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The Morning After: Opening Day 2011

Well…that sucked. What is typically a national holiday (Cardinal Nation that is) turned out to be a gut-wrenching summation of the Cardinals 2010 season…complete with a simultaneous late-inning comeback by the Reds over the Brewers in Cincinnati. Watching that game in St. Louis yesterday was awful. Just…awful.

But now we’ve had a night to sleep on it and process – a bit – what really happened. I always think it good advice to refrain from blogging immediately after a loss like yesterday. I’m not always able to take my own advice…but it is good advice. It’s one advantage that is often overlooked in the discussion of internet news versus tried and true paper editions. Perspective. The “must post now” crowd often loses that while the “slow and steady” pace of a sports journalist (those scribes actually reading this are laughing in their coffee at the idea of journalism being slow and steady at all…but if you think about the comparison…it works) is able to write from a position of processed information and reliable expectations for a marathon season they’ve covered many, many times.

So…with all that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Cards’ opener against the Padres looks the next day. There were negatives…absolutely…but there were positives as well. And then…there was Fox Sports Midwest (FSNMW). *Sigh*

The Negatives

1. Skip Schumaker dropped the ball on Ryan Ludwick when he had him dead-to-rights on a steal attempt. First of all, let’s be very clear about this…Schumaker did not “drop the ball”…it was clearly knocked from his glove intentionally by Luddy. Illegal? Sure. Good baseball? Sure. Skip’s fault? Eh…yes and no. Skip sure could have prevented it by going with the sweep tag so Ludwick wouldn’t have a stationary glove to swipe at, but he was trying to go easy on the guy that was clearly out. We see this all the time in steal attempts. Guys are out, they know they’re out, they slide in, and they’re out. It’s like the “neighborhood play” at second on the double play…most of the time, it goes as expected. Every once in a while, it doesn’t. Unfortunately, Skip got the “once in a while.” Luddy’s a good ballplayer. He knows the “if you didn’t get caught, it didn’t happen” approach that wins ballgames. And yes, Skip is not a second baseman by trade…but bottom line…Skip will learn from it. He won’t let that happen to him again. That’s just how Skip plays the game. He’ll learn from it and correct it. So I’m not worried about Skip at 2B. And I’m not worried about Carpenter ripping Skip a new one after the game. Carp knows he’s the one that walked Ludwick to put him on…and then allowed a double off the wall (nearly a home run) to let him score after he reached 2nd.

2. Jon Jay to Ryan Theriot snafu that made me slam my fist on the ottoman and scream, “UUGGGHHHH!!!” One of these players I’m very upset with…the other I’m just committed to keeping my eye on over the next month. Jon Jay…GAH! In a tie game with a man on third where Jay was specifically brought in late for his defense, he “mailed in” a throw from the outfield that got away from Theriot. It was a lazy, effortless, flip throw that should earn him a scolding from Tony after the game. Ridiculous. Jay normally has a good head on his shoulders about this stuff…but that was just inexcusable. Pick up the ball, fire it in, and get it to your cutoff man without letting it hit the ground. It’s Baseball 101. It was Jay’s sole purpose for entering the game. And he screwed it up. Of course, Theriot was also to blame…but go back and look at the replay. Theriot was in front of the ball, two hands down, and clearly engaging fundamentals to field the throw. Obviously he was a bit distracted, but the effort was there. I said before I was a bit concerned about his instincts at the SS position after being moved from it a while back. He’s just a bit rusty. It’ll be okay. It was a mental oops that cost us the lead…but Theriot will get a few games at SS under his belt and be fine. You won’t see that happen again. The same should be true of Jay as well…but we’ll see. Point being…these were correctable mishaps. No lasting cause for concern.

3. Holliday picked off at 2nd. I don’t think this bothers me much. It wasn’t a straight mental lapse…it was a call from the bench and the Padres guessed it. I would just caution Holliday to make sure the pitcher is going home before taking off, and then move on. No real cause for concern. In fact, the rest of our base-running looked pretty darn good (did you SEE Colby motor for third?!).

4. Albert’s flat tire performance in a lineup that was truckin’ along. I can’t believe I even have to mention this one, but there are those fans that are freaking out over Pujols. Look…Albert had an off day. He’ll be fine. Albert will be Albert and he’ll get the job done. Everyone gets an off day here and there. No cause for concern. Do I think Albert, at this stage of his career and in light of last season, is more vulnerable to bad games and longer stretches of struggling performance? Yes. Do I think it will prevent him from “being Albert”? Not at all. Move along, nothing to see here. Move along.

5. The bullpen in general. Um…yeah. Tony would say it was a tie game, he had a long reliever in Augenstein on the mound to handle multiple innings, and he was saving Motte/Boggs for later in a game that gave him no indication of how long it would last. He would say he needs to save some arms for later. I totally get that. And that’s why we’ll focus on not using Motte and/or Boggs in the 8th instead of Batista. Look…if you’ve read my predictions, I felt (feel?) Batista could be the eventual…”e-ven-tu-al”…8th inning setup man in front of Franklin. Veteran, durable, knows how to get it done…give him several appearances and time for the ‘pen to flesh out, and I think it could happen. But not yet. Right now, you don’t know what you have…you need to go with the guys that are supposed to be the best on your staff. That was the move. Bring in Boggs or Motte in the 8th and lock it down until Franklin comes in. So why not do it? The reason is likely two-fold.

First, Tony likes to keep one of them to back up (bail out) Franklin in the 9th if necessary. Because there were no runners on and 2 outs when Franklin blew it, that scenario never developed. Second, based on their Spring performances, clearly Tony did not trust his fireballing hurlers. Either of them. And this is a huge problem. Motte was semi-attrocious and didn’t seem to have enough control to reliably get anyone out – even when he lucked into outs. Boggs was so unpredictable, it’s unclear what he’ll deliver from game to game. Hell…for just a minute, let’s go back to the Augenstein appearance. We’ve seen this movie before with Tony. His “M.O.” is simple. Use your best guys to keep it close and save your young, inexperienced long reliever for a marathon game at the end. In other words, we should have seen Boggs/Motte in the 11th and 12th and Augenstein in the 13th…if it got that far. Instead, we saw Tony reluctant to use either of them in the 8th or the 11th. This is bad. These two need to show something that indicates they are locked in and corrected. If they don’t…I don’t see another option but to work a deal for a right-handed reliever (maybe bring Salas up?). Otherwise, we’re going to lose a LOT of bullpen games this season. But it’s much too early for that just yet. Let’s see if Motte/Boggs can get it done first.

6. Ryan Franklin. Oh, boy. Here we go. I won’t say much here that hasn’t already been said…but I will make two points. First, Franklin, for the most part, will be okay. He may not have a stellar season…but he’ll self-correct and be okay. My concern is this: In light of everything else we have to overcome…don’t we need him to have a stellar season? Second, Ryan is not the pitcher we had in 2009…and we need to stop expecting him to be that All-Star pitcher. I had a brief email exchange with Keith Law a while back about Ryan Franklin (I’m pretty sure it ended b/c I did the typical “hometown blogger” thing and overwhelmed him with super-long emails refusing to acknowledge logical points…oops…sorry, Keith). In the email, I stated that Franky’s control was his biggest asset. His pinpoint accuracy that year was beautiful to watch. He carved up hitters in a way that reminded me of Carp in 05 and 06. I also said he had to have that finesse and control to be effective in the ninth. Both of those statements are 100% true. Franklin must have good to great control to do what he’s trying to do. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen that level of control since 2009. In 2010, he was effective but not as precise. The result was a pitcher who was much more vulnerable and could have blown many more saves than he did. This year, the same may be true…but with perhaps a few more blown saves than 2010. Again, the question is this: With all the issues we need to overcome, especially in the ‘pen…can we really absorb those additional blown saves and still win the division? My answer…no.

7. The fans. Come on, guys…really? Leaving the game early? Really? Let me tell you this…it takes me 5/6 hours to get to a game. Last year, we took our family to a game against the Reds. It was our daughter’s first trip to Busch stadium. And the game sucked. Miles committed a huge error at 2nd and the Reds stomped all over us. It was a miserable 9 innings. But it WAS 9 innings. Geez. Those of you who left early make me sick…and on national television no less!!! ESPN was also televising the game, and I had to field statements on Twitter like, “Wow…look at all the empty seats in Busch…aren’t they supposed to be the games best fans?” From now on (and I can’t believe I have to say this to Cards fans!)…you buy a ticket, you go to the game…YOU STAY FOR THE WHOLE GAME!!! Oh…and can the fans along the wall PLEASE stop moving out of the way for fielders trying to catch our hitter’s foul balls in close games? It goes in the stands, it’s your ball. You don’t have to move. Stop being so damn “respectful” and be a fan. Stand your ground. Catch the guy if you must (don’t want him getting hurt), but catch the ball too. Or, hell…just be a defensive back and swat the sucker down (the ball…not the player). Ugh.

The Positives

1. Colby Rasmus. He went 2 for 3 with 2 walks, a run scored, and scorched triple that nearly left the park in his first at-bat. In the field, sure…he had a couple near run-ins with Holliday…but that’s because he’s finally making an attempt to step up and take charge of the outfield…like a CF is supposed to do. Also, he made VERY good throwing decisions that included a good throw home on the sac fly where he jumped in front of Matt to catch the ball. All in all, very good start for Rasmus. He’s displaying a much better eye at the plate already (took several 2 strike pitches that would have struck him out in 2010) and a much better presence and arm in CF. Good signs.

2. Matt Holliday. After a rough start last year, Matt borrowed Albert’s Opening Day mojo and assaulted Padres pitching. Three for four, a walk, two RBIs, a run scored, and what should have been the tie-breaking, game-winning home run in the 8th. Awesome. Matt seems ready for a monster year. No more “gotta’ get ‘er done” early season jitters for him!

3. Lance Berkman. Puma started the season much better than I expected. He finished 2 for 4 with a run scored (and looked very good running home all things considered). Sure, he struck out twice..and he honestly looked a bit off in those at-bats…but the overall performance was highly encouraging. Taking strong hacks, making good contact on his hits…all good things. He could out-perform my predictions.

4. Skip Schumaker. Yes, overall…good signs from Skip. Late in the game…when we needed it…he got things going by digging a nasty pitch out and over the right side infielders for a base hit. Good to see early on in the season from Skip. And, at second base, he’s already showing the added range he promised from an offseason of altered workouts and drills. His left side isn’t looking like quite the hole it was in 2010, and I’m not just talking about the dive-and-throw play, either. Watching him move to his left yesterday was encouraging. More often than not, he was actually in the picture when the camera showed a single pounded through the hole between first and second! A rarity in 2010.

5. Chris Carpenter. The veritable ace looked much better than expected yesterday. He could have easily pitched into the 8th only allowing 1 run. He looked strong, in control of his fastball, and effective down in the zone. If Carp can do that more often than not this season, the Cards stand a very good chance in the division.

6. Brian Tallet. The wily lefty looked much more effective than I expected him to be. Sure, it’s only one game…but I liked what I saw for the first time this year. I still have my doubts about his stuff…and it scares the hell out of me when he faces righties…but he got it done.

7. Trevor Miller. Speaking of lefties…”Miller Time” came in to face a hitter that was 3 for 4 against him in Hawpe with the bases loaded and the game on the line…and Miller got him out. Sure, it was a long, loud out…but he got him out. Trevor Miller could end up being our consistent bright spot in the ‘pen this season. Too bad he can’t pitch to righties as well.

8. Hits-a-plenty. The Cards starting eight looked very good throughout the game (with the exception of Albert). Tons of hits and opportunities. I know, I know…we need to capitalize much more…but sprinkle in a hit or two from Albert, and that LOB number looks very different. And we know Albert will hit. All in all, I came away pretty encouraged with our offense.

FOX SPORTS MIDWEST

Unlike most, I actually like the fact that FSNMW has an exclusive contract to broadcast games for the Cardinals this season. It means I actually get Sunday games this year where before I couldn’t because my area didn’t carry the free local broadcast. But FSN needs to understand one thing…with great power comes great responsibility. This is the second year in a row they’ve snafu’ed the Opening Day ceremonies for Cards fans watching at home. This isn’t L.A. We care a great deal about our Opening Day ceremonies. We want to see them…all of them. If anything, FSNMW simply needs to commit to uninterrupted coverage of the ceremonies from the start. No commercials. No “in-truck interviews” with players by “The Cat”. Just cover the damn ceremonies!

Oh…and if you try to tell me that you have advertisers that won’t buy air time with you unless you assure them a spot during the ceremonies…I will simply start an online list of companies I encourage all Cardinal fans to boycott. Guess how you make the list…that’s right…you air a commercial during Opening Day ceremonies.

Enough already, FSNMW. Cover the ceremonies without commercials, cut-aways, or interviews. And don’t give me the “it’s live and it’s hard for us” crap. That’s all you do for 152 games a season. You cover live, unpredictable events. At least the Cards give you a schedule and a script for the Opening Day ceremonies. Sheesh. The reality is that you just can’t live with yourself if you don’t try to “add some color” to the ceremonies with interviews and analysis from the booth and such. Let me tell you something…Cardinal Hall of Famers and current players provide their own color. We don’t need yours.

WRAP-UP!

Okay…that’ll do it today. Remember…it’s only 1 game. 161 more on the schedule (just sucks there isn’t one today to make the pain go away). Oh, and quick blog-note…the “State of the Nation” podcast that usually posts/airs here on Sunday evenings will be delayed until later in the week. I’ll be attending the UCB Weekend in St. Louis (WHOO HOOO!!!) and won’t be able to record it until I get back. So…enjoy the weekend of games and the newly born baseball season…and remember…

GO CARDS!!!

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