA and 1.87 WHIP over 25 career MLB innings.

This spring started well, but turned disastrous over the weekend as he was pounded for four runs over 2/3rds of an inning of work on Sunday. A spotless ERA jumped to 6.35 and his WHIP this spring went to 1.59 over 5.2 innings this spring.

The former third round pick does still have an option, which makes it easy for the organization to send him back to Memphis for a third season. But this season is the last best opportunity for Tuivailala to settle in and put his name on the list of potential 2018 bullpen members. And that list is already stacked.

John Gant. John Gant may be another guy who can put his name in the mix as well. Gant was acquired from the Braves in the Jaime Garcia trade and brought along his spot on the 40 man roster. Gant pitched 50 innings for the Braves last season, posting a 4.86 ERA on a 1.50 WHIP. He also threw 56 innings for the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate last year, posting a 4.18 ERA on a 1.43 WHIP. He was versatile for the Braves, starting 17 games and making 15 relief appearances.

He has had a good spring, posting a 1.13 ERA and 0.38 WHIP over 8 innings of work. His latest appearance came on Saturday against his former team where he started the game and threw three perfect innings with three strikeouts.

Gant would have a leg up if his three closest competitors for this role didn’t already have spots on the 40 man roster. I expect that he’ll begin the season with Memphis in their rotation, but if he pitches well, could be the first guy in line if and when one of the big league starters goes down.

Jordan Schafer. A fifth guy on this list was supposed to be Jordan Schafer. However, given this week’s news that he will be undergoing either Tommy John surgery or UCL reconstruction, the Jordan Schafer experiment seems to have come to an end, at least for this year.