I’ll make this simple and get to the point. At this point in the season, one must become a direct judge of bad performances. As a man once told me, you either rise to the occasion or fall by the side and become a spectator.
In a game that meant everything to each side, the Cardinals came up short. Before I get to the smaller details of this latest defeat, allow me to place the blame on one man’s shoulders.
Albert Pujols lost the game last night for the St. Louis Cardinals. In a crucial division battle, the best player in baseball came up short. Pujols’ struggles at the plate mirror the entire team’s problem this season. Mad inconsistency. Pujols came up to the plate 5 times in last night’s game, and every time there were runners on base. He flied out weakly to center field, struck out on a borderline pitch, popped out on the infield, flew out to deep center, and then had a chance in the ninth inning to erase it out. With two runners on base and the game tied at 3 in a walkoff chance, Pujols swung at the first pitch from Latroy Hawkins and lost the game for the Cardinals. I woke up this morning and instantly told myself. AP lost the game last night. He didn’t give up a two run homer in the first inning, didn’t allow a crucial passed ball, didn’t give up a hit to the 8th place hitter and didn’t allow hits in the 10th inning. Pujols lost that game when he failed to get big hits in big situations. Looking at his season from a distance, he looks fine and he is. His power stats are right there, his runs scored are decent and his overall hitting performance is good. However, he is failing in clutch spots, hitting .279, failing to draw walks and swining at pitches out of the strike zone. As I wrote in a rant two weeks ago, Albert’s walk totals are drastically down from the last 6 seasons, meaning he is swinging at more pitches, and most of those offerings aren’t strikes. This is frustrating for Cards fans because we have come to expect pure greatness from Pujols at an annual rate. When he falters, we simply stare into the sky at disbelief. He is our silver bullet and our deadliest threat. Take away Lance Berkman’s struggles against the Brewers, because his numbers have highly overreached expectations. Pujols’ failures get scrutinized because he is expected to be great. For me, the ninth inning at bat stands out the most. If Albert gets a hit, the entire night is wiped clean. If he wins the game, the previous four at bats go away and we praise the king once again. Look, I still want to see Albert in Cardinal red for his life and want a big contract done. However, Albert Pujols is the player who resisted signing a long term contract in the offseason. You can’t blame that on his agent. You blame that on Albert Pujols. AP decided to walk into 2011 and hit his way into a bright future with the Cardinals or a contending buyer. That will make AP look either incredibly Lebron James like stupid or make him look like a humble proud king who chose to earn his money. Right now, while the stats don’t hurt so bad, the overall picture isn’t looking too good for Albert Pujols. THe best player in baseball doesn’t hit .125 against his team’s fiercest rival. Unless Albert Pujols hits better in the remaining 8 games against the Brewers and picks his team up and carries them to a divisional title, his season will be seen as a bad performance. Corey Patterson, Skip, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and Gerald Laird all reached base 2 times. That is two more times than Albert Pujols. If the Cards are to have a chance in these final two months, that must change. It doesn’t matter what Pujols does against the Florida Marlins, Chicago Cubs or Houston Astros. His performance against the Brewers in the biggest series of the season matters right now. ITS EVERYTHING! Albert brought this on himself. He wanted this situation. The Cardinals defied all logical advice and were going to hand him a 6-8 year deal(rumor friendly) in the offseason. He chose to hit his way into a contract. That’s like a guy throwing a lottery ticket good for 180 million dollars into the trash, picking up a bat, saying fuck you Joboo, I will do it myself. AP dimmed the lights on his solo performance capability and so far, has come up horribly short against the Brewers in the past two weeks and throughout the season. What does a best player mean? A player who can rise up to the toughest of challenges and collect the clutch hits.
The loss last night doesn’t sit solely on Albert’s shoulders, but his lack of production is what stands out 12 hours after the fact. I have defended him all season, and its the weirdest feeling because Albert producing is like rain falling from the sky in Seattle. Its expected. This season, when Albert walks to the plate against a rival, you aren’t 100 percent sure the job will get done, and that’s a brand new feeling. Imagine Conan O’Brien taking the stand against NBC, walking away, becoming a cult hero, taking the job at TBS, walking out on to the stage and saying nothing but bad jokes. It would crush his hardcore fans that gave him so much help and confidence in his weakest moment.
Albert Pujols asked for this do or die status, and has fallen short so far this season in the biggest moment. That must change during the rest of the season or there will be blood in the water here in St. Louis. Albert Pujols is playing without a contract right now and that is also affecting his performance. The pressure has never been so extreme. Will it limit him in final two months?
Pujols was facing a sharp pitching staff last night. Marcum, Saito and Hawkins made AP look uncomfortable at plate but pitching him inside and then getting him out on the outside corner. However, this is what big games are all about for players of Pujols’ caliber. Facing great talent and delivering when few can. Albert didn’t produce in five chances last night and that triggered a Cards loss. Early in the season, it was tolerable for Albert to struggle, but sooner or later his lack of production in key areas was going to start affecting this team. Its August 10th, and the time has come for Albert to earn that contract or risk being blamed for a Cards collapse. The next two months will tell the story. Albert’s most productive months are August and September, but as we found out last night, 2011 is a completely different story for the Mang.
Moving on to the other casualties from last night’s game.
The game that got away. This was a tough game for Cards fans. A must win affair that kicks off with a Corey Hart two run homer of Edwin Jackson to create a lead for the Brewers that seemed like the Berlin Wall to the Cardinals. Jackson calmed down, completed 6 gutsy brave innings for the Cards and the lineup slowly pecked away at Shaun Marcum, a man known for offspeed trickery and not heat. The Cards put the leadoff hitter on in 5 innings and only scored in two of them. They hit horrible with runners in scoring position. Opportunities were lost. Here’s the list of suspects because as known in any death, there’s a cause of death.
*Jackson pitched well, struggled, made clutch pitches and held the Brewers in check. He atoned for his performance in MIL while still leaving questions in air for his long term hopes. Jackson did the common Cards starter mistake. Give up a home run with two outs and two strikes. He throws hard and has a decent changeup but has a problem with pitch selection. He doesn’t know how to finish off hitters.
*Turning point of Game, part one. Skip Schumaher being wrongly called out at home plate by Angel Hernandez. A bang bang play on a throw from Prince Fielder was beat by Skip but he was called out. Its hard to carry too much remorse for Angel because he was the closest person to the play. The breaker was Skip’s leg coming up off the plate and touching down before the tag. This lost the Cards a run.
*Turning Point, part two. The Brewers loading the bases in the 5th inning with nobody out only to come away with nothing. Jackson loaded the bags and had to face Braun, Fielder and Casey McGahee. Using black magic, EJax got line drive outs from Braun and Fielder only to catch a runner coming home on a wild pitch attempt. After this, the Cardinals scored a run and got back into the game. 2-1 Brewers.
*Turning point, part three. Jackson gives up an RBI single to the 8th place hitter after catcher Gerald Laird allows a passed ball. This stretched the lead to 3-1 and was an unfortunate miss by Cards. Laird needs to block pitches in the dirt and Jackson needs to get 8th place bats like Jonathon Lucroy out.
*Turning Point, part four. Pujols fails in the 9th, leading to Octavio Dotel’s first collapse as a Cardinal, surrendering 2 runs in the 10th.
Game set match. A battle of wills between two teams took many twists and turns and came out in Brewers favor. This game lived up to all the hype coming into this series. The result just came out in Milwaukees favor.
Tonight pits Jake Westbrook against Randy Wolf. A matchup of flawed arms that will test each manager in their use of the bullpen. If Jake struggles, Tony must go to his bullpen. Cards can’t lose this game.
One thing I will promise. Tonight will feature another gritty battle between two contenders that either puts Cards in the ground or pulls them back into the race. They picked the harder route and must step up. It all starts and ends with Pujols’ production in clutch spots.
The last 4 months means nothing to this team unless they produce in the final two months.
End of story. My work here is done.
So long for just awhile,