Anyone that thought this day would come this year after Chris Carpenter had his surgery, please raise your hand.
Yes, you in the back? With your hand up? Please move away from the rest of us so that we will be safe when the lightning hits you.
There's little that could overshadow a series sweep by the Cardinals, especially at this time of year when every win is precious and the wild card lead is so tentative. Yet even though the Cards were able to dispose of the Astros yet again yesterday afternoon, there's little thought of that today. Cardinal fans are always out in force in Wrigley, but today they may outnumber the Cub faithful. This is big.
Before we get into Carpenter's return, a return that got it's own movie-like trailer on Fox Sports Midwest a couple of days ago, let's take a look at Monday afternoon's contest, a contest that the Cards should have broken open, a contest that the Cards easily could have lost. Eventually the ball went their way, but it gave a lot of heartburn before that 27th out was recorded.
Jaime Garcia struggled early--for a while there, people were wondering if he thought he was on the road or if something had upset that precarious routine that he seems to have. He made it through six innings and only gave up three runs, though, which isn't a bad day's work overall. He worked out of some trouble, leaving the bases loaded in the first (though walking in a run beforehand) as part of allowing six hits and two walks. Garcia put the team in a position to win, which is about all you can ask out of a starter.
Of course, the biggest reason they were in that position was that the Cards solved Bud Norris early, with Allen Craig smashing a three-run homer in the first as part of his two-hit day. Carlos Beltran provided the other scoring with a two-run double in the sixth off of the first Houston reliever of the day, Wesley Wright.
The offense had other chances, though. They left the bases loaded in the third, Jon Jay was caught stealing in the fourth with just one out, Craig was caught stealing (on a busted hit and run) in the seventh, and David Freese's leadoff hit in the eighth was wasted as well. This would have been a very frustrating game to lose in so many ways.
Lose this game they well might have, though, had it not been for our Hero. In the eighth, Mitchell Boggs had some trouble with the strike zone, walking two of the three hitters he faced. In comes Marc Rzepczynski (who surprisingly didn't come in for Jed Lowrie, the last man Boggs walked. Lowrie was hitting .192/.292/.321 against lefties instead of .273/.355/.489 against righties. If Scrabble is coming into the game anyway, why not press your advantage? Then again, it may not have mattered, as you'll see). Rzep, continuing to struggle, walks the pinch-hitter Matt Downs. So we have bases loaded, one out, with a bunch of walkers.
In steps Fernando Salas and he may have just saved the season. Jason Motte will get the save in the books, but nobody did more to assure the win that Salas did, coming in and striking out Jose Altuve and Brett Wallace, two guys that have hit the Cardinals very well in the past. The Cards held on to their 5-4 lead and that turned out to be the final score. Huge kudos to Salas for a job exceptionally well done.
Our Goat also comes from the pitching side of things. I'm starting to wonder if the expiration date has been reached on Edward Mujica. Not really, but I guess with the law of averages he was going to come off of that strong start he had with the Cardinals. His ERA now is up to 3.11 in his last 11 games (basically, September) which is exorbitantly high when compared to that 0.00 ERA he was having. Of course, that doesn't count inherited runs either, at least one I can think of that he's allowed recently. He's still very good, just not the automatic piece he was in August. Yesterday he came into a two-run game, allowed a run before he got an out, and it took a remarkable double play to keep him from blowing the lead entirely. Way too scary for my taste.
So the Cards are able to sweep the Astros, which was big because Milwaukee was able to do the same to Pittsburgh, dropping the Pirates under .500 and basically eliminating them from any wild-card concerns. Milwaukee now becomes the biggest threat, sitting 2.5 games behind and 1/2 game ahead of the Dodgers. I said before the Brewers came into Busch earlier this month that I didn't see them making up those seven games that they were back in the race because 2011 doesn't happen every year. However, I'm wondering that, with this extra wild card and the fact that it means often some very flawed teams are going for it, that situations like last year won't happen a bit more often. I still like where the Cardinals are sitting, especially since the Brewers now go to Washington (who clinched last night) and aren't a good road team, but it's still a bit nerve wracking.
Which means St. Louis really can't let up in this last rivalry series with the Baby Bears. I can't imagine there's many scenarios where winning just one of three is acceptable. There has to be the focus and intensity that has been the hallmark of the Cardinal teams of the past. I'm still reading One Last Strike (I'm up to Game 5 of the World Series, so it's almost done) and one thing that comes through time and again was Tony La Russa's insistence on that intensity, to come out and play hard and good things will happen. Hopefully Mike Matheny can channel his inner TLR and get that message to the players this weekend.
Not that they'll need it today, though. Would you like to be the guy that didn't play hard during Carpenter's return? The man that embodies intensity? The man that is going to make bracelets out of one of his ribs? Yeah, didn't think so.
I'm putting the numbers out there just because that's what I do, but I think you can rely on them even less than normally. We have no idea what Carp will have after the long layoff and a surgery to boot. He's looked good in bullpens and simulated games, but will that carry over to the mound? He's not likely to have quite the command he's known for and we saw how Adam Wainwright struggled some with that in his return this year. What will we see out of Carp? I don't know, but it's going to be fun to find out.
Chris Volstad gets the unenviable task of opposing Mr. Carpenter in his return. The numbers aren't good for Volstad, though last time he faced the Cards he was tolerable, giving up four runs in six innings.
Good numbers for the Cardinals. Mix that with a focused, excited group and, well, today has a chance of being a lot of fun. Remember, it's an afternoon start, so be sure to leave work at noon if that's relevant for you!
The BBA has, as a secondary aim, the goal of producing year-end
awards in a similar fashion to the Baseball Writers of America. These
awards can be found at the official site in October with links back to the voters,
ensuring transparency and, most likely, the onset of some good baseball