Gordon: Cards pass first of many late tests

2013-08-26T12:20:00Z 2013-09-25T15:39:06Z Gordon: Cards pass first of many late testsBy Jeff Gordon jgordon@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

The Cardinals built some momentum heading into their most critical schedule stretch.

They won three of four games against the Atlanta Braves without taxing their bullpen. Even their least-effective starter in the series, Lance Lynn, was able to work deep into his game.

The team is in solid shape heading into a showdown sequence against the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates. Can they build on what they did this weekend?

The Cardinals still have starting rotation concerns, despite their weekend success. They caught the Braves at a vulnerable time.

Atlanta doesn’t have the same team without Jason Heyward hitting leadoff, and the Cardinals took advantage of that. They still have plenty to prove the next few weeks.

CARDS CHAT: GOOLD LIVE IS UNDERWAY

As for the rest of the team, there is more good stuff than bad stuff to discuss:

• Manager Mike Matheny was determined to work elite pitching prospect Michael Wacha into his late-inning relief mix this weekend. And it worked. Wacha shrugged off his disastrous outing at Milwaukee to deliver two strong performances against the Braves. He joined Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica in the “trusted” category of Cardinals relievers. (After allowing runs in his last two times out, veteran Randy Choate is still on the bubble. How many times has Matheny had Choate warm up without coming into a game)?

• Prospect Carlos Martinez has yet to join that trusted group. But he could become a pivotal pitcher down the stretch. He got a late start to this season, so he hasn’t piled up a lot of innings. He made just 12 starts at Memphis between stints in the Cardinal bullpen this season. He could make a spot start or two in September if needed, especially with an army of relievers behind him thanks tot he roster expansion.

• Poor Pete Kozma is plunging toward rock bottom. He carried his surprising 2012 success into this season, but the 162-game marathon usually exposes all weaknesses. Kozma reverted to his six-year minor league form by hitting .209 in June, .206 in July and .071 thus far in August. Daniel Descalso will play a LOT of shortstop down the stretch, despite his defensive limitations at the position. The Cardinals should limit Kozma to late-inning defensive work.

• Memphis shortstop Ryan Jackson is trying pull himself together in time for a September recall. He is hitting .219 since the All-Star break after hitting .300 before it. But he is 4 for 10 with three RBIs in his last two games for the Triple-A Redbirds. Given Kozma’s epic offensive free fall, the Cardinals should move Jackson into their shortstop mix. He has hit better than Kozma at every minor league stop. The time has come to give him some playing time. He cannot possibly do worse than Kozma at this point.

• Third baseman David Freese hasn’t exactly torn up the starting pitching he has faced since Kolten Wong’s call-up, so he figures to stay in his platoon scenario. Matheny sees value in adding Wong’s speed to his lineup several times a week. He also likes having Freese as a right-handed hammer on his bench. The Cardinals have lacked that element more often than not this season.

• Matt Holliday hit .291 in June and .319 in July. He has hit .318 so far in August with nine doubles, four homers and 17 RBIs. This is why the team is giving him the big dollars. The Cardinals needed him to step up with Yadier Molina battling his knee soreness. And step up Holliday has. He is no Albert Pujols of Josh Hamilton, but he is doing all right.

• The organization has prepared former Springfield closer Keith Butler for September middle relief work by stretching him out in Memphis. In his last nine appearances at the Triple-A level, Butler worked two innings five times and three innings once. Matheny figures to slot him into the inning-eating role for lopsided games next month.

Follow Jeff Gordon on Twitter @gordoszone and on Facebook at Gordo'sZone.

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Jeff Gordon

This is the new home for STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon. Here you'll find his columns on the Cards, Rams, Blues and more, plus his daily "Tipsheet" blog about who's in and who's out in the world of sports.

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