Starting Friday, the Oakland Athletics will host a three-game interleague set against the most dynamic, well-rounded team in the National League. The St. Louis Cardinals head to the East Bay carrying the best record in all of baseball (tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates). The A’s will have their hands full trying to keep up with a Cardinals team that has carried over its regular-season success from last season when they earned the second-best record in the NL.
But how are the Cardinals doing so well in 2013? How are they baseball’s best team? That’s easy. Everything. You name it, St. Louis is good at it, if not the best at it. Offense, defense, pitching, managing—the Cards are at the top in nearly every facet of the game.
Which will present a challenging test for the Athletics, who have had an up-and-down past couple of weeks. After their June 13th victory over the New York Yankees, the A’s were a season-high 14 games over .500 and sitting two games ahead of the Texas Rangers atop the American League West standings. Since then, Oakland is 5-7 and has fallen into a virtual tie for first with Texas. After sweeping the Reds, the A’s face the tough task of beating a Cardinals team that sports a ridiculous 26-14 record away from home. It will not be easy.
However, if the Athletics are going to win this series, they are catching St. Louis at the right time. By their own lofty standards, the Cards are struggling of late having lost eight of their past 14 games. Now is as good a time as any to take down these birds.
Here are five keys to the Athletics’ series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals are the best hitting ball club in the NL. As a team, they own a .275 batting average, tops in the league. In large part, this is because four of their starting position players are hitting over .300—Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran.
Having such high-quality hitters has been the engine of the team’s offensive efficiency, and it’s the team’s hitting that is largely responsible for the Cardinals having scored the most runs in the league (388).
In various other offensive categories, the Cards rank in the middle of the league. They don’t do it with the long ball (tied for 10th in the NL with 69 home runs). They don’t really play small ball (19 total stolen bases rank last in MLB). But everything else in between they do extremely well.
Most important of all is their overall plate discipline. St. Louis hitters have the fourth-fewest strikeouts and the fifth-most bases on balls in the NL. Thus, they punish opposing pitchers simply by putting the ball in play a lot. When they do, base hits usually result. And when they don’t, they’ll gladly take the free pass.
The key for Oakland’s pitchers is making sure those base hits do not go for extra bases. Because of St. Louis’ slow-footedness, the Cardinals are prone to stalling their own offensive rallies. By not having a running game, St. Louis hitters, not surprisingly, have grounded into the most double plays in the NL (78).
Oakland’s pitchers do not strikeout a lot of hitters (10th in AL). Nor do they induce many double-play grounders (tied for 12th). So it will be vital that the A’s figure out a way to keep St. Louis hitters from collecting multiple base hits in a row and putting up crooked numbers often.
This is nearly an impossible task. The Cards have a league-best .337 batting average with runners in scoring position. Moreover, St. Louis has been incredible away from home, topping the NL in road batting average, runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.
Oh, and obviously the Cards get to use a designated hitter during their AL visit. This season, Matt Holliday and Beltran have taken turns in that position.
Good luck, A’s pitching staff.
To make it even more daunting for the A’s, two of Oakland’s three starting pitchers this series are right-handers. Bartolo Colon starts the opener on Friday and Jarrod Parker takes the hill on Saturday. St. Louis owns a hefty .289 batting average against righties, so the pressure to keep the Cards’ bats quiet falls on the arms of Colon and Parker.
Colon is one of the AL’s hottest pitchers, having won his last seven consecutive starts. He comes into the series with an overall record of 10-2, a 2.93 ERA—ninth-best in the league. The veteran has faced the Cards only three times during his lengthy career, sporting a 1-0 record and 5.06 ERA. Can he continue his recent hot streak? Or will St. Louis’ dominant left-handed hitters take command?
Saturday is Parker’s turn to try shutting down St. Louis’ lefties. The 24-year-old is on a warm streak of his own, having won his last four decisions over six starts, evening his record to 6-6 for the season. After a rough first several weeks, Parker seems to be turning the corner and on his way to improving upon his impressive rookie campaign in 2012.
Parker has nine consecutive quality starts, and has lowered his ERA from 10.80 to a season-low 4.27. Will he continue his trend and be able to stifle the powerful Cardinals offense?
It will be a test on Saturday. Parker is only 3-3 in the spacious confines of the Oakland Coliseum, with a 4.88 home ERA. If the A’s are going to have a chance to beat St. Louis, they’ll need Parker to put up a stellar performance.
And if the A’s are to take this series, their two right-handers will need to come up big in their respective starts.
On the one hand, the Cardinals are a red-hot offensive team. On the other hand, St. Louis has the most well-rounded pitching staff in all of baseball.
No getting around it: The Cardinals rank third in the NL in team ERA (3.25) and strikeouts (617), second in shutouts (nine), saves (23) and fewest bases on balls issued (191) and first in complete games (five) and fewest home runs allowed (only 49). The best starting unit in all of baseball (a ridiculous 3.06 ERA). The best road ERA (3.30).
Any way you slice it, St. Louis pitchers are dominant and practically unhittable.
So how can Oakland hitters beat such an impenetrable force?
Luck might be found in the Cardinals rotation. It just so happens that St. Louis is scheduled to throw out three right-handed starters this series—Shelby Miller, Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook. Though this trio has a combined 22-12 record on the season—and each has an ERA under 2.40—left-handed hitters (.257 batting average) have had a great deal more success against St. Louis pitching than right-handed hitters (.232).
This means that lefty hitters Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, Brandon Moss and Eric Sogard will see the brunt of the at-bats this series. And these platooners will need to shine for the Athletics, particularly because the A’s, as a team, have only a .249 batting average against right-handed pitching this season.
The true onus, however, will be on the bat of right-handed hitter Yoenis Cespedes who, as the team’s starting left fielder, will be forced to try to excel against Miller, Wainwright and Westbrook despite his ineffectiveness against right-handers this season. Cespedes is hitting only .208 against righties, with 49 strikeouts in 183 at-bats. Because Cespedes is slotted in the middle of the lineup, it’s imperative that he finds a way to contribute against St. Louis’ righties, getting on base so that the other left-handed hitters can try to attack the Cards’ starters.
Oakland will have enough lefty bats in the lineup to compensate for Cespedes, but surely, the Athletics’ chances of beating the Cards increase exponentially if he is in the mix of his team’s scoring opportunities.
If the A’s can get past the Cardinals’ righty starters, this will bode well for Oakland.
The A’s are already notorious for their penchant for walk-off wins. The Athletics have had 19 such victories over the past two seasons, tops in baseball. Thus, it’s important to carry that magic with them against MLB’s top team by forcing the Cards into extra innings.
If the Cardinals have a weak spot, it's their bullpen. Their 10 blown saves are the third-highest total in the league. Also, St. Louis relievers rank 10th in the NL in ERA (3.73). So Oakland needs to score early and knock out the Cards’ righties, keep the game close late and hope for extra innings against a St. Louis bullpen that is 1-4 when the game goes into overtime.
The A’s, meanwhile, enjoy a 6-3 record in extra-inning ball games. Having home-field advantage will play an instrumental part in giving the Athletics a fighting chance, too. While Oakland has the best home record in the AL (24-12), St. Louis owns the best road record in the NL (26-14).
Something’s got to give. Hopefully for the A’s, they can keep the score close deep in each ball game and rely on their bullpen, which ranks fourth in the league with a 3.13 ERA. And then their patented pie-topped, late-game heroics will come into play so Oakland can take this series.
The MLB record for fewest errors committed by a team in a season is 65, set by the Seattle Mariners in 2003. The 2013 St. Louis Cardinals are one of three teams (the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees being the others) that are on pace to top that mark rather handily.
Make no mistake: The Cards are one the league’s best teams because they don’t.
So how will the Athletics beat a team that doesn’t beat themselves out on the field? Seems paradoxical that the A’s should practice patience against a St. Louis staff that has allowed the second-fewest bases on balls in the NL, but wishfully awaiting free passes might be the only solution to breaking down the Cardinals. And if there are runners on base, it’s definitely better to take the strikeout than put the ball in play and risk hitting into a double play.
Don’t put the ball in play? Sounds absurd, but it might be key. Cross your fingers and hope for four pitches out of the zone. Because it seems that if you put the ball in play against them, they will catch it. Or make the play error-free.
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