Last August the Cardinals went to Cincinnati for a key 3-game series against the Reds. You might remember it – it included some colorful comments about St Louis from Brandon Phillips, a pseudo-brawl, and a Cardinal sweep. The Cardinals won their next game against the Chicago Cubs, but lost the final two in that series, on 14 and 15 August. That started a tumble that saw them lose 13 of 18, and nine games in the standings. Beware the Ides of August.
This week the Cardinals went to Milwaukee for a key 3-game series against the Brewers. You will remember it – it included some frustrated comments about Milwaukee fans from Tony LaRussa, a sequence of ‘you throw at our guy, we’ll throw at yours’, and the Cardinals losing 2 of 3. The Cardinals once again approach the middle of August, and find themselves in a heated pennant race for the NL Central title. What will the outcome be in 2011?
It’s a strange coincidence that both seasons seem to be mirror images. The Cardinals are trying to fight through the challenge of a division rival with little recent playoff history,but playing with a lot of passion, and carrying a large grudge from years of Cardinal dominance. St Louis was unable to overcome the passion last season, despite a supremely talented core of players (Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina). Many in the organization came to believe the August 2010 swoon was personality driven – the club did not have enough character guys to pick themselves up when the going got tough.
General Manager John Mozeliak went out and reconstructed the roster because of the August collapse, and precisely so they could weather that kind of challenge in 2011. Lance Berkman was the biggest name signing amongst several players brought in (or sent out) to change the tenor of the clubhouse. The Cardinals were going to be better offensively, and have the team chemistry to fight through any adversity.
It initially looked that way. The Cardinals had played well and, even after enduring a 7-game losing streak in mid-June, found themselves in first place, 7 games over .500, on 1 July. Since that day they’ve been positively mediocre (13-15). They now sit 3.5 games behind Milwaukee. Unlike last season, in which they played Cincinnati only 3 more times after that August series, they still have 9 games remaining against the Brewers. There is adversity to attend to. Pujols has not been Pujols, and the team has endured injuries as well as inconsistent performance from the bullpen in the late innings, but all teams endure injuries and poor performance during a season. The elite teams, the ‘character’ teams, fight through it. The rest of the league succumbs to it. St Louis appears to be succumbing to it.
Despite all the front office’s efforts, this team is performing a lot like last year’s. And the Ides of August approach. St Louis has the time, the schedule, and the roster to write a different ending to this story, but time is running out. The team built to fight through any adversity is going to have to fight much harder than they probably expected.