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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: Getting WAY Ahead of Ourselves…

The Cardinals woke up this morning 6 games back of the first place Reds (ugh…). After the Redbirds inspired sweep of the lowly Cubs, fans were flying high on hopes and expectations. Never mind that the Reds and Pirates also swept their series for a net gain of 0 games in the standings (by the way, the top 3 teams in the NLC went 9-0 over the weekend…that’s impressive).

In Matt Holliday’s words (more or less), the Cardinals just need to win games and the rest will take care of itself, but with the new Wild Card rules this season – 2 teams, one play-in game – there’s all kinds of inherent value in being the division winner. In that regard, the rule change has to be considered a success. The Cardinals certainly don’t want to be left out in the cold of a single game playoff.

But at 6 games back in the division and 2.5 games back in the Wild Card race, a single game playoff could be the best this battered St. Louis team can hope for…because the Reds and Pirates don’t appear to be slowing down.

Many fans seem poised for another nigh-historic comeback in September. The memory of 10.5 back in 2011 is fresh in the minds of young fans who believe that can happen nearly every year. It doesn’t. In real life, 99 times out of 100 – hell…999 times out of a 1,000! – a big deficit in September means no division title in October. And with that title edging further and further out of reach, a scorching St. Louis cityscape is warming to the idea of Wild Card mania.

As I understand it, the National League Wild Card game is scheduled to take place October 5th. The Cardinals’ last regular season game is against the Reds on October 3rd. If the rotation schedule holds true throughout the rest of the season – no trades, no injuries, and no using multiple off days to reshuffle – Adam Wainwright’s turn in the rotation is due up on October 3rd.

Assuming no need for a “play-in” tiebreaker game on October 4th…Kyle Lohse would get the nod in the all-important Wild Card Game on the 5th. Kind of poetic, eh? Lohse…the Cards’ most consistent pitcher for the last two years…the unsung hero of the 2011 Regular Season…the man who has perhaps kept this starting rotation afloat during much of 2012 – suddenly the man who has thrived by flying under the radar will find himself dead center under the spotlight with the Cardinals’ hopes for another postseason run on his shoulders.

But what if the last game of the season doesn’t matter? What if the Reds are so far out in the division race that the NLC title is out of reach? And what if the Cardinals have secured a Wild Card spot and one more win will do them no good?

Would Mike Matheny then bump Wainwright to throw the Wild Card game on October 5th with two days’ extra rest at the tail end of a Tommy John comeback year? Perhaps…

Or perhaps the answer lies not in an analysis of Waino’s innings load but instead in the name that would then be available to start Game 1 of the NLDS that weekend – and a potential Game 5 – again…Kyle Lohse.

Of course, it’s a long way out to be considering rotation schedules…but one decision that may be worth discussing in the here and now is the question of lineup configuration.

Lance Berkman said he understands if Allen Craig gets more playing time than he does at first base. But what about in the case of a single game playoff on October 5th? Who would Matheny start, then? The young slugger with the potent bat…or the switch-hitting veteran with crazy on-base ability? Both were World Series MVP candidates last season. Both have struggled with significant leg and knee injuries this year. And both play a decent to good first base. But only one can start. Would it be as simple as lefty/righty match-up considerations?

Or would Matheny give in to the temptation of the Super Lineup?

The Cardinals have had the benefit of Holliday, Beltran, Berkman, Craig, Carpenter, and Jay all healthy and available at the same moment only a hand full of times this season, and only a few of those times has Mike succumbed to the pull of a slug-happy lineup. By putting Carlos Beltran in CF, he can play an outfield of Holliday, Beltran, and Craig while slotting Berkman in at first base.

The problem? (other than the lost defensive ability in CF and RF by keeping Jay out and putting Craig in…). That lineup – or a similar one with Adams at 1B – has produced about the same number of runs as my grandmother.

And in a scenario like that…does Matheny go with the defensive prowess of Daniel Descalso at 2B? Or the King of RISP…Skip Schumaker? Both hit from the left side, and neither really has any power. Hmmm…

I don’t envy Mike the decisions he’ll have to make if the Cardinals make it past October 3rd…but it sure would be “a nice problem to have.”

Now, let’s get into the rest of it…

Of course, the Cardinals could end up missing the postseason all together. Hellllooooo, 2007. Remember the last time the Cards won the World Series? And the last time Chris Carpenter didn’t pitch all season (more or less…) with the same type of nerve issue? And the team under-performed? Yeah…about that. I really hope this isn’t a repeat of all that craziness…but if it is, and the Cardinals miss the playoffs…how will Matheny’s first season be viewed? A troubled first year with injuries and issues that even a seasoned manager would have trouble overcoming? Or a season of pure disappointment with what appeared to be an idiot-proof roster?

Does anyone have any REAL sense as to what the Cardinals are going to do before the trade deadline? They were hot on starting pitchers, but since the rotation’s recovery and Garcia’s potential return, that seems to have cooled. I recently read some interest in a RH hitting center fielder, but considering Jay’s resurgence at the plate and his oddly backwards splits, that doesn’t make much sense. Of course, there’s always bullpen help, but if Fuentes comes up and shows strong…is there really any room to improve? I could see getting rid of Marte, but most of the ‘pen is pitching much more effectively lately…which could make picking a relief pitcher to sacrifice a guessing game. All in all, we may actually see the Cardinals stand pat at the trade deadline. And I think I would be okay with that…assuming a significant trade opportunity wasn’t available to us without sacrificing major prospects.

And so we embark on the final 2 months or so of baseball…and the Cardinals are once again in a difficult position. I honestly can’t remember the last time the Cardinals had such a confounding season. On paper, this team should be blowing other teams away…but right now, we’re struggling just to survive. Any other organization could be seriously questioning whether to be buyers or sellers at the deadline if they found themselves 6 games back with 2 teams to overcome. But not the Cardinals. Mozeliak knows this team can get it done, but the question is…will it? I just don’t know. In a way, I almost wish there was a blatant hole in the lineup. At least then we could come up with a reasonable solution to this team’s difficulties. But that hole just doesn’t exist. We SHOULD be good. We SHOULD be winning. Unfortunately…we’re not.

Wrap-Up!

Okay…that’ll do it today. Let’s hope Waino can pull a Carpenter tonight and put this team on his back for the long haul.

GO CARDS!!!

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