Monday, October 15, 2012

"Wild (St Louis) Cards" Getting Some Respect

When the St Louis Cardinals secured that second Wild Card spot in the National League, most baseball "experts" gave them little chance to last more than one game into the postseason.  After all, they had to battle the Atlanta Braves on their home turf with their sensational young ace on the mound - Kris Medlen - who seemed to be more invincible than Whitey Ford or Carl Hubbell.  Of course, those two Hall of Fame hurlers managed to start a major league record 22 games in a row in which their team secured victory.

Medlen broke that record after his final start of the regular season; it was a foregone conclusion the Braves would win for the twenty-fourth consecutive time with Medlen starting that critical Wild Card game for them.  Of course, that didn't happen.  The bad news for the Braves:  Their postseason journey ended abruptly.  The good news:  Postseason games don't affect Medlen's official MLB record, which still stands at 23 straight Atlanta wins when he started the game; small consolation, I know; but that's life.

Critics of the new Wild Card format opine that the teams should play at least a three-game set to determine which one truly deserves to advance into the postseason.  Some of the most vocal critics were players for the Atlanta Braves - most notably, the retiring Chipper Jones.  Ironically, it was his throwing error, on an easy double play ball, which helped pave the way to a fairly easy (albeit controversial) Cardinal win.

With Atlanta's shocking infield-fly-rule-defeat has come an outpouring of negative sentiment directed towards the Cardinals for having the audacity to advance in the playoffs; after all, they only won 88 games.  The mighty Braves won 94 games!  "That's not fair!"

Please, get over it.

With St Louis advancing to the NLDS, their opponents - the NL East champion Washington Nationals - were expected to restore order in the best of five showdown with the Wild Cards.  After all, the Nats had led all of major league baseball with 98 wins; ten games more than the upstart Redbirds.  The script seemed to be going as planned when Washington took Game One, with a come-from-behind 3-2 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

That frustrating defeat seemed to wake the Wild Cards out of their funk, as they scored 20 runs over the next two games to forge ahead in the series, two games to one.  But, whatever momentum the Cardinals had seemed to disappear in Game Four's agonizing defeat to the Nats by a 2-1 score; featuring Jayson Werth's dramatic walk-off home run on the 12th pitch he saw from Lance Lynn.

Game Five began ominously for St Louis when starting pitcher Adam Wainwright was roughed up for six runs in less than three innings.  About that time, a gleeful Chipper Jones, who recently got hooked on Twitter (@RealCJ10) tweeted "Ball Game!"

Not quite, Chipper.  You should know better than that.  The rest of Game Five is glorious Wild Cards' history, featuring a relentless comeback that had St Louis down to their last strike on two different occasions in the 9th-inning, still trailing by a couple of runs.  With Carlos Beltran perched on third base with two outs in the ninth, the Wild Cards had a 3.5% chance of winning the game.  Yet, they did.

Naturally, this was a revolting development for those smug-now-stunned Nationals fans who were expecting to party on Friday night; not attend a franchise wake.  Although most of the blame went to nearly everybody in the Nationals organization, many fans joined the growing legion of Cardinal-haters, simply because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Now, the Wild Cards are in the NLCS, facing a worthy opponent - the San Francisco Giants - who made postseason history, themselves, by sweeping the final three games of their NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark.  Of course, it was the first time all season the Reds managed to lose three games in a row at their own ballpark.  Postseason pressure can do that to a team.

Postseason momentum was still with the Wild Cards last night, as they beat the Giants in Game One of the NLCS at AT&T Park in San Francisco.  Home field advantage, anyone?  Later this evening, Chris Carpenter will try to make it two in a row over the Giants, before the two teams head to St Louis for the next three games (if necessary).  ***Update:  Giants tie Series 1-1 with 7-1 win over Cards.

Those of us who are into saber-metrics know there is a more accurate measurement of a team's relative strength than simply checking their won-loss record.  The Pythagorean Winning Percentage is based on a team's run differential.  The higher the differential, the stronger the team.  It's really that simple.  Of the ten teams that got into the postseason, here's how they all stack up, saber-metrically:


Washington               96-66                           +137                              98-64
NYY                         95-67                           +136                              95-67
St Louis                    93-69                           +117                              88-74
Atlanta                      92-70                           +100                              94-68
Oakland                    92-70                            +99                               94-68
Cincinnati                 91-71                             +81                               97-65
Texas                       91-71                            +80                                93-69
San Francisco           88-74                            +69                                94-68
Detroit                      87-75                            +56                                88-74
Baltimore                  82-80                             +7                                 93-69

From a relative strength standpoint, the Cardinals were the third best team in major league baseball.  Strangely enough, they're better than their division rivals - the NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds.  Hey, they're also better than the Atlanta Braves, Chipper!

For all those naysayers who are still indignant about the St Louis Wild Cards' early success in the postseason; I say, it shouldn't be a big surprise.  They may even go on to win the World Series, again.  Back-to-back World Championships for the St Louis Cardinals?  From Wild Card to World Series champion two years in a row?  I'd bet Atlanta would love that.

Maybe Chipper would post a nice tweet about it?

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