If you think the Reds are chasing the Milwaukee Brewers, think again. The Brew Crew are merely keeping the top spot warm for whomever can pick up the pieces of a broken season, either St. Louis or Cincinnati.
Everyone with an opinion has given the division to the Cardinals. They were a club that barely had a weakness—that one chink in the armor being at shortstop. They quickly solved that by hammering out a contract with Jhonny Peralta over the off season.
As good as the Cardinals most certainly are on paper, I believed then and still do now that there were more than a couple of question marks that had to be answered before the Reds should start planning on a wild card game come October. One, St. Louis hit a mind-boggling .330 with RISP last year, almost 40 points higher than the next best hitting team, the Detroit Tigers. That was simply unsustainable. And indeed, the Cardinals have come crashing back to earth, hitting a meager .235 with RISP. Two, the starting pitching is very young. While you can count on Adam Wainwright to be mowing batters down in September, who knows how some of these younger guys will perform at they approach 200 innings.
The Cardinals were hovering around .500 ten games ago. Since then, they have gone 8-2 and appear to have righted their ship somewhat and sit at 26-21. The Cardinals began the season with a lopsided schedule, playing 26 of their first 38 on the road. However, they are now in a 22 game stretch where they will play 19 at home, this weekend being the only games on the road.
The Starting Lineup
Peralta has been everything the Cardinals could have hoped for so far. With 9 HRs and a .342 OBP, he more than fills the black hole that shortstop was last season. However, Matt Carpenter has discovered that hitting is not as easy as he made it look last season. Carpenter put up near MVP-type numbers in 2013 and posted a wRC+ of 146. This year, he is barely league average. It’s also been a brutal start for Allen Craig. A .300 hitter each of the last two seasons, with a penchant for getting on base and hitting phenomenally well with RISP, Craig is now batting .239, with an OBP under .300. His wRC+ numbers—which were 138 and 135 the last two years—sits at a dismal 86 today. Kolten Wong doesn’t get on base or hit for power—a bad combination. The outfield doesn’t hit and swapping Peter Bourjos for Carlos Beltran has been a huge negative.
As a team, the Cardinals didn’t hit a lot of home runs, and this year nothing has changed. Matt Holiday has two home runs so far in 2014. Last year they feasted on pitchers because of their collective ability to get on base and pass the baton to the next hitter, who put the ball in play, usually with good results. It’s been a struggle thus far. Yadier Molina is mashing, as usual, and Matt Adams has made the front office look smart for finding a way to get him into the lineup.
The Starting Pitching
Like the Reds, St. Louis is surviving because of their starting pitching, which sports a sparkling 2.89 ERA, second in the NL to the Braves. Their top three starters rank among the 17 best starters in the league.
Shelby Miller has had control issues this season, making him less effective than he has been in the past. Like Homer Bailey, Lance Lynn has succumbed to big innings, although the Reds won’t get a chance to test that weakness this series.
Jaime Garcia is just back after a year away from the game rehabbing from shoulder surgery. In his first start against the Braves last weekend, he gave up four runs, but gave the Cardinals 7 innings, striking out five. Garcia, like Wacha—who the Reds will miss this weekend—is tough on the Reds, owning a 3.18 ERA over 15 starts. Still, he should be a work in progress as he attempts to regain his old form.
St. Louis has the third best bullpen in the National League (1.4 WAR) to go along with a dominant starting staff. Their bullpen gives them a huge advantage this weekend. Jason Motte has just returned from the DL. Carlos Martinez, Pat Neshek, Kevin Siegrist, Trevor Rosenthal and Randy Choate carry the bulk of the load for the Cardinals.
Do the Reds need to take this series? Obviously not. It’s still May after all. Missing their best player, their ace not pitching in the series and their best slugger not having swung a bat competitively in weeks, this is not the optimum time to see the Cardinals at GABP. However the Reds need to begin beating the St. Louis Cardinals, not just because of the standings and not just to show the Birds that they can–but more importantly to show themselves they can.