Things are not going well in St. Louis these days:
How to watch a Cardinals game— Carly Schaber (@Carly_Schaber) June 8, 2017
Step one: pic.twitter.com/c7AIhtaucC
The Cincinnati Reds rallied for five runs in the seventh inning -- four of those coming off Brett Cecil -- to grab a 6-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards have lost six in row and 16 of 21 and have fallen five games under .500. Wednesday's was the 14th loss they've suffered after leading by two or more runs; no other team has more than 10 such losses.
For a franchise that has had nine consecutive winning seasons and just one losing season in the past 17, this isn't going over well. The fans are frustrated, and when I asked on Twitter if it's time to start a Mike Matheny Watch, the overwhelming response was "yes."
Some of the feedback:
"Not because they're losing -- but because they're lackadaisical, careless, and appear to have no accountability -- and have been for 2 years."
"Do me a favor and keep talking about it, though. MAYBE, just maybe they'll cave to the negative PR."
"The worst move MO has made as GM was extending Matheny. Cards have other issues but MM is near the top of the issue list."
"They'll never fire him unfortunately."
Firing Matheny has been a hot topic on Cardinals Twitter -- and not just this season. He has long been criticized for his strategic moves and bullpen usage, and his decision on Tuesday to challenge an incorrect call on a sacrifice fly (Stephen Piscotty caught the ball off the wall) initially nullified a run, only to backfire when the batter then walked and Scooter Gennett followed with a grand slam.
On Wednesday, Lance Lynn wasn't happy about being lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the sixth with just 78 pitches on his ledger:
Lance Lynn, on being pulled for PH in 6th: "I was expecting to get that at-bat and pitch deep in the game." There was no injury issue.— Jenifer Langosch (@LangoschMLB) June 8, 2017
The move actually worked, as Dexter Fowler doubled in a run for a 4-1 lead. But it also meant leaning on four innings from the bullpen the night after Adam Wainwright went just 3 2/3 innings (though none of the top relievers was used Tuesday). Lynn threw 123 pitches a few starts ago, so it isn't like he's on a strict limit. Sabermetricians would probably agree with Matheny on this one, but it doesn't sound like he'd be doing himself any favors in the clubhouse.
Unlike for some struggling teams, injuries aren't really an excuse for the Cardinals; they've used five starting pitchers all season. The offense has struggled, as the Cards have hit .228/.294/.352 and averaged just 3.1 runs per game during this 21-game stretch. That isn't Matheny's fault. And it's important to remember that the Cubs went 5-15 during one stretch last season. Maybe this is just a cold spell for the Cardinals. Or maybe it's the beginning of the end of Matheny's tenure as manager.
Trey Mancini hits two to Moon River: Mancini probably didn't expect this when his name wasn't on the lineup card for the Orioles:
He became the first player since Brian McCann in 2011 (and the first Orioles player) to come off the bench and hit a game-tying home run in the ninth and a walk-off home run in extra innings.
The Smoak monster lives: Justin Smoak was a first-round pick and a top prospect and was once traded for in-his-prime Cliff Lee. He never did much in Seattle, where he was the king of the warning-track fly ball. He wasn't great in two seasons with Toronto, hitting .226 and .217 with not enough power to prop up his value, and many were surprised when the Blue Jays brought him back:
Dear Justin Smoak,— Brendan Panikkar (@Panikkar37) June 7, 2017
We're all sorry.
Signed, #BlueJays Fanbase
It's hard to blame the fans. Smoak entered 2017 with a career value of 1.5 WAR, which means he has been a replacement-level player. He had nearly 3,000 career plate appearances with an adjusted OPS of 95 -- less than that of a league-average hitter. It's very unusual for a first baseman with such a mediocre track record of hitting to keep getting chances. In fact, since 1950, only two players who were primarily first basemen batted at least 2,000 times with a lower OPS+ (Casey Kotchman and Eddie Waitkus).
But this is baseball, so here's Smoak with 17 home runs, tied for second in the majors. He belted two in the Jays' 7-5 win in 10 innings over the A's. He and Josh Donaldson both connected in the 10th off Frankie Montas. Smoak is hitting .291/.353/.597. What's going on with this game?
The first trend is obvious: Smoak has dropped his strikeout rate from 32.8 percent to 17.9 percent. To be fair, that 2016 rate was an outlier, as his career rate is 23.5 percent; still, he's whiffing less than ever. The second trend is ... well, there is nothing obvious here. His exit velocity isn't higher, his overall swing rate is the same (he's just missing less often), he's actually hitting more grounders this season than last. It simply seems that some of those warning-track fly balls are now leaving the park.
Here are Smoak's rankings among AL first basemen:
AVG: .291 (second)
HR: 17 (first)
RBI: 42 (first)
OBP: .353 (fifth)
SLG: .597 (second)
WAR: 1.5 (second)
Sounds like an All-Star candidate, but it might be hard to squeeze him onto the team. Miguel Cabrera leads the fan voting. The players pick the backup, which could be Smoak but will probably be somebody else. Say it's Jose Abreu. Yonder Alonso might be the best candidate from the A's, and there won't be room for a fourth first baseman.
Strasburg versus Kershaw: In a day game at Dodger Stadium, the Stephen Strasburg-Clayton Kershaw matchup lived up to the hype ... sort of. Kershaw gave up three hits and one run in seven innings -- Ryan Zimmerman's second-inning home run -- while Strasburg allowed three hits and two runs (one earned) in six innings. Both were great. Kershaw, however, was out after 95 pitches, and Strasburg was out after 104. Neither made it to the eighth inning. Maybe this is what qualifies as a pitching duel these days, but I'd like to see both guys go deeper before labeling it a great duel. Now, get off my lawn!
FYI: Note that Kershaw is having a bit of a home run issue. He has already given up 12 in 90 innings; his career season high is 16. Also, you can't fault Dave Roberts in one regard, as he used Kenley Jansen for a four-out save. Jansen has 41 strikeouts and ZERO walks this season. How has he given up four runs?
Kyle Schwarber hates singles: This is a fascinating nugget:
Kyle Schwarber's 3rd inning double: his first hit that wasn't a Home Run since May 17th. #Cubs— Christopher Kamka (@ckamka) June 8, 2017
Schwarber later added a home run and another double, though the Marlins won 6-5 as John Lackey struggled again. Schwarber's average rocketed all the way up to ... .175. Since that single on May 17, Schwarber is 6-for-45 with four home runs and two doubles -- a .133 average. Home runs, launch angles and fly balls are nice and all that, but it might be wise to mix in a single every now and then.