After bumpy 1st half, Cards find momentum ahead of break

July 9th, 2023

CHICAGO -- The first half of the season hasn’t gone according to plan for the Cardinals.

After beating the White Sox, 4-3, in 10 innings on Sunday afternoon at Guaranteed Rate Field, St. Louis will ride back-to-back victories into the All-Star break. It’s momentum the club will surely need to carry into the second half.

“Just building off a win like today [and] understanding that we can still come back,” Paul DeJong said of the team's second-half approach. “I think our offense has been pretty steady. So for us to be able to pick up our pitchers and just continue to focus on little things like defense and not giving them extra outs or bases. I think that’ll be the key for us to maintain a solid chance to win each game.”

The Cardinals ended the first half 14 games under. 500 (38-52), and their .422 win percentage is their lowest entering the Midsummer Classic since 1990. That St. Louis team had a 35-48 record at the All-Star break.

So, what has gone wrong for the Cardinals this season?

Starting pitching
The Cardinals' rotation has not been consistent this year. The starters’ 4.74 ERA ranks 25th in the Majors and third worst in the National League.

Among the starters, only Jordan Montgomery (3.23) will end the first half with an ERA under 4.20. Jack Flaherty (4.27), Miles Mikolas (4.23), and (4.65) all fall above that mark.

But there’s optimism that this unit will turn it around in the second half.

Following Matz’s stellar outing on Sunday -- his first start since May 24 following a long bullpen stint -- St. Louis’ rotation enters the break on a high. The southpaw gave up one unearned run on two hits with a season-high nine strikeouts across 5 1/3 innings.

“He pitched with a little bit of edge today,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “We saw a very convicted Matz, and it plays. That was fun to watch.”

The left-hander’s start on Sunday caps off an impressive four straight outings from the rotation. Flaherty, Montgomery, Mikolas and now Matz have allowed just one combined earned run across 23 1/3 innings to end the first half.

“It gives you hope in thinking what’s possible if they continue to pitch that way,” Marmol said. “That’s what you expect out of them, and they’ve done a really nice job the last time through [the order].”

The Cardinals' defense hasn’t been up to standards this season, even in Sunday’s win.

In the third inning, Paul Goldschmidt couldn’t field a grounder, and then Willson Contreras threw a ball into center field on an attempted caught stealing. That runner eventually advanced to third and scored. Another bobble by Nolan Gorman in the seventh capped off a big defensive moment. With the bases loaded, Gorman's error allowed the tying run to score.

The Cardinals entered Sunday ranking 24th in the Majors with -17 defensive runs scored, according to FanGraphs. Last year, they finished sixth with 39 DRS.

Those defensive miscues are what Marmol wants the team to clean up in the second half.

“There's points of each month where [the] defense wasn’t where it needed to be,” Marmol said. “Whether that was some non-plays by guys that normally perform just fine and personnel of not having certain guys in the outfield that should be in the outfield.”

The bullpen has arguably been the team’s biggest kryptonite this season. They entered the day with a 4.55 ERA, 25th in the Majors and third worst in the NL. 

As a unit, they’ve blown a league-leading 21 saves in 2023. But the bullpen stepped up when it mattered most in Sunday’s victory. JoJo Romero threw two scoreless innings with three strikeouts across the ninth and 10th to earn his first Major League victory. 

The Cardinals will need similarly secure production late in games in the second half. 

“JoJo was really good,” Marmol said. “This guy’s got real stuff. And when he gets out there with conviction, it’s a pretty special arm.”

That type of bullpen consistency, as well as steady play from the rotation and defense, is crucial over the team's final 72 games. 

“I think it’s good to go on a break feeling good and come off a win,” Matz said. “Obviously, the first half hasn’t gone as we wanted it to go. But we got some momentum going forward. It’s definitely a positive thing.”