The Gas Bill Gang

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs
They called Brooks Robinson at third The Hoover? They ought to call the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong at second the Electrolux.

It’s tempting to say don’t look now, but it’s hard to resist more than a look. While the Cubs took advantage of Yu Darvish’s almost unblemished start and the continuing slumber of most Mets bats Tuesday night, the Cardinals continued their takeover of the National League Central.

Not even a slightly odd seventh-inning rain delay in Miller Park could interrupt them. It took nine minutes and at least one playing of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic “Who’ll Stop the Rain” before the park’s crew got the roof closed.

It took another two and a third innings for the Cardinals to finish their 6-3 win over the Brewers, the final blow coming when Cardinals right fielder Dexter Fowler took a likely two-run homer away from Brewers late first base insertion Hernan Perez for the last out.

The Cardinals will take their wins any way they can get them. They’ve been getting a lot of them lately. They’ve overtaken the Mets with a 29-14 second half as far as that goes. They’ve shaken away their own 22-31 two-month spread over June and July.

And if you thought last year’s edition wasn’t exactly crawling with star power, this year’s could make last year’s look like the red carpet at the Oscars. The Retiring Redbirds. The Unknown Soldiers. The Gas Bill Gang. You choose.

On Tuesday night the prime damage was done by aging catching mainstay Yadier Molina, sure, but considering he took six multi-home run games into the game with three of them happening in Miller Park, maybe the least surprising thing was Molina going long twice, a one-out solo in the fifth and a two-run shot off the left field foul pole in the seventh, two hitters before the odd rain delay.

“Everyone knows this is a good hitter’s park,” said the Cardinals’ grand old man after the game. “With the background, you see the ball pretty well here. I feel good hitting here.” He wasn’t the only one Tuesday night.

Maybe the strangest part of the Cardinals’ run is that the star they did import last offseason, Paul Goldschmidt, isn’t even one of their top three players on the season to date. He hasn’t been terrible, by any means, not with 29 home runs and an .801 OPS, but neither has he been the player who averaged 6.1 wins above replacement-level in 2017-2018 and finished sixth in last year’s Most Valuable Player voting.

Who’d have thought they’d awaken Wednesday morning to see second baseman Kolten Wong leading the Cardinals with 4.0 WAR, shortstop Paul DeJong right behind him with 3.7, pitcher Jack Flaherty with 3.4, and left fielder Marcel Ozuna with 2.4, right ahead of Goldschmidt’s 2.3?

Baseball Reference‘s WAR definition puts Wong a little past the middle between a qualified starting lineup player and an All-Star. DeJong was the Cardinals’ only All-Star this year. Goldschmidt missed out after six straight selections. And Matt Carpenter still  hasn’t become the bona-fide star he looked to be in the making when he finished sixth in the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year vote and fourth in the next season’s MVP vote.

These are definitely not the heirs to such star-striking Redbird teams past as those of the Rajah, Dizzy and the Gas Housemen, Stan the Man, Hoot Gibson and El Birdos (import star Orlando Cepeda hung that one on them in 1967-68), the Wizard of Oz and the Runnin’ Redbirds, or El Hombre.

And after the Dodgers humiliated them in an early-August sweep that kept them to two runs in three games, leaving them three and a half out in the Central, you could have been forgiven if even the most stubborn of Cardinal Country nationalists were ready to prepare for the season’s funeral.

But they’ve won fifteen out of eighteen since, including Tuesday night making for a six-game winning streak.

They’re getting the kind of second base defense from Wong that they got in ancient times from the late Red Schoendienst and better, Wong leading every second baseman in the Show through this writing with +14 defensive runs saved and nobody else at the position showing better than +6. They used to call Brooks Robinson the Hoover at third base? They ought to call Wong the Electrolux at second.

They’re finally getting the Cy Young Award-level performance expected of Jack Flaherty, even if his rocky first half won’t put him in the award conversation at season’s end. He’s had an 0.80 earned run average in his last nine starts (five runs in 56 1/3 innings, ladies and gentlemanpersons) and the slash line against him (.144/.221/.222) makes Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle.

And while it seems everyone else’s bullpen has added arson to injuries, the Cardinals’ bullpen snuck in through the service entrance to sport the Show’s second-best bullpen ERA (3.64) behind the Indians’, and the Tribal pen hasn’t been a model of consistency of late. And this was despite Jordan Hicks going down for the count and the season in late June with an elbow demanding Tommy John surgery.

You want to talk about star power or the lack thereof? Once upon a time there were Hornsby, Dean, Harry Brecheen, Gibson, Steve Carlton, and the injury-compromised John Tudor on the mound. Not to mention men like Lindy McDaniel, Bruce Sutter, and Lee Smith out of the bullpen. Flaherty hasn’t established his star power yet. But Giovanny Gallegos makes him look positively charismatic by comparison.

Gallegos is the reason everybody thought the Yankees fleeced the Cardinals in the dead of broad daylight in the Luke Voit deal. But with Hicks gone until some time in 2020, Gallegos is the Cardinals’ stealth bullpen bull. He’s doing what the Cardinals hoped Andrew Miller, a free agency signing over the winter, might revive enough to do once more.

He may have been pried for a run Tuesday night, surrendering a leadoff single to Perez in the eighth before his successor, Miller, let Perez home on a two-run homer (Yasmani Grandal), but he has a 2.07 ERA with 80 punchouts in 61 innings. And his slider does now what Miller’s used to do: enemy batters hit only .133 with a 43 percent strikeout rate when he goes to it.

Gallegos could be called one of the Cardinals’ Little Big Three out of the pen. There’s John Brebia with his 2.94 ERA and 2.91 fielding-independent pitching rate, not to mention 78 punchouts in 64 innings. And there’s John Gant, whose 2.97 ERA is a little deceptive against his 3.60 FIP, but Gant seems to pitch to his defense as much as anything else, which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.

At least there isn’t anyone out of the Cardinals’ pen who’s liable to make a postseason game resemble a Craig Kimbrel appearance from last fall—yet. They won’t be keeping the crash carts and ambulances on call when these guys come out of the pen. Even Miller, who’s having his ups and downs this year after looking like something resembling his old self in the final third of last year, still has 11.9 strikeout per nine and a respectable if unspectacular 2.5 K/BB rate.

Let’s be fair. The Cardinals came back from three and a half down after that Dodger sweep to three games up in the NL Central with a little help from their fiends—er, friends. Nothing wrong with that, but discredit where due.

The Cubs have three times the star power but they’re only five games over .500 since the All-Star break and fighting for . . . the second National League wild card. They now hold a two-game edge over the Phillies and three over the Mets, and the Phillies and the Mets are showing their vulnerabilities again.

The Phillies’ pitching woes keep betraying their offense; the Mets’ offensive woes, which boil down to nobody else stepping up consistently anymore to support Pete Alonso (who smashed the team’s single-season home run record Tuesday night with number 42) and, lately, a surprising Wilson Ramos (the rockpiling catcher has a 20-game hitting streak as of this morning), hold hands with their continuing bullpen problems to betray their mostly stellar starting pitching.

The Brewers have been done in by pitching that can be called broken, underachieving, spent, or all the above. It’s reasonable now to call the Brewers Christian Yelich and a cast of several. It’s also reasonable to ask how long they can survive with a middle infield (second baseman Keston Hiura, shortstop Orlando Arcia) that could be tried by jury for treason, as good as they are turning double plays: together they’re -9 defensive runs saved this year.

But none of that help would amount to anything if the Cardinals weren’t grateful recipients. Until they hit the 15-3 run they’re on now, their postseason odds at all were a somewhat generous 25 percent. As of this morning, their postseason odds overall are 86 percent, and they have a 57 percent chance of winning the NL Central as compared to 10.5 percent before the current run.

Ladies and gentlemanpersons, catch the paper stars. Meet your Retiring Redbirds. Your Unknown Soldiers. Your St. Louis Swiffers. Your Gas Bill Gang. Take your pick. Baseball’s cliches include the name on the front of the uniform out-ranking the name on the back. But these Cardinals may be taking that to the opposite extreme.

Don’t be shocked if their postseason breakout becomes someone we haven’t even discussed here. These Unknown Redbirds seem capable of the most unheard-of things anyone ever heard of. Come to think of it, and even with Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa, that’s practically how they won their last World Series rings eight years ago.

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