The Washington Nationals dropped all six games they played with the St. Louis Cardinals last season, leaving them 0-7 against the Cards after losing the devastating Game 5 of the NLDS in 2012. The Nats, who are 35-30 after taking three of four from the Giants in San Francisco, managed a split of the four-game set with the Cardinals earlier this season in the nation's capital, but tonight they're back in Busch Stadium to start a three-game road trip-ending set with the 34-32 Cardinals.
Before the Nats and Cards meet at 8:15 pm EDT tonight with Jordan Zimmermann on the mound against Lance Lynn in the house that beer built, we talked to the SB Nation's Cards site, Viva El Birdos, for a two-part interview.
Going into this weekend's series, the Nationals are 1-5 in their last six regular season games in Busch Stadium going back to the 2012 campaign, though they managed to win one of two postseason games in the Cards' home that fall.
The Cardinals are 4-6 in their last 10 and they've lost 11 of their last 20 overall.
The Nationals have won 8 of their last 10 and 11 of their last 20.
Can they win the third straight series on the three-city, 10-game road trip?
Federal Baseball (FBB): I know everyone must ask, but what’s the deal with Shelby Miller? Walks up, strikeouts down, more dingers, and sub-replacement performance overall. Is it lingering overuse from last season, a hidden injury? His BABIP is actually better this season than last, so all of his drop in effectiveness seems to be from worse performance on all three of the true outcomes. Has the league just figured him out? Given the rather steep drop off in quality after the top three in the rotation, are there any options to shore it up if Miller can’t break out of his sophomore slump?
Viva El Birdos (VEB): I don't know! I have some theories to share with you, but first let me say that I have written the words "he's broken" in reference to Shelby several times this year. I still worry that's true, but it was heartening to watch his last start, a 3 hit, 1 BB, 5K shutout in Toronto. Maybe there's some hope there; his velocity was up, he mixed his pitches a little differently, and it's not like he doesn't have talent. Unfortunately, he's been bad long enough that a single outstanding start isn't going to convince anyone. In fact, he's been one of the worst pitchers in baseball over since last August. Over the last calendar year, he's been worth -0.2 fWAR, bottom among qualified pitchers. Only John Danks has a worse FIP, so Shelby has been really, really bad, and not just this season.
So what's wrong? I think it's a mixture of a number of things. First of all, I think deception was likely a part of his early success, and that's the kind of thing that doesn't always have great staying power (see Cingrani, Tony). But beyond that, his stuff has degraded a bit. His velocity has dipped a little bit, but it's also running significantly less according to Brooksbaseball. I think that could be the real key, though it's possible that there's some interference in those numbers due to miscategorization of his cutter. The loss of four-seam run started and has moved with the introduction and integration of the cutter, which also coincided with when he suddenly turned into a pumpkin. Did the cutter lead to mechanical problems? Was the pitch trying to compensate for diminishing returns elsewhere? Or is there an injury? He was hit on the elbow by a come-backer in that same period early last August. His command hasn't been the same since, especially of his curve.
Anyway, a hidden injury wouldn't surprise me, but it very well could be independently mechanical, and the league getting a chance to adjust to him has done him no favors. We'll see. There are some reasonable options to replace him long-term, but nothing imminent, at least until Joe Kelly returns from his hamstring injury. I think Carlos Martinez is a starter long-term, but he'll need to be stretched out. Tim Cooney likely isn't too far from being ready for the majors, but he's had a rough go in AAA. Marco Gonzales, drafted out of college last year, jumped to AA last month and the early returns are promising. I don't expect Shelby to be sent anywhere as long as his arm is attached. Adam Wainwright has some elbow pain (of the non-UCL variety) and needs a little rest, and Jaime Garcia's health can't be counted-on. The rotation is still good, but it's just not that deep right now.
FBB: Non-roster invitee Pat Neshek has been astonishingly good as a guy who must have looked like just another washed-up middle reliever at the start of the season. He has tons of strikeouts, not many walks or homers, a FIP at about half his career average and an ERA under 1.00 in over 100 batters faced! Has there been a bigger surprise on the team this year? He sold his soul to the devil, right?
VEB: I'll be much more brief here: It's the year's biggest surprise, and the devil had nothing to do with it. This is a pure victory for the Cardinals' pitching coaches and Pat himself. Last year, Neshek threw his "sinker" 17% of the time. This year, he's thrown it 51% of the time. It's a nasty, nasty pitch, moving over 10 horizontal inches, and coming from a weird arm-slot. I've seen dozens of horrendous swings against it, even when he just grooves the thing. He has a good enough change-up to keep lefties honest, plus the slider is a frisbee. He's not going to keep a sub 1.00 ERA, but he's a genuinely good reliever right now. Good story for a great guy.
FBB: Molina is on pace for "only" 4 WAR this season, as his eye-watering 130ish wRC+ of the last few seasons has dropped to a merely good 110. In his 11th big-league season behind the dish, is the abuse finally starting to slow him down (he might only be a top-5 catcher this season instead of #1 or #2 in the league)? He’s on pace to catch more than 140 games right now.
VEB: Well, he's 31 years-old, and maybe not even the best catcher in the division right now (Jonathan Lucroy has been really, really good). He has caught a lot of innings, and it's natural to expect his decline years to start soon. However, Yadi has made my expectations look silly many times in his career. If there's any hitter in the league smart enough and balanced enough to adjust his approach to suit any change in skills, it's Yadier Molina. I think he'll remain among the league's elite for a few more years. By the way, I don't think he'll reach 140 games caught. He sat once and DH'd twice against Toronto, and only managed those two days hitting because Matt Holliday had mild back tightness, leaving the DH spot empty. I expect to see a few more off-days in the future.
FBB: Did the Brewers’ crazy hot start surprise you as much as it did everyone else? Do you think the STL management will make a big move (say, another starter) before the deadline to help the team win the division, or will they trust the current roster to at least squeak out a WC slot?
VEB: 40-27 is certainly surprising, though I didn't think they'd be a bad team this year. They have a solid rotation and Segura, Gomez, Braun, Lucroy is an excellent core. I expect the Cardinals to sit tight or pull off a minor trade for some bullpen help or a middle-tier starter, but anything beyond that would be a surprise. They certainly have the pieces to go after David Price, and Wainwright, Price, Wacha/Lynn would be astounding, but there seems to be a real commitment to the long-term process right now. With all the success the team has experienced over the last three years, there's little pressure for the kind of all-in move that acquiring a star would indicate. Now if Giancarlo Stanton wanted to sign an extension as part of a deal...
• Check out Pt. 1 of the Q&A with Viva El Birdos through the link below: