Tag Archive | "Braves"

Pull Together, NL East

We all know that the Braves have been hot this season. And by hot… I mean insanely hot. It is hard to ignore the intensity they have right now. No matter what team they are up against, they are all in it until the very last out. But what about the rest of the NL East?

One-Ball

If you just glance at this division you would see the Braves completely dominating, and then all the other teams left looking weak and helpless in a path of destruction. But if you take away the magnificence of the Braves this year, the rest of that division is actually not as pathetic as Atlanta is making them look. It is only comparatively, do they seem that no one knows what they are doing.

The Nationals, on paper, should be a brilliant team. They have Bryce Harper, one of the most promising young All-Stars, who has blasted 17 home runs and is on his way to completing another productive season. Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and Ryan Zimmerman, have done their fair share at the plate. And outfielder, Jayson Werth, is contributing with an average of .334. Their pitching has not been quite as dominating as it was last year with the starting rotation not as consistent. But again, if you take away the Braves, the Nationals really have not been much of a let down this year. They are just engrossed in a raging fight against seemingly one of the greatest teams in baseball at the moment. That is what a team wants, right? To go against the best of the best? But I am sure they would like to be winning.

The Phillies and the Nationals are close competitors. The teams average out to be somewhat similar in overall strength. Outfielder, Domonic Brown, is pulling in some wicked numbers right now with 27 homers already this season, and knocking in 78 RBIs. And the rest of the team as a whole seems fairly consistent.

The Mets granted David Wright the honor of being the Face of the Mets this season. As difficult as it is to live up to a title like that, Wright is handling it with class and precision. He has raked in 54 RBIs with an average of .309, all while winning the hearts of the fans over with those pearly whites. His teammate outfielder, Marlon Byrd does not get quite the recognition as Wright does, but he has knocked in even more runs this season, and blasted even more long balls. And the All-Star Matt Harvey with the potential for a Cy Young award, brightens up the Mets’ pitching future. They have always been a quieter team, but are certainly able to make some noise… especially if Atlanta cools off.

And the Marlins? They could use a little help. The monstrous Braves have made them look even smaller, although, they have had their good moments this year. A semi-average team with some sparks here and there, the Marlins have some work to do if they want to make any kind of dent in this division and leave the season with some pride.

Atlanta is charging full speed at the head of the NL East leaving the rest of the division in their dust, and not one of these teams are even close to winning the wild card. If the rest of the division wants a shot at the playoffs, or maybe even just a chance to hold their heads up a little higher, they are going to have to do something to stop Atlanta. They will have to work together to slowly tear down the confidence of the first place Braves.

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Triple Play: Justin Upton, Jonathan Papelbon, Alex Rios

In this week’s Triple Play, we look at the hottest of several scorching Braves hitters, a closer who can’t put nor shut up, the man tasked with replacing Nelson Cruz, and plus more items like our weekly Wainwright Walk Watch and the Ichiro Hit Tracker. Off we go:

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Who’s Hot?

Justin Upton, Atlanta

Welcome back, Justin. It’s been quite a while. Remember in April, when the younger Upton was mashing everything in sight, single-handedly carrying the Braves’ offense (and fantasy teams everywhere)? That was the month he blasted 12 home runs with 19 RBI, scored 22 runs and posted an OPS of 1.136. Fans and analysts nationwide praised the Braves for “stealing” Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks. In the following three months, however, Upton only hit four homers and drove in 29. All the “what was Arizona thinking???” noise quieted. Fantasy owners stopped even trying to deal Upton because he wouldn’t bring back equal value. Well, the April version of Upton is back. Thus far in August, Upton is batting a sizzling .395/.452/1.373 with six homers, 13 RBI, and 10 runs scored. The big difference this time, though, is that Upton has a LOT of support around him in the Braves’ lineup right now (more on that below).

Who’s Not?

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia

Oh, it hasn’t been a pretty season in Philadelphia, has it? They lost Roy Halladay to injury and just never seemed to recover. They have strugged to find competent everyday outfielders and enough starting pitchers. Very little has worked. The motor-mouthed Papelbon has grown frustrated and said “he didn’t come here for this.” Well, after watching Pap’s performance the past two months, it seems safe to say the feeling is mutual – the team certainly didn’t bring the former Red Sox closer to town and pay him $13 million a year to watch him blow saves on a regular basis. In fact, Papelbon has Papelblown six of his past 13 save opportunities. Some of them have been spectacularly bad – take August 1, for example: on a night the Phillies honored Brad Lidge for his blown-save-free 2008 season, Papelbon entered the game after Cole Hamels threw eight shutout innings and immediately surrendered four hits and a walk. What had been a 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1 loss that left a sour taste in the mouths of players and fans alike.

Never one to bite his tongue, Papelbon said after the game, “Obviously I want to go in and preserve wins for these starters, man, because that’s what I take pride in. But some nights, you just go back in the dugout and you kind of scratch your head (and think), what just happened?”

Well, here’s what has happened: Papelbon’s fastball velocity has dropped a mile per hour each season since he left Boston (93.8 in 2012, 92.2 in 2013), making him far more hittable. His strikeout percentage has also fallen off a cliff: 34% in 2012, 23% in 2013. On a team with such poor defense as the Phillies, a “power” closer who can’t strike out opposing hitters the way he once could is just asking for trouble. There were rumors that Papelbon was being shopped around before the trade deadline, but there were no takers. Even the Tigers, desperate for a big-name closer to appease manager Jim Leyland, had no interest. For now – and the foreseeable future – it looks like Papelbon and the Phillies are stuck with each other.

Playing the Name Game

Player A: .269/.330/.511, 27 HR, 76 RBI, 5 SB, 49 runs, 123 OPS+

Player B: .279/.331/.427, 12 HR, 57 RBI, 26 SB, 58 runs, 102 OPS+

Player A is the Rangers’ now-suspended right fielder Nelson Cruz. Player B is his replacement, Alex Rios. After failing to make any deals to boost their lineup before the non-waiver deadline, the Rangers finally got their man last Friday, acquiring Alex Rios from Chicago via a waiver claim deal. Two games in, it has looked like a brilliant move. Rios started his Rangers career by going 4-for-7 with a walk, double, triple, three runs scored and two RBI. While Rios doesn’t offer the same power as Cruz, he brings another speed threat to the lineup to complement Elvis Andrus (30 steals) and Leonys Martin (27). With Cruz sidelined for 50 games, the only Rangers hitter with more than 16 home runs is third baseman Adrian Beltre. Don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time a Rangers team had such a dearth of power. I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t done searching for offense.

Team A: 18-5 record since All-Star Break, 2.83 ERA, 14 QS, 5.2 runs scored/game

Team B: 18-5 record since All-Star Break, 2.56 ERA, 17 QS, 4.4 runs scored/game

Team A is the Atlanta Braves. Since the All-Star break, the Braves have turned the National League East division race into a laugher, winning 14 straight games to open a 14½-game lead and turning the Nationals into overly-hyped also-rans. As noted above, Justin Upton has been red hot, but Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson have also been crushing the ball over the past couple of weeks. All four players have driven in at least 10 runs, scored 10 runs and have an on-base percentage over .400 over the past two weeks. After Tim Hudson’s horrific ankle injury, it was widely assumed that the Braves would trade for another starter. It hasn’t happened. Brandon Beachy was activated off the disabled list and stepped right into the void. The results have been mixed, as it typical for a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery, but each start so far has been better than the last. Atlanta also has relied on prized rookie Alex Wood, and he hasn’t disappointed (2-2, 2.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, three consecutive quality starts entering Sunday).

Team B is…..are you ready for this?….the Kansas City Royals. Lost amidst all the Braves hubbub is that Missouri’s other team has been every bit as good as Atlanta since the break. All the Royals have done is: 1) reel off an eight-game winning streak (their longest since 2003); 2) twirl their way through the most successful road trip in franchise history (8-1); 3) take three of four from Boston, generally considered the best team in the AL; and 4) win seven straight series, the longest such streak since 1991.

Since the All-Star break, the Royals’ rotation has been the backbone of their success, with 17 quality starts in 23 games. Ace James Shields has spun five quality starts in that time, while Ervin Santana has four and Jeremy Guthrie three. The unexpected surprise, though, has been 36-year-old Bruce Chen; he has given the Royals five consecutive quality starts since being restored to the rotation on July 12. Kansas City also recently recalled fireballing lefty Danny Duffy to fill a rotation spot as well. Suddenly, Kansas City has one of the deeper rotations in the AL. And don’t forget closer Greg Holland (32 saves, 74 strikeouts in 46 innings, 1.57 ERA, 0.91 WHIP).

First baseman Eric Hosmer also has been terrific, sporting a .362/.392/.489 slash line since Aug. 1. After starting slowly the first two months, he has combined with left fielder Alex Gordon and designated hitter Billy Butler to give the Royals an imposing middle of the order. The competition on that July 26-August 4 road trip (White Sox, Twins, Mets) was surely sub-par, but the result perhaps should be taken with a small grain of salt, but one thing is certain: the team is giving its fans reason for serious optimism for the rest of this season and next.

Random Thoughts

  • Wainwright Walk Watch: Once Adam Wainwright started the 2013 season by pitching 37 innings before allowing his first walk of the season, we started a weekly tracker to keep track of how few free passes the Cardinals’ ace hands out this season. He has led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio all season, and it hasn’t been close. In his most recent start, Wainwright lasted seven innings against the Dodgers, allowing seven hits, three runs and two walks while striking out five. For the season, Wainwright has walked only 21 hitters versus 156 punchouts, good for a 7.4-to-1 K/BB ratio (still the best in baseball). His next start is scheduled for Tuesday against Pittsburgh. In his last start against the Pirates on July 31, Wainwright pitched seven innings, allowing four runs and one walk. Given the Cardinals’ recent struggles, this start takes on even more importance than usual.
  • Ichiro Hit Tracker: as noted in last week’s column, 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki is closing in on 4,000 hits in his professional career (including the 1,278 he tallied playing in Japan). As you probably know, only Ty Cobb and Pete Rose have reached 4,000 in their careers. Following Sunday’s game against Detroit, in which he went hitless, Ichiro sits at 3,993 hits. Next up for Ichiro and the Yankees: four games at home against the pitching-challenged Angels, followed by a three-game set in Boston.
  • If it does happen this coming weekend, here’s hoping that the achievement is appropriately noted by Fox Sports and/or ESPN.
  • I, however, am NOT holding my breath.
  • Pittsburgh entered Coors Field last Friday with the best record in baseball, facing a Rockies team that crawled home following a terrible 1-9 road trip that essentially ended their hopes of contending for a wild-card spot.
  • Naturally, the Rockies broomed the Pirates. Because, baseball.
  • Next up for the Pirates: another showdown with St. Louis, which might miss Yadier Molina more than even they expected. Since he went on the DL July 31, the Cardinals are 5-7 and have fallen into second place, three games behind the Pirates.
  • Chris Davis is on pace to belt 59 homers and knock in 153 runs.
  • Miguel Cabrera is on pace to hit “only” 49 homers and drive in 153. He is not 100% and may not be for the rest of the season. Detroit currently has a seven-game lead in the AL Central – nice lead, but certainly not safe. After all, Oakland had a six-game lead on July 29 and watched it fizzle away by Aug. 7. If the Tigers are able to open a division lead as large as Atlanta’s, you have to wonder if they would consider putting Cabrera on the DL  in an effort to get his abdominal injury healed in time for the playoffs.
  • Apropos of nothing, the only other major leaguer with at least 90 RBI entering Sunday was Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (91).
  • News: Stephen Strasburg notched his first career shutout Sunday against the fading Phillies. Views: I half expected the Nationals to shut him down in the 7th to preserve his arm.
  • Random Baseball Statistic Guaranteed to Enrage Brian Kenny: on August 11, 1970, Jim Bunning became the first pitcher to win 100 games in both leagues.
  • Alex Rodriguez popped his first home run of the season Sunday and represented career home run No. 648 (or, 12 shy of Willie Mays). The two runs he drove in give him 1,952 in his career, passing Stan Musial for sixth on the all-time RBI list.
  • That means that A-Rod now has 648 career homers, which is 12 shy of Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time list. He also added an RBI single later in the game, giving him 1,952, which means he’s passed Stan Musial for sixth on the all-time list.
  • In perhaps the ultimate testament to his greatness, Mariano Rivera has blown three consecutive saves for the first time in his career. It took 19 seasons and 937 appearances for it to happen.
  • Still, I expect some dimwitted New York media member to suggest that it’s time to remove the Sandman from the closer role. Mike Francesa, maybe?

Follow me on Twitter: @ccaylor10

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Dyson stealing his way into fans’ hearts

Speed kills and Jarrod Dyson has speed to burn.

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In the third inning of Tuesday’s game against the Braves, this was on full display. Dyson bunted down the third base line for a single to lead off the inning. He wasted no time stealing second base. He ended up being stranded on third base, but he showed how dangerous his speed can be for opposing teams. Without hitting the ball out of the infield, he had himself in scoring position.

This is what Dyson brings to the table for the Royals. His elite speed gives the team an added weapon that they were missing while Dyson was on the DL (he missed over a month with a high ankle sprain).

The Royals are currently fourth in the majors with 60 steals and Dyson’s return from the DL should only help add to that number. In his first three games back, Dyson had three steals. In 102 games last season, Dyson swiped 30 bases and he stole over 30 bases in four different minor league seasons.

Dyson isn’t the only threat on the bases for the Royals. Alcides Escobar and Elliot Johnson have 11 steals each and Lorenzo Cain has nine. Even first baseman Eric Hosmer has seven steals.

The Royals now have a log jam in the outfield with five players more than capable of manning the position. Alex Gordon should stick in left field. Dyson, Cain, and David Lough can all play center field and Jeff Francoeur is still around to play right field. On Wednesday, Cain played in center with Francouer in right against left-hander Mike Minor. In the previous two games, Dyson played in center with Lough in right, while Cain and Francoeur sat.

With Dyson in the lineup, the Royals are one of the fastest teams in the majors, especially if Dyson, Cain, Escobar and Johnson are all on the field at the same time.

Dyson currently sports a slash line of .292/.320/.604. If he continues to hit and get on base, he should force his way into the lineup, especially against right-handed pitchers.

Because the outfield is so crowded, Dyson may not see everyday at-bats. But even in limited plate appearances, Dyson could threaten the 30 steals mark on the season, which will only help the speedy Royals push the envelope on the base paths.

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Kelvin Herrera’s up and down season

Everything was trending up for Kelvin Herrera.

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It was April 16 and the flame-throwing right-hander already owned a win, two saves and two holds. He had struck out at least two batters in four of his first six appearances of the 2013 season and had yet to give up a run.

And all this was coming off the 2012 season in which he was one of baseball’s best setup men. Last season, Herrera pitched to a 4-3 record with a 2.35 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and struck out 77 in 84.1 innings.

Herrera entered the eighth inning of the game in Atlanta with the score tied at 2. He was ready to blow away the heart of the Braves’ lineup with his blazing fastball.

However, after recording the first out of the inning, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton caught up to Herrera’s heater for back-to-back home runs. After another out, Dan Uggla went deep for the third home run of the inning.

Herrera finished the day with 0.2 innings pitched, 3 hits (all home runs), 4 runs and 1 walk. To put things in perspective, Kelvin only allowed four home runs all of last year.

Just a blip on the radar screen, right? Every pitcher has a bad outing once in a while.

After a scoreless inning the next day against the Braves, Herrera had another stinker, this time against the Boston Red Sox. He entered the game in the eighth inning with a runner on base, two outs and the Royals leading 2-1. Following a walk to the first batter he faced, Herrera served up a home run to Daniel Nava and the Red Sox went on to win 4-3.

In 10 appearances after the April 20 game against Boston, Herrera gave up an earned run in five of them and served up four more home runs. His struggles with the long ball eventually led to his demotion to Triple-A Omaha on May 22.

He had doubled his home run total from 2012 and that was a serious problem in the eyes of Royals management. He needed to go down to the minors and work out the kinks.

“He got to the point by not having confidence in his fastball to where he was trying to overthrow it, so he needs to just smooth his mechanics a little bit and really just go down and have some success,” Manager Ned Yost told the media after Herrera’s demotion. “He’s very young, too, and a big part of our ‘pen, so we need to get him straightened out. Get a little bit of his swagger back and bring him back.”

Aaron Crow served as the eighth-inning reliever while Herrera was in the minors. He has struggled as well, with a 4.11 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 16.1 innings.

Crow had a meltdown of his own on May 29 against St. Louis, giving up 5 hits, 4 ER, and 1 HR in a 5-3 loss.

Meanwhile, at Omaha,  Herrera appeared in five games, logging 4.2 innings. He gave up 2 hits, 3 walks, and struck out six. Most importantly, no home runs and no earned runs.

The Royals saw what they needed to see from Herrera and recalled him from Triple-A on Tuesday.

Now that he is back, the Royals should give Herrera a shot to regain his setup role. On Wednesday, Ned Yost called on Herrera to pitch the eighth with a 4-1 lead over the Twins. He retired the side in order with one strikeout.

With Herrera’s success in the minors, as demonstrated by the numbers, he should have some of his swagger back. That could be a huge boost for the free-falling Royals.

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El Salvador

Perhaps he’s not the savior that his name suggests, but the Royals are placing enough faith in 21-year-old Salvador Perez that his signing represents a significant effort to lock up talent early.

Much was made in 2008 about the signing of Evan Longoria to a long-term deal before he’d completed even a full year in the majors. The Royals mimicked the Longoria deal by giving Perez a 5-year deal for $7 million with 3 club option years that total up to $19.75 million.

By giving a rookie a multi-year, incentive-laden contract, it would appear both player and team benefit. If the player is injured or flops, he still gets big money. But if the player lives up to his presumed potential, the team retains his services through the early part of his career for a relatively bargain-basement price. And the player earns his worth through incentives.

The fact that Perez got such a deal done before Eric Hosmer might be a bit surprising, but is no less encouraging to Royals fans. Hosmer is a potentially great player, but he plays first base, a position where seemingly every team has a great player.

Perez, on the other hand, plays a position where few are truly great. Prior to last season, Perez was viewed as a premium defensive catcher and handler of pitchers who might develop offensively. But last season he rocketed to the head of the class with the bat and became the most coveted catching prospect in baseball.

While Hosmer has tons of company when it comes to elite first basemen, Manager Ned Yost told reporters Tuesday that Perez stands alone among catchers.

“You can’t find a catcher of his magnitude – they’re just not out there,” Yost said from Surprise, Arizona yesterday. “In my 25 years, I haven’t come across a catcher with this kid’s ability. When I was with the Braves, we sort of had that with Javi Lopez, Javi was a spectacular player, but this kid is better.”

Yost called Perez, who’s played just 39 games in the big leagues “ the cornerstone” of the team, predicting the catcher would be “an all-star for years to come.”

Is this kind of praise, heaped on top of a headline-grabbing contract, too much for a rookie?

“This is the big leagues. You learn to deal with that,” said Yost. “If you’re gonna reach your ceiling, there’s no way around that.”

Perez’ talent was no secret to Royals fans prior to 2011, but he wasn’t showing up in prospect rankings. Strangely, Wil Myers was the one ranked second among catching prospects at this time last year. But Myers moved to the outfield and Perez moved through two minor leagues and a month in Kansas City so effortlessly he would probably be ranked #1 among prospects this year if he were eligible.

(Some others ranked last year were very good as well. Jesus Montero certainly didn’t disappoint last year and is ranked #1 again this year. J.P. Arencibia and Wilson Ramos left the ranks of prospects to become solid big leaguers last year.)

But Yost doesn’t just see Perez as a great prospect. He sees in him the potential to be THE BEST catcher in the game. Soon.

How long has it been since the Royals had the best player in the game at any particular position? Possibly not since 1980, when Brett won the MVP as a third baseman.

So the fact that Perez stands in line to become an elite catcher makes his signing of utmost importance. Hopefully Hosmer and others will follow suit and commit to long-term deals with KC.

If Perez reaches his potential, he’ll be an all star. But if he can turn the Royals into a winning franchise, he will be El Salvador.

 

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Interactive Article: Choose Your Own Cliche

Game. Five.

While saying, reading, or hearing it doesn’t quite carry the same weight as “Game 7”, there’s no difference to the players, managers, coaches, and fans–it’s an elimination game. The bad news is that if the Cardinals lose tonight, their 2011 season is over.

The good news is that the same holds true for Philadelphia, a far less experienced team than St. Louis when it comes to games that are:

Choose one:
[] A: Do or die
[] B: Win or go home
[] C: Down to the wire
[] D: Backs against the wall
[] E: Gut-check time
[] F: All of the above
[] G: Other _______________

*yawn* The Cardinals have been playing “that game” for a long time now, and I believe they’re mentally prepared to handle that aspect of tonight’s 7:37 (CT) contest. They’ve won when they needed to (though you shouldn’t fully trust me enough to read on, unless I mention that the Cards’ successful run doesn’t happen unless teams that need to lose do just that). The question tonight is: Will the Phillies lose, like the Cardinals need them to? One thing about tonight’s game that differs from the redbirds’ run over the last 5 weeks of the regular season is that the answer to that question is something they control.

After August 25th, the Braves lost 20 of their final 30 games, a winning percentage of .333. Examined more closely, we learn that they lost 9 of their last 12 (.250 winning %), including 5 of their final 5 games (.000). The Braves squandered a sure thing. They were an absolute lock for the NL Wild Card, all they had to do was not have a meltdown of historic proportions. But they did.

The Cardinals never gave up, and kept winning when they needed to, and as we all know, clinched a playoff spot by the narrowest possible margin on the last day of the regular season. I guess that’s what happens when you write one thing…another happens. But again, the Cards handled what they could, yet still needed Atlanta to lose–fortunately they obliged.

But for as many ways as tonight represents many of the same things the Cardinals have become familiar with since the end of August, it’s not the same. In fact, it’s quite different. The fate of the Cardinals postseason hopes is theirs to determine. No playing in another city while scoreboard watching to see if the Phillies lose, no hoping to gain ground on the opponent’s off day, this is it. And I think most of Cardinal nation would agree that there is no better man for Tony LaRussa to send to the mound this evening than Chris Carpenter. Big games call for big game pitchers, and he’s the biggest game pitcher they’ve got.

But Roy Halladay’s no slouch, to make the understatement of the year. The redbirds will have their work cut out for them as they face one of the game’s premier pitchers tonight in his home park, where (another) new attendance record could fall. Say what you will about Verlander and Sabathia, this is the pitching matchup of the postseason so far!

Plenty has been written and discussed about the relationship and history between tonight’s two starters, a topic that I’ll gracefully sidestep today. I would, however, like to remind you that as improbable as the Cardinals appearance in the postseason seemed 6 weeks ago, they’re here now. The secret to a championship has long been: Get in, get hot. The Cardinals are trying a slightly different approach: Get hot. Get in. Stay hot. Hopefully that formula works…we’ll know in a few hours!

If you’re a fan of great pitching, tonight, you’ll be in paradise! I recall back in May of 2000 there was a regular season pitching matchup between Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson (link here), and I had a final the next morning. REALLY should’ve been studying for that exam, but just could not not watch! West coast game with a late start? Didn’t matter. That was an amazing pitching duel to sit back & enjoy, and after each starter had completed 8 innings, it was up to the bullpens. When grabbing that link, I had to look to see who ended up winning that game–I was so much more enthralled with the pitching performances that I’d forgotten. Probably having a lot to do with that was the fact that it was a regular season game in early May, and had little to no bearing on much of anything at all. Tonight, however, will be so different that if one baseball game could be the opposite of another, this just might fit the bill. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to miss one single pitch of tonight’s game. And I assure you, I’m not going to forget who wins.

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Cards Take The Fans For A Ride

This season has been anything but smooth for the Cardinals and their fanbase. An up and down, rollercoaster of a ride has seen fans start thinking towards 2012 and the team exploring options to trade some potential free agents, only to realize the Braves were falling apart and the team might be able to salvage something in 2011.

The season's hopes are on the shoulders of EJax

The playoffs, or the three games that represent the playoffs to this point, seem to have taken that idea to the next level. The Cardinals had Roy Halladay on the ropes and the fans were excited to see that their team was, in fact, worthy of being in the playoffs. A few innings later, however, the team would show a weakness to pull through and see the victory all the way through and ended up being blown out in the first game. The blowout seemed to confirm to most fans that the team was overmatched and that the Phillies truly were the powerhouse. The road was not going to get any easier, either, as Cliff Lee still had to pitch before they could leave Philadelphia.

Game two rolled around and the Cardinals worked hard against Lee, taking his pitch count high early on and scraping out a few runs. The bullpen, used in a match up environment despite an early exit by the starter, would pin down a solid victory. Fans were back on the bandwagon seeing that the team could hang tough, compete hard, gain a victory against a top of the line starter, and band together for a win. The series was shifting to St. Louis and the fans were clamoring about a potential National League Championship Series appearance.

Game three had the potential to be one of two things: a great performance for the team or an extreme statement by Philadelphia. It turned out to be a bit of both but ultimately, simply a let down for the Cardinals. Behind a strong start by Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals kept Cole Hamels on the ropes throughout the entire game. The problem this time around was lack of follow through. Why Hamels labored and constantly found himself in a threatening position, he did what any ace pitcher would do and worked his way out of it. The Cardinals failed to drive the point home with the youngest of the “Four Aces” on the mound and found themselves in trouble when Garcia left a pitch up and surrendered a pinch-hit, three run home run. Much like the season, the Cardinals would not let this go down without a fight, and scraped together a few runs of their own. As happened often in 2011, the team found themselves coming up just short.

This has been one of the most heartbreaking and exciting versions of the Cardinals to watch. If there is one thing this team has earned from the fans, it would be the support knowing that they just will not give up. On Wednesday evening, the team will take to the Busch Stadium field facing yet another elimination game. They hand the ball to Edwin Jackson and ask him to keep hope alive. They face a familiar foe in Roy Oswalt and will look to use that to their advantage.

Win or lose, they will go down with a fight. Fans deserve a team that leaves it all on the field. This team deserves fans that will get behind them and fight with them. This is the highs and lows of baseball. The fans may be rewarded with one more game in Philadelphia. The fans may be let down and left feeling like it was not enough.

Who says you cannot be romantic about this game?

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Flare For The Dramatic

Leave it to THIS Cardinal team to leave the season hanging in the balance with only two games remaining. 160 down, 2 to go and still multiple scenarios where the Cardinals make the playoffs. Yet as I sit here writing this with the Braves seemingly giving the Wild Card to the Cardinals they trail 100 loss Houston 0-5 in the 3rd inning. Why, because this team has a flair for the dramatic.

Since Ryan Franklin started the blown save parade eight games into the season the Cardinals have found a way to make sure things not so sure, turn wins into losses and inspire hope only to douse out the passionate burning flames of Cardinal Nation with their underachieving play. Franklin gave way to Boggs, who gave way to Sanchez who gave way to Salas who gave way to Motte who all totaled 26 blown saves.

Still the Cardinals sit one game out of the playoffs. After losing 13 games in their opponents last at bat the Cardinals may still host a playoff game. A team that has played in 49 one run games, losing 23 games by another 21 in extra innings, losing 13 could still be playing in October. Nothing is as it seems with the 2011 Cardinals. Not winning, not losing.

Proving my point the Cardinals have now pulled to within one run…down 4-5 in the 4th inning. A team that was written off by all. If you’re one of the 3 people alive who thought the at 10.5 games out they still had a chance well then good for you…and you’re lying.

After losing nine of fourteen between August 13th and 27th, the Cardinals began would could end up as the greatest comeback in MLB history. Erasing a 10.5 game deficit to win the Wild Card by winning 19 or their next 28.

Even is this game the back and forth is almost too much to take. 0-5 became 5-5 just as quick and even quicker again became 5-6. Do the Cardinals not like momentum on their side? Our starting pitching adds to the drama in their own way by not even getting though seven innings combine through two games in Houston. Again, against a 100 loss team.

As a result Tony LaRussa must puzzle together his bullpen to find another six innings of availability. Six innings out of a bullpen that is more than taxed…mostly due to TLR’s insistence on tinkering within every game, playing the match-ups to a fault and going to the Motte well perhaps once too often.

Regardless of Tuesday’s result the Cardinals will still have a chance to force a one game playoff for the Wild Card by winning on Wednesday. Who else would start such a game but, yep…Chris Carpenter.

As I save this the Cardinals have tied it at six with two outs in the 7th…If only I were making this stuff up I could have a great career writing fiction. But fact is this is the reality of the 2011 Cardinal season.

These are just my thoughts…keep on reading and you’ll get up to speed.

Derek is on Twitter @SportsbyWeeze and also writes for the Rams at RamsHerd.com

Also on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/SportsByWeeze

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Taking A Look At The Cardinals’ Final 2 Games And The Playoff Picture

The Cardinals never said they were making this easy. They didn’t force anyone to get back on their bandwagon a couple weeks ago when it had all but emptied with the start of football season and a seemingly insurmountable deficit in the National League Wild Card race.

On September 11th, with the St. Louis Rams kicking off their season just a few blocks away at the Edward Jones Dome, only 39,710 watched on as the Cardinals closed out their series with the Braves… nearly 2,000 fewer fans than the previous Sunday (and even that was an inflated number as the Cardinals gave away thousands of tickets to military members, police officers, paramedics, and fire fighters). Still 5 ½ game back, chances of getting back in the race still looked bleak.

Interestingly enough, that was the day the Cardinals capped their one (and now certain to be only) 5-game winning streak of the season. The lead was down to 4 ½ games, and people started taking notice.

A lot of things had to go just right (including that sweep of the Braves in mid-September) to give the Cardinals a chance. Lose any of those three games, and the Cardinals would’ve been eliminated from the playoff race with Monday night’s extra-inning loss in Houston. But while things have gone just right enough to keep the Redbirds in it, the list isn’t finished yet.

First, we’ll take a look at what needs to happen over the next 3 days to get the Cardinals into post-season play, and then take a look at how the Divisional Series could play out.

TONIGHT

The Cardinals, for the first time all season, will be in jeopardy of being eliminated from the playoff race. If Atlanta beats Philadelphia tonight and St. Louis falls to Houston, it’s over. So tonight, the Cardinals need to win, no questions asked. Jake Westbrook must bring his “A” game like he did last week against the Mets (we won’t talk about how that game ended). I would also argue that Atlanta must lose tonight to keep the Cardinals’ playoff hopes alive. Philadelphia, with 100 wins and nothing to play for, will most certainly rest the likes of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, et al during the season finale Wednesday… if for no other reason than to take one last look at some bench players who are on the post-season roster “bubble” if you will. And rumor has it that a couple of young pitchers will be sharing the workload for Philadelphia tomorrow, not Cole Hamels. So with that in mind, the Cardinals can’t rely on much help from Philadelphia after tonight. This is the night St. Louis must catch Atlanta, with Roy Oswalt going for the Phillies… and hopefully a full lineup of Philly bats to support him.

TOMORROW

The Cardinals will send Chris Carpenter to the mound. We’ve already addressed what’s likely going to happen in Atlanta… so this hopefully will be a situation where the Cardinals are tied with the Braves coming in, and while it would be nice to get lucky and take the wild card outright, let’s not get too greedy. Cardinal Nation will gladly accept a 1-game playoff at home vs. the Braves.

THURSDAY

This should be interesting. Both clubs will be throwing their respective aces on Wednesday, leaving a matchup of Kyle Lohse vs Brandon Beachy for the win-and-you’re-in game in St. Louis. Beachy has a 3.68 ERA this season, and has only faced the Cardinals once back on April 30th, a 3-2 Cardinals win in which he did not take the decision after giving up 2 runs through 7 innings. Beachy has struggled a bit down the stretch, giving up 4 runs in each of his last 3 starts while failing to pitch past the 6th inning each game. Lohse, meanwhile, did not face the Braves this season. He’d take a 3.39 ERA to the mound with him as well as a 3-game winning streak. He wasn’t taken a loss since August 23rd, right before the Cardinals went on their dramatic run for the playoffs.

FRIDAY

The Cardinals, should they get in, would catch a bit of a break here with an extra off day before the NLDS Starts.

SATURDAY/SUNDAY

Games 1 and 2 at Philadelphia. Perennial Cy-Young Candidate Roy Halladay will take the mound for the Phillies Saturday. Edwin Jackson would likely take the hill for the Cardinals on schedule, though Jaime Garcia would be available on 3-days rest (and only went 4-innings last night, mind you) if Tony La Russa wanted to push it. At this point, I’d assume he’d go with the veteran Jackson, and let Jaime take game 2 vs Cliff Lee.

TUESDAY, Oct. 4th

With another off day Monday, Chris Carpenter will be able to go on full rest vs Cole Hamels in Game 3, a matchup that most would agree favors the Cardinals. If they can find a way to steal game 1 or 2, they’d be sitting pretty.

WEDNESDAY/THURSDAY… Oct 5th and Oct 6th

If Tony wanted to push it again, he could think about Jackson/Garcia on short rest, or take his pick between Lohse and Westbrook. One of these 4 would pitch Game 4, with either Jackson or Garcia pitching Game 5 if necessary.

At that point, the Cardinals would have their rotation set up correctly should they advance to the NLCS… with Carpenter available for game 1, and either Jackson/Garcia ready for game 2. Obviously getting way ahead of ourselves, but the LCS might be a final showdown with the Milwaukee Brewers… and wouldn’t that be something.

But for now, the Cardinals have a lot of work to do (and need some help). The stars need to align tonight, or the team and fans will spend a long winter looking back at about a dozen games that got away this season if they come up 1 win short.

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Another Bump In The Road

After the Cards’ disappointing loss to the New York Mets Thursday, I wrote the following on my blog: “If the Cardinals win two of three in their next two series and the Braves lose two of three in theirs, the teams will meet in St. Louis for a one game playoff to determine the Wild Card winner.” What has changed, 24 hours and one more game back in the standings later? Nothing. The above scenario is still in play.

The Cardinals certainly are not making it easy on themselves. Friday night they had their ace on the mound, and needed a morale boost from a bounce back win. They wasted both opportunities. Two losses in a row when they can barely spare one is not the easiest path. Now they are three games back in the Wild Card race, and time is running out.

But there are still five games for the Cardinals to play. The Braves have five left as well. All things considered, both teams seem equally capable of winning them or losing them based on which squad shows up each night. The Braves have the advantage of the lead right now, but that could all but evaporate before the end of this weekend and they know it.

The Cardinals really are backed into a corner though, and the worst part is they don’t control their own fate. They haven’t for months. It’s an unfamiliar position for the franchise, really. They’ve always been the chased, not the chaser. None of the Tony LaRussa-managed playoff teams had to come from behind like this. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things; wins are wins and the Cardinals need more of them. But it’s entirely possible that they could have won the last two games as well as the next five and still missed the playoffs. Now that’s a letdown.

Don’t forget that the variables haven’t changed either. The Braves still have a depleted rotation and a young, overworked bullpen. The Cardinals are still mostly healthy and may get Matt Holliday back this weekend as well. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen, of course. But the Cards definitely have no excuses. They will live or die with an intact roster. They will win or lose based on effort and execution alone. And they will have to do it against terrible teams, while the Braves still have to face a Phillies team looking to re-gain momentum heading into October.

Should the Cards not make the playoffs this year, some may look at these two recent losses as what cost the Redbirds their shot. It’s especially stinging that the Cardinals’ Achilles’ heels all year—questionable defense and a suspect bullpen—played prominent roles once again. But since that has been a year-long issue, take away any five of those bullpen losses or games lost on errors and the Cardinals are still in the hunt for the NL Central title, with the Wild Card likely being the consolation prize for either them or the Brewers. These last two losses were poorly timed, but if the Cards miss the 2011 postseason they were not the sole reason why.

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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