Hope. Every team has it in spring training, and every fan feels it on opening day. For some teams and some fans, hope becomes expectation. Their team is too good to miss the playoffs this year. The players are in place, the rotation is sharp, and the lineup looks solid from top to bottom… in April. Barring a major injury or catastrophic collapse, things are looking up for a solid year, and a visit to October. For other teams, the wording is different. They have a young group of guys that are hungry for wins. They have experience, and a roster of players that ‘have been there before.’ These are the teams that are playing the underdog card, and their fans enter the season hoping that their group of guys is going to prove the skeptics wrong.
The Cardinals entered 2010 looking like a formidable foe. The rotation had two Cy Young candidates, the lineup had four All-Stars, and the bullpen was returning a strong group of arms that had performed well in 2009. Fans were excited for a season of pitching gems and runners circling the bases like a merry-go-round.
What happened to that? This has been a maddening season, riding highs like an eight game winning streak against two teams that are in the playoff hunt then turning around and dropping two of three against teams that have been hanging out in the cellar since May. Fans became convinced that the Cards were turning it around after serving up a three game beating on August 9-11 against their competition in the Central – the Cincinnati Reds. Since then, the team has stumbled, tumbled, and crumbled to the tune of a 3-6 record against the Cubs, Brewers, and Giants. The worst news is that this current slide is coming at home, where the team had been twenty games over .500.
Please, put away your pitchforks, Cardinal fans. All is definitely not lost. I am not about to tell you that everything is fine in the Busch Stadium clubhouse. There are numerous issues, but there is still hope.
To start, Pedro Feliz is not the guy that will come in and save the season, obviously. At the same time, could fans at least give him a chance before moaning and groaning about a worthless pick-up? Consider this, so far Feliz is 4-for-8 with 3 runs scored and 2 RBI since coming over before Friday’s game against the Giants. Granted, this is a whole two games’ worth of at-bats, but with Felipe Lopez struggling both at the plate and in the field, it would be unfair to pass judgment so quickly.
The same can and should be said for Jake Westbrook. Please look beyond the fact that he was traded for Ryan Ludwick. To be objective about what Westbrook has brought to the team, one has to look beyond what was given up to bring him in. That simply cannot be undone. What can be done is looking at this: Jake has pitched six or seven innings in all four of his starts, giving up two or three runs in each game. That would translate to four quality starts, yet the team is only 1-3. He has thrown sixty-six percent of his pitches for strikes, and sixty-six percent of his pitches put in play have been ground balls. Obviously he has not blown away the opposition, but he has given the team more than enough opportunity to win every game he has pitched thus far. For a fourth pitcher on a team that includes the likes of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, that is nothing to fuss about.
Speaking of Wainwright and Carpenter, the work those two have turned in this year has been nothing if not stellar. Wainwright has asserted himself as a sure contender for the Cy Young award, and Carpenter is not too terribly far behind. To have a two headed monster like that at the top of a rotation is something Cardinal fans sometimes take for granted. This is without mentioning a dark horse in the rookie-of-the-year race in Jaime Garcia. Garcia has taken a couple of lumps in the past month or two, but he has come a very long way from being in recovery for Tommy John surgery just one year ago.
Looking over at the lineup, it is hard to have a non-condescending eye at what you see. Albert Pujols, who has seemed at times to be having a less-than-Pujols worthy season, still finds himself quietly (or as quietly as a three time MVP can be) at or near the top of every Triple Crown category. Despite fans moaning and groaning about Matt Holliday’s slow start, he is hitting over .300 with an OPS of nearly .900, as well as being a plus defender.
Those are the two big bats. Going down the lineup, things obviously become more grim. Jon Jay has obviously been a bright spot, batting .353/.401/.521 over 63 games. Skip Schumaker, Yadier Molina and Brendan Ryan, despite having disappointing years at the plate, have all managed to raise their batting averages each month. Also, as much as I hate to admit it, Aaron Miles has been a more than capable backup, hitting .312 over 47 games.
This team has flaws, yes. However, there are also several bright spots. Despite a four game deficit in the Central, there is still quite a bit of baseball left to play (42 games, if you want to be exact). The beautiful thing about baseball is that you never know what will happen. I know lightning rarely strikes the same place twice, but in 2006, there were many games and feelings like the ones coming through now. The right team gets hot at the right time, and anything can happen.
This is a team that is still capable of making an October run. Will they? I have no idea, but I do know this: there is still hope.