ST. LOUIS — Who are these St. Louis Cardinals?
Over the last four games, they haven’t resembled the ones who have extended innings with errors, forcing their pitchers to exert themselves for extra pitches that sometimes lead to game-changing runs.
Instead, they’re making the kind of plays that cut off innings, save their pitchers extra work and get them back to the dugout quickly.
In short, they’ve become an offensive and defensive team, a trend they hope continues Saturday night when they continue their weekend series with the Washington Nationals in Busch Stadium.
After winning two of three in Arizona and not making a single miscue, St. Louis (38-41) brought that defense on the plane home. Center fielder Tommy Pham started Friday night’s game by robbing leadoff man Brian Goodwin of a possible homer with a leaping catch at the wall.
Later, the Cardinals turned four double plays behind Mike Leake, who also helped himself by picking off Michael Taylor to end the third. Combined with two big innings, it added up to an 8-1 win, their fifth in six games.
“We’re playing better baseball fundamentally,” Pham said. “We’re making a lot of plays in the outfield and the infield. We’ve really focused on pitching, defense and better baserunning.”
It was those qualities that made the Cardinals a 100-win team just two years ago. But their defense and baserunning failed them last year when they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and neither has been good most of this season.
Lately, the Cardinals aren’t giving away outs. And as Pham pointed out, they’re actually making good decisions on the bases, taking extra bases and creating opportunities to do damage.
“We definitely have good vibes in the clubhouse and on the field,” St. Louis rookie shortstop Paul DeJong said.
St. Louis will try to keep the vibes going positively behind right-hander Michael Wacha (4-3, 4.50 ERA), who is coming off his best start in more than a month.
Wacha subdued Cincinnati 8-2 on Monday, giving up just five hits and a run in six innings with a walk and five strikeouts.
In his career against Washington, Wacha is 2-2 with a 1.57 earned-run average in four starts. He came within an out of a no-hitter in the last week of the 2013 season that presaged his four postseason wins and National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player honors.
Lefthander Gio Gonzalez (7-2, 2.87) takes the ball for the Nationals. Gonzalez was saddled with a tough-luck, 5-4 loss Monday night at home against the Chicago Cubs, giving up just one run and two hits in six innings while fanning eight.
Gonzalez is 3-2 with a 2.51 ERA in seven career starts against the Cardinals, including an 8-3 win April 11 at Nationals Park.
Playing without shortstop Trea Turner (broken right wrist) for an undetermined length of time, Washington got a brief scare in the first inning when right fielder Bryce Harper came up hobbling after being hit on the foot with a relay throw on a possible double-play ball.
But Harper was able to stay in the game and play all nine innings, though it was not enough as the Nationals lost for the fourth time in six games.
“We were tempted to take him out,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “But after a few moments, the feeling came back. We certainly don’t need to sustain any more injuries, especially to one of our top players.”