Magical Numbers

Strange things happen when the baseball gods begin waving their magic bats over the otherwise earthly progressions of the game.

Sometimes the ball bounces funny; sometimes it doesn’t bounce off anything but a seat in the stands. Sometimes it takes an odd, fateful curve fair…or foul. Good teams lose games they shouldn’t, bad teams win games they shouldn’t, and the order of the standings can look completely different from week to week.

But baseball is and forever will be a numbers game. Advanced baseball statistics are a cottage industry these days, yet a .300 average, 30 home runs, and 100 RBI will never be looked at as a bad year.

Other numbers seem to just come from nowhere. The St. Louis Cardinals, most recently, were the direct object of such weirdness. By this point, the tale is well-known: 10.5 games back on August 25; three games back with five to play; clinching on the now-infamous night of Game 162. It took 11 postseason wins to clinch their 11th World Series championship in 2011, known forever for the Game 6 heroics that culminated with David Freese’s dramatic walk-off home run in, of course, the 11th inning.

That kind of stuff never happens more than once if it happens at all. That’s why it was so magical. But even the best of the best and the worst of the worst can’t keep baseball from bringing it weird every once in a while. Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost a heartbreaking 19-inning game to the Atlanta Braves on a possibly bad call at the plate. The Pirates never recovered, and soon skidded out of playoff contention—a place they had not been since 1992, when they lost the NLCS to none other than the Atlanta Braves on a Game 7 walk-off single that scored former Pirate and notorious base path clogger Sid Bream. This year, the Pirates and Cardinals hooked up for their own 19 inning affair. The winner would take two of three in the series. It meant the difference between a tie for the second Wild Card spot or the Bucs leaving St. Louis with their heads held high and some breathing room. And the Pirates’ fortunes were different this time around; they beat the Cards to claim a two game lead on the playoff spot. Yet somehow, less than a week later, the Cardinals have leapfrogged the Pirates in a four-game swing that has the Redbirds out in front in the second Wild Card spot by two games. Sometimes even momentum gets smacked back to the ground by karma.

To get there, the Cardinals beat the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds 8-5 Friday night. But this wasn’t a typical victory. The Reds led 5-2 after five innings, and the game was inching dangerously close to getting into the hands of the vaunted Cincy bullpen. Starter Mat Latos was cruising along, as he had done for the entire month of August to this point: going into Friday’s game, Latos had an ERA of less than one over four starts and averaged over seven innings per start. Then, almost out of nowhere, the Cardinals caught fire and torched the Reds in the sixth. When it was all said and done, Latos finished only five innings and allowed seven earned runs, equaling what he had allowed over his last six outings combined.

So now, the Cardinals find themselves looking at that magical date again: August 25. Except they are currently in a playoff spot, and are only one and a half games back of the Braves for the top Wild Card slot. If the season ended today, the Braves and Cards would play each other for the NL Wild Card. Funny how that works, huh? The Cards are also only six games behind the Reds in the Central. They don’t need to rely on a miracle run this year. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have one in them.

Last year, the Cardinals were a team that exceeded expectations at the end of the year to do what they did. In 2012, they have never quite lived up to expectations. Their offensive output and pitching prowess have not translated into the win-loss record everyone expected. The Cards constantly seem to be getting in their own way when it comes to putting together a run of victories. Their current winning streak stands at four, and this would be the best possible time to win six in a row or 10 of 11 or something. Is it possible? Certainly. Is it likely? Who knows…

But that’s why they play 162. The Cardinals got a big win Friday night; a win by the Reds Saturday renders it almost meaningless. And then they’ll do it all over again on Sunday. A pitch here, a bloop there…win or lose, as long as there are outs to give and games to play, nothing is impossible and nothing is decided.

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter at @birdbrained.

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