5 Reasons the St. Louis Cardinals Will Still Make the Playoffs in 2012
As Mike Matheny and the Cards seem to be backing into the playoffs, they are far closer to emulating their flawed 2006 team rather than last year's squad that became one of the most astounding stories in baseball history.
However, deposed All-Star pitcher Lance Lynn may have righted his second half—as well as the Cards' playoff aspirations—with a sturdy six-inning performance in Los Angeles on Thursday evening against the Dodgers, as the Cardinals held on for a 2-1 win.
After sitting on 13 wins since July 27, Lynn has now chalked up two W's in his last two outings.
Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs, and Jason Motte did what they have done throughout the second half by knocking out the seventh, eighth and ninth innings to secure the win.
The Cards did their best to lose the game, of course, by leaving 11 runners stranded with the skittish Matheny employing too many bunt attempts and the team defense giving away another error.
With all their second-half turmoil, the Cardinals still control their own fate and are currently sitting two games up for the final wild card playoff spot with 18 games left to play.
Here are five reasons why the Cards will make the playoffs in 2012.
Lance Lynn Is Back
In four of six starts between July 27 and August 24, Lance Lynn allowed four or more earned runs and saw his ERA balloon from 3.10 to 3.93.
His ERA in the month of August was a diabolical 6.66. Talk about a bad omen.
But truth be told, Lynn is the Cardinals best representation of a No. 1 ace that the club has on hand and healthy.
When right, Lynn touches 96-mph with his four-seam fastball and keeps batters off-balance with a decent curve and sinker.
Throughout his difficult August, Lynn's mechanics seemed out of whack as he was falling off the left side of the mound toward first base. Consequently, he was lacking velocity, sitting around 91 mph, and elevating his pitches.
Some also speculated that his ground-ball-centric coaching staff was pushing him to throw his slower two-seam sinker more than his lively four-seam fastball.
Perhaps, they forgot that unlike Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse, Lynn actually has a power arm.
Whatever the source of his slump, he looked much more confident last night in Los Angeles, driving downhill toward the plate and hitting 95-mph with regularity.
With his mechanics restored, he also saw inward movement return to his fastball into righties, giving them uncomfortable fits of "happy feet".
If things are again clicking for Lynn and he can ride a nice streak through October, the Cardinals really don't have a better option to have on the mound.
The Los Angeles Dodgers Are in a Worse Slump Than Cards
If the Cardinals and Orioles are polar opposites this season, the Dodgers are the Cards' identical twins in terms of talent failing to lead to production.
Both teams sport above average pitching and plenty of offensive talent, yet they both struggle to put more than three runs on the board in far too many games. Sustained consistency is fleeting.
Los Angeles added no less than seven former All-Stars at or after the trade deadline this year, all of which will be major contributors for the Dodgers—save Carl Crawford, who is on the disabled list.
Let that sink in for a second; seven All-Stars.
Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Brandon League are all firmly in their prime. Shane Victorino and Bobby Abreu are both seasoned veterans that give manager Don Mattingly flexibility.
Adding these players to the already ultra-talented duo of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier nearly fields a complete All-Star team.
But September has not been kind to them either.
Ramirez is batting .214 in September. Ethier (.256) and Gonzalez (.250) have not fared much better, and the All-World Kemp (.139) looks completely lost.
Like the Cardinals, the Dodgers pitching staff also appears to be running on fumes.
The final wild card spot may come down to a battle of attrition this weekend in Los Angeles. The Cards, though, have the upper-hand in winning game one.
Matt Carpenter Is Finally Playing Regularly
The Cardinals' new "Secret Weapon", Matt Carpenter, is in his first full season in the majors, but for those seeing him play for the first time, they'd probably swear he was a three-year veteran already.
At 26 years old, Carpenter is quickly becoming a heart-and-soul type of Cardinal player, sporting a scruffy three-day beard and shunning batting gloves at the plate. He's a throwback to say the least.
He's providing the same kind of jolt Daniel Descalso provided last season after his call-up.
Carpenter scored the 10th-inning winning run on September 9 in St. Louis on a beautiful slide to the back of home plate, as his left hand brushed the plate. I don't think we'd see Matt Holliday or Carlos Beltran making the same determined effort if positions were reversed.
Carpenter plays all infield positions and both corner outfield spots. The left-handed swinger crushes right-hand pitching (.327/.403/.503/.906), yet is certainly not helpless against lefties (.256/.293/.453/.746), negating the need to platoon him.
In fact, his most recent home run last week came against 13-game-winner Clayton Richard of the Padres, a talented lefty, and in cavernous Petco Park no less.
Carpenter has not had an OPS lower than .768 in any month this season, and his .303/.368/.486/.854 slash line on the season ranks right there with anyone on the club.
While Beltran's slump has been terrible, a positive outcome has been that it has forced Mike Matheny's hand in giving Carpenter regular playing time. With every big bat in the Cards lineup slumping at the moment, Carpenter's bat and attitude are needed now more than ever.
Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran Are Due to Get Hot
The Cardinals' two biggest bats, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, have had trying second halves of the 2012 season.
Beltran's slump began immediately after the All-Star break. From July 1 to September 12, Beltran's average plummeted from .308 to .260, and he has batted .211 or worse in each and every month during this time, rendering him virtually useless since he brings poor defense to the team's profile.
After batting .363 in July, Holliday's production fell off a cliff in August, when he batted .252 and then .231 in September.
But both sluggers may be showing signs of warming up.
Holliday's on-base percentage has improved in September (.333 compared to .288 in August). Beltran's on-base percentage has similarly improved (.324 in September versus .271 in August).
Better plate discipline is the first step to getting both All-Stars back to their productive ways.
Historically, September has been a good month for both Beltran and Holliday, and while both are getting long in the tooth, each is due to have one more hot streak before the season is over, which should push the Cards toward another postseason berth.
Chris Carpenter Will Return to Save the Pitching Staff
In Peter Jackson's second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers, a dismayed group of heroes are lost in a dark forest and then are blinded by the appearance of a dazzling white light.
At first they are afraid, until they realize their friend and mentor, Gandalf the Wizard, has returned to aid them after coming back from the dead.
When Chris Carpenter takes the mound for the Cardinals later this month, I imagine the effect will be similar.
Thoughts of "It can't be," will quickly become cries of "Our leader has returned!"
It's comical that Carpenter rubs other teams and their fans the wrong way. Critics have used terms like "phony" to describe the fiery hurler as he yells at himself on the mound and wears his emotions on his sleeve.
But as a native New Englander and former hockey player, Carpenter has always been a working-class competitor. He sets the bar high for himself, his teammates, and even his opponents. "Phony" is the last adjective that could ever be ascribed to the ace.
Funny, players used to think the same things about Bob Gibson and his intense glare—though never saying a word for fear of getting a fastball between their shoulder blades.
While his career numbers have been diminished by injuries throughout his career, Chris Carpenter has truly been the spiritual successor to Gibson for this current generation of Cardinal players and their fans.
A mediocre first half in 2011—during which Carpenter allowed 140 hits in 128.2 innings—lead to a 4-7 record and 3.85 ERA. Yet "Carp" went into beast mode in the second half (7-2, 2.98 ERA) culminating in a complete game shutout in Houston on the last day of the season.
Carpenter essentially willed the Cardinals to the postseason a year ago and how poetic would it be if he did the same thing for the Cardinals in 2012?
Moreover, who doubts he could do it?