Friday, September 23, 2011

There's No Crying in Baseball!

But there was certainly a sea of wailing and an ocean of gnashing of teeth last night after the Cardinals bullpen puked up a four-run lead in the top of the ninth inning, giving up six runs to the Mets and blowing not only a series sweep but a chance to move within one game of NL wild card leaders Atlanta with just six games left to play. It was, by any measure, a disgusting and disheartening loss.

But there's no crying in baseball. Tony LaRussa wasn't crying after the game. He said they were disappointed but not heartbroken. He sent a clear message to his team and the league: this was one loss, a tough loss, but tomorrow is another day. And he's right. Baseball players, more than any other sport, need to have little-to-no short-term memory. The Cubs—out of the postseason again, as always—are coming to St. Louis for the last home series of the year. Yesterday is gone. Today is all that matters.

While a sweep would have put the Cardinals in a better position, maybe a giant plate of humble pie will remind this team that they cannot score enough runs to be complacent. Our pitchers can't take any pitch for granted, and walks are simply unacceptable at this point in the season. Our defense can't just shrug off an error that negates a double-play and probably seals yesterday's victory. They just can't let up for even a moment. If they remember that much, at least, then Cardinal Nation still has reason to hope.

Let's take a look at the weekend series for St. Louis and Atlanta. The bottom line is this: if we win two of three and the Braves lose two of three, we're tied going into the final three games. Atlanta hosts Philly, and the Cardinals go to Houston. I like those odds. But what about this weekend?

St. Louis sends Chris Carpenter (10-9, 3.66 ERA) vs. Ryan Dempster (10-13, 4.63 ERA) tonight in the series opener. Saturday's matchup features Cubs starter Rodrigo Lopez (6-6, 4.71 ERA) against resurgent Cards starter Kyle Lohse (14-8, 3.47 ERA). Sunday's home closer will see the Cubs' Casey Coleman (3-8, 6.64 ERA) take the mound against St. Louis' newest starter, Edwin Jackson, (12-9, 3.85 ERA). Again, I like the odds on paper. A sweep keeps the pressure on Atlanta.

The Braves go to Washington to take on the Nationals, who are playing better baseball here at the end of the season. Here are the pitching matchups: Friday—ATL, Tim Hudson (15-10, 3.19 ERA) vs. WAS, Stephen Strasburg (0-0, 1.29 ERA); Saturday—ATL, Brandon Beachy (7-2, 3.58 ERA) vs. WAS, Chien-Ming Wang (3-3, 4.31); Sunday—ATL, Mike Minor (5-2. 4.27 ERA) vs. WAS, Ross Detwiler (previously a relief pitcher, 3.30 ERA). The pitching matchups seem to favor the Braves, although if Strasburg has his great stuff, the Nats have the edge in the first game, at least.

Looking back to the series in St. Louis, Dempster is 0-5 in his last five starts, and Carpenter is pitching the way we all expected Chris Carpenter to pitch. The Cardinals aren't going to back into the playoffs if they make it at all. This is a moment for the bold and the fearless. Let's see if the Cardinals have what it takes to rise above a tough loss and take the glory for themselves.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

There's still much work to do

Now I'm not about to try to pass myself off as some sort of prophet, because before this weekend series between the Cardinals and the Phillies, I was only stating the most obvious point: the Cardinals had to, at the very least, win three of four from the Phillies to have a chance to catch Atlanta for the NL Wild Card. After Saturday night's eighth-inning bullpen meltdown and Roy Halladay looming on Monday's pitching matchups, it looked like a sister-kissing split was the best we could hope for.

Let's all be thankful for pleasant surprises. Enigmatic Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse reverted to the form that helped him land a fat contract and actually outpitched the Cy Young candidate Halladay, and the bullpen managed NOT to cough up a 4-1 lead in the ninth as the Redbirds left the City of Brotherly Battery Throwing with three wins out of four in their pocket.

In the meantime, the Atlanta Braves, doing their best to imitate Boston's epic wild card meltdown in the AL, lost another game to minor-league powerhouse Florida, thus reducing their lead in the NL wild card race over St. Louis to 2-1/2 games.

The Cardinals should be commended for not giving up when by all rational accounts, they were far out of the race for the postseason. Their resurgence came under the cloud of injuries, poor hitting (leading the league in double-plays), suspect defense, and a bullpen with the stability of a Molotov cocktail. To be sure, Atlanta's descent plays an important role, but the Cardinals could have phoned it in and no one would have noticed--Cardinal Nation tuned out after we fell more than 10 games behind Milwaukee.

But the Cardinals haven't actually accomplished anything yet. They still have to make up 2-1/2 games, and they only have nine games left in the season. Up first, six at home this week against the Mets (73-80) and the Cubs (68-86), then the final three at Houston (53-100). Allow me to attempt to be a prophet now, even if it is blindingly obvious: the Cardinals must win nine in a row to win the NL wild card and sneak into the playoffs.

Atlanta has two more games at Florida, then three at Washington, followed by the final three at home against Philly. Assuming that Philly is resting starters for those final three, it's not out of the question that the Braves could easily win 7 of 8, which would still clinch it for them. And let's not forget the Giants, who are only one game behind the Cardinals. They're on the road at LA, Arizona, then home against Colorado. Theirs seems like a tougher road, but they have solid pitching, so they could still end up on top.

The formula for the Cardinals is simple--they have to play better than they have to get over this last wall. The defense must be airtight. Batters must stop grounding into double-plays, especially with men in scoring position. And the bullpen must tighten up all the screws and slam that door shut, especially in the eighth and ninth innings.

Easier said than done? Of course! But we're home for six, then at Houston, who've already lost 100 games this season. We've come this far by playing barely above-average baseball. The official MLB playoffs may still be a couple of weeks away, but they've already started for the Cardinals, and from here on out, they need to play as if every game is the seventh in the series.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in...

The best line of the otherwise forgettable movie "Godfather 3" is the perfect setup for a weekend of meaningful baseball in a season that, just two weeks ago, appeared to be as dead as Fredo Corleone. Ten games out in the NL Central and more than six behind Atlanta for the Wild Card, the only thing left for St. Louis Cardinals fans to talk about was the odds of Albert Pujols re-signing with the Redbirds or leaving for big free-agent money.

But a sweep of the Braves last weekend, combined with a two out of three series win in Pittsburgh has made the Cards legitimate contenders for a late-season run at the wild card. But do they really have what it takes to make the post-season? This weekend's series in Philadelphia will tell the tale, and it shapes up about as well as the Cardinals could have hoped in terms of pitching.

In the upcoming four-game series, Garcia, Westbrook and Lohse will match up against Worley (11-2), Oswalt (7-9) and Hamels (14-8). These are all imposing pitchers, but none of them is Cliff Lee, who is practically unhittable right now. Soon-to-be Cy Young winner Roy Halliday goes for the Phils in the Monday series closer, but he'll be opposed by Cards ace Chris Carpenter. It's about the most favorable pitching matchup the Cardinals could have hoped for.

St. Louis's pitching staff will have to be in post-season form for each game, because teams just don't score off Philly's staff. Pujols and Berkman both need to step up big at the plate, especially with Matt Holliday on the bench for the next week or so. A series split isn't good enough, and losing 3 of 4 would probably mean the end of this surprising surge for the Redbirds. Nothing less than a series win is going to keep St. Louis in the post-season hunt.

And the real surprise is that they are here at all. Since the All-Star break, this team has been below average in most phases of the game. The question is whether this late run is an aberration or if it shows the true potential of the team. Atlanta hosts the Mets this weekend, while Milwaukee, who has seen their NL Central lead over St. Louis shrink to 5.5 games, is on the road at Cincinnati.

The Cardinals can't play it safe and hope that the Braves and Brewers will continue to fall back. If they don't already realize it, Don Tony needs to remind them: from here on out, every game is a playoff game. The next four are against the NL's best ballclub. Do the Cardinals really have what it takes? Surprisingly, I will be watching—once again—to find out.

Friday, September 09, 2011

NFL 2011 Preview: AFC

I have no team left to root for in the AFC now that Manning is likely out for the season. I used to be a KC fan, especially when St. Louis didn't have a team, so I still have some residual affinity for the Chiefs, although it's unlikely they will make it back to the playoffs this season. Here are my picks for divisions and playoffs:

AFC East
1. New York Jets (12-4)
2. New England Patriots (11-5)
3. Miami Dolphins (8-8)
4. Buffalo Bills (6-10)

Third time's the charm for Gang Green, while an aging offense and a defense lacking a serious pass relegates the Pats to wild card status. Miami and Buffalo are likely to remain mired in the doldrums of teams without a legit NFL QB.

AFC North
1. Baltimore (11-5)
2. Pittsburgh (10-6)
3. Cleveland (5-11)
4. Cincinnati (1-15)

Come to think of it, maybe Joe Flacco will be my new man-crush; he's going to have a Pro Bowl season and lead the Ravens deep into the playoffs. The Steelers will do well enough to avoid the Superbowl loser curse of missing the playoffs, but no more than that. Cleveland doesn't have a QB, and even though Cincy's likely to win the Andrew Luck Lottery Sweepstakes, they're too stupid to draft him.

AFC South
1. Houston (10-6)
2. Indianapolis (9-7)
3. Tennessee (7-9)
4. Jacksonville (4-12)

Houston wins this now-weak division by default. Kerry Collins will do okay in Indy, but that team has serious problems on both sides of the ball that Manning would have been able to disguise; Collins won't. Unfortunately, Jim Caldwell is unlikely to be fired (even though he's a terrible HC) just because they have the built-in "Peyton was hurt" excuse.

AFC West
1. San Diego (11-5)
2. Kansas City (9-7)
3. Oakland (8-8)
4. Denver (6-10)

I'm not drinking the San Diego Kool-Aid as long as Norv Turner's still the HC, but they have too much talent not to win this division. I hope I'm wrong about KC, but I don't know how much talent they have in key positions.

AFC Playoffs
1. New York Jets
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. San Diego Chargers
4. Houston Texans
5. New England Patriots
6. Pittsburgh Steelers

Wild Card
San Diego over Pittsburgh
New England over Houston

Divisional Playoffs
NY Jets over Houston
Baltimore over New England

AFC Championship
NY Jets over Baltimore

Green Bay Packers over New York Jets

NFL 2011 Preview: NFC

I've got good news and bad news: The good news is that the lockout impasse was solved in time for the regular season to begin as scheduled. The bad news is that Peyton Manning is likely gone for the season with a second neck surgery. As I don't believe that Donovan McNabb is going to lead the Vikings to the playoffs and we're still a year or two away from Warren Beatty lookalike Christian Ponder from taking over, I have an opening available for this year's NFL man crush. Maybe Sam Bradford will step up and fill that role. In the meantime, here are my predictions for division finishes and playoffs this year.

NFC East
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
2. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
3. New York Giants (9-7)
4. Washington Redskins (6-10)

Look for Tony Romo to step up to the next level this season, as well as Rob Ryan's defense to be the difference in winning the division for Dallas. Despite all the hype, the Eagles will not be as good as expected; look for Michael Vick to have less success than last season.

NFC South
1. New Orleans Saints (11-5)
2. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
4. Carolina Panthers (3-13)

Toughest division in the NFC will see New Orleans and Atlanta slug it out for the title, but both these teams should make the playoffs.

NFC North
1. Green Bay Packers (14-2)
2. Chicago Bears (9-7)
3. Detroit Lions (8-8)
4. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

I hate to say it, but Green Bay is simply playing on another level. I think the Bears will still play better than the Lions, and while Detroit will be improved, but I'm not ready to put them in the playoffs just yet.

NFC West
1. St. Louis Rams (9-7)
2. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
3. San Francisco 49ers (7-9)
4. Seattle Seahawks (2-14)

With a brutal schedule for the first six games, the Rams should gain enough toughness and experience to run the table in the second half of the schedule and return to the playoffs for the first time in ages. Look for Jim Harbaugh to get consideration for coach of the year in SF. Seattle is clearly playing the Andrew Luck sweepstakes by choosing to start Tarvaris Jackson at QB.

NFC Playoffs
1. Green Bay
2. New Orleans
3. Dallas
4. St. Louis
5. Atlanta
6. Philadelphia

Wild Card Round
Dallas over Philadelphia
Atlanta over St. Louis

Divisional Round
Green Bay over Atlanta
New Orleans over Dallas

NFC Championship
Green Bay over New Orleans

later today: AFC Preview