Tag Archive | "World Series"

St. Louis Cardinals should choose Jorge Rondon for final bullpen spot

Now that St. Louis Cardinals management has decided which pitcher it wants to begin the season in the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation, its focus can shift to a similar dilemma that exists for the last spot in the bullpen.

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Cardinals manager Mike Matheny announced Sunday that Joe Kelly would begin the season in the No. 5 spot in the rotation, while rookie Carlos Martinez would move back to the either-inning setup relief role he had at the end of the 2013 season and postseason.

The Cardinals decided to reward Kelly’s experience rather than Martinez’s stellar spring training numbers. Kelly has a 6.28 earned-run average in four starts, while Martinez posted a 1.76 ERA in his four starts.

Despite those contradictory numbers, the Cardinals made a sound decision to go with Kelly instead of Martinez.

Kelly has the experience of two Major League Baseball seasons where he showed the organization he could be a consistent contributor, given his 3.08 career ERA.

Plus, Martinez proved to be a dynamic setup reliever during the 2013 playoffs when he had 11 strikeouts in 12.2 innings during a run that ended in Game 6 of the World Series in a loss to the Boston Red Sox.

However, the Cardinals should make the opposite decision when they determine which pitcher will receive the last open spot in the bullpen.

Jorge Rondon, Keith Butler and Scott McGregor are the three candidates, and the two losers will likely begin the season with the Triple A Memphis Redbirds.

Butler is the pitcher with the most major-league experience. He pitched in 16 games with the Cardinals in 2013 and had an ERA of 4.08, with 11 walks and 16 strikeouts, but the team sent him back to the minors after he pitched Aug. 7 and he did not make the postseason roster.

McGregor and Rondon have never appeared in a big-league game, but Rondon has been far superior in spring training. McGregor has allowed three runs in four innings of work with two walks and two strikeouts. Rondon has yet to allow an earned run in 8.1 innings, and he has three walks compared to seven strikeouts.

Each of those three pitchers is in competition to likely be the right-handed option for the Cardinals in the seventh inning of games in which they have a lead.

That is certainly an important role, and the Cardinals would have nearly as complete of a roster as they ever have if the winner of this three-way battle excels once the regular season begins.

Rondon would figure to be in the lead to win the spot because he has shown the most potential, even though Butler has the most experience.

Rondon throws harder than Butler, but he too has struggled with his command during his seven years in the minor leagues, as he has racked up 230 walks compared to 338 strikeouts and had 37 walks to 42 strikeouts in 2013 at Memphis.

Still, Butler’s potential appears to be limited if he can’t locate his pitches because he does not have the electric action on his pitches that several of the Cardinals top young pitchers do, and McGregor has not done much with his limited opportunities.

The Cardinals need a middle reliever who can consistently throw strikes more than anything, and they might not need the winner of this battle for long anyway.

They already have groundball-specialist Seth Maness penciled into a bullpen spot, and former closer Jason Motte is on schedule to return to the big-league team in late April or early May, and he could take the spot of Rondon, McGregor or Butler because he has the experience and the ability to consistently throw strikes.

Still, the team needs a reliever to fill in during the meantime because the Mitchell Boggs disaster of April 2013 showed how important a reliever is even in the first few weeks of the season.

The Cardinals have a dynamic duo to finish games with Martinez and closer Trevor Rosenthal, but they’ll need someone to carry leads the starter gives them and hand them off for the eighth and ninth innings.

As of now, Rondon looks to be the man for that job.

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Cardinals Master Moment to Fight Another Day

Stopping the Boston momentum was the most important job the Cardinals had to do entering game two. And all things considered, there was no better man available to do the job than Michael Wacha. The rookie continued his sensational October run, but this time all the breaks did not fall to him, and finally the odds caught up.

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For the Cardinals, the early series stakes couldn’t be higher. Coming off a blowout where they lost in basically every facet of the game, against an energized club riding high on confidence and home crowd fuel, , there were not many factors on the Cardinal side—except for its young ace in the making.

Unlike the night before, when runs and miscues came in waves, game two was a much tighter affair. It was one defined by both an early pitching duel between the October veteran and the undeniable efforts of the rookie hurler

Throughout the team’s playoff run, Wacha’s flirtations with perfection have been the biggest story of the late year. Yet, while turning in sterling outings once after another, he has done so out of necessity, as the he has received only the necessities in regards to run support. Save for the two big inning outbreaks in game six of the National League Championship Series, the Cardinals bats had mustered just three runs of support for him, while he embarked on a club-record tying 19 consecutive innings of scoreless frames. The law of averages said that was due to change, and it was done so in a very sudden fashion on Thursday night.

After masterfully working through the potent Red Sox lineup for five innings, Wacha left one of his now signature change ups a bit too high, and David Ortiz used it to build a new floor on his own personal October legend, hammering it over the Green Monster for a two-run homer that humanized Wacha for the first time this fall. While Wacha’s night ended after six innings, the Cardinals hung into fight for a few more decisive rounds, and showed the type of fight that is only bred from being cornered.

On the other side of the field, John Lackey portrayed the role of grizzled veteran perfectly. While he was not as awe-inspiring as Wacha appeared at times, matched him take for take on the mound, in a style that should have come as no surprise. Eleven years after his initial rise to prominence as a member of the Anaheim Angels, where he won the decisive seventh game of his first World Series, Lackey turned in an effort that proved worthy of his pedigree, albeit one that did not stand up as well as his previous effort did.

While the big moment was oft in the demand, it became the small ones that defined the game. In the wake of Ortiz’s gargantuan tide-changing home run, the Cardinals rallied behind a series of plays, as well as fate, falling in their favor. After getting Lackey out of the game after a walk to David Freese and a Jon Jay single, they continued to roll with the jabs before delivering their knock out punches.

A gutsy double steal call put pinch runner Pete Kozma and Jay into scoring position and after a walk-by-inches to Daniel Descalso, Matt Carpenter delivered a sacrifice fly to left field scored Kozma, but then an errant throw home advanced Jay to third. It was then that the game one and two tables turned and misfortune swapped dugouts. Pitcher Craig Breslow, in an attempt to cut down Jay, threw the ball over third base which scored Jay and let Descalso make it around to third. It was then, in a nearly on-demand fashion, that Carlos Beltran delivered in the big moment, putting the Cardinals up 4-2, and lining them up for a 1-1 series tie with three home games to come.

Supported by the equally timely pitching of another two rookies in Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, the game ultimately became the best possible win the club could ask for. Through a blend of all of the defining elements of their season: timely hits, overpowering rookie pitching and topped it off with gutsy execution, as well as a bit of the type of assistance they consistently supplied and buried themselves with the previous night.

It is the moment that reverbs the most in the playoffs; how a team both limits and capitalizes on them alike. While there is still much to be revealed regarding if they can enforce their will upon Boston to take and hold control of the series, a tough win on the road is always encouraging. Thursday was a both a proving ground evening for the club, in a fighter’s win.

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Cardinals Create Own Misfortune In Game One

In many regards, the Cardinals have been a max effort team throughout their playoff run. From a string of uncanny, timely pitching performances, to just the right hits to get by, they have found a seamless way to survive. However, on Wednesday night in Boston, those seams popped and the Cardinal chances quickly followed suit.

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There is not a postseason series that is devoid of “the moment”. Whether it be a critical defensive play, pitch placement or a hit find the right opening in the field, it is the turn of these plays that more often than not decides the turn of a series. Murphy’s Law was firmly rooted against the Cardinals in each and every one of these instances from onset of the Game One of the World Series, and they paid an instant price. Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester owned the corners in the top of the first inning, while Adam Wainwright uncharacteristically missed them. Boston made the best of the mini-slump from the Cardinal Ace, and the substandard Cardinal defense made sure they stuck.

The most notable play of the night will remain the first of this series of unfortunate events, where shortstop Pete Kozma’s moves without out the ball were executed more flawlessly than his ones with it. On a quick attempt at an inning-salvaging double play was initiated by Matt Carpenter, Kozma uncharacteristically missed the exchange at the base, a play that had its biggest impact to come after its completion. After the play was overturned by a rare umpire tribunal, it was made that even the runner coming into second was safe after Kozma never had control of the ball to record an out.

As such things always seem to unfold; this error was followed immediately by a definitive hit in the game by first baseman Mike Napoli in the next at-bat. He cleared the bases on a hanging Wainwright delivery and cleared the bases, putting the Red Sox ahead permanently.

Yet that moment was far from the only miscue of the day for the sloppy Cardinal defense. An inning that began with a miscue between Wainwright and Yadier Molina on a routine infield pop fly, it was Kozma’s second error in as many innings which blew things open yet again, which led the second time the bases were loaded in the young game. On the following play, Dustin Pedroia chopped a routine ball within range of both Kozma and David Freese at third, yet got past both and drove in the fourth run of the game, as well as kept the base loaded and the game alive.

Yet, it was the next at-bat that was the most ironic of the game, and could have the most resonating impact of the game. David Ortiz came within inches of his second grand slam of the postseason if not for a world-beating grab by Carlos Beltran at the right field fence. But in the course of making the grab, Beltran banged is open rib cage on the outfield wall, an outcome that forced him from the game at the close of the inning. While Beltran’s hospital returns were X-Rays and cat scans which showed no serious reasons for concern, in the same way that they benefitted from the injury to Hanley Ramirez in the NLCS, they could be forced to battle through for themselves now with a sore Beltran.

After this early string of misfortunes, the Cardinal momentum was sufficiently deadened. While they mounted a brief threat in the fifth inning, as well as broke up the team shutout bid in the ninth inning on a long Matt Holliday home run, their fate was long since decided, and largely by their own doing. The 8-1 loss gave the Red Sox a 1-0 lead in the series, an edge that has resulted in a win in the last 24 World Series contest.

The Cardinals have been a team that has played at best when performing in concert, as Game Six of the National League Championship Series displayed. Yesterday’s game was a study in what happens when that same display happens in the contrary. Boston did the three things well that win baseball games on Wednesday: pitched well, played well at home and capitalized on mistakes. For the Cardinals to return to St. Louis tomorrow night with the series under control, they must do their part to assure there are fewer chances for the Sox to make good on the latter scenario.

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Matt Holliday and Measuring the Moment

For all that can be said about Matt Holliday, one thing that can’t be taken from him is his flair for the moment. On Tuesday night, for the second time in this season’s playoff run, he delivered a decisive and momentum swinging blow for the Cardinals, and has once again delivered them to brink of moving to the next round.

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Yet when looking at his plain performance, it is easy to see why he receives some of the criticism he does. Despite being leaned on to be the main producer for the struggling Cardinal lineup, he has more often than not failed to live up to that billing. In the NLCS, he is hitting .125 and hadn’t had a hit in over 10 at-bats before his massive fourth inning home run against Ricky Nolasco, which drove in Matt Carpenter and was a resounding moment in reviving a Cardinal offense that seemed to be on the verge of an early hibernation for a second year in a row.

The motivation of this big statement was very familiar, because it was the same thing his Game 4 home run in Pittsburgh did just last week. With the Cardinals on the brink of elimination, he provided the support to make Michael Wacha’s masterful performance stand up, via a two-run seventh inning home run. And now, as a revived Cardinal team finds itself awakened and with three chances to advance itself to the World Series, the team’s fortunes have been pulled in place by the most incorrectly criticized player in recent Cardinal history.

The image of Holliday is tarnished by the shadows it stands in, as well as the image it is supported by. From day one, there was the idea that he was rental player, which cost the team too much to land (the now laughable expense of Brett Wallace and two other minor leaguers who never made it far). Yet in his first postseason, it was one dropped fly ball in Game four of the NLDS during the Cardinals last October trip to Los Angeles which remains the highlight of his first campaign in St. Louis. Much more than the .353 average he hit once coming over from Oakland which provided much needed non-Pujols created offense and helped the team win the NL Central by a runaway 7.5 games.

He was John Mozeliak’s first blockbuster acquisition, as well as his first big dollar contract dealt out. The purpose of Holliday’s acquisition was to be the second half of a potent heart of the lineup along with Pujols, but to also be security in case he was not able to be retained. Ultimately, the latter became reality, albeit after the Cardinals won a World Series in a season where Holliday put up a .296 average, All-Star effort. At this point Holliday replaced the then irreplaceable hitting third in the Cardinal lineup. But he also carried the tag of being the “highest paid player in Cardinal history”, which became more curse than reward in the court of public opinion. This was fueled by his pay grade was not deemed as necessary stroke of foresight, but rather being a prime reason why Pujols couldn’t stay, for financial reasons.

Holliday’s career thus far has been better than it has been bad. In St. Louis, his career numbers during the regular season have been the most consistent of any player on the team during his four-year tenure, averaging .306/23/90 split as a Cardinal. Despite the notion of not being “clutch”, he turned in a .390 average with runners in scoring position this season, which increased to .426 in same scenario, but with two outs.

Those numbers are a pretty fair regular read out of his “clutch” tendencies, as well as a showing of regular value.

However, the postseason struggles have happened and cannot be denied. A team needs its power conduit to be churning at the highest points of the year, and Holliday has let the club down in those scenarios over the past two years. In most situations, a season is not made by the moment, but the postseason is an exceptional time, and the same rules do not apply. While consistency is still not his ally this October, he has made amends in many regards by showing up when most needed. And that is not a presence that should be glazed over lightly, even if that has been the trend for many of his greatest contributions thus far.

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Legend of the Fall: Beltran Continues His Quest

The heroics of Carlos Beltran in the month of October are nothing new. He ranks in the top 10 nearly every major postseason category that an individual can find himself in. However, in last night’s game one of the National League Championship Series, he had his signature effort as a Cardinal during the season’s final month. In the process he single-handedly carried the team to series-opening victory, as well as continued to make an increasingly convincing case for how his legacy will be rewarded.

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Beltran took the world on his shoulders, as his two-run third inning double started the offense, and remained the entire output until his RBI single ten innings later earned a grueling win to a grueling start to the NLCS. In a matchup that saw just three lead changes scattered across 13 pitchers for both sides, it was the two defining hits by Beltran that made the complete difference in the Cardinals 3-2 victory.

Yet, the moment of the game came in the top of the tenth inning, when Beltran showcased why the team leans on him so heavily at this point. After Jon Jay misplayed a Mark Ellis line drive into the right center field gap, which resulted in a one out triple, the club found itself in about as big of a bind as possible. After intentionally walking Hanley Ramirez to reach Michael Young with a double play situation in play, Trevor Rosenthal found himself in a do or die scenario.

Young did exactly what he has supposed to do, which was put the ball in the air to the outfield. The ball he hit would have been Jay’s to take in any other scenario, but this was far from that; it was the game on the line. With this crossroads clear and evident, Beltran moved over from right to overrule his outfield mate, and uncorked the type of throw which helped make him a Gold Glove center fielder three times over, cutting down Ellis at home plate and giving the Cardinals another life.

Helping to make good on a dominant, seven scoreless inning collaboration from the Cardinal bullpen, poetically, the game came back around to Beltran came back to the plate again in the thirteenth inning and capped his legend securing evening. With two on and one out in the 13th, Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly finally unleashed his closer Kenly Jansen, owner of one of the most dominant fastballs in the game. But Beltran worked the count in his favor so he could face that pitch on his terms, which resulted in him lining a base hit in right field, which brought in Daniel Descalso (who had a clutch flare hit to start the inning) and closed out a hard-fought win to start the series.

For Beltran, his reputation simply grows at the highest peak of the season again. It has been nine years since his record-setting eight home run October debut with the Houston Astros. In the time since, he has grown his career, seemingly lost his peak to injury and then rebuilt it in a new role. All along, he’s become a new player in the season’s final month, the type of postseason legend that is rightfully mentioned along the lines of Jeter, Jackson and Ruth.

There are a few things each name in that group has in common, and it is that their efforts evenly resulted in a World Series victory. Despite reaching the NLCS four times and reaching the seventh game of each appearance, he has yet to be able to breakthrough to game’s final level. The debate continues on whether Beltran is a Hall of Fame-caliber player, but one thing that is a consensus is that the conversation starts, and finishes, with the efforts he turns in during this point in the season. And when it comes time for that discussion to ultimately be decided on, the game he began this season’s NLCS with will be remembered as a strong indicator of just how exceptional he truly has been. But where the season ends, and how much further he can fuel this particular Cardinal team, could ultimately be the decider.

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Seven Point Preview For Cardinals/Dodgers NLCS

Tonight, the National League Championship Series kicks off at Busch Stadium, in an ironic scenario. It pits the best team, by record, in the St. Louis Cardinals versus the best team, in the view of the odds makers, in the Los Angeles Dodgers. This could be seen as a slight to a Cardinal team that not only finished with the best record in the NL, but tied for the best in all of the baseball, but the Dodgers are a bit more than just their record.

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After a desperately terrible start, the Dodgers played insane baseball over the second half of the season, finishing with a winning percentage of .665 after June. They pulled from the bottom of the NL West to winning their division by 11 games, the largest margin of any in baseball. Yet, they find themselves facing four games on the road against the best October franchise in baseball over the last three seasons, and it is the type of series where intangibles and talent collide, to make for a narrow decision.

So who has the edge: the hottest team in baseball or the most proven team in it? Here’s how it shakes out:

Starting Lineup: The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored this season, owed mostly to the new high mark they set hitting with runners in scoring position. As a team, they hit .330 on the year, and had five batters drive in over 75 runs on the season. Save for the injured Allen Craig, four everyday Cardinals hit over .296, with high marks of .319 and .318 from Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter.

For the Dodgers, the production was spread around. Hanley Ramirez hit .345 in 304 at-bats between a series of injuries, while Yasiel Puig hit .319 on the year after debuting in June, adding in 19 home runs, 21 doubles and 11 stolen bases. From the Opening Day Dodgers, Adrian Gonzalez led the team in the Triple Crown categories, with a .293/22/100 split on the year.

The Cardinals have the best everyday ensemble left in the game, as well as a knack for finding hits when they are needed. LA conversely has more talent in the everyday lineup, but without Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp healthy, it simply isn’t a more threatening lineup as a whole. Advantage: Cardinals.

Starting Pitching: Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw are the best back-to-back duo of starting arms in the game, and are the greatest advantage the Dodgers have on their side. Throughout the year, they combined to go 31-13, with a 2.17 ERA and 380 strikeouts. But depth is also the Dodgers ally, as Ricky Nolasco, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Chris Capuano all providing an intriguing matchup options as well.

Everything is based around Adam Wainwright for the Cardinals, but this time it won’t be able to start with him. There is a chance that he will be surrounded by three rookies in Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller in the Cardinals NLCS rotation. They are not average, but well-tested youngsters that won’t be intimidated in the moment, but will carry a heavy burden.

St. Louis is high on talent, but clearly outmatched against the two former Cy Young winners, which are slated to start four of the seven potential games in the series. Their best hope is to spring an upset against one, ride Wainwright’s opportunities and win the swing game that pits starter four vs. four. Advantage: Dodgers.

Bullpen: St. Louis relies most heavily on its young arms out of its bullpen, where no less than four can factor into any game, including the ninth inning, which has been inherited by Trevor Rosenthal (108 strikeouts in 75.1 innings, 29 holds). The presence of former closers-turned-fill in arms Edward Mujica (37 2013 saves) and John Axford give the Cardinals a solid group of mid-to-late game options, albeit with some risk.

The Dodgers rely on mix of proven specialists, closers and pure flame throwers. Kenley Jenson threw the second most pitches over 100 mph in the MLB this year after Aroldis Chapman, and closed out 28 of 32 save opportunities after moving to the ninth inning in early June. Joined by a resurgent Brian Wilson (0.66 ERA) and JP Howell (.164 average against by lefties) and they have a tough crew to crack.

The Cardinals pen has been solid throughout the year, but somewhat unnerving of late in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have a bevy of options that miss bats easily, and instant outs are huge in the playoffs. Advantage: Dodgers.

Defense: Despite some notably limited players in Matt Holliday and David Freese in the starting lineup, the Cardinals can field. They tied of the least amount of team errors and the best fielding percentage in the National League this season. This is due in part to a strong quad up the middle of Molina, Jon Jay, Matt Carpenter and Pete Kozma.

The Dodgers conversely were not a good defensive team. Puig’s insertion in the outfield provided some much needed range, and AJ Ellis is a plus backstop, but they finished with the second most errors in the NL and wait more for strikeouts than created ones. Advantage: Cardinals.

Bench: Andre Ethier’s availability to play in the field is in question, but he can swing the bat still and is joined by Michael Young, who was acquired to add needed depth to the bench. These veteran presences loom huge in the Dodgers ability to create mismatches on-demand. Dee Gordon is instant speed boost, while Nick Punto is a defensive plus at three infield spots.

The Cardinals bench is not an offensive stock hold, after Matt Adams was forced into everyday action after the injury to Allen Craig deemed it necessary. However, Daniel Descalso and Shane Robinson are defensive bonuses that are an important part of the late game strategy for the offense-heavy Cardinal attack.

Despite the versatility of the Cardinal approach, LA’s ability to continue to create offense late in the game is major advantage that will be a factor throughout the series. Advantage: Dodgers

Manager: Mike Matheny’s major contribution in his second season leading the Cardinals has been to install the crucial team identity, as well as strategically groom the rookie base that much of the team is built around. However, he has grown as a strategist as well and uses his full roster to his advantage.

Don Mattingly has come a long way in just this season. He was one week away from losing his job when the Dodgers took off, and has become an essential part of holding together the big money, multi-personality team together.

With that said, Matheny holds an edge in the chemistry department, as well as the experience lane at this part of the calendar as well. He has already shown some positive adjustments from a year ago, and will take on a new personal distance mark in his career. Advantage: Cardinals

Injury Factor: There are two major injuries that holding both teams back from their full potential in the series. For the Dodgers, it is Matt Kemp, who only played only 73 games on the year. The team’s best player in name, but not much a part of the run the team took this season. Ethier’s foot injury is also compounding the Dodger situation, whereas he can’t be a part of the daily lineup, due to not being able to handle the demands of the field.

Conversely, the Cardinals are missing a major part of their success in Allen Craig. The run producing machine ran up 97 RBI and a hit a mind-blowing 59 for 130 on the year with runners in scoring position (.454). The absence of the All-Star first baseman has been padded by the presence of Adams, but he is an irreplaceable quantity in the steadiness of the Cardinal attack.

While the Cardinals are missing a major portion of their attack, the alternate option for the Cardinals is actually not as far of a step down as the Dodgers have faced without two-thirds of their best possible outfield. Advantage: Cardinals.

Intangibles: Momentum is everything in the postseason, and both teams come into the series with plenty. The Cardinals will be fresh off an inspiring effort from Wainwright to close out their NLDS series, and will be in front of the same home crowd buzz that it took place in. Conversely, the Dodgers will cross the country again after a similarly inspiring close out to their NLDS matchup, which concluded with Juan Uribe’s two-run, bottom of the 8th inning home run.

On the season, the Dodgers won the season’s seven game series, 4-3. Over the last month, including the playoffs, the Dodgers are 15-16, while the Cardinals are 22-10.

On the year, the Cardinals are 56-28 at Busch Stadium, and 44-39 elsewhere. At Dodger Stadium, LA is 49-34, while 45-37 on the road. Home games for the Cardinals are the biggest outstanding factor in the series for either side.

Summary: These are two teams with clear strengths, but close margins at the same time. Protecting home field advantage will be a task for the Cardinals, who will be confronted with Greinke and Kershaw in their own park, which is a powerful equalizer. Finding their groove in offense will be tough this way, for a team that has struggled to string together a consistent offering over the last week offensively, and they will need to get runs early in the game throughout the series to make it.

The Cardinals face an uphill battle from the start, but with two Dodger aces out of the way early, if they can split the first two games before sending Wainwright to the mound in game three, they have a chance to get a decisive advantage before the anything goes game four, and then the return of Greinke and Kershaw in games five and six. On paper it seems to be a long series ahead, but one with some very decisive pitfall chances early and often. The Cardinals take the edge in the head-to-head factors department 4-3, and have some important intangibles leaning in their favor as well. This bides well in their favor for a series that looks primed to go the full distance, and end in a Cardinal final advantage.

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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.

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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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John Axford not enough for St. Louis Cardinals to give up Michael Blazek

St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak made his first and only trade of the season Friday when he got right-handed reliever John Axford from the Milwaukee Brewers.

Jun 25, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay (19) celebrates with relief pitcher Michael Blazek (67) after defeating the Houston Astros 13-5 at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Axford is a nice pickup for the Cardinals. He brings a veteran presence to the team’s young bullpen and has shown flashes of dominance in the past. The problem is the Cardinals gave up right-handed rookie Michael Blazek in return.

Blazek pitched in 11 games for the Cardinals this season and gave up eight runs in 10.1 innings, but he is the 24-year-old who has the tools to be an effective major-league reliever for years to come.

Sure, he had an earned-run average of 6.97 with the Cardinals, but Blazek allowed runs in just four of his 11 appearances and allowed more than one run in only two of those games. Otherwise, he averaged a strikeout per inning while he dealt with getting called up to the big leagues and sent down to the minors three times in one season.

It would be tough for any young pitcher to find consistent success while in such a tenuous position. Even highly touted rookies such as Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha have struggled at times as they’ve taken the road back and forth between St. Louis and Memphis several times this season.

Yes, Blazek also walked 10 hitters to nearly match his number of strikeouts, but the Cardinals have had plenty of pitchers who struggled with their control but steadily improved as they matured at the big-league level.

For example, Jason Motte came to St. Louis as a 26-year-old in 2008, and it wasn’t until 2010 that he got his career ERA below four. However, the Cardinals stuck with Motte and he became the pitcher who not only closed out the 2011 World Series but also the team’s closer who saved every one of the team’s 42 save opportunities in 2012.

But, perhaps the Cardinals though Blazek would not grow out of his control issues and decided to cut their losses. Unfortunately, they got a pitcher who is not substantially better.

Axford was much better at one time, but not anymore. He broke into the big leagues with Milwaukee in 2009 and by 2011 was one of the best closers in Major League Baseball, with 46 saves, a 1.95 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 73.2 innings.

Those were the good days. The more recent days have not been so nice.

Axford’s ERA ballooned to 4.67 in 2012, and he gave up twice as many homeruns (10) during that season than he had in his entire career (five) and lost the closing job in the process as the Berwers fell from a team two games from the World Series in 2011 to a third-place team that barely finished above .500 in 2012.

Axford has given up long balls even more frequently in 2013. He already allowed 10 in 62 appearances for the Brewers with a month yet to play.

Cardinals officials figured they needed veteran depth in the bullpen, and that’s exactly what they got. Axford is nothing more nor nothing less at this point in his career.

Maybe he will fill the role Octavio Dotel held during the 2011 run to the World Series championship. He could be a knowledgeable reliever who gets crucial outs during the late stages of a ballgame that is packed with the pressure that is certain to come with September games when the top three teams in the division are separated by fewer than three games.

But he could also be the 4.50-ERA pitcher who gives up back-breaking homeruns late in those same games while Blazek becomes an integral part of the bullpen renaissance the Brewers sorely need to return to relevance in the National League Central Division.

The Cardinals took a gamble not only for the rest of the 2013 season but also for many years to come.

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This One’s For You: Special moments of joy

Not many experiences are as touching as when a service man or woman comes home from war to reunite with their family. Those situations sadly don’t happen often enough, but they are special when they do, and they are fun for baseball fans when those reunions happen at the ballpark, especially as a surprise.

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Many service members have chosen to keep their return home a secret until the perfect moment, just before a baseball game begins.

They work with the home team to have their spouse or children throw the ceremonial first pitch, the service member sits behind home plate behind a catcher’s mask to take the throw and then they discard the mask to surprise their family with their return.

Often, the reactions on both sides stir emotions stronger than anyone will experience during the game.

A family’s joy in that type of situation is more meaningful than anybody can experience during a baseball game, even a game when the home team wins a World Series game on a walkoff homerun in the 11th inning after twice being down to its final strike.

However, many people in the military are still deployed around the world, waiting for their moment to reunite with their family.

While they wait, some will at least get a glimpse of home during today’s “This One’s For You” broadcast of the St. Louis Cardinals game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Busch Stadium.

Whether they are home or many miles apart, hopefully this is a special day for our country’s true heroes and their families.

They deserve it.

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Minus Wigginton & Boggs, Cardinals Clean Out Their Closet

Give John Mozeliak credit, he isn’t shy about admitting his mistakes. In two sweeping moves on Tuesday afternoon, he rearranged the Cardinal roster by removing two of the most debated presences in the Cardinal organization, in Ty Wigginton and Mitchell Boggs. And with the two moves, the Cardinals brought a resounding end to two of their biggest annoyances of the year.

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Not much was required to add to the Cardinals after last season, as a vast majority of the roster that finished one game short of the World Series returned. And where there wasn’t carryover, there were replacements from within waiting to slide into place. The most notable external additions the team made were role players in corner infielder Wigginton and shortstop Ronny Cedeno, as well as left-handed reliever Randy Choate. Now, just half a season later, two-thirds of that trio is out of the uniform with a half of a week until the All-Star Break begins.

While Cedeno’s early struggles saw him never even make it out of the spring, Wigginton stuck with the team despite a similarly bad start. After struggling mightily in the spring, he never shook off that start, hitting only .158 through 57 at-bats that came mostly as a pinch hitter.  The reasoning of adding the 35-year old was to add a right-handed hitting presence to a fairly light hitting bench collection. But the fact that he could not perform in the role that he was his primary function (all but 14 of his at-bats came as a pinch hitter), as well as the fact he added nothing defensively, made his presence on the team a non-factor.

From the beginning, the two years and five million dollar total he was signed for was an eye brow raiser, especially for a player that hadn’t hit over .270 for four years, and was rated the worst player by win shares in baseball the previous year. In the end, the club decided that eating crow on the financial side of it wasn’t as big of a problem as carrying dead weight on the roster, and released Wigginton. In his place, veteran catcher Rob Johnson was promoted from Memphis, where he was hitting .236 with seven home runs. With the promotion of Johnson, backup catcher Tony Cruz is free to serve in the role of right-handed bench bat/utility infielder, a role that Mike Matheny wasn’t comfortable in using him in previously due to him being the only other capable catcher in case of emergency.

Cutting loses on Wigginton was a simple decision in comparison to the other move of the day, which saw the end of the turmoil filled season of Mitchell Boggs in St. Louis. The team traded the maligned reliever to the Colorado Rockies, bringing to an end his six year tenure with the club. Boggs’ implosion was swift, and seemingly unending. After opening the season has the club’s first fill-in closer, he quickly was disposed from the role after posting an ERA over nine, and ended at a gruesome 11.05 after his final outing with the club on May 30th, when he surrender a game-tying home run vs. Kansas City Royals in another late game situation. He attempted to pull it together in Memphis as a starter over the past month, but in the end, a combination of having completely lost his way and purpose in St. Louis moving ahead, as well as a quickly plummeting value on the trade market, forced Mozeliak to make what seemed like an improbable move just a few months ago.

Boggs was the best eighth inning pitcher in the National League a year ago, leading the circuit in holds with 34 and posting a 2.21 ERA in 78 games. He was selected to the US offering for the World Baseball Classic and was comfortably slid into the ninth inning role when Jason Motte’s injured elbow ended his year. Yet it became clear he wasn’t the man he previously was, and fell out of place with the club as quickly as he had risen. In return for him the club gained the Rockies international signing bonus slot, to allot towards international bonus money signings.

Often, the question is what can be added to a club around this time of the season. Yet, in many cases, less can be more. In an organization that that is brimming with young talent looking for a shot, perhaps Mozeliak’s removal of the failed experiment of Wigginton and the end of the fall from grace of Boggs, will add more to the club, than anything else could bring in.

Nothing wrong with balling up a bad plan and tossing it into the waste can. There is still plenty of time to make a good one.

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