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The Door Out of Summer

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A Labor Day weekend contemplation of where we are, and where we’re going.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at San Francisco Giants Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know if there’s any series of circumstances and happenings that could be more emblematic of how this long, strange season has gone for the Cardinals than the baseball games we’ve seen the last couple of days.

On the last day of August, the Cards beat the Giants fairly handily, 5-2. The outcome was never really in much doubt, even if the score was ultimately less lopsided than it probably deserved the be. Michael Wacha was fine, and there was a home run hit. The home run came courtesy of Randal Grichuk, who is doing his irritating tease again of late, basically ensuring we’ll be stuck riding the roller coaster of his contact rate another season.

It was, of course, a solo shot, while the team stranded a small army on the bases against a suddenly very old Matt Cain. I remember when Cain came up as a hotshot young fireballer, the first outrider of the pitching wave that rolled into San Francisco, carrying them to three championships in five years. Cain, Lincecum, and Bumgarner, El Gigantes’ own little Generation K; now Cain is old and tricking hitters with a slow curveball, Bumgarner is going to miss throwing 200 innings this year, breaking a string of six straight seasons, and The Freak is out of the game entirely. Where does the time go?

So it was an easy win, but could have been an even easier one. The offense struggled all day to find that one big hit, the knockout blow that would have iced the game away early, and the middle of the lineup just couldn’t produce it. Friday night’s game saw Jack Flaherty make his big league debut — and for the record, I thought he looked outstanding, even if he did let off the gas pedal and waver a bit once that initial wave of adrenaline wore off, always a risk for a young player in those big situations — and the Cards roll to an easy five-run win, courtesy of a six-run ninth inning. The game was tense, tight, and tumultuous, right up until the point when it wasn’t, and it ended up looking a lot easier in the scorebook than it really was.

And then, of course, there was yesterday’s heartbreaker, which saw Lance Lynn throw a gem (albeit a very odd one), and the bullpen lose it late. The offense couldn’t get anything going against an old foe, the Man With Too Many Consonants, and Samardzija turned back the clock to 2011 or so, looking every bit the vintage pain in the ass he was for the Cardinals back then. The offense had a misfire in it Thursday; yesterday it just failed to start entirely. Even so, all could have been well had the ‘pen been able to make the lead stand up.

Which, sadly, is one of the real themes of this season; the Cardinals’ relief corps has had far more than their fair share of losses late, too many leads squandered and surrendered. But consider, for a moment, that the earned run charged to Tyler Lyons, caused by his momentary inaction in fielding a groundball back to him, as he apparently thought the ball was more catchable by the shortstop than it actually was, was the first run he has allowed since the All-Star break. Seriously; Lyons’s last earned run — actually, the last run of any sort charged to him, earned or not — was on the 6th of July, nearly two months ago. He’s been one of the best relievers in the game since then. Consider also that Ryan Sherriff, who is being hung with the goat label after allowing the walkoff homer, hadn’t allowed a run in his major league career up until that point. Sherriff has now thrown five innings, produced a 6:1 strikeout to walk ratio, and allowed just one run, on an only slightly misplaced fastball that happened to go for a solo home run. So we have a pitcher who hasn’t allowed a run in two months, and one who hadn’t allowed a run yet in the big leagues (and who I personally think has looked quite good), and both give up runs at the most inopportune time. This team is remarkably good at doing just enough to lose way too often.

Oh, and there was, of course, a bad baserunning play. A couple, actually, but the one at the end really hurt. I’ve never been a fan of that contact play, for the same reason I hate the hit and run; too too often I think the runner is hung out to dry, the victim of committing to a course of action, but only mostly. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the Yadi rundown earlier in the game, though; that’s the sort of bullshit that should get a player benched. Somehow I doubt that happens, though.

If the Cardinals could have only shifted even half of Friday night’s rally runs to yesterday, they win comfortably. Instead, the series is 2-1, in danger of turning into another frustrating split with a poor opponent if the Cards can’t solve Bumgarner today, and we’ve seen the very worst timing that this season has to offer. The Redbirds have outscored the Giants 17-10 in three games so far, but are still just 2-1 in the series. Somehow, this feels right for the 2017 season.

It is also a holiday this weekend, the final holiday of the summer, and somewhere I can hear Bob Seger singing about autumn closing in. Site traffic is always hit or miss on these three-day weekend holidays, and so I’m putting off the large piece I was working on for today until this coming Wednesday, when we’ll be back to a normal number of eyeballs and a normal amount of discussion.

For now, I will simply marvel that yet another year of Cardinal baseball is coming into its waning moments; September will soon be on its way out just as August went before it, and we’ll be watching some team capture a World Series title with Joe Buck on the call and a chill in the air. And then, a hot stove season we all hope will bring real changes and serious decisions, and if neither of those things happen the chorus of discontent will get even louder this offseason, as it should. A down period in your contention cycle is entirely acceptable, even if there seems to be a large portion of the fanbase who can’t get their heads around the fact that sometimes things just go wrong, and no, just yelling about how much more the club should be spending isn’t going to solve things. Not that those complaints don’t have some legitimacy to them; it’s just that way too many times this season I’ve seen people basically rail against the cheapness of the organisation, without seeming to have any plan for what, exactly, they think should have been spent on, and conveniently ignoring the fact that a) the club purchased two of the top five free agents on the market this past offseason, spending more than any other club on outside free agents, and b) there hasn’t been a magic bullet available, seeing as how Justin Turner didn’t want to leave L.A. Even David Price, who I still wish would have made his way to the ‘Lou, has been very up and down for the Red Sox.

But while that down period in your cycle is just fine, complacency is not. Have the Cardinals been complacent? I’m sure many think they have, but I personally do not. I think they’ve been overly cautious and conservative, too slow to adjust to a changing market and too stubborn in sticking to their own ideas, but in no way do I think they’ve been complacent. And in fact, I think the suggestion of complacency is fairly ridiculous, bordering on childish. But, that will all change if this coming offseason does not see the big course correction I feel the organisation needs.

That’s for another place and another time, though, when it is October, or November, or December in St. Louis, and there is no baseball to be played. For now, we have this last month of baseball to keep us warm, this dying ember to nurse before darkness closes in on another season.

So happy Labor Day, everyone, he said, struggling to keep the ‘u’ out of Labor, seeing as how it’s a proper noun in this context and all. Be careful out there. We don’t have much further to go up this road in 2017. Let’s hope that maybe, just maybe, this team can shock us all with just a touch better timing, and maybe we can have an exciting October.

It feels like forever since the last one. Which really says all there is to be said about just how lucky, and how spoiled, we Cardinal fans have been.