Saturday, August 27, 2005

Weekend Wrapup

Hmmm...Mark Mulder, who sucks during day games, comes up with a "stiff neck" that holds him out of a day game start in Washington. Meanwhile, Jason "Give My Regards to Beale St." Marquis pitches a complete game two-hit gem of a shutout in Mulder's place...sounds like an X-file to me.

Why has no one else made the Mark Mulder/X-Files parallel reference? Is it too old? Am I just that lame? (These are rhetorical questions, you knuckelheads!)

I hate, hate, hate preseason football. It tells you nothing about your favorite teams because paranoid coaches run basic play sets that they'll never use in the regular season, starters only stand to get injured, it sets up unreal expectations for actual season performance, the games are watching-paint-dry boring in the second half (which is the exact opposite of regular season games), and it reminds me that the season still hasn't started, and I want it to start, like, last Sunday. Okay?

Speaking of seasons starting, I don't know anyone (okay, MAYBE one person) who has said this: "Boy, I just can't wait for the NHL season to get started."

Pop quiz for everyone (except Tuck, who's a ringer): name the starting #1 line for the St. Louis Blues. I rest my case.

Who would you rather face in the divisional playoff series, the NL West champion, who will probably only be a .500 team, or a wild-card winner from the NL East? I'd rather take my chances on Atlanta beating Houston in a five-game series than facing the pitching matchups against either Florida or the Mets. I'm not sure about Philly; I've just not paid that much attention to them. Pitching usually wins a short series, and the Cardinals offense is still too suspect for me to be comfortable facing any NL East team in a best-of-five. Houston also poses pitching problems, but only if they make it to the NL championship series. It's a dilemma.

Doesn't Bob Costas owe us all an apology for bashing the wild card system? Can you imagine how boring baseball would be at this point if the only pennant races were the AL East (Boston and New York—just shoot me now; ESPN would offer 24/7 coverage); AL West (LosAngelesAnaheimSanDiegoTijuanaCaboWabo Angels and the Oakland A's—hardly anyone in California cares, much less the rest of the country); and the NL Worst (hey, somebody's gotta win it, right? Yeah, unfortunately, even if they finish below .500). Six teams in each league have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs, and they'll both probably come down to the last game of the season.

Note to Tony LaRussa: Tomorrow's game in D.C. is a scheduled day game. I suggest that Mark Mulder's neck should still be "too stiff." Better his neck than his arm. If that doesn't work, hire a hypnotist to convince him the start time is 7:05 p.m.

I don't think I've ever been less excited (or even interested) in the start of a University of Missouri football season than this year, and I went to MU during the Woody Widenhofer-Bob Stull errors (sorry, that's "eras."). Every time I see Gary Pinkel I think of Humphrey Bogart playing the psychotic captain in "The Caine Mutiny," only he's on the bridge of the Titanic. Women and children first!

I've heard baseball announcers refer to the Washington Nationals as the "Nats." Is it just me, or does that sound an awful lot like "Nads"? It makes me laugh in an uncomfortable kind of way.

Is it too soon to start a "Mike Martz Getting Fired" watch? What about a gambling pool?

Brett Favre deserves better than he's going to get this year. It would be a travesty to see him with another team, but the Packers are going to be a travesty this year, as well.

I'm coaching flag football for 6-7-8-year olds. Boys in that age range come in just two groups: 1) boys intensely interested in excelling in their particular sport; 2) boys who think it's fun to spin around in a circle until they fall down. Guess which category my son falls into.

CUBS: Completely Useless By September. See, it's not a joke; it's really an acronym. (insert sound effect: Nelson from "The Simpsons," HAA-haa!!!)

Until next time...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Walking in Memphis (soon, please!)

This will come across as "dog bites man" commentary to anyone with eyes and a functional understanding of baseball, but I'm going to say it anyway:

It's time to send Jason Marquis back to Memphis.

I don't know if he can be retrained to keep the ball down or shown how to throw a different pitch that doesn't look like it's sitting on a tee to opposing hitters, but it's not up to Dave Duncan or Tony LaRussa to teach him in the middle of a pennant race.

Chris Carpenter's a legitimate Cy Young candidate. Mark Mulder has quietly won 15 games. Matt Morris is back on the winning track. Even Jeff Suppan has pitched well lately. Marquis has become the glaring hole in the starting rotation, and even though we don't need him in the playoffs, we need to put this division away and start planning for the postseason.

Promoting Anthony Reyes would be the logical decision for many reasons. First, he's got the best numbers among the starters in Memphis. Second, he looked pretty good during his sole big league outing, a win where he only gave up a couple of runs. Third, he's another lefty, which gives teams a different look.

By bringing up Reyes now for five or six starts, you season him for a postseason role in the bullpen, assuming he succeeds if they bring him up. It would benefit the Cardinals to have a left-handed middle reliever not named Flores or King.

Marquis, for whatever reason, cannot handle the pressure at this level at this time. If the Cardinals brain trust still feels he has potential, maybe he can find it again at Memphis. If he regains his touch there, he could still contribute out of the bullpen during the playoffs. Right now, he's a team liability—it puts further pressure on the offense when they know they'll have to come from behind when Marquis is on the mound.

Don't fret, Jason—the barbecue's terrific in Memphis. Get your head straight and come back strong in September.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Another Maalox Moment

The award given each year to the most outstanding relief pitcher in the major leagues is called the “Rolaids Fireman of the Year Award.” Fireman, because in baseball vernacular, a pitcher comes out of the bullpen to “put out the fire”; Rolaids, because they are the corporate sponsor and are associated with easing stomach pain, a familiar sensation to any baseball player or fan hoping and playing for those last three outs.

Jason Isringhausen should win his own award: Master of the Maalox Moment. Don’t get me wrong; I come to praise Izzy, not bury him. He’s got a proven track record as a closer. He’s second in the National League with 32 saves, after today’s bout of gastric distress. He throws a nasty cut fastball and a wicked curve.

But more times than not, he puts himself as much in a situation to lose the game as well as save it. Today he let the first two Giants he faced get on, then he got a pop out and a strike out before letting Mike Matheny (who couldn’t hit the dirt if he tripped when he played for us) single to load the bases with recent Cardinal-killer Moises Alou coming up as a pinch-hitter.

Okay, bases loaded, two outs, tying run on second, go-ahead run on first. Win or lose? Win today—Alou flew out to Taguchi in right field. But why did our closer put himself into this situation in the first place? Sure, he got the save, but not before fans throughout Cardinal Nation are reaching for Maalox, Tums, Mylanta, Rolaids, Jack Daniel’s, Oxycontin, or anything else to stop the pain.

I hope Izzy strikes out the last batter in the Cardinals’ fourth and decisive World Series victory this year, you know I do. But making it interesting doesn’t interest me. I wish Izzy could be like Bruce Sutter was in the ’80s, like Mariano Rivera was in the late ’90s, like Eric Gagne and Billy Wagner and Brad Lidge are now. When those relievers come into a game, it’s over. It’s just over. No one’s getting a hit. No one’s getting walked. Chalk up another “W” in the left-hand column.

Nope, we have Izzy. Izzy gonna get him out, or Izzy gonna load the bases? Pass the Maalox, would you?

Friday, August 19, 2005

The Turnaround

In the fall of 1987, back in the days when the major leagues were only split into two divisions, the Cardinals were in a tight pennant race with the New York Mets. The Cards had lost ground over several weeks to the Mets and found themselves playing a three-game series at Shea Stadium that had the potential to make or break the season. Then, like now, the Cardinals had been playing well all year but had fallen into a bit of a funk.

I was a sophomore at the University of Missouri then and living in the dorms on campus. A friend and I had plans to play racquetball, but we checked the Cardinals-Mets game before we left. Not good. The Mets were ahead, and it didn't look promising. My memory is not precise on this, but I think that whoever won this series would exit in first place in the division, and it looked like the Cardinals were finally going to cough it up to the surging Mets.

I can't tell you much about the racquetball match, other than it was sweaty. Upon returning to my dorm room, I turned the game back on to survey the damage. I arrived just in time to see Terry Pendleton hit what turned out to be the game-winning home run in the ninth inning. Todd Worrell shut down the Mets in the bottom of the ninth—game over, Cards win. They never fell out of first place the rest of the way, and they made it to the World Series before dropping an unfortunate seventh game to the Minnesota Twins, thanks to the stupidest baseball venue ever created (at least prior to Minute Maid Park in Houston).

Well, the Cardinals aren't in danger of blowing their lead in the National League Central, but I was planning on offering a few more definitions of the word "putrid" this evening. Amy and I came home from visiting her parents this evening, and I turned on the game to survey the damage. Chris Carpenter was going to lose his first game since, like, May. They were about to be shut out by another pathetic sub-.500 team, the always-hated San Francisco Giants (who I've hated, not coincidentally, since 1987, with Jeffery Leonard and his stupid home run "one flap down" nonsense).

Funny thing, this game called baseball—it takes 27 outs to win a game. Tony LaRussa is well aware of this, and he makes sure his players know it. Sure, sometime I think they stink, but I will give them this: they never, ever give up, and they sure didn't tonight. If you missed it, you missed a classic. Yadier Molina, one of our missing pieces, hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to bring the Cards within one run. A couple of hits and a sacrifice later, Pujols had a chance to tie it with a hit or sac fly or win it with a homer. Predictably, he popped out to deep second base. I'm convinced the pressure of being the only big bat in the lineup is causing him to press too hard in these situations.

So who picks up the slack? None other than Jim Edmonds, who shares a lot of similarities to Pendleton—a defensive gem who is lights out at the plate for periods of time but subject to maddening funks of inability with the bat. I can't remember the last significant hit Edmonds had before tonight, but his was the big blow. He hit a high fastball off the wall in right field, which scored Luna from third to tie it and Nunez all the way from first after the Giants right fielder misplayed the bounce off the wall. The dugout emptied to mob Edmonds at second after the winning run had scored.

Is this the turnaround point for this season? Can we expect Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders to return soon and contribute? Will Jocketty try to find an everyday third baseman to replace Scott Rolen and give LaRussa a deeper bench once again? Will the momentum from this victory propel the Cardinals through a long, tough, two-week road trip starting next week? Most of all, with seven games against the Cubs and five against Houston, will they finally bury the dagger into the hearts of their Central Division rivals? Stay tuned to The Sandlot...

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Spooky Mulder

Too bad "The X-Files" craze passed years before Mark Mulder joined the Cardinals; this would be a perfect name for our would-be ace lefty--he's 1-5 with an ERA above 7 in the daytime, but at night, he's 12-1 and almost unbeatable. Spooky.

Of course, this begs the question about why LaRussa would continue to pitch Mulder in day games, but LaRussa's probably not that superstitious. He should, however, pay attention to the statistics. It is most encouraging to see Mulder's 4-hit complete game shutout Wednesday night, not to mention a nice little two-game winning streak against Arizona.

But as The Wolf told Jimmy, Jules and Vincent in the garage, "Let's not start [congratulating each other] just yet." (Hey, my mom reads this!)

After Carpenter and Mulder-under-the-lights, Matt Morris still needs to show he can be the #3 starter in the playoff lineup. Suppan's been very strong his last three starts, so he could still figure in the playoff picture. Marquis will almost certainly be in the bullpen, though that's not necessarily a bad thing--he could help keep Randy Flores and Ray King out of the game.

The offense has been better since returning from Chicago (though they could have hardly been worse), but don't even think that So Taguchi and Hector Luna can replace Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders. Provided that our starters return, the experience gained by our bench players could be an invaluable asset in the playoffs.

But there's still a lot of baseball to be played, and it's still too early to start talking about magic numbers (which is around 30, if you want to know). We've got a tough 13-game road trip that ends with three in Houston, and seven more games against the Cubs, who we've shown an infuriating inability to beat. But hey, in the words of Nuke LaLoosh, "I love winning! You know what I mean? It's better than losing!"

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I Like Phil

Nice to see Phil Mickelson win another major tournament, especially one as tough as the PGA at Baltusrol. Much has been written about Phil's popularity on the tour, but speaking for myself, he comes off like someone I'd actually like to spend a few hours with out on the golf course.

Most of these guys come off like arrogant jerks. Tiger gets bent out of shape if someone breathes heavily in the middle of his backswing. Vijay, Els, Goosen—all too foreign, too inaccessible. Phil? Hey, it's Phil! Hey Phil, let's grab the clubs and go shoot a round, whaddaya say?

His kids hold an undeniable appeal to me, as well, which is probably true for many others. The thrill of seeing him win the Masters was matched by the congratulations he received from his two young daughters. Simply put, Phil seems like one of us. Some tour players grumble that his "man of the people" persona is a bit of an act, but don't we suspect that about the celebrities we like? So-called "good guys" like Tom Hanks seem like the guy next door, but what's he really like in private? It's the certain appeal of seeing celebrity faults exposed that keeps the tabloids in business and hefty profits year after year. But still, I'm gonna root for Phil every time he plays. I'm a sucker for a happy ending.

The other thing I like best about pro golf's major tournaments is how it makes these professional experts seem at times like you and me on the front nine of our local public course. Drives that sail off into the woods, rough shots that pooch out short only to land in a sand bunker, putts that veer feet off course—the sheer frustration of a game that no one on the planet has been able to consistently master with any degree of certainty.

We always knew that Joe Montana would win the Superbowl, that the Yankees would win the World Series, that MJ's Bulls would win the NBA title, that Gretzky's Oilers would raise the Cup, but with golf, there's no telling who's going to win from week to week, major to major, year to year. It's the elusiveness of the game that keeps us going back for more—seeking perfection in a sport where perfection cannot be achieved and where victory is most fleeting. I'd equate golf with the Christian journey through life, except that I'm sure Jesus doesn't like what I say when I slice my drive into the water.

Monday, August 15, 2005

What's That Putrid Smell?

Answer: The St. Louis Cardinals offense.

Thanks to my readers for patiently enduring my summer break. My wife and I welcomed our sixth (!) and final child, another daughter (#4) named Chloe Elizabeth. I was also wrapping up three different summer college classes while preparing for my fall classes. Today is my first day back to work on my fall schedule; thus, my first post of the new season.

I'm going to do my best to post as regularly as possible, and I know there's a lot of sports news to cover: the pennant and playoff races, the return of hockey, NFL training camps and season predictions, the PGA Championship, and on and on. There will be plenty of time to cover it all.

But first, let's address that giant sucking sound coming from Busch Stadium: the Cardinals offense. They're fortunate to have a big lead in the Central, because if they didn't, they would cough it up with this pitiful group LaRussa is forced to put up at the plate day in and day out. It's like we're back in the days of Maxvill and Torre instead of Jocketty and LaRussa.

Eckstein is wearing down in the summer heat because there's no one on the bench to give him necessary rest for the stretch run. Abraham Nunez was a cast-off from the Pittsburgh Pirates, which should tell you all you need to know about him.

John Rodriquez spent eight years in the minor leagues because he hits the curve ball about as well as Pedro Cerrano in the first 1:45 of "Major League." John Mabry is an adequate bench player but completely inadequate at the plate on an everyday basis. So Taguchi is likewise solid off the bench defensively and has delivered some big hits, but he's not Ichiro or Matsui by any stretch of the imagination.

Some guy named Mike Mahoney is playing catcher.

I'm not complaining about any of these guys defensively; they're doing the best they can under the difficult circumstances of the myriad injuries the Cardinals have suffered. But it's getting frustrating watching these guys continue to fail at the plate over and over again.

What's worse, it's put additional pressure to perform on the Cardinals three decent hitters, Pujols, Edmonds and Grudzielanek. Pujols is putting up big number again this season, but without anyone else to pick him up--like when he fails to hit a sacrifice fly to score a run from third with less than two outs--his failures seem all the more glaring. Same thing with Edmonds. He's always been a streaky hitter, but his cold streaks are more exposed by the weakness of the surrounding lineup. As a seventh hitter, Grudzielanek is great, but what's the point of a single or double when no one ahead or behind can even make contact?

Broadcast announcers say that we can expect Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders to return in 7-10 days, and catcher Yadier Molina shortly after that. Scott Rolen may not come back at all. The fact of the matter is this: Walt Jocketty has got to rent a power third baseman and a hard-hitting outfielder--even if Walker, Sanders and Molina return healthy and stay healthy--if the Cardinals have any chance at all to advance in the playoffs.

The Cardinals have got to find a way to score more runs; their pitching staff has done about as well as anyone could expect. Marquis and Morris didn't pitch all that bad this weekend in Chicago, but the offensive was simply putrid. We can't expect perfection from our pitching staff, but that's what it's come down to with what has suddenly become an alarmingly anemic offense. The simple fact of the matter is that the Memphis Redbirds have no chance to advance to the World Series, even though that's what we're left with on the field.