Even I’m confused after reading my last blog over again. Simply put, now that the Dodgers and Padres are both in, the Cardinals collapse is going to allow them to avoid the Mets and take on a team against whom they have a better chance of winning—-the Dodgers or Padres. It’s still chaos. (Even in my own mind.)
As if any more reason were needed to believe that there is no logical order of the way things are in the universe, a closer look at the way things have transpired in the world of baseball over the past week will emphasize the disjointed and chaotic nature of reality. Specifically, I mean that the Cardinals collapse over the past week may end up benefiting their chances to advance in the playoffs rather than hindering them.
If the Cardinals had won one of the two games that they lost last week against the Padres—- just one—-the Padres right now would have a record of 85-75 and be a full game behind the Dodgers. (I know it’s impossible to know that things would have happened in exactly the same way had that one thing changed, but indulge me for a moment.) As I write this, the Phillies would be 1/2 game behind the Padres for the Wild Card lead, pending tonight’s outcomes. If the Padres split the next two games and the Phillies won tomorrow, they would be tied for the Wild Card; if the Dodgers won one of the next two games; the Dodgers would then win the Western Division. There would be a playoff in Philadelphia to decide who wins the Wild Card. If the Phillies were to win, they would then be playing the Dodgers; while the Cardinals would play the Mets. If the Padres were to win, the Cardinals would have had to play the Padres.
The Mets, with or without Pedro Martinez, were 4-2 over the Cardinals and manhandled them the last time they played; they were 5-1 over San Diego; and 4-3 with the Dodgers. Most of their games against the Dodgers were while the Dodgers were struggling early in the year. When the teams played a month ago, they split a four game series at Shea Stadium. The Mets dominated the Padres. And the Cardinals won two of three from the Mets early in the season before the Cards were decimated by injuries.
It is with all this in mind that the Cardinals, once they make the playoffs, would like to do everything they can to avoid a team that battered them this season and has been vulnerable to left-handed starters—something that the Cardinals don’t have. That team is the Mets. If the Cardinals hadn’t collapsed as they did; if the Phillies were to win the Wild Card; if the Padres were eliminated and the Dodgers are in; then the Cardinals would be playing the Mets because they still would have had the weakest non-division record in the National League. The Phillies would be playing the Dodgers.
It’s confusing and convoluted, I know. But simply put, if the Cardinals hadn’t played as horrendously as they have over the past week and a half, they would be coming to Shea Stadium to play the Mets—a team that they have little chance to beat. Once they make the playoffs, they will have to play the Dodgers. The Cardinals, as badly as they’ve played during this last horrible stretch, were 7-0 against the Dodgers! I’m aware that the playoffs are a whole new season, etc. etc. But that kind of dominance doesn’t simply disappear. The Cardinals may have hitters that hit the Dodgers pitchers well; the Cardinals pitchers may own the Dodgers hitters. (And this wasn’t early in the season before the Dodgers started wheeling and dealing—this was in August.) So, if the Cardinals were asked which team they would most like to play in the playoffs if they’re given their choice, I’m quite sure that the majority of them would say the Dodgers because of their success against them.
So now, as it turns out, with the division almost clinched, the Cardinals swoon isn’t going to hinder them at all; in fact, it may be their ticket to the National League Championship Series. Chaos. Pure chaos.
The Cardinals win over the Brewers, coupled with the Astros loss to the Braves puts the Cardinals back into a solid position to clinch a playoff spot that they should have clinched a week ago. The precarious situation in which they found themselves was their own doing and, if they do indeed make the playoffs, they’re going to be a shaken and exhausted veteran group. That notwithstanding, they have to deal with the situation in front of them at the moment; and in the moment, the Cardinals have everything set up relatively well for themselves in St. Louis and in Atlanta.
The Astros, having lost despite a good performance from Roger Clemens, now have to hope that they can win the next two games while the Cardinals lose at least one. If that happens, the Cardinals will have to fly all the way to San Francisco to play a make-up game with the Giants to determine if they have to play another game with the Astros in a one game playoff on Tuesday in Houston. At which point, both teams’ pitching staffs would be completely depleted and they would have to throw out whomever is available. The winner of that game would probably have to fly straight to the West Coast to open the NLDS with the Padres/Dodgers on Wednesday.
The Astros are already using a pitcher today named Chris Sampson who is such an unknown that his player stat card on ESPN.com doesn’t even contain a picture of him. There’s an empty silhouette with his name and pitching records underneath—-the unknown soldier. The picture on the MLB.com stat sheet portrays him in the middle of his motion as he’s about to release the ball; his face contorted in exertion. He’s a 6 foot 170 pound righty with 11 career big league games; 2 career starts; a 2-0 record and a 2.10 ERA. Suffice it to say he’ll be on a short leash today against the Braves. The Braves are starting Lance Cormier.
Tomorrow, the Braves are scheduled to pitch John Smoltz with Andy Pettitte going for the Astros. If I were Phil Garner and if Pettitte was healthy and willing, I might consider moving Pettitte up to pitch today against Cormier and worry about tomorrow tomorrow with Oswalt, Clemens, et, al. ready to go if needed. Knowing that they have to win all the games anyway, the Astros have an argument for having Pettitte ready with full rest tomorrow if they win today, but moving him up is something to consider.
As for the Cardinals, they have their two best starters, Jeff Suppan and Chris Carpenter, going today and tomorrow. Ben Sheets has been pitching well for the Brewers lately is pitching today. It would behoove the Cardinals to try and get the win today any way possible knowing that the Astros are starting a rookie. The last thing the Cardinals (or the Astros) need at this point is a long drawn out series of flights to simply make the playoffs; but due to their inability to close out the Astros when they had the chance last week; and their losing streak; and the Astros refusing to lose, this is the mess they’ve made. The best thing that they can do for themselves is if they simply win both today and tomorrow so they don’t have to count on assistance from the Braves at all.
Frank Robinson has been a dedicated baseball man throughout his entire career as a player, manager or in the office of Major League Baseball. He has been an uncompromising force who has challenged opponents, colleagues and his players—-getting physical if need be. He dealt with an extremely difficult situation in Washington and Montreal not knowing who the next owner would be; where the franchise would be located; or if the franchise would even exist. Many of his players seemed to grow attached and fiercely protective of him.
Even with all that, it is understandable that the new front office tandem of Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden would like to move forward with a new man in charge in the dugout. It must be difficult for players, who have had to deal with all the uncertainty of their franchise location and the ownership change, to deal with the unknown. Robinson had stated that he wanted to manage for a while longer, but he had become increasingly emotional and occasionally frustrated at certain aspects of his job. It may be better for the team to have someone in the dugout who they know is intended to be there for a substantial amount of time.
There is much speculation as to whom the next manager of the Nationals is going to be. The Nationals have to decide whether they want a proven veteran manager from whom they would know what to expect; or if they want to take a chance on a younger prospect from whom could reap great rewards. If they intend to keep Jim Bowden as general manager, they have to find a manager who can work with the unique and aggressive personality that Bowden is.
Some names that have been mentioned are Tony Pena, Lou Piniella and Joe Girardi. I don’t know that I would go the route of Pena or Girardi. Piniella has worked successfully with Bowden before; but he should have two or three job opportunities to choose from. (Although that list is dwindling with Seattle deciding to retain Mike Hargrove and Charlie Manuel likely to survive in Philly due to their strong second half.)
One name that may be a darkhorse choice is Davey Johnson. Johnson has had big league success for a long time; has worked with young players and veterans; worked with Bowden; and has not been shy in his proclamations that he wouldn’t mind managing in the big leagues again; this man was on the payroll for the Nationals earlier this season as Jim Bowden’s "consultant" (whatever that means); and was the man that I thought was a possibility to take over as soon as the all star break because Frank Robinson seemed to be becoming so overly emotional that I thought he had had enough and was ready to resign.
Whoever they hire, it is sure to be a different Nationals team next season with a stable home and management operation. One thing I must point out though. The author of the article relating the end of Robinson’s reign as manager of the Nationals on MLB.com wrote: "The only thing Robinson said about his meeting with his superiors onThursday was that both sessions lasted 15 to 20 minutes and that they
The statement is no doubt accurate, but I most certainly wouldn’t dare call Stan Kasten or Jim Bowden the "superiors" of Frank Robinson—-not in the game of baseball and their service to it in comparison to Frank Robinson. They were his bosses. No more than that.
Great coaches and managers have systems; they’re organized and have certain ways of doing things to maximize the abilities of their players. But what happens when the players are simply unable to perform at a high enough level? It doesn’t matter who the coach or manager is; doesn’t matter how much success he’s had—if he doesn’t have the players who are able to execute, he cannot win. It could be Pat Riley; Bill Parcells; Scotty Bowman; or Tony LaRussa. Without the players, the manager can only do the best he can with what he has.
This Cardinals team bears no resemblance to the teams of the past several seasons that could be counted on to win 100+ games and be a genuine threat in the playoffs. Part of that is due to injuries to key players like Jim Edmonds, Mark Mulder and Jason Isringhausen. Part of that is due to the team’s downsizing of it’s payroll and having to rely on players who should be ancillary parts stepping to the forefront.
As spunky and inspirational a player as David Eckstein is, he is nowhere near the threat at the plate that Edgar Renteria was. Juan Encarnacion is a good talent but he shouldn’t be counted on to be a focal point. Chris Duncan would have been worked in slowly on a veteran team, getting 300+ at bats and learning to play in the big leagues; now he’s a major part of the offense. Mark Grudzielanek could be counted on to play the game hard and correctly, and he’s gone. Larry Walker was on his last legs while with the Cards, but he was still dangerous if a pitcher dared to try and slip a fastball by him. Reggie Sanders is a journeyman’s journeyman, but that’s not because he isn’t a good player. The Cards bullpen has been decimated by subtractions. Julian Tavarez, Cal Eldred and Ray King were all unsung heroes in the past success of the Cardinals because of LaRussa’s reliance on his bullpen. Everyone had their role, knew their role, and did their jobs.
Now, they’re resorting to using people like Braden Looper and a series of young pitchers. They were forced to try and resurrect careers such as that of Sidney Ponson and Jeff Weaver with fluctuating results. Their starters, other than Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan, have been completely unreliable; and even Carpenter and Suppan have struggled when it has counted most. Albert Pujols, as much as his performance contradicts the following claim, is not Superman. He cannot carry the Cardinals on his back for the entire season if they don’t pitch.
Now a playoff spot that seemed assured several weeks ago is in serious jeopardy. If the Cardinals had a reliable bullpen they probably would have won two of those games in Houston last weekend. Their lack of capable performers allowed the Astros to do the only thing that would have gotten them back to within striking distance of the Cardinals—–sweep the series. They haven’t lost since and the Cardinals have won only once. Now the lead is down to one in the loss column. The Cardinals have put themselves into this mess and it’s up to the Cardinals players to get themselves out of it. There is only so much LaRussa can do. They can’t count on the inconsistent Braves to help them by beating the Astros; and judging from last night, they can’t count on the Brewers to lay down for them. They have to perform. And right now, it’s a huge question as to whether they have the personnel to do it.
Now that the Mets know that Pedro Martinez is out for the entire post season with a torn muscle in his left calf, they can move forward with plans to try and win without him. No more of this ambiguity; no more of this "if" and "hopefully" and "maybe". He’s out. Now they have to try and get through without him—-something they’ve been doing since June.
The Mets still have baseball’s best bullpen and a powerful offense. They’ve made it this far. It will come down to their bullpen and their clutch hitting, as the playoffs always do. If they don’t get solid performances from their hitters and their relievers and the occasional surprise contribution from an unexpected source (as also always happens in the post season), they’re not going anywhere with or without Pedro Martinez.
Championship teams battle their way through adversity and simply find a way to win. If the Mets want to be champions, they have to do the same thing. Pedro coming to New York was a step in the right direction for the revitalization of the franchise. Omar Minaya’s relentless pursuit and shelling out of Fred Wilpon’s money lured Pedro to the Mets. As a direct result, the team now has Carlos Beltran; Carlos Delgado; Billy Wagner; et. al. They’re now the National League’s Eastern Division champions having emphatically vanquished the Braves. If they want to reward Pedro for his contribution to the franchise, they’ll soldier on and honor the courage of their fallen teammate by fighting their way through this adversity and present him with a championship ring that they’ll have to win without him.
HBO does a great job with their sports specials, but I always get the sense that the fans that are featured are getting a certain amount of secondary gratification from the fact that their team can be counted on to lose and lose spectacularly.
Would they have this feeling of gloom and doom without the black cat crossing in front of the Cubs dugout in 1969? Or if Leon Durham had come up with that grounder instead of watching it go between his legs? Or if Moises Alou had caught the ball that that poor guy supposedly interfered with. And the meanspiritedness and blame that was being heaped down on that one person for a fly ball that was borderline between catchable and in the stands just diminishes the Cubs faithful from any sympathy they may have accrued because they were so desperate to hold someone responsible for something that was just an accident of circumstance.
I honestly believe that a large segment of Cubs fans will miss the ability to claim that they are "unlucky" or "cursed" once the curse is broken (if it ever is); because then there will have to be some accountability when things go wrong.
And could someone please explain to me why Bryant Gumbel is such a ubiquitous presence on these HBO shows talking about how his heart has been broken? Who even knew he was a Cubs fan? I remember him from a special on Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in which he whined about how Frazier’s brutal beating of Ali in Ali’s first title shot following his absence from boxing caused Gumbel to "cry <his> eyes out."
What’s next? Is he going to be talking about a cricket match between South Africa and Pakistan which shattered his belief in the power of the googly? Or a Milford Jai Alai match from 1986? Or is he going to claim to be a fan of the Chicago Blackhawks suffering through their Stanley Cup drought? Let Gumbel do his shows and ramble on about how golf teaches him something about himself every time he plays while arrogantly disrespecting anyone who plays sports in which he doesn’t watch or disagrees with some haughty thing he says—-then leave him on the cutting room floor.