When I was a kid, my dad would get me a pocket schedule for the St. Louis Cardinals every spring. I would take it to my desk and, surrounded by stacks of baseball cards that were in a constant state of organization and re-organzation, I would digest the schedule, highlighting those match-ups I felt to be the most important. I would start with those series against the National League East champions because, after all, this was back in a time when there were but two divisions--no National League Central Division existed. Those series against the National League East champ would be crucial as would the contests against the winner of the National League Pennant. Those games were highlighted and underlined. Of course, there is no better benchmark for a club than playing a World Series Champion. If that club happened to be a member of the NL--because, back then, there was no inner-league play--those games would get a highlight, an underline, and a star.
This childhood tradition fell by the wayside as I grew older and my own baseball schedule swallowed up a large chunk of my summer; the internet made it extinct. While I may not get a pocket schedule and highlight the big match-ups each spring, I still go through the schedule week by week, looking for the big match-ups and road trips. In 2004, that first series against the Cubs was noted; in 2006, it was the premiere face-off against those rivalrous Astros that was the most highly anticipated. In 2008 and 2009, it was the Cubs again. And, in 2011, the first series I sought out on the schedule was against the Cincinnati Reds.
Before last year, there was no rivalry with the Reds. They were a once-proud franchise with a dwindling fanbase and a launching pad for a ballpark. Heck, there still is not really a rivalry, so to speak. This is a more of a feud and this feud was not started until late summer when Brandon Phillips said what he said and Yadier Molina took exception the following day. What was an exchange of verbal barbs quickly escalated into a scuffle, during which Johnny Cueto's cowardly kicks ended the career of Jason LaRue, a former Red and current Cardinal. A feud was born then and there, which likely would have led to a highlight of the April 22-24 series at Busch on its own. Add to it the 2010 National League Central crown which sits atop their mustachioed baseball-headed mascot and it has all the intrigue for which a fan could hope.
As the clubs closed out the appetizer series to this weekend past's main dish, the villainous Phillips took to Twitter to stoke the flames of dislike burning for him in the...Gateway City. Phillips turned full-fledged heel, striking chords more commonly struck in the kayfabe tradition of professional wrestling--insulting St. Louis restaurants, dredging up Rasmus Girl, putting down the Ballpark Hilton, and even insulting Cardinal fans' booing skill. It was as if Vince McMahon had highjacked Phillips's Twitter account to build up heat for a forthcoming pay per view. It worked as the Best Fans in Baseball greeted our new heel with a chorus of boos which Phillips seemed to welcome. And so Phillips has become our favorite heel to dislike, even if it oddly feels like everyone is in on the joke.
It is rare that an early season series lives up to its potential, but this one certainly did. After La Russa demonstrated an ability to type "www.weather.com" into his office computer where Dusty Baker could not, the first game of the series saw reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever (for this game) Kyle McClellan use his customary smoke and mirrors to bedazzle the Reds' batsmen as our offense managed to scratch out four runs on twelve hits for the win. The second act of the series was featured on FOX and featured fine performances from each starting pitcher. After a rain delay took the television viewing audience to San Francisco for the Braves-Giants, we were beamed back to St. Louis in time to see the old and proven arms of the Redbird bullpen combine to allow the Reds to rally and take the lead with a single hit off the bat of Miguel Cairo, who fittingly now sports a villainous goatee. It would prove the game-winner and the series-tier.
There would be an Easter rubber match on Sunday Night Baseball; that is, if precocious Mother Nature would allow. And so Cardinal Nation spent their Easter Sunday hunting eggs, eating candy, at church, spending time with family, and keeping an eye on the evening's forecast for the St. Louis metro area. It was a forecast that looked most dire, even after the first few innings.
Jake Westbrook worked like a man with one eye on the weather forecast. He wasted little time between pitches as he peppered the lower part of the strike zone with sinker after sinker and the Reds' vaunted offense had no answer. Edinson Volquez was up to the challenge as well, deploying a fastball-changeup combination that has been outlawed in four states. Then Volquez landed funny on his follow-through and his offerings seemed to lose life and control. As Baker is wont to do, he ignored his young pitcher's winces in the fifth and sent him back out for the sixth. It was a move that proved most fateful as Volquez allowed two baserunners before Yadier Molina swatted a low-and-in fastball over the left-center field wall and gave the Cards a 3-0 lead. It was more than enough for the K Kids, as Salas and Sanchez proved most filthy in setting up for the ninth-inning-reliever-when-ahead-three-or-less-but-not-officially-our-closer Mitchell Boggs. The third game and the series belonged to the Cards and, with it, sole possession of first place.
We as fans should not get ahead of ourselves, though, for the just-vanquished Reds sit only one game back in the standings and the much-hyped Brewers sit but one-half game back with Zack Greinke's return said to be on the near horizon. And we also should not forget that last season the Cardinals went 12-6 against this Reds team, yet found themselves sitting at home watching playoff baseball on T.V. in October. Yes, these early season benchmark series are fun and it may have been highlighted, starred, and underlined, but this series win may not be as telling about the club's fortunes as this next road trip. Last year's Cardinals struggled against sub-.500 ball clubs and that is a reminder most sobering as the club gets ready for a trip to Houston (8-14) and Atlanta (11-12).