The Final Month – A Few Questions
One of the most frustrating and tumultuous seasons in Cardinal history has come down to its final month. Due to a variety of factors, the team finds itself 8.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds and (miraculously) clinging to the final wild card spot by 1.5 games over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Questions abound. Moves will be made. Fortunes will be decided. Here is a look at the realities, the possibilities, and the decisions that might determine them.
Can the Cardinals catch the Reds? Most Cardinal players have repeatedly stated that their only goal is to catch the Reds in the standings. That’s always an excellent goal, but it would require another monumental collapse in the final month on par with Boston and Atlanta last year.
To make up the 9-game ground between them and win the division, the Cardinals would need to match their final 29-game push last year and go 21-8 the rest of the way (something they haven’t done since April). Even at that incredible pace, the Reds would also need to win just 12 games (out of 28) to tie the Cardinals (93 wins a piece). The Reds’ winning percentage of .604 suggests that, barring a sudden collapse, they will win 16 games the rest of the way.
Catching the Reds is an excellent but unlikely goal.
Can the Cardinals hang onto the wild card spot or advance? If the season ended today, the Cardinals would be possessors of the second wild card spot, and would be subjected to a one-game playoff in Atlanta (since Atlanta has the better record). Ideally, the Cardinals would prefer to play that game at home (where their winning percentage increases exponentially), which would require gaining three games on the Braves. Since we have no head-to-head games left, the Cardinals must do a fair amount of winning and hope someone takes down the Braves.
As it is, the Braves have a soft schedule for most of September. They play most of their games against the Mets, the Brewers, the Marlins, and the Rockies. Among contenders, they have just six games – three against the Nationals, and an intriguing three-game set against the Pirates to end the season.
The Cardinals have an even softer schedule in September. They face the Cubs, the Astros, the Mets, and the Padres for most of the month. However, they will have a tough opponent in mid-September in a four game series against the Dodgers (a potentially huge series for both teams), and a season-ending showdown with the Reds.
Frankly, I like the Cardinals’ chances to hang onto the wild card, and potentially gain the cushy upper hand in that race.
What do we do about shortstop? With Rafael Furcal gone for the season and potentially part of next year (if he has surgery on his elbow), the Cardinals need to make some quick decisions. Daniel Descalso is likely the front-runner due to his glove. However, he is batting a queasy .089 in the last thirty days, which would be the approximate batting average of a pit bull wagging its tail at home plate.
Anybody missing Tyler Greene these days?
Ryan Jackson looked overwhelmed in his brief (four games) tryout with the club, managing as many hits (one) as errors.
Given that a deal is unlikely at this stage, I guess our best bet is Descalso while hoping that he finds a little bit of 2011 magic along the way.
What about the starting rotation? After two months of brilliant starts, the rotation suddenly looks vulnerable. Jake Westbrook has had two poor starts in a row, Kyle Lohse looked bad yesterday (although that will happen), and Joe Kelly was smacked around harder than usual in his last start. Adam Wainwright has been good lately, although, like Lohse, he had a bad start recently. And there seems to be an unnerving downward-slope to Jaime Garcia‘s performances since his return from the disabled list.
This is a rotation that can get this team to the playoffs. My only serious concern involves Garcia, who may still not be 100% healthy and looked befuddled in his last start. Once in the playoffs, we can cast off two of these guys (probably Garcia and Kelly) and use our top three horses, all of which should give us a fighting chance as long as we aren’t shut out over and over again.
As for the Lance Lynn/Joe Kelly controversy, I believe the club made the right move by sending Lynn to the bullpen. Lynn looks gassed, and nothing he’s shown out of the pen seems to indicate otherwise. Kelly is fresher, more athletic, and a gamer; I like his makeup. Kelly should be the fifth starter down the stretch, and a bullpen arm in the playoffs.
Can we make any impact additions? The club has already added Lance Berkman back from the disabled list, although he is unlikely to contribute much other than laughter to the clubhouse and the occasional pinch hit. They’ve also added Pete Kozma (yay?). Left-handed reliever Sam Freeman has also been called up.
One intriguing potential call-up that has gotten very little press is Oscar Taveras, the fearless Dominican Ted Williams scorching the minor leagues. This needs to happen. Not only could Taveras provide some Bryce Harper-like energy to this slow and often flat club, but he could spell Carlos Beltran and give him the rest he obviously needs. Taveras is a possible game-changer to this team.
[edited: thanks, Rob Murphy!]
Also – FREE Shelby Miller. With the rotation wobbling and the bullpen cracking a bit, the club might benefit from Miller in relief. The kid has clearly learned a few lessons in humility during a rough season, and has corrected himself. We need a young, fresh, and electric arm right now, and Miller might be the key.
Is Yadi okay? The hit Yadier Molina absorbed from Josh Harrison in Pittsburgh on Tuesday emotionally crippled this team and cannot be underestimated. Molina is the single most important player on this team, and seeing him crumpled on the ground had a ripple effect on the the rest of the players.
Since his inspirational return just two days after the tackle, Molina hasn’t looked as nimble behind the plate (three passed balls two nights ago, and another yesterday), and his swing lacks some pop; he’s still obviously hurting.
We really need to get him some rest right now. Tony Cruz should be used often in the next weeks, particularly in getaway games. Yadi needs to get better, and rest is a huge part of that.
Any surprises coming? I wouldn’t bet against Chris Carpenter striding to the mound to lead this team with an inspirational performance in a critical game down the stretch or in the playoffs. The team has been very quiet about him lately.
What do the Cardinals need to do to improve? Uh … WIN! More than that, they need to really dig down within themselves to find their battle armor. This is a talented team that has spent three frustrating months recoiling in terror at almost every challenge. They look like pound puppies that have been beaten by a previous owner.
At the beginning of the season, the Cardinals were the best team in the National League. They’re still very good despite losing Berkman, Chris Carpenter, and now Furcal. It’s a testament to the overall talent level that this battered club has hung around in contention despite the overwhelming number of injuries and setbacks. It would crush a lesser team.
As many experts have said, the 2012 Cardinals might be the most dangerous team in the playoffs this year. We just need to get there. The next thirty days – and how they’re used – will be incredibly important.