A few times, in the last six years, I've mentioned the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals as one of the worst World Series winners ever for some reason or another and then gotten an angry e-mail about it. The cause for all the anger: The mediocre Cardinals who went 83-78 and backed into a playoff spot weren't the same Cardinals who took out the Tigers in five games.
I think that's protesting a little too much--Anthony Reyes, the winner of that all-important Game 1, had just finished going 5-8 with an ERA+ of 88, and the only midseason acquisition who played all five World Series game for the Cardinals was Preston Wilson--but it's the kind of lesson I forget easily: Postseason teams often have less than we think in common with the six months of stats that made them eligible.
I'm writing this while Adron Chambers takes the last at-bat of the game, so you can see where I'm going, here: Are the Cardinals who've been beaten in San Diego and Los Angeles the ones who've been playing through a vague sense of disappointment all year, or are they just a group of Cardinals who would struggle over a full season to play even this well?
If you're going to make that argument, Friday night's loss is the game you should make it with. These Cardinals--in one of the most important games of their season--started Joe Kelly, who wasn't even close to being part of the plan in April. Pete Kozma, who had the third-lowest OPS of any PCL qualifier at AAA, played shortstop, and Matt Carpenter played second base, and Sam Freeman and Victor Marte pitched in high leverage situations, but only after the Cardinals' hottest reliever, Edward Mujica, finally faltered.
In April the Cardinals were supposed to be, above all, deep. Allen Craig didn't even have a starting job. In September the Cardinals are starting Pete Kozma. On purpose.
This is a tough diagnosis to accept, mostly because it leaves us with nobody to blame--even the gods of baseball are a little remote, if this team just isn't that great. We can blame John Mozeliak, whose old-high-upside-veterans reloading plan always carried this risk, but that feels too much like blaming ourselves for being so enthusiastic about it in April and May.
I wouldn't go so far as to say the Cardinals aren't a good team anymore; if Carlos Beltran starts hitting again, if Matt Carpenter can play second base(!) semi-regularly, if Ryan Jackson replaces Pete Kozma as the no-hit shortstop, this is still a deep lineup. Everyone in the rotation but Kyle Lohse is locked in some narrative about decreasing or limited effectiveness, but all of them have intact shoulders and nice peripherals.
And the bullpen--well, Matheny put Freeman and Marte into those high-leverage situations with Fernando Salas still on the bench, so I'm not sure what to blame there except Matheny's continued determination to play the cool hand.
But it's worth remembering, I think, that this team has now disappointed in two very different ways. The Pythagorean thing is well-documented and worth remembering, since it's what's keeping these September Cardinals from a well-earned coast into one of the WIld Card spots. But as we approach the end of the season the Cardinals have lost 114 games from Lance Berkman and 24-and-counting from Rafael Furcal; they've lost the impact-player version of Carlos Beltran, and all that league-average pitching they just paid Jake Westbrook for, and, while we're at it, almost all of Chris Carpenter's season.
These Cardinals have struggled all season to match their wins and losses to their actual performance; now they're just struggling to remain these Cardinals.