ST. LOUIS — If you happen to stumble across the MLB standings Monday morning, you’ll notice a change of guard atop the National League Central.
The Cardinals overtook the Brewers this week as they clawed into first place thanks in part to an eight-game skid by Milwaukee. After its 2-0 shutout victory over the Reds on Friday night, St. Louis stood alone in first place for the first time since April 25.
That’s where it remains heading into a new week, despite an average last six games. The Cardinals were swept by the Rays in three games, the first time they’ve been swept this season, and responded by returning to Busch Stadium and taking two of three from Cincinnati to open the homestand. Now they’re clinging to a half-game lead after the Brewers snapped their losing skid Sunday by defeating Washington 4-1.
With three teams already considerably below .500, the NL Central might be the least competitive division in baseball. However, the race for the division title is expected to be one of the tightest. Watch for the Cardinals and Brewers to fight down to the wire.
The good news? We have a whole summer ahead to bring that discourse. For now, let’s take a look at the week that was for the Cardinals.
The record: 2-4 on the week (0-3 vs. the Rays, 2-1 vs. the Reds); 34-26 overall
The standings: First place in NL Central, half-game lead over Milwaukee
Cardinal of the week
With the Cardinals in a bind to cover innings and the rotation down a pair of starting pitchers, manager Oli Marmol needed a reliable option as a stopgap fifth starter over the next couple of weeks.
Enter Andre Pallante, who twirled a beauty in his second career start (and first at Busch Stadium) on Friday, when he posted 5 1/3 scoreless innings en route to the Cardinals’ 2-0 shutout over the Reds.
“He did a really nice job,” Marmol said. “One of the most impressive things is his ability to just slow everything down, and he continues to do that regardless of what situation we put him in. Whether he’s out of the ‘pen, starting, it doesn’t matter. Today was fun.”
Pallante had emerged as a formidable force out of the bullpen, where he matched up with Marmol and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak’s vision for an adaptable and multidimensional reliever. But the 23-year-old rose through the farm system as a starter and is plenty familiar with the role. That, along with a dominant fastball and a continuously developing arsenal, persuaded the club to use him as a starting pitcher.
Marmol is expected to use Pallante every fifth day, at least until other starters like Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz return. His WHIP (1.413) is high, but his 1.04 ERA and his 0.3 homers-per-nine innings rate, combined with his high ceiling, make him the optimal choice.
Pallante doesn’t have a preference when it comes to starting or relieving but he does feel more comfortable beginning games.
“I don’t usually come out the best, I kind of get better as the game goes on,” he said. “So I feel like throughout the game I get better. But at the same time, (coming out of) the ‘pen, it was a little bit more adrenaline, a little bit more of ‘let the bulldog out.’”
No matter what scenario he appears in, Pallante has been a critical piece to the Cardinals’ pitching plans over their first 60 games. Don’t expect that to change any time soon.
Flaherty not far off
Speaking of starting pitching, it appears as if the Cardinals are closer to bringing back Flaherty, who has missed the season so far as he works back from the right shoulder bursitis he was diagnosed with in spring training.
He posted four innings for Triple-A Memphis in his second rehab start, when he allowed only one hit (a solo homer), didn’t walk a batter and struck out six over 59 pitches. The Cardinals will send Flaherty for at least one more rehab start, which is slated for Wednesday in Memphis. The target is 75 pitches, though, at this point in his rehab process, the emphasis is less on pitch count and more on overall recovery. If all goes well, Marmol did not rule out Flaherty returning midway through the team’s next road trip, which begins June 17 in Boston.
Flaherty spoke with reporters Sunday morning when he described himself as feeling the best he’s had since 2019 when he dominated in the second half with an 0.91 ERA. Marmol praised his prized right-hander for the way he has handled his second substantial injured-list stint after missing most of the 2021 season. He cited Flaherty’s willingness to communicate with the medical and training staffs and his patience in the recovery process.
“He’s ready to go,” Marmol said. “And that’s Jack. He’s ultra-competitive, and he’s dying to help us win, which is why I love him. We want to make sure we get it right and he’s with us all the way through the playoffs.”
The Cardinals have proceeded cautiously with Flaherty over the last 10 weeks, but it’s nearly time for that cautious reserve to switch to cautious optimism. The next few days will be pivotal, but if Flaherty can check the necessary boxes in his next rehab start, it very well could be his final one.
Nolan Gorman garnering confidence at second base
Sinkerballer Dakota Hudson is known for his ability to induce a groundball, and he did plenty of that in Sunday’s 7-6 loss to Cincinnati. Hudson was tagged for six runs through seven innings, though his line wasn’t too indicative of his performance lately. His last three starts have spanned seven innings, and he’s lowered his walk count, issuing just four free passes.
In his outing Sunday, Hudson forced nine groundball outs, including four double plays. That meant Nolan Gorman saw plenty of action at second base, serving as a solid litmus test on how the 22-year-old has progressed defensively since being called up from Triple A.
Gorman’s bat has always been his prized tool over his defensive capability, and the Cardinals expressed some reservations early in the season regarding his ability to adjust quickly to second base at the big-league level. But Marmol has been encouraged by Gorman’s improvements, specifically when it comes to range and footwork.
“He’s done a nice job,” Marmol said. “Early on we were focused on his backhand and overall footwork around the bag, and those are things he’s handling well right now. He’s playing an average second base, and I think with the way he’s been going about it, he’s going to continue to improve. We’ve been happy with his performance so far.”
Gorman also described himself as feeling more comfortable at second with each opportunity.
“The backhand, we work on that every day, staying behind the ball,” he said. “The footwork around the bag is a lot more (focused) on tag plays. It’s going better, but it’s going to take some time to get muscle memory for that.”
Gorman has discovered some confidence in turning the double-play ball, which he has found easy to adapt to coming up as a middle infielder.
And, of course, there’s his offense, which has seen the ebbs and flows that are expected when a young player is adjusting to the major-league level. Gorman is reaching base at a .348 clip while posting an OPS above .800 and has three doubles and three homers over his first 19 career games. He is expected to remain in the lineup against right-handed pitching, and most of those starts will come at second base.
Corner outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson returned from their injuries this week, and both will still start the majority of games. But Marmol did indicate granting a few more rest days to allow both players more recovery time. Brendan Donovan, who has remained in the lineup as advertised, just at differing positions, has allotted for that. So has Juan Yepez, who homered Sunday for the first time since May 23.
O’Neill slumped terribly to start the season before landing on the IL, but in his six games back with the Cardinals, his swing looks to have reverted to his late-2021 form. O’Neill is 8-for-23 with a double and a home run. Three of his six games have been multi-hit contests, and his average exit velocity indicates swing improvements even if the balls in play don’t result in hits. Carlson was activated Friday and has singled in both of his starts.
Steven Matz has been slow to progress from the left shoulder impingement that has kept him sidelined since mid-May, but turned in his most comfortable throwing session yet Sunday. Matz has been limited to long toss and throwing off flat ground, but said Sunday morning that his shoulder was feeling much better. However, there is no timetable for when he can begin throwing off a mound. As his missed time increases, so does the likelihood he’ll need a rehab assignment before returning.
Jordan Hicks (right forearm tightness) tossed his first bullpen session since landing on the injured list May 26 and will look to repeat that over the next few days. The Cardinals still haven’t decided whether he’ll return to the rotation or be used as a high-leverage reliever, but Mozeliak indicated the latter in a media scrum Saturday.
“I would say for the most practical and realistic strategies, he’ll likely be out of the bullpen,” Mozeliak said. “I say that for two reasons. One, it’s a shorter ramp-up to return to the big leagues. And I think as we’re starting to envision the rotation, Jack coming back, obviously with the success Pallante is having, it just seems like it might make more sense to backfill.”
Though moving Pallante to the rotation makes sense, his departure from the bullpen leaves a considerable hole in relief, especially when arms like Drew VerHagen and T.J. McFarland haven’t been able to find much success. Establishing Hicks as a reliever would fill that void, and his high velocity and two-pitch mix probably profiles for more consistency.
Corey Dickerson (left calf strain) has progressed to swinging the bat and light running but has not been cleared to begin base running or other work. When he is cleared, the team is looking at a likely rehab stint.
So nice, you’ll want to see it twice
Tommy Edman has found himself playing a multitude of roles for the Cardinals this year, including starting second baseman, starting shortstop, utility outfielder, leadoff hitter and all-around base-stealing menace.
Saturday, he played the role of the protagonist.
St. Louis trailed the Reds all afternoon and were down to their final out when Edman stepped to the plate. He promptly swatted his first career walk-off homer, a two-run shot, to propel the Cardinals to an improbable 5-4 victory.
TOMMY EDMAN WALK-OFF HOMER‼️
The Cardinals were down to their final out, but go home happy!
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) June 11, 2022
Marmol described Edman as one of the “heartbeats” of the team. Adam Wainwright deemed Edman “everyone’s favorite player.” And Nolan Arenado once said, “When you think of the Cardinals, you think of a player like Tommy Edman.”
It sure is shaping up to be a career year for the 27-year-old, who leads all of baseball in traditional overall WAR (per Baseball Reference) at 3.6 and leads the National League with 15 stolen bases.
Stat of the week
For your viewing pleasure, let’s take a look at Ryan Helsley’s percentile rankings, thanks to our friends at Baseball Savant.
Helsley has allowed one earned run over 23 1/3 innings this season. He holds an otherwordly 0.39 ERA and an 0.514 WHIP. Though Marmol has preferred not to name a traditional closer, Helsley has seen plenty of late-game action and picked up his fourth save on the year in the Cardinals’ 2-0 shutout of the Reds on Friday.
Helsley’s expected opponents’ batting average is .117 and his expected slugging percentage is .193. He has a 39.5 percent strikeout rate and has walked just six of 81 batters faced. Helsley’s best pitch — his four-seam fastball — has dominated opponents. The triple-digit velocity and spin rate that averages 2,616 rpm have made the pitch one of the tops in the sport.
Down on the farm
He’s hardly halfway through the season, but Double-A outfield prospect Moisés Gómez continues to slug his way up the league leaderboard. He connected on his 20th home run Friday, setting a season high. Coming into the weekend, Gómez led all minor-league players — regardless of league or division — in homers and slugging percentage (.718) and ranked third in OPS (1.104) and extra bases (32).
Paul DeJong has homered seven times in June, including a two-homer affair Saturday night for Triple-A Memphis, and another round-tripper Sunday. His OPS has ticked up to .841, and he’s done a better job of spraying the ball and driving the ball to the opposite field. Still, it doesn’t seem as if the Cardinals are in any hurry to rush back their former All-Star shortstop. Mozeliak’s philosophy with young players is that if they’re going to come up to the majors, they will be allotted consistent playing time, and with Gorman and Donovan actively contributing, the belief is the organization prefers DeJong to keep working in the minors.
“When we did send (DeJong) down, we sent him down with the understanding that there’s no timetable,” Mozeliak said Saturday. “Go down, get comfortable and get back to where you need to be productive. I do think we’re starting to see glimpses of that.”
“I hope it continues,” he added. “It puts us in a position to make some very difficult decisions.”
In case you missed it: Right-handed pitching prospects and 2021 draft picks Michael McGreevy and Gordon Graceffo dominated their stints with High-A Peoria and were promoted to Double-A Springfield on the same day in mid-May. You can read more about their development this season and what they’re working to improve here.
The Cardinals will wrap up the homestand with four games in three days — including a doubleheader Tuesday — against the Pirates. Zack Thompson will make his first career start Monday, and the team will recall Matthew Liberatore to start Game 1 on Tuesday. Mikolas will start Game 2, and Pallante is slated for Wednesday.
The team has a scheduled off day in Boston on Thursday before a three-game interleague series against the Red Sox (31-29), marking the first time the Cardinals will play at Fenway Park since 2017. After that, a pivotal four-game division showdown awaits, with the Cardinals traveling to Milwaukee to take on the Brewers, where there is sure to be plenty of early-summer clashing atop the standings.
(Photo of Andre Pallante: Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)