Fire In The Belly
Cardinals fans have seen teams with a “fire in their belly” in the past. The 1944 Cardinals didn’t hit a lot of home runs or hit for high slugging percentages, but they played hard baseball and had a pitching staff that featured four pitchers who all threw over 200 innings that year. The 1985 Cardinals had a swagger and a confidence on the basepaths, running all over the opposition and playing exceptional defense. These teams had heroes all through the lineup, each one driven to the singular goal of winning the World Series.
Yes, we’ve seen teams with a fire in their belly. This current Cardinals team does not have it.
Let me say this first: There is almost no reason why this team should not win the World Series. As 2006 showed, any team can take it if they’re hot at the right time. This current edition of the Cardinals is better on paper than that legendary collection of junk.
The 2011 Cardinals have all of the elements of a winner – they have a couple of ace-level, long-distance starters (Carpenter, Jackson, Garcia), four big bats (Pujols, Holliday, Berkman, and Freese), lots of depth on the bench, and have had a solid bullpen for at least a month. This is a team that leads the National League in batting average, runs, RBI’s, and slugging. Their pitching ERA is middle-of-the-pack, but they lead the NL in fewest walks allowed and have kept the team in most games.
Yet they cannot seem to go on a run and dominate. This is a team that can come into a series against Milwaukee after sweeping the Marlins and have zero momentum. This has happened all season. The Cardinals will come off of a spectacularly exciting win, only to look flat and listless the following day.
Winning teams do not do this. The players on winning teams can’t wait to come back to the ballpark and perform another miracle. They fight for every at bat, take that extra leap, steal that extra base, go that extra inning. They want the ball. Their bodies are conduits of pure, electrified adrenaline, twisting and clawing to make the superhuman possible.
That does not describe the 2011 Cardinals. Sure, the clubhouse chemistry seems better than in recent years – so what? This team gropes for answers at the plate like a bunch of punch-drunk boxers. The starters pitch tentatively around the plate, and they all (except Carpenter and Jackson) seem relieved to get the hell out of there after five innings. Until recently, the relievers looked like a lineup of sheep sent to slaughter rather than having that lock-down mentality of good Cardinals bullpens of the past.
With the 2011 Cardinals, it comes down to a lack of that fire in the belly. Milwaukee has it. You can see them at the plate, on the bases, in the field, on the mound – they want to win it from their opposition. Their mistakes usually come from trying too hard, not from mindless, amateur mistakes like we’ve seen from the Cardinals this year.
Players with a fire in their bellies do not shrug off a loss like last night’s zombie-like effort with a casual “We tried” response before heading off to their mansions. Teams with a fire in the belly do not whine about the lights, stolen signs, and hit batters. A fire in the belly forces a team to fight through injuries, bad calls, unfavorable conditions, and tough opponents.
The 2011 Cardinals have all the talent in the world, but none of the drive to destroy their opponents night after night. In short, they don’t have a fire in the belly. And that, more than anything else, is the reason why they will go home early this October.