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The Cardinals: With Only 13 Games Remaining, Here Are 10 Keys to Survival

Here’s the Playoff Odds report from Baseball Prospectus as of 2 p.m. Monday, with focus on the NL Wild Card race:

randal grichuk
Grichuk’s RBI single tied Saturday’s game en route to the 3-2 win.

New York Mets,    90.2%

San Francisco Giants,   68.2%

St. Louis Cardinals,    41%

The odds may be against the Cardinals, but this isn’t a dire situation. The Mets have the top wild-card position, leading the Giants by a game. The Cardinals, perched third in the competition for two spots, are a game behind the Giants.

In losing the first two of their four-game set at San Francisco the Cardinals were sliding toward the cliff’s edge. They suddenly trailed the Giants by three games in the lunge for the second wild-card entry. And a Giants’ sweep — which certainly seemed possible — would have left the Cardinals five games out with 13 games remaining on the schedule.

In other words: farewell for 2016. See you in Jupiter in early 2017.

And then on Saturday night … in an appropriate twist in their  meshuga  zig-zag season … the Cardinals hoisted themselves to safer ground with a two-run rally in the top of the ninth, overcoming a 2-1 deficit on an RBI single by Randal Grichuk, a sac fly from Kolten Wong, and a two-inning save from the eternally calm Seung Hwan Oh to seize a critical 3-2 win. Sunday afternoon Aledmys Diaz discharged a two-run homer, rookie starter Alex Reyes shut the Giants down (and out) for seven innings, and Kevin Siegrist and Oh reliably protected the lead in a 3-0 win that gave the Cards a series split.

Normally a 2-2 series draw would lead to a shrug of the shoulders — but not this time. Not after the slumping Cardinals were outscored 14-2 and staring at their demise following two losses to the Giants in 48 hours. The Cardinals were able to get out of San Francisco with their wild-card hopes intact.

And now the regular season is down to 13 games: three at Colorado over the next three nights … a Thursday off day … a three-game weekend series at Chicago … a return to St. Louis for the final week … four games vs. Cincinnati, and then three against Pittsburgh.

The Mets have the simplest, least challenging route to the postseason with 13 games against losing teams: three at home vs. Atlanta, four at home against Philadelphia, four at Miami, three at Philly. The Mets are also playing the best baseball, having won 20 of their last 27 games.

The Giants also have 13 games to go — and six will be against the 84-65 first-place Los Angeles Dodgers who lead them by five games in the NL West. It plays out this way: three at LA, four at San Diego, and a six-game home stand with three vs. Colorado and three against the Dodgers. The Giants have been unable to are shake off their dismal performance (22-37 record) since the All-Star break. Their second-half winning percentage (.373) is the poorest in the NL.

The Cardinals aren’t exactly surging. After taking the first two in a four-game series at Miami — only to lose the final two — the Cardinals are 22-24 since July 30.

For the Cardinals to make a late rush and rip a wild-card ticket from the Giants or Mets, here’s the list of assignments from the start of Monday night’s game at Coors Field in Denver to that final home game against the Pirates on Sunday, Oct. 2:

1. Cool down the Rockies, who have been crushing it at Coors Field: Forget the Rox overall 72-77 record and ignore their 32-42 mark away from Colorado. Entering Monday night, the Rockies have won 12 of their last 17 home games. In doing so, they’ve mauled visiting-team pitchers for an average of 7.1 runs per game, slugged .525, and batted .384 (with a 1.174 OPS) with runners in scoring position. This won’t be an easy yard for scheduled Cards’ starters Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Luke Weaver. But manager Mike Matheny has a 13-reliever bullpen on standby; the expanded September roster is built to handle the rigors — the horrors? — of Coors Field. The Cardinals still have MLB’s best road record (45-30) this season but have been rather human on the road (14-13) in their last 27 away from STL. The Birds must finish strong over the final seven games on this final road trip of the regular season. Heck, going into Coors might be just what the Cards’ slouching offense needs for a breakthrough.

2. Get it done, again, at Wrigley Field: in typically odd fashion a Cardinals team that lost all three home series to the Cubs this season is 5-2 at the Wrigley beer garden in 2016. Can the visitors annoy the team with the best record in baseball by winning another series on Chicago’s turf? Another question: will the Cubs — who have owned the NL Central since streaking to a 24-6 record  in their first 30 games –be fired up to play their rivals when it’s more important to calibrate their pitching for the postseason?

3. Starting pitching. Always starting pitching: the Cardinals need to repeat, as many times as possible, the starts turned in by Mike Leake and Reyes in the final two wins at San Francisco: 13 innings, two earned runs, 1.38 ERA, two quality starts.

4. The St. Louis offense has gone quiet and must reanimate: small sample and all of that, but since cranking up five homers in a 9-7 win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 6, the Cardinals have averaged a puny 2.8 runs over their last 12 games. In winning only five of the 12 the Cardinals have batted .209 with a .274 OBP and .315 slug. And the slow-down includes a .208 batting average with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals’ fearsome home-run attack has powered down; they’ve hit only eight homers over this 12-game stretch. Since the All-Star break the Cardinals rank 19th in MLB in runs per game (4.21), 26th in batting average (.241), 26th in OBP (.308), and have the seventh-worst strikeout rate (23%). And their second-half average with runners in scoring position (.222) ranks 25th.

4a. Using the wRC+ offensive metric — with 100 being average — the Cardinals have a wRC+ of 83 in September; that ranks 23rd in the majors. And, as you can see, is 17 percent below league average. Not good. Here are some notable wRC+ September numbers for individual hitters:

Matt Carpenter,  87

Jhonny Peralta,  81

Matt Adams,  81

Stephen Piscotty,  77

Jedd Gyorko,  71

Jeremy Hazelbaker,  23 … (only 14 plate appearances)

Brandon Moss,  minus 1 … (he’s batting .098 this month.)

Tommy Pham,  minus 20 … (only 11 plate appearances.)

5. If Matt Carpenter has an ungodly hot streak in him, this is a great time for it. The Catalyst has been off form offensively since returning from the DL (and a strained oblique) on Aug. 5. In 166 plate appearances he’s batted .228 with a .307 OBP and .403 slug. During this down phase Carpenter has five homers, only eight RBIs and is 2 for 27 (.074) with runners in scoring position. Before the injury on July 6, Carpenter batted .298 with a .420 OBP and .568 slug and had a wRC+ of 162. Since coming off the DL he has an 88 wRC+ and his walk rate is 9% — down from his 16.5% walk rate before the All-Star break.

6. Matheny needs to make more use of effective hitters. Well, that is usually the way it works when a team is fighting to make the playoffs. That said, you don’t bail out on a hitter like Carpenter. I’m not suggesting that. We just gave you the worst wRC+ marks for the month so far. Here are some of the better wRC+ numbers for September: Grichuk 126,  Yadier Molina 140,  Wong 124,  Diaz  136,  and Greg Garcia at 202.

Over the past 30 days, Garcia has the team’s best wRC+ at 196 — but eight Cardinals have more plate appearances over that time. I’ve said it before, more than a few times, and I’ll throw this out there one more time: Garcia is a high OBP guy (.390), has the team’s best walk rate (15.4%) this season, and is a plus defender at three infield positions. For some reason, Garcia has started one time over the team’s last 14 games.

Bizarre. A manager of a team that is sinking in OBP, drawing fewer walks, and still playing mediocre defense won’t use a guy, Garcia, that can make a positive difference in those areas. (By the way: I’m not saying Garcia should be in the lineup every day; but it probably makes sense to  start him more than once every two weeks.  Wong is another example. He’s been one of the team’s best all-around players over the last two-plus months but has only 163 plate appearances — ninth among STL position players — since July 1. Mathenaging.

7. The young Cardinals must continue to show the way: with so many veterans struggling, some of the youngest Cardinals have come up big as of late including Grichuk, Wong, Diaz, Reyes, Weaver, Carlos Martinez, reliever Matthew Bowman. I don’t think the manager needed to call a pregame meeting in San Francisco to (in part) to remind the young Cardinals about what’s at stake.

8. For the final two weeks … PLEASE clean up the defense and base running.

9. The Cardinals can’t slip and slide against the three teams with losing records: Through Sunday, the Rockies were 72-77 overall, and have gone 18-24 in their last 42. The Reds were 63-86 and had lost 17 of their last 27.  The Pirates were 74-75 and had fallen out of the wild-card race with a 12-17 stretch. But the Pirates are 9-7 vs. St. Louis this season. The Reds are 5-4 in their last nine against the Cardinals, outscoring the Cards 45-30 in those games. Needless to say the Cardinals can’t afford to be tripped and damaged in their nine remaining games against inferior teams. (Though in fairness, I already pointed out that the Rockies are tough to beat at home lately.)

10. How about some good luck? Yes, I’m serious. Randomness is a big part of baseball, and the Cardinals have a .278 average on balls in play since the All-Star break. That ranks 27th among the 30 teams and is 22 points below the MLB average. It isn’t too late for their batted-ball luck to improve.

That’s all I’ve got … if I left something out, feel free to add it in.

And please pardon my typos; I’m way behind schedule on taking my brief afternoon snooze.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Bernie’s Monday NFL Smashmouth: Jeff Fisher Owns Pete Carroll

  • Terry Miles

    We see it again in today’s lineup. No Garcia or Wong. I know it’s a Rockies lefty but Cards need defense and Wong is improving and who knows if in this hot streak he can handle a lefty. Tired of dart throwing lineups or worse yet, Matheny guys. They need these games!!!

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    Great column as usual Bernie. I really like the WRC numbers as this illustrates the key problem facing the Cardinals at this juncture – a slumping offense. We really need Moss and Carpenter to find their mojos ASAP. But I wonder if Carpenter is still hobbled from the injury.

    Even with great pitching (if it materializes), the offense has to score and they will be facing a tough chore in Chicago. And Colorado has never been an especially great place for Cardinal teams to play. So no matter how you see “the solution,” the Cardinals are facing a serious uphill slog to the finish line.

    I for one am not optimistic. If we had taken 3 of 4 in SF, that’d be one thing. But Waino – WAINO – let us down again. I consider the entire staff at this point suspect and problematic. Even given 13 relievers, the Cards need a rotation that can hold the opposition.

    In the end, I wonder what a WC birth really means to this team? Is that good enough? Is the “randomness” of the post season enough to warrant hope in a WS title? Not in my book. Even if we win the “play-in” game, I think we bow out early. Love for the team to prove me wrong, but that’s what it will take – proof. And so far, I’m just not seeing it.

    • Travis Pfeifer

      Well said sir! I have wondered the same thing as well. Should they manage to get in, will they just fall out? Granted many thought that against the 100+ win Phillies in 2011, so you never know. That said, I agree with your sentiment. I really want the boys to shame me for doubting them, but so far they haven’t given me much reason to think they can maintain a streak.

    • Blake Rosser

      I think the healthiest way to look at it is just to be pleasantly surprised if they make the postseason in any form, and then not have expectations once they’re there.

      There’s definitely no “2011, magical-run” feel about this team. But at the same time their habitual, maddening inconsistency isn’t far off how I felt about the 2006 team. The Tigers won that one in 3 I believe. . .

  • Brandon Moss batting third tonight, probably because Holliday is not available. Grichuk batting 8th, Molina 5th. Molina’s hitting post-All Star break notwithstanding, which of the two is a #5 hitter? Molina might have been one in, say, 2011. Not 2016.

    • badgerboy23

      I’d agree, except Grichuk is doing a great job batting lower and Yadi continues to prove that he understands how to make the best of what he’s got left in the tank.

    • M W

      How about Moss hitting 8th until he gets his swing back. Move Grich to 3rd. Molina is the hottest hitter the team has. You can’t just toss that away like it means nothing.

  • Blake Rosser

    Playoff Odds as of this morning: Mets 83%, Cards 59%, Giants 56%. What a difference a good night makes!

  • Blake Rosser

    It’s not the first time you pointed out Greg Garcia’s unfortunate under-use lately. I’d love to see an IF of Garcia (3B), Diaz (SS), Wong (2B) and Carpenter (1B) for a little while. The defense would be great too.

    In other news, is it me or are the Mets coming back to Earth finally? That they can’t put away terrible teams like Minnesota and Atlanta tells me there may be deeper issues going on with that team, especially now that deGrom’s out.

    • Kyle ShaBram Sharamitaro

      they swept the Twins, just so you know. Glad thy lost last night to the Braves though, for sure.

  • geoff

    Bernie, if only one of the guys with the good wpa could play left field huh? This is a hind-sight comment, winning on a night when both teams you’re trailing lose, has to be sorta invigorating. Time to give Moss and Gyorko a few days , Moss is simply playing the way he plays, he is NOT a good hitter, he is a guy who can hit a ball a long way if you throw it where he is swinging. And enough with all the talk about how Grichuk and Wong got sent down . The fact is both were struggling mightily before their demotions and both came back playing better. That means the move worked. People need to quit talking like those two were thriving prior to their vists to AAA, they weren’t, now they are.

    • badgerboy23

      I agree completely that the move worked, that it was a good move, but there is another point to that. Wong came to ST with an attitude that he can hit HRs. He can-about 12-15-but his natural strength is gap power and speed. MM could not get through to him, whose fault I can’t say. Grichuk is another story. MM messed with his head, sat him down. He has a tendency to mess with young players. Had MM decided to play his best defensive CF (easily Grichuk), moved him down to take the heat off, let him hit his way, then we might be leading the WC. MM didn’t send him down, Mo did because Mo recognized (again) that MM was messing up a young player with the MM head games.

      • geoff

        So, when you talked to Grichuk, he told you Matheney ” messed with his head” Grichuk was lost at the plate. He was taking strikes and flailing at balls outside the strike zone. I don’t know what goes on in the clubhouse or the dugout, I am not privy to that kind of access, and I am not certain that Mo intervened, telling MM to play Grichuk every day. He may have, and even if he didn’t I could see how you could make that leap. I don’t know for sure but, I don’t think Mo calls down to Matheney and tells him how to fill out the lineup card. Again , just a guess on my part. I know two things for sure…I would like to know more about the hitting instructor at Memphis and, if I were Matheney, I would have to take a good long look at having Maloney at third. Of course he is no Oquendo, but I’m not certain that anyone could be as good overall for a ball club as Jose, I just don’t think Maloney has done a very good job of assessing his own runners’ speed versus the arms or the situation he has been faced with much too often this year. Just as an aside, has anyone else noticed that the Cardinals runners all slide like two steps too early, then just kinda lose steam in the dirt?

        • Tom L

          You’re right about Maloney, sending Molina when he was out by 10 feet was the last straw for me. Yadi looked like he was running in quicksand going around second.
          On the other hand, whom do we have in mind for a replacement? Oquendo isn’t coming back, and we knew he would be tough to replace.

          • geoff

            Yeah, Oquendo is a really good one. I am certain there is someone in the organization somewhere, if not, I’m sure there are plenty of 3b coaches looking for a shot. I just think Maloney looks to not have a good grasp of the team speed, which is not very fast.

          • Tom L

            Yeah.
            Just hope I used “whom” correctly…

  • (Tuesday night) Matheny bats Moss 4th tonight. Matheny treats hitting 3rd and 4th in the order like its therapy.