ST. LOUIS -- Sandwiched in those moments of free time Dabo Swinney finds while preparing for Clemson’s defense of its College Football Playoff national championship, the head coach will find himself keeping an eye on a baseball team in the Midwest.
The relationship he formed with manager Mike Shildt and several Cardinals players during a Spring Training appearance drew him in, and the product has kept his attention. That brought Swinney back to Busch Stadium on Monday, where he reconnected with his new friends and let Shildt know how impressed he’s been with how this Cardinals club competes.
Over the next few hours, Swinney found himself high-fiving players during the Cardinals’ 6-0 victory over the Phillies, and then leaving the premises with what could be described as either a challenge or prognostication: “The winning streak starts now!” he exclaimed while exiting the Cardinals’ clubhouse.
That first required snapping a season-long four-game losing streak, which St. Louis did by flexing its power and watching Miles Mikolas twirl another gem. Here were three takeaways from the win, which also moved the Cardinals back to the top of the National League Central:
No trouble with the curve
Just as he did in Washington last week, Mikolas leaned heavily on his curveball -- and with much success. The pitch secured his first two strikeouts of the night and helped set up others. He went to the curve 25 times during the 98-pitch start, building off his last outing in which he threw 34 curveballs.
It’s a notable jump, considering Mikolas had thrown 30 curveballs combined in his two starts previous to these.
“It’s been something I’ve been trying to hone in,” Mikolas said. “I thought it was a little loose in the cage early in the season, but I was able to tighten it up the last couple starts.”
And how’s that?
“I think just having a little more confidence in it,” he said. “Throwing it more often. Throwing it a little more aggressively. [I’m] not trying to spin it in there, but trying to rip it in there.”
“It’s a big pitch because it creates a lot of different eye levels,” Shildt said. “It’s got a lot of bite to it, too. It’s a tough pitch to get a good swing on.”
Carpenter finding traction
Three days ago, as Shildt watched Matt Carpenter take his pregame cuts during batting practice, he turned to bench coach Oliver Marmol and remarked that Carpenter’s swing had clicked.
“It’s just a matter of time,” Shildt noted.
Turns out, he was on to something.
With five hits over the weekend, Carpenter secured his first set of back-to-back multi-hit games of the season. He followed that up on Monday with a home run to open the fifth against Phillies starter Vince Velasquez. It was the second of three home runs the Cardinals blasted, following one from Yadier Molina and preceding another by Paul DeJong. Carpenter later drew his 600th walk, becoming the fastest Cardinal to reach that mark.
“I think we see Carp taking more consistent at-bats and being more Carp-like, so to speak,” Shildt said. “His work has been very positive, and his bat has been really consistent.”
The timing of this is quite familiar, too. It was May 16 when he jumpstarted his turnaround in the 2018 season. Carpenter started that day slashing .140/.286/.272 and went on to end the year as a top-10 finisher in the National League Most Valuable Player race. Prior to this run of six hits in three games, Carpenter carried a slash line of .190/.312/.328 through his first 31 games.
Home is where the wins are
The Cardinals continue to rack up victories at Busch Stadium, where they’re now 13-4 on the season. That wouldn’t be so notable if not for the fact that the Cardinals haven’t had such an easy time winning at home in recent years. Since reeling off 55 home victories in 2015 (the last year the club qualified for the postseason), the Cardinals have averaged 42 wins at Busch Stadium over a three-year span.
For a team that was eliminated from playoff contention during the final week of the last three seasons, those missed opportunities at home loomed large at the end of the year.
“We’re looking to get wins every night and take it day by day, and look at where the body of work takes us,” Shildt said. “It is important, for sure, to be able to play well at home.”
With Monday’s win, the Cardinals, who have averaged 5.7 runs per game at home, boast the National League’s best home record.