Monday, August 30, 2010

Quite the Conundrum

The Cardinals seem to be in the most favorable position possible for this time of the season. Kyle Lohse has returned from the DL (we'll go ahead and assume that is a good thing). The two new acquisitions have performed as well as anyone could have hoped- Jake Westbrook has allowed more than 3 runs in only one start and Pedro Feliz hit safely in his first 8 games and played above average defense (the main reason behind his acquisition). They have, arguably, the best 1-2-3 combination of starting pitchers in baseball- headlined by a former Cy Young award winner and a World Series save-ior. Albert Pujols has returned to the form that won him 3 MVP awards. And they have the second easiest remaining schedule in the NL (behind the Reds). So why does it feel like they are headed for a long offseason?

Suddenly, the team that has seemed to tread water for the majority of the season is sinking. Maybe they were expecting what everyone else has been expecting- for the Reds to eventually just falter and give it up down the stretch. Unfortunately, it seems like the wrong red and white, NL Central team is giving it up in the final third of the season. The Cardinals are playing well against the upper tier teams of the league, sweeping Cincinnati and taking two of three from the Giants, but they cannot run with the little dogs, suddenly. Since the epic showdown that was the series in Cincinnati that saw the Cards take all three games and the division lead from the Reds, the Cards have lost series to the Cubs, Brewers, Pirates, and Nationals. The two series against the Pirates and Nats were on the road so that is excusable. I mean, how is a team supposed to be expected to perform with 13,000 screaming fans wearing, mostly, Cardinals' apparel? It's a daunting task.

Pujols is, yet again, in the running for the Triple Crown, but with a much more legitimate shot at winning it than ever before. His numbers have been down, by his standards, for the majority of the season but he has gotten hot of late. He has started to find gaps, in the manner that he has spoiled us all with for the entirety of his career, again. The only problem is, it seems as though the rest of the team is completely unable to swing their way out of a wet paper sack. Especially in situations that might actually impact the outcome of a game. Jon Jay has continued to spray the ball everywhere and drive in runs at a consistent level but he and Pujols can never seem to be on the same page each game. As stated, Pedro Feliz has been a pleasant surprise on the offensive side of things (recording 14 hits in his first 11 games) but that does no good when he comes up with the bases empty and two outs every at-bat. Two out rallies are a critical part of every championship team but they are never the only source of run production for championship caliber teams.

The big three starting pitchers have come to rely on the most inexperience one of the bunch to carry the weight of the team. Wainwright has lost three consecutive starts to the Brewers, Pirates, and Nationals. Four starts ago, it seemed like the Cy Young was his to lose. Looks like he may be on that path, after all. Carpenter was out-pitched by Carlos Zambrano and didn't do enough to get out of the sixth inning against the offensive juggernaut Nationals. Meanwhile, Garcia has gone about his business and gotten the job done the way he has all year. The coaching staff did an outstanding job of preparing his arm for this stretch run, too. At the first sign of trouble, he would get the hook early on this season. They were very delicate with his return from Tommy John surgery and it appears to have paid off, so far. Westbrook has pitched well in all but one start since he joined the clubhouse. His record does not show it, but he has given the team a chance when he has taken the mound.

Most importantly, it is not as if this is a team comprised mainly of unproven talent. All of the leaders on the team have been to and won World Series rings. The accessory players lack experience, but that is the way it always is (unless you wear the pinstripes). Still, even those players are not college kids who have never been under the lights playing in front of more than mom and dad before. They have veterans, who know what they are doing, to look up to and ride to a World Series title. This team is built for that. But they are not playing like it.

This is in no way my way of throwing in the towel. I am the incurable optimist. However, it is time to stop toying around and start playing games. Yes, it is time for them to come together and pull off something that everyone expected them to do all along. It will not happen if this article stays true for the remainder of the season, though.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Double Dip

When the Cardinals drafted the Hogs' super sophomore, Zack Cox, in June's draft, I was overjoyed...initially. Cox has wowed us Razorback fans for two years now; reaching at least the Super Regional in both of the years he resided in Fayetteville. Then, to think he could one day be spraying balls all over the field at Busch Stadium, just seemed like a fantasy. It is human nature to want your favorite college players to join forces with your favorite professional team. And, just like when the Dallas Cowboys drafted Felix Jones a few years back, my fantasy was becoming a reality.

As the thought sunk in, though, I realized that this fantasy doesn't come without some hurdles. Cox projects as a second or third baseman. Second base, as we all know, is currently occupied by Skip. While my obsession with Skip has little logic behind it, it is still very well documented that he is, far and away, my favorite Cardinal. I know he is probably not the end all, be all at second for the Cards but I have, so far, not completely accepted that fact in my heart. I am still holding on to the hope that he will turn into an elite defensive second baseman and continue to hit around .300 (or at least the high .200s). It just seems like he has put too much work in to not succeed. Skip is to Jose Oquendo as Ankiel was to La Russa. That, somehow, does not make me feel much better.

Then there's third base. At the beginning of the season, it appeared that the Cards had found the long-term solution there. David Freese came out of the gates on fire. He was on pace to make a strong case for Rookie of the Year. Then came the injuries that seem to follow Cardinal third basemen. First was the little wrist injury that did not seem to be a very big deal, at all. Then came the big one. The one that may leave Freese out of baseball for the rest of his life. They said his achilles tendon separated from the bone and was actually on the front of his ankle. His achilles tendon wound up on the front of his ankle. The trainer was able to push it back to the correct side of his leg on the field, which might be the only piece of good news from the whole situation. The outlook for an injury of that degree is not good. Most people are not able to run again. I suppose that wouldn't be a problem for Ryan Howard who either strikes out or gets to coast around the bases after pretty much every at-bat and would be better served to just stay in the dugout when the Phils do that "defense" thing. Unfortunately, Freese proved to be quite the doubles machine while playing with the big boys this season and played above average (not Rolen-like, but still good) defense at the hot corner. I think we Cardinal fans have had enough freak, career ending injuries to suffice for the next couple of lifetimes, now. I doubt the image of Juan Encarnacion's face pouring blood out in the on deck circle will ever leave my head. So to see another fan favorite go down for the count just seems cruel.

I have always been taught to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Preparing for the worst would be assuming that Freese never touches a diamond again. That leaves Felipe Lopez and Aaron Miles in charge of third base for the near future. That thought, probably, does not encourage too many people. Hoping for the best would be assuming that someone, happily (totally by their own choice with no outside forces involved at all), retires in the next couple of years; opening a spot of for the next big thing, Zack Cox. Then, everyone would live happily ever after and the Cardinals would soon be sporting more rings than the New York Yankees. (I said hope for the best.)

This is why I should never be in charge of a team....