Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Season Ends Well

And the Cardinals make the playoffs. Credit to the Phillies, who made more of a game effort than they really had to. I suppose the franchise record for wins in a single season was at stake, and perhaps the Phillies would much rather face the Cards than the Diamondbacks. It would make sense, the D'Backs do have a better record, though I'm not sure how much difference there is between 90 and 94 win teams, when they're playing a 102 win team in a best of five series. At any rate, the Phils went all out, and they prevailed.

It at least assured the Cardinals of a chance for a play-in game against Atlanta, but the offense jumped on Brett Myers for five runs in the first. Not that Carpenter needed more than one. The part about that I love the most is Carpenter told Mike Shannon and John Rooney, the radio crew, that it didn't matter how much the bullpen had been used the first two games in Houston (12 and two-thirds innings). They wouldn't be needed Wednesday night. Sure enough, 9 innings, 2 hits, 1 walk, 11 strikeouts, no runs, on 105 pitches. Aces, Carp.

I'm still a little surprised the Cardinals rebounded from that loss to the Mets as well as they did. It seemed like such a perfect cap to their season, a loss brought about by a bullpen failure, aided by poor defense. The Cards lost five games because of the 'pen in April alone, and they made their feelings about the importance of defense pretty clear in the off-season. Putting Berkman in right, keeping Skip at second, replacing Brendan Ryan with Theriot at short (the move that worked so well, the Cardinals had to trade for another shortstop mid-season!). But it didn't happen, with a little help from Carlos Marmol's spotty control.

When September started, I was looking forward to seeing some of the younger players get a chance. More Chambers and Greene, less Patterson and Theriot. Maybe Matt Carpenter could get some play at third, perhaps alternate with Freese. That didn't happen, and I was annoyed. I didn't believe they were in contention, even after they swept Atlanta, because they followed that up with a loss to Pittsburgh. That seemed like the Cardinals: good one moment, a disaster the next.

By the time the Mets came to town, I had to admit they were in contention, but I still wasn't sure they had a chance. It was more Atlanta still had a 2.5 game lead. If the Cards went 6-3 (which is what they wound up doing), the Braves couldn't go any better than 4-4 over their last 8 games for the Cards to have a chance for that 163rd game. I kept figuring the Braves were too good, that they'd pull out of the tailspin in time. 5 of their final 8 games were against Florida and Washington, not exactly Milwaukee and San Francisco. But they weren't able to go .500. They went 3-5 instead, and that was just poor enough a showing for the Cardinals to get in clean. No risky extra game needed.

As for the postseason, I have no idea what's going to happen. The Cardinals have the best offense in the league, while the Phillies are middle of the road. But the gap between the Cards and Phillies runs allowed is larger than the runs scored gap. The Cards bullpen is stronger than it was at times in the season, with no Franklin, Batista, Miller, or Tallet around, but it's hardly a lockdown group. And the Phils have a huge edge in starting pitching. Lohse, Jackson, and Garcia are all capable of good to great starts. Heck, Lohse out-pitched Halladay just a few weeks ago. But they're all also capable of laying total stink bombs. Garcia had one in the opener of the Astro series. Carpenter's the only on I'd trust, and he won't be able to go more than once in 5 games. Given the choice, I'd use him in Game 3 if the Cards were able to either sweep, or else were trying to avoid being swept. If the series is even when it reaches St. Louis, I'd save Carp for Game 4, when he can again either close things out or extend them.

I am a little worried about Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal. Holliday left after one at-bat Tuesday, and didn't play Wednesday, Furcal's been out since partway through Monday's game with a hamstring issue. Will either be ready to go? No clue. If Furcal can't go, hopefully Punto plays SS. Craig should replace Holliday in left, if needed, but one can never tell with LaRussa.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Week 3 And Later September Baseball

Arizona lost again this weekend. To the Seattle Seahawks. Good to know Arizona's wasting no time making me aware of their ineptitude. I know, it's early, but the Seahawks are freaking terrible, and the Cardinals can't even beat them? What do you expect me to say? "La, la, it's great, everything is sunshine and chocolate bars!"

At this point, I'd say the NFC West is San Francisco's to lose. Which is nice. The Niners have been running their mouths for three seasons about how they were really the best team in the division. Never mind the fact they didn't actually win the division in any of those seasons. Last year, all they had to do was start the season 2-3 and the division would have been theirs. But they went 0-5 instead. That's on them. Well now they've been handed a division so shitty it doesn't appear there's anyway they can't win it. Put up or shut up time Niners.

In baseball, we're entering the final three games of the season. The Braves maintain a 1 game lead over St. Louis, but it's surprising the Cardinals are even still in it. They took the first two from the Mets, but then they had a complete meltdown in the third game. Up 6-2 in the 9th, they lost 8-6 behind a total failure on Motte's part to throw strikes, aided by Furcal botching what would have been a double play ball. Subsequent attempts by Scrabble and Salas to hold the lead were ineffective.

It's sometimes said "Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." Since the Cards would send out Carpenter for the first game of the Cubs series, they seemed to have their best chance of getting back on the winning track. Carp went 7 strong innings, but McClellan blew up in the 8th, and the Cards lost 4-1. Obviously the offense did the team no favors, either. Or perhaps I should say LaRussa did the team no favors. With Holliday still unavailable to start with a wrist injury, LaRussa opted to put Schumaker and Theriot in the lineup together, while leaving Allen Craig (who is the 3rd best available hitter with Holliday hurt) on the bench.

Still, the team managed to turn it around and win the next two against Chicago, though the offense has doze to slumber, managing only 5 runs in those two games. The first of those games was won in the 9th when Tyler Greene was walked in, then Adron Chambers scored on a wild pitch. The second game turned on a piar of solo shots in the 7th and 8th innings by Molina and Furcal, respectively. So a little longball, and a little smallball/luck. Whatever works, I suppose.

The Cardinals are about to face Houston, while Atlanta travels to Philly. I'd typically feel that favors the Cardinals, but the Phils had been on an 8-game losing streak until they won yesterday against the Mets. One can only hope they'll go out and drub the Braves to try and get themselves right for the postseason.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Week 2 And Late September Baseball

The Arizona Cardinals didn't fare as well last weekend, losing to the Redskins 22-21. It's a fairly typical loss for them. They had the lead then failed to add to it, or at least run off clock, and the other team came back and won. A bit like the loss to Minnesota last year. I'm not sure whether losing to Rex Grossman is more or less embarrassing than losing to what was left of Favre last season.

What's odd is, unlike that Vikings' game, the Cardinals ran the ball fairly effectively. Beanie Wells had 93 yards of 14 carries, so basically 7 yards per carry. Despite that, when having the ball at the 5 minutes remaining mark, the Cardinals eschewed the run and only managed to burn 40 seconds. Whisenhunt really confuses me some times. He talks about wanting to establish the run, but when they're actually having success, he abandons it at the most critical moments. Even if they ran on only first and second down, either the Redskins burn two timeouts, or the Cardinals run off close to a minute and a half. That's without taking into account a possible third down run, if it seems likely to make the first. Or there's always a chance Wells gets a first down on one of those two carries, which keeps the drive going, and eats more clock.

In other news, the St. Louis Cardinals have won 5 out of 6 since I chastised them for losing to the Pirates last week. Combined with the Brewers scuffling a bit, and the Braves disintegrating, the Cardinals are still in the running for both the division and the Wild Card. Admittedly, the Brewers lead over the Cards is larger than their magic number (5.5 vs. 4), so the odds of claiming the Central crown are pretty narrow. But it's only 2.5 game lead for the Braves in the Wild Card. Which means they still have the advantage obviously, but it gives the Cardinals some reason to hope.

Of course, while the Cardinals get to play the mediocre-to-lousy Mets and Cubs in StL, before finishing up on the road against abysmal Houston, the Braves continue a series against Florida, to be followed by 3 against the Nationals, and close the season against the Phillies. Phillies' manager Charlie Manuel said he wouldn't be trotting out the B-team (excepting injuries) against Atlanta or St. Louis, since they're both in a playoff race, and he thinks it would go against the competitive nature of things. Which is pretty cool, though I wouldn't fault Phils' fans for preferring Manuel worry about keeping his team rested and ready. Of course, it may be in the Phillies' best interests to play the starters regularly right to the end, so they don't lose their rhythm. That seems to be one of those debates that comes up every year, with the postseason results being the referendum, and those varying from one team to the next.

There's also the Giants to contend with, as they're on an even better tear lately than the Cardinals. They do still have some games left against the division leading Diamondbacks, but the D'Backs may have clinched by then, so who knows what their concern will be. The Giants also contend with the Dodgers, who aren't very good, but are a rival franchise, and will be sending out Clayton Kershaw, who is meriting serious Cy Young consideration.

Who knows how things are gonna go. The Cards are 1-2 against the Mets this year, but there's been talk the Mets' players have thrown in the towel recently. Which didn't stop them from giving Atlanta trouble, so take it for what it's worth. StL is 8-4 against both Houston and Chicago North this season, which is encouraging. The Cardinals inability to beat the weaker teams in the Central last year was their undoing (the Cards went 18-27 against MIL, HOU, and CHC, the 3-5 teams in the division, while the Reds went 33-12 against those same teams). While the Cardinals are 6-9 against the Reds this year (after going 12-6 against them last year, go figure), they have managed a 25-15 record thus far against the Cubs, Astros, and Pirates. Of course, anything can happen in a 3-game series, so there's no telling if any of that means anything.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Weekend Sports Action

Sunday the Arizona Cardinals won their first game of the regular season, while the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Braves to reach a 5-game winning streak.

Of course, the AzCards won while letting Cam Newton throw for 422 yards, and 2 touchdowns Plus he ran, well dived, another one in. Near as I can tell, the Cardinals opted to use their "Don't cover Steve Smith" defense, and he took advantage. I don't know why they keep using that strategy, but it at least it didn't cost them the game for once. This is kind of what I worried about when they trade Rodgers-Cromartie as part of the deal to get Kolb. Then again, their defense was pretty abysmal last year, excluding that game where it pretty much beat the Saints single-handed*, so I guess it couldn't be much worse. Also, it isn't as though any team in the NFC West has the vertical passing game to really take advantage. Either their QBs are weak (49ers, Seahawks), or their receivers are (Rams). Which takes care of 6 games, at least. I hope.

As for the StLCards, they proceeded to use all that momentum from winning their last 2 against Milwaukee and three against Atlanta, to promptly lose to the Pittsburgh Pirates. What a surprise. They're completely incapable of getting any sort of serious run going. OK, that's being too strong. They had been on a good run prior to that game, and they might win tonight. But it's a little irritating they waited until they were so far out of the playoff hunt that they'd need to recreate the Brewers' 26-6 stretch from July 26-August 26 to make the postseason. Plus, they'd need a complete Atlanta collapse, or it still wouldn't be enough.

The truly irritating thing about this is, their improved play seems to be just the excuse LaRussa needs to not give Tyler Greene a chance to show he belongs in the majors. The Cards can claim they're still in it, so they can't give people chances to audition for next year. Greene's been on the major league roster for a week and a half, he hasn't had one single plate appearance. Zero. None. He's been a pinch-runner, near as I can tell, nothing more. Corey Patterson, who has no business on a major league roster, has 5 plate appearances in that same stretch. He's 0-for-5, and has struck out 3 times. Ryan Theriot, who I would truly hope the Cardinals have a) realized is terrible at shortstop, and therefore, b) are not even remotely considering bringing back next year, has 9 PAs this month. He's 0-for-9, though he did draw a walk.

It's not as though either of those two are getting lots of playing time. But every opportunity they receive is one Tyler Green or Adron Chambers (he has 1 PA since being called up) doesn't. Theriot and Patterson bring nothing useful to the team, and bar the path of players who are probably at least as good as them, if not significantly better. If the younger players aren't, well, it'd be nice to see them play so that could be determined now. But as long as the team can claim to be in contention, well, LaRussa isn't going to set lineups with an eye towards next year.

Unfortunately, at this rate the Cards won't fall out of the running soon enough to do any good.

* Not to be confused with the game where Jay Feely beat the Broncos single-handed.

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