The St. Louis Cardinals have finally started to make a little bit of a push up the National League standings following the All-Star Game break.
I took a bit of heat a couple of weeks ago when I suggested that if the Cardinals were going to improve, they needed to find some inspiration and instigation from the bench. But that seems to be exactly what the difference is between this team today and the club a month ago. Where Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong and Harrison Bader have faltered, Tyler O’Neill, Tommy Edman and Yairo Munoz have found opportunity.
Munoz and O’Neil played key roles Sunday in a game the Cardinals couldn’t afford to lose against the Cincinnati Reds. O’Neill collected the first hit and the first run after getting in scoring position while swiping second base. When Munoz hit a leadoff triple and Bader couldn’t drive him home in the late innings of tight game, Munoz finished the job himself his next trip to the plate, clearing the boards for an all important insurance run. Up to .306 for the season, Munoz has batted a consistent .308 over the past two weeks, playing where he’s needed and when he is needed.
O’Neill, criticized by some Cardinals fans as the ubiquitous “Class AAAA player” because he didn’t find any traction in spotty opportunities at the beginning of the season, got his average up to .301 for the year by hitting a cool .351 over the past two weeks with four home runs. Yeah, he still strikes out more than we’d like. But who doesn’t these days? Where would the Cardinals be without the 10 runs he’s scored and the 12 he has driven in over the past two weeks of games? While he’s often compared to Randal Grichuk, a talented player who didn’t realize his maximum capability during his stay in St. Louis, I really like what I see from O’Neil. He seems like he has more power potential than Grichuk and I see upside in his ability to get on base and score runs because he’s so raw in his abilities, yet he seems eager to learn and get better.
Edman hasn’t put up eye-popping overall statistics. But he’s obviously got a knack for collecting hits when the game is on the line with seven runs scored and 12 RBIs over the past two weeks. Hopefully, as he gets his feet under him a little bit, Edman will continue to improve in batting average and on-base percentage. But I would take a .260 average if he keeps collecting go-ahead hits.
I’m not sure why, but Wong seems to have found his way in the doghouse again. He didn’t start two of the past three games, earning some ink by complaining about not being in the lineup card to the skipper a few days ago. I wonder if it was the skipper or the player who mentioned it to the media that Wong was miffed about being left out. As often is the case with him, Wong seems to have responded to the threat to his job. Although he has played less the last couple of weeks than he would have liked, he’s hit .342 over that span. That’s after hitting .244 over the first half of the season. Hopefully Edman and Munoz, both capable second basemen, will keep Wong on his toes while also contributing from third base and center field, where their help can be used.
Internal competition helps everyone by keeping players hungry and aggressive. There is really no downside to having semi-regulars on the bench because, due to the versatility of the roster, there are plenty of opportunities to get everyone involved on a regular basis.
What to do with Harrison Bader
Bader went hitless in four trips to the plate Sunday and dropped his average to .203 for the season. It’s a shame that he’s struggled so much because he looked so good last year when he finally got a chance to play regularly. Unfortunately for him, there is no shortage in the St. Louis system of players capable of playing center field. If Bader can’t get his act together, O’Neill, Edman, Dexter Fowler, Lane Thomas and Randy Arozarena are all capable of handling the defensive requirements of the position. Munoz is better in the infield, but he could play there in a pinch.
I’m not sure how long it’s going to be until Marcell Ozuna returns from fracturing his fingers. But, when he does, it might do Bader some good to go to class AAA Memphis to try to regain his confidence and his hitting stroke. I always hate to see a player who has waited so long for a chance to have to take a step back. But, when Ozuna returns, he’s going to start in left. If he’s still hitting, O’Neill would likely start in center and if he isn’t Fowler would probably play there. Right field will be filled by a player who is providing more offense than Bader, Fowler if O’Neill is in Center and Jose Martinez if Fowler plays in the middle.
St. Louis must beat up on Pittsburgh
After taking three of four games against the poor Reds, the Cardinals will take on the Pittsburgh Pirates next and they have to take advantage of playing against another weak team. The Pirates are 46-52 on the year but St. Louis is only 5-4 against them in 2019. And, so far this season, the Birds have been a much better team at home than on the road, and this series is going to be played at PNC Park.
Trevor Williams and his earned run average of 5.17 await the Cardinals. Usually facing crummy pitching is poison to the Cardinals. But they have to take advantage of this matchup because Munoz hits him at a .500 clip, Wong and Goldschmidt are hitting .455 against him, Paul DeJong is hitting .375 and Dexter Fowler is hitting .308. Still, St. Louis can’t take Williams likely because he held them to one run over seven innings when he faced the Cardinals in May. It would be nice if the Birds could get off to a good start and heat up the bats because, while they have won six of their last eight, the Cardinals are still struggling to collect a hit an inning, so there is a lot of room for improvement.