This post has been clanking around in my head for some time, a couple of weeks now at least, just waiting for the right moment – the right time to finally put words to screen, to find what it is that remains of the 2011 Cardinals season.
Away from the whiplash fans (“Tonight’s win was just what the Cards need to retake first place.” Next night: “Oh my gosh, this loss is the worst loss ever and this team will never win another game.” You know this fan? Are YOU this fan?), the extreme optimists (“There are still seven games left, of course they can overcome a six game deficit.” I truly appreciate this dedication.), and the folks who just never seem happy (“Yeah, Albert Pujols hit three home runs tonight, but if he hadn’t made that error, the Cards would’ve won by 27! They should trade Pujols. Loser.” Feel sorry for this bunch.) – there is a reality that has been developing. It’s not pretty, and it’s also not written in stone – but each Cardinals loss and Brewers win brings us a step closer to it.
The Cards just weren’t good enough.
This post is going to seem very disjointed and conflicted, but please understand that for each point and counterpoint below, right or wrong, I believe both. I still hold optimism that the club can pull something off – something equal and opposite of their 2006 swoon (albeit with different results than that team wound up with – they would have to be on the other hand now, upsetting a collapsing leader). I’m realistic enough to understand and begin to resign myself to the fact that it’s not likely to happen, and beginning the process of trying to understand why and offer my humble explanation.
OPTIMISM: The season isn’t over yet. This club still has the Wild Card to play for, still has six games against the Brewers, still time to put together an epic winning streak.
REALISM: What makes you think the Cards can magically beat the Brewers six of six (which is looking more and more necessary, as the Milwaukee bunch continues to tick off win after win)? For that matter, what makes anyone believe that the Cards could even string together five wins in a row against ANYONE? Hasn’t happened yet this season.
OPTIMISM: The Brewers are bound for a crash. They have won seventeen of their last nineteen games, a truly unsustainable win rate.
REALISM: Yeah, sure, they won’t continue to win at an almost .900 clip, but so what? The fact that they already have over a span of 19 games has put them so far ahead that it is beginning to not matter how badly they could slump. If the Brewers played .500 ball the rest of 2011, finishing at 91-71, the Cardinals would have to go 26-14, a .650 winning percentage. Even in their great April, the Cards were only 16-10, a .615 win percentage.
I want to expand some more on the Brewers’ crazy play of late. They have good pitching. They have a good offense. Both are really clicking for them right now, something that the Cardinals have really not had happen for them all year. The bullpen was down early in the season even when they were winning. Then the offense took a nap. Lately, the starting pitching has been failing them. All it took was for one club, in a division left up-for-grabs, to get hot and click – and the rest would be flailing behind them. That is what has happened. Were the Brewers the better club all along? Maybe, maybe not. What matters is that they have been the better club for the last two months or so, and the Cardinals haven’t answered the bell.
What I’m ultimately getting at is this: Cardinals fans want to “blame” the Brewers for getting hot and winning at an “unreasonable” rate. Well, I don’t expect MLB to take away any of those wins anytime soon. Blame whatever you want, the Brewers are six games ahead of the Cardinals. That’s not changing. Colby Rasmus being with the Cardinals since the end of July was not going to make the Brewers win any fewer games. Brendan Ryan does not own Ryan Braun voodoo dolls (okay, I’m making an assumption there, but one I feel pretty confident in). The Cardinals had a chance. If they played two games above .500 ball in June and July, we’re talking about a two-game deficit right now, instead of six. And that INCLUDES the Brewers’ 17-of-19 blitz.
None of this is to say that the Cardinals can’t share in the blame. They weren’t as good as necessary to win the division in June and July. I don’t want anything written here to be misconstrued as letting the Cardinals off the hook because the Brewers have played out of their heads. But that’s really what this season has boiled down to, isn’t it? One could pretty reasonably argue that the Cardinals and Brewers came into the season as equals, where a couple breaks one way or the other could make or break one. Well, the Brewers have turned a bad break (Rickie Weeks‘ injury) into an incredible run. The Cardinals haven’t seized their opportunities and often look lethargic. If it weren’t for bad luck, the Cards might not have any. That’s the way it has shaken out – the Brewers have done more, the Cardinals less.
But I digress…
OPTIMISM: Albert Pujols is getting hot, if the offense can consistently put runs on the board, the Cardinals can run off 17-of-their-own-19.
REALISM: James McDonald just held the Cardinals to two runs on six hits.
OPTIMISM: The bullpen is pitching really well, at least we don’t have to worry about blowing leads like early in the season.
REALISM: The bullpen is pitching really well, at least we don’t have to worry about blowing leads like early in the season. Hey, Jason Motte has been really, really, REALLY good. And the manager has even used his bullpen wisely in some situations, bringing in his best reliever in the situation that called for it, specific inning or matchups be damned.
OPTIMISM: What about catching the Braves (or other appropriately leading at the time Wild Card team)?
REALISM: The Braves (or any other Wild Card team) are certainly not as hot as the Brewers right now, but we’re overlooking one thing – the Cardinals still have to win.
OPTIMISM: But this is 2011! Remember the new clubhouse chemistry and improved offense, they were awesome in April!
REALISM: Yeah, I know. I’ve a constant reminder on this site of the dangers of sample size and getting all gussied up about a team we apparently didn’t really know yet, with many unproven cogs. I know the Cardinals CAN win like that. I’m less and less confident that they WILL win like that, given the current state of affairs.
OPTIMISM: The club will right itself, the manager can still affect change.
REALISM: I think we have seen, more this season than at any other time, a league that has finally refused to be intimidated by Tony La Russa. In prior years, Tony would say something, the umpires and opposing managers would either willingly or unknowingly fall into line, and the Cardinals would profit. Now, Tony spouts off and makes himself and the organization look foolish. No one holds him to a higher standard anymore, and I don’t think it’s for lack of performance – I think it’s just lack of caring about his “way to play the game”. Tony doesn’t like pitches to be thrown up and in – Ron Roenicke (and plenty of other managers, I’m sure) doesn’t care what Tony thinks. And so on and so forth…
OPTIMISM: Maybe Corey Patterson can get hot.
REALISM: Maybe Corey Patterson is not a major league caliber ball-player.
OPTIMISM: Maybe Corey Patterson will get designated for assignment.
REALISM: He’s more likely to get a contract extension, if La Russa plans to stick around for 2012.
You get the idea. My point is this – the folks who argue that the season isn’t yet over (and I’m trying my damnedest to remain one – so far, so good) are right. But with each momentum killing loss after winning two or three in a row, the Cardinals are putting themselves more and more in the path of the reaper.
The folks who argue that this season was damned from the beginning aren’t quite right either. This is why they play the games. The Brewers took off in July and August. What can the Cardinals do about it but try to keep up? They didn’t, they haven’t, and they’ve dug themselves a hole. So now it’s the front office’s fault for not putting together a better team? Not putting together a team that can keep up with one playing .900 ball? Let’s not mistake my intent here, obviously the Brewers were not built to play .900 ball, but they’ve caught a hot streak – what is John Mozeliak supposed to do about it? Go back to the off-season and trade for Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez and not let Adam Wainwright pitch during the spring? If Mozeliak is guilty of anything, it’s continually cow-towing to the manager’s desire to sign and actually use (!) players past their primes, providing negative value/performance, and blocking just as capable younger players in need of development. But yet again, what is a general manager to do when his hand is so forced, such as in the Rasmus situation? The manager is in the hip-pocket of ownership, is apparently above reprimand or consequence for inappropriate comments and/or behavior, and knows it. *sigh*
Step back from the ledge for a minute.
No one was complaining about Colby Rasmus in April when he was tearing the cover off of the ball, including the manager. Once he went cold, so did he and TLR’s “relationship”. Again. Total coincidence, right?
Everyone was willing to be patient with Jake Westbrook‘s flailing in April and May because the team was winning, giving Jake plenty of run support. Surely he would figure it out, right? He hasn’t, and the team now sporadically scores runs for him. Problem.
I’m just as guilty as anyone of that “aw, it’ll work itself out” attitude as any fan or observer – what’s not to like about a club distancing itself from the pack in April and May?
Now we flash forward to the middle of August, and all of that energy has long been sucked out – by injuries, by the manager running his mouth and strong-arming players, player fights, what else? It’s a daily soap opera with this club.
Sure, some of Tony’s gambits have worked, like the “start” he gave Miguel Batista against the Reds that so infuriated Dusty Baker. La Russa is still a heck of a manager, but I fear sometimes that he’s read too many of his own press clippings. For every advantage he gives this club – and make no mistake, that is always his end-game with ANYTHING he does – I can’t help but think he’s approaching or teetering over the tipping point between advantageous gamesmanship and destructive distraction. If you really want to hear some excellent discussion of La Russa, please listen to the Baseball Prospectus podcast episode featuring Matthew Leach.
Perhaps it’s the mentality installed by Tony La Russa for all of these years, or the IMPENDING DOOM ™ that surrounds the team trying to win again before Pujols supposedly skips town, but I’ve never seen a team less excited about sweeping a four-game series than the Cardinals in Florida last week. Are we to believe that they still are optimistic, or has the reality set in for them that the Brewers are running away with “their” division?
I said it on Twitter earlier this week, and I’ll say it again here: The Cardinals have improved in August. Before last night’s loss to the Pirates, they had gone 7-3 in their previous 10 games. The Brewers were 9-1 over the same stretch, including two wins over the Cardinals, one of which could have gone either way in extra innings and was a hell of an exciting game to watch. If at the end of the season, the Cardinals have played .700 ball to close out and the Brewers have played .900 – what can the team do besides tip their caps? If you want to play the blame game, go ahead – but it occurs to me that maybe the Brewers have just been the better club, if even only for three weeks – sometimes that’s all it takes.
I didn’t intend for this to come off as an obituary for the 2011 Cardinals. Not yet. Lots of baseball to be played, and stranger things have happened. I’m still watching every game, and I hope you will too.
OPTIMISM: Here’s hoping for a 2-and-19 stretch for the Brewers.
REALISM: I’d be happy with the Cardinals winning on the same night the Brewers lose, to start…