All of a sudden, the Cardinals have won five games in a row and have taken over the National League wild card lead. It would seem many of the problems the Cardinals encountered over their first 48 games…at which point they were 24-24…have been washed away in the current 11-4 run that has them at 35-28.
There are two major intertwined improvements over the last fifteen games.
One is the dramatically better defense. In their fifteen game streak, the Cardinals have had six games with errors, and have committed eight errors in that time. In their first 48 games, they committed 41 errors.
Two of those eight were by pitchers Carlos Martinez and Matt Bowman. The others? Shortstop Aledmys Diaz has made three, and Brandon Moss, Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter each have one. Jhonny Peralta has settled things down, as has Carpenter’s move to second base. Not only are there fewer errors, but more routine plays are being made, too. In general, pitchers are able to keep their pitch counts down because they aren’t losing outs to shoddy fielding.
Improved defense, of course, leads to better pitching. Specifically starting pitching for the Cardinals. In their first 48 games they had an ERA of 4.23. In their last fifteen, it’s 3.85. As the top offense in the National League has maintained its great production, it’s getting help from the pitching and defense now, too.
Ultimately, most of the players the Cardinals counted on when spring training started have produced at a high level lately.
Matt Holliday hit home runs in the last two games at Pittsburgh, and in the last fifteen games has hit .365 with four homers and twelve RBI. Leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter has hit .362 with a .439 on base percentage, scoring fifteen runs in the fifteen games. And the other, Matt Adams, has gone off, hitting .360 with three homers and thirteen RBI to help propel the Cards to the wildcard lead.
Brandon Moss has been red hot as well, offsetting the cooling off of Diaz, Randal Grichuk, Yadier Molina and Stephen Piscotty. Despite those guys not performing to their best level so far in June, the offense has maintained its spot atop the National League runs list.
For any team to make the playoffs and succeed in the playoffs, they need their number one starter to pitch like a number one starter. Adam Wainwright is doing that. He’s 4-1 in his last eight starts and has six quality starts in that time. Since Wainwright started this fifteen game stretch with a win against Washington, he’s delivered a 20 innings in three starts and a 3.60 ERA. As Wainwright’s performance has ascended, Michael Wacha is showing signs of life, Carlos Martinez has gone 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA, and Mike Leake bounced back from a bad start in Cincinnati to shut down the Pirates on Sunday. Without question, Jaime Garcia needs to be better and more efficient, but the good news is we all know he can.
Now the Redbirds need to sustain this level of play.
After their sweep of the Pirates, they’re two games clear of the Dodgers and 2.5 ahead of the Bucs. The rest of the month includes interleague play against the top three teams in the AL West, Texas, Houston and Seattle, a trip to Chicago to take on the vaunted Cubs, and a home-and-home with the defending World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. Then in July the schedule opens up, with seventeen of their first twenty games at home against Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Miami and San Diego before the Dodgers come to town. The only road games in the first 24 days of July are a three game trip to Milwaukee.
Obviously, the career track record of the players on this team is strong. It’s not unreasonable to think that most of them will perform to their career stats. The pitchers didn’t do that for most of the first two months of the season. But the worm appears to have turned. For their difficulty against teams with winning records early, they’ve gone 7-2 in their last nine against winning teams.
Can the Cardinals catch the Cubs? Unlikely.
But as Holliday said after Sunday’s game, this team needs to work on being the best version of themselves that they can be.
If they can be the best they’re capable of, there’s no reason to think they won’t be able to secure one of the wild card spots in the NL and play post-season ball in October for the sixth straight year.