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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: Whew…That Was Close…

Last night was not pretty. What should have been a comfortable win that forced the D-backs to burn their ‘pen in Game 1 of the series instead became a gut-wrenching nail-biter. The Cardinals should be waking up this morning with all the swagger in the world and the encouraging knowledge that Arizona’s relief corps was exposed while our own remains fresh. But I’m guessing the smiles and chuckles over sprinkled doughnuts this morning were replaced by a collective, “Whew…that was close.”

Lance Lynn admittedly didn’t have his best stuff. Not only did he walk four, but he broke the 90-pitch threshold in just five innings, at times fiddling with questionable pitch selection and nibbling breaking balls. Considering he had an aggressive, 95 mph fastball throwing right-hander on the mound in a spacious ballpark…Yadier Molina mystified Cardinal Nation early by calling breaking ball after breaking ball just off the outside corner. The effect was predictable. Ball. Ball. Ball. Ball. Walk.

And then Lynn turned aggressive again, promptly striking out the side with better location and nastier stuff. It was almost as if Yadi was experimenting with expanding the home plate umpire’s zone early in the game…to no avail.

Of course, all’s well that ends well, and Lynn’s night certainly ended well after five innings of shutout baseball. He exited with a 7-0 lead. But before he could microwave his first post-game burritos in the clubhouse, J.C. Romero (and a guest appearance by Fernando Salas) gave all but a run of it away. I can just imagine Lynn, smiling and giggling to himself, trotting down the dugout steps, high-fivin’ teammates as he heads for the kitchen to nuke a little frozen Mexican food goodness…and then emerging from that same clubhouse, piping hot snack in hand, mouth wide open and slack-jawed, bean juice and salsa dripping from his oddly-groomed beard…”Wh-Wha-Wha…? What happened?!?!”

I’m sure Romero’s issues are primarily related to lack of work – and without that work, it’s unfair to make an assessment regarding the lefty’s effectiveness – but throwing him into a sixth inning situation to get work and asking him to work a full inning against both lefties and righties…that’s just bad ‘pen management. That’s on Matheny. Romero had no business being in that game that early and in that situation. If anything, Mike should have used him to get a LH hitter or two out in the 7th or later with the bulk of his lead intact – if for no other reason than to set him up for success in the role he was intended to fill – and then yank him before a slew of righties can pound him into the mound.

Let’s hope Matheny’s experienced coaching staff helps him learn from last night’s mistakes…perhaps chief among them being the assumption that a 7-0 game in the sixth inning is already well-enough in hand that we can afford to all but throw a struggling LHP under the bus.

Alright…let’s get into the rest of it…

“Craig SMASH!” Allen Craig is a helluva’ weapon to have in that lineup…when he’s in that lineup. What’s going to happen when Lance Berkman returns this weekend and Craig is relegated to spot duty from the bench? I’ll tell you what’s going to happen…Matt Holliday gets an off day, that’s what. Holliday has been a marathon man so far for the Cardinals. He needs some time off this month. With Allen Craig hitting so well – and as long as his knee can remain healthy, which may be in question after last night’s bump – he can easily spell three of our biggest injury concerns in the field. Holliday in LF, Beltran in RF, and Berkman at 1B could combine to give Craig as many as three or four starts a week. Combine that with the inherent need to give Craig’s knee special attention, and this whole middle-of-the-order-by-committee thing could work out after all.

Jon Jay is establishing himself as the next great center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. When Edmonds moved on, I was distraught. I had grown accustomed to stellar catches in the outfield and a feeling of security with balls hit deep. Then Rick Ankiel emerged. His unlikely story, dynamically powerful stroke at the plate, and fearless play in the outfield made his rifle arm seem like merely a bonus. But then his struggles at the plate gave way to the much-anticipated Colby Rasmus, and Ank the Tank moved on. Colby’s time in St. Louis was rocky with flashes of greatness at best, perhaps toxic and over-hyped at worst, but none could claim his time in center field for the Cardinals was impressive – or even satisfactory. As a result, Rasmus was traded last season…and Jon Jay, long the back-up at the position, was anointed the starter. And then something happened. Sometime between the Ludwick trade, that saw Jay enter a downward spiral at the plate, and the 2011 World Championship run – a run that established CF as a position of stability – Jay blossomed into a reliable…even star-worthy…player at the top of the Cardinals’ lineup and in the middle of the Busch Stadium outfield. Jay is now the undisputed starter at Center Field for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. And he doesn’t seem to be looking back.

Rafael Furcal is flat-out gettin’ it done. His early struggles with the routine play at SS aside, the Cardinals’ lead off man is becoming exactly what the St. Louis club hoped they were signing when they inked him to a two-year deal this offseason. In fact, he’s become more. Plagued by a homer-happy swing late last year, the veteran infielder still has a tendency to regress to a swing-outta’-his-spikes hack at high heat…but as last night showed, he seems to be displaying the ability to adjust mid-game and get back to his slash-and-dash approach that has him hitting well above .300. The result is a strangle hold on the lead off spot in the order…the exact opposite of his offensive status exiting Spring Training. John Mozeliak must be smugly happy as he watches from his GM’s box at the ballpark. And he should be. Rafael Furcal is working out just fine.

This series is being billed as an opportunity to find out just how good the Cardinals are…or, at the least, a chance to truly learn something about the St. Louis team. So, based on the one game last night, let’s see what we’ve learned. First, we have a rookie manager. Mike Matheny’s use of J.C. Romero in the 6th inning was inexcusable. Pulling a clearly struggling and over-worked Lance Lynn was absolutely the right move. Putting Romero in the game at that point was absolutely the wrong move. But leaving Romero in as long as he did…that’s a rookie mistake. I don’t care how he has to stall for Salas to get warm…walk to the mound, throw to first a few dozen times, tackle the beer vendor and throw his beverage carrier on the field…whatever it takes to keep Romero from throwing another pitch after the homer, you do it. He didn’t, and the Cards paid the price. Second, Lance Lynn is a warrior on the mound. When he doesn’t have his best stuff, his best command, etc., he will still find ways to get you out. And when he doesn’t…he’s gonna’ be pissed off about it. It’s almost as if he’s carrying a voo doo doll of Chris Carpenter in his back pocket and channeling the bullish right-hander on the bump. Has anyone checked his locker for dead chickens…? And third, the Cardinals will hit in almost any stadium, field, or park…and possibly against any pitcher. But when the ‘pen is mis-managed…they are incredibly vulnerable. The pitching margin of error is small…very small…almost see-through small. It’ll be interesting to see how Mozeliak upgrades this ‘pen mid-season (new lefty? return of Linebrink? hmmm…).

Wrap-Up!

That’ll do it for today. Late games this week as the Cardinals continue their stand-off with the D-backs in Arizona…but at least you have time to re-stock the fridge with frosty Budweiser and grill some dogs and burgers before game time.

GO CARDS!!!

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