Even before the 2011 season got underway, Cardinals fans had a cornucopia of pre-made excuses ready for the inevitable meltdown. It was never an if question, but a when.
Let’s take a quick look back, shall we ?
- Adam Wainwright is lost for the season with ligament replacement surgery
- Chris Carpenter and Mitchell Boggs are injured in spring training, and miss some time.
- Ryan Theriot is supposed to replace the golden glove defense of Brendan Ryan at one of the most demanding positions on the diamond.
- Lance Berkman, with questionable legs, is supposed to be the every day right fielder.
- Nothing was done in the off-season to improve the situation at second base.
- Jaime Garcia looked totally lost for most of spring training.
- Nick Punto would miss all of spring training, and the first month of the season with a sports hernia.
- The Albert Pujols contract situation was still unresolved.
As the season started, we found several more reasons to dislike the 2011 season.
- The promised offense failed to deliver early in the season, and the defense was way worse than advertised.
- Chris Carpenter can’t buy a win.
- Ryan Franklin can’t buy a save.
- Trever Miller can’t buy an out.
- Albert Pujols can’t buy an extra-base hit.
- Miguel Batista is a better poet than long reliever.
- Two exciting additions to the bullpen, Brian Tallet and Bryan Augenstein, would go down to injury very early in the season, exposing a potential new weakness: the bullpen.
- Matt Holliday goes down with an appendicitis, on April Fool’s day – you can’t make stuff like this up.
- David Freese would go on another long DL stint, this time with a broken hand.
- Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto hit the DL, leaving a huge void at second base.
- Gerald Laird, who had been a particular bright spot, also went down to a broken hand.
- And my favorite, Tony La Russa blows up during a post-game press conference.
All of the ingredients are in place for a horrific season, much like the one that ended Whitey Herzog’s tenure as the Cardinals manager. Except that the team isn’t cooperating, are they? This bunch of plucky Redbirds defy the odds with every game they play.
There is no better example than this game against the Giants, on May 31.
Chris Carpenter throws a huge number of pitches (103) during his five innings of work. The combination of strikeouts (8), hits allowed (7) , and struggling with the umpire’s strike zone meant that the bullpen would have to cover four innings instead of one or two. Carpenter pitched well enough to win, as did his counterpart for the Giants, Ryan Vogelsong, yet neither would receive a decision.
It is important to note that both pitchers struggled with the strike zone. While Mike DiMuro’s calls seemed to be all over the map, he was doing it consistently to both teams.
Fast forward to the eighth inning, with the Cardinals trailing 3-1 against one of the better bullpens in the National League. A close look at this one inning will tell you all you need to know about the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals.
Back to back doubles by Jon Jay and Albert Pujols bring the big home town crowd to its feet. The tying run is now in scoring position with nobody out, and some big bats coming up.
The first chess move by Giants manager, Bruce Bochy, is to turn around Lance Berkman to his weak (right) side when he brings in the left hander, Javier Lopez. That decision proves to be the right one when Berkman grounds out harmlessly for the first out. More important, he failed to move Pujols to third on the grounder because he hit it to the wrong side of the infield.
Next comes a non-move that might have cost the Giants the game. While Lopez has dominated left-handed hitters (.147/ .256/ .147), right handers tear him up (.333/ .436/ .455). Lopez is allowed to pitch to Allen Craig, a right handed hitter, instead of walking him to face Colby Rasmus. Craig delivers an RBI double, tying the game at 3.
For me, the pivotal moment in the game comes during the Colby Rasmus at bat. He knows he is facing a tough lefty, and eventually grounds out. But the out is exceedingly productive because it was to the right side of the infield, allowing Allen Craig to advance to third base. For two years, we saw Roger Maris do this, game after game. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a productive out.
After an intentional walk to Yadier “Clutch” Molina, Skip Schumaker delivers with a most improbably infield single, aided by some iffy defense on the part of the Giants. With Craig advancing to third on the Rasmus groundout, he was able to score on the Schumaker single.
Let’s recap this quickly.
- Chris Carpenter struggles, but pitches well enough to win, but doesn’t.
- The bullpen has to throw four innings.
- Ryan Franklin strikes out the side in the eighth inning.
- The Cardinals score 3 runs against a very tough bullpen in their last at-bat.
- Allen Craig continues to show that he might not be a AAAA player after all.
- Colby Rasmus with a productive out.
- Skip Schumaker defies the biggest of all the odds with a game winning RBI off a very tough left-hander. Schumaker should not have been batting in that situation, which makes the RBI even more sweet.
- The winning run was scored with 2 outs in the eighth inning.
- Fernando Salas nails down the save with a scoreless ninth inning.
- The Cardinals committed no, zero, zilch, nada, zippo errors in the game.
With this victory, I am now out of reasons to dislike their chances of winning the NL Central in 2011. There are no more excuses, no more grousing and no more contributions to the cussjar. We’re done with all of that. This team is winning in spite of every reason that they shouldn’t. Instead of trying to explain it, we should all sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of the season. It promises to be very entertaining.