Saturday, September 7, 2013

September 7, 2011: Carpenter Blanks Brewers; T-Plush Goes Ballistic

September 7, 2011:  Ordinarily, winning the rubber game of a three-game late season series against a first-place division rival that is still eight and a half games ahead, wouldn't create much excitement.  However, thanks to the mysterious antics of one of the players on the losing team (Nyjer Morgan/Brewers), this victory for the St Louis Cardinals seemed to be the major catalyst Tony LaRussa's team needed to jump-start its incredible postseason run.  So yes, on behalf of Cardinal Nation, I'd like to say "thank you" to Nyjer and his alter egos - T-Plush and T-Gumbo - just for being "you".  It may take a while for Gumbo to receive this message since he now performs his comedy routine in Japan, after refusing a minor league assignment from his original employer - the Brew Crew.  I wonder if the Japanese are digging "Plushdamentals" as much as Brewer Nation did just two short years ago?

The game itself was a matchup between a couple former Cy Young Award winners - Zack Greinke and Chris Carpenter - and on this night, it was Carp outdueling Milwaukee's ace with a complete game four-hit shutout, 2-0.  Strangely enough, Carp had been only so-so up to this point in the season, and had been roughed up by the Reds in his last start.  That would be the last game he'd lose in 2011.

As this particular game moved into the top of the fourth-inning, in a scoreless tie, the strange behavior of Nyjer Morgan manifested itself, for no apparent reason.  With one out, Plush grounded a double down the right field line, which he celebrated while standing on second base with a barrage of expletives directed towards the Cardinals' hurler and anyone else wearing a St Louis uniform, for that matter.  This tirade was just a warm-up for what would follow after his final AB in the ninth.

Meanwhile, after the Brewers failed to bring the Gumbo home to conclude their half of the fourth, Lance Berkman promptly whacked a leadoff double in the home half of the frame, and eventually came around to score on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Yadier Molina.  Cards shortstop Rafael Furcal added an insurance run in the fifth-inning when he lined a leadoff homerun deep to right field, to put St Louis up, 2-0. 

However, the 38,891 fans in attendance were quickly in nail-biting mode in the top of the sixth-inning when, with two outs and two runners on, Prince Fielder's long fly ball to the wall in right center field was flagged down by Jon Jay.  Everybody exhale now.

With the score unchanged as the ninth-inning began, Nyjer Morgan faced Carpenter for the last time in the regular season, and came up empty this time, flailing at a third strike for out number one.  As T-Gumbo began stalking in the direction of the visitor's dugout, he decided to take the chaw of tobacco out of his mouth and hurl it in the direction of the Cardinal pitcher, who by this time had his back to the plate, as well as the slimy projectile that was heading in his general direction.  Of course, Albert Pujols caught Morgan's unsportsmanlike behavior and jogged towards the irascible Gumbo to exchange a few choice words.  Now, a bemused Carp has finally realized how upset he made the Brewers' nutcase by fanning him, as more expletives (but no punches) are exchanged.  The final two outs of the inning are quickly recorded, the shutout in the books; and more importantly, what would turn out to be a key win for the playoff-bound Cardinals.

The following day, Morgan (@TheRealTPlush) posts a grammatically-challenged 140 or less characters statement on Twitter, which went something like this:  "Where (sic) still in 1st & I hope those cryin' (sic) birds injoy (sic) watchin' (sic) tha (sic) Crew in tha (sic) playoffs. Aaaarrrrhhhh (sic)!"  This was beautiful.  Gumbo has now pronounced the Cardinals to be completely out of the playoff picture; something the Baseball Gods never like.  But I'm pretty sure the Cardinals got a big kick out of it, as they rolled through the remainder of the season, winning 14 of 19 - featuring an improbable three-game sweep of the now reeling Atlanta Braves at Busch Stadium (September 9 - 11).

Of course, for the Redbirds, the sweetest revenge was getting the opportunity to play T-Plush & Company in the six game NLCS; and winning the Game Six clincher right there in front of Gumbo's faithful Brew Crew minions at Miller Park.  For Nyjer Morgan, who had a pretty good season for the Brewers in 2011 (.300+ BA), his major league career was rapidly coming to an end.  His act had quickly gotten stale, on and off the field.  The one-time folk hero had become zero; no longer able to perform his act in major league baseball.  It's really a shame; he had talent, but fell in love with his colorful persona, which really had nothing to do with playing major league baseball.

The moral of the story:  The game is bigger than any player who thinks otherwise.  Eventually, they either get the message or get out.  Some are lucky enough to still find work in Japan.

Friday, August 23, 2013

August 23, 1982: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

August 23, 1982:  In the first game of a three-game series between the host St Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Redbirds used timely hitting and capitalized on four Dodgers errors to cruise to an easy 11-3 victory.  Every St Louis position player had at least one hit in the game, and with the exception of Tommy Herr and Ken Oberkfell, drove in at least one run.  Reserve catcher Gene Tenace led the attack with four RBIs, while his battery mate, Bob Forsch (13-7) pitched 7.1 innings - was charged with three runs on seven hits; didn't walk any batters, and struck out two.  In other words, a typical Bob Forsch game.

After the Cardinals jumped on Dodgers starter Jerry Reuss (12-10) for four runs in the third-inning, Forsch kept LA at bay through seven innings, holding a 5-1 lead entering the eighth.  After yielding a run on two hits while retiring one batter, manager Whitey Herzog brought in relief specialist Bruce Sutter to nail the win down.  Although an inherited runner scored on a two-base hit, making the score 5-3, Sutter was able to retire the next two batters to end the threat.  The Cardinals made things easy for Bruce by plating six runs of their own in the bottom half of the eighth-inning, aided by more sloppy Dodgers defense. 

Preserving an 11-3 win for the Cards may have been the easiest save (27) of Sutter's career.  Still, by today's standards, a five-out save is considered almost heroic; perhaps even a bit desperate.  Nowadays, most teams have specialists to nail down the final three innings.  Herzog used Sutter in the highest leverage situations, and more often than not, the National League's premier closer and his remarkable split-fingered fastball delivered the save.  In this particular outing, the future Hall of Fame relief ace struck out four batters in 1.2 innings of work.  He allowed two hits (both doubles), walked none, and was charged with no runs.  The Dodgers managed nine hits in the game, but with no free passes and no fielding miscues to capitalize on, they were unable to muster enough offense to threaten the future World Series champions.

The Redbirds dropped the final two games of the series at Busch Stadium to the Dodgers; the season series went LA's way as well in 1982, with the Cards winning five games, while losing seven.  As it played out, the Atlanta Braves barely slipped past the Dodgers by a single game in the NL West that year, so it would be Atlanta - not LA - advancing to the NLCS to face the Cardinals.  The Braves had to feel confident squaring off against the Redbirds, as they also held the edge in the season series - winning seven of the eleven games; however, the postseason is a different animal, and the Cards became beasts in sweeping Atlanta out of the postseason in three exciting NLCS games.

Whether or not the Cardinals would have whipped the Dodgers in a postseason showdown, as well, is anybody's guess.  The showdown between the two iconic franchises would have to wait three years to become a reality.  That one went decisively in favor of the Cards, four games to two.  Many considered the 1985 edition of the Cardinals to be even better than the World Champions of 1982.  Maybe Herzog's '82 squad got a bit lucky in the postseason; maybe not so lucky in '85. 

Thanks to this shellacking administered by St Louis to Los Angeles on this date in 1982, the possibility of a Cardinals - Dodgers NLCS ultimately never materialized.  That one may or may not have turned out so well for the Redbirds. 

We'll never know, but it's always fun to consider the possibilities.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

August 21, 1964: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

August 21, 1964:  In an improbable season that seemed destined for disappointment by late August, the St Louis Cardinals pulled one out of the fire against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park - scoring three runs in the top of the ninth-inning en route to an improbable 6-5 comeback win.  Thanks to a couple of errors by the host Giants, the Redbirds were the beneficiaries of two unearned runs in the game; including the go-ahead run in the fateful ninth, which proved to be the margin of victory.

The Cardinals survived a disastrous starting pitching performance by the normally reliable veteran Curt Simmons, who coughed up four runs on five hits in just 1.2 innings pitched.  They also survived a game that unreliable back-up catcher/comedian Bob Uecker started in place of the reliable Tim McCarver - and true to form, Uecks was hitless in two official at bats (he did manage a base on balls, however), and just for good measure, had a passed ball to add to his leger.  Just another day in the office for Bob.

In a game that was dominated early by the Giants, as they forged a 5-2 lead after three-innings, featuring home runs by Jim Hart and Orlando Cepeda; notably absent from the offensive effort was a rare 0 for 4 day at the plate from the great Willie Mays.  Unfortunately for San Francisco, the Cardinals' bullpen held them in check during the final six-innings, as the Redbirds' defense played errorless ball (passed balls aren't errors, for some reason).  The fourth Cardinals' pitcher - Ron Taylor - entered the game in the eighth-inning, inheriting runners on first and second with no outs.  After quickly inducing a double play grounder and retiring the next batter to prevent any San Francisco scoring, the stage was set for the dramatic comeback that would give Taylor (6-3) his well-deserved and highly improbable win.

The big run-producer for the game was future '64 NL MVP Ken Boyer, who drove in three runs; but the unlikeliest of heroes for St Louis was the light-hitting Dal Maxvill, who delivered a key two-out ninth-inning single, which plated a run; but most importantly, kept the game alive for the next batter - Mike Shannon - to deliver another clutch hit that drove in the game-tying run; and when the relay from the outfield was mishandled by second baseman Hal Lanier, Maxvill also crossed the plate with the deciding unearned run.

Strangely enough, the Redbirds appeared to be Dead Birds after Boyer grounded out in that big ninth-inning, with Lou Brock on second base; but there were now two outs and the Cardinals trailed 5-3.  The "win expectancy" at that moment was a scant three percent for the good guys.  San Francisco elected to intentionally walk Bill White, which put the potential tying run on base, but that's when Maxie shocked the faithful gathering at Candlestick Park by stroking a run-scoring single to left field.

With the ancient knuckleball specialist Barney Schultz on the mound to face the heart of the Giants' order in the bottom of the ninth - Harvey Kuenn, Duke Snider and Willie Mays - the game appeared to be in jeopardy; however, two quick ground outs and a pop up by Mays to our hero Maxvill at shortstop ended the contest.

At the end of the day, St Louis (65-56) sat in 4th-place in the National League - a distant ten games behind the first-place Phillies, two and a half games behind the second-place Reds, and now just one and a half games behind the shell-shocked Giants.  At the time, the significance of this game seemed on par with a typical Spring Training contest.  The race for the National League pennant was "over" - or so they all thought.  Wrong.

St Louis finished off the remaining 41 games of the regular season with a NL-best 28-13 (.683) record.  In contrast, Philadelphia stumbled in with a dismal 17-24 (.415) finish - highlighted by a bizarre ten-game losing streak - which conveniently left them exactly one game behind the Redbirds after Game 162.  Cardinal baseball historians may conclude that the unlikely outcome of Game 121 - this wildly bizarre one-run victory over the Giants - may have been the biggest win of the year.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

May 5, 2006: Cards Snap 13-Year Cinco De Mayo Losing Streak

May 5, 2006:  Cinco De Mayo - the Mexican National holiday the St Louis Cardinals had celebrated each year by losing for thirteen consecutive years (1993-2005) - turned out to be a winner for the Redbirds seven years ago today, beating the Florida Marlins - in Florida, at their hideous old ballpark, before they moved to their hideous new ballpark, before they changed their name and uniforms, and before they spent millions of dollars on overpriced free agents that enabled them to finish last again in 2012 - by a score of 7-2.  Strangely enough, the Cardinals (18-12) scored all 7 runs in one inning - the fifth. Inning cinco.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.

Strangely enough, the Cardinals scored those 7 runs on 11 hits on May 5, 2006, and they also scored 7 runs on 11 hits the last time they won a game on Cinco De Mayo - May 5, 1992 - 7-5 over the San Francisco Giants, at Busch Stadium II during the post-Whitey Herzog-pre Tony LaRussa - Joe Torre regime.

The significance of 7/11 is obvious.  My birthday happens to be July 11.  The significance of thirteen straight Cinco De Mayo losses became apparent the following year, when the Cardinals were defeated by the Houston Astros at Busch Stadium III, by a score of 13-0.  Since that May 5, 2007 13-0 defeat, the Cardinals have won twice and lost three times on Cinco De Mayo.  Their most recent May 5 victory was two years ago - in 2011- another World Championship year.  In case you were wondering, the last time the Cardinals were World Champions prior to 2006 - in 1982 - the Redbirds were victorious on Cinco De Mayo, beating the Chicago Cubs in St Louis, by a score of 7-6.  Somehow, they had 14 - not 11 - hits that day, so they obviously didn't get the memo.

Getting back to May 5, 2006 - Albert Pujols - who wore #5 - hit a three-run home run to start the fifth-inning hit parade.  Backup catcher Gary Bennett had a two-run single, pitcher Jeff Suppan had a run-scoring single, and David Eckstein ended the scoring with a sacrifice fly which turned into a double play when Suppan (naturally) was thrown out trying to advance from first base to second base on the play.  Base-running was never his forte.

Gary Bennett had a well-travelled 13-year career as a backup catcher, making stops in Philadelphia, New York, Colorado, San Diego, Milwaukee, Washington, St Louis, and Los Angeles, before retiring after the 2008 season.  All told, he appeared in 587 games, including his one game career as a New York Met in 2001.  He had one AB, got a single, then was traded to the Rockies.  Gary Bennett can now tell his grandkids he had the highest career batting average in New York Mets history:  1.000.

That's all there is to know about Cinco De Mayo - the weirdest holiday in St Louis Cardinals history.

Update:  Cinco De Mayo proved to be lucky for Mexican-born Jaime Garcia in 2013.  After losing to the Houston Astros, May 5, 2012, Jaime tamed the Milwaukee Brewers one year later, as the Redbirds flew out of Milwaukee with a four-game series sweep after pounding the Brew Crew 10-1. 

Yes, the Cardinals have quietly compiled the best record in the National League (20-11); but flying under the radar is what Cardinals do. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

May 4, 1926: Cards Win "Must Win" Game vs Reds

May 4, 1926:  With Branch Rickey as field manager, the St Louis Cardinals began the 1925 season with a miserable 13-25 record.  When Rickey left the dugout for the front office, the Cardinals finished the season with a 64-51 record with player-manager Rogers Hornsby at the helm.  Apparently, taking on the added responsibility as field manager didn't seem to distract the National League's greatest hitter, who responded by winning the Triple Crown (.403 BA/39 HR/143 RBI).  Although the Redbirds ended the season in 4th-place with a 77-76 record - 18 games behind the 1st-place Pittsburgh Pirates - there was reason to be optimistic for the future, based on how the team had improved after the managerial change.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals stumbled out of the gate early in the '26 season.  After dropping the first game of a three-game series at home versus the Cincinnati Reds (10-7), the Redbirds had lost five games in a row to fall three games under .500 (8-11) - and appeared well on their way to a sixth straight loss when Cards starter Walt Huntzinger was quickly tagged for five hits, putting the Cardinals in a 2-0 hole by the third-inning; threatening to break the game open.

Hornsby had seen enough, summoning reliever Hi Bell in to get out of the jam with no further damage.  Bell did just that, keeping the score at 2-0, while stranding the bases full of Reds.  However, the  Redbirds still had their work cut out for them, as Cincinnati had their ace on the mound - Adolfo Domingo de Guzman Luque aka Dolf Luque - "The Pride of Havana".  Luque was a terrific pitcher (career 3.24 ERA) who would probably be in the Hall of Fame if he had pitched for those great Yankees teams of the Roaring Twenties, when he was in his prime.  Instead, he labored in relative obscurity in Cincinnati for most of his career.

Luque managed to keep the Redbirds scoreless until the fifth-inning, when catcher Bob O'Farrell led off with a triple and one out later, scored on a single by pitcher Hi Bell - who was becoming a hero by this time.  Bell continued blanking the Reds while the Cardinals were able to get something started in the bottom of the eighth, on a tiring 35-year old Luque.  A two-out single by Jim Bottomley was followed by Chick Hafey's double down the right field line.  Third baseman Les Bell (no relation to Hi) followed that with a two-RBI single that proved to be the game winner, as the other Bell retired the side in the top of the ninth to preserve the win.

During the course of any season, games that are won or lost in May are often forgotten.  However, this St Louis victory over Cincinnati came at a time when the team was struggling.  In fact, they would lose the rubber game of the series the next day, and then lose three out of four at home to the Brooklyn Dodgers, while Cincinnati was at home winning three out of four against the Philadelphia Phillies.  After 25 games, St Louis (10-15) trailed Cincinnati (16-9) by six games.  That would prove to be the low point of the season for the Redbirds, who went 79-50 the rest of the way, to edge the Reds by a slim 2-game margin.

Without this May 4 game in the win column, St Louis would have finished the season at 88-66 - tied with the Cincinnati Reds for first place in the National League; forcing a three-game NL championship series, with the winner taking on the mighty - and well-rested - New York Yankees. 

So yes, for all practical purposes, the May 4, 1926 game was a "must win" for the Cardinals; although they really didn't know it at the time since they probably didn't have a crystal ball at their disposal.

Friday, May 3, 2013

May 3, 1942: 9 Unearned Runs Helps Redbirds Sweep Doubleheader Over Brooklyn Dodgers

May 3, 1942:  When the Brooklyn Dodgers (14-5) arrived in St Louis prior to a three-game series with the Cardinals, they were scuffling a bit; having just lost two straight in Pittsburgh against a mediocre Pirates team.  Still, they held a comfortable 4.5 game lead over the Redbirds (8-8), who were scuffling more than just a bit, themselves. 

The first two games of this series were played on a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Sportsman's Park - a doubleheader that would ultimately control the destiny for both teams.  As it played out, the Redbirds were able to win both games over the Dodgers (14-10 and 4-2) en route to a franchise-best 106-48 (.688) record.  The Dodgers would finish in second-place with their franchise-best 104-50 (.675) record - usually good enough to win a pennant; just not this year.  From a historical perspective, from 1901 to 1941, there were only twelve MLB league champions (out of 82) that had won 104 or more games, and no National League team had done it since the 1910 Chicago Cubs; so, it's easy to understand the frustration the Dodgers must have felt when they came up just a couple games short that year; especially if they think about the first game of this doubleheader - the one that got away.

The doubleheader sweep by the Cardinals didn't seem like such a big deal at the time (the second game was rained-out after six-innings, as Max Lanier picked up the win).  Sure, the Cards picked up a couple of games in the standings, but the season had a long way to go, and Brooklyn managed to salvage the series finale the next day by a 3-1 score.  Still, when a pennant is decided by such a slim margin, it's very easy to pinpoint one or two plays in a single game that changed the destinies for the two teams fighting it out.

Such was the case in the first game of the doubleheader.  The box score reveals the twists and turns this game took.  St Louis scored 14 runs on 11 hits and no errors; Brooklyn scored 10 runs on 15 hits and committed two errors.  Normally, a couple of errors doesn't change the entire outcome of a game.  In this case, it most certainly did.  As a result, it changed the entire outcome of the NL pennant race.  Instead of winning 106 games, the Cardinals would have only won 105 games had the Dodgers played error-free ball on May 3.  Coincidentally, the Dodgers would have won 105 games, as well, resulting in a first-place tie; resulting in a three-game playoff for the NL pennant.

Here's what happened:  Brooklyn's starting pitcher, Whit Wyatt (a 19 game winner in '42) was only able to get two guys out in the bottom of the first-inning, after yielding five runs on two walks and three hits - one of those hits was a home run.  He did manage to strike out one batter, so he probably had decent stuff that day.  He was victimized by an infield fielding miscue by none other than future Hall of Fame shortstop Peewee Reese.  Instead of getting the third out of the inning with no runs scoring, backup catcher Ken O'Dea was allowed to hit with the bases loaded - the result:  Grand Salami (which capped off the scoring)!.  Because of the error, all five runs were unearned.  Still, Wyatt's day was over before he really had a chance to get going, as reliever Ed Head was brought in to restore order. 

Instead, Head only put gasoline on the fire:  2 IP - 6 Hits - 5 Runs (All Earned) - 2 BB - 2 SO

The score after three innings:  Cardinals 10 - Dodgers 2

After a five-run fourth and a three-run fifth, the Dodgers had come back to tie the score, 10-10!  The culprits who blew the eight-run lead the Cardinals once held:

Harry Gumbert (3.2 IP - 6 Hits - 7 Runs [All Earned] - 2 BB - 2 SO) 

Johnny Beazley (1 IP - 4 Hits - 3 Runs [All Earned] - 0 BB - 1 SO)

The game remained deadlocked until the Cardinals scored four unearned runs in the bottom of the seventh-inning on two hits five walks and an error by Dodgers' second baseman Billy Herman - another normally sure-handed infielder.

Cards' reliever Ernie White prevented any further Brooklyn scoring, with 4.1 innings of shutout pitching.

All told, of the 14 runs the Cardinals pushed across in this game - 9 were unearned.  All 10 of the runs the Dodgers scored were earned.  Of course, errors are a part of the game; in this particular instance a very big part of the game. 

It not only impacted the result of the first game of this doubleheader; it may have completely altered the course of MLB history.  Had there been a three-game playoff to decide the NL pennant winner, which team would have prevailed?  Would there have been a dramatic come-from-behind ninth-inning pennant-winning home run which would pre-date the Shot Heard 'Round the World by nine years?  With a possibly depleted pitching staff in the aftermath of a possible three-game playoff for the pennant, would either team have been able to handle the Yankees in the World Series?

Now that I think about it, Peewee Reese, Billy Herman, and Ken O'Dea were meant to do what they did 71 years ago today.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

May 2, 1967: Gibson Shuts Out Reds to End 4 Game Slide

May 2, 1967:  Bob Gibson hates losing.  In his previous start against Houston at the Astrodome, he was trying to protect a slim 2-0 seventh-inning lead.  After two hits and a walk loaded the bases with nobody out in that fateful inning, Gibson's night was over.  Unfortunately for Gibby and the Cardinals, the bullpen was unable to get out of this predicament, as the Redbirds went down to defeat.  As if that weren't bad enough, that was the start of a four-game losing streak which knocked St Louis (9-7) out of first place.   

The team that had taken over the top spot in the National League - the Cincinnati Reds (15-5) - just happened to be in town for a brief two-game series, with their ace, Jim Maloney matched-up against an extra-surly Bob Gibson.  The Reds never had a chance.

The only run Gibson would need all night came across in the bottom of the second-inning when Tim McCarver led-off with a single to right field, moved up to second base on a Mike Shannon ground-out, stole third, then came home on one of three wild pitches Maloney would deliver in his 5.2 innings of futile work.

In the meantime, Gibson was mowing down the Reds as if they were little leaguers - striking out six in a row at one point, and not yielding a hit until Vada Pinson led off the top of the fifth with a double down the right field line.  Pete Rose did his job by moving Pinson to third with a ground-out to second base.  With the tying run 90 feet away, Gibson struck out Tony Perez for the second straight time, then retired Deron Johnson on an easy infield pop-up to end the threat.

The Redbirds blew the game open with two outs in the bottom of the fifth, when Maloney couldn't find the strike zone.  Both Roger Maris and Orlando Cepeda walked.  Maloney then uncorked the second of three wild pitches, before walking McCarver to load the bases.  Mike Shannon then cleared them with a double down the left field line.  Just for good measure, the Cardinals tacked on another run the next inning, when Roger Maris singled in Bob Gibson, who had walked.

The top of the sixth-inning was uneventful, with one oddity worth noting:  Gordy Coleman pinch hit for Tony Perez - a future Hall of Famer who would be an RBI machine during the heyday of the Big Red Machine.  Gordy Coleman was at the tail end of a nice career but he only had eight plate appearances all year, with one base on balls and no hits to his credit.  Although he failed to get a hit off Gibson this night, at least he didn't strike out.  Perez later admitted that whenever he came up to bat against Gibby over the years, his wife would always make a trip to the ladies room; she simply couldn't bear to watch it.

On this early-May evening in St Louis, Perez had lots of company - the entire Reds lineup could only muster four base runners all night off Gibson - two hits and two walks - and no runs.  They struck out twelve times that night, while being shutout for the second time in the young season.  It was Gibson's most dominant performance all year, and it came at a time when the team needed it the most. 

The next evening, Cards pitcher Ray Washburn shut them out again, moving St Louis just two games behind Cincinnati - who were at least able to salvage three of the next five road games in Atlanta and New York, to limp home still hanging on to first place; at least for a while.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May 1, 1934: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

May 1, 1934:  April had not been a particularly good month for the St Louis Cardinals (4-7); however, they were playing host to their favorite patsies - the Cincinnati Reds - in the second game of a three-game series at Sportsman's Park.  The Redbirds had already beaten Cincy in the first game, breaking out the heavy lumber in a 10-6 thrashing; so they were confident they could do it again on this sunny Tuesday afternoon.

April had been even worse for the Reds (3-8), with a lineup featuring two over-the-hill future Hall of Famers who used to star for the Cardinals - Chick Hafey (traded after the '31 season) and Jim Bottomley (traded after the '32 season).  Branch Rickey was running things for the Cardinals in those days, and he had a knack for knowing when a player was declining, well before anyone else had a clue; even before saber-metrics!  He also knew when a player's value would be inflated, knowing he would probably get more in return than he was actually parting with.  Such was the case with Chick Hafey, who was entering his age 29 season after posting a NL-leading .349 BA in 1931 - helping the Cardinals win their second World Championship.  He also hit 16 home runs with 95 RBIs; good numbers, but slightly in decline from his previous production.  It was apparent Hafey's eyesight was deteriorating (he already had to wear glasses to play); plus, he wanted more money, and there was no way Rickey was going to pay it.  Off to Cincinnati he went.  Sure enough, Hafey's first season with Cincinnati ('32) was marred by increasingly deteriorating eyesight and sinus problems, limiting him just 83 games played.  Unfortunately for Hafey and the Reds, he never quite regained his old form, maxing out with just 67 RBIs in 1934 (He got one in this game against his old team).  Fortunately for Hafey, however, the Reds at least gave him the pay raise he wanted from the Cardinals.  I'm sure Branch Rickey got a kick out of that.

"Sunny Jim" Bottomley was the National League MVP in 1928 - with a NL-leading 31 home runs and 136 RBIs - helping the Cardinals make it back to the World Series for the second time in three seasons.  The first time ('26), St Louis beat Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees in a Seven Game Fall Classic.  The second time, the Bambino & Company destroyed the Redbirds in four straight games.  By 1932, injuries and age (he was 32) had taken their toll, as Bottomley only played in 91 games, hitting a career-low .296 with only 11 home runs and 48 RBIs.  Rickey then shipped  Bottomley off to his favorite patsies - the Reds - where he could continue his decline with a rival NL team.  In Cincinnati, Bottomley was able to play in 144 games, but his batting average dramatically dipped to .250 with mediocre run production (by his previous standards) - 13 home runs and 83 RBIs.

Certainly, both "Sunny Jim" and Chick were anxious to prove to the Cardinals (especially Branch Rickey) that they were still good players, and they were going to do their best to spoil any post game festivities their old teammates might be anticipating.  They almost pulled it off.

The starting pitchers - "Wild Bill" Hallahan for the Cardinals and Si Johnson for the Reds pitched well enough to keep the game scoreless through five innings.  "Wild Bill" actually threw strikes on this particular Tuesday afternoon; walking just one in his eight-innings of work.

The Reds broke through first, with successive sixth-inning two-out singles by Adam Comorosky, and the dynamic duo:  "Sunny Jim" and Chick.  It seemed as though Hafey's run scoring single might be all the Reds would need this day, but the Cardinals' slugging first baseman - Ripper Collins - hit a dramatic two-out home run off Johnson in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score.  It was Collins' emergence as a younger version of Bottomley which made "Sunny Jim" expendable to begin with.  Here was an example of what he could do when the game was on the line.  This is also an example of allowing a starting pitcher to remain in the game for a little bit longer than he should have.  Apparently, the Reds' bullpen wasn't so hot back in those days.  No Aroldis Chapman, eh?

After a scoreless tenth-inning, Cincinnati again broke through for another run, when Mark Koenig's two-out double off Cards reliever Burleigh Grimes scored Adam Comorosky with yet another go-ahead run.  Given the chance to go the distance for the win, Reds pitcher Johnson served up another home run to the first batter he faced in the bottom of the eleventh - none other than Ripper Collins, who ripped it onto Grand Avenue to tie the game again.  Reds manager Bucky Walters kept Johnson in the game to face Cards catcher Bill Delancey who laced a double on the first pitch he saw.

Finally, Johnson was removed from the game after working 10 IP on 10 hits, 2 walks and 4 strikeouts.  There was no "pitch count" in those days, but Si might've thrown 150 in this game; who knows?  Don Brennan was the new hurler for Cincinnati.  He managed to record an out before Burgess Whitehead delivered the RBI single to score Delancey with the winning run.

Grimes got credit for the win, despite giving up a run in his two innings of work, as the Cardinals improved to 5-7.  Johnson was the hard-luck loser for Cincinnati, as the Reds fell to 3-9

The 3-2 victory for this colorful and talented St Louis team came at a time when they had been struggling a bit.  The following day, the team that would soon come to be known as the "Gashouse Gang" completed the sweep of the Reds.  The two teams had identical 3-7 records when Cincy came to town for this three-game set.  Two teams; heading in different directions.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April 30, 2011: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History - Comeback Win in Atlanta

April 30, 2011:  In addition to a strong finish by the Cardinals in the 2011 season, an epic collapse on the part of the Atlanta Braves was required if the Redbirds were to have any chance of catching them in the NL Wild Card race.  Of course, the Braves did their part - capped off by a three-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies at home to close out the season.  Earlier in the evening of MLB Game 162, Chris Carpenter had no trouble dispatching the Houston Astros, giving his team a chance to relax in the visitor's clubhouse to watch Freddy Freeman's double-play grounder abruptly end Atlanta's frustrating season. 

However, what enabled that Happy Flight can be directly linked to a late April three-game series at Turner Field when the Cardinals won two out of three from Atlanta, including the unlikely comeback they were able to pull off on this particular Saturday afternoon against one of the best bullpens in baseball.  In the end, the Braves' closer, Greg Kimbrell, would be knocked out of the game after recording only one out in the ninth-inning. 

This unlikely comeback happened in a game when Albert Pujols went hitless, and Lance Berkman failed to deliver a crucial hit coming off the bench late in the game.  It also happened on a day Yadier Molina was rested, but his replacement delivered the game winning hit.  Go figure.

In the end, both teams would only muster six hits apiece, but it was St Louis getting the maximum reward for those hits by scoring one more run than Atlanta, in comeback fashion; with only a 10% "win probability" as late as the eighth-inning of this game (according to  Defying the odds would become a trend for the Redbirds.  They were just getting warmed up.

The starting pitchers - Jake Westbrook for St Louis and Brandon Beachy for Atlanta - both pitched well, but neither one figured in the decision.  Westbrook went six innings, allowing two runs on five hits and three walks.  A two-run fifth-inning double by Atlanta's Martin Prado broke a scoreless tie. 

Meanwhile, Beachy pitched seven complete innings, allowing the Cardinals just one hit and no runs until he took the mound in the eighth-inning, when the only two batters he faced - Daniel Descalso, who doubled, and Tyler Greene, who drew a base on balls - both scored.

Beachy was replaced by Johnny Venters, who appeared to be on his way to getting out of the jam after Nick Punto bunted both runners over (one out), he struck out Lance Berkman, who was pinch-hitting for Jon Jay (two out).  However, David Freese came through with the big two-out hit to tie the game - a single to right field.  It was the type of hitting that would earn Freese both the NLCS and World Series MVP honors a few months down the road.

LaRussa's bullpen took care of business after Westbrook was lifted; Mitchell Boggs pitched a scoreless seventh-inning, followed by the veteran Miguel Batista's scoreless eighth.  The stage was set for Fernando Salas to record his second save of the season which would give Miguel Batista his second win of the season.  All the Redbirds needed to do was score a ninth-inning run off the nearly invincible Craig Kimbrell.

Matt Holliday promptly greeted Kimbrell with a single to right field.  Colby Rasmus then struck out.  The next hitter was Gerald Laird, who seemed like a good candidate to either srike out or hit into a double play.  Perhaps Kimbrell was trying to get the double play ball; instead, his catcher couldn't handle a hard slider- ruled a passed ball - which allowed Holliday to take second base.

First base was now open, but Kimbrell challenged Laird with a fastball which was ripped into the left-center field gap, easily scoring Holliday.  By the time the ball could be retrieved, Laird was standing on third base.  It would be the only triple he'd hit all season.  The Cardinals would eventually load the bases with two out, but Lance Berkman struck out for the second time in two innings to end the threat - stranding a total of five baserunners in two plate appearances for the game.

But the damage had been done.  The comeback the Cardinals were able to pull off against the Braves pales in comparison to what they would do in Game Six vs the Rangers.  However, without this game in the "win column", Chris Carpenter's 8-0 shutout of the Astros on the last day of the season would have been meaningless. 


Monday, April 29, 2013

April 29, 1964: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

April 29, 1964:  When a team wins a pennant by just a single game - as the Cardinals did in 1964 - it's fascinating to check the box scores of some early-season, long-forgotten games that the Redbirds pulled out of the fire in remarkable fashion.

Such was the case in this late April contest with the New York Mets at Busch Stadium (formerly known as Sportsman's Park).  The Mets were still quite amazin' in those days - the worst team in baseball, by far.  Only 3,844 fans decided to attend this contest, even with Cards ace Bob Gibson on the mound.

Unfortunately for Gibby, he had difficulty finding the strike zone in the early going; walking the first two batters, then grooving one to Mets first baseman Tim Harkness, who promptly deposited the pitch onto the pavilion roof in right field for a three-run dinger.  Harkness only appeared in 39 games for the Mets in '64, and only hit two home runs in 117 AB; but this was one of them.  A seething Gibson settled down to retire the side, but the damage had been done.

The Redbirds responded in their half of the first-inning with a clutch two-out single by Ken Boyer which scored Dick Groat from second base.  While Gibson continued holding the Mets in check, Bill White hammered a sixth-inning solo home run to cut the deficit to a single run.

The Cardinals tied the score in the seventh-inning, as Curt Flood's one-out single to left field scored Julian Javier from second base; with Flood taking second base on the throw to the plate.  With Dick Groat batting, Flood tried to steal third base but was nailed.  Naturally, Groat doubled down the left field line on the next pitch, but was stranded on second to end the threat.  However, the score was now tied at three runs apiece.

Gibson, who had been nearly perfect (a couple of hits and a walk allowed) after yielding the three-run first-inning bomb to Harkness, walked the pesky Ron Hunt, leading off the eighth-inning for New York.  Cards manager Johnny Keane brought young lefty Ray Sadecki in to relieve Gibson and quickly recorded two outs compliments of a well-turned double play.  Veteran right-hander Ron Taylor was then brought in to get the last out of the inning, and returned to the mound to pitch an uneventful ninth-inning.

After the Redbirds failed to score in their half of the ninth-inning, Keane called on the ancient southpaw, Bobby Shantz to keep the Mets at bay for as long as he could.  Twelve years earlier, Shantz led the American League with 24 wins as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics, but his career had been relegated to spot starts and long relief after that big season - when he not only won all those games, he completed 27 out of the 33 games he started.  Shantz was approaching his 39th birthday and would later be dealt to the Chicago Cubs in the package that included Ernie Broglio-for Lou Brock, but on this late April day, he was able to hold the Mets hitless for two innings, waiting for the St Louis offense to finally restore order.

The eleventh-inning game winning rally began with Ken Boyer's lead-off single to left field.  Tim McCarver then drew a base on balls, and Mike Shannon executed a successful sacrifice bunt, moving the runners up a base.  After an intentional walk to Julian Javier loaded the bases, Keane then called on a rarely-used power-hitting 22-year old kid from Covington, Kentucky - Jeoff Long - to pinch hit.  Mets reliever Larry Bearnarth was kind enough to miss the strike zone on four pitches which enabled Jeoff to tell his grandkids that he drove in the winning run in a game that ultimately helped his team win a World Championship.

Well, his former team, that is; after just twenty-eight games with the Cardinals, as a part-time first baseman, right fielder, and pinch hitter, Long's contract was sold to the Chicago White Sox in early July.  He was going to get a shot at becoming a regular outfielder with the Sox but suffered a severe knee injury when he slipped on a wet field at Fenway Park just eight days after joining his new team.  Limited to pinch hitting duty, Jeoff was only able to muster a .143 BA over the balance of the '64 season.  Attempts to rehabiliate the knee were unsuccessful, and after 46 games in the minors in 1965, he was forced to retire before his career even had a chance to take off.

For Cardinals fans who never heard of Jeoff Long, he actually played a vital role in helping the Redbirds win a game few people will remember; but without that April win against the hapless Mets, chances are the Cardinals would've come up a little short in their quest for another pennant and World Championship.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 28, 1982: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

April 28, 1982:  In a game that epitomized "Whitey Ball", the Cardinals (14-6) were somehow able to scratch out a win over the Houston Astros (8-13) at Busch Stadium, by a score of 5-4.  Bob Forsch (4-0) pitched seven innings, allowed eight hits and six walks - but only four of those baserunners came around to score.

While the Astros were frustrated by their missed opportunities to break the game open, the Cardinals were able to turn a two run deficit into a two run lead in the sixth-inning, by scoring four runs on four walks, three hits and a wild pitch - a typical Redbird rally of the early '80s.  David Green delivered a key two-run single in the inning and for good measure, threw Tony Scott out at second base trying to stretch a single into a double earlier in the game.

Bruce Sutter relieved Forsch with a runner on second base and nobody out in the eighth-inning, with the Cardinals clinging to the same two-run lead they manufactured two innings prior.  Although the Astros were able to bring that run home, Sutter was able to prevent further damage, recording his seventh save of the young season en route to a NL leading 36 saves - the fourth consecutive year he topped the Senior Circuit in that category. 

Forsch would go on to win 15 games for the Redbirds in '82, helping them win their first division title and reach the postseason for the first time since 1968.  He also pitched brilliantly in Game One of the NLCS vs the Atlanta Braves, as the Cards swept that series to meet the Milwaukee Brewers in a classic 1982 Fall Classic.

This late April victory was pivitol for the Redbirds, who came into this game on a three-game losing streak.  As it turned out, they would lose the next three games after this one, so their ability to steal a win from Houston essentially prevented a seven-game losing sreak.

A few days after David Green's game-winning hit, he went on the DL with a severe hamstring injury.  This paved the way for rookie Willie McGee to be called up from the minors.  It didn't take long for McGee to take over the regular duties in centerfield for the Redbirds, relegating Green - who never quite lived-up to the expectations the Cardinals had for him - to part-time status.  Eventually, he would be packaged with a few other marginal players in exchange for Giants slugger Jack Clark prior to the '85 season.  Clark would prove to be the perfect fit for St Louis during his three seasons as a Cardinal, helping the Redbirds win National League championships in '85 and '87.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Jack Clark became a free agent after the '87 season.  His departure to the New York Yankees signaled the end of the Whitey Herzog Era.  By 1990, the team was in a state of disaray; Herog resigned prior to the All-Star break and St Louis finished last in the standings for the first time since 1918. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History: April 27, 1967

April 27, 1967:  The Cardinals got off to a fast start in 1967, winning their first six games, then splitting their next six games, before squaring off against the Houston Astros at the Astrodome.  By contrast, the Astros had only won three out of their first eleven games that year, and seemed destined for another loss as Cards pitcher Bob Gibson was sailing along with a 2-0 lead through the first six innings.

Back-to-back fourth-inning triples by Mike Shannon and Tim McCarver, followed by a Bobby Tolan single gave the Redbirds their two-runs.  Nowadays, a seventh-inning specialist would take over for a starter, followed by the eighth-inning guy, then if all goes well, the closer.  Gibson never wanted to come out of any game; he took his turn at bat in the top of the seventh-inning, hit a two-out single, but was stranded on the bases.  Needing nine more outs to record his fourth victory of the year, Gibson was unable to record even one more out.  Two hits and a walk loaded the bases for Houston, which prompted manager Red Schoedienst to remove Gibby in favor of lefty Hal Woodeshick. 

Things quickly went from bad to worse as future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan immediately cleared the bases with a triple, giving Houston a lead they would never relinquish.  Woodeshick faced only one other batter, walked him, and was removed in favor of Nelson Briles, who successfully recorded one out, and was removed in favor of Joe Hoerner, who also got one guy out, and was removed in favor of Ron Willis, who got the final out of the seventh inning.  When it was over, the Astros had scored five runs on four hits, two walks, and a sacrifice fly.

Schoendienst used two more pitchers to get through the eighth inning - journeyman Jim Cosman and 29-year-old rookie Dick Hughes, who at the time was a relatively unknown talent.  By the time Hughes made ten relief appearances, which included three saves, he had impressed his manager enough to warrant a spot in the rotation.  By season's end, Dick Hughes had started 27 games, completed twelve of them (three were shutouts), while working a total of 222.1 innings.  His record of 16-6 featured an impressive  2.67 ERA and National League leading 0.954 WHIP.  He was runner-up to the New York Mets' Tom Seaver for NL Rookie of the Year; but sadly, arm troubles would end his career early in the '68 season, at the age of 30. 

In this game, the Cardinals tried to come back, scoring twice in the eighth, but Houston answered with a run of their own in the bottom half.  That was enough, as Houston held on for a 6-4 win, handing Gibson (3-1) his first loss of the year, as starting pitcher Larry Dierker (2-1) earned the win.

The loss to the Astros started a four-game skid for the Redbirds, as they even fell out of first place for a while.  In July, Gibson would go down with a broken leg, thanks to a vicious line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente.  Fortunately, he had mended by the time the regular season was winding down, and took care of business in the World Series triumph over the Boston Red Sox - winning three games and being named World Series MVP.

Of course, Gibson was just getting warmed up for '68, when he rewrote the record book en route to his first Cy Young Award to go along with his selection as NL MVP.  Not only did Gibson establish a modern MLB record with a miniscule 1.12 ERA, he was never knocked out of a game in the midst of any inning all year long.

Friday, April 26, 2013

This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

April 26, 2006:  The St Louis Cardinals played host to the Pittsburgh Pirates in their beautiful new facility - Busch Stadium III.  Cardinals' starting pitcher Mark Mulder (remember him?) labored through 7.2 innings of work, allowing just two runs on five hits (one of those hits was a two-run home run).  He struck out just one batter, while walking five, yet managed to escape with a slim 3-2 lead.

That's how the score remained until two outs in the ninth-inning, with closer Jason Isringhausen just one out away from the save.  Unfortunately for Izzy (and Mulder), veteran first baseman Jose Hernandez, who would only hit three home runs in 85 games all year (his final big league season), managed to tie the game with one of those long-balls, sending the game to the bottom of the ninth, tied 3-3; and sending 38,728 fans into a state of nervous agitation.

Of course, the Cardinals were a resilient bunch in 2006 and the Pirates were...the Pirates.  They had to lose.  Almost as if on cue, with one out in the Redbirds' half of the ninth, consecutive singles by David Eckstein and Hector Luna (remember him?) brought Albert Pujols to the plate with a chance to win the game.  Naturally, he did just that, grounding a single to left field as Eckstein raced home from second base with the decisive run - RBI number 29 for Pujols at that point of the season.

2006 may have been Albert's finest season with St Louis, as he went on to hit .331 with 49 home runs and 137 RBI.  Fans still bitter with his decision to leave the Cardinals shouldn't forget how great he was - especially in this particular championship season.

Pittsburgh's (5-18) losing pitcher - Roberto Hernandez - would finish 2006 with a perfect 0-3 record - and would later be dealt to the New York Mets - the team St Louis eliminated from the NLCS in a classic seven game showdown.

This late April win didn't seem like that big of a deal at the time, as the Cards' record improved to 14-7.  However, at the time, they still trailed Houston (15-6) and Cincinnati (15-7) in the NL Central standings.  Somehow, the Cards managed to win the division title that year, despite a lackluster 69-71 record the rest of the way.  Their 83-79 record was just a game and a half better than the Astros - the team that knocked St Louis out of the playoffs the year prior - the team that was swept by the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.  So this seems fitting.

Despite the mediocre regular season record, the Cardinals became an unstoppable force in the postseason; without the services of hard-luck Mark Mulder who was shut down after making just seventeen largely ineffective starts.  He managed to win six games that year (losing seven) with a high ERA of 7.14; but his career was essentially over, falling victim to a bad arm.

Isringhausen, who managed to pitch an entire season without giving up a home run - in 2002 - was well on his way to serving up a career-worst ten dingers in 2006, although he still managed to save 32 games before being shut down by seaon's end with arm trouble of his own.

Pujols, who is now on the wrong side of age 30 with bad wheels and declining power stats, is trying his best to make the outrageous ten-year-quarter of a billion dollar contract he coaxed the Angels into giving him prior to the 2012...not look like a bad deal for the Halos.  Unfortunately, for Pujols and his new team, time is running out to make a serious run at a World Series championship.

The only Cardinals player left on the roster who played in that April game seven years ago is Yadier Molina - who at the time was a great defensive catcher but  a poor hitter - is now a very good hitter - in fact, one of the elite players in all of major league baseball; playing for a team with realistic hopes for yet another World Series championship in 2013. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Shocking MLB Power Rankings - 2013

Remember when the American League East used to be the best division in baseball?  Heading into the 2013 MLB season, it may actually be the weakest, as former heavyweights - the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox - appear likely to fight it out for last place.  I'll give the edge to the Yankees to reign supreme in futility, although the Red Sox could mount another epic late-season meltdown to retain their hold on last place in the East.  The Toronto Blue Jays will be vastly improved, but still not quite playoff caliber, as they will likely battle the Baltimore Orioles for second place this time around.  If the Tampa Bay Rays can keep Evan Longoria in the lineup for 150 games in 2013, they should be able to take the top spot in that once mighty division.

Remember when the National League East used to be owned by the Philadelphia Phillies and their great pitching staff and potent lineup?  After winning a franchise-record 102 games in 2011, Philadelphia showed signs of age last year, barely playing .500 ball, while the upstart Washington Nationals and a very good Atlanta Braves team dominated that division - and seem poised for a repeat performance in 2013.  If Philly can keep their big guns on the field for most of the season, they may still find their way to the top, but they'll need some major catastrophes to hit Atlanta and DC to get past those two powerhouses.

Remember when the American League West used to be totally dominated by the Texas Rangers for the better part of three seasons?  Those days are long gone, as the teams actually located on the West Coast - LA Angels of Anaheim, Oakland A's, and even the Seattle Mariners - are poised to battle for the top spot this season.  That's right; even the once-lowly Mariners could very well make a postseason run in 2013, while the two Texas teams (remember the Astros?) should be bringing up the rear.

Over in the revamped National League West, the World Champion San Francisco Giants seem content to bring back the same team that won it all last year, while the free-spending LA Dodgers have gathered an expensive and under-achieving core of players who were the stars of their previous (last place) teams and may not be much better in 2013.  If they're able to challenge San Fran for the top spot in the West, they'll have to do it with their pitching - which should be significantly better with the addition of Zack Greinke to the rotation; assuming he doesn't experience some sort of weird psychological issues pitching half his games in front of those skeptical fans in Lala Land.

Over in the American League Central, the Detroit Tigers have a formidable team "on paper" but can they go all the way with a questionable closer, two overweight corner infielders, and MLB's greatest pitcher who serves up nothing but meatballs to National League hitters, who love feasting on his servings?  The Kansas City Royals, who haven't made a return trip to the postseason since their shocking World Series Championship in 1985, seem poised to break that drought in 2013, after acquiring a couple of Tampa's reliable pitchers - James Shields and Wade Davis - assuming the offense can generate enough firepower.  Even the Cleveland Indians spent a bunch of money to make a Swish-alicious run this year, led by former Red Sox skipper and best-selling author Terry Francona.  They may grab a wildcard, but that's a stretch.  Speaking of the White Sox, they're a decent team who could sneak in there, too; but don't count on it, Hawk.

Saving the best for last, the Cincinnati Reds ran away with the National League Central last year, but mysteriously failed to get past the Giants in the NLDS.  They seem to have great pitching, but with a questionable offense, I don't think they'll get past the St Louis Cardinals this year - a team that is historically under-rated every season, but usually finds a way to win when they need to.  Don't be fooled by last year's mediocre won-loss record; they had the second best run differential in the NL, and with their offensive firepower, should cruise to a division title - despite middle infield question marks.  Look for the Milwaukee Brewers to suck, as a possible 50-game suspension looms large over Ryan Braun's fat head.  Pittsburgh?  I hope they can win more than 81 games, but don't count on it.  The Cubbies?  I have a strange feeling they won't finish in last place this year, despite losing Houston to the American League.  Milwaukee should've been shipped back there instead, but their inevitable futility will be satisfying for the vast majority of Cardinal Nation.  Yes, I hate them.

Without further adieu, here's Uncle Larry's Shocking 2013 MLB Pre-Season Power Rankings:

30 - Miami Marlins - You thought they were bad last year?
29 - Houston Astros - They have some young talent; just not enough of it.
28 - Minnesota Twins - Probably the worst team in the American League, again.
27 - Colorado Rockies - No pitching in a hitter's park spells disaster again.
26 - Chicago Cubs - No doubt under-rated here; maybe they'll avoid the cellar?
25 - New York Mets - Need more pitching and outfield help, to say the least.
24 - New York Yankees - 2013 about as bad as 1966 in the Big Apple?  Very possible.
23 - Boston Red Sox - A change in culture may keep them out of the cellar?
22 - Texas Rangers - No Josh Hamilton; no chance for this team.
21 - Seattle Mariners - Improved, but will need some miracles to reach postseason.
20 - Pittsburgh Pirates - See above.
19 - Cleveland Indians - May hang in there; spent tons of money.
18 - Kansas City Royals - Maybe enough pitching this year?  Probably not.
17 - Milwaukee Brewers - Last year's strong finish was a fluke.  They suck.
16 - Chicago White Sox - A winning record is about all they can hope for.
15 - Arizona Diamondbacks - Trading Justin Upton accomplished what?  We'll see.
14 - Baltimore Orioles - Did it with smoke and mirrors last year.  Not sure about this year.
13 - Toronto Blue Jays - Expected to make a run this year, but I doubt it.
12 - San Diego Padres - Still under-rated, but not by me.  They could get a wild card berth.
11 - Philadelphia Phillies - Aging but still dangerous.
10 - LA Dodgers - Like the Mets of the '90s, spent a lot of money, but that doesn't always work.
09 - Oakland Athletics - Love what they did last year; tough to repeat it, though.
08 - Tampa Bay Rays - Best team in a weak division; success depends on Longo's health.
07 - Cincinnati Reds - Great pitching; questionable offense.  Always over-rated.
06 - St Louis Cardinals - Questionable defense; great offense.  Always under-rated.
05 - LA Angels of Anaheim - Adding Josh Hamilton will help, as Albert continues to regress.
04 - San Francisco Giants - Marco Scutaro expected to carry the team again?  Marco Scutaro?
03 - Detroit Tigers - Better win before weight issues attack the corner infielders.
02 - Atlanta Braves - Great defensive outfield; great bullpen; no Chipper, no problem.
01 - Washington Nationals - '12 NLDS meltdown motivated GM Mike Rizzo to use overkill in acquiring more bullpen help in Rafael Soriano (42 saves in '12); starting pitching should be even better with full season of Stephen Strasburg.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Unlikely Saga of Ryan Braun

Just wondering...

What are the odds of Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun failing a MLB drug screen in October 2011 - with extremely high levels of synthetic testosterone in the sample...

But due to a "chain of custody" foul-up, manages to escape the mandatory 50-game suspension for testing positive...

Making his appeal the first successful one of its kind in MLB history...

And now we learn that Braun's crack legal team in preparation for that one-of-a-kind successful appeal, just happened to solicit the expertise of the guy now suspected of being the ring-leader of the latest MLB PED scandal - Tony Bosch - as a "consultant"...

But somehow the dollar amount this expert was going to charge for his invaluable consulting was never agreed upon, thus leaving an unpaid balance for "services rendered" of somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand dollars - which seems to be a bit vauge...

Oh yeah...Braun never had any dealings with Bosch prior to or after his successful appeal...

So it's just an amazing coincidence that the college Braun attended in Miami, Florida has been linked to Bosch and his "anti-aging" clinic over the years, although Braun never personally visited the establishment, or even knew the expert consultant before he got popped for testing positive in the first place.

Sound plausible?  Well...

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Is Free Agent Lohse Now in the Cards?

The news of Chris Carpenter's recurring shoulder problem which will likely sideline him for the entire 2013 season, is disappointing, but not altogether surprising.  In retrospect, it seems the tremendous postseason effort Carp exerted in 2011 to help the Cardinals to that improbable World Series championship, was more than his shoulder could bear. 

It seems as though the team that free agent pitcher Kyle Lohse walked away from at the end of the 2012 season may now be the team that would provide the best fit for the 34-year old right-hander.  It remains to be seen whether the two sides can negotiate a reasonable contract that would be a "win-win" for both parties. 

However, Lohse remains unsigned and the Cardinals are in obvious need to fill a major void in the rotation.  This may very well be a free agent signing that is suddenly in the cards for St Louis.  You heard it here first.  Or second.  Or third.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Steroid Era Not Quite Over in MLB

As another new PED revelation unfolds, it's safe to say more MLB players will be implicated in the use of banned substances, and that list may grow quite large upon further investigation.  This should come as no surprise to anyone, based on what transpired nearly fifteen years ago.

In the immediate aftermath of that PED-aided-homer-happy 1998 MLB season, which saw Roger Maris' single season home run record of 61 obliterated by both Mark McGwire (70 HR) and Sammy Sosa (66 HR), a voice of reason tried to warn the world of baseball of serious trouble brewing.

The voice of reason belonged to Texas Rangers pitcher, Rick Helling, during the '98 MLBPA winter meetings in Nashville.  Helling saw what was happening; the use of performance enhancing drugs had become so widespread, it was forcing normally honest players to jump on the bandwagon just to keep up with the pack.  Helling realized this was making it impossible to maintain a "level playing field" between the users and the non-users; something had to give.

Of course, nobody listened.  Taking the sort of action Helling was recommending would be terribly inconvenient; worse yet, it would be terribly costly.  Sacrificing revenue was a preposterous notion; especially since the fans were clearly enjoying the pumped-up performances throughout The Show.  While the McGwire - Sosa home run spectacle got most of the national attention, attendance throughout MLB was clearly on the rise, along with the home run totals.  The infamous players' strike of '94, which not only wiped out the last couple of months of the regular season, along with the postseason, also alienated millions of faithful fans; many of whom vowed to never attend another game again.  However, all that animosity seemed to fade away with every September home run smashed by the two friendly rivals.  By the time the New York Yankees completed its four-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in a somewhat anti-climactic World Series, baseball was back, with its image restored, quickly regaining its pre-strike popularity.

As the seasons rolled by, the unprecedented power surge continued, as more and more players were mysteriously muscle-bound, hitting balls farther than anyone ever dreamed possible.  It was no mystery to Rick Helling; he continued voicing concerns about PED use at the winter meetings, and the MLBPA continued to ignore him.  By 2001, a brand-new single season home run record had been established (73) by an amazingly pumped-up Barry Bonds, while fans were flocking to games in record numbers.  In the July 2001 issue of Playboy (of course I read the articles), sportswriter Allen Barra suggested MLB was experiencing a new "golden age".  After all, he concluded, "there's never been an era with so many outstanding performances at every level."  How true.

Few seemed to care what caused all those "outstanding performances".  Strangely enough, in that same July 2001 Playboy, there was another article, written by Scott Dickensheets (no kidding), exploring the growing popularity of steroid use among young men ("Steroids - All the Rage").  The author observed that steroid use had become mainstream, since so many "athletes" (role models) were users.  Although baseball players weren't singled-out, they clearly had the motivation to use performance enhancing drugs; for some, it was a competitive desire to perform better than their peers.  For others - as Rick Helling warned back in 1998 - it was simply an attempt to keep up with the pack; from their perspective, the only way a level playing field could be maintained.  Baseball had reached a tipping point right around the start of the new millennium; there were more forces than ever nudging players toward steroid use, and fewer considerations urging them to just say no.

In the meantime, even Lance Armstrong - the all-American boy with an impecable image - was routinely using PEDs to win seven consecutive Tour de France cycling marathons.  He had become the world's greatest athlete; a courageous cancer survivor who battled back to reach the summit of his profession, and stay there for an unprecedented reign of supremacy.  He was Superman, with a girlfriend even hotter than Lois Lane.  When allegations of PED use surfaced, Armstrong steadfastly denied them, citing hundreds of clean drug tests as proof.  He even went so far as to sue anyone who had the audacity to accuse him of what was actually true; and he fraudulantly won many millions of dollars in court over the years, to maintain his squeaky-clean image.  Here's what he had to say during a 2005 interview with Kevin Cook:

"All I can say is thank God we're tested.  When baseball players were charged with using steroids, what was their defense?  Nothing.  Whereas my defense is hundreds of drug controls, at races and everywhere else."

When Armstrong finally came "truly clean" on Oprah recently, it was with little remorse.  To him, his doping routine had  become just that; a "routine" to prepare his body for the grueling challenge of competing in an event that requires extreme stamina, against a field comprised of other PED-aided rivals.  To Armstrong, he was merely doing what he had to do to maintain a "level playing field".
The fact that he got away with it for so long, is almost as amazing as winning all those races.  It makes me wonder if some of Armstrong's tricks of the trade have been used by more than a few MLB players over the years.

We may never know just how widespread PED use was throughout baseball during the peak of the Steroids Era.  Rick Helling had the guts to come forward and voice his concerns.  He saw what was going on; there was little attempt by the users to hide what they were doing.  Surely, there are many others who saw what was going on in their own clubhouses throughout MLB and never said a word about it to anyone.  To this day, they insist they never saw anything suspicious, and of course, all deny ever doing it themselves.

I have a difficult time believing any of them.  Again, we may never know the actual percentage of players who have used performance enhancing drugs at one time or another.  However, I suspect at least half of the players knew precisely what was going on, even if they weren't doing it themselves; and I suspect the players who weren't taking PEDs were in the minority - and probably had shorter careers than they had bargained for. 

After all, it's hard to compete without a "level playing field".  That's why the latest scandal brewing out of Coral Gables, Florida may be a disturbing trend; but it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Steroid Era may not quite be over in major league baseball.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Musial: The Greatest Ever?

It has been one week since St Louis Cardinals icon Stan Musial passed away.  In that brief period of time, Stan the Man has received more media attention and adulation in death than he ever experienced over his entire 22-year Hall of Fame career.  It's nice that he's finally getting some publicity, along with some well-deserved recognition for his greatness; not only as a baseball player, but as a human being.

Musial always seemed to be overshadowed by the likes of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio early in his career, despite being the best player in the National League; at least until Willie Mays came along in the early '50s.  As Musial's career reached its peak by the mid '50s, Mays' and Mickey Mantle's were rapidly ascending -  and grabbing all the headlines.  By the time Musial retired in 1963, he had quietly compiled a Hall of Fame career that was worthy of a first ballot induction at Cooperstown in 1969, with 93.2% of the vote.  What's puzzling to me is how 6.8% of the voters could justify excluding him from baseball's highest fraternity.  Go figure.

Recently, when MLB Network's sabermetric-obsessed expert Brian Kenny compared the career production of Stan Musial to the likes of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron, his conclusion may surprise the vast majority of baseball fans outside of St Louis:  "Saying Stan Musial was among the greatest to ever play the game is probably selling him short.  He may very well have been the greatest all-round player in major league history."

Not to mention its most under-rated superstar, by far.

He was certainly under-rated back in 1999, when MLB decided to let fans vote for the players they felt worthy to be on the All-Century Team.  The top nine vote getters among the outfielders would make the squad (100 total candidates were previously selected by a panel of experts).  Musial finished eleventh in the fan voting, behind Pete Rose - the guy with the most hits in the history of MLB, as well as the guy who made the most outs.  It took a special veteran's committee to add Musial and some other all-time greats who played so long ago nobody had ever heard of them.  Honus Wagner?  Who's he?  (Arguably, the greatest shortstop of all-time)  Warren Spahn?  Never heard of him. (The winningest left-handed pitcher of all-time with 363)

A couple of years after the All-Century Team was chosen, the Godfather of Sabermetrics - Bill James - did a little independent research of his own, and concluded that Stan Musial was the second-best left-fielder to ever play the game (behind Ted Williams) - and the tenth-best player, overall; even better than Pete Rose. 

As early as Musial's first full season (1942), it seemed as though this humble 21-year-old kid with the unique batting stance was destined for greatness.  He played on three World Championship teams for the Cardinals in the '40s - just before the Television Age brought the Fall Classics into millions of homes from coast to coast.  He also won seven batting titles and three Most Valuable Player Awards - the last coming in his greatest season - 1948.  Unfortunately for Musial and his team, St Louis barely missed winning another NL pennant that year; or any other year for the rest of his career, for that matter.  While his destiny for greatness had already been realized, his accomplishments were almost taken for granted; destined to be overlooked by the casual fan.

Case in point:  In 1948, Musial led the National League in every major offensive category, except home runs.  Perhaps Mother Nature is to blame for Stan the Man coming up just one home run short of winning the Triple Crown.  Officially, he is credited with 39 home runs.  Unofficially, he hit 40, but one of those came in a game that was eventually rained-out; so it didn't count.

Just for the sake of argument, let's suppose those rain clouds never materialized; let's suppose all of Musial's 40 home runs counted that year.  With that minor revision to baseball history, add in his .376 batting average (with a .450 OBP) and 131 RBI which also topped the Senior Circuit, and he'd have that coveted Triple Crown.  But he was just getting started.  Musial also led the NL with 133 runs scored, 46 doubles and 18 triples (He led the NL in triples five times in his career).  This combination of pure hitting, remarkable plate selection, power and speed has really never been matched in MLB history.  In fact, no other Triple Crown winner has ever taken the triple crown, as well.

Even minus that extra home run, Stan the Man racked up an astounding 429 total bases while becoming the first National League player since 1930 to have a slugging percentage over .700 (.702 SLG to be exact); a feat that wouldn't happen in the NL again until 1997.

Getting back to reality; Musial's incredible 1948 season is often mentioned merely as a footnote to his storied career accomplishments.  Thanks to some lousy weather, he not only was deprived of a home run title and a Triple Crown of historic significance, he was also deprived of a much higher level of adulation from fans, in general.  Of course, all that stuff didn't matter to him; in fact, he seemed a bit embarrassed when people noticed his greatness.  In 1952, the irascible and brutally honest Ty Cobb created a bit of a stir when he was quoted in a Time Magazine article, "Stan Musial is better than Joe DiMaggio."  Deep down inside, Stan the Man may have agreed with the Georgia Peach's bold assessment, although he modestly replied, "I don't think I've ever been as good as DiMaggio."

Many people would beg to differ, taking into consideration the total package that Musial brought to the ballpark on a daily basis; the key components that made him so great.  Not only was he an elite hitter who rarely struck out; he was incredibly durable - rarely missing a game until the tail end of his career - and he was able to sustain a high level of performance for well over two decades.  Those attributes are rare enough; added to the mix was Musial's genuine humility, his kindness towards everyone he came in contact with, and his unwavering positive attitude.  Essentially, he was a truly great person in all facets of life. 

MLB Network analyst Brian Kenny's closing comment says it all:  "If you had to choose one player in the history of  major league baseball you'd want to be on your team for twenty years - you'd want Stan Musial." 

Millions of grateful Cardinals fans who will always cherish the Musial legacy, agree wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

HOF Class of 2013 Flunking Out

The list of former MLB players eligible for Hall of Fame consideration for the first time in 2013 includes a pair that are among the best to ever play the game - Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.  They also happen to be among the list of players suspected of using performance enhancing drugs, so there's no way either one will be getting into Cooperstown this year.

In fact, it looks doubtful any of this year's new candidates - or holdovers from previous years for that matter - will be getting enough votes to be enshrined.  At last check, even Craig Biggio - what many consider a HOF lock - is only hovering around 70% of the votes (75% is required to be inducted).  It seems as though the voters are making a collective statement:  Nobody gets in.

That's a shame, because there are at least a dozen (try fifteen) candidates that are worthy of Hall of Fame consideration; most notably:

Craig Biggio
Jeff Bagwell
Tim Raines
Alan Trammell
Fred McGriff
Larry Walker
Mike Piazza
Curt Schilling
Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Lee Smith
Dale Murphy
Don Mattingly
Edgar Martinez
Mark McGwire

I suppose if I were actually voting, I'd have to leave five of these selections off my ballot (ten is the maximum number of players allowed).  Even though Bonds and Clemens have no chance of getting in, I'd still be compelled to cast my ballot in their favor.  I'm not sure how much the PEDs padded their numbers, but I believe they had HOF credentials before they started juicing; besides, they weren't  alone. 

Actually, I wouldn't want to drop any of the above off my hypothetical ballot, so it's probably a good thing I don't get to vote.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Numbers Don't Lie - Morris Not HOF Material

Jack Morris had a nice career, but was it really a Hall of Fame career?  His won-loss record (254-186 - .577) is just slightly below average for all pitchers who have been enshrined (251-176 - .588).  What should keep him out is his mediocre career ERA of 3.90, which is nearly a run per nine-innings higher than the average ERA for Hall of Fame hurlers (2.96).  In fact, Morris never even had a single season (he played for 18 seasons) when he was able to post an ERA under 3.00.  Those don't sound like Hall of Fame numbers to me.

His supporters tout him as the Pitcher of the Eighties because he happened to win more games in that particular decade than anyone else.  However, that was attributable more to his durability (and stellar defense behind him) than his pitching ability.  Yes, he was a workhorse, but Morris never won a Cy Young Award (his best finish was third-place) and that high ERA is barely better than what an average run-of-the-mill pitcher posted during the time he played (1977-1994).  It's not surprising that his ERA+ of 105 is likewise, only slightly above average (100).  So far, he seems to be a good candidate for the Hall of Above Average to Pretty Good But Not Great.

Digging deeper into the sabermetric evidence, we find that his career WAR of 39.3 is lower than such above-average-to-pretty-good-but-not-great pitchers as Brad Radke, Kevin Brown and Kevin Appier - all solid performers with flashes of excellence who will never, ever  be enshrined in Cooperstown.

It seems that the Morris Hall of Fame candidacy really comes down to that one legendary postseason game - Game Seven of the 1991 World Series - when Morris, pitching for the Minnesota Twins, squared off against a young John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves in a truly classic duel.  Morris would pitch ten shutout innings - good enough for the win - as the Twins finally broke through for the only run of the game in the bottom of the tenth-inning.  As valiant as that effort was, Morris also had more than just a little bit of luck going for him, when the Braves hit him hard in the eighth-inning, but came up empty-handed - thanks in large part to a base-running gaffe by Lonnie Smith.  Still, this effort by Morris on the grandest of all stages was certainly his most noteworthy episode - or flash - of excellence.

In the end, Morris became the iconic hero, as Minnesota won its second World Championship in five seasons; they've yet to win their third.  The perception that Morris was a great postseason pitcher is largely based from that one sensational flash-in-the-pan performance; otherwise, his postseason career amounted to a fairly run-of-the-mill 7-4 record with a 3.80 ERA.  Once again, not exactly Hall of Fame worthy.

If Morris does get the necessary support this year (2014 is his final year of eligibilty), he will supplant Red Ruffing (3.80 ERA) for the dubious distinction of having the highest ERA for any enshrined hurler.  The fact that he managed to win 254 games (I thought 300 was the magic number?) is more a testament to the strength of the teams he spent time with - namely, three World Series champions - Detroit, Minnesota and Toronto.

In Detroit, where he spent the early years of his career, he had the good fortune of having one of the greatest (if not "the" greatest) double-play combinations of all-time playing behind him:  Alan Trammell & Lou Whitaker - both of whom deserve more Hall of Fame consideration than Morris.

With all the controversy surrounding this new batch of Hall of Fame candidates emerging from the dreaded Steroids Era, the time may be right for Morris to sneak in the back door of Cooperstown; no doubt steroid-free and a pretty darn good pitcher with an engaging personality who was a fierce competitor, to boot. 

Another fierce competitor - Roger Clemens - is on the ballot for the first time this year, along with a few others that have been linked to performance enhancing drugs.  It's highly unlikely for Clemens to get voted in this time around; however, it's interesting to note that he managed to win exactly 100 more games than Jack Morris, and he also managed to lose two fewer games than Morris.  Clemens' ERA is almost a point lower (3.12), and his ERA+ is a very Hall-of-Fame-like 143.  I don't know how much of all that is inflated by any possible steroid use; but here's a guy who won seven Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award, and is perhaps the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

How strange it would be to see Morris getting voted into the Hall of Fame while Clemens is forced to wait; possibly for more than fifteen years.