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that was the year that was

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will leitch, as great a cardinal fan as there is, kindly invited me to write a quick st louis playoff preview for Deadspin. it should be posted over there at some point later today. (and here it is.) i'm busy crunching numbers for a less sick 'n' twisted preview for VEB, 1st installment of which i'll likely post this afternoon. for this morning, here's a very quick and selective review of the season that has just ended.

first of all, kudos to tony for holding back carpenter yesterday. controversial decision; he would have heard no end of it if things hadn't worked out. but it was a good percentage play and an admirable display of patience; it leaves the cardinals in the strongest position they could ask for (ie, with carpenter available twice) for the nlds. my only complaint is with the choice of substitute starters. reyes on short rest? the same tender-winged rookie whose arm tony/dave were so keen on protecting two weeks ago? clearly not the best choice for yesterday's game, but more important not the best choice to set things up for the rest of the week. the plan, they say, was to pitch carpenter today if the makeup vs san francisco had been necessary. suppose the astros had won sunday, and further suppose carp were to lose today to san francisco; who would have pitched the one-game playoff tuesday in houston? with reyes burned yesterday and carp today, the only options would have been marquis on full rest or weaver on short rest; coupla craptastic choices. reyes on full rest would have been better than either, so if carp was going to go monday, they should have held reyes back for tuesday and gone with a bullpen start yesterday.

luckily, it doesn' t matter; the cards avoided any negative consequences that might have shaken out from the selection of reyes, although the choice did cost them yesterday's game. but the rotation is going to be fungible for as long as the cards survive this postseason, and it's going to require a lot of managerial oversight. as a hypothetical f'rinstance: suppose the cards win 2 of the first 3 vs the padres. do you start carpenter in game 4 (a non-elimination game) on normal rest, or do you hold him back in the hope that the cards can clinch without him, leaving him available for the opener of the nlcs? tony has made some questionable rotation-management calls in previous series (stottlemyre on short rest in game 5 of the '96 nlcs; kile on short rest for game 4 of the '00 nlcs) with unquestionably bad results. there will be more opportunity than usual this year for a misstep. a team this wobbly is gonna need better decision-making than what we saw yesterday.

next item: way back in december 2005, i wrote about repeat 100-win teams -- ie, teams that won 100 two years in a row. the 2004-05 cardinals were only the 13 team to achieve that feat since 1969; i looked up the previous 12 to see how they fared in year 3. all but one of the year-3 teams suffered a decline in overall wins; the largest dropoff was posted by the 1972 orioles, who won 17 games fewer than the repeat-century team of 1971. the 2006 cardinals tied that record, posting 17 fewer wins than their predecessors. wanna hear something amazing, though? this year's team still spent more days in 1st place -- about 135 by my unofficial estimate -- than the juggernaut of 2004, which was in first for only about 115 days (again, unofficially).

another comparison to a recent landmark: the pitching staff this year was worse, relative to the league, than the dreadful 2003 mound corps. that club allowed 4.91 runs a game in a league that averaged 4.61 runs per game per team; those cardinals were .30 runs per game worse than average. the 2006 club yielded fewer runs per game -- 4.73 -- but did so in a lower-scoring league, which averaged just 4.35 run per team/game. so this year's club was 0.38 runs more porous than the norm, a higher overage than in 2003.

yuck.

if i had to pick a single game where it all went south, i'd select this one -- may 28 in san diego. the cardinals erased a 2-1 5th-inning deficit by exploding for 5 runs off jake peavy. that gave mulder a 6-2 lead to take to the mound for the bottom of the inning, but he retired just 1 man while 8 padres scored. it was the 1st sign of trouble for mulder, who'd turned in quality starts in his four previous outings and in 8 of his first 10 games overall. that inning in san diego marked the turning point; he would make 4 increasingly terrible starts before hitting the DL, and another 2 upon returning. at the time of that pivotal start, st louis had a better record (32-17) than any team in baseball except the tigers and had allowed just 193 runs, the lowest total in the league; after mulder ceased to be effective, they went 51-60 and allowed the 10th-most runs in the league.

here are my nominees for the five biggest wins of the year, ordered chronologically:

  1. april 16 vs cincinnati: the easter day game. the bullpen, struggling early, blew a 2-run lead in the 8th inning. the team had dropped 4 of 7 since sweeping the opening series in philly, and the home folks were already booing. albert's walkoff hr that day -- his 3d of the game -- got everyone in a positive frame of mind; the cardinals embarked on a 10-3 run to close out the month.
  2. june 9 at milwaukee: the cards were fresh off a sweep at home at the hands of the reds, who were now in 1st place by half a game; they'd lost 5 of 6 games and, more important, had lost pujols to an oblique strain. the wounded mulder opened this weekend series at milwaukee by putting st louis in an 0-6 hole after 2 innings; rather than roll over and die, they roared back with 2 in the 3d and 6 in the 4th. scott spiezio drove in the go-ahead runs (doesn't this sound familiar . . . ) on a two-out, bases-clearing double. the bullpen pitched 7 shutout innings, izzy got a four-out save, and the cardinals moved back into 1st place. they won 7 of the next 9 and never again trailed in the standings.
  3. july 8 at houston: st louis hadn't won a series in nearly 3 weeks. after splitting the 1st two games of this series, they were an out away from dropping game 3 to the resurgent astros, who would move to within 3 games of 1st place with a win. but with 2 outs in the 9th, scott spiezio (him again?) homered off lidge to halve a two-run deficit; duncan singled, eckstein walked, and miles singled home the tying run. albert won it in the 10th with a dinger. st louis won again the next night, took 3 days off for the all-star break, and came back feeling like winners: they won 10 of their next 13.
  4. september 12 vs houston: the cardinals were already hearing houston's footsteps when this series began; the astros had gotten themselves to within 5 games, with 7 head-to-head matchups vs st louis remaining. the cards won the series opener to push houston 6 back, but houston was within an out of winning game 2 and had oswalt in line to pitch the finale. it had been a seesaw contest -- 1-0 houston, then 2-1 stl, then 3-2 houston, then 4-3 stl. the astros retook the lead at 5-4 in the 6th inning on a chris burke homer; but j-rod led off the 9th with a single off lidge and moved to 2d on a bunt; with two outs spiezio (again?) got on via hbp, setting the stage for albert's game-winning two-run double. cards 6, houston 5.
  5. september 27 vs san diego: albert averts the cards' third 8-game losing streak of the year with a 3-run bomb in the bottom of the 8th.
we saw some truly unwatchable baseball in 2006, but the season really did have some fine moments. here's hoping for more to come this week.