Monday, April 18, 2011

Closing Time

The jinx is not dead apparently. No sooner do I post something talking about the Cards' improved performance in the last week and that they are in line to sweep the 4 game set with the Dodgers - winning their 5th game in the process, when Ryan Franklin comes in and fails to convert yet another save chance.

After an epic battle between starters Chris Carpenter and the Dodgers Chad Billingsley, Terver Miller took to the mound to start the 9th inning. His job was to retire lefty hitter Andre Ethier, and would then give way to closer Franklin to finish off the sweep. Miller did not get the job done, and Franklin servered up the walk off to the red hot Matt Kemp.

And with that, the closer carousel will very likely spin. The odds-on favorite seems to be Mitchell Boggs, who has been off to a great start this season. Jason Motte is another popular choice, although he has had his own issues early in 2011.

Personally, I feel for Franklin. I want him replaced, but you have recognize the contributions he's made to the Cardinals for the last few years. He stepped up early on in 2009 when Jason Motte tried and failed to take on the role of closer. It is not an easy job. Franklin -- a less-than-successful starter in his career -- seemed an odd choice, and while he doesn't have classic closer stuff, you have to recognize that he's been effective in the role...even appearing as an All Star. He's kept the seat warm while the "young 'uns" developed, but the writing's on the wall now. If TLR opts for loyalty over the stark reality that Franklin might need to return to a setup role, then the crowds at Busch Stadium during the upcoming homestand may hunt him down in a scene that could be eerily reminiscent of the original Frankenstein movie.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Things are looking up.

Just a week ago, even the most optimistic Cardinals fan would have had trouble finding the silver lining to the Redbirds sluggish start to the season. The Cardinals were seemingly finding ways to lose games, and we had just witnessed perhaps the most heartbreaking instance yet -- Ryan Franklin blowing another save and Colby Rasmus turning the final out of the game into a game winning double for Miguel Tejada. Personally, I hang that one on Franklin...Rasmus has no excuse for not making that catch, but Franklin allowed two ducks with two outs. I don't completely disagree with Tony LaRussa's assertion that while Motte and Boggs are viable candidates to close in the future that they may not be any more ready for the task than Franklin is right now. But, I think I'd be a little more inclined to gamble on handing the job to Boggs to see what he can do.

After that loss, the Cardinals picked things up. They pounded the Giants in the series finale and then took 2 of 3 from the D'backs and are on the verge of sweeping the 4 game series with the Dodgers. We've also seen the bats wake up in a big way, which is very likely due to the return of Matt Holliday to the lineup. His recovery from adbominal surgery has been rather amazing, and with him back in the cleanup spot, the offense looks more like what we expected. Lance Berkman's bat has also woken up and he's hit 6 round trippers and driven in 12 runs over the last 7 days -- and is hitting .476 over that same stretch. Rasmus' bat has also continued to be hot as his average sits just below .400.

Of course, a week ago, I was saying it was far too early to hit the panic button, so the same caution has to be applied after a very good week. Both the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks are in the bottom 3 in ERA in the NL and are the two worst in homers allowed per 9 innings (although you could also point to the fact that Cardinal hitters do have something to do with those stats). The more encouraging stat is the fact that Cards have scored at least 6 runs in every game over the last 7 days, which includes a 13-8 loss to the D'backs -- the only loss in that span.

The upcoming week is a big one for the Redbirds...they return home to face the Nationals Tuesday through Thursday and then welcome the rival Reds to town for the first meeting of the year. There's no love lost between these teams, and I have a feeling that Johnny Gomes is going to find himself with a target on his back after the comments he made in response to Wainwright's injury. The Reds are currently 1.5 games ahead of the Cards and leading the NL Central. They figure to be the team to beat in the division, and this is just the first round of what promises to be a great season-long battle.

(Picture courtesy of, stats courtesy of

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Uh Oh

If the first week is any indication, we're in for a long season. So far the Cardinals have been a mess....Starting pitching is just poor enough to lose, the closer has blown 2 out of 3 save chances, the mega star has hit into more double plays than he has driven in runs and the other super star missed the week due to an appendectomy. Not a good way to start a season in which you're already missing your co-ace due to Tommy John surgery. Indeed, it could be an agonizingly long season for the Redbirds.

Hitting the panic button on April 9 is foolish. It goes without saying that there is much baseball left to play, and there is reason to believe that this is just a team finding its legs a bit in the early going. But the Adrian Gonzalez-less Padres proved to be just as tough a match-up as they were last year, and while the Pirates aren't headed for October baseball, they are not the doormat that they have been in year's past. Still, posting a 2-4 record against these teams wasn't what even the most pessimistic fans expected.

The West Coast swing will be critical. Losing to the defending champs in extra innings isn't so much of a worry, but the way that the Cardinals lost is. First there was another blown save by Franklin, and that was followed up by some shoddy defensive play. They committed 3 errors, but none more costly than Albert's drop of Brian Tallet's throw that would have completed an inning-ending double play. It isn't a good idea to give a team more than 3 outs in an inning, and the Giants took advantage when Aaron Rowand's two out single drove in the winning run. This could have been a game that signaled the start of a turnaround for the Cards -- they had battled to stay in a game and scored more than 3 runs for the first time this season. This was a win that had the potential to carry over to the next couple of games and help the Cardinals right the ship, but instead it was another frustrating loss by a team that really should be better than this. Matt Holliday is supposed to return this weekend, so hopefully he can shake the effects of abdominal surgery quickly and help put a little punch back in the lineup. It's early, folks....not time to hit the panic button just yet, but the fact that we're mentioning the panic button this early into the season isn't a good sign.

There have been some bright spots early on.....
  1. Cobly Rasmus - He's hitting .348 out of the two hole (and has an weighted average of .423). The walk rate is up and the strikeout rate is down. An even better sign? He's started every game this season and hit in the same spot in the lineup every game.
  2. Allen Craig - Called on to help fill in for Holliday, Craig may have earned himself more playing time. He can fill in for Berkman in right and spell either corner infield spot if needed. He's driven in as many as Albert (4) in 8 fewer plate appearances, and has stolen 2 bases on top of that. His only hitting .238 (weighted average is .275), and aside from a propensity to strike out, he's been a plus for the birds.
  3. Jaime Garcia - It's only one start, but striking out 9 while only walking 2 in a complete game shutout was a nice boost after the Cards had dropped their first two games of the season to the Padres. With his second start coming in spacious AT&T Park against a light hitting Giants offense, he might be able to post a second quality start. With Matt Cain starting for the Giants, getting a win will be difficult given the Cardinals' struggles on offense.
And some not-so-bright spots.....
  1. Pujols - Hitting into double plays, committing errors, leaving runners on base. These aren't things you think of when you mention Albert's name, but that's what we've seen so far. Pujols is truly one of the all time greats, so as with the whole team, it is far too early to worry. Not even the best player in the game is immune to a cold streak, so the turnaround is coming. But right now -- tough to watch.
  2. Ryan Franklin - Hardly a dominant closer on his best days, but two blown saves and an ERA of 6.00....not what you want from your closer. He's averaging 3 HR per 9 IP -- also a concern. It is very likely that LaRussa and Duncan are going to have to turn to another option if/when Franklin hits his annual late season slide -- if not long before.
  3. The Offense - 3rd lowest number of runs scored in the majors (behind the 1-6 Rays and the 3-3 Dodgers -- although the Dodgers were postponed on Friday and have played one game less). They've produced 4 runs exactly once in 7 games, and that was last night's loss to the Giants. They are striking out more than they are walking and have the 3rd worst batting average in the NL. Switch to weighted batting average and this is the worst hitting team in the NL. Losing Holliday certainly hasn't helped, because no one's pitching to Albert. But then again, he hasn't done much with the pitches he's been able to hit.
Today is a new day, and the Cardinals can turn things around by beating Cain and the Giants. After they leave the Bay area, the Cardinals face the D'backs, who split two games with the Rockies and dropped a series to the Cubs before handing the Reds their first loss of the year last night. Arizona has the type of pitching that can make mediocre hitters look good, so if the Cards can take the next two from the Giants and head to the desert with a little confidence, things might look a bit better in a week's time.

(Stats courtesy of Photo courtesy of

Monday, April 4, 2011

A New Season

Baseball is back...and as always it feels good. The opening week of a new season is always one of my favorite times of the year. This year opens with a somewhat bittersweet feeling for me. This past January, we said goodbye to my grandfather, and I can't help but think of him as a new season gets underway. I can still remember going to the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis to root on the Cardinals. They were a good team when I was a kid and my grandfather was always as big of a Cardinals fan as there was. He and my uncle were in attendance when the '82 Cardinals took game 7 of the World Series, and for years, my sister and I would sneak into his bedroom to look at the ticket stubs from that game that he had taped to the mirror. I still have an old Coke that he bought for me after that game. No idea if it is worth any real money or not (I'm guessing yes, since it has never been opened), but it would take a pretty lofty sum of money to get me to even think of parting with it.

But of all the great memories I have of the time I was fortunate enough to have with my grandfather, perhaps my favorite memory comes from the 2006 World Series. My passion for the Cardinals had faded a bit over the years, until I made a trip back to Busch Stadium for the first time in many years. This was 2005, and it was the final season for the old stadium. For a long time, this was the only stadium I had known, and was the benchmark for all other parks. I had never been to another major league park until I was in college when we road tripped to see the White Sox and Yankees play at the new Comiskey Park in 1994. Later that same year, I made my first trip to Wrigley. I've since been to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Coors Field, Great American Ballpark, Miller Park and the Metrodome (and, of course, the new Busch Stadium), but I've never been to a place that brings back that magical feeling the way old Busch did. That trip in 2005 rekindled the fire, so to speak, and the Cardinals were all of a sudden a team I followed again. Good timing, I guess, because it was the next year that they shocked the baseball world by winning the '06 Series.

As much as I enjoyed watching that playoff run, what made it truly special were the emails that I traded with my grandfather as the Cardinals won each game. I'm 38, so while I'm far from "old" I do remember a world without the internet and a personal computer or 3 in every house. My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression and was a WWII vet.....reading emails was not something he picked up from his peers. But he learned how to use it because it gave him an easy way to keep up with his grandkids. His emails were priceless. Names were not his strong suit -- and even though I know he played it up to get a laugh out of me, he probably had no idea that it took me a solid 30 minutes to figure out who "Escusian" was (that'd be Juan Encarnacion) and I had to text my uncle to find out that "Chug Chug" was Yadier Molina. While I had a few good laughs reading the notes he'd send, I knew at the time that this was going to be one of those things that I'd remember fondly for the rest of my life. He was so excited after the Cardinals won it all that he went out and bought a Cadillac after they won. For Christmas that year, I got him a customized name and number t-shirt with #2 and "Papa" on the back (that was our nickname for him). I only got to see him wear it once or twice, but my uncle told me that he wore it quite a bit when the Cardinals were on TV.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. I've decided that as a small token of respect for him that I'm mostly a Cardinals fan for 2011. The Cardinals are trying hard to make that seem like a really bad decision at the moment. 4 games in, and they haven't scored more than 3 runs in any game. Pujols might be playing his last year wearing the birds on the bat, Ryan Theriot is being sold as a defensive upgrade over the departed Brendan Ryan, Wainwright is out for the year with Tommy John surgery and Matt Holliday is out with appendicitis. You wonder what's next, but then again, it might be better to not have to find out. It might be a long season. But, even if this turns out to be a terrible team, I won't watch a game all season where I don't pause for a moment and thank my grandfather for helping to teach me to root for this great franchise and love this great game. And wherever he is, I'm sure knowing that will bring a smile to his face.