It is October. Real October, that is; there was a game of baseball played last night, in which one team moved on, and one team went home. Of course, single elimination basically goes against every tenet of how the game is played, generally, but there's still something about the smell of autumnal air, that faint whiff of burning wood and mounded leaves, and a baseball game on the television in which there is no tomorrow for someone that puts you firmly in a time and place.
Tonight we find out who the Cardinals will face in the National League Division Series; either the Pirates or Cubs will move on for a shot at ending the Redbirds' run of Final Four appearances at four in a row. Which, of course, both underscores how good a time it is to be a Cardinal fan these days, and just how remarkable this run has been. And how precarious success is.
So what I want to know is simple: how is everyone feeling? Right now, at this moment, how do you feel about this club?
I don't have any stats for you, nor any in-depth breakdown. We can debate the bench construction if you like; that's certainly the sort of thing a person might have some feelings about. Or the bullpen; bullpens are always good for a ton of feelings. Usually dread, but occasionally other things as well.
But I just want to know what you're thinking, and what you're feeling, as we stand on the precipice of the postseason once again. It's become almost expected, really, for the Cardinals to be in the thick of the playoff discussion every autumn. And that's wonderful. But lest it become too accepted, a simple assumed, a fait accompli, perhaps we should stop for a moment before it begins, and unpack a thing or two about this year's squad. So tell me how you feel.
Me? I feel a sense of impending doom. But then, I pretty much always feel a sense of impending doom, or something similar to it, when the postseason rolls around. It's funny, really, for a fan of a team that has led such a charmed existence in the playoffs over the last decade and a half to feel as if things are going to fall apart at any moment, in an almost inevitable way, but that's me. I spend every second of every minute of every inning of every Cardinal postseason game in a state of teeth-clenched agony, waiting on tenterhooks for disaster to strike. I appear to be the most miserable person in the world when October baseball is being played, constantly bracing for a blow, and no amount of protestations to the contrary, that I'm really, really, honestly enjoying it, promise, ever really seems to convince anyone.
But this year is a little different. Most years I feel doom creeping constantly, but can intellectually separate that out, and look somewhat dispassionately at the team. And what I usually find is my brain tells me the Cardinals are going to be just fine, are at least as well-equipped as the other teams in the tournament, and better equipped than most, honestly. My heart still wants to cry and wring its hands, but my brain generally feels like the playoffs aren't going to be so bad.
This year, though, my brain doesn't much care for what it sees, either. This is a club with a wildly inconsistent offense, or at least consistently disappointing, and a pitching staff that suddenly feels rickety and vulnerable in a way I hadn't anticipated. All season this club struggled to score runs, and relied on an historically great pitching staff to keep on preventing runs at a ridiculous pace in order to rack up wins. But now the pitching doesn't feel nearly so invincible.
Losing Carlos Martinez lowered the ceiling on this pitching staff considerably. Lance Lynn has been mediocre at best of late, and downright ineffective at worst. Think of what a good Lance Lynn start would look like at this point. Does it involve zero or one runs? Does it also involve four walks and a pitch count of 76 after the fourth inning? Yeah, that's kind of my thinking as well. Michael Wacha needs to 'figure some things out', apparently, but won't step on a mound for real until it's, you know, for real.
There's also a creeping sense of unease for me, and I think a lot of others around here in Cardinal fandom, related to the roster itself. This year has been a revelation in a lot of ways; we've seen the incredible depth John Mozeliak and the front office have built called upon time and time again to provide production when injuries and ineffectiveness have struck, and along the way we've seen some remarkable talents emerge. And now that the chips are down, I think there's a very legitimate concern that the team under Mike Matheny will turn again to the players he trusts, to the Jon Jays and Matt Adamses, and may actually be worse for the restoration of the original roster. Even worse, there is reason to wonder if the changes will be because the manager honestly believes he's putting the best team possible on the field, or if he only believes in His Guys, and in going down with the ship if it can't be saved, when there are plenty of lifeboats, with plenty of room, just sitting there waiting to carry the crew to safety.
Or maybe not. Maybe I'm running from shadows with less basis in reality than I believe, and everything, as the song goes, is gonna be alright.
But enough of what I think, and what I feel. The wild card game is tonight, and soon we'll know who our boys in red are going to play. Standing at the edge of the rest of everything, I'll ask again, of the community that I believe, by and large, is a credit to everything good about this team, and the capital n Nation that follows it:
Viva El Birdos, how are you feeling?