watersheds

it was exactly 3 months ago that the cardinals started to hit --- on may 14. the previous day, padres rookie justin germano had shut the cardinals out on 3 hits, the team's second shutout in 3 days. the feeble effort prompted the following comments from jim edmonds:

we're not doing our job. we need to make a better effort, have a little more energy, and do a better job of scoring runs. it's pretty sickening what's going on out there. . . . it's getting a little old, and we're all to blame.
la russa was similarly disgusted after the game, refusing to answer questions about the offense. "ask the hitters," he said; "ask them how they feel about how we hit." at the time, the cardinals ranked dead last in the major leagues in scoring, with a pathetic 3.1 runs/game average. the very next night, they pounded brett tomko for 8 runs; the night after that, they hung 7 on derek lowe. it was a true watershed: the bats returned to active duty after edmonds' comments, and they have remained there. here's the team's batting line before and after:
G AVG OBP SLG R/G HR/G
through april 13 35 .234 .303 .323  3.1  0.5
since april 13 80 .286 .349 .434  4.9  1.0

over that 80-game period --- half a season --- the cardinals rank 4th in the national league in scoring, behind the phillies rockies and braves; they've outscored the cubs and brewers by a quarter-run a game over that span. if you doubled that 80-game batting line to get a season-length sample, here's how it would compare to the numbers posted by cardinal teams of recent vintage:

AB   R   H 2B 3B HR BB AVG OBP SLG
2007 5502 790 1574 294 10 166 524 .286 .349 .434
2006 5522 781 1484 292 27 184 531 .269 .337 .431
2005 5538 805 1494 287 26 170 534 .270 .339 .423

all this because of a few harsh words by jim edmonds? well, not exactly --- but i do think his statements were significant. if that's what he was saying in public, i have to believe that he (and probably others) were speaking just as bluntly in the privacy of the clubhouse. there seems to have been a change in the team's dynamic after that, a conscious stiffening of resolve. recall for a moment that may 13 was only two weeks after josh hancock's death, and less than a week after it was announced that carpenter would need an operation to clean out his elbow --- the bone-chip thing --- and would be sidelined for 10 weeks or so. i think those two blows left the cardinals shell-shocked and unfocused, perhaps feeling a little sorry for themselves; maybe some of them had already begun to play out the string on the season, just going through the motions.

a few other things also changed after may 13. one is that juan encarnacion rejoined the team; actually, may 13 was his first game back. he replaced the schumaker / preston wilson platoon in right field and brought some desperately needed production to what had been a vacant hole in the lineup. another addition to the outfield, ryan ludwick, started getting regular playing time; he had been recalled on may 6 and made a few token starts, but since may 13 he has appeared in 69 of 80 games (starting 33) and contributed 10 homers and an .837 ops. all the smurfs got hot at the same time --- eckstein's hitting .350 (.815 ops) since may 13, brendan ryan .343 (.904), schumaker .356 (.967). above all, albert pujols returned to form. he batted .248 / .347 / .426 through may 13; since then, his line reads .339 / .443 / .595. when he hits like that, the cardinals score runs no matter what anyone else does. indeed, the cardinals have carried plenty of dead weight through that 80-game stretch --- a .705 ops from aaron miles in 230 at-bats, 4th-highest at-bat total on the team; a .659 ops from molina, .572 from adam kennedy. they're still playing with 2 or 3 automatic outs in the lineup on most nights. here are the cardinals' full batting stats since may 13, courtesy of pinto's day-by-day database.

can they keep this up? let's begin with the obvious: brendan ryan ain't no .343 hitter. i like the kid and i'm glad he's getting his shot --- maybe he's the everyday shortstop next year --- but he's bound to cool down. even if he drops off, however, he's surely going to outhit adam kennedy --- i think we can just call that a wash. eckstein is also due to slack off, but as long as he can keep his obp at or above .340 --- and that's a reasonable hope --- he's doing his job. rolen's sprinkling of magical cortisone dust seems to be wearing off; i wouldn't expect a sustained surge from him. edmonds? he hasn't homered in over two months (his last one was june 9); since his return from the dl four weeks ago, he has a .701 ops with 4 runs scored and 5 rbi. . . . . but in the last week he's hit the ball harder, and he's such a streak hitter that he's liable to go on a tear at any time.

much depends on how things shake out in right field. if ankiel can sustain his hot start, he'll represent an upgrade over encarnacion; if the league adjusts to him, the gamble might backfire in the short term. i'm not opposed to the gamble --- the long term matters more than the short term to me at this point in the cardinals' journey, and from a long-term perspective it makes sense for the organization to prioritize high-risk, high-reward guys like ankiel over known but limited quantities like juan encarnacion. so i'm down with the experiment. but, to the extent that we're still hoping to close out 2007 with a run at the playoffs, we should acknowledge the stakes. the cards are removing a reliable bat, one that helped solidify a floundering offense, in favor of a guy who really could go either way. ankiel might slug .700 over the last third of the season and help carry the team over the top; he also might post a .270 on-base percentage and make lots of outs to go along with the occasional homer.

but there's also the potential --- one the cardinals considered, you can be sure --- that ankiel's callup might effect a change similar to the one that happened after may 13 --- a change in the dynamic. just 4 games into the ankiel era, a team that seemed stale appears fresh; a team i characterized (rather aptly, if i do say so myself) as zombies on the very day ankiel was recalled has suddenly begun to exhibit life-like attributes. maybe ankiel is the re-animator? when the last 47 games are in the books, i'll take a look back (won't be the only one, i'm sure) to see what kind of watershed august 9 proves to be.

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