Monday, October 2, 2017

What’s in the Cards Now?

By Jeff Kallman

You could say it happened in almost a blink last Thursday night. Cardinals rookie Paul DeJong, the club's home run leader with 24 despite his late May call-up, drove one that looked like its final resting place would be the other side of the center field fence in the bottom of the 11th, with his club down, 2-1. Cubs centerfielder Leonys Martin thought it looked like something else and made it happen, timing a perfect leap and grabbing the ball before it crossed the fence.

Martin also grabbed the Cardinals' final hope for surviving the National League wild card race while he was at it, two days after the Cubs pushed the Cardinals out of the NL Central race and one day after they clinched the division at the Cardinals' expense.

"Off the bat, I thought it was going to go," said DeJong after the game. "It feels like the rug got taken out from under me. End of the season. End of the opportunities for us."

It was the opposite of how the Cardinals' season began, when they edged past the Cubs 4-3 on Opening Day. On that day, Randal Grichuk walked it off with a base hit. Who knew the Cardinals would lose their next six of seven? Or start the season 3-9? Or, lose nine of their first 12? Or, go 23-29 in one-run games? Or, prove unable to keep it going after they went 78-63 from April 17 to September 22?

"I stand up here and tell you that I think we're just a few games or something happening and it's going to work out to where we achieve what we want to achieve," said manager Mike Matheny after Thursday night's loss, "and I fully believe that. This is the first time I have to stand up here and say that it's not going to happen. We fell short."

What hurt most was losing to the Cubs' scrubs, more or less. Oh, Kyle Schwarber opened the 10th with a ground ball, but Cardinals reliever Matt Bowman threw errantly to first base, enabling Schwarber to second. Then Taylor Davis — undrafted free agent, 0-for-3 on the night to that point — ripped a double to left. It was his first major league run batted in, and it proved even bigger after Martin vaporized DeJong's would-be bomb.

"They probably hate me," Davis said of the Busch Stadium crowd after the game. "Rightfully so."

But maybe nobody figured Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and last year's rookie star Aledmys Diaz would drop off the table as profoundly as they did this year — the threesome averaged an 87 OPS+ this year. DeJong's pleasantly surprising 2.5 wins above a replacement level player probably offset Diaz's sinking from last year's 3.5 to this year's -0.6 WAR and a demotion while he was at it. The surprising Tommy Pham leads the Cardinals with 6.3 WAR this year, with Jedd Gyorko's 3.6 in second, but a few other key Cardinal bats dropped almost out of sight.

Nobody went into the season betting that Matt Adams would play himself out of the left field mix and out of town, traded to the Braves, where he might have hit 19 bombs but his 0.7 WAR made him extremely replaceable. (Why not move him back to first base? Easy — it would have moved Matt Carpenter back to third and left Gyorko trying to find at-bats in the spare pile.) Nobody entered the season figuring aging Jhonny Peralta would go down with a respiratory illness and lose his starting shortstop job to Gyorko. Nobody started by figuring Carpenter would battle shoulder issues much of the season.

The Cardinals' starting rotation was better than serviceable, with four of the five delivering above-average run prevention, and mid-August call-up Luke Weaver ended up out-pitching Mike Leake, traded near August's end to the Mariners in a deal that seemed to shock his teammates, especially Lance Lynn — who started Thursday night's game, was pulled for a pinch hitter before he could finish a quality start, and faces the question of whether the Cardinals think they can afford to bring him back.

With Adam Wainwright struggling and finally yanked from the rotation at about the time of the Weaver call-up, Lynn looked like the Cardinals' best starter. He looked so good in spring training that Leake playfully guessed his asking price publicly and offered to negotiate an extension for Lynn. Dealing Leake was thought to free up enough extra money for the Cardinals to make a push at keeping Lynn, but Lynn himself wasn't exactly ready to put that in the bank.

"I'm sure whenever the time comes — when the World Series is over and five days after, I'm sure somebody will talk to me," he said after the Leake trade. "I just don't know who it is. They've had a whole season. Five days isn't going to matter. But I just work here."

So does Yadier Molina, who's about to begin a very profitable contract extension, but who's been showing his age a little more dramatically this year. The season began with a laugh and a half, on a day the Cardinals lost to the Cubs in a game they once led, when reliever Brett Cecil threw a fastball in the dirt to Matt Szczur, the carom hit Molina in the chest protector, and the ball stuck right there. It was funny as hell until Cecil walked former Cardinal Jon Jay and then threw Schwarber a first-pitch meatball that might have gotten Schwarber fined if he didn't send it over the right field fence to overthrow the earlier Cardinal lead.

Unfortunately, Molina's season turned from laugh to drastic in Boston at mid-August. Coming into Fenway Park riding a 8-game winning streak, Molina first whacked into a fourth-inning triple play, one frame before the Red Sox dropped an eight-spot on the Cardinals en route a 10-4 demolition.

The next night, in the sort of calamity that used to happen to the Red Sox almost exclusively, an early 4-0 Cardinal lead became a 5-4 heartbreak loss after Molina couldn't grab a perfect strike home from the cutoff man as Jackie Bradley, Jr. sailed across the plate, the Boston hustler scrambling back to touch the plate before Molina could retrieve the ball.

Molina may have out-hit the average National League catcher this season and still given defense above the league average, but his OPS+ was a mere 96 and the Cardinals have to be worried whether age and concussions have finally caught up to their longtime mainstay. Nobody wants to say Molina losing the ball in Boston was the play that built this year's coffin lid, but playing only .500 baseball from that game through Friday night's loss to the Brewers isn't what postseason teams do down the stretch.

The Cardinals have a lot of offseason thinking to do. They have to decide how to re-adjust Grichuk, Piscotty, and Diaz. They have to fish or cut bait on Lynn and decide what Wainwright's remaining future will be. They have to fix a bullpen that isn't really as good as losing only five games in the ninth inning looks (it was fewer than the NL East champion Nationals and the wild card-contending Brewers), not when they surrendered a .334 on-base percentage in high-leverage situations and lost closer Trevor Rosenthal — right after he re-claimed the job in August — to a blown ulnar collateral ligament.

They have to decide whether Matheny is really the right man on the bridge. Until last year he'd at least gotten them to the postseason dance, only to lose the girl in the worst ways possible. From a gassed Michael Wacha having no slider left to stop the Red Sox from winning the 2013 Series to Matheny refusing to lift Wacha in relief despite lifeless stuff a year later, and watching Travis Ishikawa kick the Cardinals home without a pennant with one big swing in the bottom of the ninth. Then Matheny had to manage a 2015 National League division series without a thumb-compromised Molina and had to watch the Cubs bludgeon them home in four games.

Matheny's pitching management came under fire yet again the night the Cubs clinched this year's division on his dime. With Wacha pitching one of his best games — 6 shutout innings and 8 punchouts — in a game the Cardinals absolutely had to win to stay on life support, at least, Matheny, who had to know long before how vulnerable Wacha gets when he starts the third time around a batting order, had nobody ready in the admittedly shaky pen to help protect a 1-0 lead.

Then the Cubs torched Wacha and turned the deficit into their own four-run lead. It almost made pushing the Cardinals out of the entire postseason picture the following night child's play.

"Matheny is six seasons into a Big-Boy job — SIX — and he's still incapable of managing a bullpen," fumed Bernie Miklasz, the Hall of Fame writer now working for St. Louis's ESPN affiliate radio station. "He continues to screw up, time and time again. He continues to have too many instances of standing still as trouble grows and intensifies and swallows his team. Matheny is the worst I've ever seen at this crucial part of managing."

These Cardinals weren't a horrible team, not when they can be 82-78, but something was wrong with their picture, after all. Forget how much it has to burn them that the Cubs looked so shaky in the first half only to plow back to another division title in the second half. They now have to spend an offseason figuring out how much they burned themselves and who has to have their matches taken away.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017