As the Cardinals Begin a Meaningful September, Here are Eight Keys to the Stretch Run

Heading into September, and with only 30 games remaining on the schedule, the Cardinals have a 64.8 percent chance to claim a National League wild-card spot and compete in MLB’s postseason tournament for the sixth consecutive year.  And while the Cards are in a reasonably solid position, several factors have to break their way between now and their final game on Oct. 2.

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Adam Wainwright has a 1-3 record with a 4.61 ERA following the All-Star break.

We could list about 100 items as “keys” to the St. Louis stretch run, but I’ll try to keep the list short.

So other than this mention here at the top, you won’t be reading about playing clean defense … being intelligent on the base paths … avoiding injuries … protecting leads, etc.

1. Stable Starting Pitching: Since the All-Star break the starters rank 25th in the majors with a 4.93 ERA. And a chewed-up rotation that’s missing veterans Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and Mike Leake has been coming up short in too many starts, ranking 17th in the majors for innings pitched in the second half. And that’s strained the bullpen. The rotation has to perform better over the final few weeks. And that begins with Adam Wainwright, the leader of the flock. And don’t worry about rookies Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes. They have talent. They have poise. And recent postseasons have featured strong, impressive performances from rookie starting pitchers.

2. More Success Against Winning Teams: The Cardinals will play 16 of their final 30 games against teams that are .500 or better.

Six vs. the Pirates, six against the Cubs, four with the Giants. And that’s been a challenge for the Birds this season. They’re only 29-39 vs. opponents  .500 or higher for a .426 winning percentage that ranks 29th among the 30 teams.

3. Win More Home Games: You already know this. So do they. With only 14 games remaining the Cardinals are on pace to finish with the seventh-worst home record in franchise history. Since taking two of three from the visiting Giants at the start of June, the Cardinals have won only three of 12 series at Busch Stadium. And during this hideous stretch they’ve gone 4-16 against winning teams at home (Astros, Rangers, Royals, Pirates, Marlins, Dodgers and Mets.) This is relevant because remaining home opponents include the Cubs and Pirates. A wild-card spot could come down to the Pirates-Cardinals series at Busch in the final three games of the regular season.

3a. By the way: the Cardinals can’t afford to nap against the two losing teams (Brewers, Reds) that will be visiting Busch. But this isn’t just about the home games. The Cardinals’ series in Pittsburgh (starting Monday) is a big one. And there’s a tough trip coming up: 4 at San Francisco, 3 at Colorado, 3 at Chicago. The Cards, 40-25 on the road, will have to hold form and play strong.

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Since his August 5 return from the DL, Carpenter is batting .233 with a .310 OBP.

4. Get Matt Carpenter Going: Since returning from the DL on Aug. 5, Carpenter is batting only .233 with a .310 onbase percentage and .400 slug for a .710 OPS that’s well below his .892 OPS over the last two seasons. Manager Mike Matheny probably didn’t help matters by shifting Carpenter into the No. 3 lineup spot for eight games. Though it was worth a try, Carpenter eventually returned to the leadoff slot, his most comfortable fit. The Cards offense has been dragging a bit, and that’s no surprise considering that Carpenter is the catalyst. And when he’s going through a quiet phase, it impacts the lineup. How valuable is Carpenter? When he scores a run or more in a game this season the Cardinals are 35-13. When he drives in a run (or more) they’re 28-7. And when Carpenter has at least one RBI and one run in the same, the Cards are 25-4.

5. Timely Hitting Must Include, Well, Hitting: After leading the majors in batting average, OBP and slugging percentage with runners in scoring position for much of the season, the timer on their timely hitting has been out of whack for a while.

Since the All-Star break the Cards are batting .219 with runners in scoring position; that ranks 28th among the 30 clubs. And in August, their RISP batting average dipped to .190. When the Cardinals aren’t cashing in on run-scoring opportunities — hey, even an RBI single is good — they become a little too reliant on the home run.

6. Be Careful With Kevin Siegrist: The lefty’s swing-and-miss rate and strikeout rates are in decline. Since the All-Star break, Siegrist’s walk-rate has jumped to 13%, and his K/BB ratio is a poor 1.60. His home-runs-allowed rate is way up this season, and his second-half fielding independent ERA is 4.70. Siegrist has been dealing with arm fatigue, and some nerve-related issues in that left arm. Siegrist is arguably the team’s most important reliever before Seung Hwan Oh enters to close out a win. And while Matheny has been more judicious in his use of Siegrist, the manager has pushed him too hard before. And that could happen again. The Cardinals cannot afford to break Siegrist … though, if you think about it, we can also make the case that it could be too late, given his second-half form.

6a. The bullpen is fragile right now; you just have to hope it doesn’t crack.

7. Can the sluggers keep slugging? According to Baseball Prospectus, 44.7 percent of the Cards runs have come on homers this season, the fourth-highest percentage in the majors this season. A Cards team hasn’t been in this territory since the 2000 Cardinals scored 45.43 percent of their runs on home runs. The Cardinals have actually increased their home-run production in the second half averaging 1.64 per game to lead the majors since the All-Star break. I like the balance of this lineup; power sources run from top to bottom. And I don’t think this HR attack is a fluke. But when it gets to the point where home runs are the life blood that sustains your offense … it’s a little unnerving. What happens to this offense if the home-run barrage cools down?

8. Beware of Mathenaging: The Cardinals will be getting some wounded position players back this month. First baseman Matt Adams (shoulder) has rejoined the team in Cincinnati, shortstop Aledmys Diaz (thumb fracture) has healed and should be in place soon, and left fielder Matt Holliday (fractured thumb) is hopeful of returning before the end of the regular season. (It’s still too soon to know about a possible Holliday timetable.) In a strange way, it actually helped Matheny to have fewer players to choose from. He was able to put his best defensive alignment on the field (when so inspired) and his lineup choices were streamlined. It was a nice break from the chaos, the confusion, and the utterly foolish benching of center fielder Randal Grichuk. 

OK, so what will happen as the returning players file into the clubhouse, ready to play? As long as Diaz is viable, he should play. He was having a great season before the injury. But if Diaz is restored, then you don’t know how the playing time will be doled out among the infielders. And the way Jhonny Peralta has been swinging the bat this season (and really since the 2015 All-Star break) my fear is that we’ll see superior hitters parked on the bench … we could see Adams playing first, and taking at-bats from Brandon Moss … we could see a diminished Holliday taking at-bats away from Moss, Tommy Pham, Grichuk, etc. … we could see a whole lot of messes defensively as Matheny tries to find ways to get his guys in there. (I have a headache.) Or: is it possible that Matheny will surprise us and actually deploy his best position players on a regular basis? Am I nuts for even thinking this is possible?

Thanks for reading, and enjoy your long Labor Day Weekend.

–Bernie

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