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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: Here Come the Comeback Cards…

Things are starting to look much, much better for the reigning World Champions. Even without Lance Berkman, the Comeback Cardinals are staging a rally – and this time, they don’t have to make history to pull it off.

A lot has been made about the Cardinals’ late season surge in September of 2011 – and it seems the “They were 10 ½ games back in September last year” refrain has become almost as popular with national broadcasters as mentioning the unmentionable (*ahem*…Pujols) – but the St. Louis Cardinals of 2012 have nothing even close to that in mind this year.

When they woke up this morning, the Redbirds were 6.0 games back of the Reds for first place in the NL Central and 2.5 games out of the Wild Card hunt…with nearly two months left in the season. That’s a drastically different picture than being 10 ½ games out of the Wild Card with just over a month left in the season, right? And then there’s the fact that not one but two Wild Card spots are up for grabs this year, in effect doubling the chances the Cards make the postseason.

And what about schedule?

Last season, the Cardinals swept a struggling Braves team to set up the epic collapse that punched the Cardinals’ ticket to October. This year, the home team prepares for 3 games against the Giants, 3 games against the D-backs, 6 games against the Pirates, 7 games against the Nationals, 4 games against the Dodgers, and 6 games against the NLC-leading Reds…all teams that will be potentially battling with St. Louis for two Wild Card spots and a couple that will be chomping at the bit for a division title.

At first glance, the schedule seems alarming. Isn’t it a bad thing that the home town boys play so many of their remaining games against contenders? Especially when the division-leading Reds play so many games in September against losing clubs? (17 out of 23, by the way)

Yes, it is. But think of it this way…the Cardinals have just recently started playing their best baseball. They’ve been winning at a refreshing pace, and it’s taken an entire team to do it. The offense is producing. The starters appear solid. And the once-infamous bullpen seems to have stabilized at just the right time. While it’s true they face perhaps their toughest stretch of opposition this season in August, they do so while playing the majority of them on the suddenly-advantageous grass of Busch Stadium.

And about September…the Reds aren’t the only team with a favorable schedule in the season’s final month. The Cardinals play 18 of 27 games against teams with a losing record, and 5 of the games against winning teams include the possibly Strasburg-less Nationals (remember, the team is adamant about shutting him down to save his arm after TJS a year ago…surely they’ll lighten his load a bit in September if for no other reason than to save him for October).

Oh…and of course there’s the pending reinforcements to consider. Jaime Garcia looks to return to the rotation within a week or two, essentially alleviating growing concern about innings load and fatigue surrounding 3 of the 5 starters. And then, on to September…when the Cardinals can sit back and bask in the abundance of minor league call-ups such as Matt Adams and Adron Chambers.

All things considered, things are beginning to look up for the Cardinals. This stretch of “better than ever” baseball is just what these Redbirds needed at just the right time. For the first time since May, the Cardinals appear to be in a position to control their own fate. They’re playing their best baseball at a time when all but one of the Wild Card contenders and both of the NLC contenders are lined up on their doorstep. With 6 games left against the Reds – and sitting only 2.5 games back of a Wild Card spot – it seems the Cardinals can honestly say that this race will come down to whichever team plays the best in August and September. And maybe…just maybe…the Cards will play themselves right into a division-deciding series against the Reds October 1st through the 3rd…in St. Louis.

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

About Votto’s return… It occurs to me that Joey Votto’s eventual return to the Reds’ lineup could create somewhat of a small window for the Cardinals. Suddenly, a team that’s been clicking for a while will have to deal with an interruption to their lineup. Votto will get at-bats at the expense of one of their productive hitters. And he’ll need those at-bats to get his timing back. So, I would expect a few games of interrupted offensive productivity from the Redlegs when their MVP-caliber slugger returns to the field…but it won’t last long. The Cardinals better keep this winning thing going.

Poor Barry Zito. The Cardinals draw the once-crafty lefty a start after a 7 earned run outing against the Mets. He lasted only 4 and 1/3rd innings. On the surface, one would think Cardinal sluggers like Matt Holliday and Allen Craig would be salivating…but let’s not forget that St. Louis hitters love to feast on the fastball (I think…haven’t checked the stats this season), something Zito isn’t exactly famous for, and have historically struggled against lefty starters and/or pitchers who need a pick-me-up game. In a nut shell, this should be a walk in the park for the league’s best offense, but don’t be shocked if the Cardinals make it interesting. I know I won’t be surprised when the hash tag #barrycyyoungzito appears in my timeline.

It’s early, but Mozeliak’s moves to acquire Brian Fuentes and Edward Mojica seem to have stabilized the ‘pen.  A lot of fans were slamming both of these moves when they were made, but so far so good. Fuentes was brought in as a low risk gamble…if he worked out, the club got a top tier reliever at a comparative steal. If he didn’t, the team released him with minimal hit to the budget. But Mojica was a bit more problematic. If he couldn’t get the job done more often than not in the 7th inning, Mo would be forced to admit he gave up on a guy like Cox who could have re-established some value in 2013. As it stands, however, both pitchers appear to be making him look like he knows a little bit about this GM gig.

Yes, I’ll be the first one to say it’s a good thing Mo didn’t listen to me and sign Roy Oswalt. Although, to be fair, I did say in a podcast (I believe with Daniel…) and at least one post that it wasn’t necessarily Roy Oswalt I wanted…just a viable starting option other than Lance Lynn. My concern has always been that Lynn’s arm would begin to falter in July/August/September under the increased innings load. At that point, we would have no other option to fall back on. I fully understood that Oswalt himself came with significant risks, but I felt they were manageable risks with the right team – especially one that could afford to let him build up a few starts in a gradual minor league assignment. However, all qualifiers aside, it appears I was wrong. We’ll never know if Oswalt’s experience on the Cardinals’ roster would have turned out differently, but we do know it’s not working out well for the Rangers. I was also wrong about believing the Cardinals didn’t have a viable option in the system they could rely on. Joe Kelly has stepped up immensely and forced himself into the 2013 rotation discussion. But…again, in all fairness…I was right in at least two points: Chris Carpenter’s return could not be counted on (an argument thrown at me repeatedly when I said we needed another starter…”But Carp will be back!”), and this team was vulnerable to rotation issues. With Waino (one year from TJS), Carp (nerve-related injury), and Lynn (innings load concern) forming significant pieces of our rotation, it was only a matter of time before something gave. Unfortunately for Jaime, it was Garcia that eventually went down.

Wrap-Up!

That’ll do it for today. My voice is finally getting back to normal, so look for a podcast this weekend and hopefully for the weeks to come.

GO CARDS!!!

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