Bernie’s Daily Redbird Review: A Tough Weekend For the Cards. How Will They Respond?

The Daily Redbird Review

FIRST PITCH: After rocking for nearly two months since the All-Star break, the Cardinals have slowed down, and I think we’d all agree that the timing could be better. After losing two out of three to the also-ran Rockies at Colorado, the Cardinals came home to Busch Stadium for a key weekend series against the Brewers. And after clobbering the Crew 10-0 in Friday’s opener, the Cardinals dropped the next two games. Saturday’s 5-2 loss was annoying because the Cardinals scored only two runs in support of Jack Flaherty. Sunday’s 7-6 loss was particularly troubling because the Cardinals failed to protect a late 4-2 lead in falling 7-6.

After going 8-0-1 in their previous nine series, the Cardinals lost two consecutive series since for the first time since that 0-5 trip to Oakland and Los Angeles that ended Aug. 7. The Cardinals had won 18 of their last 22 games at Busch Stadium until the Brewers won on Saturday and Sunday. That said, the Cardinals are 39-22 since the All-Star break and 25-11 in their last 36 games.

STANDINGS CHECK: It was a damaging week. After winning at Pittsburgh on Sunday, Sept. 8. the Cardinals led the second-place Cubs by 4 and ½ games, and the third-place Brewers by 6 and ½. But with 13 games remaining in the regular-season schedule the Cardinals’ lead over Chicago is down to two games. And the Cards’ advantage over Milwaukee is three games. Had the Cardinals taken better care of their two-run lead Sunday, the Brewers would have left town trailing the Cardinals by five games instead of three.

HERE’S THE DEAL: By blowing two consecutive series that they should have had in the bag, the Cardinals will be scrutinized going forward. How will they handle it? That’s all that matters now.

PLAYOFF ODDS: According to FanGraphs the Cardinals as of Monday morning have a 59.1 percent chance to win the NL Central, with the Cubs at 34.9 percent, and the Brewers at only 5.9 percent.

It just shows you how quickly things can change. After whomping the Brewers 10-0 on Friday, the Playoff Odds report gave the Cardinals an 80.1 percent probability of winning the division.

CARDS KILLER: Except for the noise in the happy, hollering Brewers’ dugout, Ryan Braun’s grand-slam homer off St. Louis rookie reliever Junior Fernandez on a two-out, two-strike hanging slider in the top of the ninth turned Busch Stadium into the quietest place on the continent. It was Braun’s 14th career homer at the “new” Busch Stadium, which ties him with the Reds’ Joey Votto for the most HR by a visiting player since the ballpark opened in 2006.

“I’m definitely not as good as I was, but in big moments, I’m the guy, still,” Braun told reporters after Sunday’s huge win. “I still want that opportunity. I still believe in myself. I’ve had a lot of success in those moments and I think I’m able to ‘lock it in’ a little bit more.”

Added Brewers manager Craig Counsell: “There’s been some memorable Ryan Braun home runs, at-bats, everything, but that’s right up there, there’s no question about it. It was a great at-bat, preceded by a number of great at-bats. Just to stay in the moment there and stay calm, and get a pitch you can hit and do something with it, absolutely incredible. We had one bolt left and Ryan did something with it.”

The Brewers have won nine of their last 10 games and are 5-1 since outfielder and MVP Christian Yelich was lost for the season with a broken right kneecap. The Brewers stormed to 23 wins in their final 30 games a year ago to win the NL Central title.

TURNING POINT: Cards reliever John Gant walked three Brewers to load the bases and set the stage for Braun’s devastating homer that reset the NL Central standings. But there was also an error charged to center fielder Harrison Bader in the eighth that set up a run, allowing the Brewers to cut the Cards lead to 4-3 — minutes after homers by Paul DeJong and Bader had propelled the Cards from a 2-1 deficit to a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh.

BLAME GAME: The Cardinals’ bullpen has been terrific for most of the season, but the boys had an ugly day on Sunday. Seven relievers combined to cover four innings and got bruised for six earned runs, seven hits and Gant’s three walks. Ryan Helsley and Fernandez each gave up a homer, and the two homers produced six runs for Milwaukee.

Tyler Webb was victimized for a critical homer by Mike Moustakas in Saturday’s loss.

In the final two games of the series the STL bullpen pitched seven innings and got torched for eight earned runs, nine hits, five walks and three home runs. The bullpen was shorthanded, missing an ailing closer Carlos Martinez. A tough situation, yes. But the bottom line: bad results.

HEY, YOU DID GOOD: Michael Wacha turned in another swell start, giving the Cardinals five shutout innings without walking a batter. STL starting pitchers Adam Wainwright, Flaherty and Wacha combined for a 1.59 ERA in the three games against the Brewers.

The Cardinals had only five hits but made them count with four of the five going for home runs, including the first two-homer game of Bader’s big-league career.

Bader’s first homer gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the third. DeJong’s two-run blast gave the Cardinals a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Bader’s second homer put the Cardinals on top 4-2. And Edman’s two-run homer off Josh Hader cut Milwaukee’s lead to 7-6 in the ninth.

LOOK, YOU NEED TO DO BETTER: Marcell Ozuna is batting .113 with an awful .472 OPS in his last 17 games — though he did draw a walk Sunday and scored on DeJong’s two-run homer … the Cards bullpen has a 4.60 ERA this month … Yadier Molina is batting .163 with one RBI in 48 plate appearances since Sept. 2 … Saturday’s loss marked the 45th game this season in which the Cardinals scored two runs or fewer in a contest.

SECOND-GUESSING SHILDTY: I realize that that Wacha encountered some turbulence in the top of the fifth inning, and that Shildt has tried to avoid having Wacha face the opposing lineup for a third time in a game. But the Cardinals were in a difficult position with their bullpen, knowing that Martinez was unavailable to work.

Wacha had thrown only 74 pitches through five innings, and seemed OK to go another inning to put less of a load on the bullpen. Shildt thought that Wacha was tiring, and he knows more than we do. But it’s worthy of a closer look.

I think Shildt stayed too long with Gant. That’s easy to say now, sure. And in Saturday night’s game Gant came in and struck out the side on 11 pitches. But that was Saturday. Gant clearly didn’t have it on Sunday. And he’s been pitching at a high-walk rate altitude for a few months now.

Related note: Some are making a case for using John Brebbia rather than Junior Fernandez … all quibbles are fine … here’s another: RH reliever Dominic Leone was available. Granted, he has a 5.65 ERA on the season. And his strikeout-walk ratio ain’t the best. But since being called up from Memphis on Aug. 22, Leone hasn’t allowed an earned run in 7 and ⅔ innings covering eight relief appearances.

But again… this is all baseball talk. If Fernandez doesn’t serve up a meatball to Braun, we aren’t talking about what Shildt should or shouldn’t have done.

GOOD MOVE, SHILDTY: Nothing worth mentioning. It was just one of these days that every Cardinal would like to have back.

QUESTION: If the Cardinals’ staff knew of the Martinez illness during the team’s stay at Colorado, then why did he end up in a hospital in St. Louis on Saturday night? Isn’t he supposed to get better, rather than worse? Another Cardinals’ medical mystery for the files.

TRACKING THE CUBS: The Cubs used the sack of quit Pirates as cleat wipes over the weekend, bashing 14 homers and scoring 47 runs in a three-game series at Wrigley Field. One negative development: first baseman Anthony Rizzo suffered an ankle injury on Sunday and could miss some time. The Reds will open a three-game series at Wrigley starting Monday night.

ON DECK: The Cardinals have some work to do:

  • Stephen Strasburg starts for the Nationals on Monday night against Dakota Hudson, 6:45 first pitch.
  • Tuesday (6:45) it’s Patrick Corbin vs. Miles Mikolas.
  • Wednesday afternoon (12:15) matches Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright.

Among NL starting pitchers Scherzer (6.4 WAR), Strasburg (5.3) and Corbin respectively rank first, third and fifth in Wins Above Replacement. The three are among the top 13 NL starters in ERA. The trio ranks among the top 10 NL starters in strikeouts per nine innings.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie