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Cards cruise in all gears for stress-free win

Defense clamps down, bats break it open with 5-run 4th
MLB.com @LangoschMLB

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has talked openly about the difficulty of the team's current schedule, which includes 47 games in 48 days leading into the All-Star break. But the stress of this stretch hasn't been based merely on volume. It's also been enhanced by the types of games in which the Cardinals have been involved.

As the midpoint of the season approaches, the numbers show that the Cardinals have played in more high-leverage moments than any other team in baseball. And that's why nights like Friday, which featured a mostly stress-free 8-1 win over the Nationals, felt both necessary and rejuvenating.

Full Game Coverage

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has talked openly about the difficulty of the team's current schedule, which includes 47 games in 48 days leading into the All-Star break. But the stress of this stretch hasn't been based merely on volume. It's also been enhanced by the types of games in which the Cardinals have been involved.

As the midpoint of the season approaches, the numbers show that the Cardinals have played in more high-leverage moments than any other team in baseball. And that's why nights like Friday, which featured a mostly stress-free 8-1 win over the Nationals, felt both necessary and rejuvenating.

Full Game Coverage

It was actually the second straight game that ended as a laugher for the Cardinals. They sealed a series win in Arizona a day earlier by scoring a batch of runs late. Both games featured a five-run inning, something this team didn't do once in its first 68 games. Their first five-run frame came just 10 days ago.

"They're feeling it, and a game like this just changes the atmosphere in our clubhouse," Matheny said. "You can tell the guys are still building on what we started in Arizona."

Video: WSH@STL: Matheny on Leake going eight strong innings

One reason these sorts of nights have been unusual is that the Cardinals have struggled to execute in all facets of the game simultaneously. As a result, they've often been locked in close games late.

According to Fangraphs' leverage index, no team has played under more stress this season than St. Louis. The Cardinals also entered Friday tied with the Phillies for the highest percentage of plate appearances (20.7 percent) in high-leverage spots. Forty-three of the Cardinals' games have been decided by two runs or fewer, whereas Friday marked the 22nd time this year that the margin was at least five.

All those close games highlight why the team's defense and baserunning continue to come under scrutiny. Little mistakes have big consequences when there's no wiggle room.

"We're playing better baseball right now, [as far as] the fundamentals," said Tommy Pham, who opened Friday's game by robbing Brian Goodwin of a potential home run. "That's what wins games -- good pitching, followed by good defense and good baserunning. That's kind of the cherry on top, is the offense. You really have to do those little things first and foremost."

Video: Must C Catch: Pham makes great leaping catch at wall

The Cardinals excelled in all those areas Friday. Their infielders turned four double plays behind starter Mike Leake, who also erased a runner with a pickoff. Another runner was thrown out at home. The baserunning was crisp, and the offense was opportunistic. After tallying seven hits with runners in scoring position on Thursday, the Cardinals managed six on Friday. Those represent their two highest totals of the season.

And of course, there were residual benefits of not having to eke out this win. Matheny was able to pull three of his regulars -- Matt Carpenter, Jedd Gyorko and Yadier Molina -- early. And late-inning arms Brett Cecil, Trevor Rosenthal and Seung Hwan Oh each snagged a second consecutive day of rest.

Video: WSH@STL: Leake picks Taylor off first to end frame

"We fight as much as we can, but then you see our guys play well against very good teams [when] you bring the whole package," Matheny said. "We've got some young players that haven't really experienced a lot of winning at this level, and they need to see what it feels like to get your teeth kicked in a little bit and then see what it feels like to play crisp. We've had both."

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter, and Facebook.

 

St. Louis Cardinals, Mike Leake, Tommy Pham