Friday, August 29, 2008

That's why we call him "El Hombre"

If the Milwaukee Brewers don't make the NL playoffs this year--especially if they are caught and passed by the Cardinals--they will almost certainly look back at Wednesday night's game with angst and regret. Just as Jim Croce warned us about tugging on Superman's cape and spitting into the wind, you just don't mess around with El Hombre.

Brewers reliever Carlos Villanueva was certainly pumped up after putting what was, for all intents and purposes, the last nail in the coffin of the Cardinals' season. There was only one problem. Instead of merely celebrating, he decided to point to the Cardinal dugout. I can certainly understand why he would feel this way; the Brewers were about the knock out the division's perrenial champion, the team that had for so long stood in their way.

The problem was, El Hombre didn't take it that way. Albert Pujols charged out onto the field and called Villenueva out in front of his teammates, the home crowd and Cardinal nation. Literally dangling on the precipice of elimination, the Cardinals pulled another escape worthy of the Road Runner.

Now the hard work begins. The Cards still have 3-1/2 games to make up and no margin for error. But as I said in a previous post, there's just no argument for anyone else to be NL MVP other than "El Hombre": Albert Pujols.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

No Room for Error

You want to know what's so deliciously wonderful about the great American pastime of baseball? It's that it's so cruelly unforgiving. The fans of Cardinal Nation realized that last night as they watched an overachieving Cardinals team get outmatched and outmanned by their wild card superiors, the Milwaukee Brewers.

It just doesn't seem fair that hopes are brought this far to be brought down to earth so suddenly. But that's baseball. Baseball doesn't care. Baseball is unforgiving. It's 162 games that, in the end, only leaves room for four teams to play in postseason. It doesn't matter that the Cardinals will probably end up with a better win-loss record than the champions of either the East or West divisions, because they'll still end up third in the Central. And that's baseball.

Baseball doesn't care. Baseball wants to crush your hopes. Baseball let Red Sox fans suffer for 86 years. If baseball has any sense, it will watch the Cubs make it to postseason only to fail, fail, fail once again, leaving Cubs fans writhing in a century of agony. Because that's baseball, and baseball doesn't care, and it's just so beautiful.

I can see now why purists like Bob Costas and George Will resisted the change to the wild card format. Baseball was much more cruel when each league only had two divisions, only two chances to play for the pennant. Old time baseball was positively despotic: the team with the best record in each league after 154 games got to play in the World Series. No playoffs. No wild cards. Just the sharp razor of cold reality.

But this format is equally cruel. Coincidences of geography mean that teams with lesser records will play for glory while those who wear the Birds on the Bat plan vacations and schedule tee times. That's okay, because baseball doesn't care. The Cardinals won it all two years ago with the worst regular season record of any champion in the history of the game, but they still won, because baseball doesn't care.

The NFL tries not to care, but their system still has enough room to allow a third-place team with a good record to make it into the playoffs. Witness last year's AFC South—the Jags and Titans still made it in despite finishing behind the Colts. The NBA and NHL care too much; their regular seasons are virtually meaningless with the number of playoff teams it allows. Twelve teams for the NFL; 16 for the NBA and NHL.

But baseball doesn't care who deserves to be in the postseason, or whose fans want it more, or who the media hopes will play. Baseball is baseball, nine perfect innings of hopes and dreams and wishes that 29 out of 30 times each year are blown away like the dust of a dry infield, left to fade into the twilight of an October that wasn't meant to be.

Only eight teams will endure the season, only four in each league. More deserving teams with better records and flashier pitchers and more powerful hitters will stumble and fall to lesser clubs who remember that baseball doesn't care about these other things.

Baseball is a cruel and wonderful game because it doesn't care about anything other than what happens between the foul lines and inside the box score of each inning. Just as we must give thanks to God in the bad times as well as the good, so should we praise the genius of baseball even when our postseason hopes have, for this year, faded away.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why Baseball Writers Don't Matter

By the end of this season, Albert Pujols will probably have won the NL batting title. He will have amassed more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs with a better than .300 average for the eighth consecutive year since his major league debut. Here is the complete list of players who have accomplished that in the history of professional baseball:

Albert Pujols

That's it. No one else comes close. Not Ty Cobb, not Rogers Hornsby, not Ted Williams, not Babe Ruth, not Lou Gehrig, not Joe DiMaggio, not Pete Rose, not even Stan Musial. Just Albert Pujols.

In a year in which the Cardinals were supposed to finish well below .500 and in the basement of the NL Central, they're still the only competition chasing the Milwaukee Brewers with a legitimate shot to catch them. The Cardinals only have two more games left, and they have to win them both to stand a chance. A split won't do, and losing both would essentially end the season.

So the Cardinals are accomplishing the impossible with no-name starting pitching—both their aces, Wainwright and Carpenter, have been injured for most of the season—and a bullpen that has blown more saves than any other team. Hitters like Rick Ankiel, Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick have all emerged this season in part because they see hittable pitches; hurlers would rather try to make the other Cardinals hit into outs than to pitch to Albert.

Pujols has not only dominated at the plate, he's making a stunning case to win this year's Golden Glove award at first base. Although many sluggers have been nothing more than fence posts and backstops at first—the most convenient NL position for big hitters whose fielding skills are suspect at best—Albert brings a third base mentality to the opposite corner. Witness the throwing play he made last night to gun out the lead runner at third on what should have been a routine sacrifice. He can play deep in the hole or on the line.

So who are the baseball writers touting for NL MVP? David Wright (NY) and Chase Utley (PHI). Wow. Two east coast guys. Go figure. If either the Mets or the Phillies were in the NL Central, they'd be in fourth place behind the Cubs, Brewers and Cardinals. Ask any GM in baseball, in either league, which player they'd rather have: Wright, Utley or Pujols. That's my definition of a no-brainer, which is also what this year's MVP race should be. And that, my friends, is why baseball writers don't matter—they too are "no brainers."

Don't forget—check out a new post from "The Sandlot" every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Steven Jackson is not the savior

It's apparent that St. Louis Rams fans have cause to be slightly more optimistic about the Rams' chances this season in a weak conference with a favorable second half schedule now that holdout running back Steven Jackson has signed a new contract that guarantees him $11 million in bonus money and $20 million over three years if he stays healthy.

But anyone who believe Jackson was the last missing piece of the puzzle for the Rams to return to the playoffs is sorely mistaken. This team has some glaring personnel problems that have yet to be fixed. Even if Jackson exceeds expectations, no one should expect this team to compete for a playoff spot, and here's why...

Quarterback: I've never been a believer in Marc Bulger, even when he was playing at a Pro Bowl caliber, at least statistically. He's been beat up with sacks and hard hits for three seasons now, and he's definitely got that Chris Miller concussion vibe going now. Happy feet, poor accuracy, lack of leadership. Teams rise and fall with their QB, and Bulger doesn't have what it takes to lead a team into the playoffs.

Offensive Line: The line is putting most of its hopes into the healthy return of Orlando Pace. But even if the Big O is healthy, he's still been in the league for more than a decade. That type of wear takes its toll. Where else did the O-line improve? Center? Right tackle? I didn't think so. Jackson won't run for much if that line doesn't open holes for him.

Running Backs: Jackson can't carry the ball 40 times a game. Who's gonna spell him? Who's the fullback? Who can come in as a blocking back on passing downs? Who can catch a pass out of the backfield on second and short? After Jackson, this team has no depth.

Receivers: Other than Torry Holt, is there anyone who can catch a pass on this team? Is there anyone who can get downfield and hope that Bulger actually puts the pass in their area code? Maybe Jackson can catch a few passes out of the backfield, but since defenses will key on him, that doesn't seem like a great option.

Defense: We can hope that Leonard Little and Chris Long put pressure on the quarterback, but the inside of that line is dismal in terms of both stopping run and getting to opposing quarterbacks. The linebackers are even worse, and let's not even talk about a secondary that continues to get burned in the passing game. This is going to be an atrocious defense this year, maybe one of the worst in the league.

Coaching: I was a Scott Linehan fan when he was running Daunte Culpepper's offense in Minnesota, but those days are long gone. He's working with a team that doesn't respect him, and even with Al Saunders running the offense, it's unlikely that Linehan will survive this season as head coach unless the team finishes above .500.

I'm glad Jackson ended his holdout, but he's proven to be mentally and physically unprepared for games in the past. The fact that he's also been injury prone doesn't help, since he hasn't had a full camp to get into game shape. He's unlikely to be a real factor in a game until weeks four or five. I wish I had better news, but to paraphrase Rick Pitino from another time and place, Marshall Faulk isn't walking through that door.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Potential Misery of High Expectations

No one in my generation—or probably my father’s generation, for that matter—has any prior experience with the expectations placed on this year’s University of Missouri football team.

I went to Mizzou from 1986 to 1992, enduring the end of Woody Widenhofer experience and the entirety of the Bob Stull reign. Those were heady days, let me tell you. No one needed to pay for admission to a football game; all you needed to do was walk into the lobby of any on-campus dorm hall, and any number of tickets would be thumbtacked to the bulletin board. Most of them were still there after Mizzou’s latest embarrassing loss.

Compare those dismal days to today’s Tigers. They’re defending a Big 12 North title. The team fully expects to not only return to the Big 12 Championship game but to actually beat Oklahoma (or anyone else there) for the conference title. Chances are if they accomplish that unprecedented feat, they’ll be in a BCS bowl game—maybe even the national championship.

How will this team deal with these expectations? In a few short years, they’ve gone from doormats to underdogs to contenders to favorites, and now they are the targets, the team to beat in the conference.

The pressure to go undefeated will be enormous. With the continuation of the ridiculously stupid BCS system, no team can afford even a single loss, especially early in the season. While MU’s schedule doesn’t look impossible, no team can be overlooked. Just ask Michigan about Appalachian State.

How will head coach Gary Pinkel guide his team through these uncharted waters? How will Chase Daniel respond to the season-long questions about a national championship and a Heisman Trophy? Will skill players such as Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman and Derrick Washington keep last year’s high-octane offense running at top speed? Can the defense stop the run and hold down opposing offenses?

These are all questions we’ve never had to ask before because we’ve never been in this place before as Mizzou fans. I’ve always taken it as a given that the Tigers would break my heart. I just never imagined that someday it would actually matter if they did.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Don't Give Up the Wild Card(s) Yet

I don't know who should be dancing on top of the dugouts at Busch Stadium alongside Fredbird—Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers—but one of those legendary horror movie bogeymen should definitely be the alternate mascot for the 2008 St. Louis Cardinals. By all accounts, the Redbirds should be dead and buried, but here we are with about six weeks left in the regular season, and the Cards are only two games behind Milwaukee in the Wild Card standings.

The recent success of Chris Perez in the "not the" closer role leaves the open spot in the rotation for the impending return of Adam Wainwright. If the recent successes of Joel PiƱero and Todd Wellemeyer can be repeated—and if they can start scoring some runs for Kyle Lohse—it's conceivable that we can simply use Chris Carpenter in spot starts as a tune-up for the playoffs.

Regular Sandlot readers know I'm hardly a blind optimist—well, except when the Minnesota Vikings are involved (this is our year...really, this is it...I'm not even kidding!)—so let's look at the schedule:

The Cardinals will face the following teams: Cincinnati (54-69, eight games); Pittsburgh (55-67, five games); Atlanta (55-67, three games); Houston (62-60, three games); Florida (63-60, three games); Arizona (63-59, seven games); Milwaukee (70-53, two games); Chicago (75-47, six games). Out of those, 17 are road games (though the Cards have been a good road team this year), and 20 are at home. Throw out the Cubs and Milwaukee, and the rest of their opponents are currently a combined nine games over .500. Practically speaking, they need to win two out of three in series against the lesser teams, beat Milwaukee twice and split even with the Cubs. This would leave them around 24-13 for the rest of the season; 93-69 for the season.

Sound impossible? It's what it's going to take to overtake the Brewers and keep pace ahead of NY and Philly in the East or LA and Arizona in the West. What about the Brewers? Four against San Diego (47-75); six with Cincy (54-69); nine (!) against Pittsburgh (55-67); three against Houston (62-60); two more with LA (63-59); three with NY (66-56); four at Philly (65-57); two at St. Louis (69-56); and six with the Cubs (75-47).

St. Louis plays Houston, Florida, Arizona, Milwaukee and Chicago as teams with winning records. Milwaukee gets Houston, LA, NY and Philadelphia. They have 17 road games and 22 home games, an edge over the Cardinals. If we keep their current win percentage of .569, that figures a stretch run record of 22-17, or 92-70 for the season.

It's not going to be easy, but it is going to come down to the stretch. The biggest wrinkle is that Milwaukee's last six games are at home against Pittsburgh (done) and the Cubs, who may be resting everyone for the playoffs by then. The Cardinals have four at home vs. Arizona, who could still be fighting for the West Division title, then three at home with Cincinnati.

Every game counts from here on in. The Cardinals have to win two out of every three just to have a chance. It's improbable, but most of the paid experts in Butthole, CT picked the Cards to finish worse than San Francisco (51-70). As the immortal Lou Brown said in "Major League," "I'm for wasting sports writers' time." So am I. Let's play ball.