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May Days

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Does it surprise you like it surprised me that all the Cardinals' various pitch ratios—the number they see per plate appearance, the number they swing at and look at and foul off—are almost identical to the league average through this point in the season? Maybe it's just baseball-watching rust; it seems as though Brendan Ryan has taken more strikes through a month and a half than he did in 2009, that Albert Pujols has swung and missed more last week than he did in 2004, that the team, in general, has gone from Ichiro to Ben Grieve.

But after a three-true-outcomes start the Cardinals have pushed their batting average up and their secondary average down, and right now their league average offense is not only average but ordinary. If Mark McGwire is secretly the hitting coach equivalent of Dave Duncan, exerting an extraordinary pull over team personnel and performance—the team's led the majors in groundball-to-flyball ratio four times since 2004, and has the three highest totals recorded during that period, too—it hasn't shown up yet. 

If the offense is no longer uniquely devoted to hitting dingers and taking so many pitches that it makes game-shortening sense to just begin each count at 2-2, their performance yesterday was at least a major catharsis. Brendan Ryan and Joe Mather contributed on offense, as did Tyler Greene, another part (if temporary) on a bench whose breakout star is its least flexible piece. Greene's getaway day start, in particular, was packed tight with, well, Greene-ness—an extra-base hit, a dynamic but risky play on defense, a truly impressive stolen base, and three outs. 

(Speaking of which: As the Cardinals continue to flirt with Aaron Miles (Skinny Stavinoha?) as AAA depth, Ruben Gotay's still walk-heavy line is up to .250/.370/.390 after a rough April in Memphis.) 

This was the right way for this team, in this strange funk, to score 11 runs—during a getaway game, while your best pitcher doesn't really need it, with most of the runs coming from players whose major contributions have, to this point, come off the bench. It leaves the weird imprint of May's first, hard-won 25 runs fresh on the offense. 

Here's my favorite May stat—Matt Holliday is having, timing-agnostically, the third best month of any Cardinal so far, but as anyone who's booed him would tell you he's had almost nothing to do, so far, with the actual business of scoring runs. His .370/.414/.481 line on the month has brought him across the plate three times and driven in one baserunner; meanwhile, Albert Pujols, slugging under .400, has driven in six runs and scored three times. Skip Schumaker, hitting .233/.300/.233, has scored three times and driven in two in eight games. It's hard to manage to have so little to do when you're batting fourth, but the slumps in front of Pujols and Holliday—spots one and two in the batting order have OBPs of .322 and .333, respectively—have made it possible. 

My least favorite stat, until today's charitable triple, was Ryan Ludwick's May swoon—after his April made some of us optimistic that 2009 might be the outlier after all, his .143 run prior to yesterday's game had brought his OPS down to .767—the exact same OPS+ he had when all the disparate pieces of his streaky 2009 were added together. He's put himself in the right position to have a bounce-back year; his walk rate, even higher in May, is ahead of its 2008 highs despite pitchers having less to worry about, and his line drive rate continues to be considerably higher than the league average. May's a weird time of stat nerd-year. There's still plenty of room for optimism, and plenty of cautionary notes to sound about paying too much attention this early in the year—his 2-6 afternoon yesterday brought his OPS up 12 points. 

With the big day in Pittsburgh having righted the ship, or at least kept people from jumping over the rails, the Cardinals take today off and then play host once more to the Astros. Since earning their first win of the season in St. Louis on April 15 a patented Inexplicable Astros Winning Streak has come and gone, and they return to Busch having won two of their last 14, at their weakest point since their last visit. You know what that means: it's time for more stories about the Bud Norris whammy. The handsomest man on earth hasn't won a game—or allowed fewer than four runs in one—since he beat the Cardinals for Houston's first win of the season. I'm nervous, too.