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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: The Ace, The Koz’, and The Big Puma…

After waiting all day and night for a late game showdown in San Diego, last night’s performance couldn’t be more irritating. The Cardinals are playing sloppy, uninspired baseball…and Garcia is only making it worse. Mike Matheny used the word “ugly.” I tend to agree. But…we’re gonna’ stay positive here at Cards ‘N Stuff…so before this gets away from us, let’s just get right into it:

Don’t look now, but Carlos Beltran may be heating up. The aging, knee-less wonder has three hits over his last two games – including a home run – and has been showing much better timing and contact at the plate. Ordinarily a two-game hit streak wouldn’t be worth the stat sheet it’s recorded on, but in Beltran’s case, the feat is worth a homecoming parade. It’s no coincidence that the Cardinals’ frustrating turn towards mediocrity coincides with the decline of their All-Star right fielder. Without his potent bat in the lineup, the Redbirds offense looks…meh…as opposed to…Whoa! Let’s hope Carlos can keep it coming against the Padres tonight as the Midwestern boys attempt to get back “on plan” in California.

The news of Berkman’s season-ending surgery is deflating. It’s not devastating, as some would believe, because first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig has filled in with All-Star numbers…but it is a significant blow to a team visibly struggling to find some solid footing in September. The personality of this team is in question, and Berkman could have been the answer. After suffering through such an up and down season, fans could almost feel the Cardinals clubhouse waiting for magic to happen in September 2012 as it did in 2011. No, I don’t mean the incredible comeback or even the amazing win-loss record (at this point, I would just settle for .500 baseball). What I mean is that easy cohesiveness…that “edge” that carried them through a grueling September slate of games. The guys in 2011 pulled together, figured it out, and aimed themselves pointedly at a postseason appearance. I could be wrong, but it seems as if this team was almost waiting for the same thing to happen again come the first week of September. It hasn’t happened, yet. The loss of Lance Berkman could prove to be more damaging to that effort than even the loss of his wonderful slugging percentage and OBP on the field.

On the other hand, the return of Chris Carpenter could be just what this club needs to make a final push. Every report you read about The Ace’s simulated outings – his strength, his endurance, his velocity, his stuff – it’s all glowing. Even Carp’s patented competitive edge seems to be making cameo appearances in interviews and one-on-ones with the media. Sure, there’s still a chance he doesn’t make it all the way back this season…but that chance is growing less and less likely with every simulated inning and every post-session recovery day. In short…the news is good. And this team needs good news. A successful start by their ace and team leader could be the dunk in the ice bucket these players need to start rolling over opponents again.

But when will the M & M Boys – Mo’ and Matheny – pull the trigger and get Carpenter in there? Rumors circulated around this Saturday against the Dodgers in L.A. A report in the Post-Dispatch by Joe Strauss seemed to embolden his chances. But the last couple of days have seen a reversal of that sentiment. Matheny insists Carpenter will not make a start Saturday. Instead, the manager says Carp will get one more simulated outing before starting a game for the Redbirds. End of discussion, right? Except that it’s not. Observation #1: Jaime Garcia stunk up the joint – again – on the road in San Diego last night. His next few starts are on the road. He can’t pitch on the road. The rotation can’t be shuffled to get him a home start without adding a pitcher to the staff. Carp’s throwing schedule matches Garcia’s. Observation #2: Joe Strauss has a history of reporting items that the club publicly refutes…only to reverse course when the time comes (see: Colby Rasmus trade). Observation #3: The Ace himself says he’s ready. The only two items still left on the checklist for Carpenter appear to be repeating his consistent effectiveness from his last outing and building to a 90-pitch appearance. But yesterday saw Carpenter throw 10 more pitches (or so) than Garcia did in a live game. When it comes down to it…who would YOU rather have facing the Dodgers in L.A….Jaime? Or Carpenter? Yeah. I thought so. The sooner Carpenter gets in a game, the sooner this team can file in behind him as he carries them to the postseason.

Ryan Jackson vs. Pete Kozma…? After spending the season as the AAA Memphis starting shortstop, Ryan Jackson has seen himself re-positioned behind minor league veteran infielder and former #1 draft pick Pete Kozma on the SS depth chart. And I’ve yet to discern a reason for the move (except of course for the extra couple of years of experience under Kozma’s belt). Jackson has been repeatedly identified by the media and the organization as having the potential to be the first MLB-level SS developed and home-grown by the Cardinals’ system in quite some time. Kozma, on the other hand, has become the poster boy for poor draft choices. He’s been seen as a block to the rising stars of Jackson and AA Springfield second baseman Kolton Wong. And yet it’s Kozma that’s getting the bulk of the playing time after Descalso and ahead of Ryan Jackson. It’s puzzling. Unless, of course, the club is attempting to finally give The Koz’ a look at the MLB level before cutting ties with him in the offseason. I hate the idea that Mo’ and the others would risk a postseason push just to see what a AAA infielder likely on his way out the door could do. On the other hand…Kozma was significantly impressive at the plat last night.

Exposed lack of depth…? I don’t think so. Bernie attempted to explain the Cardinals’ downward spiral in the Post-Dispatch today (well, maybe “explain” is the wrong word). He seemed to settle on – other than simply poor performance – a “lack of depth” in the midst of all the Cardinal injuries. I couldn’t disagree more. The plethora of disabled Cardinals has actually revealed tremendous depth. Guys like Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig have spelled Beltran and Berkman as well as David Freese when necessary. And they’ve done it at All-Star or near All-Star levels. Tony Cruz has been perhaps the most impressive back-up catcher the Cardinals have seen – offensively or defensively – in several years. And pitchers like Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, and even Shelby Miller (despite the latter two not yet making a start) have given the Redbirds an over-abundance of starting pitching options – GOOD starting pitching options – when Carpenter, Garcia, and Westbrook went down. Even the bullpen, notorious for their periods of ineffectiveness, have been backed up nicely when hurlers like K-Mac, Scrabble, Marte, and/or Salas went down or struggled. In fact, it took only one under-the-radar acquisition in Mujica to right the ship. No, the Cardinals’ depth has been a strength this season. It’s the only thing that’s kept them afloat. To be honest, the only potentially disastrous injury to the regular lineup was Rafael Furcal at SS and lead-off. But even then, Furcal had lost his lead-off spot before the injury and was beginning to show wear and tear in the field. In steps Jon Jay at lead-off to pick up the slack, and even Daniel Descalso is hitting .270 in his last 10 games, most of those replacing Furcal at SS. Now it seems the Cardinals have too many options at SS for anyone to get every day playing time (Descalso, Jackson, and Kozma). It’s not depth that’s sunk the Cardinals this season – it’s a series of questionable rookie management moves, inconsistent pitching/hitting (especially starting pitching and hitting with RISP), ill-timed defense miscues, and suspicious roster moves that have driven the Cardinals to the brink of insanity. All of which is correctable by a simple little winning streak…

Wrap-Up!

That’ll do it for today. The Cards look to get back on track in San Diego tonight behind Adam Wainwright. Let’s hope his sinker is working for him early and often, or it’s going to be a long night.

GO CARDS!!!

(“The Plan” Check-In:  I had the Cardinals set to go 2-1 in this Padres series. With Waino going tonight and Lynn Thursday, it all comes down to whether or not both pitchers can bounce back and be their usual effective selves. The bigger challenge, however, is whether or not the Reds can lose two straight to the Pirates to finish 1-2 in that Pittsburgh series. The Pirates finished with a flourish against the Cardinals after losing the first game to us – maybe they can do the same against the Reds. As of right now…the Cardinals are on track to catch the Reds in the NLC…but they’re holding on by their fingernails.)

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