Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It Isn't Pretty: Three Things You Won't Hear on Sports Talk Radio about the 2012 Cardinals Season

Three things you won't hear on sports radio in St. Louis:

  1. The impact of the NLCS is not just a "tough loss".   It is the way they lost.  The St. Louis Cardinals of 2011-2012 have been unmasked as Pretenders.  
  2. Trevor Rosenthal could've led the Cardinals to the World Series, but loyalty to the old tired horses of the starting rotation made Mike Matheny blind to it.
  3. 2013 does not look promising, because the Cardinals lack a leader.  If the Cardinals had a leader, there is no way they would've dropped a series up three games to one.

1.  You had three games in a row that were basically over by the fourth inning.  The Cardinals were outscored 20-1.  When the going got tough, the Cardinals said, "See ya' later".  Game-watching parties across Cardinal nation were over before the dips and chips even got put out for the guests.  It was like suffering through three game sevens of the 1985 World Series.  Except instead of a blown call by a first-base umpire, the Cardinals were depressed about -  what??  Nothing more than their own incompetence, I guess.

How much more fitting it would've been to lose those three games by 4-3, 2-1 and 5-4.  But these were old-fashioned blowouts, all three. Not only did the Cardinals' pitching staff allow a lot of runs early, but the team didn't hit in the clutch (or in any other circumstance really), it didn't field, it didn't throw to the right base (or was AWOL even covering the base), it  had trouble gripping the baseball, it made bad decisions, it let whiny Marco Scutoro get the NLCS MVP and make two incredible showboating moves right in the Cardinals' face (a "two flaps down" ground-ball put-out and walking across the Cardinals' pitcher's mound), it not only could not retire a San Francisco pitcher but could not prevent them from driving in runs, and suffered a humiliating plonk on the triceps of Matt Holliday late in game three when the three-game drubbing plus Holliday's hitting only .200, should've been enough comeuppance for even the most bloodthirsty Giant.  This was "game set match" of a proportion never experienced in the history of major league baseball.  A humiliation. A rubbing of the Cardinals' nose in their own poop.

Viewers across America must have been saying to themselves, "How did the Cardinals even get here?  How did they win the World Series last year? A team this feckless must've gotten totally lucky."  It also raised the "LaRussa Specter", that is, the specter that without a great manager, this is only a good team.  Games five, six and seven were so bad it was like the Giants were playing against themselves.

2.  Now, to the pitching staff. With all due respect to the Cardinals' starting pitchers, that obviously did something right to enable the team to win 88 games this year, it does not, at present, contain a "stopper".  Not one guy who you can just hand the ball to and expect precision and perfection, nine times out of 10.  The type of pitcher that every championship club has at least one of.  A guy like Chris Carpenter I of the 2011 Cardinals.  Adam Wainwright gives you one good start and one bad start.    .500 is not good enough for the postseason, however.   Chris Carpenter still has "gutsy" written all over him, but coming back from TOS surgery, and having a rib removed, and being 37-years old,  it was really more of a wing and a prayer that Carpenter II was going to be able to do his "rehab" and "find his motion again", not in spring training 2013, but in the heat of a postseason.  It was an extreme case of wishful thinking among the Cardinal Nation.  And we all fell for it.  Lance Lynn was not even slated for the starting rotation this year until Carpenter went down.  He was banished to the bullpen midseason, and was at best a question mark going into the postseason.  Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia both have spotty postseason records, and the latter was injured.  Who was supposed to fill Garcia's spot?  Did they ever fill his spot?  Who knows?  Who even knew what the rotation was by the first game of the NLDS.  It was catch as catch can. "Rotation?  Sure, we've got a rotation.  It's right here on this sheet of paper."  This was a team that played .500 ball from August 28 on.  It wasnt like any of the pitchers had single-handedly pitched us into the playoffs.  So who knew?  If the Atlanta Braves had not themselves thrown the ball around the infield like the Keystone Cops, Lohse's stuff would not have been good enough to help the Cardinals even get into the NLDS.

But does pitching even matter?  Of course it does!  Many sports-talk pundits, after the NLCS loss, said, "If the Cardinals cannot score runs, they're not going to win; it cannot get any simpler than that."  But Brian Stull (my former WGNU colleague) on KXOS ESPN radio in St. Louis, gave the best counterargument to this sportswriter clich√© and platitude that I've ever heard, on his evening radio show on October 23, 2012.    Brian said that your starting pitchers giving up a big lead early, like the Cardinals pitchaers did, influences everything else about the game.  Your hitters press, and widen their strike zones.  Your fielders press and make errors.  The opposing hurlers, meanwhile, get to just "rear back and throw".  It's not the same game when the starting pitcher has his teammates buried deep by the fourth inning.    Your hitting will be affected.  Sure, the Cardinals came back in game five of the NLDS vs. Washington, from an early deficit, but there is a side of the athlete's psyche that says to itself, "Do we have to come-from-behind every time?   Can't the pitchers help us out just once??"

If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times from various sports commentators during the postseason: "the Cardinals' bullpen is so good that you want to hurry up and get to it."  Well, folks, there's a question begging here. If the middle relief is that good, maybe they should be the starters and the starters should be the middle relievers!  Starting pitching is, after all, a more essential commodity than middle relief.  How many middle relievers are in the Hall of Fame?

Into this breach stepped one Trevor Rosenthal.  Rosenthal is a 22-year-old minor-league starter who had been pitching creditably in middle relief since he was called up to the big leagues in late July.  However, the postseason is when he really found his stride.    He was clocked at 101 mph in game three, a Cardinal blowout.  Bleacher Report called him "One of the Five Rookies Who Could Swing the Momentum in the Upcoming World Series".  For the three innings they threw him against Washington, and the five innings against San Francisco, he had 15 strikeouts against two walks and two hits.  Needless to say, no run scored against him.  The Giants had never seen Rosenthal before,  yet the rest of the Cardinal rotation was, to the Giants, like a worn-out shoe.  (The Giants had pounded the Cardinals' pitching staff for a 15-0 victory at Busch Stadium in August.  Rosenthal was not part of the cavalcade of pitchers that day.)   The Giants must have had a great scouting book on the Cardinals pitching staff,  judging from  the way they jumped on practically every starter early.  But they had no book on Rosenthal.   He was tabula rasa.

Even for those Cardinals  pitchers who had reasonably good outings against the Giants, it was clear the Giants were seeing the ball.    But with Rosenthal, the Giants were completely hapless.  For the NLCS, Rosenthal had "hot hand" written all over him.    So you had the entirely surreal situation of everybody in both dugouts knowing that there was one pitcher that could not be hit in that series, and yet that guy could not get in the game because of "prior commitments" to the old starters.

Mind you, I'm not sure which of the Cardinals starters you actually take out of the "rotation", but I think you find room for Rosenthal in your rotation.  Maybe don't take out any of them, but just give them all an extra day's rest.  "He was too young, too inexperienced", you say.   Well, Rosenthal's pitched 190 more minor-league innings than has Stephen Strasburg.  And he's about the same age.  And Washington has virtually built an entire franchise around Strasburg.   Rosenthal could've been the rookie sensation of the 2012 postseason.  But all the sportswriters, scribes and radio people were loyal to their sources: the old guard who give them regular interviews.  And Matheny was simply too conservative, in his first year of managing,  to think outside the box like that.

Sure, handing the ball to a rookie starter with only two months of major league experience would not have been "the usual plan".  But when the usual plan is obviously not working, you adjust.  The Cardinals rotation truthfully has been rocky all year.  Nobody was going to be saying that "Lohse, Lynn and Wainwright" was the reincarnation of Koufax, Drysdale and Sutton, or Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz.  There was room for Rosenthal, and they chose not.  There are 50 pitchers in the history of baseball who have started World Series games (let alone NLCS) at a younger age than Rosenthal.    If you think a 22-year-old is not mature enough to compete in high-stress postseason, just look at this list.

3.  And then it really is tiresome to hear the constant refrain, "This team did a lot of great things this year, there is great hope for 2013."  There is no hope for 2013! Unless the DeWitts want to play Dial-a-Franchise, I don't think so.  The Cardinals complete capsizing during these last three critical games, after taking a 3-1 lead, and not being able to finish it at home against a washed-up veteran whose fastball has shrunk from 93 mph to a a "mystically slow 84 mph", .... does not speak well of the morale of this team.  It is a gut kick, with equal and opposite force to the buzz we got from game seven of the 2011 World Series.  It's Zen, karma, or whatever. But it's upon us,  whether we like it or not.  But what especially hurts are the sports talk hosts who talk in terms of next year's rotation and go back to the same old well, without mentioning Rosenthal, or any of the young prospects who impressed this year (Kelly, Miller).   Again, it's nostalgia, loyalty to news sources, or something else entirely inexplicable, which makes them think that a hobbled pitching staff with an average age of around 34 can lead the Cardinals to glory in 2013.  There's nothing like a young, fresh arm.  The Cardinals management should look into it....

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