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Twelve Over

The last time the Cardinals were this far over .500—it's La Russa's favorite unit of measure, so I suppose we ought to be conversant in it—was eleven months ago yesterday, the morning of September 10, 2008. The Cardinals had been floating between ten and fourteen games over since the beginning of August and stood, on that day, at 78-66, which unfortunately for them was eight games back of first. That night they began the seven game losing streak that saw us politely but firmly into a premature Hot Stove season. The Cardinals are better this year than they were last year—better this month than they were last—but the moves the Cubs have made have also been very beneficial. 

That's what's interesting to me about watching a team play the games, as opposed to reading about them in hindsight in my parents' basement. (That is a hurtful blogger stereotype, and I apologize. Sometimes I'm in their living room.) In the end, of course, a lot of what [the royal] we remember about a team is tied into their final position in the standings, but the same is true in-season; this team wouldn't feel so exciting, I keep telling myself, if they were eight back. 

Because that 2008 squad was—divorced from the standings—actually in pretty good shape heading into the final slumping-over. Jason Motte had come up and was about to do his Eric Gagne routine; Adam Wainwright was three starts back from that infuriating finger injury; Felipe Lopez was exceeding everybody's wildest expectations. Aside from Rick Ankiel, who was so important to the team in the early going, everyone that mattered was doing at least as well as was expected. On a small scale, because of course this is nothing like acquiring Matt Holliday or getting Chris Carpenter back, the team had Come Together like it has now. But there was no room for them. 

So it's nice to be twelve over, but it's even nicer to be twelve over when the other guys are seven over, and the other other guys are one under. 

The 2007 team—well, they were one over. Is that alright? I've basically put that entire Series Hangover squad out of mind; when FSN was showing their Scott Rolen highlight package (I looked away during the Choi collision) I was surprised to be surprised when they mentioned his .398 slugging percentage that year. I've smoothed it out in my head; he was alright in 2006, with signs of shoulder trouble, and then some vague arguing happened at some point and Troy Glaus was on the team. Jason Isringhausen's brilliant comeback season? Well, he was bad, and then he was really good, and then he was bad again, I don't know. Even Albert was only kind of ridiculous that year. 

But they beat the tar out of the Pirates on September 6, went one over, and were apparently within one game of the NL Central lead. Bad Omen: the win went to Kelvin Jimenez, the official allegorical figure of the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals

But I think it was fair, on the part of the GOB, to taketh away what they had so inexplicably giveth the year before; there's only so many times a team can fall over backwards into the playoffs before it becomes boring. These guys kind of undercut my thesis, because they could have been eleven games ahead of the Cubs and I'd still have been wary of them; if this were a literature paper I would probably just delete their section entirely and push the margins in. The 2007 Cardinals never felt like a great team, except maybe in the days immediately after the Rick Ankiel Experience; that they flirted with 2006: The Sequel before dismantling the MV3 Cardinals once and for all is of no concern to me, now that I don't have to watch it.

The original 2006 was two separate teams, and I've kind of forgotten about the first one, the inexplicable pseudo-juggernauts that found themselves sixteen games over .500 on July 26 despite being markedly worse than the older teams they resembled. The Cardinals won that game while starting Scott Spiezio, John "You'll Only Remember Me If He Types J-Rod" Rodriguez, Aaron Miles, and Gary Bennett, which seems like a fitting image for the team that graced the rest of the regular season with its presence. 

Baseball Reference's chart for that day is particularly edifying. On that date the Cardinals had Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Chris Carpenter. They had played exactly 100 games and they were sixteen games over .500. They really shouldn't have been; their Pythagorean record was closer to 52-48. From that day forward they had, if you watched Baseball Tonight, Albert Pujols Is All Alone in That Lineup, Scott Rolen Whose Shoulder Might Just Fall Off Every Day Now, and Is Jim Edmonds Still Playing?, and they underplayed their Pythag, did it so spectacularly that only one team in the National League could claim to do so badly over the rest of the season. 

July 2006 was the first month of my long-term plan to completely neglect my old blog, so I can't say much as to my own state of mind except to say that search referrals were much more exotic (and infrequent) when I ran a website whose name was itself What She Said. But I came all this way to say that while it's difficult to be caught in the moment, knowing that so many moments past have been engineered to make fans look foolish, I like the way this team looks. This team likes the way this team looks. 

It has to do with a lot of things—it plays good (sometimes brilliant) defense, which means it rarely looks listless; its competitors aren't playing all that well; it's a different team than the one we got tired of midseason—but just because we can name the confounders that make things seem more secure than they are doesn't mean we can't enjoy this for what it is. The Cardinals are 12 games over .500; La Russa is already talking about fifteen, and from fifteen to twenty, and from twenty to 51, undoubtedly, but for today we can enjoy a good team playing as well as it can. It's good to see.