Tag Archive | "Cincinnati Reds"

Although injured, Jason Motte might hold key to St. Louis Cardinals bullpen

The man who closed out the 2011 World Series championship for the St. Louis Cardinals and saved 42 games for them a season later has not pitched in a competitive situation in more than a year, but he might turn out to be one of the most important pitchers on the 2014 team’s staff.

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Jason Motte tore a ligament in his right elbow during spring training in 2013 and had Tommy John surgery to fix it, but that operation requires about a full year of rehab before a pitcher can return to the mound in a Major League Baseball game.

Motte has thrown bullpen sessions and batting practices in spring training camp this year, but he had the surgery May 7, 2013, so the Cardinals will most likely be about one month into their 2014 regular season before Motte is available.

Indications are Motte will become the eighth-inning setup reliever for closer Trevor Rosenthal once he is fully healthy, and that should make the back end of the team’s bullpen extremely dangerous, if not dominant.

However, the Cardinals likely have to get through the first month of the season, which includes 12 games against their top divisional opponents, the Cincinnati Reds or Pittsburgh Pirates.

Those first several weeks of the season are certainly important, even though the team survived the Mitchell Boggs disaster in April a year ago, and the Cardinals have potentially better pitchers set to again try to fill an April void left by Motte, but those options carry nearly as many questions.

The pitcher who starts the season as the righthanded setup reliever in the bullpen could easily be the one who loses the battle for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation that has waged between rookie Carlos Martinez and third-year big leaguer Joe Kelly.

Martinez has had an exceptional spring training with a 1.76 earned-run average with nine strikeouts in four starts, while Kelly struggled in his first two starts before he settled down for 5.1 innings Saturday when he allowed one run and struck out three in a 6-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Martinez has made a Shelby Miller-like impression on the spring training mounds this year, but he still might be the better choice to start the season in the bullpen than Kelly.

For one, Martinez shined as the eighth-inning pitcher during the 2013 postseason with 11 strikeouts in 12 appearances, while Kelly started four games, including a 5.1-inning outing in Game 3 of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox to lead the Cardinals to a 5-4 victory and one of their two wins in the series.

Kelly was also not particularly stellar as a bullpen pitcher during the first half of the 2013 season after he lost the race for the No. 5 spot in the rotation to Miller in spring training. Kelly’s ERA was at 6.75 through 16 appearances before he got his first start of the season June 5 and gave up one run in 5.2 innings in what turned out to be a 10-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Much of that debate won’t matter on the bullpen side when Motte comes back because he should be able to fill the eighth-inning role and take some pressure off of Martinez, Kelly or anybody else Cardinals manager Mike Matheny wants to use in the meantime.

The challenge then will likely be to get enough appearances in middle relief for whichever pitcher does not get the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

And if that is the biggest problem the Cardinals have once May begins, they will probably be off to a pretty good start.

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Making The Winter Rounds In the NL Central

While much of the success that a team has comes from its own preparation, what goes on around them also plays a huge factor. The Cardinals have been among the most successful clubs at concisely addressing their needs this winter, but how has the rest of the National League Central done?

Washington Nationals v St. Louis Cardinals

What is for certain is that the margin for error was slim-to-none last summer in the heart of the National League. While the Cardinals succeeded in winning the division, they finished only three games ahead of the Pirates, and seven in front the third-place Reds. And this feat was achieved only by a September surge that pulled them out of a three-way race that was separated by less than a two games entering the season’s final frame.

Even below the upper tier of the division, the Brewers and the Cubs are both looking to develop a new phase for their respective fortunes. Amid the Ryan Braun Biogenesis fallout and the continued resurfacing in Chicago, both teams finished well outside of the race, but continue to look for ways to tweak the approach.

However, the NL Central has not been a division that has made a sweeping amount of substantial additions. In fact, many faces from each team have departed and the action to replace them has not been as loud as it has been in, say the American League East or West. Thus far, only the Cardinals have made any major additions of note, and when combined with what’s in place already, potential the NL Central gauntlet could be a thing of the past potentially.

Here is how the winter has gone for the Cardinals’ divisional neighbors thus far, and what could be to come before the winter turns to spring…

 

Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68 in 2013)

Gains: Clint Barmes (resigned), Chris Stewart, Edison Volquez

Losses: Marlon Byrd (Phillies), Garrett Jones (Marlins), Justin Morneau (Rockies)

The detail: The Pirates have let both of the main parts they added for the stretch run last year walk, which should come as no surprise. While the presence of Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez makes this bearable, the loss of Jones as well leaves a substantial loss in power potential. Add in the pending free agent status of AJ Burnett, and this is a team that has more than a few questions currently. The addition of Volquez is both an attempt to pad this looming issue, as well as to catch the same type of former All-Star lightning in a bottle they did with Liriano last summer.

What’s Looming: Burnett will either resign or retire most likely, and it is a decision that could linger into the spring. Pittsburgh is armed with a young core and could look to add some value priced veterans, but they are likely to take a step back in everyday potency as long as their first base situation is up in the air.

 

Cincinnati Reds (90-72 in 2013)

Additions: Brayan Pena, Skip Schumaker

Subtractions: Shin-Soo Choo (Rangers), Ryan Hanigan (Rays), Xavier Paul (Orioles), Dusty Baker (Fired)

The detail: The Reds have probably seen the most change of any team in the division, which started with the firing of manager Dusty Baker a day after their loss in the NL Wild Card Game. On the field, the expected loss of Choo came, and they flirted with the idea of moving Brandon Phillips as well, but were scoffed by the Yankees before it could go through. Their operation has been based in promoting from within (trading Hanigan to open up a full-time role for Devin Mesoraco), and rounding out the bench this offseason, with additions such as the former Cardinal Schumaker. They are very much a team that is not quite rebuilding, but is definitely retooling their approach on the run.

What’s Looming: As it stands today, the Reds are a wild card, and very much the definition of a third place-level club. They will return the majority of the top half of their staff and every day lineup, but the future of Bronson Arroyo and where he lands next year potentially removes a vital safety valve in their rotation. Billy Hamilton will take over the reins in the center field, and will be asked to slide into the leadoff spot that Choo masterfully performed in last year.

 

Milwaukee Brewers (74-88 in 2013)

Additions: None

Subtractions: Corey Hart (Mariners)

The Story: 2013 stunk for Milwaukee. They couldn’t get a steady effort on the mound, injuries and suspensions killed their offensive potential and they could never crack into the competitive mix in the division. On the heels of it all, they’ve been the quietest team in the division, without much coming or going. This is either a sign that they feel they can compete with a return to full strength, or that they are simply hamstrung by what is available in the market—and what fits their needs.

What’s Looming: The loss of Hart hurts, as they struggled to find a replacement for him last season, and now don’t have a clear successor for him now that he has officially moved on. They have had interest in Mets first baseman Ike Davis, but have been reluctant to depart with any of their young arms to do so. However, with either Sean Halton or Juan Francisco as their only viable replacements, their hand could be forced eventually.

 

Chicago Cubs (66-96 in 2013)

Additions: Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Roberts, George Kottaras, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright

Subtractions: Dioner Navarro (Blue Jays)

The Story: The Cubs have once again been mostly quiet, having their name thrown into the rumor mill before they quickly pull it back out themselves. However, they have steadily gone along adding parts to their shed, rebuilding their bench completely and adding a new closer in Jose Veras as well.

What’s Looming: In the end, they could potentially make the biggest name splash of any team in the division, as they are said to be major suitors for newly available Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. If the franchise decides to go all in to add him (and he agrees to come to the lowly Cubs over the bigger names on the market), they would have a legitimate ace-caliber arm for the first time in years. Jeff Samardzija’s name has been often floated, but at this juncture, the club’s likely opening day starter as things stand now will likely stay in tow for a bit longer.

 

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Edward Mujica eerily similar to Ryan Franklin for St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2009 playoffs with a closer who barely reached 90 mph with his fastball after years of a closer who threw in the mid-to-upper 90s yet had a nearly perfect season before the Cardinals faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series.

EdwardMujica

Ryan Franklin had replaced Jason Isringhausen when Izzy got hurt, or got too ineffective, late in the 2008 season and saved 38 games in 43 opportunities.

The situation at the back end of the Cardinals’ bullpen four years later is nearly exactly the same. The Cardinals lost their flame-throwing closer, Jason Motte, to elbow surgery during spring training and eventually gave the ninth-inning job to Edward Mujica late in April.

Mujica’s fastball tops out around 91 mph, but as was the case with Franklin, he has masterfully induced dozens upon dozens of groundballs on the way to 37 saves in 41 chances with nine games left in the regular season.

And the Cardinals are set up to again play the Dodgers in the National League Division Series if they hold on to win the NL Central over the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.

The last time the Cardinals and Dodgers met in the division series is when Franklin’s almost magical run came to an end and never returned.

Dodgers first baseman James Loney hit a line drive to left field in Game 2 that Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday dropped. Franklin then walked two hitters and gave up two singles, the final one to pinch hitter Mark Loretta to give the Dodgers a 3-2 win and a 2-0 lead in the series that ended in a sweep two days later.

That playoff series was the beginning of the end for Franklin, who had been an All-Star in 2009. He saved 27 games in 2010 but he blew four of his first five save opportunities in 2011 and did not make it to the end of June before the Cardinals released him.

Obviously, the Cardinals hope the matchup against the Dodgers ends a little differently this time around, but the lesson from 2009 is clear. Mujica has been terrific for the Cardinals so far this season, but he is not an overpowering pitcher and not a long-term answer for the team at the closer position.

Thankfully, the Cardinals have a more solid backup option this time than they did two season ago, even though it is the same person.

The Cardinals tried seven different pitchers in the ninth inning in 2011 before manager Tony La Russa settled on Motte in September. Motte saved nine games in the regular season, closed out the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers and the World Series against the Texas Rangers, but he had a total of three career saves before that season.

Motte now has a world championship ring and 54 career saves to his name, and manager Mike Matheny will likely give him every possible chance to take back the job when he returns healthy to spring training in 2014.

Until then, Mujica has a lot of work to do, and he has shown some weaknesses lately. After he converted 21 consecutive save chances to start the season and was a perfect 9-for-9 from July 19 through Aug. 26, Mujica has blown two of his four save chances in September and has given up 12 hits in his last 6.1 innings.

Mujica is one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals are in a solid position to make the playoffs, but the team will need more of his first-half performances than his September outings if it is going to beat the Dodgers this time around.

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St. Louis Cardinals will have little excuse not to win NL Central

The St. Louis Cardinals have played as tough of a schedule as any team in Major League Baseball this season. They spent the majority of the first half on the road and then came back from the All-Star Break to face 10 playoff-bound teams in their next 15 series.

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After six games to open the second half against the lowly San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Philles, the Cardinals faced the Atlanta Braves twice, the Los Angeles Dodgers once, the Pittsburgh Pirates four times and the Cincinnati Reds three times, for a total of 33 out of 48 games.

The Cardinals have survived that difficult stretch, going 25-24 headed into Sunday’s game against the Pirates, and they will soon reap the benefits of completing facing all of those potential playoff teams as the schedule balances out through the rest of September.

St. Louis will have 19 games left in the 2013 season after they finish their final three-game set with the Pirates on Sunday, and they will face just one team with a winning record, the Washington Nationals, who visit Busch Stadium Sept. 23-25.

Otherwise, the Cardinals face the likes of the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies through the end of the regular season. Those teams were a combined 63 games under the .500 mark headed into play Saturday.

So the Cardinals will have every opportunity to win the National League Central Division, especially since the Pirates face the AL West-leading Texas Rangers to begin this next week and still have six games against the Reds, which are the third contender in the NL Central.

Of course, a light schedule to finish the season is far from a guarantee of success. Sometimes the worst teams play well against playoff contenders late in the season as they bring up young players from the minor leagues and try to play the spoiler role.

The Cubs could be particularly troublesome, which is a problem considering they come to St. Louis for a three-game series to finish the season.

The Cardinals are 9-7 against the Cubs this season, but luckily those final three games will be played in St. Louis, where the Cardinals were 42-25 headed into play Saturday, compared to a 39-35 record on the road.

Along with the bevy of opponents with poor records, the schedule also helps the Cardinals in that 12 of the final 19 games are at Busch Stadium, and that could also give the Cardinals momentum headed into October.

The Cardinals are in a three-way battle for the division title with the Pirates and Reds, and they have held the first wild-card spot for much of the second half, but it is crucial they at least hang on to that position if they don’t win the division because they have played so much better at home.

One of the staples of the clubs managed by former manager Tony La Russa was their ability to play well on the road. The 2013 Cardinals still have a winning road record, but they have not played well away from St. Louis at all in the second half, going 9-15 since the All-Star Break, so home-field advantage could be particularly important for this ballclub.

They’ll have every opportunity to win that advantage given their remaining schedule, and they’ll have no one to blame but themselves if they have to open the postseason with a one-game wild-card playoff in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.

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Avoiding a Red October for Wainwright

The struggles of Adam Wainwright have caused for a red alert about if the Cardinals rotation can hold up to the demands of the remaining pennant chase. Amid his worst back-to-back starts in his career, finding there is a common denominator to his struggles: the Cincinnati Reds. Finding an answer to his approach to facing the club on a collision course with the Cardinals this October is key to the immediate, and final, success of the 2013 Cardinals.

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There’s no easy to put it: the Reds have owned Wainwright in the past week. In two outings, he’s thrown a total of eight innings, but has surrendered a brutal 15 earned runs on 18 hits, five walks and 150 pitches. It has been a study of opposites in his usual habits, his location has been off, he has worked deep into counts and has had back-to-back starts with multiple walks, something that has only happened one other time this year.

Wainwright’s focus pitch is his curveball. It is the pitch he throws more than any other pitcher in the game, and with a success rate that favors why this is his weapon of choice. Yet, regardless of how often he uses it, no breaking pitch can be fully successful without a fastball to work off of. And in recent starts, the problem has been simple: he has not been able to get his fastball over and the Reds batters know this, and have been able to wait on it.

The mysterious part of it is how he has lost his location. Wainwright at his best lives in the bottom of the strike zone, and on either side of the plate. But has he’s reached to find ways to work for outs versus the Reds batters, he’s began to lose the ball inside and up, and the Reds batters response to it has been brutal. Just a sample size of their core versus Wainwright comes off like this:

Jay Bruce: 4 for 4, three doubles, home run, walk and four RBI

Shin-Soo Choo: 3 for 6, HR and 2 RBI

Joey Votto: 1 for 3, HR and two walks

Ryan Ludwick: 2 for 5, 2 RBI

Obviously, that will not suffice for success against the Reds. In light of his last two outings, Wainwright’s line on the season versus the Reds features a 1-2 record, with a 7.31 ERA and 13 runs in 16 innings, spurred by a .308 Reds batting average. These are all high marks on the year for an opponent he has faced more than once.

Considering the situation that the club finds itself in, it begins to beg the question of if Wainwright would be the right choice for a potential one game Wild Card playoff that the two clubs would be on track to face off in if the season ended today. On one hand, not pitching one of the best arms in the National League in a winner takes all scenario seems unreasonable, but considering what the match up as brought thus far, the idea that he is not the ideal option to take the ball if the club is pitted against Cincinnati is more than realistic, it should be deemed as likely.

There’s a month of season to go before that scenario becomes a potential reality, but the match up game is not a favorable one for the Cardinals when it comes to facing their divisional foes recently, and finding a way to separate Wainwright from the Reds for the remainder of the year would be more than just ideal at this point; it could be a matter of seasonal life and death.

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Pirates Gear Up For Playoff Run

A day after major changes for both franchises, the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Mets completed a trade that alters the remainder of the season for both.

Marlon Byrd

The Mets were told their ace pitcher, Matt Harvey, would miss the remainder of the season due to a UCL tear.  Meanwhile, the Pirates fell out of first place when the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Cincinnati Reds in dramatic fashion.  The events of yesterday got the gears turning for both clubs and an agreement was reached.

The news was first reported by Anthony DiComo, the Mets beat writer for MLB.com.

The Pirates have acquired Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the Mets in exchange for second base prospect Dilson Herrera and a player to be named later.

Byrd is the notable piece of the deal for the Pirates as his stellar play this season shores up an outfield that has struggled for consistency.  His bat plugs nicely into the heart of the Pirates order and he brings with him 21 home runs and 71 runs batted in.  He has continued to produce in a season that was all but written off before it started.  Byrd was not expected to be a key piece at his age but he has provided a consistent bat and above-average defense to Pittsburgh and, more than likely, play right field alongside Andrew McCutchen while Starling Marte continues to recover from hand issues.

Buck, meanwhile, is a depth move that adds veteran leadership, solid defense, and a inconsistent bat to the bench.  He continues to throw out 30 percent of would-be base stealers and can drive in runs from time to time when he is playing well.

The Pirates part ways with a minor league second baseman who projects to be a decent hitter when he arrives at the big league level.  Herrera is only 19 years old and ranks just outside of the top ten prospects in the Pirates organization.  He benefits well from above average speed and surprising power, according to Baseball America, who ranked him 20th among Pirates prospects prior to this season.

The Pirates added two veteran pieces and a solid bat to their lineup as they enter the final push of a playoff run.  It is the type of mood that the Cardinals would have made under the Tony LaRussa leadership.

Cardinals fans hope it is not worthy of the same results LaRussa normally found.

Bill Ivie is the founder of i70baseball.
You can find his work on Yahoo!InsideSTL, and here on i70.
Talk baseball with him on Twitter @poisonwilliam

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Bird’s Eye View: The Showdowns Begin

For the first time in almost a month, the St. Louis Cardinals will enter a series as the division leader in the National League Central.  They are currently tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates and sit 2.5 games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds.

Birds Eye View Headeri70

As if the schedule makers of Major League Baseball knew ahead of time what would be happening, the next few weeks will test the three teams at the top of the National League Central division like no other.  The Cardinals open a three-game series with the Reds tonight in St. Louis before heading on a road trip to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.  They will then return home to face the Pirates once again, completing a 13-game, 14-day stretch that could very well decide the division.

Over the last ten games, the Cardinals are the hottest of the three teams, winning seven of their contests while the Pirates and Reds have both won five.  It has given the Cards a little cushion over the Reds and allowed them to catch the Pirates after chasing them for 23 days.

The series: Cincinnati Reds (74-57) at St. Louis Cardinals (76-54)
Standings: The Reds trail the Cardinals by 2.5 games in the NL Central.  The Reds hold a seven game lead in the Wild Card.
National Coverage: ESPN will carry the Monday night game while MLB Network is scheduled to carry the game on Tuesday night.

Game 1 – Mike Leake (11-5, 3.12 era) vs Tyler Lyons (2-4, 5.09 era)

The Cardinals head into this week in somewhat familiar territory this season, missing a pitcher.  Jake Westbrook found his way to the disabled list and his turn in the rotation marks the start of the series with the Reds.  Tyler Lyons will take the ball for the spot-start against Reds’ hurler Mike Leake.  Lyons has been under-whelming on the mound as a starter this season, posting an earned run average over five and only earning a victory twice.  The first game is the biggest challenge from a pitching standpoint for the Cardinals and they will need Lyons to return to his early-season production on the mound.  The first two starts of the season for Lyons were victories that seen the southpaw go seven innings and yield only one run in each contest.  On June 8th, Lyons took the mound against the Reds and lasted just over five innings and gave up four runs, earning his second loss of the season.

Mike Leake has not done well against St. Louis this season, though he does enjoy some moderate success over a few of their hitters.  In two starts this season against his division rival, Leake taken a loss in both games, lasting just five innings in each.  He gave up three runs on June 7th and seven runs on August 4th while allowing a total of 14 hits over both contests.  Leake looked impressive in his most recent outing, at least he did until the fifth inning when he surrendered four runs.  He managed a win and six innings pitched before the day was through and now looks to change his luck against the Redbirds when his team needs him most.

Game 2 – Mat Latos (13-4, 2.93 era) vs Joe Kelly (5-3, 3.09 era)

The biggest concern with Joe Kelly is how deep he will go into the game.  The Cardinals win when Kelly pitches, having won seven of the eight contests that Kelly has started, but the starter seldom sees action past six innings.  He keeps the team in position to win, though he tends to play with fire a bit and has to work his way out of jams often.  We have seen before in St. Louis that you cannot keep putting runners on base and expect to always find your way out of trouble.  If Kelly can keep the base runners to a minimum, you may see seven or eight innings out of him in the process.  For now, the team keeps winning when he takes the mound and the Cardinals will hope to continue that streak on Tuesday night.

The Reds counter with their most successful pitcher this year, sending Mat Latos to the mound to try and get the team rolling in the series.  Latos is riding a hot streak of going late into ballgames and defying the odds to do so.  His most recent start in Arizona saw him go eight innings while battling the flu and reportedly throwing up three different times over the course of the game.  Latos has taken the mound three times this season against the Cardinals and the Reds hold wins in all three of those games, Latos himself earning the victory in two of them.

Game 3 – Homer Bailey (8-10, 3.71 era) vs Adam Wainwright (15-7, 2.58 era)

It is hard for a team to arrange the starting rotation well when you play two divisional opponents for two straight weeks.  That puts staff ace Adam Wainwright on the mound in the final game against Cincinnati and missing the entire series against the Pirates this coming weekend.  Wainwright takes the mound on the heels of his major-league-leading fifth complete game of the season.  During his last outing, fans were witness to his rise in the rankings of all-time Cardinal pitchers.  Meanwhile, he won his 15th game of the season and improved his K/BB rate to a league leading 7.28.  He has currently walked fewer hitters than games he has pitched in and continues to develop into a more dangerous pitcher.  During Wednesday night’s game, he will pass the 200 inning mark for the season.

Homer Bailey will line up to take on the Cardinals for the third time this season where he will also be looking for his first win against the team.  His April 10th start against the Cardinals resulted in Bailey allowing seven runs, one of two times this season that he has allowed that many runs in a game.  Bailey has won four of his last five contests and continues to put together impressive numbers from time-to-time.  Consistency is what the Reds are hoping to start gaining from Bailey and he will look to build on his recent success in the Wednesday game with the Cardinals.

Final Notes

The Pirates will enter a three game series with the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday.  The Brewers, who took two games in a three game set with the Reds this past weekend, are in a unique position to play spoiler in this division race.

Don’t be surprised if Carlos Beltran sits in the Monday game due to the matchup with the starting pitching.  He hist Latos and Bailey much better than he does Leake.

Kolten Wong continues to earn playing time despite leadership insisting that he is not here to shake things up.  His speed and defense have been impressive to this point, here’s to hoping we see his bat come around into the discussion soon.

Jon Jay is silencing his critics lately and helping lead the Cardinals back into the hunt.

My name is Bill Ivie and you can find my work at Yahoo! as well as on i70baseball, which is a member blog of the United Cardinal Bloggers.
Give me a follow on Twitter and talk some baseball with me from time to time.

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Difficult Start To Second Half Could Help St. Louis Cardinals In October

The St. Louis Cardinals have unquestionably played their worst baseball of the season the past three weeks, going 4-11 against the four best teams in the National League, but that rough stretch could be a large dose of the medicine the team needs to be ready for the playoffs.

MikeMathenyArguing

Despite the awful finish to July and start to August, the Cardinals still entered play Saturday in the first wild-card spot and 6.5 games from falling out of a playoff position. Therefore, they have little reason to stress over making the playoffs, but a little frustration could add an edge any team needs to succeed in the postseason.

Sure, the Cardinals had their fair share of injuries during the first half of the season. Starting pitcher Chris Carpenter never recovered from his arm injury, closer Jason Motte underwent Tommy John surgery during spring training, Jaime Garcia had season-ending shoulder surgery in May and Jake Westbrook missed significant time while on the disabled list, but none of those problems were big enough to keep St. Louis from jumping out to the best record in Major League Baseball.

The Cardinals cruised to a 57-36 record in the first half while primarily playing teams that are not going to come anywhere close to making the playoffs. Their combined 28-11 record against the Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants largely accounts for why the team was more than 20 games above .500 by the All-Star Break.

They began the second half of the season 5-1 in six games against the lowly Padres and Philadelphia Phillies, who were each 11 games under .500 heading into play Saturday, but then they went out to play the good teams in the National League.

And they got smoked.

The Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers would fill out the postseason bracket along with the Cardinals if the season ended anytime soon, and those teams won 11 of 15 games against St. Louis.

Of course, catcher Yadier Molina went on the disabled list with a sprained right knee less than a week into that stretch and that has certainly affected the offense considering he was second in the league with a .330 batting average when he got hurt.

Yet, the Cardinals’ problems have been bigger than just Molina’s absence. The team has hit .260 since the All-Star break, which is 16 points lower than it hit before the break.

The pitching staff’s earned-run average has ballooned from 3.40 to 3.98 in the second half as the team struggles to mix and match starters to fill in gaps left by an intense schedule and more injury problems such as Shelby Miller’s sore elbow that could cause him to miss a start after he took a line drive directly off it on the second pitch of his outing Wednesday against the Dodgers.

But more than anything, the team needs to relearn how to win, particular against good teams it will likely face in the playoffs.

Remember, the 2013 Cardinals are a young team. They have a second baseman (Matt Carpenter) and shortstop (Pete Kozma), who are in their first seasons at those positions at the major-league level, and they have used 11 rookie pitchers. All but four of those 13 players were on the postseason roster in 2012 and many had never spent a day in the big leagues until earlier this season.

Also, every team, good or bad, goes through a rough patch in their season. The 2006 World Series championship Cardinals team lost eight games in a row in late June, and the 2011 world championship team lost seven in a row in early June, along with a 3-8 stretch in mid-August before it caught fire through the rest of the season.

The 2013 team had not had a losing streak of more than three games in a row at any point before the seven-game losing streak a couple of weeks ago. The team had battled around injuries, but it had yet to develop the resilience that only a stretch of losing baseball can provide.

Plus, the team now knows the level of play required to compete with the best teams in the league.

It certainly isn’t fun for Cardinals fans to watch their team struggle, but the recent run of losses seemingly night after night could help the team develop the mental and emotional toughness it will need to make a run at the 2013 World Series championship.

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Extra rest might have helped Yadier Molina, definitely benefitted Shelby Miller

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has taken plenty of criticism in the past week for possibly playing catcher Yadier Molina so much that he eventually succumbed to a knee injury and a trip to the disabled list Tuesday, but Matheny made an equally smart move by resting one of the team’s other top players.

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Right-handed rookie starting pitcher Shelby Miller won the fifth spot in the rotation in spring training and pitched brilliantly for much of the first half of the season, but the 22-year-old’s performance began to drop in mid-June.

Miller started the season 7-3 with a 1.91 earned-run average through his first 12 starts, but he went 3-3 in his final seven starts of the first half, giving up three or more runs five times in that stretch.

Matheny indicated in late-June he would keep Miller on his regular schedule despite the rookie’s obvious struggles with command and ability to work deep into games.

Miller’s ERA jumped to 2.92 by the all-star break, but Matheny’s actions spoke louder than his words as he shifted the rotation to have Adam Wainwright work the final game before the all-star break instead of Miller.

That gave Miller an extra two days of rest between his last two starts of the first half and another 12 days off before he made his first start of the second half.

And Miller looked much more similar to the pitcher who started the season by giving up more than two runs just once in his first eight starts. Miller allowed no runs and three hits while walking one hitter and striking out six Philadelphia Phillies on July 23 to kick off his second half of the season.

He struck out six more hitters through 5.2 innings in his next start July 28 in a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, although Miller gave up just two earned runs, and he struck out eight Cincinnati Reds hitters in five innings Friday while allowing three runs as the Cardinals pounded the Reds 13-3.

Similar to Lance Lynn the year before, Miller hit a wall toward the end of the first half and needed the breaks during the first half of July to rejuvenate him for the pennant chase.

Miller is a pitcher who relies heavily on his fastball, and he doesn’t leave much room for error when that pitch doesn’t have its typical movement and explosiveness.

Miller threw 69 four-seam fastballs, 46 of them strikes, out of his 97-pitch total Friday against the Reds. That means Miller brought the heat 71-percent of the time, which is nearly exactly his average for the season. He will mix in a curveball and change-up in about one-quarter of his pitches, but Miller lives and dies by the fastball at this point in his career.

Of course, Miller also continues to learn at the major-league level and is becoming a smarter pitcher as the season progresses. He has begun to use his off-speed pitches more effectively in recent starts.

To that point, batters have swung and missed on Miller’s off-speed pitches more in his last two starts (eight times) than they did in his previous four starts (six whiffs) combined.

Matheny will have to closely monitor Miller’s workload through the rest of the season to make sure he doesn’t start to fall apart as he did approaching the all-star break because, as Molina sits on the disabled list with a sprained right knee, Miller has shown how much a little extra rest from time to time can help a player throughout the course of the long regular season.

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St. Louis Cardinals have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

The St. Louis Cardinals landed Friday in Atlanta ready to begin an 11-game, 10-day road trip against three of the best teams in the National League with the best record in Major League Baseball. They had a lead in the NL Central and the best hitter in the league.

YadierMolinaSafe

A week later, the Cardinals have yet to win another game, the Pittsburgh Pirates have passed them for the division lead, and catcher Yadier Molina is on the disabled list with a knee injury.

The Cardinals haven’t had many bad weeks in 2013, but this past week has been about as bad of a week as anyone could imagine.

The Atlanta Braves swept the Cardinals in a three-game series through the weekend, and the Pirates won four games in three days to take a 2.5-game lead in the division heading into play Wednesday. Now the Cardinals get the joy of facing the Cincinnati Reds for three games in Cincinnati.

Much of the problem has been the shutdown of the most productive offense in the game.

The Cardinals still lead the National League with a .271 team batting average and continue to lead baseball by an incredibly large .040 margin with a team batting average of .334 with runners in scoring position.

However, they have not scored more than two runs in six of their last seven games to go with a .158 batting average in the last week. Plus, they will be without Molina and his .330 batting average for at least the next 15 days.

Granted, those are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad numbers, but the Cardinals do have a legitimate excuse based on the pitchers they have faced in those seven games.

Braves starters Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen have a combined earned-run average of 3.23, while the first four starters the Pirates threw against the Cardinals have a combined 2.49 ERA.

Those pitchers are going to shut down just about any team more often than not, and they put Cardinals hitters in their first slump of the season.

This won’t continue, of course. The Cardinals’ overall season numbers are some of the best in baseball for a reason. Just as the hot streak has mellowed (OK, plummeted), into a slump, the hitters will return to form before long.

If nothing else, Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati is a good hitters park, even though the Cardinals are scheduled to face Bronson Arroyo, Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake, who have a combined 23-13 record with a 2.92 ERA.

The schedule also doesn’t get easier after the road trip is complete, as the Los Angeles Dodgers come to St. Louis for a four-game series next week.

This is quite a test, especially with Molina on the disabled list, but the rough stretch could pay dividends later in the season and the playoffs.

The crowds in Atlanta and Pittsburgh were the most electric of any fan bases the Cardinals have played in front of this season outside of St. Louis, and it is important for the team’s large group of young players to play in that type of environment.

A 95-mph fastball and sharp breaking pitch are great pitches at any time, but men who throw those pitches are rarely as consistent, especially when they feel the pressure of an important game.

Right now it is easy to look at the Cardinals situation as if the proverbial glass is half empty, but the team was unlikely to succeed in the playoffs if it cruised through the entire regular season without a hiccup at some point.

Sure, the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics took five of six games from the Cardinals in late June, but the Braves, Pirates and Reds are the teams the Cardinals will likely face in the playoffs.

In any case, it is better to lose those games in July instead of October.

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