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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: NLCS Edition…

After the Cards went up one game to none on Sunday, Monday was fairly euphoric. We don’t like to admit it, but as baseball fans there’s always a part of us that’s terrified of getting swept out of a series. Winning the first game in San Francisco was like topical treatment for “don’t-get-swept” anxiety. But then the Giants came back and won in Game 2.

While it’s important to maintain perspective here and remember that the primary goal of any playoff team in a best of seven series is to split the two game series on the road, it’s difficult to avoid feeling disappointed. The Cardinals had Chris Carpenter on the mound in Game 2 of a best of seven series with a 1-0 lead. We had a chance to return to the comfortable red brick surroundings of Busch Stadium with a 2-0 lead. And we blew it.

I think what makes last night’s loss so hard to take is the fact that it was Carpenter that threw a dud. If we had lost a Lance Lynn start, or if Jaime Garcia had faced Cain on the road, I think I would say, “Eh…that’s the game we’re supposed to lose.” But this was Carpenter. Mr. Postseason. Captain Cardinal. The Ace. He’s not supposed to lose in the playoffs, remember?

Honestly, it’s just not fair to expect Carp to be Carp this year. His stuff is erratic, his command is unpredictable, and repeating his delivery pitch to pitch looks about as easy as scaling the Arch with suction cups. I said to my wife before the game started, “I keep waiting for a dud from Carp…kind of like the one Waino threw the other night.” I guess that was it.

All things considered, the Cardinals are in good shape as they head back to St. Louis. Sure, there are concerns – and we’ll talk about a few of those concerns below – but all in all, a 1-1 series heading into a 3 game set in Musial’s house…I’ll take that.

Let’s get into the rest of it…

The pitching outlook for this series just changed dramatically. I know everyone is saying we should’ve expected exhaustion to finally take its toll on Lance Lynn, but I really didn’t expect it to bite him that badly. His fastball still had some jump to it (95 mph), but he couldn’t locate it to save his proverbial life. It was up, over the plate, and more or less on a tee. He got behind in counts and then grooved a pitch or two at the wrong time. Now, his spot in the rotation is in question for Game 5. Do we throw Lynn? Do we throw Carp on short rest? Or do we throw someone like Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, or Trevor Rosenthal? Kelly and Rosenthal have become way too valuable in the pen and likely would be held back in case whoever starts the game doesn’t work out. After Carp’s performance last night – and his dud in the NLCS on short rest last season – I can’t believe he’s the best option. And Miller looked a bit rattled and shell-shocked after his relief appearance last night. Doesn’t that all mean Lance Lynn is the best choice? Give him his normal four days rest – and a routine uninterrupted by a high intensity relief appearance – and he should be fine…especially in his second crack at a starting assignment in the postseason (better emotional control, etc.). I really don’t see another option. But however Matheny chooses to go, it’s clear the Cardinals’ rotation is suddenly a concern. In the last three straight starts by Redbird pitchers, Waino, Lynn, and Carpenter have all failed to impress. That’s three out of the four horses in the STL rotation. If Kyle Lohse can restore order, can the rest of the Cardinals hurlers find their form for Games 4 through 7? How thankful are you now that Lohse is in line to pitch a potential Game 7? And…I wonder if Jake Westbrook could be ready to make a World Series start (if the Cards can get there…”knock on wood”)?

The Cardinals have been slow to make adjustments in this NLCS. On Sunday, Matheny nearly let one get away by leaving Lynn in too long. One could argue he did the same with Carpenter last night, given the way Carp was obviously struggling to make pitches. And yesterday’s offensive performance – or lack thereof – seemed handicapped by an ineffective plate approach that McGwire and the sluggers seemed incapable of tweaking. Time and time again, the Cardinals watched hittable strikes on the inner or outer half of the plate sail by, passively allowing Vogelsong to dig a hole and push them in. Too many hitters found themselves swinging at less-desirable pitches with two strikes. Of course, all of that would have been forgivable had the Cardinal hitters recognized the folly of their game plan and started getting aggressive with fastballs in the zone. But they didn’t. Instead, they stuck with the “work the count” mindset until Vogelsong had lulled them to sleep with change-ups and inside pitches. It was, in a word, frustrating. If the Cardinals are going to pull this one out, Matheny and his coaching staff need to oil up their trigger fingers and get used to a postseason atmosphere that demands more aggressive adjustments.

For the most part, Matheny’s doing fine. His one fatal flaw has so far been sticking with a starting pitcher an inning or batter too long. But once his horse is out of the game, his bullpen moves seem to be working out. The only question…can those bullpen arms hold up over a seven game series? And if so, can they do it again in the World Series (“knock on wood”…if we get there)? I guess we’ll find out…

Matt Holliday just can’t get out of his own way. The left-fielder and number three hitter is having a difficult NLCS. He has a couple hits – both singles – with zero walks and a key error in the field. To top it all off, he’s having to defend himself against accusations of being a dirty player after that slide in San Francisco. That’s just ridiculous. As Holliday said, he should have slid a step sooner – but that’s the playoffs. You’re going full steam ahead and trying to make sure you get the job done. You’re amped up, the adrenaline is flowing, and sometimes tough plays happen. I would hope Ryan Theriot over in the Giants’ clubhouse would step in and inform his teammates that Holliday is a genuinely nice guy who is just a tough ballplayer. But then again, if “the slide” served to motivate your team…would YOU be the one to clarify the misperception? I just hope Cardinal fans don’t make things worse on Holliday when he comes home to St. Louis. Cardinal Nation has made Hopping on Holliday an October tradition, and it only makes things worse. The guy clearly presses when he’s anxious or feeling the pressure, and fan perception obviously impacts him. Hopefully that means intelligent Cardinal fans will keep their boos and insults in Busch Stadium to themselves if they’re interested in winning this series. A little positive support from the home crowd can go a long way for a player so hard-wired to please and come through.

Wrap-Up!

Alright…that’ll do it. I apologize for the loss last night. If you read yesterday’s blog post, then you know about my lucky ball. Unfortunately, I forgot to get it in hand until it was too late during yesterday’s game. My bad. I’ll take it to work with me tomorrow for the afternoon game.

GO CARDS!!!

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