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Fear Vs. Reality – The AK Experiment

Tony La Russa has finally discovered a way to keep his lineup moving. Despite having an 18 – 11 record to start the season, the Cardinals have discovered a distressing problem…their ability to string hits together, bring runners in, and keep the lineup rolling consistently.

With the best on-base percentage in the National League, the Cards have a frustratingly sub-par number with runners in scoring position. Leaving anywhere from 7 – 18 runners on base in a game, one has to wonder which game will be the straw that broke the camel’s back and force Johnny Mo to pull the trigger on a trade. Such a deal would sadly send some of St. Louis’ most beloved and promising young talent elsewhere in exchange for a high-priced, well-established hitting monstrosity to bat behind El Hombre himself, Mr. Pujols.

I’m not entirely opposed to this idea of giving up a few guys to get a human highlight reel – I’m just sentimental. I like the team this year: Skip “Shoe” Schumaker, Chris “Slam” Duncan, and Rick “The Natural” Ankiel (affectionately known as Ank the Tank on this humble blog). They’ve all played their way into my heart of baseball hearts…and that’s saying something. But, if one or two of ’em gotta’ go, then they gotta’ go. But I sure hope they don’t gotta’…

And then, Tony stumbled upon something – a traditional, tried and true, baseball of yesteryear lineup. He hit an on-base guy in the two hole. With what appeared to be the latest in what may be a season-long string of experiments for one of baseball’s most innovative Managers, Tuesday’s lineup featured none other than Adam “AK” Kennedy in the coveted number two spot – blatantly placed in front of the game’s most feared hitter, Albert “Nuff Said” Pujols.

The result? Seven runs in the first two innings off one of the Red’s most promising young pitchers. And, yes – the victimized pitcher was, in fact, a “youngin‘, ” so my optimism was somewhat restrained (joyous hootin‘ an’ hollerin‘ aside). “Let’s see what happens tomorrow,” I said.

As I read the posted lineup the next day, I silently cursed the St. Louis Manager. AK was nowhere to be found. In his stead was Aaron Miles. Sure, he was also placed in the two hole, plugged in quietly behind Skip Schumaker, silently lurking in his guise as an under-sized top-of-the order hitter – but Miles is no AK. Now, don’t get me wrong…I love Miles. But the guy has the offensive potential of a turnip.

Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Miles was an eye-opening 2 for 4 with 2 RBIs and 2 runs scored, and the Cardinals walked away with a deceptive 5 – 2 victory (the game would have been much more lop-sided if not for a couple overly aggressive base running plays by the redbirds).

Hmmm, I thought, Tony may be onto something. This new lineup configuration seems to be working…I wonder why? TLR’s explanation? More balance in the order. Sure, that’s true. Putting an on-base guy in front of Albert allows Tony to slip Duncan and/or Glaus down a bit in the order and throw a bit more wallop into the bottom half of this St. Louis lineup. But I think there’s more to be said.

Tony loves a guy with power in the two spot. He relishes the idea of making a pitcher sweat while pitching to a power guy with Pujols hungrily watching from the shadows of the on-deck circle. But maybe this configuration is more effective. Maybe this configuration is more realistic. Why? Because no one is afraid of this lineup.

In year’s past, Cardinal teams have been able to boast the likes of Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker, and Mark McGwire (just to name a few). But this year’s retooled and inexperienced lineup begs the unimpressed question…”Who are these guys?” The result…a non-perspiring pitcher with very little to lose. Why not challenge Ankiel? The guy is so streak happy, he’s as likely to go 0 for 5 with 4 strikeouts as he is 3 for 4 with a home run. Why not come right at Duncan? The man’s power has so far been less than stellar, and one could argue he’s been more effective as a human walk machine than he has been as a power-hitter. So throw the guys strikes. See what happens.

But this new lineup? This lineup doesn’t rely on fear alone. This lineup is geared for an assembly-line like offensive attack that could easily subdue a pitcher from shear pitch count, let alone walk ratio. The result? Frustrated fastballs that guys like Glaus, Ankiel, and Pujols eat for lunch.

Ultimately, what does this new lineup configuration mean? It means a heavy dose of reality. This team isn’t scaring anybody. Putting a guy in the two hole because he has the potential to be a power hitter does nothing. But putting together a well-balanced offense that can realistically string hits together and take advantage of the National League’s best on-base percentage…there’s something to say for that. And right now, Tony La Russa is saying quite a bit.

But don’t speak too soon. The real test is this weekend. Tomorrow, the Cardinals begin a three game showdown with the hated Chicago Cubs – a team they currently share first place with in the NL Central, and a team that just knocked off the run-happy Brewers with a 19 – 5 shellacking. Will TLR stick to what’s been working? Or will he succumb to the lip-licking temptation of power in the two spot?

Stay tuned trusty Cards fans…the Cubs are comin‘ to town!

GO CARDS!!!

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