Well, here we are -- at the end of the long journey that has become the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals. We had such high hopes coming off our 10th championship; we, at the very least, had the belief that we might be able to celebrate another division championship. At the same time, however, most of us probably thought that this might be the year the wheels fell off. And, of course, that began on opening night with a 6-1 shellacking by the team we dispatched in last year's NLCS, soon followed by the news of Carp's injury. In a sense, that night sealed this team's fate and now we're in a place where this team has been only once before in the previous 7 seasons -- on the outside looking in.
Strangely, this season is ending eerily similar to the way in which last season ended. The p-d lists Looper as today's starter, despite the fact that it also has a link to an article saying that Looper won't be starting. stlcardinals.com lists Percival as today's starter, while the article linked above suggests it might again be Brad Thompson on short rest. If we go back 364 days, to October 1, 2006 -- the last regular season game of last season -- the Cards had a 1 1/2 game lead over the Astros w/ a possible makeup game vs. the Giants, pending the result of our game against the Brewers and the 'stros game against the Braves. Carpenter could have gone, to try and seal the deal, but Tony decided about 5 minutes (Ok, I exaggerate -- a little) before game time to throw Anthony Reyes instead. We knew he wasn't going to go w/ Carp -- saving him instead for the game against the Giants, if needed, all the while hoping to save him for game 1. Well, Reyes got bombed but Smoltz bailed out the Cards and the rest is history. And here we sit, again having no idea just a few hours before game time on the last day of the season with no idea who the starter will be. As I said last week, "What a long, strange trip it's been."
Interestingly, the Padres enter today's action w/ Bud Black facing the same dilemma that LaRussa faced 1 year ago and he's making, essentially, the same decision Tony made. The difference is that Peavy would have to come back on 3 days rest whereas Carpenter would have gone on his regular 4 days rest. Instead, Black's going w/ that former Cardinal great -- Brett Tomko. Best of luck, Pads. Even more interestingly, when Tony's gamble paid off and Carpenter got to start game 1 of the playoffs, guess who his mound opponent was: You guessed it -- Jake Peavy.
So we enter game 162, w/ Thompson, or Looper, or Percival -- one thing we know for sure, of course, is that it won't be Carpenter. His loss is one the organization's going to be grappling with throughout next season. The team is, strangely enough, closing the season by playing pretty decent baseball -- they've won 4 in a row -- and stand a pretty decent chance to make it 5 to close out the season. They've gotten 4 pretty solidly pitched games in a row behind Thompson, Pineiro, Wellemeyer and Wainwright. God knows the team has a lot to deal w/ in the offseason so it'd be nice to end the season on an uptick.
What's really interesting, however, is the rest of the NL. The Phils and Mets are playing for the NL East title, against the Nats and Marlins, respectively. Each is hoping that the Brewers are able to, once again, defeat the Padres thereby forcing at tie for the Wild Card. If the Rockies manage to win this final series against the D-backs, we could be looking at a 4 way tie for the Wild Card. You can read about all the playoff possibilities here.
The fact that the Wild Card possibilities are so interesting brings me to something that's been a bone of contention with me for some time -- the unbalanced schedule. I'm sure all of you are familiar with this -- each team plays the other teams in their division 15-19 times during the season while playing the other teams in their league 6-8, usually just 2 series. The basic idea behind this is two-fold: first, it creates the most games between division rivals so that the division titles are truly decided, largely, based on how each team did in its division; and second, to maximize the number of games between these rivals so as to maximize the excitement. 18 games between the Cubs and Cardinals are better than 12 and the same is true of the Giants/Dodgers and Red Sox/Yankees.
To me, however, the unbalanced schedule, in attempting to make the journey to the playoffs more fair and exciting, unfairly favors teams in the weaker divisions. Teams that play in tougher divisions end up with significantly tougher schedules, therefore increasing the possibility that inferior teams make it to the playoffs and relatively superior teams are left to their hunting trips prematurely. And, BTW -- do we really need 16 games w/ the Cubs or 18 w/ the Pirates? After all, one of the biggest problems with the snow-outs the first week of the season in Cleveland was that Seattle only made 1 trip there. As for the schedule itself, I looked at all the schedules for the NL's playoff contenders (+ the Cards, just for reference) to determine their level of competition this year. I took each opponent's winning % through game 161 and multiplied it by the number of games against that team. Then, I added all those up, to give me the number of games that those opponents would win out of the number of non-interleague games. For example, the Cards played 147 games (through Sunday) against the NL and the winning % of the Cards' opponents was .48993. Multiply it by the 162 game season and the Cards' opponents would have 79.4 wins. The # of wins for each contender is listed in the table below.
|win %||# of games||# of wins/162|
It should come as little surprise that the teams in the West have played the toughest schedule -- a full 2 1/2 games tougher than the Brewers and Cubs. The Eastern teams are in the middle and the Central teams played the easiest. Of course, the Rockies' and Padres' schedules and the Cards' schedules were a little tougher b/c they had to play their respective division winners 15-18 times and didn't get to play themselves at all. Maybe the Cards would be in the playoffs if we got to play ourselves 16 times. (of course, we couldn't hit Tony Armas, Jr. so what makes me think we could hit Wellemeyer or Thompson, but I digress).
So the Rockies and Padres, at least 1 of whom will be left out of the playoffs, will have played a more difficult schedule than any of the teams in the Central or East. And the Phils or Mets may BOTH make the playoffs at the expense of the Rockies and Padres.
In short, the schedule should be more balanced b/c of the Wild Card. The battles more often come down to teams in opposing divisions, and no team should be at a 1 game or 2 game disadvantage. Think it's insignificant? 4 teams enter the last day of the season within that margin, and all 4 have a decent chance of making the playoffs. If the playoffs are to be decided from among the 4 best teams in each league, each team needs to be on an even playing field -- and the unbalanced schedule doesn't allow for that.
Best of luck, guys. Let's go out a winner!