I'm just going to make this thing the game thread, rather than have separate threads. Why am I doing this, you ask? Because, to be perfectly frank with you, I can't think of much of anything to say this morning, following that lifeless showing last night.
On the upside, Looper was pretty awful, but still managed to turn in a quality start. Everything he threw was mostly flat, mostly up, and mostly smacked. The defense played a nice game behind him, though, with a couple of very nice double plays, and Braden made a couple of good pitches when he really needed to. Really, it's tough to complain about the job that Looper did last night. It wasn't pretty, but it doesn't need to be. Loud outs are still outs.
The offense, on the other hand, was just putrid. After stranding 28 runners on the bases in the last two games of the Pittsburgh series, the Cards' offense was stymied by a starting pitcher who came in with an ERA over 5.00. Lb said last night this was just the sort of pitcher the Cards needed to see, a pitch to contact guy who averages 87 on his fastball. I would have been moved to agree with Mr. Boros, but apparently the local nine didn't get the memo, because they made Andy Sonnanstine look an awful lot like another soft tossing righty by the name of Greg Maddux.
What's worse than the Cardinals not hitting the guy, though, is the fact that they didn't even make him work all that hard. The plate discipline that we've all lauded the team for, even as they've struggled to capitalise on innumerable scoring chances, seems to have taken a significant downturn lately. I wonder if frustration isn't beginning to set in for our boys in red; a thought process of, "Well, taking pitches isn't working. I'm tired of losing and having to hear about all the missed chances in the game. I'll just make this happen myself." Wild swinging ensues.
Truth be told, the whole team just looks to be in a horrible mental funk right now. Whereas earlier in the season, even when the Cards lost, you felt as if they were in the game right to the end, the last week and a half's worth of games have felt more like the interminable contests of 2007, when even a two run deficit seemed utterly insurmountable, and we watched players seemingly imitate the undead on a daily basis.
It may be simplistic, but the issue really does seem to stem, at least to me, from the tough losses the team suffered in Colorado. In the eighth inning of the third game of that series, the Cardinals were riding a collective wave of confidence; two already in the bag, only six more outs to get a third, and go for the sweep with your ace on the mound. Forty five minutes later, they were staring at a loss. Eighteen hours later, two in a row. Since then, it's all been downhill.
You always hear talk of momentum in baseball from day to day being a myth, but I just don't buy it. While it's true that a single performance, (especially one of the pitching variety) can turn things around for better or for worse almost instantly, I think that a team riding so high, who fell so quickly and severely, can very well find themselves in a spiral, lasting multiple games. The fact that one of the longest tenured and most respected players in the clubhouse has been deposed of his end of game slot and disabled with a week old cut on his hand can't help, either.
Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's just a blip in an otherwise great season so far. Maybe the team just isn't all that good, and we're seeing now what we should have been seeing all along. But it doesn't feel that way to me. It feels as if, right now at least, this is a team playing scared, a team trying desperately not to lose the game, rather than trying to win. The overaggressive approach at the plate is a perfect example. The team has had a wonderful approach at the plate thus far this year, but the results haven't been quite as good as you would hope. Of course, a large part of the onus for the mediocre results falls on just a couple of players. Troy Glaus struggled badly early in the season, making the offense look worse than it was, as he consistently stranded runners day after day. Chris Duncan too, as his power seemed to completely desert him, and he struggled to make solid contact with anything. But still, the team as a whole was taking great at bats, getting on base, and doing pretty much everything right, in terms of at least creating the chances for run production.
Lately, though, the team looks desperate to score runs. They've abandoned the patient, grinding approach we saw so much of early in the season, in an attempt to hit the proverbial three run homer with the bases empty. We're seeing less walks, and just less patient at bats overall, because the players are playing with the thought in the back of their mind that they don't want to lose this game stranding a ton of runners the way they have so many other times. Like I said, it's a small difference, but the team just looks to be playing with a lot of fear right now. They're slumping, and they've lost their comfort level, and trying way too hard to make something happen in order to avoid another loss, rather than just going out, playing the game the way they did to begin the season, and trust that the game will reward them.
We did see one really great thing in the game last night, of course, and I would be severely remiss not to mention it. Well, two great things, actually; the continued excellent performance of Mike Parisi in his first taste of major league action qualifies as both surprising and tremendously heartening, in my book.
I speak, of course, of the debut of Chris Perez. Kid's had a pretty quick ride through the system, particularly by the standards of a team like the Cardinals, who err on the side of caution, (to the point of folly at time, to my eye) when calling upon minor leaguers to help out at the ML level.
Perez looked solid last night. He handled the pressure of his major league debut with aplomb. Even so, you could see he was absolutely amped up, and I think his pitch selection reflected it. He didn't throw a single slider until the fourth man of the inning, Mr. Evan Longoria-Parker, came up to bat. Perez tossed fastball after fastball in there, and still wasn't hit really at all. The first at bat of the inning, the Carl Crawford line out, Perez just pumped the heat, going 95.4, 95.4, 95.9, 96.5, 95.9, 94.8, and finally, on the pitch that Crawford hit to Kennedy, 95.8. Seven pitches, seven fastball, the slowest of them right at 95 mph. That right there is a pitcher just airing it out, trying to get through the butterflies, and just overpowering the hitter even as he does so. I wasn't surprised to see Perez pretty much stay away from the slider, and I wasn't surprised to see the ones he did throw come in there a little loose. The first one he threw to Longoria was a pretty good one, but it looked like the other two spun a little and didn't have the same kind of tight, hard break you usually see from Perez.
Even with him fighting to try and just get that first inning out of the way, Perez was, by far, the most impressive pitcher on the field last night. He can be overpowering in a way that you don't see very often. He's cut down on his walks this year significantly; let's hope that's a real improvement and not a mirage. If he really has gotten his control problems at least moderately in hand, Chris Perez could end up being a truly dominant closer for the Cardinals over the next several years. With him and Motte anchoring the back end of the 'pen, the Cardinals will have two flat out overpowering pitchers shortening games for them very soon. If they could just find one more guy, preferably left handed, they could even end up with an updated version of Cincinnati's old Nasty Boys bullpen of the early 90s. If they had only taken Leyson Septimo in the Rule 5 second round...
Anyway, today the Cards will see Matt Garza, the biggest piece the Rays received in return for Delmon Young from Minnesota over the winter. Garza is a pure power pitcher, capable of reaching 97-98 with his fastball at times. He's struggled somewhat this year with his control; he currently sports a 1:1 K/BB ratio. Still, he's incredibly talented. The Cardinals couldn't hit Sonnanstine's 87; let's see how they do against 97.
Seriously, guys, I'm really getting tired of watching you lose. How about you win this one today just for me, huh? You got Adam on the mound, looking to make amends for his last time out, and a pitcher with some control issues who should be a prime target for you to work some deep counts and some walks off of. You need to find that groove, and get back into it. No time like the present.