Monday, April 9, 2012

Cardinals Playing Like World Champions

The Cardinals have started the 2012 season looking like a team that just won the World Series; not at all like a team in disarray after losing its best player to free agency, its Hall of Fame-bound manager to retirement and its long-time pitching coach tending to family matters; and whose pitching ace is sidelined for an indefinite period of time with an ailing shoulder, just for good measure.

Indeed, even after the Redbirds captured their eleventh World Championship last fall in historic fashion, many skeptics attributed that to just being "hot" at the right time.  So, when Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan vacated the premises, it was widely assumed the defending champions would stumble out of the gate, ice-cold, dazed and confused; led by a rookie manager - Mike Matheny - who would surely be overwhelmed by his new role. 

Well, that scenario hasn't been on the agenda, and it doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.  The Cardinals are a very good team; maybe even a great team.  Certainly, the measure of just how good this team really is depends on how well they navigate through the long 162-game grind, and of course, whether or not they reach the postseason.  For this bunch of confident Redbirds who are off to a nice 3-1 start to the new season, reaching the postseason seems to be a foregone conclusion; they won't be satisfied with anything less than another World Championship.  Even the most impartial observer would have to say the Cardinals' chances are at least as good as anybody's, at this stage of the game.

Meanwhile, MLB's version of Sweeps Week featured some interesting results:

The Tampa Bay Rays swept a three-game series at home vs the New York Yankees.  In the Season Opener, the Rays rallied for two runs in the ninth-inning, as Mariano Rivera blew the save and the game for New York.  The aging Yankees have widespread issues, but starting pitching is their biggest concern.  Will the formerly-retired Andy Pettitte help bolster the rotation?  Don't count on it.

Baltimore's three game sweep of Minnesota was impressive; the O's seem to have some quality starting pitching in that rotation.  This could be the year Baltimore escapes the AL East cellar, although I'm not sure if the Yankees or Red Sox are ready to take that spot quite yet; but those appear to be the only candidates for that position in 2012.

Poor Boston.  They deserved a better fate than the three-game annihilation at the hands of the Detroit Tigers; however, blowing a three-run lead in the ninth inning is inexcusable; then, allowing the two-run walk-off bomb to Alex Avilla in the 11th-inning must have Bobby V wishing he was still managing in Japan.  If the Red Sox don't solve their back-end bullpen woes very soon, this could be another epic nightmare for Boston; a season-long disaster this time.

Poor Atlanta.  Apparently, they haven't recovered from their September swoon, either.  The New York Mets, with a healthy Johan Santana back in the starting rotation, and a healthy and confident David Wright swinging a hot bat, may be the surprise team coming out of the NL East this season.

Meanwhile, at Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks overcame a six-run deficit to the San Francisco Giants on Sunday to complete a stunning three-game sweep of the 2010 World Champions.  The Giants managed to avoid starting the season at 0-4, when Barry Zito, of all people, pitched a four-hit shutout against the Colorado Rockies' - in their Home Opener, no less.  This is the first time a Rockies team has ever been shutout in any Home Opener (this was their twentieth); and it was Barry Zito who did it; Barry Zito.  It only took six years for that seven-year Zito contract to pay dividends for the Giants.

In other news, both the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs would be 3-0 if their bullpens didn't blow late leads in their first two games of the season; however, they both came away with a Sunday win, and they both appear to have promising arms in the starting rotation.  Could this be the year both teams play each other in the World Series?  Not with those bullpens!

In the Battle of LA, the upper hand goes to the Dodgers, who just won three out of four games against the Padres in San Diego, while the much-ballyhooed debut of King Albert Pujols of the Angels was a non-event.  The KC Royals took two out of three from the Halos in Disneyland, as Albert's bat was a bit dormant.  So far, his only RBI of the 2012 season came on an infield ground-out in Sunday's loss to the Royals.

At this stage of the 2012 season, David Freese has driven in eight times (updated) more runs than the $240 Million Man.  With teammate Rafael Furcal off to a sizzling start, it's no wonder Freese and Company are getting a lot of RBI opportunities.  Despite being shutout in their one loss, the Cards have averaged six runs per game, and hope to improve on that average as they begin a crucial three-game series in Cincinnati.

UPDATE:  The Cardinals did improve that six runs per game average (to 6.2), by scoring seven times in their easy win over Cincinnati, 7-1.  The Redbirds jumped on Reds pitcher Homer Bailey for four first-inning runs, featuring three "homers" by Matt Holliday, David Freese (two-run job), and Yadier Molina.
One final observation:  Less than 17,000 fans were in attendance at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati for the big showdown between the hometown Reds and the World Champion Cardinals.  That seems unusually low, in light of the fact that the Reds have won a few games in the early going, including an exciting comeback win over the Marlins on Sunday, and particularly, in light of the front office locking in their big-time slugger, Joey Votto, essentially forever.  Apparently, the fans aren't buying the notion that the Reds are legitimate contenders; or, they had a bad feeling about that game with "Homer" pitching?

Game two of the three-game series with the listless Reds featured another outstanding pitching performance from Kyle Lohse (2-0) and more long-ball from the heart of the Cardinal lineup; Carlos Beltran's solo first-inning blast (3) gave St Louis a quick 1-0 lead; David Freese's opposite-field shot (3) in the sixth-inning with Lance Berkman on base, padded the lead to 3-1, and that's how it ended.  The Road Warrior Redbirds are now 5-1 on the young season, and now have hit eleven home runs as a team; they're looking forward to their Friday Home Opener, although playing on the road doesn't seem to bother them at all.  This is a confident team, and it shows; they know they're good, and seem intent on letting the baseball world know they're for real.

They're certainly convincing folks from Miami to Milwaukee, and over to Cincinnati of that fact; in convincing fashion.  Hopefully, the Redbirds will complete the three-game sweep of the Reds on Wednesday, and continue their red-hot play when they finally get to play in front of the home crowd. I know there are thousands of fans who can hardly wait to welcome their heroes home; they'll get their chance on Friday.

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