Contenders like Cardinals rely heavily on the long ball

ST. LOUIS -- We’re supposed to be watching good ol’ fashioned pennant races in September, but instead it feels like we’re plopped on our living room couch, wondering why re-runs of the home-run derby are on every channel.

Who needs Koufax and Drysdale when you can have Mark Trumbo and Yoenis Cespedes, altering the course of history, with one swing of the bat?

Major League Baseball, after a record-setting August, is on pace to produce the second-most home runs in history. Yet, unlike the steroid era when baseball became a carnival act, teams are relying more on home runs to stay relevant in pennant races these days than at any time since Aber Doubleday invented the game.

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The New York Mets may have one starting pitcher, 43-year-old Bartolo Colon, who has stayed healthy this season, with three of their starting position players sidelined for the year, but it doesn’t matter. They just sit back and keep hitting homers, accounting for 53.8% of their runs this season, the highest rate in baseball history, according to Baseball Prospectus. They have hit 34 home runs in the last 18 games, going 14-4, and are 64-36 when homering this season.

The Mets, with three more homers Wednesday in their 6-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, have now hit 192 home runs. They are tied for the third-highest total in franchise history, and eight shy of the club record they set in 2006 when they were one game one away from the World Series.

“Well,’’ Mets manager Terry Collins told reporters, “that’s what we are.’’

The team they’re chasing in the National League wild-card race, the St. Louis Cardinals, have morphed into the ’27 Yankees with their uncanny power show this season.

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This is a team that hit a National League low-105 home runs two years ago when they won the NL Central, averaging just one homer every 52 at-bats

These days, there’s almost a better chance of seeing a no-hitter than the Cardinals going an entire game without hitting a home run.

They entered Wednesday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates with home runs in a National League-record 25 consecutive games, two shy of the Major League record, including a record 15 pinch-hit homers by eight different hitters.

And none named Mark McGwire.

“The home runs cover up a lot of things, I’ll tell you that,’’ Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told USA TODAY Sports. “In the past, you would take a couple of walks, a double, look for a few singles, just anything to get on base to open up a scoring threat. This changes the complexity of all of that.

“We thought we’d have a better power this year, but none of us could have predicted the impact it has had.’’

The Cardinals were on the verge of falling into third place in the wild-card derby with the San Francisco Giants and Mets on Tuesday night, trailing the Pirates, and down to their last strike. Matheny watched in awe as Matt Carpenter homered. Yadier Molina doubled. Randal Grichuk homered. Jhonny Peralta homered. Just like that, the Cardinals turned a 6-5 loss into a 9-7 victory.

It marked the first time in the Cardinals’ 125-year franchise history they hit at least three homers in the ninth inning of a game that they trailed, and ultimately won.

“That was one,’’ Matheny said, “that I’ll never forget.’’

The Cardinals certainly are Exhibit 1-A in the home run resurgence this year. There were 4,832 home runs hit through Tuesday night’s games this season, one per every 29 at-bats. Baseball should eclipse last year’s total of 4,909 by the end of the week, up 15.8% over a year ago.

Look around, and it’s absolutely zany how teams are relying on home runs. The Baltimore Orioles, vying for the AL East title, have hit a major-league leading 219 home runs this year, with three players hitting at least 30 for the first time in franchise history. The Texas Rangers, comfortably in first place in the AL West, have hit 33 homers in the last 17 games and 124  since June 9 —second most behind the Orioles.

Even Safeco Field, every hitter’s worst nightmare when they come to Seattle, has turned into a home-run haven. There have been 203 home runs hit at Safeco Field this season, the most of any ballpark in baseball, and the highest total in the park’s 17-year history. Incredibly, there have been 15 more homers hit at Safeco than even Coors Field in Denver.

It’s no longer the big hulking outfielders and first basemen hitting home runs, but even the little guys. There are 11 second basemen who have 20 or more home runs this year — nine more than a year ago. Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who had 75 homers in his first four seasons, already has 39 homers, including 21 in the last 35 games.

Second baseman Jedd Gyorko leads the Cardinals with 26 homers, including a league-leading 19 since the All-Star break. He has already has produced as many homers as the last two seasons combined, despite having 492 fewer at-bats.

It was all part of Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak’s masterplan, who watched his team win 100 games last season, but rely heavily on its pitching staff, which led the major leagues with a 2.94 ERA, a full run better than the Major League average.

He sought power in the off-season, brought back Brandon Moss, cleared playing time for Stephen Piscotty and Grichuk, and made the shrewd move of acquiring Gyorko from the San Diego Padres for outfielder Jon Jay.


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