Why Are the Cardinals Closing In On the Cubs? Start By Looking at the Bullpens

It’s the ninth day of August, and by now the Cubs were supposed to have a 76-game lead in the NL Central standings.

Instead, Cubs’ celebrity skipper Joe Maddon is sounding like a guy who’s managed the frustrating St. Louis Cardinals for most of the season.

“We’re playing like that .500 team that we were in the first half, and I don’t like it. We got to get sharper,” Maddon growled after the Cubs kicked the ball around in Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the horrible San Francisco Giants.

Does this sound familiar, or what?

“We just didn’t play well,” Maddon said. “We did not play well out there and it started out from the beginning. I talked about it from Day 1 in spring training. For us to get back to the promised land, we got to catch the ball. Maybe not at the level we did last year, but a lot better than we have to this point.”

After another run-scoring binge to win big in Kansas City on Tuesday night — with the Cardinals plating 10 or more runs for third consecutive game for only the third time since 1935 — your favorite team trails the first-place Cubs by 2.5 games in the NL Central.

The Cardinals have also moved to within one game of the second-place Milwaukee Brewers, who have the third-worst record in the majors (9-15) since the All-Star break. Oh, and don’t sleep on the fourth-place Pirates. They’re 3.5 games out of first.

Exactly a week ago — Wednesday morning — the Cardinals were 5.5 games out after losing the series opener at Milwaukee before rebounding to win five of their seven. The Cards’ current four-game winning streak staked them to a successful 5-3 road trip.

When the Cardinals played another dull game in a maddening 3-2 defeat at Cincinnati on Friday, I can’t say I envisioned it would be followed by a four-game winning streak in which they bludgeoned the Reds and the Royals for a 38-11 run differential.

While the Cardinals were winning five of seven … the Cubs were losing five of seven.

And the standings tightened up again, just when it appeared that the Cubs were primed for a Secretariat gallop that would leave division rivals gasping in the dirt.

The teams’ respective bullpens were significant factors in the changing Cubs-Cardinals trends.

In going 2-5, the Cubs relievers got smacked for a 6.63 ERA. RH setup reliever Koji Uehara had to leave Tuesday’s game with an unspecified injury. RH Hector Rondon is dealing with a stiff neck and hasn’t pitched since Aug. 1. Carl Edwards Jr., the Cubs’ top late-inning setup RH, saw his ERA spike from 2.11 to 3.84 over nine appearance before pitching well Tuesday. The Cubs’ acclaimed acquisition of lefty reliever Justin Wilson is off to a wobbly beginning; in his first four appearances Wilson has a 4.50 ERA and a 2.25 WHIP.

And after putting up one of the greatest single-season defensive performances in baseball history — the 2016 Cubs were credited with a stunning + 107 Defensive Runs Saved — the gloves aren’t as reliable this year. Oh, the 2017 Cubs splay good defense; they’re a +35 in DRS so far. But that’s sixth in the majors, and not close to matching their defensive excellence in ’16. Errors played a role in the Cubs’ loss at San Francisco.

Meanwhile the Cardinals’ defense improved considerably when Paul DeJong took over for Aledmys Diaz at shortstop … and when Tommy Pham moved to center field while Dexter Fowler healed from injuries. For the season the Cardinals are +36 in DRS, with “plus” ratings at every position except shortstop (because of Diaz) and center (because of Fowler.)

And the St. Louis bullpen has been imposing in recent weeks. Not perfect … but significantly better.

Since the All-Star break Cardinals relievers lead the NL and are third in the majors with a 2.51. They haven’t been charged with a blown save since July 25. In the second half their relief arms have allowed only four of 21 inherited runners to score (19%, No. 2 in MLB) and have the top strikeout-walk ratio (5.00) in the majors.

The bullpen is sharper now that manager Mike Matheny has clarified the roles and belatedly moved relievers into more advantageous slots. Trevor Rosenthal is finally the designated closer; that decision should have been made much sooner. And after largely wasting lefty Tyler Lyons in a non-essential long-relief assignment, and in low-leverage scenarios, Matheny is deploying Lyons in a more meaningful way.

Since the All-Star break Rosenthal and Lyons have, combined, gotten nicked for only one earned run in 19 innings. And if you put their stats together, Lyons and Rosenthal have struck out 31 of 69 batters faced since the break. That’s preposterously good strikeout rate of 45 percent.

As a group the Cards’  “Big 6” relievers — Rosenthal, Brett Cecil, Lyons, Matthew Bowman, Seung Hwan Oh and John Brebbia — have given up 13 earned runs in 58 innings in the second half for an ERA of 2.01.

The recent eruption of the Cardinals’ offense is a welcome development; while it lasts their pitchers can count on more generous run support. Especially a rotation that consistently gives this team a chance to win by posting the third-highest quality start total (63) in the majors this season. Cards’ starters are third in the NL (and MLB) with a 3.27 ERA since the break.

With Maddon being mad — and with Tommy Pham and Yadier Molina playing like mad men — the NL Central race is back on again. As I have said and written for many weeks, I wouldn’t take the Cardinals seriously unless and and until they pushed their record above .500.

Every manager I’ve ever covered during my career — including Hall of Famers Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa — preached the same message: if your team is under .500, you don’t even look at the standings, and you don’t talk about being in a race.

The Cardinals are 57-56, and have to keep climbing. With a win over the Royals at Busch Stadium tonight, the home team would go two games over .500 for the first time since May 27.

The Cardinals will spend the rest of the week at Busch: two games vs. KC and three against an Atlanta Braves team that’s 51-60 overall and losers of 15 of their last 21.

The Cubs haven’t put the Cardinals away.

The Cardinals haven’t gone away.

Perched only 2.5 games out, the Cardinals haven’t been this close to first place since June 13.

But the long baseball season is all about sustainability. The Cardinals are over .500 now, and that’s an important if largely symbolic milepost. But it’s just one step. If the energized Cardinals can keep on winning, we’ll know the surge is real.

Thanks for reading …


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