One knew it was coming. Even though the tragic injury to Adam Wainwright has already threatened the season, there is always another injury or three, flies in the ointment of postseason dreams. Appendectomies don't really count, especially when the player feeds on them. But broken hands absolutely do, although hopefully not as gravely as glass ankles, torn lats, or motocross injuries. The closer shuffle pales in comparison to a many-weeks disabled list stint from a frozen rope hitting third baseman.
I was driving back to my apartment when Scott Linebrink let one get away into that dangerous up-and-in area that can do serious physical harm to a batter. The bones in the hand are relatively small and close to the skin, making a ninety-some MPH fastball readily capable of cracking them. A player getting beaned in the hand or wrist always makes me hold my breath. This has always been a fear of mine. It's why I always wore those stylish yet functional Mizuno padded batting gloves, made famous by Ricky Henderson sporting the neon-green model as he sculpted the bulk of his Hall-of-Fame career in Oakland. To this day I do not understand how every player does not wear batting gloves with padding on the portion covering the back of the hand. These days only a handful do and none of them is David Freese.
As the trainer saw to Freese's hand, Rooney's description only fed my anxiousness. He explained for the listening audience that, from the radio booth, he thought the pitch had hit Freese's bat because the sound it made was so loud. Even so, the trainer allowed Freese to stay in the game and run the bases. Even though a ballplayer need not even have hands to run the bases, this made me feel better about the beanball and Freese's health. I parked my car at the apartment, sat in it listening until the end of the half-inning (a practice I'm certain causes my neighbors to question my sanity) and went inside at the commercial. Then Freese did not come out to field his position in the home half of the inning and my worries flared up again.
Seemingly aware of the anxiousness about Freese and shorthanded in terms of utility infielders, La Russa did his level best to make us all forget about the possibly injured starting third baseman by engaging in a level of La Russan over-management that felt unparalleled in the storied annals of the field manager's anal attempts at controlling the game. Perhaps due to a virus targeting his brain, the Cardinals manager penciled Nick Punto into the leadoff spot as the starting second baseman. When Punto needed replacing due to injury, La Russa summoned Daniel Descalso, which left only Tyler Greene on the bench. When Freese was unable to continue, the manager inserted Greene at the keystone and shifted Descalso to the hot corner. Reasonable enough.
Maybe it was the virus attacking his cerebellum, mental fatigue from staying up late every night this week gaming out possible late-inning bullpen scenarios, or La Russa just wanting to distract us from worrying about Freese with tweets about his managerial decisions, but things got downright strange in the eighth. Representing the tying run, Matt Holliday led off with a double and was then advanced to third by Lance Berkman's productive groundout to former Cardinal dreamboat Joe Mather, who was playing first base for Atlanta on this May Day. Tyler Greene, the last infielder on the bench would bat with a chance to knot up the score. But it was the Hall-of-Fame manager who would twist and tie logic into an unsolvable knot by sending out left-handed outfielder Jon Jay to bat for Greene. Jay was given a free pass by the Braves, presumably to get to ground-into-double-play extraordinaire Yadier Molina. Molina thwarted this tactic though, lifting a sacrifice flyball to the outfield which allowed Holliday to score. Ryan Theriot had a chance to the slap a fliner to the shallow outfield for a Cardinals' lead, but struck out--looking, no less--and the Cardinals' half of the eighth ended with the clubs tied and La Russa with but two infielders at his disposal.
Descalso, who was initially subbed in at second base for the injured Punto and had moved to third for the injured Freese, moved back to second base. Theriot stayed a shortstop. Mark Hamilton replaced Jason Motte in the batting order and manned first base, which shifted Albert Pujols to third base for the first time since the pre-Rolen days of 2002. Adding to the inexplicable nature of his managing, Ryan Franklin was called upon in this tie game. Naturally, Chipper Jones led off the bottom of the eighth with a ball right to third base. Pujols was up to the challenge and recorded the assist in retiring his future fellow Hall-of-Famer. Brian McCann followed with a groundout and Dan Uggla flew out. Somehow, Franklin sat down the heart of the Atlanta order one, two, three.
We all know how the game ended, with Theriot knocking a flyball out to the ground with the heel of his glove and Franklin again proving himself unable to wriggle out a jam. It was unfair for the manager to have him enter a tie game in the eighth and that unfairness increased exponentially when he was left in and asked to get another three outs. Without swing-and-miss stuff and relying on the luck of contact, a pitcher can and will get dinged for runs on a combination of errors, walks, and gorkers. Yesterday was probably Franklin's best outing since, well, I don't know when, but it served to further drive home that the smoke and mirrors of his grand prestige have been revealed and it seems the illusion is dead, the magic long gone. But the wailing caused by Franklin Meltdown IX (or was this X?) was a sideshow distraction for the news on Freese's maimed hand.
What was diagnosed as a "hand contusion" during the game was given the more serious diagnosis after the game of a broken bone. Freese hits the 15-day disabled list today and the next half-dozen or so weeks will probably resemble yesterday's game with some combination of Punto, Greene, Descalso, and possible the healed Allen Craig combining to fill the void in production that no one was going to give us moving forward, not even Freese. His .366 BA and 4.4% walk rate combined or a .396 OBP, all rest on the shaky long-term foundation of a .468 BABIP. Nonetheless, the drop off between normal-luck Freese and Punto or Descalso with the bat is a steep one and with the ham-handed Berkman and Theriot already standing at two defensive positions, one wonders if La Russa will value leather work or just triple down on offensive production in the form of Craig.
Whatever the manager opts for, now is not a good time for the Cards to lose their starting third baseman. The 17-9 Marlins come a-callin' this very evening. Indeed the next seven days will be a stiff test for the first-place Redbirds as the Brewers will make their first trip to Busch for this weekend's series. St. Louis could use all hands on deck.