Another offensive explosion, another sterling win for our heroes in red, another night of beautiful transit from summer into autumn. The leaves are turning, and that old familiar whisper of excitement is in the air of the city. We've missed it the past two seasons, and sorely. But that whispering, chattering idiot noise of September bliss is back in force now, as those of us born and bred into Cardinal love look to October glory once again.
Or maybe, more correctly, a vibration; a low humming everywhere you walk that has always been and always will be as the days shorten and cool. It begins in March, that hum of anticipation for the season about to begin, and continues on through the summer months, rising and falling with the fortunes of the Cardinals and the red-clad masses who follow. There are peaks and there are valleys; walkoff wins in the night over Chicago and listless losses to Pittsburgh. But it is always always always there, curling around your life until you barely even notice it. Some years that hum fades as the Cardinals fall out of the race, victims of poor planning, poor performance, or poor fortune. Some years the end of summer brings only a sigh, an inward invocation of next season as the year current winds toward its death. Some years that hum falls away with the leaves as their colour finally goes brown and they drop to the ground.
But not this year. No, this year there is a building, a hum that becomes a buzz that becomes a singing that becomes a ringing that becomes a shout. Playoff baseball is coming to St. Louis, and you don't have to look or listen for the anticipation. You only have to feel it.
It was a hell of game last night, one with a little bit of everything we hope to love about this team. There was an outstanding pitching performance. The offense simply overwhelmed the opposition, and the defense stepped firmly down on their necks to keep them from thoughts of rise.
In the whole game, though, the moment which stood out most to me, the key to the game if you will, was Colby Rasmus' plate appearance in the third inning. There were two outs, and Skip Schumaker had just driven in Julio Lugo for the first tally of the game with a single up the middle. It was an outstanding piece of work by Schumaker to begin with, to get the Cards' first baserunner of the game home after Lugo was sacrificed to second base. But the turning point was Rasmus. Behind him was Albert and the middle of the lineup; if Bazardo could just get the rookie, Pujols would have to lead off the fourth.
The count went quickly to 0-2, as Bazardo threw a wicked little changeup for a called strike one and Colby fouled off a fat fastball. The next pitch was another changeup, a little down and a little away, just the sort of pitch you want to see your pitcher throw on a two strike count. It was ohsosweet and tempting, and no one would have been surprised, I think, to see Colby swing. But he didn't. He let it go with a look, and just like that, the most important pitch of the game was taken for ball one. After that, Bazardo tried to clip the outside corner with fastballs, but he had left his paintbrush at home and Rasmus wisely just let the pitches go. Four straight balls and Colby trotted down to first base.
Albert came up with two men on and drove in Skip, and that brilliant bit of baserunning razzle-dazzle by Pujols and Colby plated the Cards' third run. But it was the walk that really created the inning. If Rasmus makes an out there, the inning is but a footnote in the eventual story of the game, one run on a clutch single in the third. Pujols bats leading off the fourth inning, and who knows where the story goes then? But Colby refusing to swing at that 0-2 changeup changed the entire dynamic of the inning. Instead of Albert leading off the fourth, he came to bat with two men on in the third, and Bazardo was forced to face the middle of the order in a scoring situation. And even though Pujols himself proved to be the last official batter of the inning, two more runners crossed the plate before the third out was made. Just a walk on the scorecard, and it seemed like such a small thing at the time, but it shifted the balance to the Cardinals' side, and they took advantage. The run Rasmus scored on he and Albert's running gambit proved to be the difference in the game, in fact.
The Cards could very well clinch tonight, if they can take care of their business and the Cubs cooperate. With that in mind, I thought we might take a moment to catch our breaths before the elation and look back at how we got here.
I think there are five things which really made the most difference for the Cardinals in 2009; five things to stand for all the hundreds of little things that have made it such a rewarding summer in St. Louis. And without further rambling from your author, they are as follows:
1) Fuentes Heads For the Coast
what it was -- Remember, back in the winter of aught eight, when the Cardinals desperately tried to sign a sinister hurler by the name of Brian Fuentes to close games for them? At the time, it seemed like the most important move anyone has ever made in the history of the game to many fans, fresh off the bullpen disaster that was 2008. When the Cardinals refused to include a third year option on a deal for Fuentes and he signed with the Angels, the bitterness and angst among many was truly awe-inspiring. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments throughout the land -- and by the land I mean the Post-Dispatch boards and talk radio-- as the cries of cheap ownership and foolish General Managership reached a fever pitch. Those of us who believed in the Cardinals' young pitchers and those of us who believed Fuentes to be hugely overrated rallied together in an attempt to quell the uprising, but to little avail.
why it was important -- Brian Fuentes has been, to put it kindly, less than untouchable this season. Sure, he has 44 saves, but he's also blown seven, has given up a hit per inning, and is striking out four batters less per 9 than he did last season. His FIP for the year stands at 4.53, and that 2.24 he put up last year is looking more and more like the fevered dream of a madman. (Or the fevered dream of a contract year, however you like.)
More importantly, Fuentes would have cost the Cardinals at least $8.5 million this season and $9 million in 2010, stretching the payroll much tighter than it was on Opening Day. Fuentes would have been paid three times what Ryan Franklin was to do a worse job closing out games, and there quite likely wouldn't have been enough financial flexibility to make the moves the Cardinals did later in the year. So we can go back and sign Fuentes if you like, but it probably means no Holliday now. History is fun!
2) Franklin Comes Alive
what it was -- This one sort of bookends nicely with the Fuentes deal that wasn't, as the Cardinals received a very surprising performance in the closer role from Ryan Franklin. Debate all you like how good Franklin really is (and I think most of us are well aware he's nowhere near the pitcher he pitched like for quite a bit of the season), but he stepped in to the void at the back of the bullpen and locked it down for a good period of time.
why it was important -- Well, first off, it kept the Cardinals from losing a bunch of games through late-inning collapses, which is primarily what kept them from going to the playoffs last year. Second, on Opening Day, when Jason Motte got the first crack at closing out a game and blew it so magnificently, my father and I looked at each other (I was watching the game at his house), and said, "Here we go again." If Franklin doesn't step in and stabilise the bullpen, I think it's entirely possible Johnny Mo and Co. go into panic mode and make an ill-advised deal to try and bring in an established closer. And honestly, after witnessing the troubles of 2008, it would have been tough to blame them, but the end result could have been disastrous. Thankfully, Franky did the job, and no knee-jerk moves were needed.
3) Stuck in the Middle With Schu -- and Boog
what it was -- It's a little weird now to look back, but at the beginning of the season, the Cardinals' middle infield was desperately unsettled. Skip Schumaker was making a nearly unprecedented transition from the outfield to second base, and Khalil Greene was starting at shortstop. Most of us, myself most definitely included, thought bringing in Khalil was an excellent gamble, but it was still a gamble nonetheless. Unfortunately, K-Bot has gone all William H. Macy in The Cooler on us, leaving the shortstop position wide open. Five months later, Schumaker is a perfectly adequate player at second and Brendan Ryan has taken the shortstop position by force, turning into one of the best defensive shortstops in the league.
why it was important -- Honestly, can you imagine where we would be without Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan? If Schumaker can't pick grounders at even a Dan Uggla sort of level, we likely see Joe Thurston in the lineup every single day. And sure, Thurston's numbers put him in the "much too hated" category, but just think of the sheer number of extra outs the Cards would have made on the basepaths. It boggles the mind.
As for Ryan, you simply can't say enough about what he's meant to this team. If he doesn't take the steps forward he has this season, a) the pitchers all probably have about half a run tacked on to their ERAs, and b) we likely see either a crippled and damaged Khalil Greene trying to play in blood-soaked long sleeves all summer, or Tyler Greene swinging at pickoff throws. Thankfully, both Ryan and Schumaker have done pretty remarkable jobs this year of solidifying the middle infield, keeping us from the horrors that could easily have been.
4) A Carpenter and a Pinata
what it was -- Following a painfully disappointing 2008 for both pitchers, in which Chris Carpenter threw only a handful of innings while trying to come back from elbow surgery and Joel Pineiro earned his El Pinata nickname, 2009 looked a tad worrisome for the Cardinal rotation. Adam Wainwright was seen as the ace, Kyle Lohse the #2, and beyond that, oy. Most thought any innings at all from Chris Carpenter would be a bonus, and we all just wanted Pineiro to go away.
Instead, both pitchers have been outstanding, with Carpenter healthy for the first time since 2006 (minus a ribcage pull, but I mean arm-wise), and El Pinata posting an FIP 1.7 runs lower than in 2008. (4.71 vs. 3.01)
why it was important -- The Cardinals aren't standing where they are today without their rotation, simple as that. Even with the additions to the offense, the Cards still struggle to consistently score runs night in night out, leaving the heavy lifting to the pitchers. Kyle Lohse has had a really awful season, due to both injury and ineffectiveness, and without the contributions of Carp and Pineiro, the rotation would have Wainwright and, um, pray for blight? I can't come up with a good rhyme there. If Carpenter only gives the Cards the ~80 innings many expected and Jo-El is the same guy he is in 2008, this team is, well, the Brewers. Minus the douchebaggery. I hope.
5) Trader Mo
what it was -- After spending his first two offseasons as the helm of the Cardinals trying to clean out the junk from the end of Walt Jocketty's tenure here, Mozeliak had essentially gained himself two reputations. Among those of us who follow baseball very closely and are interested in breaking things down from multiple angles, Mr. Mo was seen as a Hippocratic sort of General Manager, i.e. first, do no harm. He wasn't really doing a lot of good, no, but then again, he also wasn't locking the Cardinals into crippling deals and going all March to the Sea on the farm system, so we were relatively pleased. To the casual fan, though, or even the serious fan less interested in the long-term view, who just wanted to see a winning team, Mozeliak was a do-nothing puppet, the man charged by Bill DeWallet to sit on his hands and save money so they could sell off the team in a couple years. Put simply, they weren't overly fond of Mr. Mo. What was worse, even those of us who thought he was doing a solid job trying to reset the organisation were beginning to get a little antsy.
Fast forward a bit, and the team the Cardinals take into the postseason in 2009 looks very little like the team which took the field on Opening Day, and even less like the team they ended the season with a year ago. Matt Holliday, of course, is the big acquisition, but manning up and going against the field staff to trade Chris Duncan for Julio Lugo may actually be the best move Mozeliak made all year. Bringing in John Smoltz was just gravy. There are, of course, some dark spots, as Mark DeRosa's production likely could have been replicated by an internal candidate, Khalil Greene has had a truly lost season, and in almost all of his trades Mozeliak has seemingly overpaid somewhat.
why it was important -- Simply put, the Cardinals were good enough to win the division or the wild card as constructed at the beginning of the season, but just barely. If everything went right, they were probably an 86-88 win team. If they did squeak into the playoffs, you would have to have expected an early bouncing.
Now, though, the Cardinals could very well be seen as the favourites to win the National League pennant. Personally, I'm still terrified of the Phillies,but not because I think Philadelphia is actually a better baseball team. They just seem to have the Cards' number the past couple years. Regardless, it would surprise no one now to see the Cardinals facing off with whatever AL team makes it through to the World Series at the end of October, and I don't think you can say that before Mozeliak made the improvements to the roster.
Additionally, while I'm not ordinarily a big believer in clubhouse chemistry and other such things, I do think the fact the organisation was obviously trying to obtain help for this team had a positive effect on their play. How many extra wins does that translate to? I have no idea, and wouldn't even hazard a guess. But beyond just how much better the new acquisitions made the team, the players themselves were very appreciative of the improvements made. And yes, winning builds chemistry better than chemistry builds winnings, but it isn't fair to simply dismiss the boost the players got when they saw the cavalry coming over the hill.
It's been a wonderful season, and I'm hoping we have something to celebrate tonight. And yes, I am in full-on jinx mode right now, but I don't care. I'm so excited, and I find myself unable to hide it. Or something like that.
The Baron' Playlist for the 23rd of September, 2009
"Forever Young" -- Alphaville
"The Universal" -- Blur
"Train Song" -- Vashti Bunyan
"All Summer Long" -- The Beach Boys