But there’s one smack dab in the middle of mediocre, and that’s what Colby Rasmus was on September 13.
While Cardinals fans are lamenting another loss to a rookie pitcher with an ERA higher than the Cardinals magic number, a closer look at the turning point in the game might shed some light on a very real problem. I bring this up, not to criticize a young player, but because I’m somewhat frustrated by the number of articles and blogs tearing into the management and coaches, but giving some of the players a free pass.
Before continuing, my mother taught me to be at least as quick with praise as I am with criticism, so let me begin by saying again, Colby Rasmus is an amazingly talented young baseball player. He has the prettiest left handed swing since Ken Griffey, Jr. When he makes contact, the ball jumps off his bat. Umm, I need a few more – so – Rasmus is blessed with incredible foot speed that unfortunately is somewhat neutralized by the management style of Tony La Russa.
Mom would be proud of that.
Let’s now look at the game situation, and the play in question.
September 13, 2010
The Cardinals season is drawing to a rather unsatisfying close, but there is still a chance to catch the division leading Cincinnati Reds. It will take a Herculean effort to accomplish, and it starts with winning every series for the remainder of season.
In the opener of a 3 game homestand against the Chicago Cubs, rookie sensation Jaime Garcia was unable to overcome an early infield miscue, and the Cubs built a quick 4-0 lead. The Cubs starter was a young rookie right hander named Jeff Samardzija, who brought an 18.90 ERA into the game. Yes, his ERA is somewhat inflated by a small sample size, but it is important to know that this is the same Jeff Samardzija that had a stellar season in AAA, but was just lit up by the Memphis Redbirds in his last appearance.
In the third inning, Samardzija got into trouble. Walks to Brendan Ryan, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday would load the bases for Colby Rasmus. Ryan earned his walk, that happens. Nobody could blame Samardzija for pitching around Pujols, every pitcher does that. But, and this is a big but, the walk to Matt Holliday wasn’t even close. Several of the pitches were a foot or more out of the strike zone. It was so bad that it prompted a visit from the Cubs pitching coach. Clearly the young right hander was struggling, and as we learned in his last start in Des Moines, this is when you can beat him.
Those that got it done
In the past, great players like Dick Groat, Roger Maris, Mike Shannon, Ted Simmons, Joe Torre, George Hendrick, Keith Hernandez, Terry Pendleton, Pedro Guerrero and Larry Walker would be very patient in this situation – OK, maybe not Guerrero. They would make the pitcher throw a strike, maybe two. If they got a pitch to their liking, they would take a rip – but aiming for gaps between the outfielders, not the fans sitting beyond the outfield wall. A walk scores a run, a single scores two. A ball hit into the gap may score all three base runners. Add to this the wildness demonstrated by Samardzija, and any pitch might find itself rolling to the backstop, scoring a run. Any of these change the complexion of the game, perhaps forcing the Cubs to go to their bullpen.
I chose these particular players for a reason. Not that they were perfect in this situation, some even struggled early in their career as Rasmus is now. But the list is a Who’s Who of Beloved Cardinals. Every name is associated with productivity, teamwork, success. Play like a Cardinal stuff. Not a single one of them was known for jacking the ball over the fence with any sort of regularity. Instead, when the game was on the line, each of them adapted to the situation and did what was necessary to give their team a chance to win – most of the time it involved the ball going between left center field and right center field gaps.
What actually happened
Young Rasmus takes the first pitch, a foot outside. The next pitch is left over the heart of the plate and Rasmus swings for the fences. It falls somewhat short of his goal – a harmless fly out to the warning track in right field.
The Cardinals would go on to lose the game, failing to muster anything that looked like an offensive threat for the remainder of the game. In the postgame interviews, several players and coaches talked about Rasmus just missing the home run and how the game would have been different if the ball had left the park. With all due respect, GARBAGE. That point of view is one of the biggest problems with the 2010 edition of the Cardinals.
The right play here was a high percentage play, not the highlight reels. Whether it is coaching, a young player struggling, or something far more sinister, Rasmus simply did not get it done. That it comes after a series in Atlanta that started with a 4-4 performance, including 2 home runs, but then followed up by a disappointing 2-12 in the remaining 3 games makes this all the more frustrating. And that’s also part of the problem. We’ve seen this many times in his short career, when Rasmus gets homer happy, his offensive production falls off.
Maybe this is where a little bit of criticism of the skipper might help. If La Russa gets frustrated by the tendency of Rasmus to swing for the fences, why continue to put Rasmus in the fifth spot of the batting order, almost willing the youngster to do that the thing you don’t want him to do. Instead, why not put him higher in the order where his speed and on base percentage take precedence over the distance of his last home run ?
Yes, Matt Holliday did have a similar situation in the 5th inning, and it ended the same way. There is a big difference. Holliday has already established his credentials as a big game player, and although he hasn’t been successful this season, his career track record earns him a few free passes. Holliday also worked the count a bit deeper before hitting a get-me-over fastball to the warning track.
Unfair ! Unfair !
Now I’m being unfair, picking on a young player that is still trying to learn how to play the game. What would you have done in that situation ? Obviously, I would have stuck out feebly. That’s why I do what I do for a living, and the gifted Rasmus does what he does.
As for unfair, I don’t think so.
Think of it instead as a counterbalance for all that has been written recently, criticizing Tony La Russa’s mismanagement of the team, and his particular conflict with the young center fielder. Instead of La Russa not being able to connect with the younger players, could it be perhaps that the young player is trying too hard, not hard enough, or maybe even not thinking about the game situation ? Maybe La Russa should be given more credit for putting young players like Rasmus in situations where they are more likely to succeed than fail. But we can’t do that, because then we might have to take back things that we’ve already said, and that would be wrong.
There’s a lot to like when watching Rasmus play the game. There are also a lot of gaps in his baseball education. He will struggle again, but hopefully for shorter and shorter stretches. And we will struggle along with Rasmus, as we watch him develop into the major leaguer that I think he will eventually become. Unless he choses to go the route of JD Drew and Andy van Slyke instead the players we still talk about with fondness and admiration.
There’s no I in team, but there is one near the end of potential.