On the evening of Aug. 12, the Cardinals disposed of the visiting Braves, winning 6-5 to hop into a virtual first-place tie in the NL Central.
The victory was the 8th in a row for the ascending Cardinals. They pushed their record (61-56) to five games above .500. The boys were playing inspired baseball. And they were finally delivering a more sanitized form of ball, with cleaner defense and fewer messes on the base paths. The starting pitching was rolling. The bullpen — with strikeout machine Trevor Rosenthal reinstalled at closer — was among the best in the majors since the All-Star break. The STL offense was thumping opponents, averaging 5.0 runs per game during their first 29 games of the second half.
The Cardinals suddenly were in a dead heat with the defending World Series champion Cubs, a team that was expected to obliterate the rest of the NL Central for the second consecutive season. Not only that, but the Cardinals had a two-game edge on third-place Milwaukee.
And then …
The Cardinals have drifted again, going a troubling 2-5 after extending their winning streak to eight games. Given the erratic, inconsistent ways of the 2017 Cardinals, the current slide is hardly shocking. It is not even startling, or surprising.
But it is disappointing.
In a little over a week since that high-point win over the Braves, the Cardinals have been shoved down to third place in the NL Central. They trail the first-place Cubs by 3.5 games, and the second-place Brewers by 1.5 games.
The problems seem to be intensifying.
Adam Wainwright is on the DL with an elbow strain. But even if Wainwright comes back, then what? He hasn’t pitched well this season; the 5.12 ERA is there for all to see. And Waino has supplied quality starts in only 8 of 23 assignments.
Mike Leake has a 5.78 ERA in his last 16 starts. And for the second consecutive summer, Leake has weakened after a strong start. Last season Leake had a 5.23 ERA over his final 19 starts, and a 6.03 ERA in his final 11 outings. This season, after pitching masterfully in a May 24 win at Dodger Stadium, Leake’s stuff has eroded. His sinker has no snap. He leaves too many balls over the center of the plate. He has complained of feeling weak. Is there a doctor in the house? Or maybe a nutritionist?
The rotation has been the girder for this team in 2017, and now it’s showing signs of buckling under stress. The Cardinals have a 5.47 rotation ERA in August, ranking 12th among 15 NL teams this month. Compounding matters is a shortage of rotation innings; Cardinals’ starters have lasted fewer than six innings in 10 of the 19 games this month.
That’s putting extra weight on a bullpen that will have to survive Rosenthal’s absence. And we are already seeing this; in August only the Reds’ bullpen has worked more innings than St. Louis.
Rosenthal had been one of the most dominant relievers in the majors since early July, and it’s a significant blow to lose him. The ninth-inning vacancy is a concern as a stand-alone issue, but there’s more to it than that. Rosenthal’s abrupt exit means a shifting of roles for other relievers. And relievers tend to have anxiety issues when you change their routine. And even in the best of times, manager Mike Matheny is shaky in his bullpen acumen, so the disarray is potentially alarming.
The Cardinals continue to make head-scratching personnel decisions, Example: with a dire need to cover innings, what is RH pitcher John Gant still doing at Triple A Memphis? Gant’s numbers there are fine. He can start. He can relieve. Or — perhaps more on point — Gant can cover middle innings in long relief. He’s been a starter at Memphis. He’s stretched out. Gant could have provided an important service on Saturday, but while he was starting for Memphis the Cardinals pushed Michael Wacha back to the mound after a lengthy rain delay …and Wacha had nothing.
By squandering gains made during their eight-game winning streak, the Cardinals are at a treacherous stage of their season. They’ll have to find a way to patch this pitching staff and stop the bleeding. And they’ll have to rely on the offense to crank out a lot of runs to compensate for the pitching maladies.
Forget all of this nonsense about the Cardinals having a softer schedule the rest of the way. Yes, according to Baseball Prospectus the Cards are tied with the Cubs for the second-easiest remaining schedule; their opponents have a .472 winning percentage. Big deal.
Of the Cardinals’ 38 games, 24 will be played inside the division. And they’ve struggled against division rivals all season. Moreover, the Cards are 10-17 in division road games including a 7-16 mark in NLC road contests since June 2.
The schedule isn’t the issue here. The schedule isn’t the challenge.
As we’ve seen over the last week or so, the Cardinals’ most significant obstacle is their lack of consistency. And it will be difficult to gain and maintain traction if the pitching continues to slide.
Thanks for reading …