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.

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