One series into the 2018 baseball season, the Cardinals are 1-2 and have already shown some of the disturbing trends of the last two years, but also signs of hope for a playoff run later on.
I LOVE the fact that in our town, we have so much passion and scrutinize every moment of every game so much that baseball is life. At the same time, at times I like to step away and look at seasons from a macro level. I decided to do that after the 1985 season. That year, the Cardinals started off 20-20 and were six games out of first as late as June 11. Twelve days later, after winning eleven-of-twelve and completing a sweep of the Cubs, they were in first place and on their way to a 101 win season.
In 2004, the Cardinals lost their first two games of the season, to the Brewers at home. In the opener, Matt Morris allowed seven runs (five earned) in six innings, and the Cards made two errors. In the second game, Jason Marquis allowed six runs in 5 1/3 in a 7-5 loss. That team, coming off a non playoff 2003 season, was 23-22 in late May, three and a half games out in the division, before going on an outrageous 82-35 run to win 105 games.
On the flip side, two years ago the San Francisco Giants had the best record in baseball at the All-Star break and owned a 6.5 game lead, but went 30-42 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs. As great as 2011 was for Cardinals fans to watch, Red Sox fans could only cover their eyes as the club went 7-19 in September and experienced a first-place perch collapse to an eight-game deficit.
Whether it’s the Cardinals, the 2006 Yankees that went on a 30-15 run to overtake the Red Sox, the 2007 Rockies, who went 26-10 including winning 10-of-11 down the stretch, and of course the 2011 Cardinals, teams aren’t defined until July or August. And now, with baseball becoming younger and younger, the inconsistency of teams will only be exacerbated.
With that as a backdrop, let’s look at what the Cardinals are so far.
Their big problem over the last two years has been poor fundamentals. In Thursday’s opener, an error by Jose Martinez opened the door to the first Mets run in the opening inning, but it was walks that did in Carlos Martinez and the bullpen. Cardinal pitchers hit a batter and walked nine, and five of those ten free passes crossed the plate. The Cardinals didn’t have a game in which they walked nine batters last year, so this clearly was an outlier. Redbird hitters also struck out fifteen times against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets bullpen. Syndergaard is averaging 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings, which if he qualified would place him third among active pitchers, behind Chris Sale and Steven Strasburg.
While I didn’t like the way they lost their opener, I can see how it happened. On Saturday, Michael Wacha wasn’t efficient like he had been for most of the spring. He threw 95 pitches in 4 2/3 innings and allowed four runs. The offense put ten runners on base, but went 1-11 with runners in scoring position. Hopefully Saturday’s performance won’t be a trend for Wacha. Offensively, they needed to better with runners in scoring position. But every Major League team is going to have multiple games like that. The Cardinals had one in the second game of the season.
In game three, things came together. Luke Weaver was inefficient too, throwing 92 pitches in five innings, but he allowed just one run. He walked three, but those were the only three the Cardinals put on base. The top four hitters in the lineup reached base ten times in eighteen plate appearances. Paul DeJong hit a pair of homers, and the Redbirds headed to Milwaukee with a 5-1 win.
Every team is still trying to figure things out, and some won’t have a defined personality until August or even September. For the Cardinals, with different opening day starters in left field, center field, right field, third base, shortstop, second base and first base…plus three new starting pitchers and an overhauled bullpen…coming together as a unit is a work in progress.
Can they be really good? Yes, they have the physical ability to be. Can they be really bad? Certainly. Based on Carlos Martinez’ spring, the history of poor fundamental play by some of these players, and questionable bullpen management by Mike Matheny in the past, there are plenty of reasons to think the Cards will struggle.
But the fact is we don’t know how they’ll do. It’s fun to overreact to individual games, but at the end of the season, just like most teams, they’re going to win sixty and lose sixty. It’s the other 42 that will determine how good the 2018 Cardinals are.