For the fifth straight year, Playing Pepper returns to C70 At The Bat. If you aren't aware, this series helps get a feel for the other 29 teams in baseball by asking those that follow them the closest--their bloggers. We've got spring training action going, so it's time to play a little pepper.
93-69, second in the AL West and lost in the inaugural AL Wild Card Game
The end of 2013 was quite unexpected for Rangers fans. A team that had gone to back-to-back World Series and then got out to a commanding early lead for the division in 2012 was stunned by an Oakland team that came from behind and wrested the divisional title away from them on the last day. Forced into a game they never thought they'd play, they were beaten by the plucky Orioles and sent home for the winter, trying to figure out how those two teams had ruined another October run.
The losses continued in the offseason, as team fixture Josh Hamilton followed Albert Pujols out to sunny California to the home of the rival Angels. While the team was reportedly in on some trade options during the winter, no big replacement was forthcoming. On paper, it looked like the balance of power in the division had shifted west.
They don't play the games on paper, though we do write about them there (if you consider a blog posting on virtual paper). Steve Helsing follows the Texas squad over at his blog One Strike Away...Twice! You can follow him on Twitter @RangersBlogger as well. You can find Jamey Newberg at The Newberg Report and on Twitter @newbergreport (and you can buy his preseason book as well.) Steve and Jamey talk about the offseason and the running game of their shortstop after the break!
It's that time of year again. When hope is new, the grass smells clean, and people foolishly put down what they think will happen in the baseball season to come. The United Cardinal Bloggers are no different.
Every year we take a crack at these things. Sometimes it goes pretty well--Pittsburgh's late fade last year kept me from nailing them being third and over the .500 mark. Sometimes it goes disastrously--I had Boston winning the AL East last year. Yeah, that was pretty much bad from the get-go.
However, terrible performances don't stop us from trying it again anyway. (Kinda like Mike Matheny continuing to use Victor Marte last year.) So we'll do it again on the same kinda schedule--the entire American League today, then each division in the National League gets a day before wrapping it up on Friday with postseason predictions and awards.
Since we hardly pay attention to the American League--we all know real baseball lets a pitcher hit, don't we?--let's try to make a quick pass through there today. If you want to use these as a guide, odds are you better figure the opposite is really going to happen!
In 2009, I decided to get a feel for other teams around baseball by asking bloggers for those teams some questions about their squad. Not only has this series been very popular, but it spawned the Baseball Bloggers Alliance. With camps opening up again and spring training getting into gear, it's time once again to play a little pepper.
96-66, first in the AL West, lost in seven games to St. Louis in the World Series
When they talk about baseball being a game of inches, Game 6 of last year's World Series is Example A. If Neftali Feliz's pitch is perhaps a inch more off the plate, maybe he gets the strikeout or routine fly ball and Texas is sporting World Champion patches on their jerseys this year. Instead.....well, if you don't know what happened by now, I'm not sure what you are doing on this blog.
Instead, not only do the Rangers not have a shiny trophy, they don't have a firm hold on their division anymore after the offseason spending spree by the Angels. While the AL West should be a two-team race, that's one more team than it's been recently.
To hash out how the Texas squad would look this year, I've got three great bloggers. Jamey Newberg writes The Newberg Report, which is not only a blog but includes a newsletter and, this offseason, Jamey wrote an ebook about Jon Daniels. When he's not putting words down there, he's doing it on Twitter at NewbergReport.
When Steve started his blog, he named it World Series 40, Rangers Fan 0. Then the Rangers went to the Series, so he replaced the 0 with a 1. Then the Rangers again went to the Series, so instead of a continual countdown, he's gone with a memorable title: One Strike Away....Twice! He's also RangersBlogger on Twitter.
Also we have Rob from the blog Texas Rangers Cards. Before you start thinking that he named it in response to last year's Series, Richard blogs about Rangers and Senators baseball cards. Some really neat ones over at his site.
Every year about this time, the United Cardinal Bloggers take aim at their predictions for the upcoming season. It's a great way to look at the divisions, get a feel for what is going on, and write down picks that you will be trying to scrub from any internet search engine by probably July.
I'm far from an expert, so take all of these picks with a grain of salt. There are few gut picks that don't have a lot of basis in reality, so feel free to take that into consideration when reading them.
Since the American League doesn't really matter as much, we at the UCB just lump it all into one day. So keep reading to see how I pick the divisions to shake out.
This baseball team wasn't the richest team, though it wasn't poor by any means. It wasn't the strongest team and it wasn't by any means the fastest team. It wasn't even considered the best team within its region, much less in all the land.
This team had many players that made up its merry band. It had the Warrior, who could battle teams with amazing firepower and also could undermine them with guts and guile, depending on the situation. It had the Young Gun, a man who started building his legend early and then continued to develop it.
There was the Legend, one known far and wide as the most intimidating, the most amazing, the most everything of players. Aiding the Legend was the Hired Hand, imported indirectly from the mountain tribes to help the Legend in his times of trial. To go along with these two was the Rival, a man that had started out as a fierce member of an opposing tribe, only to become a trusted member of this team.
There were others, of course. The Local, the Phenom, the Lefty, the Poet, the Gunslinger, the Finisher. All sorts of names and characters made up this unique team.
Every year, the Lords of Baseball held a contest in the fall of the year, when the leaves were changing and the north winds began to blow. This contest was to see just which team would be able to hold the title of Best Team and feast on the adoration of those that followed these brave and intrepid men. Teams came from far and wide, down long and winding roads, to get to the tournament, well knowing that only eight of them would be allowed inside the gates once they arrived at their destination.
In 2004, the Cardinals trailed the Houston Astros three games to two in the National League Championship Series. It was a tight affair that went into extra innings, before Jim Edmonds gave the franchise one of its iconic moments, smashing a home run in the twelfth inning, sending the series to a Game 7. Of course, that game was a great one in its own right, with The Catch by Edmonds and the home run by Scott Rolen off of Roger Clemens that send the Cards to their first world series since 1987.
Last night, I tweeted before the bottom of the 11th that "this game really needs a Jimmy E home run." Then David Freese walked to the plate. David Freese, the A-ball player that Cardinal fans thought was a throw-in when the deal was made to send Edmonds to San Diego back in 2007. So as he stepped to the plate and worked the count, I thought about this blog and said to myself, "I could write that story." (Though, obviously, not as well as some of these guys.)
Then Freese swung, and I said to myself, "Do I get to write that story?" That question was quickly answered as the baseball nestled in the grass of the center field batter's eye, quickly scooped up by an exultant fan.
And suddenly, the team that was dead for the umpteeth time in the last couple of months crawled out of that grave and said, "Guys, you are going to have to do better than that to keep us down."
The fan base has called them zombie Cardinals and never did that description seem so accurate as last night. The Cardinals couldn't hold off the relentless Texas onslaught and seemed like it was going to finally put them down. Every time the Cards scored to tie the game, Texas immediately responded. A 7-4 lead in the seventh seemed fairly insurmountable, especially given Texas's bullpen, especially when a rally in the bottom of the seventh fizzled out.
And yet they weren't done. One in the eighth, though they left the bases loaded and seemed to have not quite been good enough. Then, the ninth. Two runs down against Neftali Feliz, one of the best closers in the game. And therein lies the difference between 2010 and 2011. In 2010, the Cards always seemed to make a game of it, always getting the tying run on or to the plate but never being able to cash in. This year, this run, they seem to do it.
Still, you have the tying runs on with Freese up and he's down to his last strike, against a flamethrowing closer looking to get his franchise their first win. The magic is over, right?
As one of those football analysts says, "Not so fast, my friend."
While it may have not been the driest rainout in history (not being in St. Louis, I'm not sure what the weather actually did, but I know that at least earlier in the evening, there wasn't much coming down), it could have been one of the most important. Or it could have postponed the inevitable.
The difference may come down to Jaime Garcia and how well he can pitch tonight in Game 6. As we all know, Garcia is very tough at home and the Rangers have struggled some away from Rangers Park. All that said, this is a rematch of Game 2, a game that was 1-0 in the ninth inning. It's not that it's a walk for the Cards.
There have been a lot of stats thrown around, something that Jon and I talked about on the UCB Radio Hour yesterday evening. The Cards have won four of five when they have trailed 3-2 in the World Series. The home team has a significant edge in these kind of situations. There are all sorts of things you can look at and I'm sure there are a number of stats that back a Rangers win as well.
In my mind, you have to throw out any stat that doesn't apply directly to this team. This team didn't play in 1982, when the Cardinals came back home and took care of the Brewers. While I'd love to see history repeat itself, as it seemed to do a lot this summer as this team turned into the 1964 squad, it's tough to see where that's all that relevant.
What we do know is that the season hangs in the balance tonight. I like the position that the Cardinals are in, but I realize that the narrative works to the Rangers advantage as well. So many people looking forward to Game 7, the idea that the rainout works in the Cardinals' favor, all of that seems to lead to an opening sentence tomorrow morning of "The rain could delay the Rangers' parade, but it couldn't dampen it."
So I am significantly worried about this evening, as I think most Cardinal fans are. We can talk about who is going to go in Game 7, if Chris Carpenter will start again on three days' rest, if it'll be a bullpen game, if Derek Holland will take Matt Harrison's slot since he'll be fully rested. All of that is legitimate talk, but the Cards have to keep their focus on tonight.
(By the way, the great thing about Berkman returning for 2012 is more great Berkman quotes like this one: "You do feel the pressure. But if you can't hit in the fetal position you shouldn't play in the big leagues." Man, how great is it having this guy around?)
Somebody that will be returning is Adam Wainwright, who had his options officially exercised. I love the story that he begged to be put on the World Series roster, a request that was never really considered. But how great would it be to start Waino for 2-3 innings in Game 7? Would be amazing, in my mind. Really looking forward to having him back in the rotation next year.
Five years ago the Cardinals finished up the Tigers and won #10. Hopefully they can use today to stay in the hunt for #11.
I started Monday off with a dead battery in my car. I ended Monday with a dead battery in my team.
After Game 3, Cardinal fans were riding high. Albert Pujols had a career--make that historic--night and things were looking good. After Game 4, Cardinal fans tipped their cap to Derek Holland and realized that a 2-2 tie wasn't too bad with Chris Carpenter going the next night.
Nobody told us that it wasn't just Holland. It was more that the May Cardinals had returned.
Multiple opportunities to score wasted? Check. Double plays of all sorts and sizes? Check. Carpenter getting no run support? Check. A bullpen stumble? Check.
Look at this Series without Game 3. The Cardinals have scored six runs in four games. Pujols doesn't have a hit, I don't believe. The starting pitching has been very good, but the bullpen has two losses on its record. These are not the things that inspire confidence in a team.
As for last night, there is plenty of blame to go around, including communication equipment, apparently. My focus really is on Matt Holliday. Three times the Rangers intentionally walked Pujols to get to Holliday. Here's what happened:
Top of third: Pujols walked, meaning first and third with one out. Holliday grounds into a double play.
Top of fifth: Pujols walked, meaning first and third with two out. Holliday grounds out to shortstop.
Top of seventh: Pujols walked, meaning runner on first with two out. Holliday singles, moving Pujols to third and himself to second on the throw.
The seventh would have worked out if David Freese could have gotten a bases loaded hit with two down, but he couldn't. Still, that third inning really gets me. A fly ball, a groundout to the right side, something to get that run in besides a double play.
Of course, you have the bullpen issue, leaving in Marc Rzepczynski to face Mike Napoli (who will almost certainly be named MVP of the Series if the Rangers win, causing much more gnashing of teeth among Angels fans) because the bullpen coach heard "Lance Lynn" instead of "Jason Motte" and didn't have Motte ready to go. Which lead to the first pitching change to issue an intentional walk only.
How in the world this kind of mistake happens is almost inconceivable. What did Tony say, "Get me the beard" and they thought Lynn's scruff counted? Forget the bullpen phone, let's get flags for the dugout to wave. Red means Motte, green means Fernando Salas, the striped one means Rzepczynski. Why not? It's not like it's a big secret who they have asked for.
The ninth was all sorts of problems. Allen Craig, who'd already been cut down on a failed hit and run, took off with the count 3-2 on Albert with nobody out. Apparently AP called his on his own and if he'd been disciplined enough to go through with it, it'd been no harm, no foul. Instead, Pujols swung through ball 4, Craig is out and what had been a rally was snuffed out. Holliday walked next, but Lance Berkman struck out and was out by a step at home when the ball got away, a step that was probably the result of him not leaving out of the box immediately due to not being sure what had happened.
All in all, it was the ugliest game from all facets, hitting, pitching, managing. The only person to come out unscathed, really, is Chris Carpenter, who threw a heck of a game. He made two mistakes, one that Mitch Moreland put into the upper deck and one that Adrian Beltre hit while falling down. (Seriously, still not sure how Beltre hit that one that hard while landing on one knee.) Other than that, he took care of business in a manner befitting the ace of the staff. He deserved a much better fate.
Another unheralded point? Texas's defense is really good. If the Rangers win this series, it's going to be because they have made significant plays in the field. We've seen a game-saving play in every one of Texas's wins and David Murphy's catch to end the third might have saved another run and possibly been the difference.
Instead of those famous happy flights, the last trip of the season is a crappy flight. The Cards head home bloodied, but hopefully unbowed. There's still hope in this situation, even as we smart over the Game 5 loss.
You want hope? Let's talk hope. This wouldn't be a perennial nominee for Most Optimistic Blog in the Cardinal Blogger Awards if I couldn't give you some hope, now would it?
Let's talk about the fact that this isn't necessarily the biggest obstacle this team has faced this season. We know they were 10.5 games back and have extended their season beyond anyone's wildest dreams. We know that the Cards were down 1-0 to Philadelphia in a best of five and trailed Game 2 by four runs, but were able to respond. So far, this team has played its best baseball with no margin for error. In fact, the World Series was the only postseason series that they HADN'T trailed in, getting down twice to Philadelphia (forcing them to win two games in a row, one on the road) and trailing Milwaukee as well. They can rally.
You have Jaime Garcia going in Game 6 back in Busch Stadium. We saw what Garcia did the first time around and we know how well he does at home. If he can handle the pressure of an elimination game, if he can keep from coming unglued if something goes wrong, the Cards should be able to take that game. Colby Lewis did pitch well against Garcia in Game 2 and goes again in this one, but the Cards could and should be favored.
That gets you to a Game 7, where you never know what can happen. TLR will be using every body he can, mixing and matching since there's no tomorrow. So far, since the All-Star Game has "counted", there's not been a Game 7 and the home field advantage has never come into play. There's a first time for everything, and imagine how nuts things would go if Pujols hit a walk-off home run to win the World Series. As much as I'd hate to validate the ASG being tied to home field, I'm good with that.
Even if the Cardinals fail in this quest, though, there's a lot to be proud of. I got a NL Champions t-shirt this weekend and, while I've never rooted so hard for a piece of clothing to be dated, I'll be proud to wear it for a long time to come, because this team represents never giving up, fighting for what you want, never letting the odds determine what you do. Does this team still have that in them? We'll find out Wednesday night.
There's a lot of focus on Albert Pujols this morning and him deflecting the ball Jon Jay threw in enough that Yadier Molina couldn't get Elvis Andrus at second base, setting up first and second with nobody out. There's no doubt that some of the blame has to go there, but it wasn't the biggest issue of the inning, I don't think. Then again, your mileage may vary. There were so many to choose from.
--If you are an "announcer jinx" type of person, you had to hate hearing Joe Buck say that the Cards were playing in their 107th World Series game and they'd never had a 1-0 win in that time span.
--Maybe you want to go back an inning or so, when Daniel Descalso came up with runners on and two out instead of David Freese, who would have been in that slot if TLR hadn't done his regular defensive replacement move.
For me, though, I can't help but think back to that flare that Kinsler hit to start the inning. Another step closer and that ball is caught, there's one out, and Motte can go after Andrus with the crowd behind him and nobody on base. I don't blame TLR too much for having the "no doubles" defense in there, because you don't want to start an inning with a runner on second. Unfortunately, with Kinsler's speed, that's basically what happened.
I am also surprised somewhat that TLR did make the Rhodes/Motte move. It makes sense if runners are on first and second, I think, because you can get the out and even if the runners move up, you only risk a tie game if you can get Michael Young out. With a runner already at third, though, and nobody out, you need a strikeout. Rhodes, for all his value, wasn't going to give you that most likely. If Hamilton is fully healthy, the move is more defensible, but the idea that he was going to hit Motte's fastball (at least with any sort of authority) was really diminished by his groin injury.
You knew, though, that this was coming. I give credit to Kevin who called it on Twitter before the inning started, and while I teased him a bit, I had a low-level anxiety going as well. The narrative was that La Russa was a managing genius and the Cardinal bullpen was dominant. There came a time when the narrative was going to switch and after all the play of TLR on Thursday after Game 1, that time was likely coming soon.
And you have to give all sorts of credit to Texas on this one, not even counting their gutsy play in the ninth inning. They made the plays when they had to, especially Andrus having a diving stop and glove-hand flip that stopped a run from scoring in the fifth. If Furcal's hit goes through, the game takes on a different tone. It could have easily snowballed on Texas there, but they didn't let it. Which is why they won.
Overlooked in all of this, though, is the incredible, outstanding work that Jaime Garcia did. Seven scoreless innings after some shaky outings in the postseason. Getting the key outs, and then looking in line to get the win when Allen Craig--again--got the big base hit to drive in the tiebreaking run off of Alexi Ogando--again.
Now, even though the Cards are tied 1-1 just like they were after Game 2 of the NLDS and Game 2 of the NLCS, there's a little less optimism in the fanbase, I think. First off, in both of those series, they had split on the road and were coming home. Now, the Cardinals have to go down to Arlington, which isn't necessarily the best place for this team--and the starting pitchers scheduled--to play. The first two series, the Cards lost the first but won the second, meaning that happy flights and happy thoughts got to last for another day. This time, there's no happy flight--for the first time in 18 tries--and you have a down note to dwell on until Saturday's first pitch.
The Cards are going to be playing in warmer weather (it should be around 75-80 at game time, instead of 40-45) in a smaller ballpark and having their less pitchers in that environment. It's not exactly the mix that kept the low scores in the first two games, and the Cardinals really don't want to get into a slugfest. Kyle Lohse has a 0.71 GB/FB ratio in 2011, while Edwin Jackson has a 0.79 this season. (For comparison's sake, Chris Carpenter has a 0.88 this year in a down year for him, Garcia has a 1.15 and Jake Westbrook has a 1.47, the reason why some think he should get a start in Texas.) The Cardinals will also being going up against two lefties that they've not seen before (or not much, at least), which typically has been an issue for them. This may be Prince Fielder's revenge--if the Cards had started in Arlington and split, we'd feel a lot better.
Does that mean that this series is over? Not by a long shot.
First off, c'mon, what would this team do with a 2-0 lead? They can't do things the easy way, we know that by now. If you are down 1-0 in games and 4-0 on the scoreboard to Cliff Lee in a best of five series and are able to come back and win, this setback isn't going to crush your spirits.
Secondly, this team, unlike probably any in recent Cardinal memory, is set up to really take advantage of the DH rule. The Cards get to start Craig (which, granted, means he can't pinch hit with the game on the line, but you have to have tradeoffs) and make a potent lineup that much deeper. With lefties coming, you'd think Furcal/Craig/Pujols/Lance Berkman/Matt Holliday/David Freese/Molina/Jay/Nick Punto. That, my friends, is a darn solid lineup. There aren't going to be very many easy innings with that one out there.
Third, it's true that the Cards have in the past struggled with new pitchers, especially lefties. That said, the guys in this lineup have hit lefties and, down the stretch, even players they didn't have a lot of video on, they were able to beat. Matt Harrison had a very solid year this year, there's no doubt about it. He struggled in August, but righted the ship and was very effective down the stretch. Interestingly, lefties hit him harder than righties, which may mean Skip Schumaker gets the call instead of Punto. His ERA at home was .80 higher than his road ERA, closing in on four. He can be hit.
Derek Holland in Game 4 might be the Cards' best chance of getting things back on the winning track, though. Holland won a lot of games at home, but his ERA was 4.69 there. Like Holland, his August was weak but September was strong. His postseason ERA is over 5, which gives some hope as well.
Both of these guys are new to the World Series stage. While Lohse and Jackson haven't necessarily played in the Series, they are more experienced in big games and hopefully won't rattle with the spotlight on them.
If this team is able to take the quality at-bats that we've seen them take, you like their chances of taking at least one of Games 3 and 4. Then you have Carpenter in Game 5 and you'd hope to win that one. Come back and you need one of 6 or 7, and Garcia would go in 6 to give the best chance.
Is it easy? Heck no. Is it doable? Very. And this team has a habit of doing the difficult. As Mal says, "We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty."
After a series where the starters had nothing and the bullpen reigned supreme, a little more baseball order was restored on a very cold night in St. Louis. The temperatures and the moisture in the air might have helped keep balls in the ball park, but there's no doubt that Carpenter had the stuff you expect out of your ace. He made one mistake, a ball that got up to Mike Napoli, who turned on it and roped it down the line for a two-run home run. Other than that, he kept the fearsome Texas offense in check, getting numerous groundballs and never letting Texas really threaten a big inning.
Then, just like in the NLCS, Tony La Russa made exactly the right moves. He pulled Carpenter in the top of the seventh and sent Allen Craig up with two on and two out. All Craig did was plate the winning run and, if the ball hadn't bounced just the right way on Nelson Cruz, could have added a run or two of insurance as well. The bullpen was lights out again, with only Fernando Salas stumbling a bit (allowing a walk and a hit), but Marc Rzepczynski struck out both batters he faced with two on and one out in the seventh to keep the score at 3-2.
There were a lot of positive signs coming out of this game. There were still the good at-bats that we've seen most of the last two months. The Cardinals hit the ball hard at times off of C.J. Wilson and the Texas bullpen, even if they didn't always have something to show for it. For example, David Freese roped one to center that looked like it'd have gone out of the ballpark if the temperature had been about 65 instead of 45. Late in the game Rafael Furcal hit one that got the crowd excited as well before Cruz ran it down right at the warning track.
However, Cardinal fans can't start planning parade routes just yet. The Cardinals really had to win this game and they did. Texas probably didn't have to win it to get a title. There is still some significant work to be done and hopefully Jaime Garcia is up to the task.
Plus, how will the Cardinals react to actually having a lead after the first game of a series? The stats show that the team that wins Game 1 wins the Series 19 of the last 23 times. Since 1993, the home team winning Game 1 and the World Series winner have been one and the same. However, there were similar stats for the NLDS and the NLCS and the Cards bucked them. There's no reason why Texas can't buck them in this Series.
Granted, I like where the Cardinals are sitting now, I liked how they played last night, and I'd much rather be up one game than down one game. I just don't think we can get all that comfortable yet, even if they are sticking to the plan. A Game 2 victory would help me feel much more secure.
What are the odds of that? Well, it is Jaime Garcia at home and we know how effective he's been there. Looking at the Rangers' overall stats, it doesn't look like there is much difference between how Texas hits lefthanders vs. how they hit righthanders. However, they are a significantly less powerful team on the road, so the Cards have that going for them.
We'll probably hear a lot about how the Rangers' Game 2 pitcher, Colby Lewis, is the inverse of Garcia, how he's much better on the road than at home. It's a true statement--teams slug 100 points less against him when he's not in Arlington. That's probably because he's a pretty extreme fly ball pitcher (GB/FB 0.70). Those balls are not likely to carry in a cold Busch Stadium either, so the Cards are going to have to hit line drives and grounders through the infield to win this one. (Lewis does have a really cool birthday, something I'm pretty sure Christine Coleman will agree with me on.)
I like the Cards' chances in this one and would really like to go to Texas up 2-0. Let's make that happen, Redbirds.
Couple of quick notes before I wrap this up. First off, you can see my response to KMOV's inquiry about what the Cards have to do to win the Series over here. Secondly, I do want to note that I have a short baseball/religious metaphor coming this afternoon. If you are not a Christian and don't care to read about things like that, you may want to skip it. It's not deep and it's not preachy, but just wanted to give fair warning.
Game time is 7:05 tonight. Let's hope for the same results as last night!