Tag Archive | "Pittsburgh Pirates"

Although injured, Jason Motte might hold key to St. Louis Cardinals bullpen

The man who closed out the 2011 World Series championship for the St. Louis Cardinals and saved 42 games for them a season later has not pitched in a competitive situation in more than a year, but he might turn out to be one of the most important pitchers on the 2014 team’s staff.

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Jason Motte tore a ligament in his right elbow during spring training in 2013 and had Tommy John surgery to fix it, but that operation requires about a full year of rehab before a pitcher can return to the mound in a Major League Baseball game.

Motte has thrown bullpen sessions and batting practices in spring training camp this year, but he had the surgery May 7, 2013, so the Cardinals will most likely be about one month into their 2014 regular season before Motte is available.

Indications are Motte will become the eighth-inning setup reliever for closer Trevor Rosenthal once he is fully healthy, and that should make the back end of the team’s bullpen extremely dangerous, if not dominant.

However, the Cardinals likely have to get through the first month of the season, which includes 12 games against their top divisional opponents, the Cincinnati Reds or Pittsburgh Pirates.

Those first several weeks of the season are certainly important, even though the team survived the Mitchell Boggs disaster in April a year ago, and the Cardinals have potentially better pitchers set to again try to fill an April void left by Motte, but those options carry nearly as many questions.

The pitcher who starts the season as the righthanded setup reliever in the bullpen could easily be the one who loses the battle for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation that has waged between rookie Carlos Martinez and third-year big leaguer Joe Kelly.

Martinez has had an exceptional spring training with a 1.76 earned-run average with nine strikeouts in four starts, while Kelly struggled in his first two starts before he settled down for 5.1 innings Saturday when he allowed one run and struck out three in a 6-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Martinez has made a Shelby Miller-like impression on the spring training mounds this year, but he still might be the better choice to start the season in the bullpen than Kelly.

For one, Martinez shined as the eighth-inning pitcher during the 2013 postseason with 11 strikeouts in 12 appearances, while Kelly started four games, including a 5.1-inning outing in Game 3 of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox to lead the Cardinals to a 5-4 victory and one of their two wins in the series.

Kelly was also not particularly stellar as a bullpen pitcher during the first half of the 2013 season after he lost the race for the No. 5 spot in the rotation to Miller in spring training. Kelly’s ERA was at 6.75 through 16 appearances before he got his first start of the season June 5 and gave up one run in 5.2 innings in what turned out to be a 10-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Much of that debate won’t matter on the bullpen side when Motte comes back because he should be able to fill the eighth-inning role and take some pressure off of Martinez, Kelly or anybody else Cardinals manager Mike Matheny wants to use in the meantime.

The challenge then will likely be to get enough appearances in middle relief for whichever pitcher does not get the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

And if that is the biggest problem the Cardinals have once May begins, they will probably be off to a pretty good start.

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Carlos Martinez could follow Shelby Miller path to starting rotation

St. Louis Cardinals righthanded starting pitcher Shelby Miller had to beat out Joe Kelly for the fifth and final spot in the rotation through somewhat of a spring training-long duel between the two pitchers in 2013, and Kelly faces a similar challenge that could produce a similar result in 2014.

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Miller has a lock on a starting job for the 2014 season, so righthanded pitcher Carlos Martinez has taken his spot as the rookie on the verge of a spot in the rotation and in competition with Kelly, who could easily fall victim to another young Cardinals pitching sensation.

Martinez has done plenty to impress through roughly the first half of camp. He is 1-0 after a four-inning, two-hit performance Wednesday in a 6-4 victory over the New York Mets. That was his third start of the spring, and he lowered his earned-run average to 1.80 to go with five strikeouts.

Kelly, meanwhile, struggled his first two starts of the spring. He allowed seven runs and walked four batters in a combined four innings before he settled down for a 5.1-inning winning performance Saturday in a 6-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves when he allowed one run on four hits with no walks and three strikeouts.

Kelly did not pitch particularly poorly during the 2013 spring training camp, but Cardinals management obviously thought Miller was capable of a strong rookie season that started with him in the rotation on Opening Day, even though Kelly ended up in the rotation in the postseason while Miller sat in the bullpen unused aside from one inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Division Series.

Miller still set the bar high for Martinez or any of the other young Cardinals pitchers after he went 15-9 with a 3.06 earned-run average and finished third in the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year voting, but Martinez has the talent to have a comparable first full season in Major League Baseball.

Martinez pitched in 21 games for the Cardinals in 2013 and became the eighth-inning setup reliever toward the end of the regular season and in the postseason, where he posted a 3.55 ERA in 12.2 innings.

Still, the Cardinals were cautious in how much they used Martinez in 2013. They first called him up from the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds in May but sent him back to the minor leagues in June and late July to try to keep his arm fresh, as well as let him start at Memphis to maintain his endurance in case an injury befell one of the other starting pitchers with the big-league club.

They would obviously take care of Martinez again in the upcoming season, and he could very well move start the season back in the eighth-inning role because the Cardinals have few options for that spot, particularly if righthanded reliever Jason Motte is not yet fully recovered from the elbow injury he suffered at the beginning of spring training a year ago.

Martinez has all but guaranteed himself a roster spot for when the team opens the season March 31 against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, but he has pitched so well in his first three starts of the spring that he will await his first appearance from the dugout rather than the bullpen, just the way Miller did the year before.

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Making The Winter Rounds In the NL Central

While much of the success that a team has comes from its own preparation, what goes on around them also plays a huge factor. The Cardinals have been among the most successful clubs at concisely addressing their needs this winter, but how has the rest of the National League Central done?

Washington Nationals v St. Louis Cardinals

What is for certain is that the margin for error was slim-to-none last summer in the heart of the National League. While the Cardinals succeeded in winning the division, they finished only three games ahead of the Pirates, and seven in front the third-place Reds. And this feat was achieved only by a September surge that pulled them out of a three-way race that was separated by less than a two games entering the season’s final frame.

Even below the upper tier of the division, the Brewers and the Cubs are both looking to develop a new phase for their respective fortunes. Amid the Ryan Braun Biogenesis fallout and the continued resurfacing in Chicago, both teams finished well outside of the race, but continue to look for ways to tweak the approach.

However, the NL Central has not been a division that has made a sweeping amount of substantial additions. In fact, many faces from each team have departed and the action to replace them has not been as loud as it has been in, say the American League East or West. Thus far, only the Cardinals have made any major additions of note, and when combined with what’s in place already, potential the NL Central gauntlet could be a thing of the past potentially.

Here is how the winter has gone for the Cardinals’ divisional neighbors thus far, and what could be to come before the winter turns to spring…

 

Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68 in 2013)

Gains: Clint Barmes (resigned), Chris Stewart, Edison Volquez

Losses: Marlon Byrd (Phillies), Garrett Jones (Marlins), Justin Morneau (Rockies)

The detail: The Pirates have let both of the main parts they added for the stretch run last year walk, which should come as no surprise. While the presence of Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez makes this bearable, the loss of Jones as well leaves a substantial loss in power potential. Add in the pending free agent status of AJ Burnett, and this is a team that has more than a few questions currently. The addition of Volquez is both an attempt to pad this looming issue, as well as to catch the same type of former All-Star lightning in a bottle they did with Liriano last summer.

What’s Looming: Burnett will either resign or retire most likely, and it is a decision that could linger into the spring. Pittsburgh is armed with a young core and could look to add some value priced veterans, but they are likely to take a step back in everyday potency as long as their first base situation is up in the air.

 

Cincinnati Reds (90-72 in 2013)

Additions: Brayan Pena, Skip Schumaker

Subtractions: Shin-Soo Choo (Rangers), Ryan Hanigan (Rays), Xavier Paul (Orioles), Dusty Baker (Fired)

The detail: The Reds have probably seen the most change of any team in the division, which started with the firing of manager Dusty Baker a day after their loss in the NL Wild Card Game. On the field, the expected loss of Choo came, and they flirted with the idea of moving Brandon Phillips as well, but were scoffed by the Yankees before it could go through. Their operation has been based in promoting from within (trading Hanigan to open up a full-time role for Devin Mesoraco), and rounding out the bench this offseason, with additions such as the former Cardinal Schumaker. They are very much a team that is not quite rebuilding, but is definitely retooling their approach on the run.

What’s Looming: As it stands today, the Reds are a wild card, and very much the definition of a third place-level club. They will return the majority of the top half of their staff and every day lineup, but the future of Bronson Arroyo and where he lands next year potentially removes a vital safety valve in their rotation. Billy Hamilton will take over the reins in the center field, and will be asked to slide into the leadoff spot that Choo masterfully performed in last year.

 

Milwaukee Brewers (74-88 in 2013)

Additions: None

Subtractions: Corey Hart (Mariners)

The Story: 2013 stunk for Milwaukee. They couldn’t get a steady effort on the mound, injuries and suspensions killed their offensive potential and they could never crack into the competitive mix in the division. On the heels of it all, they’ve been the quietest team in the division, without much coming or going. This is either a sign that they feel they can compete with a return to full strength, or that they are simply hamstrung by what is available in the market—and what fits their needs.

What’s Looming: The loss of Hart hurts, as they struggled to find a replacement for him last season, and now don’t have a clear successor for him now that he has officially moved on. They have had interest in Mets first baseman Ike Davis, but have been reluctant to depart with any of their young arms to do so. However, with either Sean Halton or Juan Francisco as their only viable replacements, their hand could be forced eventually.

 

Chicago Cubs (66-96 in 2013)

Additions: Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Roberts, George Kottaras, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright

Subtractions: Dioner Navarro (Blue Jays)

The Story: The Cubs have once again been mostly quiet, having their name thrown into the rumor mill before they quickly pull it back out themselves. However, they have steadily gone along adding parts to their shed, rebuilding their bench completely and adding a new closer in Jose Veras as well.

What’s Looming: In the end, they could potentially make the biggest name splash of any team in the division, as they are said to be major suitors for newly available Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. If the franchise decides to go all in to add him (and he agrees to come to the lowly Cubs over the bigger names on the market), they would have a legitimate ace-caliber arm for the first time in years. Jeff Samardzija’s name has been often floated, but at this juncture, the club’s likely opening day starter as things stand now will likely stay in tow for a bit longer.

 

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Wainwright Joins Pinnacle of Cardinal Pitchers

It was no secret that the key to winning game five of the National League Division Series would require a strong performance from Adam Wainwright. However, what he ultimately delivered was far more than just that. It was an effort that removed any doubt about whether he belonged among the most exclusive class of Cardinal hurlers all-time, Waino delivered. And it is now clear that the Trinity of Bob Gibson, Dizzy Dean and Chris Carpenter now needs be pulled to include #50 as well.

It is now a “Mt. Rushmore” of Cardinal pitching greats.

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Throughout his whirlwind year, Wainwright has steadily affirmed himself as being among the best pitchers the team has ever had. It was a year where he reaffirmed his intent to be a part of the team throughout the remainder of his career, climbed the up the team’s leaderboards to a few rare levels and once again led his league in wins. It would be deemed yet another in a steady line of affirmations of him becoming one of the better pitchers of his era.

But there is always the sense that such achievements are only along a regular day’s work for him. Being a great Cardinal requires being great at the highest levels; and those only come in October. For Wainwright, the situation that found him the Division Series, being an anchor on both ends of it, fed exactly what he desires most. And that’s controlling the series in a way that only the head of a staff can; being the unavoidable punishment for opponents, and a pillar of confidence for his club.

With one half of that equation affirmed via his dominant Game One outing last week, he turned for a chance at rarified Cardinal immortality by picking up victory in a win or go home game. It was the one thing that eluded his resume to be a part of the aforementioned Cardinal greats of the bump, and it was also a chance to avenge the biggest let down of his career to date, which came in the same situation a year ago in Washington. But it was clear that the past would stay where it was early on, as Wainwright set the tone with an especially devastating curve. He pitched through the tough spots, while relishing in an inspired defense, as well as overcoming some blunders from that same unit. He made the runs stand up, and he authored a masterful complete game to close down the year for the Cardinals’ most persistent foe, and push his club to a third consecutive National League Championship Series

It echoed of the same fashion that he made his first bones in Cardinal lore, via his game-closing strikeout (via a buckling hopeless curveball) to a hitter that had destroyed the team all year, this time being Pedro Alvarez. Yet while Wainwright would always be remember for his relief heroics in seven years ago, last night was the stamp on his resume as a starter of legend with the club. It was his equivalent of Dean’s complete game, six-hit shutout of the Tigers to win the 1934 World Series, or Gibson’s record-setting 17 strikeout opener to the 1968 Series. More contemporarily, it was his match to his mentor’s masterful three-hit clinching performance over Philadelphia to close out 2011’s NLDS.

Wainwright’s postseason big game confidence was already in place, but last night, the pedigree was set. As well as affirmation that a living legend, one of the vein that tosses the first pitch out years down the road, is now set in the midst of the Cardinal faithful, for how thoroughly he delivered the last one of yesterday evening.

 

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In Game 4, Mark One Down For Matheny

While wins go to the team and are created by the players, there are games where a manager can set a scene so precisely; they deserve a share of the victory as well. And Mike Matheny deserves credit for setting the scene for the Game 4 victory.

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It is easy for everybody to look good when a game is delivered like what Michael Wacha authored on the mound. Saying he made the most of his first postseason game would be a gross understatement, as he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning and ran his total of no-hit innings in his last two starts up to 15.1. But unlike his first brush with perfection, this was not at home against a team that had just been eliminated from the postseason as the Nationals were. Rather, this was a game on the road in front of a crazed, 20-year postseason starved city of Pittsburgh that were urging their team on to close out the Cardinals in front of them.

But instead of feeling the pressure, Wacha fed on it and pitched the Cardinals back to another day in their season, having home field favor and into the hands of Adam Wainwright. Yet coming in, there was no shortage of second guessers on Wacha even taking the ball in the situation. It was seen as going against the grain, with his lack of starting experience and Shelby Miller being available as well, perhaps Wacha was not the guy.

But Matheny saw what he needed to in the 22 year old pitcher, from both a match up perspective, but more importantly, a makeup standpoint. It was that composure that won out in the end, and it has to be enhanced by the confidence that Matheny has shown in not only him, but the team in general. After his stuggles at the end of Game 4, the manager went to another of his rookie sensations in Carlos Martinez and let him know he was sticking with him in those same situations. Martinez responded by running up a big strikeout to end the eighth inning, quell a Pittsburgh uprising and deliver the game to Trevor Rosenthal with the slim lead intact.

The key to grooming a young pitching staff with the type of talent the Cardinals have isn’t just find room to utilize them. But inspiring them to be natural and trust in their talent to become the players they can be is the real task. In that lane, Matheny has already won the race for the season, as he has put much of the singular success of the season in the hands of his rookie arms. When there were grumblings to add a more experienced arm or to make safer (aka more experienced) moves on the mound, Matheny has stayed the path of letting talent win out, and has empowered them to not only be great prospects, but to be a part of carrying the Cardinals themselves.

Nothing more could inspire confidence than the victories in the situations that have faced the team down the stretch. Whether is giving Seth Maness the chance to be the double play magnet he is, sticking with Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly throughout their peaks and valleys or turning Rosenthal into a fearless relief machine, Matheny’s confidence has grown these 22, 23 and 24 year old group of players beyond just their age.

The kids (in years at least) are alright.

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Déjà vu Threatens Cardinals All Over Again

Down 2-1, and faced with nothing elimination games ahead in their Divisional Series match up with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cardinals find themselves in a familiar place. But not the type of “they’ve been behind before” postseason rhetoric that has been tagged to the club so often recently, rather it directly correlates to the way their season ended last time around. While the pitching alignments get the buzz, it is the lineup that is once again failing the Cardinals.

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It has now been two full games since the Cardinals had a lead at any point versus Pittsburgh. Along the way, the Cardinals have been buried by the same type of timely hitting from the Pirates core that the Cardinal collective has been prided on. Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd have collaborated to drive in more runs (16) than the Cardinals have combined for as a club (11).

Basically, they are being beat at their own game. After a season where the Cardinals were the second most productive team offense, hitting for a .269 average, they have torpedoed to a .219 average through the first three games of the series. Carlos Beltran’s once again outstanding October effort aside, as well as solid showings from Yadier Molina and Matt Adams, the rest of the lineup has brutally underperformed. Highlighted by a 1 for 11 (.091) spin by Matt Carpenter, a 2 for 12 effort by Matt Holliday (.167) and a pair of 2 for 10 showings from Jon Jay and David Freese, the same type of large scale outage that sunk the team over the last three games of 2012 has made an untimely return.

There is a huge difference in the 2012 postseason Cardinals than any past incarnation however, and it is a simple see: it is not a deep team. Whereas in years past there were Allen Craig, Lance Berkman and Matt Carpenter among others to supply hits off the bench, there is no such presence of that sort this year. Look no further than the final two batters in yesterday’s game, Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, who, respectively, hit .217 and .238 on the year. It’s a striking showing that their were no other bats available to take those opportunities, and proves resoundingly the depth the team lost when Craig was lost for what looks to be the season. The bottom line is simply, what starts is what has to produce, and the group failings to do so (a .192 average from the starting lineup over the past 18 innings) is creating a brutal case of déjà vu.

Over the past the last three games of last season’s National League Championship Series, the Cardinals mounted one run across three games, which unfolded in the same home, then road-road sequence. While the team is guaranteed to score more runs than last with yesterday’s output, there is still simply too much pressure put on the pitching staff to win games.

Game four sees a continuation of yesterday, with Michael Wacha going to the mound for his first postseason appearance of his career. While he has been effective against the Pirates, and is the best available option to start this game, even with his best efforts will be for nil if the team continues to leave runners on base

In a most poetic situation in how the year has unfolded, it is the young arms that have been leaned on to pitch in high leverage situations, and while the rookie staff as performed impeccably throughout the year, they still are young. The postseason is made for veterans to deliver, and for all of the strides the team took this season, it finds itself on the verge of ending in not only the same fashion, but at an earlier clip if it cannot work out the order of things by 5:00 this evening.

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In Pirates, Cardinals Face Path of Proven Resistance

There is no doubt about the task that lies ahead for the Cardinals in starting their playoff push with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The margin of a difference between the two teams was rarely much further apart than three games at any point in the season, and for much of it, it felt as if the Pirates owned the Cardinals head-to-head. The numbers are what the numbers are, and while the playoffs do reset the standings, they do not reset the match up; a series which has turned 10-9 in Pittsburgh’s favor thus far.

Mike-Matheny2

However, the Cardinals have had their usual late season swerve since much of the damage that was done to them by Pittsburgh. They were an NL-best 19-8 in September, which included a three-game sweep over Pittsburgh in St. Louis early in the month. Over the past two seasons, the Cardinals have played at their best the later the season has drawn, with a 42-27 mark in the months of September and October, including the postseason. Experience is their ally, and could be their greatest asset over the next (at max) five games.

Despite this, it would be fair to say that the general sentiment that the Pirates could be the arrow in the Cardinals Achilles is fair. They hold two pitchers that have been dominant against the St. Louis lineup all year. Nobody has had more success versus the Cardinals than Francisco Liriano, who in three starts is undefeated and carries a ridiculous 0.75 ERA and .127 average against. He is in line for the Game 3 start on Sunday in Pittsburgh, where they Pirates have won seven of ten games against the Cardinals this year. Another asset on their side takes to the mound today, in AJ Burnett, who also has three wins to only one loss on the year in the matchup, and carried a no-hitter into the seventh against the team early in the year.

Pitching has been a strength for the Bucs, and it is an upper hand that will have to be overcome by the Cardinals, who are countering with a less certain staff, but some definite strengths as well. Adam Wainwright is setup to be the alpha and omega of the series, throwing game one and in line to toss the decisive game five as well. Yet, outside of their ace, the Cardinals are primed to leave nothing off the table in taking down their most persistent foe.

Having the league-leader in wins for the season taking to the mound is an obvious strength, but there it is what is to follow him that has been the most debated element, but could be a smokescreen to much bigger strategy. The decision to start Lance Lynn in game two was rightfully questioned by both fans and media alike. Lynn is the most mercurial of all the Cardinal arms, and despite pitching much better down the stretch, with the club winning three of his final five starts and him posting a 2.12 ERA two of the victories for himself. Yet, the Pirates have hit him well, to the tone of 30 hits in 27 innings and a 5.60 ERA. However, he still carries two victories against the club this season, which is second to only Joe Kelly’s three victories against Pittsburgh.

Yet, winning in swarms is the Cardinals approach this year offensively, and it appears Matheny is looking to spread this approach the mound as well early in the Division Series. He is going all in with his arms, as he has made the decision to put his now-proven arsenal of young arms on full availability out of the bullpen. Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha will both join the mix of Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal in the bullpen early in the series. With Kelly primed to start game three on Sunday in Pittsburgh, one will move to the rotation later, but both of the prized rookies will be available to go if needed before that crucial, but as of now if necessary, date.

This decision proves one thing clearly: the Cardinals are going all-in and sparing no part of its depth to do so. While the Pirates are the most formidable opponent the team could face, the Cardinals have reached the summit of entering as the National League’s best team over the past six months by holding nothing back. An approach they are appearing to be willing to go into overdrive to keep their year moving.

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Jake Westbrook start a nice gesture, but not worth losing home-field advantage

The St. Louis Cardinals have starting pitcher Jake Westbrook to thank for helping them win the National League Central Division this season and make the playoffs in each of the last three years, but an attempt to recognize him for those contributions could cost them dearly in October.

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Cardinals manager Mike Matheny announced before Saturday’s game that Westbrook would start the final game of the season Sunday because the organization wanted to honor him for his Cardinals career, which is likely about to end.

Westbrook was the first of several Cardinals starters to go on the disabled list this season when he went down with elbow inflammation May 12. He was 2-1 at the time of the injury and had given up four runs total in his first five stars before a May 8 loss when he gave up four runs in 5.1 innings in his last start before the injury.

He returned to the rotation June 14 and won five of his next eight starts, but his performance dropped precipitously in August when he gave up 24 runs in four starts, and then the Cardinals put him back on the disabled list, citing back soreness.

Westbrook came back from that injury Sept. 6 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowed three runs in 1.1 innings and has not pitched since.

Still, Matheny plans to use him to start Sunday with the best record in the National League on the line instead of Joe Kelly, who will be the first pitcher used in relief.

Westbrook might pitch well in his first appearance in nearly a month and the Cardinals will cruise to a win over the lowly Cubs, but Matheny is taking a large risk with an important achievement left to get.

In the best-case scenario, the Cardinals will enter play Sunday with a  one-game lead over the Atlanta Braves for the best record in the league, which would guarantee them home-field advantage in the National League Championship Series if they make it that far.

But the Braves would get home-field advantage if the teams finish with identical records because they own the tiebreaker since they beat the Cardinals in four of their seven games during the regular season.

The location of those games was a significant factor in those games. The Braves swept a three-game series from the Cardinals in late July at Turner Field in Atlanta, but the Cardinals won three of four games against the Braves about a month later at Busch Stadium.

Plus, both teams have played exceptionally well at home compared to their performance in away games. The Braves were 31 games above the .500 mark heading into their final two home games against the Philadelphia Phillies but had just a 40-41 away record. The Cardinals were 25 games over .500 at home heading into play Saturday compared to five games above .500 on the road.

Based on their overall records and head-to-head games, home-field advantage would figure to be vital in a matchup between the Braves and Cardinals in a seven-game series.

The Braves will send rookie Julio Teheran, with his 13-8 record and 3.09 earned-run average, to the mound Sunday to try to clinch home-field advantage.

The Cardinals will rely on a veteran with a 7-8 record and 4.67 ERA who has not pitched in nearly a month.

A lot still has to happen for the Braves and Cardinals to meet with a trip to the World Series on the line, but one of the keys to that potential series could be decided Sunday simply because the Cardinals want to honor one of their pitchers.

It’s a courteous move, but the game is too important to leave open the possibility of a loss because it could lead to a much bigger loss a couple of weeks later.

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Edward Mujica eerily similar to Ryan Franklin for St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2009 playoffs with a closer who barely reached 90 mph with his fastball after years of a closer who threw in the mid-to-upper 90s yet had a nearly perfect season before the Cardinals faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series.

EdwardMujica

Ryan Franklin had replaced Jason Isringhausen when Izzy got hurt, or got too ineffective, late in the 2008 season and saved 38 games in 43 opportunities.

The situation at the back end of the Cardinals’ bullpen four years later is nearly exactly the same. The Cardinals lost their flame-throwing closer, Jason Motte, to elbow surgery during spring training and eventually gave the ninth-inning job to Edward Mujica late in April.

Mujica’s fastball tops out around 91 mph, but as was the case with Franklin, he has masterfully induced dozens upon dozens of groundballs on the way to 37 saves in 41 chances with nine games left in the regular season.

And the Cardinals are set up to again play the Dodgers in the National League Division Series if they hold on to win the NL Central over the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.

The last time the Cardinals and Dodgers met in the division series is when Franklin’s almost magical run came to an end and never returned.

Dodgers first baseman James Loney hit a line drive to left field in Game 2 that Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday dropped. Franklin then walked two hitters and gave up two singles, the final one to pinch hitter Mark Loretta to give the Dodgers a 3-2 win and a 2-0 lead in the series that ended in a sweep two days later.

That playoff series was the beginning of the end for Franklin, who had been an All-Star in 2009. He saved 27 games in 2010 but he blew four of his first five save opportunities in 2011 and did not make it to the end of June before the Cardinals released him.

Obviously, the Cardinals hope the matchup against the Dodgers ends a little differently this time around, but the lesson from 2009 is clear. Mujica has been terrific for the Cardinals so far this season, but he is not an overpowering pitcher and not a long-term answer for the team at the closer position.

Thankfully, the Cardinals have a more solid backup option this time than they did two season ago, even though it is the same person.

The Cardinals tried seven different pitchers in the ninth inning in 2011 before manager Tony La Russa settled on Motte in September. Motte saved nine games in the regular season, closed out the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers and the World Series against the Texas Rangers, but he had a total of three career saves before that season.

Motte now has a world championship ring and 54 career saves to his name, and manager Mike Matheny will likely give him every possible chance to take back the job when he returns healthy to spring training in 2014.

Until then, Mujica has a lot of work to do, and he has shown some weaknesses lately. After he converted 21 consecutive save chances to start the season and was a perfect 9-for-9 from July 19 through Aug. 26, Mujica has blown two of his four save chances in September and has given up 12 hits in his last 6.1 innings.

Mujica is one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals are in a solid position to make the playoffs, but the team will need more of his first-half performances than his September outings if it is going to beat the Dodgers this time around.

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Home-field advantage could be vital for St. Louis Cardinals

Although the St. Louis Cardinals did not have full possession of first place in their own division heading into play Sunday, they were just three games away from having the best record in the National League, which could be a vital advantage come October.

Busch_Stadium Retired Numbers

The Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates had identical 86-62 records as of Sunday and both trailed the Atlanta Braves by three games for the best record in the league, which would guarantee them home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, until the World Series, of course, because the American League won the All-Star Game in July.

But that nonsense aside, home-field advantage is a strong reward for having the best record. The term includes the word “advantage” for a reason. Part of what doomed the Cardinals in the 2012 National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants was the same factor that helped St. Louis win the World Series the year before.

Those winning teams played games 6 and 7 at home where they felt more comfortable and could feed off of the energy from their fans and the home environment.

Now, home-field advantage certainly does not guarantee success. The Cardinals won every postseason series in 2006 despite never having home-field advantage, and they beat the Washington Nationals in the 2012 division series even though the final three games were in Washington, D.C.

But home-field advantage certainly does help, and it could help the Cardinals this year more than normal, especially with the glut of young pitchers on the roster and potential postseason starters in second-year pitchers Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly, and rookies Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha.

Along with a much better record against teams below the .500 mark, the Cardinals other lopsided record is their home and away splits.

St. Louis has played 20 games above .500 at Busch Stadium compared to four games above .500 on the road. Not surprisingly, their stats fall in line with those records.

The Cardinals hit for a .271 batting average at home compared to .260 on the road, but the bigger difference is how the pitching staff performs in away games. The Cardinals’ staff has a 3.29 earned-run average in home games but a 3.73 ERA on the road.

It would also be important for the Cardinals to finish with the best record in the National League because their potential postseason opponents have even more dramatic home and road splits.

The NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers pitch to a 3.13 ERA at home compared to 3.47 on the road, and the NL East-leading Braves have a National League-best 2.47 home ERA but a 3.70 ERA away from Turner Field.

The only aspect of the game that would benefit a road team is the Dodgers offense, which hits .258 at Dodger Stadium and a Major League Baseball-best .274 on the road.

The Cardinals also lost three of their four games at home to the Dodgers in early August, but that was also during a stretch when they lost 13 of 17 games that included a three-game sweep by the Braves in Atlanta.

Once the Cardinals got their season back together, they took three of four from the Braves in late August at Busch Stadium. They have also won six of nine games against the Pirates at home while losing seven of 10 in Pittsburgh. Against the third-place team in the NL Central, the Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals have also won six of nine home games and split the away games 5-5.

The Cardinals are nearly guaranteed a spot in the 2013 playoffs and have an excellent chance to win the NL Central with just one opponent with a winning record, the Washington Nationals, remaining.

But they also still have a chance to catch the Braves for the best record in the National League, and that accomplishment could make a large difference in which team represents the league in the World Series.

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