The good news for the playoff odds guys, who must be really enjoying the daily traffic from every relevant team blog on SB Nation, is that the Braves had the decency to lose while the Cardinals were reenacting all our 2011 frustrations in public. Whether you successfully replace Ryan Theriot or not, your replacement can still hurt himself running the bases; no matter how many relief pitchers you put between a close game and replacement level, the last guy on the list—your aging but still useful ROOGY—might eventually be forced into a situation above his level of competence.
The Astros are a startlingly bad team, but they've beaten the other team 56 times, even with Carlos Lee serving as the focal point of an offense that's gone from bad to not really an offense anymore. There are times, mostly selfish, when I wish baseball were as skewed toward the favorite as, say, the NBA Playoffs, but overall I'm willing to trade the occasional brutal loss for a reason to actually watch baseball's regular season and the NLDS.
In a way this loss almost feels right, though—now we know exactly what the Cardinals have gotten themselves into. Now it's up to Jake Westbrook, the least consistent, least successful pitcher in the rotation, to outduel the apparently combustible Henry Sosa, who came to the Astros in the Jeff Keppinger trade. Sosa's strikeout and walk numbers are actually better in his nine Houston starts than they were in the minors—the seven home runs in 50 innings have been what kept him Astro-like to date—but superstitions about semi-competent, hard-throwing Astros right-handers aside he seems, at best, like an even match for Westbrook.
For me—and I don't blame yesterday's loss on Tony La Russa, for what that's worth—the Cardinals' most important weapon in a must-win game like this is their ability to pull Jake Westbrook if it looks as though he's lost command of his sinker again. This is a team with a weirdly deep bench and a series of relief pitchers who have recently been starters; for once, if the situation calls for it, I actually would like to see Tony La Russa act like it.
Kyle McClellan, likely La Russa's go-to long-man in a situation like that, went a laboring inning last night, but Marc Rzepczynski hasn't thrown more than four pitches in a game in a week, and Mitchell Boggs is probably more than prepared to throw sinkers and terrify us with his wavering control should the need arise for a second dose of Westbrook.
It's just that if the Cardinals lose today I'd just like to see them do it with everything at their disposal having been used—and not in the stereotypical Tony La Russa Defensive Replacement Extravaganza kind of All-Star Game way, or the way that insists that he bring Kyle Lohse in to pitch the fourth inning, because it's a playoff atmosphere and one must let it all hang out.
But this team has an excellent pinch hitter in Allen Craig and, even with Furcal out, Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso ready to fill in averagely at any infield position; it has relievers who, for all their lapses, are prepared to go multiple innings. It even has pinch runners, as Greene has been incredibly eager to demonstrate. The season might end tomorrow, if the Braves win and the Cardinals can't; but I don't want the season to end with Jake Westbrook grinding out five innings like a true pitch-to-contact gamer and Nick Punto taking three pitches and then slapping a grounder to Chris Johnson. That's my only request.