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Are Cardinals, Brewers Trending In Opposite Directions? Sure Seems Like It

We’re looking forward to the three-game series between the Brewers and Cardinals this weekend, as the NL Central rivals begin to dig in for the final six weeks of the season and playoff races on two tracks.

In the division, the Cubs lead the second-place Brewers by 3.5 and the third-place Cardinals by 5.0 games. Meanwhile, in the NL wild card competition the top two spots are held by the Phillies and the Brewers, who are essentially tied. But it’s a tight jam:

Phillies 67-54 … .554 …  T-1

Brewers  68-55 … .553 … T-1

Cardinals 66-56 … .541 … 1.5  GB

Rockies 65-56 … .537 … 2.0 GB

Dodgers  65-57  … .533 …. 2.5 GB

The matchup with Milwaukee opens an important section of the schedule for the Cardinals. After three vs. Milwaukee, the Cardinals travel west for three against the Dodgers, the move over to Colorado for three against the Rockies. For the Cards, that’s nine consecutive games against fellow wild-card contenders. And by the time the Redbirds return to Busch Stadium on Aug. 28 to play Pittsburgh, the Pirates (61-61) could be closer in the hunt again. Right now the Pirates are in a fragile situation. After losing to Jon Lester and the Cubs 1-0 on Thuesday night, the Pirates dropped to 6.5 games out in the wild card and mist tangle with the Cubs for three more games at PNC Park this weekend.

The Cardinals are 6-7 against the Brewers this season, but the teams haven’t seen each other since their four-game set in Milwaukee June 21-24.

A lot has changed.

The Brewers and Cardinals appear to be heading in opposite directions — and I’d have to believe this series has some extra juice because of it. The Brewers haven’t played winning baseball for quite a while now, and the Cardinals have emerged from mediocrity and murkiness to find their mojo under interim manager Mike Shildt,

Here’s what I’m talking about:

When all of the ballpark lights were shut down on final evening of May, the Brewers had the best record in the National League and the No. 3 record in the majors at 36-21 (.632) and had outscored opponents by 34 runs. Since the start of June, The Crew (32-34) is tied for the 10th best winning percentage in the NL (.485) and is a minus 5 in the run differential.

Milwaukee is 13-18 and has been outscored by 34 runs since July 11. That’s the fourth-worst winning percentage in the NL over that time.

The Cardinals have the NL’s best record (19-10) since Shildt replaced Mike Matheny and managed his first game on July 15. Shildt is making the Cardinals smart again. The Brewers are 13-13 since July 15.

The Brewers have won only 3 of their last 10 series (including two splits.) The Cardinals have played eight series with Shildt as manager, and they’re 6-2.

Why have the Brewers curdled? Easy answer: Pitching. In going 13-18 in their last 31 games, the Brewers’ 5.02 team ERA ranks 14th in the NL; only Cincinnati has pitched worse over that time. Milwaukee’s rotation ERA of 4.68 is 12th in the NL since July 11, but the real stunner is the decline of the bullpen. The Brewers used bullpen dominance to get an early jump on the NL Central, but their relievers have a 5.51 ERA during this 13-18 skid — which ranks 13th in the NL since July 11. Closer Corey Knebel has a 6.75 ERA through a stretch in which the Milwaukee bullpen has been hammered for a .488 slugging percentage (worst in the NL since July 11) given up 1.5 homers per 9 innings, and allowed a .353 OBP because of an inflated (9.5%) walk rate.

The Cardinals have the NL’s best ERA (3.46) since Shildt took over. That includes a 3.48 starting pitching ERA (3rd NL), and a 3.43 bullpen ERA (3rd .) The Cardinals have the best bullpen ERA in the majors (1.93) since July 27.

The Brewers’ offense is averaging 4.41 runs per game since July 11. The Cardinals are averaging 5.14 runs since president of baseball operations John Mozeliak dumped Matheny and batting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller.

The Brewers hit their share of homers, but aren’t consistent offensively. During this 13-18 slump, they rank 9th in the NL in OBP (.322), 7th in slugging (.420), tied for 8th in OPS (.742) and are 9th in park adjusted runs created at three percent below league average. Brewers hitters also have the third-worst strikeout rate (24%) and fourth lowest walk rate (7.5%) since July 11.

The Cardinals’ offense has taken flight since new batting coaches Mike “Buddha” Budaska and George Greer joined Shildt in St. Louis on July 15 to serve as critically important aides de camp. Since the Cards adopted a more intelligent hitting approach under enlightened new leadership, their offense leads the NL in runs, batting average (.275), OBP (.351), OPS (.800), park adjusted runs created (17 percent above the league average) and is second in slugging percentage at .450. Cardinals’ hitters have the lowest strikeout rate in the NL (17.2%) over the last 29 games.

⇒ The Brewers’ pitching staff has been damaged by injuries. Starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson (shoulder) has missed the entire season. Another starter, lefty Brent Suter (elbow surgery) is done for the year. And RH starter Zach Davies (shoulder), who has been out since the start of June, was thought to be close to returning, but his status is uncertain. The Milwaukee bullpen has two RH pitchers on the DL, Joakim Soria and Matt Albers.

⇒  Back to the rotation. Since July 11, Brewers’ starters have been popped for the NL’s highest home-run rate (1.7 per 9 IP), a .455 slugging percentage (12th, NL), and .324 OBP (12th, NL). Moreover, the rotation’s fielding independent ERA over the last 31 games is the worst in the league at 5.30. Unless the Brewers make a move for a starting pitcher before Aug. 31 — and the trade target would have to pass through waivers — they’ll ride it out with Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley, Junior Guerra, and Freddy Peralta. By the way: Peralta, a rookie, faces Jack Flaherty in Friday’s series opener. He has a 7.94 ERA and a 16.7% walk rate since July 11.

Likewise, the Cardinals’ pitching supply was hit by injuries to starters Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Alex Reyes. And the bullpen was reduced by injuries to expected late-inning components Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone. Injuries also led to the demise in performance of lefty reliever Tyler Lyons, who was terrific in 2017. After clearing waivers, Lyons is at Triple A Memphis, trying to sharpen up and stay healthy.

But despite getting walloped by so many injuries, the Cardinals’ pitching staff has held up very well — certainly much better than Milwaukee’s, at least to this point. And that’s to the credit of a St. Louis front office baseball operation that does an exceptional job of scouting, drafting and developing pitching and building impressive depth. Just look at the valuable contributions being made by rookies Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson, Mike Mayers and Daniel Poncedeleon.

These layers of quality pitching depth are one clear advantage that St. Louis has over Milwaukee right now. And it’s a huge factor in the Brewers’ 13-18 skid, and the Cards’ 19-10 rise. But these trends can always change again; that’s baseball.

And in a way, that’s what this weekend series is all about.

The Cardinals want to reaffirm that they are different than before — much better than they were before the big change on July 15.

The Brewers want to prove that they’re as good as displayed during  the first two-plus months of the season — and that their recent downturn is nothing but a phase.

The Cardinals want to show that the 19-10 record with Shildt means that they’re for real.

The Brewers want to show that this 13-18 phase isn’t for real.

Thanks for reading — and have a wonderful weekend…

-Bernie

More: Thirty Reasons Why You Should Be Happy With Mike Shildt As Cardinals’ Manager