Last night was a major UFC fight (Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson), which I took in at a local watering hole. I arrived early with friends as seats are wont to fill. The Cardinals game was on prior to the UFC main card and while we watched I was struck by a couple of comments that came up both at my table and the one adjacent. It's that time of year where the stats have solidified and you can draw some conclusions on the season. Then you have to throw all those conclusions out and sit through seven game series where random variation plays an outsized role.
The Cardinals lack a star. I'm not sure what makes a "star" and that's what makes the comment so dastardly of a moving target. This almost certainly stems back to the presence of Albert Pujols who essentially carried the team after the collapse of the MV3 in 2006. Evening accepting that, Matt Carpenter is having an MVP season but was kind of mentioned as an afterthought to Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.
Molina is a fine choice for titular head of the team. He's been around for ever, plays a critical defensive position, has great offensive numbers and makes flashy plays (though we've been deprived of first base pickoffs this season). Likewise Wainwright is a legitimate ace and leader of the pitching staff in the absence of Chris Carpenter.
But Matt Carpenter is a beast. He's having a monster season. He has, however, several factors working against him. A) He plays second base which is generally an afterthought position. B) He derives huge value from his OBP, which remains one of the least exciting skillsets. C) He never had the prospect hype train to boost his name recognition. All that aside, he's a legitimate MVP candidate even if he lacks that "star" aura.
The Cardinals don't feel dominant. This has to be an element of spoiled St. Louis fans to it and yet I commiserate. The deterioration of the dominant back end bullpen and the sometimes baffling disappearance of the offense leaves a disquieting feeling. It's odd considering the Cardinals are a half game behind Atlanta for the best NL record despite playing in a much more difficult division. The Cardinals also have the best run differential in the NL by 30 points and trail only Detroit and Boston in the AL.
The Cardinals have done it piecemeal though and they've worked around various breakdowns in the team. The starting rotation was dominant to start the season. Injuries/ineffectiveness from Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, John Gast and Lance Lynn eroded for much of the middle part of the season before the ship righted. The offense has likewise seen it's ups and downs though less clearly delineated that the rotation. Now, the Cardinals find themselves faced with a fatigued closer and unrest in the 9th inning. All teams go through this and clearly, with 91 wins already to their name, the Cardinals' struggles haven't been as severe as they could be but the team has certainly felt mortal on their way to leading the division.
The race is on. The most striking discussion revolved around how tight the NL Central was in a three way race. The division is likely to house three 90 win teams (Pittsburgh needs one more win and Cincinnati needs two) during a year when the other 5 divisions will likely only have their winners broach the 90 mark.
With the Cardinals, it's incredible to see them do this on the backs of so many rookies. Guys like Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Matt Adams and Seth Maness. The bullpen especially has relied on a significant number of appearances from Rosenthal (70), Maness (64) and Siegrist (41) to solidify a shaky relief corps. Over 37% of the Cardinals total innings pitched this season have come from rookie starters or relievers. Those transitions haven't always been smooth but the "throw rookies at the wall and see who sticks" approach has worked by and large.
Now those same players find themselves contributing far later than they've ever been asked to in their professional career. The challenge in some ways for manager Mike Matheny is to balance the final push for the division title without burning his players out and/or seeing a huge dropoff in the playoffs. This is a young team and an especially young pitching corps but they've proven to be up to the task thus far.
The Cardinals have seven games left in the regular season and a two game lead on Pittsburgh. Today, they'll look to clinch a playoff spot with a win or a Nationals' loss. Let's hope Joe Kelly's balky leg is up to the challenge as the club takes on the Brewers in an night game on ESPN.