McNeal: Keys to a week of Cardinals games vs. NL Central rivals
JUL 07, 2014 10:49a ET
ST. LOUIS -- Six days ago, after the Cardinals' lumber slumber in Los Angeles, their season appeared poised to plummet. Then they won two in San Francisco and a third straight at home and maybe, you think, they're ready to turn that elusive corner.
Of course, they followed that by blowing a 5-1 lead to the Marlins one day and scoring one run against Henderson Alvarez the next. At that point, Mike Matheny's team-defining quote is looking spot on: "We're just going to grind. That's the kind of team we're going to have to be."
Matheny said that nearly a month ago when the Cardinals were two games over .500. They've grinded their way to five games over since then, with a high mark of seven over.
Now they're a week from the All-Star break looking up at both the surging Pirates and first-place Brewers in the NL Central. As if they need a little extra incentive before their four-day holiday, the Cardinals will get a crack at both teams this week. The Pirates, who are a majors-best 29-15 since May 20, open a four-game series at Busch on Monday night before the Cardinals visit Milwaukee this weekend.
With so much season left, the next seven games aren't likely to make or break anyone's season. But they should let the Cardinals know how they stack up against two teams with playoff hopes as legitimate as their own.
Here are three keys that will help determine just how pleasant an All-Star break the Cardinals have:
Make no mistake how important starting in the All-Star Game would be to the Cardinals' ace. "Another notch on the belt, right" he told me Sunday. Wainwright had numbers worthy of starting in 2010 and 2013 but lost out to a pitcher who was either hotter or pitching at his home park. This time Wainwright's manager is making the decision, and given the number of times Matheny has called him the "best pitcher in the game" or something along those lines, Wainwright has no reason to worry. Given his 11-3 record and 1.89 ERA, he shouldn't.
But Wainwright said exactly the right thing on ESPN's All-Star Show on Sunday night. Asked if he would be making a pitch to Matheny to start in Minneapolis, Wainwright replied the best pitch he could make would be in his next two starts. Two division foes, two important games, he said. Wainwright goes Monday against the Pirates, who have eight hits and two runs off him in 15 innings this season, and Saturday he starts at Milwaukee, a team he hasn't faced this season.
With three of the Cardinals' other starters struggling to last five innings, having Wainwright for two starts this week should be comforting to Matheny. The manager admitted Sunday that his bullpen is feeling the extra load. With Trevor Rosenthal among the relievers thought to be off limits Sunday, Matheny said it would have been "interesting" if the Cardinals somehow had tied the Marlins in the ninth and the bullpen would have had to handle extra innings.
If the decision were mine, Wainwright also would start the first game out of the break, July 18 at home against the Dodgers. He still would get six days between starts, minus the inning he works in the July 15 All-Star Game. The more he is on the mound these days, the better for the Cardinals. If his elbow barks, it's on him to tell the club. He did so last month and after skipping a turn he came back with two strong outings and said his elbow feels strong.
Oscar Taveras and Pittsburgh's Gregory Polanco both are 22, hail from the Dominican Republic, play right field, throw and bat left-handed and ranked among MLB's top 10 prospects before the season. But their big-league careers have started quite differently.
Taveras arrived in the majors first, on May 31, but was sent down for a couple of weeks before being called back up last Monday. The way Polanco has played since his long-awaited promotion June 10, he's not likely to see the minors again. The Pirates have gone 17-8 since his arrival and he's played in every game.
After opening with an 11-game hitting streak during which he hit .365, Polanco has slowed a bit. Still, already entrenched in the leadoff role, he is hitting .287/.379/.396 in 117 plate appearances with three homers and 20 runs. In his fifth game, he went 5 for 7 with a game-winning homer in the 13th inning.
After 16 games for Taveras, he's still seeking his first multi-hit contest. In about half as many plate appearances as Polanco so far (59), Taveras is hitting .182/.220/.291 with one homer and four RBI. While he has made his share of hard outs, he hasn't provided the offensive boost the Cardinals need. This week would be an opportune time to start changing that.
Taveras' recall has added intrigue to the daily wait for the Cardinals' lineup. With Matt Adams hitting so well, he will be hard to take off first base, leaving Matheny with five outfield candidates for the three spots: Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Taveras and Peter Bourjos.
Matheny has tried for the more offensive look by putting Taveras in center between Holliday and Craig. That hurt the Cardinals on Sunday when Taveras did not catch a leadoff single that Bourjos probably could have gotten. Matheny also has gone with Bourjos and Jay in the same lineup for a more defensive focus.
He is likely to keep going with his best offensive options but the problem is, his four mainstays all are coming off lousy weeks. Holliday went 4 for 16, Jay 3 for 16, Taveras 3 for 18 and Craig 2 for 16 with the only home run among the group. Meanwhile, odd man out Bourjos was 3 for 7, including two hits Sunday when he subbed for Holliday after the Marlins took an 8-1 lead. That Holliday, considered the one fixture among the group, is playing with a bruised knee further complicates the picture.
If Matheny bases playing time on lefty-righty splits, Craig could be sitting a lot this week. The Cardinals are lined up to face only right-handed starters against both clubs, and Craig really has struggled against righties. Of his seven homers, three have come in 87 plate appearances against lefties, compared with four in 274 versus right-handers.