What we learned from Cardinals' season-opening road trip

April 4th, 2024

SAN DIEGO -- The Cardinals headed back to St. Louis late on Wednesday for Thursday’s much-anticipated home opener with a 3-4 record in tow. While it wasn’t quite what they wanted after missing out on a chance to sweep the Padres, it’s still a respectable mark considering the level of their competition to open the season.

The Cardinals fell, 3-2, on Wednesday when left-hander Zack Thompson’s wildness came back to bite him, and they hit into some bad luck with several double plays.

Still, manager Oliver Marmol sees plenty of promise in his squad in the season ahead as the Cards attempt to return to relevance in 2024.

“I love this bunch, and we’re in a good spot in a lot of different areas,” Marmol said. “We’re taking pride in our defense and how we’re running the bases. Those little things add up over 162 [games], and our guys are locked in on them.”

Here are three things that the Cardinals showed on their highly difficult seven-game road trip.

Despite some wobbles, the starting staff has shown some grit
The season certainly didn’t start the way the Cardinals wanted what with Miles Mikolas and Thompson combining for 10 earned runs and five homers in two lopsided losses, but the star-studded Dodgers are going to do that to a lot of pitchers this season with their MVP trio of Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman.

Things changed, however, in the first inning of the third game of the season when 36-year-old right-hander Lance Lynn worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam with three straight strikeouts. If the Cardinals didn’t know already that things would be different this season with their pitching staff, they heard it when the fiery Lynn screamed toward the dugout.

From that point, the Cardinals got strong work from Lynn and Steven Matz and consecutive quality starts from Kyle Gibson and Mikolas in stirring victories over the Padres.

“With what Gibby did, that’s the biggest start of the year so far because he ate up all of those innings [on Monday] to give our bullpen some life back,” raved Mikolas, who was stellar on Tuesday. “For me to get six out of [Tuesday’s start], that’s big for our bullpen, too. One of the things that our rotation is going to be good at is keeping the bullpen fresh and being able to eat up innings. We saw the effect of it [on Tuesday] when the bullpen came in fresh and locked that win down.”

The Cards have held their own even though Sonny Gray, who signed a three-year, $75 million contract over the offseason, likely won’t make his Cards debut until mid-April at the earliest.

The defense is dramatically improved
While the woeful starting pitching was certainly a primary reason for the team's woes in 2023, lagging defense also was a contributing factor. To that end, the Cards made defense a top priority this offseason, and the results so far have been highly encouraging. The Cardinals went into Wednesday’s game as one of just three MLB teams that have not committed an error yet.

Catcher Willson Contreras and Jordan Walker were two of the worst offenders last season when it came to poor defense, and both worked over the offseason to show improvement. Walker, who lived in Jupiter, Fla., in the offseason so that he could work daily with instructor José Oquendo, made the defensive play of the season on Monday when he made a diving stab of a liner in the right-center gap.

Similarly, Contreras worked in the winter on getting his body and glove lower so that he could get more low strike calls for Cardinals pitchers. Through Tuesday’s game, Contreras had gotten 69 borderline calls -- tied for sixth-most among MLB catchers and 51.5 percent called strikes on borderline pitches. That’s quite an improvement over 2023 considering that Contreras ranked 30th out of 43 qualified catchers in borderline strike calls (44.5 percent.)

The outfield is going to be OK thanks to rookie Victor Scott II
There was understandably plenty of angst when the Cardinals never got Tommy Edman back following offseason wrist surgery and proceeded to lose Lars Nootbaar (two rib fractures) early in Spring Training and Dylan Carlson (sprained left AC joint) late in Spring Training to injuries.

Those losses have been softened by the emergence of speedster Scott, who has confirmed to the Cardinals that the big league stage isn’t too big for him, and he can handle himself, both at the plate and in the field.

Scott not only made his MLB debut at Dodger Stadium, but he got his first hit, first extra-base hit, first stolen base and run scored there.

“Elite,” Marmol said of Scott’s speed. “It’s different.”