for those of you who went to bed at a decent hour, the cubs blew a 9-6 lead last night and lost 11-9 to the reds. that leaves the cardinals 2 games back of the cubs (1 in the loss column) and 3.5 back of the first-place brewers (2 in the loss column). here are the records of the nl central leaders over the last 10 games:
it's all about pitching and defense; same as it ever was.
the cardinals today sit in about the same position they found themselves in last october: playing with house money. then as now, four months of terrible play and injuries to key players created a drastically lowered set of expectations. very few of us thought the cardinals had a realistic shot to go all the way last october --- not with that pitching staff. it was enough that they had averted a historic late-season collapse and hung on to win the division; the october games were just gravy. same thing this season: with carpenter making two trips to the operating room and edmonds/rolen both showing their age, most cardinal fans lowered their sights for 2007; even the front office and (after a 1-5 road trip) the manager seemed resigned to also-ran status. the cards have already exceeded those adjusted expectations by getting themselves back into striking distance. if they can stay in the race a while, so much the better; if they can win it . . . . . well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. it's almost september, and the games still matter; the zombies are still on the march. that's enough for right now.
the most important thing about all this is that the cardinals have rekindled hope for the present without burning up hope for the future. on the contrary --- and this, too, is a parallel with last october --- the future (ie, the kids) is helping to fuel the current run and succeeding where the past (ie, established veterans) has failed. wainwright and reyes are getting the innings they need to develop; ryan and ankiel are getting big-league at-bats and giving the cardinals a read on their potential. the organization didn't pull off any age-for-youth trades at the deadline, but they are finding opportunities for some of the youth that's already on hand; they're doing what they need to do. the strides in the standings? just a bonus --- a very welcome, unexpected one. house money.
somewhere on the internet recently, a cardinal fan remarked that this year reminds him/her of 1983 --- the franchise's last post-championship season. i went back and looked; there are some definite parallels. that cardinal team, like this one, had some off-field issues to deal with: lonnie smith went into rehab and missed a month, while keith hernandez got traded on account of his a) cocaine habit and b) lackadaisical play. another similarity: that cardinal team couldn't pitch --- they finished 10th in the league in era and only had one starter (late-season callup danny cox) with a better-than-league-average era. and they suffered from age and injuries --- tommy herr spent the first month on the dl and had to be shut down for good on august 6; andujar pitched through a sore arm and labored to a 6-16 record; jim kaat finally broke down at age 44; 33-year-old bob forsch posted the worst era of his career.
nonetheless, the cardinals started off hot in 1983, with a 6-game win streak in april and a 7-gamer in may; memorial day found them 8 games over .500 and in first place by 3 games. but they played abysmally in june (12-19) to fall out of first place, and an 8-game losing streak in early august knocked them way off the pace. by august 16 --- 24 years ago to the day --- they were 56-61 (a record nearly identical to the cards' current 57-60 mark) and in 4th place, 7 games out. then, a miraculous reversal --- they put 6 wins back to back and returned to .500, pulling themselves up to 3d place and just 2 games off the lead. for the next two weeks they treaded water, but in a weak division the cards still managed to stay close. with a doubleheader sweep on labor day they got to within half a game of first place:
that was as close as the '83 team got; a week later they were back in fourth, 2 games out, and two weeks later they were 7 games out and done for the year. but they had made it interesting, and they did it while putting some key pieces into place for the future. danny cox got established in the majors, going 3-6, 3.25 in 12 starts; he would make 125 starts for st louis over the next four years, plus 7 postseason starts. andy van slyke was called up and hit .262 / .357 / .421 in 101 games (a 115 ops+); he was a 3/4-time starter for the next three seasons. jeff lahti, a rookie on the 1982 championship team, moved into a late-inning role setting up bruce sutter; he became the de facto closer in 1985. two other young players (dave lapoint, david green) solidified their roles and would eventually became the centerpieces of the trade that brought jack clark to st louis.
in hindsight, it looms as a transitional year --- one that contributed toward the championship summers of '85 and '87. the fact that the cards got to play some meaningful september games in the bargain? gravy. the analogy only goes so far --- the 1983 roster was mainly a young one, while the '07 roster is littered with geezers; the '83 team played well for long stretches, while this year's club is only now having its first sustained run of success (if 10 games counts as "sustained"); the '83 team didn't lose its ace pitcher to reconstructive arm surgery. but in the narrowest sense --- ie, their positions as of august 16 --- it's a nice little comp. i'm not suggesting, by the way, that because the '83 team fell out of the race, the '07 team is destined to do likewise. i have no frickin' idea where the '07 team's destiny lies. in fact, i'd wager that not even Destiny itself knows exactly what's gonna happen.
today's game could be an auspicious one on a number of counts:
- a win would put the cardinals within 2 games of .500 for the first time since april 27, when they were 10-12
- a win would put them within 2.5 games of first place for the first time since april 20
- if they get a quality start out of wainwright today, it will mark the first time since may 27 through june 4, 2004, that the st louis rotation has delivered 9 consecutive quality starts. the "quality start" designation is rather crude and (like every stat) can be misleading, but i think it's a useful shorthand for how well a starting pitcher did his fundamental job --- ie, give his team a chance to win
- if wainwright lasts for at least 6 innings, it will mark the rotation's 11th consecutive start of 6 innings or longer. it'd mark the longest streak of deep starts since 2004, when the cards put together an incredible 21-game string of 6+-inning starts. that streak began 3 years ago today, on august 16, 2004, and didn't end until september 6.
- if they win, it'll be their first 5-game winning streak of the year.
- finally: this is already a special winning streak, in that the cardinals have notched 4 blowout wins in a row --- 4 wins with margins of 5 runs or more. that's something even the 2004-05 teams never accomplished. last time it happened? i couldn't tell you; it may be a franchise first. i checked back all the way to 1985 and couldn't find a single instance of it. i also checked the log of the most dominant cardinal team in history, the 1942 squad (106-48); they didn't do it, either. so no matter what happens today, this team has done something exceedingly rare; if they extend the feat today and win by 5 or more again, it will be all the rarer.