What in the name of Red Schoendienst is going on in the land of the Gateway Arch?
The favored veteran Red Birds appeared to be well on their way to dispatching the upstart Reds en route to a second straight NL Central crown.
The younger and less experienced Reds looked rattled as evidenced by Brandon Phillips’ juvenile remarks and the brawl that ensued during the series as a result, which featured Johnny Cueto’s kicking tantrum.
Boy what a difference a month has made.
The Cardinals have gone just 8-16 since sweeping the Reds. Of those 16 losses, 11 have come at the hands of the inferior dregs of the NL Central (the Astros, Brewers, Cubs and Pirates) and another three were against the lowly Nationals. Yet, somehow, they went 4-2 against the Reds and Giants – two playoff candidates - over the same span.
The low point had to have been that three-game set in Houston at the end of last month when the Cards failed to put up a run in a pair against JA Happ and a resurgent Wandy Rodriguez. Or this past 2-1 series loss vs. the Brewers where the Cards could have gained three games on the Reds, who have lost three straight to Colorado coming into today.
This simply makes no sense.
The Talent Is There
The Cardinals are stacked with talent. This team has candidates for nearly every major award in MLB. Adam Wainwright is still among the top choices for the NL Cy Young award. Chris Carpenter should be in the running as well. Jaime Garcia is a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year, though he’s going against plenty of stiff competition in Buster Posey, Jason Heyward and Gaby Sanchez. And, of course, the incomparable Albert Pujols is in a three-horse race with Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto for not only the MVP, but the rare Triple Crown.
The Cards have also gotten good offensive production from Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus, though Rasmus has been a distraction of late and drawn the scorn of Phat Albert. Holliday may not be worth the hefty contract, but you can't complain about a guy that's hitting over .300 with 25 dongs, 88 RBI and 81 runs scored. Rasmus has added a decent .268 average, 19 homers and a modest 55 RBI in his second full year with the team.
Despite all that talent, the Cardinals are currently on the outside looking in at the NL playoff hunt.
When was the last time a team had the Cy Young and MVP award winners and didn’t make the playoffs? The answer is never in 16 instances.
The Playoff Situation Is Bleak
At 72-65, the Red Birds trail the Reds by six games in the Central and their opponent on Thursday night, the Braves, by six-and-a-half games for the Wild Card. This could be the third time in four years that St. Louis has missed the playoffs. And it may as well have been four straight years after the pathetic performance they put up during a three-game NLDS sweep at the hands of the Dodgers.
This comes as a shock to the fan base after the franchise made six trips to the postseason in a seven-year span from 2000-2006.
At the Root of It All
A lack of consistent offensive production has been the biggest reason for the slide, though the occasional bullpen hiccup and erratic starts by Kyle Lohse and Jeff Suppan haven’t helped either.
The Cardinals have scored three runs or fewer in 14 or their last 24 games, going 2-12 in those instances. You can have the best pitching staff in the league, but if you’re not putting up runs, eventually it catches up with you.
The Deal That Sealed the Deal?
The struggles at the plate have to make you wonder whether trading Ryan Ludwick for Brian Westbrook was at the heart of the downfall. Ludwick has been a solid contributor the last few years. In ’08 he hit 37 homers, drove in 113 and hit .299. Last year he hit 22 round-trippers and drove in 97, but his average dipped to .265. He was hitting .281 with 11 HR and 43 RBI when the Cards traded him.
Ludwick’s been injury-prone and he’s headed for free agency and with the commitments to Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus and Pujols’ contract on the horizon, I can see some of the financial reasoning behind it.
I also understand that with Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse being injured at the time and Jeff Suppan and Blake Hawksworth being their only other unreliable options, John Mozeliak had to do something to try and stop the bleeding at the back of the rotation.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t address the back end of the rotation and add a big bat and that appears to be what will do the Cards in.
So far, the history books will say that this move was a wash at best. Westbrook has been solid yet unspectacular, going 1-3 with a 3.89 ERA in seven starts. But he hasn’t gotten any run production.
Ludwick has hit just .214 with three homers and 14 RBI in 35 games with the Padres, but whose to say that he wouldn’t have gone on a tear with the Cardinals. They had better protection for him than San Diego does.
Taking Ludwick’s bat out of the lineup has forced Tony La Russa to go with rookie Jon Jay, Randy Winn and Nick Stavinoha to plug the holes and it really hasn’t worked out.
But that’s fodder for another fire.
So... Is It Over?
No, but it’s getting damn close.
Wainwright’s on the hill tonight squaring off against Jair Jurrjens.
Wainwright has lost his last four starts, the longest losing streak of his career. He’s recorded a 4.88 ERA during that span. Hitters have gone off to the tune of .293 against him and he’s only last five innings in his past two starts.
The big righty has a chance to reverse his Cy Young fortunes starting tonight. He looked to be a lock after his 17th victory over the Reds back in mid-August. But now he’s a win behind Ubaldo Jimenez and sits third in ERA behind Mat Latos and Josh Johnson.
All it takes is one win to start a streak going in the opposite direction. This will certainly be no gimme. The Braves are locked in a battle with the Phillies for first place in the NL East, entering the day a game back. They also lead the Wild Card. They certainly can’t afford to drop any of these four games against a floundering team at home.
But the Cardinals inexplicably have played well against playoff contenders. They’re 7-2 against the Reds and Giants in the last month.
After the series with the Bravos, they’ve got six games against the Chubbies in a home-and-home, four against the similarly floundering Padres at home, a make-up game against the Fish in Miami, six more against the Pirates in a home-and-home and another make-up at home against the Rocks.
That’s a winnable schedule.
Flashes of 2006 Struggles Before Title Run?
Let’s not forget how terrible the Cards played down the stretch in 2006. They had three successive losing months to close the season, including two eight-game losing streaks and a seven-game losing streak.
As much as I’d like to say that there are parallels to that season, it just doesn’t feel the same. The ’06 Cards had a big lead in the Central and just watched it dwindle away while other teams like the Astros and Reds played catch-up. The Cards were losing to crappy Central teams then too, but I always had a reassuring feeling that they were the team to beat.
Now, the Reds are without a doubt the team to beat. They’ve lost four straight and five of six, but they still have the momentum and that comfy cushion. Plus, Votto is showing no signs of slowing down, they’ve got a solid stable of arms and they have that October feel to them where a new hero is taking over every night and they’re getting buzz from their call-ups and young prospects like Ardolis Chapman, Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey and many others.
This doesn’t feel like the Cardinals year right now due to this recent slide, but it’s not over. I’m not throwing in the towel yet, though I’ve felt like puking in it watching this team over the last month.
If the Cards are to come back, they have to get some production from guys like Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker, Yadier Molina and Felipe Lopez or something out of the third base spot. These guys have all been pretty disappointing after having breakout years last year. If they continue to be easy outs through the line-up, the losing will continue and the Cards will be home in October.