What a long, strange trip it's been
Well, in my never-ending quest to say something nice about the current state of the franchise, I wound up back where I finished up last Sunday - with the team's current ace. Wouldn't it be great if we could end the season at home w/ a Wainwright vs. Oswalt matchup? Two aces, batting back and forth for two franchises heading in the wrong direction. Alas, it was not to be!
So the first interesting storyline is the issue of today's opponent - the Astros. For the last 6 seasons, these 2 have battled respectfully, but mercilessly, for the NL Central, and a couple of times, the National League titles. There was a tie for the division title - where 1 team (Astros) won the season series with Cardinals claiming the Wild Card. The Astros' fans have never forgotten nor forgiven the Cardinals for hanging the "2001 Division Co-Champs" banner in Busch II and now Busch III. (Never mind the fact that the commish gave the go-ahead.) Adding insult to injury, the Cards advanced to the NLCS while the Astros succumbed to their then-nemesis (in the playoffs, at least) -- the Braves.
Once the Astros dispatched the Braves with an 18th inning Chris Burke homer in the Division Series, a game in which Roger Clemens pitched in relief, they moved on to face the Cards in the NLCS. It was an epic series - one that ended w/ a walk-off blast of the bat of Jim Edmonds in Game 6, only to be followed in game 7 by Edmonds' series-saving catch off the bat of Brad Ausmus and then Pujols' double and Rolen's homer off Roger Clemens in the 7th. The Cards moved on to the Series and the Astros went home.
The next year the Astros got revenge, but not until Albert Pujols hit his mammoth shot off of Brad Lidge - even Astros' will acknowledge that Lidge has never been the same since. I'll never forget seeing Andy Pettitte mouth the words "Oh my God!" while watching Pujols's homer bang off the glass behind the Juice Box's infamous choo-choo. Still, the series ended in the next game in St. Louis as today's starter proved to be too much for the Cardinals' lineup.
Why the history lesson? Because today, these 2 teams who have, arguably, been the preeminent franchises of the National League for the first part of this century, are in the midst of quite a tailspin. Both have aging rosters that have been hurt by injuries, free-agency departures, and lackluster farm systems. Today, these teams who were once known for their pitching now are ranked 11th and 12th in the NL in pitching by ERA. The Astros are likely on their way to 90 losses and, if the Cards keep playing the way they have been, they'll end up in 4th place.
Each has the challenge of rebuilding their respective pitching staffs and finding starting shortstops who can be productive offensively in order to return to the top of the division standings. Each team was hoping that this game would be as meaningful as it has been in the previous six seasons in determining this year's division champ. Instead, both are relegated to playing out the string with minor leaguers and has-beens in their starting lineups.
Secondly, will our vaunted lineup of Cairo, Miles, et al even get one out of the infield against Oswalt? We've been bad against some of the NL's weaker pitchers but we've been positively inept against Oswalt this year. And with Pujols, Duncan, and most of the rest of our starters in the infirmary, it could be tough-sledding for the offense tonight.
Just this year, Oswalt is 2-0 w/ a 0.78 ERA in 23 IP vs. the Cards - doesn't bode well for today's lineup which will, undoubtedly, include such stalwarts as Miles, Cairo, and Schumaker.
Here are the career numbers for Oswalt vs. the home team:
Wellemeyer, of course, goes for the Cardinals. In his last start, against the Phils, we managed to keep the relievers in the 'pen for all of 2 innings. He did go 6 IP in a start in June against the Mets but I suspect that tonight's game will feature one of our vintage "Parade of the thousand relievers!" Loosen up your arms, boys! -- Tonight, everybody pitches!
The other interesting storylines include - could this be LaRussa's last game in St. Louis as the Cards' manager? I think each of us believes, especially the way the season has played out and considering LaRussa's ambiguous comments about returning, that it might be. I'm not sure about my opinion about LaRussa's future with the team. We do need to get younger and much of our future is presently at Memphis and Springfield and I'm not sure that LaRussa is the best man to steer the ship into our future.
That said, I think that LaRussa is often underappreciated, both by Cards' fans and around the country, for what a great manager he truly is. That doesn't mean, of course, that he'll be the best manager for the Cardinals over the next few years. But sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for, b/c it just might come true. There are, certainly, no assurances that LaRussa's replacement will be more effective than LaRussa would be, either. Interestingly, LaRussa's potential swan-song will play out on Tony LaRussa bobblehead day at Busch III. So, if it is LaRussa's last appearance among the home crowd at Busch, at least the fans will leave with something by which to remember him - aside from the 6 division titles, 2 World Series appearances, and World Championship, of course.
Lastly, this is the final game at Busch III this season - one that too many Cardinal fans, myself included, has found to have gone on far too long. What a long, strange trip it's been, indeed. Many of us will be glad when it's over - the hot stove season will be here soon and we can look forward to actually improving the team, rather than continuing to watch the lineup and rotation emaciate. It's been a long time since Cards' fans have grown this weary of the home bunch. And, of course, all this drama will play out in prime time, on ESPN (I bet they're glad to get such a stirring matchup opposite the NFL Sunday night game!), with the wonderfully eloquent, intellectually-gifted, and statistically masterful Joe Morgan inundating us with his wealth of knowledge.
At least the game should make for interesting conversation! Thankfully, our long, strange trip has about reached the station.