Saturday, August 25, 2007

We better hope they're not really trying

I love the NFL, I really do. I can't wait for the season to start, so much so that I look forward to watching preseason games, like the Rams playing at Oakland last night.

So much for that.

Look, I know that preseason doesn't count for anything. Indianapolis is something like 1-11 in their last 12 preseason games, and they're the defending Superbowl champions and win their division every year. So just because the Rams looked like the Mizzou Tigers from...well, as long as I've been alive, it seems...last night, that's not necessarily cause for concern.

Except I've never felt like Marc Bulger has the potential to be a championship quarterback. I don't care what his stats say; he looks like Bambi in the headlights of a cement mixer out there. The offensive line looks more like theater ushers--"This way to the quarterback, sir!" and the defense can't decide whether to run a failed blitz or commit another penalty.

Okay, okay, last night was no Steven Jackson, no Torry Holt, no Orlando Pace, and the playbook's nothing but plain, unflavored yogurt. Still, I've been a Rams fan since they relocated twelve years ago, and this team looks like '95-'98 a lot more than '99-'02. The NFC West is weak, as is the NFC as a whole. A team doesn't have to be great to make it to the playoffs, just good. Indy proved that good can be great in January when it counts. Let's just hope the Rams aren't really trying that much, not really trying at all, because the team that played last night got their rear-ends beat to pieces by the worst team in the NFL, the Oakland Raiders. I'm certainly not giddy with anticipation at this point.

Friday, August 24, 2007

At least they're making it interesting...

I'm not sure exactly why some people call these the "dog days" of summer. My two dogs put together are only half as smart as G.W. Bush, and they have sense enough to stay inside their cool basement shelter during these sweltering Midwest days. I feel like setting the next meteorologist on fire who talks about "cooler temperatures in the low 90s." Say what? Ninety-three degrees with 80 percent humidity still feels like the Amazonian Rain Forest, okay?

But for some unknown reason, the St. Louis Cardinals are still playing baseball like it matters. When it's too hot to step outside and meaningful NFL games are still a few weeks away, at least the Cards are giving the Nation a glimmer of hope, even if it is only for next year.

Now I wouldn't be stupid enough to write this club off again after my bluster and certainty about the fork embedded in their backs last year. Rings and trophies, anyone? But that was also at a time when the club was well out in first place. This team has no legitimate starting pitcher who has experienced previous success in that role, unless you count Kip Wells five years ago in Pittsburgh. Wells was injured last year. Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper were both bullpen staples, and Anthony Reyes has spent the better part of the last two seasons in the minors. I honestly can't think of who our fifth starter is. Is it still Brad Thompson?

Thanks to a weak NL Central in which the Cubs and Brewers both refuse to pull away in spite of better talent and stronger pitching, the Cardinals are sitting just three games out of first place. That would be great if they weren't still two games below .500. The team hasn't been above .500 since April. So what does this all mean?

First of all, it at least makes the games worth checking in on, if not watching outright. This has been for me, for the most part, a summer without baseball. When the Cardinals were playing as bad as they had been in June and July, there was no point in watching. I'm a Minnesota Vikings fan, so I don't need to inflict any further "rooting despite the utter futility of this failure of team" into my sports environment.

This so-called pennant chase is an illusion; the Cardinals don't have the pitching to go on a long winning streak, and the center of their lineup--Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen--are all injured, despite their recent success. Pujols limps around the bases like Fred Sanford, Rolen's shoulder is likely to snap like a dry twig, and Edmonds is something like 177 years old now in dog years.

So why is this still interesting? Two reasons: Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Yadi Molina, Brendan Ryan and a host of other young players have injected some life into the team. Second, Tony LaRussa has done another typically masterful job of keeping the team focused and playing hard when it would have been a heck of a lot easier to just call Walt Jocketty and ask, "Pittsburgh or Cincinnati?" and then just phone in the rest of the season.

I'm curious now about two things: can Jocketty get another starting pitcher at the waiver-trade deadline next week to mix into the rotation? If that occurs and (BIG if) if Mark Mulder can return in September and pitch effectively--even for just five innings--then the Cards can keep the pressure on Milwaukee and Chicago. Second, if LaRussa decides to return next year (assuming the club still wants him; this seems like a no-brainer, but the Bush administration has conclusively proven that rich people are freakin' stupid), can he effectively manage, motivate, and most importantly, teach, a team with a nucleus made up mainly of young players? I mean, other than Molina and Pujols, all other position players are tradeable, right?

Frankly, if they were 20 games below .500 and fighting Pittsburgh for last place, I wouldn't even care enough to write about it. But at least they're making things interesting...