After an interminable 7-game homestand that saw the Cardinals go 2-5 against the upstart Phillies and the paper-thin Pirates and a long, painful off-day of despair and yelling at new site contributors, Cardinals Nation hungered for something new Tuesday night: wins. Or at least, you know, a win. A win would be nice.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that homestand was really rough. Putting aside our 6-0 win against Philadelphia and our 17-4 drubbing of the Bucs, we mustered just 9 runs, 6 of those coming in Sunday's "aw, of course we did" loss. Meanwhile, our pitching and lack of defense gave up 30 runs in those 5 losses. I'm no strategist, but "get outscored 30-9" is not a clear path to victory.
Jack Flaherty faced off against Mike Foltynewicz Tuesday in Suntrust Park, home of last year's most exciting batch of up-and-coming prospects, the Braves. Spoilers: Feast overtook famine this time, and we got that win.
On the pitching side, Flaherty pitched 4.1 great innings of no-hit baseball. The only blemishes in this period were 3 walks and a sharply hit grounder by Markakis, which defensive wunderkind Paul DeJong converted into a double play. Flaherty hit a speed bump--nay, one of those spike strips the cops use to intercept fleeing vehicles in car chases--on his way to getting the 5th inning's final two outs.
The inning began with a Markakis walk, which, no big deal if you keep not allowing hits. After a strikeout from Ozzie Albies, eternal redass and noted LHH Brian McCann softly squibbed a grounder to the left side, beating the shift and moving Markakis to 2nd. Johan Camargo looped a single into shallow center, loading the bases.
Greg Maddux's brother gave Flaherty a pep talk, which apparently didn't work. Flaherty gave up a hot grounder to the hot corner, which Marp deflected and Ozuna recovered, scoring Markakis. Ronald Acuna walked on 5 pitches, pushing another run across; Dansby Swanson hit a sac fly to right, scoring the Braves' third and final run. Freddie Freeman was pulled for Matt Joyce, causing a fair amount of relief in at least one man's heart. Flaherty finally ended the inning, striking Joyce out with just 4 pitches. And there was much reJoyce-ing.
Flaherty came back out for the 6th, and aside from giving up his 5th walk of the night, set 'em up and knocked 'em down. His final line: 6 IP on 109 pitches, 6 K, 3 H, 5 BB.
Giovanni Gallegos was good in the 7th, eliminating the Braves batsmen in order. He served up a couple cookies to Johan Camargo in the course of a 7-pitch AB to begin the inning, but Camargo fouled both off harmlessly before grounding out. And that's okay, as Camargo is having a hard time repeating the strong offensive performance that made him a low-key breakout last year. Gallegos proceeded to strike out Charlie Culberson and Ronald Acuna, despite neither batter seeing a decent pitch to hit.
Dom Leone got some work in in the 8th as Yadi ceded catching duties to Matt Wieters; Leone pitched well. He started a little wild but came back to get a full-count lineout from Dansby Swanson. The Braves pitcher, Wes Parsons, struck out looking on a borderline low pitch that miiiight have been making up for an earlier strike called a ball. Josh Donaldson was quasi-intentionally walked on 4 pitches, then Leone served up his only real mistake of the inning--a 95 mph two-seamer right down the pike to Markakis. Fortunately, Nick was content to observe this gift as it floated along, and Leone sat him down looking.
Gregerson got the 9th and looked--dare I say?--sharp, retiring Albies and McCann quickly before facing Camargo for a more drawn-out affair. After uncorking a way-outside first pitch, Gregerson pounded the bottom of the zone with fastballs and sliders, getting two called strikes and 3 foul balls before Camargo chased an inside and low slider to end the game.
As good as the pitchin' was, the hittin' was better. Aside from some vague fears in the bottom of the 5th, which were surely irrational since we already led 11-0 (right? RIGHT?), the outcome of the game was never really in doubt. Our long national nightmare was over, folks.
The offense came alive in the top of the first. Matt Carpenter started the game with a full-count walk, harking back to Marps of old who actually got on base. Goldschmidt struck out, but Paul DeJong smacked a nice single to left, and a Big Bear lumbered to the plate. After running the count to 2-1, Ozuna put that barrel chest and those thickly muscled arms and legs to work, crushing a no-doubt tater to put the Birds up 3-0. Yadi cracked a double down into the LF corner, but Fowler struck out swinging to end the inning.
The rest of the game was more of the same for the offense; we scored in more innings than we didn't (5-4). Goldschmidt singled and was plated by a J-Mart single up the middle in the 3rd. Fowler hit a nice solo homer to lead off the 4th.
The 5th was a wild affair; Foltynewicz walked DeJong and Ozuna, then gave up his third dinger of the night to Power Yadi(TM). His replacement, Jesse Biddle, gave up consecutive singles to Fowler, Wong, and Flaherty. Thinking it good to switch things up, Biddle threw the ball at Matt Carpenter's head. Wild pitch, Wong scores! The replay showed it actually hit Carpenter's bat en route to the backstop, but since nobody caught that at the time, as a ball/strike call, it was unreviewable. Carpenter smashed a double in retaliation for Biddle's cowardly act of aggression, scoring Flaherty. The score was 11-0, good guys.
There was a Bader sighting when Flaherty was pulled in the top of the 7th. After fouling off two breaking balls, Bader singled to right, moving the earlier-walked Fowler to 3rd. A Matt Carpenter GIDP erased the threat, but Bader replaced Fowler in CF, and stayed in for the duration of the game, with Fowler sliding over to RF and JMart coming out. The top of the 8th involved Paul Goldschmidt's second swinging K (belt-high sinker about two ball widths inside), a Pauly D walk, and a Big Bear GIDP.
In the top of the 9th, the Cards decided to add insult to injury. Yairo Munoz led things off with a single, and Fowler walked. Jonny Venters, the Braves pitcher, threw 2 balls to start Wong off, then moved up into the heart of the zone. Wong couldn't drive the first two middle-middle sinkers, but he sure as shootin' got all of the middle-middle slider that followed, driving it well over the right-center wall for a 3-run shot. Bader hit one almost as hard on the very next pitch, but got under it juuust a skosh too much. It was still a well-hit ball, but it fell shy of the wall, into Ronald Acuna's glove.
The Cardinals take this one, 14-3. It was nice to see us hit and pitch well, but this continues a trend of blowouts going in one direction or another. I'll take all the wins we can get, but it'll be nice to see if we can build some consistency going forward, as well. If the offense is going to be hot-and-cold without much correlation to opposing pitcher quality, we need to up the hotness frequency and decrease the coldness accordingly before we can reasonably hope to make the postseason.
At any rate, the offense demonstrated again why it should be one of the most feared units in the NL. They punished the Braves staff's mistakes and good pitches alike, even while 2 of our 4 marquee big bats continue lagging behind expectations. If/when Carpenter and Goldshmidt grind out of their slow starts, and if the rest of the offense can consolidate their gains and stay on trajectory, this lineup has Murderer's Row potential. You can expect regression from Fowler, and Martinez's defensive limitations are almost sure to force him to the bench more. But that could (read: will) actually improve us overall, depending on how Bader and/or O'Neill hit.
On the other side of the ball, this was a decent outing for Flaherty, but frustrating. This guy has so much potential, but his command is killing him. 48 of his 109 pitches went for balls, and I count 13 pitches outside the zone where the Braves or ump helped Jack by fouling, swinging, hitting into an out, or calling a strike. I don't know if he's nibbling or really just a little wild, but if you see Jack start getting his strikezone plot under control just a bit more, you're going to see a Cy Young contender wearing the birds on the bat.
(Side note: in one of Rick Horton's (I think it was Rick) rare nuggets of wisdom awhile back, he said that Flaherty needs to stop trying to strike batters out on the first pitch, and focus on living in the strike zone until he gets into 2-strike counts. I think he's spot on. Watching Flaherty gives me the impression that he's always trying to paint the corners and get chases, from 0-0 to 3-2 and everything in between. This is horribly inefficient, and largely inconsistent with what he did throughout the minors, where he wasn't afraid to challenge hitters and ran significantly lower BB%s. He's got the kind of stuff and the variety to induce poor contact even while giving hitters more chances to make contact in 3-ball and less-than-2-strike counts--he needs to trust that stuff, then once he gets ahead in the count he can go into strikeout mode. That HR/FB% will regress, and he'll be solid. Though I have concern that his extremely competitive bulldog mentality might prevent him from ever pursuing such a strategy. But I digress, into pop psychology no less.)
The bullpen was great in mop-up duty. We'll see how they do when it's close. Gregerson's on a tightrope, and I don't expect him to repeat his performance from tonight much. His command has to be simply perfect with his velocity dip, and even then, hitters with good coverage on the bottom of the zone are going to punish him. He's lost 4 mph off his already slow fourseamer, sinker, and slider over the past 2 years. Leone and Gallegos' appearances were encouraging though--they affirmed that the boys have the tools to do their respective things successfully in tight spots against good opponents, and we need that. Leone's command struggles seemed absent tonight, and Gallegos showed again he can succeed at this level.
Let's see if we can do it again tonight! Wacha vs. Soroka. Soroka has been virtually unhittable in his young career, having allowed one or fewer earned runs in 8 of his first 10 games. (That's an MLB record; a weird record, but a kind of foreboding one.) Wacha has scuffled this year, as I'm sure you know. The bats are going to need to come alive; the bullpen is going to need to be sharp; Wacha is maybe still going to need to be better than he's been.
Enjoy the game! 6:20 CDT.