Surviving ‘The Grind’: Cardinals’ plans to survive tough schedule ‘reveal a better team’ | St. Louis Cardinals

With rotation thinned by injuries and the bullpen repopulated and rearranged due to ineffectiveness, the Cardinals made decisions throughout the first half of the season to overcome a challenge as imposing as any opponent or absence, one that lurks before everyone’s eyes.

It’s often right next to the fridge.

The Cardinals entered Thursday’s day off after playing 74 games in the previous 77 days. No team in the majors had played as many in those few days this year. Tommy Edman appeared in 72 of them with a fitting 314 plate appearances, more than any other player since April 14. In the past 72 days, the Cardinals’ pitching team has pitched 621 2/3 innings in the league, 30 more than the closest National League club.

The Cardinals, now 43-35, had played the fewest games in the majors as of the morning of April 15, and when they woke up Thursday only the Minnesota Twins had played more at 79. In the division, only Milwaukee has also played 78.

“The first half was tough,” said first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, a batter and understated All-Star. “We’ve had some stretches — and it’s not getting any easier.”

The Cardinals’ sprint for the All-Star break resumes Friday night in Philadelphia with the first of 17 games in 17 days, rainfall permitting. By the time Goldschmidt travels to Los Angeles for the Midsummer Classic, the Cardinals will have played 91 games in 95 days. It was a test of depth, planning, roster flexibility, creativity, durability, logistics and, yes, patience. Getting through a schedule the Cardinals developed due to preseason rains required coordination of everything from using the designated hitter in the majors to pitch counting at Class AAA Memphis.

An interesting thing happened due to the scripted and required use of rookies like Brendan Donovan, Zack Thompson, Andre Pallante and Juan Yepez to bolster or fill out the schedule and survive. Many have turned out well.

The goal of keeping the most current roster identified the best roster.

A packed schedule “helped unveil a better team,” said starter Adam Wainwright. “Luckily we have some guys who have come and been great for us – and not only have they been great for us, but I think we realized they needed to be here more. That goes for a few young people in the lineup and a few young people in our bullpen. Because of that schedule, we’ve likely seen weapons we may not have.

The Cardinals’ schedule became complicated before it began. The lockout ended the first week of the regular season and transplanted two of those games into doubleheaders. The Cardinals had two rainouts in the home first stand, forcing them to fit those two games later in the first-half schedule. When tax day came, the Cardinals could see the innings of interest piling up and maturing. You would have to negotiate three double headers.

It was the marathon version of the blitz the Cardinals faced as they emerged from quarantine and headed back into a 2020 schedule full of doubleheaders.

So they had experience and Excel spreadsheets.

“Well, one thing that was similar to 2020 is the question, ‘Who’s on the team today?'” said pitching coach Mike Maddux. “We had a lot of changes, and sometimes those changes weren’t available because we can’t just bash the same guys over and over again. In between there were some injured and people on the IL for various reasons. It challenged our depth. But I think it’s become a testament to our depth.”

Maddux works on the rotation months in advance, constructing it around days off and opponents. The Cardinals introduced rotation to line up Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson and Jack Flaherty to play on the final road trip in Milwaukee.

But the plans should be rewritten.

“You’re going to have a rainout,” Maddux said. “And that’s why you do it in pencil.”

As the Cardinals’ four-day visit to Wrigley Field drew near, the team planned weeks in advance how the pitchers would be used at Triple-A Memphis, only to be available when… well… when needed. Pitch counts were managed, appearances timed to avoid overlap, and when the series arrived, the Cardinals were making six different pitching transactions. Thompson debuted. Jake Woodford was selected, recalled, and reselected within five days.

By utilizing the 40-man roster and beyond for innings, the Cardinals have gone 647 2/3 innings over the last 77 days, 24 more than any other NL team. And they did it with a 3.74 ERA, which ranks in the top 10 majors. That has allowed them to keep up with Milwaukee in the division while the Brewers deal with their own whimsical schedule; They have already played 44 of their 81 road games.

At the same time that the Cardinals have been juggling pitching, the DH has purposely shifted from a spot for left-right matchups to give everyday players Nolan Arenado and Goldschmidt a break from the field. In the last 33 days, Arenado and Goldschmidt have made 10 starts at DH together, as many as Albert Pujols.

“Your guys are starting to tire and you’re struggling,” said manager Oliver Marmol. “From a player’s point of view you just try to keep your boys as fresh as possible and we’ve managed to do the best we can.”

Nowhere was that more evident than in the late innings and in the back of the bullpen. The Cardinals have taken a disciplined approach with aides Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos as well as left Genesis Cabrera, who is on the IL. Even when he took over the ninth inning, Helsley did not appear in consecutive games in the first month of the season. Marmol has carefully avoided using Helsley and Gallegos when the team is behind, lest they burn a day before they could be used to secure game. There have been series where at least one of these has been avoided entirely.

The return was a breakthrough year for Helsley, who is returning from arm and knee injuries. He had the lowest ERA of any late-inning reliever and highest WAR before suffering the loss Wednesday night. Helsley appeared in back-to-back saves for the first time this season, allowing the first home run against him on Wednesday to turn a game 4-3 for the Marlins. Afterward, he spoke about misplacing fastball – but he didn’t feel limited or unsafe because of his health, and despite the temptation of a grueling schedule, they’ve kept him.

“I don’t have to worry about if this is going to hurt, if I have to put that in there, change my arm slot or whatever,” Helsley said. “Pitching through pain or playing through pain isn’t easy. … What they do is good.”

“Play the long game,” Marmol said. “You could say it doesn’t matter if that’s not the desired result by a long shot. You have to go there first. We see the sane version of Hels. Cabby, Gio, Helsley are healthy right now. And they’re going to be a real threat in the long run, and that’s our goal. We are doing exactly what we hoped to achieve this.”

Relief is evident.

But it takes more than plans to get there.

The cardinals, as Maddux said, “honored the day off,” few that were. Rather than returning Wainwright to normal rest, Thursday’s day off gives him and other starters a breather. Rookie Matthew Liberatore will start on Saturday and consistency from this point in the rotation will give the team a boost until Steven Matz returns. That could happen during that 17-game stretch, or it could be as the schedule eases and the second half begins with its scattered oases of days off. In anticipation of storm clouds, the Cardinals will play 67 games over the final 76 days of the season.

When asked if he would rather have the days off in the first or second half, Wainwright laughed.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said between chuckles. “Yeah, oh yeah, absolutely. Yes. house and street. But now one game after the other.”

Goldschmidt, Arenado All-Star Finalists

First baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado were named finalists Thursday to start as part of the two-tier voting structure for the All-Star Game. Goldschmidt, one of the leading voters in the NL for any position with nearly 2.5 million, and New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso are the two candidates set to start first. San Diego’s Arenado and Manny Machado are the two in third place after the first round of fan voting.

The second round of voting begins Tuesday at 11 a.m. St. Louis time online at MLB.com, and the leader, if voting closes July 8, will see the Midsummer Classic begin July 19 in Los Angeles. Votes from the first round will not be carried over.

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