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It's FAN-tastic!!!

Whew! What a day to be a Cardinal fan! I have to say, first of all, how exciting it is to be filling in for LB after such a tremendous day. He’s gone for a few days so I’ll be here today and tomorrow and then, Valatan’s going to fill in Thursday. Unfortunately for him, LB’s getting the short end of the stick. When I was gone he switched w/ me after the Cards lost a game similar to yesterday’s against the Pirates. Anyway, yesterday’s game was a hum-dinger in more ways than one. I wasn’t even able to watch it and I found the boxscore exciting. It must’ve like being at an amusement park to watch!

After 7 ½ innings yesterday, the Cards were down 3-2 and had a 31.4 % chance of winning. Did I mention that Kelvin Jimenez actually threw 2 scoreless innings and Randy Flores got 2 batters out? Be still my heart! When Troy Glaus came to the plate, w/ 2 out and 2 on in the bottom of the 8th, the Cards’ likelihood of winning the game had fallen to 29.2%. Then, w/ one swing of the bat, Glaus hits a blast – a rocket, no-doubter into the left-center field seats that should have won the game. The Cards’ win expectancy went from 29.2% to 92.6%. By win expectancy, it was the single biggest play of the day. It’s tough to believe the Cards would have an even greater moment.

The 8th ends and the Cards have a 5-3 lead entering the 9th. Franklin was spent, having gone 2 innings Saturday and so the 9th was turned over to Izzy. I haven’t read yesterday’s game threads (and won’t) but there must’ve been some high anxiety here even as people were still celebrating Glaus’ tremendous shot. Izzy manages to get exactly 1 man out and then the Padres go single, double, single, to get within one. Thankfully, Tony was ready w/ Brad Thompson. Under normal circumstances (w/ Izzy performing at top level), it would’ve been Izzy’s game to lose. So Tony calls on Thompson who, suddenly, has become the bullpen savior. Or is he? He is quickly greeted by a Kevin Kouzmanoff double to center. Fortunately, Brian Giles runs the bases rather cautiously and is forced to stop at 3rd, keeping the score at 5-5. In watching the play on video replay, it looked like a double all the way and I can’t imagine why Giles didn’t see that from the moment it left Kouzmanoff’s bat. Perhaps Ankiel’s defensive reputation is just that good or maybe Giles was just that concerned about getting doubled off, but it appears to me as though he should’ve scored on that play. Regardless, the score was 5-5 w/ runners on 2nd and 3rd and 1 out.

At this point, the Cards’ win expectancy had fallen from 92.6% to 28.4%. Chase Headley was intentionally walked and Thompson got some guy I’ve never heard of to bounce into a 3-2 fielder’s choice. (The Padres have a lot of guys nobody’s ever heard of.) Then Adrian Gonzalez (a guy I, most certainly, have heard of) batted w/ the bases loaded and 2 outs and our best defensive player snared his line drive and saved 2 runs, thus bringing the game to the bottom of the 9th, tied at 5. The Cards’ win expectancy was now 64.3%. With one out, Cards’ fans were waiting for some Pujols heroics and they would not be disappointed! With a 3-0 count, in a tie game, bottom of the ninth, Albert Pujols…DREW A WALK!!!!!!! Some have lamented the fact that Albert has fewer RBI than usual and others, such as myself, have defended him saying "teams aren’t pitching to him w/ games on the line."

How big was Albert’s walk yesterday? Fangraphs says it increased the Cards’ win expectancy by about 5.5%. I don’t know where the pitches were but Albert didn’t expand his zone. Bryan Corey didn’t want to pitch to Albert in that situation – he wasn’t going to let Pujols beat him but, you know what, Albert DID beat him by accepting the walk. It’s important to remember just how valuable getting on base is and that Albert is helping the team score runs every time he walks. BTW, Albert is now up to 63 walks against 30 K’s on the season. Not too shabby! After a throwing error in which someone else I’ve never heard of (I think it was actually the first guy I’d never heard of) threw the ball in the right-field corner while trying to do his best Yadi impression, Albert stood at 3B w/ 1 out and the aforementioned Yadi Molina at the plate. The Cards’ win expectancy was now at 83%. Two intentional walks later and, well, you know the rest!

Aaron Freaking Miles. Aaron Freaking Miles. A fly ball to right wouldn’t have been that surprising. Base hit to right – not at all surprising. He’s actually been quite good in "clutch" situations this year -- .937 OPS (before yesterday) in close and late situations and a Pujolsian 1.029 in tie games. For his career he’s been pretty average in these situations but, all in all, not a bad player to have at the plate. Still, did anyone anticipate a bomb into the right-center field bullpen? Whooda thunkit? Strangely, it wasn’t all that long ago when a similar, yet even more clutch walk-off grand slam occurred. In 2005, the Cards were trying to follow up their 105 win season and were on their way to another 100 win season when this guy -- all 5’6" and 170 lbs. of him muscled up and turned a 2 run deficit into a 2 run walkoff win w/ one swing of the bat. Maybe what we really need w/ the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th is the smallest guy on the team at the plate! In any case, while it wasn’t quite as dramatic as Eckstein’s shot (tie game vs. 2 runs down), the grand slam helped the Cards sail to a 4 game sweep of the Padres to begin the season’s second half.

A few things are notable about the comeback. First, the Cards, despite having a very good season so far, haven’t been great in the late innings. Prior to yesterday, the Cards were just 3-27 when behind after 7 innings. Maybe another great comeback victory like yesterday’s will turn that trend around. It was the 2004, 105-win team, that was so good in the late innings – winning more than 15% of the games in which they were behind after 7 innings. It’s not the offense, however, that has generally been the problem late in games as the Cards’ main problem manifested itself once again yesterday. The pitching, in "late and close" situations hasn’t been at all good this year, as opponents have an .895 OPS against our pitchers in those situations. In innings 7-9, Cards’ opponents’ OPS is .779, good for an OPS+ of 118 when compared to other teams in these innings.

The closing situation still appears to be a problem. I have to say that I’m pulling like hell for Izzy. There aren’t many who are bigger Izzy fans than I am but, at some point, he’s either going to have to get it together or become a mop-up guy. Since being activated from the DL on June 14, he’s walked 7 and given up 7 ER in 15 IP. He has struck out 13 and only given up 1 homer but it’s clear from yesterday’s game that Tony doesn’t feel completely comfortable w/ him out there. An article in yesterday’s p-d, printed prior to yesterday’s game, called Izzy "a wild-card" and implied that he’s going to have to prove himself before consistently being called upon in the 9th.

As for Franklin, he’s pretty scary also. He’s already walked 19 batters – 11 more than the entire season last year in 35 fewer innings. He is striking out about 6 runners per 9 IP but his walk rate is way up and his ground ball rate is way down. His FIP right now is 4.57 – not good. In 2006 we had closer problems but Adam Wainwright emerged as a superb stopper. Who’s going to do it this year? As the club becomes more and more concerned about Izzy and Franklin, the price tag for Brian Fuentes climbs. He’s already coveted by several teams as it is.

Still, the Cards are now 14 games over .500 for the first time this season and, in fact, for the first time since June 21, 2006. This was actually the day before Anthony Reyes (remember him?) threw that sensational game against the White Sox where he was beaten 1-0 on a Jim Thome homer. The Cards were pounded in that series and, from that point through the end of last season, the Cards were 119-134 in regular season games. Now the Cards have played exactly 100 games this season and are 57-43. I have to say that I’m surprised at how well they’re playing.

As for Jaime Garcia’s first start – all in all, not too bad. 5 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 4 K – the 2 HRs aren’t good but he hasn’t shown a proclivity toward giving up homers. He had only given up 6 all season in more than 103 IP and 24 in 362 minor league innings. Still, you’ve gotta be able to keep the pitcher in the ballpark. He did get 8 ground outs vs. 4 air outs. Add that to 4 K’s and he’s got something to build on. He’s probably not the solution but he may be able to hold down the fort until either Carp or Wainwright are ready.

And on that note, yesterday was, of course, Carp’s first rehab assignment at Springfield. From looking at the numbers, it seemed to go quite well -- 4 IP, 1 H, 4 BB and 4 K’s. I’m not that worried about the walks – it’s not like they could hit him. He hadn’t pitched in more than a year and a half. He’s going to struggle w/ his control some. It’s to be expected. What’s really important is that the velocity’s there and that his arm feels good and, apparently, he was hitting 92 and his curveball had "wicked movement" and his arm felt good afterward. That’s absolutely great news. The real test of arm soreness may come today or tomorrow but it’s still good to hear that there was no pain during or after the outing.

So, the Cards are still 2 back of the Cubbies. Expecting the Astros to sweep them was too much to hope for anyway and we’ll begin a big 4 game series w/ the Brewers later this evening. It’s a 6:05 game (ESPN?) so I’ll be up w/ a game thread as 6:00 approaches. They’re hot on our heels after winning their series against the Giants so this becomes a big one. It looks like it’s going to be a tough, 3-team race from here on out. Hopefully, yesterday’s game becomes a metaphor for the way the season plays out.