The Ol' Switcheroo

Joe Robbins

First shall be last, meek inheriting the Earth, cats and dogs living together, all that sort of stuff.

I have zero confidence right now in this Cardinal team's ability to win the National League Central. In fact, as it stands at this exact moment, I don't feel like there's any possible way we see this team make it even into the actual playoffs; rather, it seems an inevitability that the play-in game is the best this squad can aspire to.

I feel like I should be chastising myself for overreacting; that I should be more level-headed about these things and point out that the Cardinal offense is still far and away the best in the National League. There are exactly two NL teams in the top ten in all of baseball in runs scored, the Cardinals sitting at number three and the really-shouldn't-count Colorado Rockies at number ten. But then I look at the Cards' recent run, of scoring just ten runs in the last six games -- and seven of those came in one glorious Joe Kellyful afternoon -- and being shut out three times in said six game stretch, and I can't feel at all confident in the offense.

I feel like I should also be pointing out, if only to myself, that the Cardinals' pitching has still, on balance, been really good this season. The Redbirds are currently sixth in all of baseball with a 3.55 ERA. Their run differential is still the best in the NL Central by a healthy margin; the Cards are at +134, the Reds are +97, and the Pirates are just +61. This is a team which is outscoring opponents by a much larger margin than their direct competition. Then I look at Adam Wainwright's last two starts, and the fact Lance Lynn has been so bad of late I honestly want him back in the bullpen or just....gone, and Shelby Miller's own iffy performance of late -- which is, in my mind, completely forgivable, at least compared to the other guys who have gone through multiple seasons before -- and there isn't one starter I feel the least bit confident in their ability to win a playoff game. Not even Machine Gun Kelly, whose performance I certainly appreciate the hell out of, but am fully aware of just how unlikely it is to continue.

Honestly, you know what I have confidence in right now? The bullpen. That's it. The only thing. Given a team I watch with the nagging, uncomfortable, and completely ridiculous feeling they are somehow far, far less than the sum of their parts, I find myself only optimistic when the bullpen is in charge. And it's a bizarre feeling.

Remember the early part of the season? Those halcyon days of Sports Illustrated cover stories about the rotation and an offense that seemed intent on putting Mobil On the Run out of business with cheap sodas? And remember how our collective stomach used to churn as the seventh inning approached, knowing we were in for a roller coaster ride the rest of the way? Watching Mitchell Boggs self-destruct, Marc Rzepczynski suck out loud, and Trevor Rosenthal get dinked and dunked and BABIPed nearly to death. Ah, those were the days.

Actually, no, they weren't. Those were horrible times, at least from a bullpen perspective. The club looked like a juggernaut, if only the relief corps could hold things together. And now, all these months later, the 'pen is literally the only segment of the team I can summon any real enthusiasm for. It sort of hit me last night, watching Seth Maness fail, that I was honestly surprised to see that happen. Pac-Man was brilliant for six innings, and when he handed the ball over to the bullpen I felt really good about the Cards' chances. Sure, they weren't hitting Bailey, and in fact were taking some of the uglier at-bats I think I've seen this season, but hey, that happens sometimes. I felt like we might be in for a long night, as neither team seemed on the verge of breaking through, but overall I felt like the game was comfortably in the winnable zone. Such a stark contrast to the earlier stages of the season.

There's good reason for that kind of confidence, too. The Cards' bullpen currently has an FIP for the season of 3.32; that's second-best in the National League behind the Braves' 3.07. Better than the Pirates, better than the Reds. So yes, it probably actually should be surprising at this point when the bullpen fails to do its job. Considering some of the truly god-awful performances we saw from certain relievers in the first month or two of the season, it's a fairly remarkable place to be.

Shortstop is still a disaster, of the unmitigated variety. Third base has been a near-black hole for much of the season. Jon Jay is back to hitting under .200 and OPSing under .600 since the beginning of the Brewers series. Adam Wainwright has been shelled in back-to-back outings, the team is two games out of first again and headed for third place with a bullet. In short, there are a lot of issues with this team right now. I wish I could be more level-headed and feel like everything is going to be alright, but I just can't. Serenity is not in the cards -- or the Cards -- for me at the moment.

For all the issues, though, the bullpen is no longer one of them. And I have to say, I find that...kind of amazing.

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