MILWAUKEE — Entering a week the Cardinals have branded “daunting” because it’s overstuffed with doubleheaders, there already was ample roster angst and action concerning the pitching, the innings required of the staff, and the recent injuries that thin the bullpen.
By the time Monday arrived, the Cardinals didn’t lack for pitching at all, haven’t really all season despite testing both their pitching depth and elasticity.
What they keep running out of is offense.
The Cardinals got seven shutout innings from Kwang Hyun Kim in Game 1 and six superb innings from Daniel Ponce de Leon in the night game and still groped for runs, any kind of runs, even accidental runs to back the starters.
The Cardinals scored four runs total in the doubleheader, half of them in extra innings when they get a head start of a runner at second base. Paul DeJong’s RBI single in the ninth inning scored that runner and emerged from an evening of misspent chances in Game 2 for a 3-2 victory. That split the doubleheader at Miller Park.
The Brewers’ 2-1 victory in Game 1 came on a sacrifice fly in the eighth with all of the game’s runs being scored in extra innings. Both games needed extra innings beyond the required seven to be decided — a referendum on the teams’ chronic troubles scoring runs as much as how snug they are in the standings.
“We were talking before the game that we don’t feel like we’re this stagnant of an offense,” DeJong said. “So, really we just need to trust in ourselves and know what we’re capable of as a group. There’s some hope there.”
If anything, the Brewers can empathize as kindred zeroes.
Before they scored two in extra innings of Game 1, the Brewers had been no-hit Sunday and gone 21 consecutive innings without a run. Kim prolonged that with seven scoreless innings before yielding to the bullpen for extra innings. Ponce de Leon picked up where Kim left off — even literally. He saw the lefty sit in the same spot in the clubhouse during the top of every inning. So, Ponce de Leon sat there, too. It worked for pitching as he held the Brewers to two runs — both on former Cardinals’ Jedd Gyorko’s homer — in six innings. That spot wasn’t so great for generating run support.
In Ponce de Leon’s game, more than half of the Cardinals’ at-bats came with runners in scoring position. They had 38 at-bats and 20 had a runner at second or third or both. In those spots the Cardinals got five hits, including DeJong’s, but two didn’t produce a run. In the fourth, the Cardinals should have taken a 1-0 lead, but Tyler O’Neill misread a line-drive single and instead of breaking from second, broke back toward second. He got as far — which only gave him a better view of the groundout and strikeout that ended the inning. So many other innings extinguished in less dramatic ways.
The Cardinals got the leadoff hitters on in the third inning, and the inning unraveled with two strikeouts. The Cardinals struck out 15 times in Game 2. They two teams combined for 50 strikeouts in the day’s 17 innings.
That’s the equivalent of eight innings of strikeouts.
“Sometimes you don’t get that many bites,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We weren’t able to come through. Had plenty of opportunities. We’ve got to put the ball in play, get the ball in the air a little bit better. Too many strikeouts. Too many soft contacts in the infield.”
A sweep by the Brewers (21-25) would have created a virtual tie with the Cardinals (21-21) for second-place in the NL Central with three games remaining in this series. Pitching stood between the Cardinals and that knot.
Kim detailed how pitching coach Mike Maddux and catcher Yadier Molina walked him through their game plan for the Brewers and the expanded use of his fastball.
“The Brewers hitters are weak here against the inside fastball,” Kim said, through interpreter Craig Choi. “I threw (the fastball) for weak contact, and some of their bats were broke, as well.”
The Kim navigated a route to the inside slice of the plate, and Ponce de Leon followed in his wake.
Ponce de Leon struck out the first three batters he faced, and he had eight strikeouts before the 14th batter came to the plate. All eight finished with a fastball. He struck out former MVP Christian Yelich with a 94.1-mph fastball in the frist inning, and got him again with a 93.-mph fatsball in the fourth. Kim finished with six strikeouts in his seven innings. Ponce de Leon answered with nine in Game 2, and the ninth came on a cutter set up by a fastball.
“Any team against my fastball today wouldn’t have looked good,” Ponce de Leon said. “I’m not trying to brag or anything. It just felt that good.”
The Cardinals starters combined to throw 13 innings, strike out 15 batters, and hold the Brewers to two runs. Kim allowed three hits and a late-game leak led to the loss. In five starts this season, Kim has a 0.33 ERA, the lowest by a Cardinals’ rookie in at least 100 years through five starts, and possibly ever. The Cardinals took a lead in Game 1 on Tommy Edman’s RBI single in the eighth. The Brewers answered with Ryan Braun’s double to the wall off Ryan Helsley. That put the winning run at third, and a line drive off Austin Gomber by Keston Hiura provided the walk-off RBI.
Helsley was only in the game at that moment because John Gant (groin) and Giovanny Gallegos (groin) were unavailable. That put greater emphasis on the outings by the starters, which Shildt called “enormous, timely, clutch, all those superlatives.”
One that would have helped: Supported.
“We’re going to step up and win all these series. That’s really all we have to do,” DeJong said. “Splitting this was a good start to salvage the day. We know we’re up against it. We haven’t seen the Brewers all year, so hopefully we’re learning from today.”
CARDINALS QUICK HITS
THE CASE FOR BRINGING BACK CARLSON — NOW
QUESTION: What is best at this point purely for the long-range development of Dylan Carlson: to pull him back out of the frying pan into the fire this month, or to call it a season for him to digest and build from?
COMMISH: If nothing else, Carlson can help defensively or as a pinch runner. He is better than some of the players who are here and he might help the club win a big game, either in the regular season or the playoffs. He doesn't have to win it by himself.
I bring him back. Development can come next spring.
TOO SOON TO FIND FAULT WITH FRONT OFFICE?
QUESTION: 'Mo' has said he hasn't been looking much at analysis of the roster and is instead focused on surviving the day-to-day games. Do you think there has been enough sample size for the front office to make that analysis in the offseason and make the necessary changes to get this team above the .500 level?
COMMISH: Not to ignore the question, but virtually no one's thoughts in the front office are on next season yet. First goal: Finish the season. Second goal: Make the playoffs. Third goal: Get as far as you can with what you have -- or what you have left.
Then comes the gnashing of teeth as to whether this season has been a legitimate sample size or not. In some cases, whatever sample size there was is going to have to be enough to make a decision.
I don't think the front office views this team as a .500 team, but others would say you are what your record says you are. There will be changes.
Follow-up: The offense wasn’t good last year and isn’t in most cases this year, so when is DeWitt going to start holding Mo, Girsch, Shildt and (hitting coach Jeff) Albert accountable?
COMMISH: There will be time for all this in October, either early in the month or later, depending on how things shake out in the next couple of weeks.
Little has been normal about this season and the analysis part of it will have to factor that in. But everyone is accountable if the Cardinals don't make an eight-team playoff field.
HISTORICALLY BAD OUTFIELD?
QUESTION: Some arguments online are focused on whether this is the worst Cardinals outfield ever, or just in the last 30 years. With Fowler out, how does the Cards outfield rank?
COMMISH: Other than yesterday's ball lost in the sun, this actually is a good Cardinals outfield defensively.
Offensively, it is one of the worst I've seen in my nearly 50 years here.
But, remember, there have been only 40 games played by mid-September, rather than the 150 that would have been played.
DROP CARLOS FROM THE ROTATION?
QUESTION: Roughed up in his first two starts. Given an early lead Sunday, he coughs it up. Given a 3-1 lead, he coughs that up. 90 pitches net the team four innings. ERA still over 10.00. How long will the Cardinals continue to prop up Carlos Martinez as a worthy starter?
COMMISH: If Dean catches that fly ball, it's still 3-1, but 90 pitches nonetheless are too many for four innings for Martinez.
He's got two certain starts left — at Pittsburgh and Kansas City —and then he might find himself back in the bullpen again for potential postseason play, because Flaherty, Waino, Hudson and Kim all would start ahead of him.
Follow-up: Carlos was successful as a closer last year, and he's bombing now as a starter. And the team doesn't have a closer. DUH. How about they make Carlos the closer?
COMMISH: I wouldn't rule out Martinez being a late-inning man in the playoffs, perhaps even the closer, but he would have to be convinced that is the best thing for him and the team.
CARDINALS' HOPE FOR THE FUTURE?
QUESTION: How do you assess the Cardinals’ pitching for the next few years? Seems there's is a never-ending flow of decent prospects. Should we be optimistic?
COMMISH: We're seeing enough of Reyes that we can imagine him in the rotation next year with Flaherty, Hudson, Kim, Waino, Mikolas and maybe even Martinez.
Hicks should be back in the bullpen with Cabrera, Gallegos, Gomber and Helsley. And Liberatore and Thompson are not far off as young lefties who could help.
But none of these guys can hit, with the exception of Waino. You can be bullish on the pitching, but some of it likely will be sacrificed to get more offense.
PLAYING .500 GOOD ENOUGH?
QUESTION: All the Cardinals need to do is continue to play .500 ball the rest of the way to claim second in the division. What odds do you give that of happening?
COMMISH: Very good actually, as long as that .500 includes winning five out of 10 from Milwaukee, which is two games behind the Cardinals, but four losses behind. The Cardinals also have eight games left against last-place clubs Pittsburgh and Kansas City.
CARDS-CUBS MATCHUP IN OCTOBER?
QUESTION: On the chance that the Cards face the Cubs in a 3-game series in the first round of the playoffs, what would you see as the pitching matchups? Who do you think would be favored in such a series?
COMMISH: Flaherty-Darvish; Waino-Lester; Hudson-Hendricks, if the schedule works out that all would be on proper rest. That leaves the Cubs with a no-hit pitcher, Mills, in the bullpen.
Cubs would have to be favored because they've played better, and their bullpen may not exposed as much in a very short series as it would be in a longer one.
COMMISH'S BOTTOM LINE ON THE 2020 CARDINALS
COMMENT: Much of the Cardinals' current situation is really just a collection of self-inflicted wounds. They were a bit lax on protocols at first and that led to their jammed schedule. They have a number of players who have simply under-performed this season. This team put itself into a bad place and appears to have hitched its proverbial wagon to the wrong horses.
COMMISH: I refuse to spend too much time analyzing this season when it is not over.
Has it been a good one? No, not by anyone's standards other than that the Cardinals are going to reach the finish line, it seems, when there had been some serious doubt. They could be hitting their stride now. Or they could have no stride.
This is not a great team. I think we all can see that. But could they win a playoff round or two? Of course they could, because they can pitch.
CARPENTER COMING AROUND?
QUESTION: How much should we read into Carp's good homestand? A blip or a lasting improvement?
COMMISH: I would choose to look at it as water seeking its level. Carpenter is not a .170 hitter. How much higher than that is debatable, but the ball looks better and sounds better coming off his bat.
He has only to be good for a few more weeks, not a few more months. You worry about next year's contract whenever the offseason comes.
Follow-up: Good news: Carp's bat has come to life. Bad news: Carp's bat has come to life ... so now we'll have to suffer through 4-5 months of sub-.200 hitting during the 2021 season while we wait for the one hot stretch.
COMMISH: If you are a fan, perhaps it is better not to fret yet whether this is another tease. A productive Carpenter gives the Cardinals a lot better chance to contend this season. Their offense needs all the help it can get.
WHAT'S BEHIND ALL THE BULLPEN BREAKDOWNS?
QUESTION: Have the breakdowns in the bullpen lately been due to overuse because of the number of games?
COMMISH: The Cardinals have been very careful, to the extent of giving up on a couple of games, not to work relievers two days in succession.
I suspect that it's just that the Cardinals have been playing catch-up all season, both in the games played and the games behind, and pitchers are stretching the limits of their bodies, which probably aren't as in good a shape as they would be in a normal season.
PLAYOFFS IN A BUBBLE?
QUESTION: Are you anticipating that the postseason is headed into a “bubble”? If so, is that good for baseball? Would you worry about future postseasons, or perhaps just the World Series, slipping to neutral sites?
COMMISH: I would be OK with just the World Series in a neutral site in future years, but there will be "bubble" ball for the final three rounds this season and I'm not exactly sure why. Teams have been traveling all season, so why stop now? The weather won't be that bad anywhere in mid-October.
ADD EDMONDS TO THE COACHING STAFF?
QUESTION: Jim Edmonds really amazes me with all his baseball knowledge. Would love to have him as our hitting coach, even part-time. Do you think there's a remote chance of that happening?
COMMISH: I don't think Jim wants to be on the road all season long or put in all the extra hours a coach has to on a full-time basis. I believe he prefers the part-time aspect of any coaching he would do. He has a high Baseball IQ, yes.
MOLINA AND THE MONEY
QUESTION: This year’s salaries are prorated. Does that apply to offering a free agent like Yadi a reduced contract, or is a reduction offer still based on his full-year salary?
COMMISH: Since Molina made $20 million this season -- if there had been a full season --the Cardinals couldn't cut him any more than 20 percent, or down to $16 million. So the contract offer would not be pro-rated.
The play will be for Molina to file for free agency and then see if the two sides can agree on something mutually beneficial.
NO CHANCE FOR JUSTIN WILLIAMS?
QUESTION: 'Mo' hinted about Justin Williams being added to the taxi squad. Any chance that we see him play in the next week or so?
COMMISH: For whatever reason(s), Justin Williams is not high on the Cardinals' radar and he did not do particularly well in either training camp this year.
Anyone on the taxi squad is only an injury away from being activated. And there have been plenty of injuries. But would Williams play much? No.
ALBERT THE GREAT
QUESTION: El Hombre is back in the news with another milestone homer. What's your favorite Albert Pujols memory? What are the qualities that made him extraordinary for 11 seasons here?
COMMISH: It would have to be the game-winning home run off Brad Lidge in Houston, keeping the Cardinals alive for another game in the National League Championship Series in 2005.
Pujols' work ethic, equal to his talent if not surpassing it, was his best quality. And his knowledge of the game and its history was extraordinary for someone who was not born in the U.S.
Follow-up: Do you think Pujols will ever catch A-Rod in home runs (696)?
COMMISH: It will be hard to do unless Albert becomes a regular player again, which doesn't seem likely. I don't see Albert hitting 36 home runs the rest of this year and then next year. Once he lost the chance to play a full season this year, he also lost his best shot at 700 homers.
LINDOR ON THE RADAR?
COMMENT: The Cards should take a run at shortstop Francisco Lindor in the offseason. Even if it costs a Hudson or a Liberatore or a Thompson. Lindor is something they don't have, anywhere on the field!
COMMISH: I would take a run at a Lindor every year. But what does it cost? In both players and money? A lot.
But you're right. They don't have a Lindor-type talent. Not many clubs do.
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