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Tip of the Cap to These 12 Cardinals Who Stepped Up At a Tough Time

As I make the words appear on the screen today, the Cardinals have won four consecutive games, and we don’t know who they are again. Last Thursday, while soiling themselves in a loathsome 11-3 submission to the Brewers in Milwaukee, the Cardinals looked like one of those sad-sack St. Louis Browns teams from the late 1930s.

And now, less than a week later, the Cardinals have just pounded on the Brewers and Cleveland Indians. A mini-streak that began with a two-victory rescue of the series in Milwaukee continued with two authoritative Busch bashings of the Indians, who had had won seven in a row before walking into an ambush. Four straight wins by the Cardinals over two first-place teams by a combined score of 26-6. This surprising cheekiness surfaced directly after a 2-8 stupor in which the Cardinals got outscored 56-36.

Who is this team, anyway?

Answer: To be determined.

The Cardinals’ team identity — like too many of their games this season — lacks focus.

But we can identify a cast of players who came through with the timely good deeds that kept the Cardinals from crashing. The Birds are 22-24 since May 7 for a .478 winning percentage that’s tied for 10th in the National League over that time.

It could have been worse. Here’s my list of 11 Cardinals who did their best to halt the downward direction.

1. Matt Carpenter: After getting his swing back in sync, Carpenter began his remarkable spree of offense on May 16. The Cards are 20-18 since then, and in the 20 wins Carpenter has batted .420, gotten on base 48% of the time, slugged .840, scored 23 runs, stroked 10 doubles, ripped 8 homers, and driven in 17 runs.

2. Jose Martinez: He’s having a terrific season at the plate with 12 homers, 50 RBIs, a .500 slugging percentage and .873 OPS. The Cards’ offense has been hit-or-miss in June, but Martinez rarely slows in his rate of production. This month he’s supplied a .324 average, .390 OBP, .662 slugging percentage, 1.052 OPS, and 7 homers and 19 RBIs. Martinez has been credited with five go-ahead RBIs and three game-winning RBIs in his last 16 games.

3. Yadier Molina: Yes, Molina was out with a groin injury from May 7 until June 5. But the solid-gold catcher made instant impact upon returning. In only 78 plate appearances since coming off the DL, Molina has four doubles, 5 homers, 15 RBIs, and a .537 slugging percentage. Saturday in Milwaukee Molina homered twice and drove in all three runs in carrying the Cardinals to a 3-2 win they desperately needed to end the frustrating three-game losing streak that threatened to avalanche on them. And since Molina’s return, the burning STL bullpen  has settled down to a 3.36 ERA in the last 21 games. But since we’re talking about catching, Francisco Pena certainly deserves credit dor his performance in handling the pitching staff during Molina’s absence. A commendable job by a respected veteran.

4. Marcell Ozuna: It took the highly coveted left fielder a while to get on track in his new home, but it’s been a rollicking good month for him. Among MLB hitters with at least 90 plate appearances in June, Ozuna ranks tied for fifth with 21 RBIs, fifth with a .352 average, and is tied for 10th in homers (7), and slugging (.626.) Ozuna’s 32 hits are tied for second in the majors this month, and  he’s only one of 14 big-league hitters to have an OPS over .1000 in June.

5. Harrison Bader: The rookie outfielder’s contributions haven’t been a bonus; they were necessary because of Tommy Pham’s ongoing slump and Dexter Fowler’s shockingly ineffective start to 2018. In 34 starts this season, Bader is batting .283 with a .341 OBP and .433 slug. He’s homered five times, driven in 10 runs, and scored 20 runs. Bader’s outfield defense is about as good as it gets in the major leagues. Consider: He has 15 Defensive Runs Saved overall this season, and ranks sixth among center fielders with 7 DRS, and third among right fielders with 7 DRS. A top six defender at two positions? Impressive.

6. Yairo Munoz: Look, he’s made eight errors at shortstop in his last 21 games, but it seems ungrateful to complain about the performance of an inexperienced rookie who was thrown into an extremely difficult assignment at age 23. The injured shortstop Paul DeJong, who could be back next week, is one of the Cardinals’ most valuable players. And it’s unreasonable to expect Munoz to be DeJong’s  all-around equal. But Munoz has exceeded expectations offensively in his  27 starts since DeJong was lost to a fractured left hand. In 105 plate appearances as a starter at short, Munoz has hit .330 with a .371 OBP, .443 slug, .815 OPS, three homers, and 14 RBIs. The loss of DeJong could have been a lot worse for this team, but Munoz lessened the severity of the blow.

7. Michael Wacha: He’ll be on the mend for a while, until after the All-Star break, with a strained oblique muscle. But let’s remember how Wacha set the template for a surprisingly special rotation. Before Wacha went to the DL, the Cardinals were 10-5 in his 15 starts. And in a 12-start stretch that covered more than two months, Wacha had an 8-0 record with a 2.13 ERA. And the Cardinals won 10 of his 12 starts.

8. Jack Flaherty: The  22-year-old rookie has taken on a starring role for an established rotation, making a spot for himself by pitching so forcefully and with tremendous poise and concentration. In his 10 starts Flaherty has a 2,50 ERA and has given up more than one earned run in only three of the 10 … and never more than four earned runs (one time) in a start. His strikeout rate is a blistering 29.4 percent.

9: Miles Mikolas: The sorcerer has been amazing, spinning and sailing a large variety of tantalizing pitches just outside of the strike zone, getting hitters to chase them. In 15 starts, Mikolas ranks seventh among NL pitchers with a 2.69 ERA, has the third-best strikeout-walk ratio (5.92), the lowest  average for walks per 9 innings (1.11), the lowest average for base runners allowed per nine innings (9.09) and the fourth-lowest opponent OPS (.590.) Mikolas seems to be in line for a spot on the league’s All-Star pitching staff.

10. Bud Norris: The Cardinals made a swell move in signing Norris to a value contract of one season for $3 million; he’s already turned the investment into a winner. After injuries wiped out so many relievers I don’t know what the Cardinals would have done without Norris taking command of the closer role, but he’s saved them from intense stress and many lost leads. Norris is 15 for 17 in save attempts this season, has a 33.3% strikeout rate, and doesn’t junk up the bases with walks.

11. John Brebbia: The most underrated member of the Cards bullpen is among the top reasons for an improved performance by the bullpen over the last two-plus weeks. In his last 12 appearances, covering 12.1 innings, Brebbia has allowed one run (0.73 ERA), and suppressed hitters with a 31 percent strikeout rate. And the right-handed Brebbia is valuable because of his effectiveness against LH batters; in 58 plate appearances he’s limited them to a .185 average and .593 OPS.

12. Jordan Hicks: This rookie of 21 is absolutely on the short list of the biggest surprises of the season. Not only for his bottom-line performance — 37 games, 40.1 innings, 2.01 ERA, .164 opponent batting average, .503 opponent OPS, and a 33.8% strikeout rate in his last 17 games … but Jordan Hicks is a surprise … and a whole lot of fun … because of this stat:

Most Fastballs Thrown at 100+ MPH This Season

Jordan Hicks,  STL,   294

Aroldis Chapman, NYY,  186

Tayron Guerrero,  MIA,  126

Dellin Betances,   NYY,  27

Joe Kelly,  BOS,   25

Kid Jordan has the notorious Chapman topped by a margin of 108 in the number of fastballs clocked at 100+ miles per hour this season? Goodness.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: The Brewers and Cubs Have Given the Cardinals an Opening. So Make Your Move.