The Cardinals Demise And Future

On Friday, I didn’t think I would be writing this obituary.  The hazard signs on this team’s trail were luminous but easy to avoid because of the lead we had in the series.  The Cardinals were up 3-1 in the series and everything was looking up.  Then…Barry Zito and the Giants wrecked the party on Friday, sent the series back to San Francisco, where the Bay collects many foes and the fans scream beyond the ability of one single soul.   I could tell you I saw this downfall coming, but it wouldn’t be too convincing.  After we came back against Washington, I thought this city was bound for October greatness again.  This is a lesson to all fans to never take anything for granted.  A lead, momentum or an historical night.   Every team has to keep playing and the Cardinals, in humble opinion, took their foot off the pedal on Friday night, thinking the series was wrapped up and there was no way the team could lose 3 straight.  Every season has a way of humbling a team and their fanbase.  The lesson this time was don’t stop fighting until the fight is done.

Honestly, I didn’t think we would make the playoffs.  I thought we would fumble away the second wild card spot and falter.  I didn’t think we would beat Atlanta.  I didn’t think we could stay with Washington.  When San Francisco came along, I overlooked the fact that the team had as much fight in them as the Cardinals.   They just overcame a 2-0 deficit to redirect the Reds flights home instead of onward.  They had Buster Posey, Matt Cain, Hunter Pence, Bruce Bochy and a resilient bullpen.  They had the lead scrapper of the year in Marco Scutaro, who came over in a midseason trade from the Rockies that made little waves until…well October 22nd.  The Giants were formidable and we all took them for granted.  The Cardinals beat Cain and Tim Lincecum at home to take a 3-1 series lead and found out Barry Zito could still pitch in Game 5.  We also found out that the Cards defense, a problem child all year, was poisonous.  Crucial errors in the last three games doomed our chances along with an offense that went very cold and a rotation that never recovered from last season dysfunction.  Here are statistical reasons we lost.  The Cardinals scored ONE run in the final 28 innings of play.  The rotation yielded one quality start during the last 8 games of the postseason.    Mike Matheny stuck with Lance Lynn a little too long in Game 1 and 5.  In his first season as skipper, Matheny learned some things as well.

I won’t break down the loss on Monday because I didn’t see it.  I spent three hours watching a pile of crap called Cloud Atlas.  I refused to watch us die.  Instead, I listened to it on the way home.  In pouring rain, the Giants finished us off.  We were shut out 9-0 and in a way humiliated on national television.  I re-watched the first three innings on DVR the next day.   The offense missed a flurry of opportunities early on, stranding 5 runners in the first three innings.  The Giants got on the board quick, with single tallies in the first two innings.  In the 3rd inning, the wheels came off for this Cardinals team that sealed the fate.   A five run third inning involved a misplay by Pete Kozma, a wicked grounder off the bat of Pence that hit his broken bat three times which produced a hook that eluded Kozma as well, a pair of infield grounders that produced runs and the sight of Kyle Lohse only completing 2 innings of work.   It was Lohse’s worst start of the season.  He didn’t have his bat crippling stuff and Joe Kelly was the victim of misfortune as he watched three groundballs bring in 5 runs.  Jon Jay overran a ball in centerfield.   Everything went wrong.  Our offense was shut down after that.  The Cardinals came undone after a long 176 game season that saw injuries(Carpenter, Craig, Freese, Berkman, Furcal, Garcia, Schumacher) and inconsistencies that came back to haunt them.

Chris Carpenter made 6 starts and people had this Carpenter mistaken for the 2011 postseason hero.   Stuck in April strength mode, Carpenter was never bound to do anything great this October.

Pete Kozma had 19 RBI from September 22nd to October 18th, but stopped hitting during the three losses.  We can’t fault him or his defense.  His name didn’t even come into full view until mid September.  He is a rookie.  Don’t forget he had the game winning hit against Washington.

David Freese stopped hitting in the NLCS after a home run in Game 1.   Yadi Molina had 4 hits in Game 7 but scattered hits before it.  Matt Holliday had four hits in the series and seemed to piss off Scutaro enough to send him towards MVP honors and an eye for eye mentality.  Holliday’s back finally succumbed.  Allen Craig went missing, along with his mighty RISP bat.  He collected 1 RBI in the series.  Jon Jay hit horribly away from Busch Stadium, as he has all season.  Daniel Descalso’s magic ran out.  Carlos Beltran had the best postseason but even his mighty bat produced only singles in the final three games.  The lineup bit the bullet.  The bench bats of Shane Robinson and Tony Cruz scared no one.

The bullpen was the unsung MVP during the postseason.  They patched up many games after a weakening rotation left them wide open.   Trevor Rosenthal became the player of the future, striking out 15 batters in 8 innings of work.  Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte put in good work.  Edward Mujica started to unravel a bit but finished well.  Joe Kelly was the long arm the entire postseason and proved his worth with great work picking up the garbage left over from Lynn and Garcia.  If there was a way that Game 7 could have been won, the MVP award would have had to be broken into pieces for the pen.

While we can sulk in misfortune and sadness, let’s not forget what this team accomplished.  It’s meaningful to remember that in a year full of big injuries and the absence of Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, the Cardinals made it to the brink of the World Series.  I didn’t have them getting close, especially the way they were playing in early September.  This team surprised me constantly, let me down consistently, but remained an entertaining team to watch and one that holds a ton of talent for the near future.  We choked away the opportunity to play in the World Series, but we didn’t choke on the season and those two are different.  Instead of falling by the wayside in September, we closed well again, beat the Braves, outlasted the Nationals and almost beat the Giants.  In a way, the magic ran out.  It wasn’t meant to be this time because our arms and bats slowed to a halt.  It’s okay to be mad at the team but don’t spit on them this season.  They took us for a wild ride, accomplished a lot and gave us a lot to look forward to in 2013 and beyond.

Tip your cap to the Giants.  They never stopped playing and kept a cool head throughout the series.   When Pablo Sandoval homered in the ninth inning of Game 4 to make it 8-3, I felt that they weren’t going to just roll over.  They came storming back and won the chance to play the Tigers in the World Series.  As it starts tonight, I do feel a decent amount of pain watching the Giants take center stage.  After a horrible showing in Games 5 and 6, I still sat around Monday and thought there was a legitimate chance we could open the series here on Wednesday.  As it sits now, that won’t happen but its a testament to this team’s inner strength that kept the hope alive.  I am not choking the La Russa horse extra here on purpose, but bringing to light the fact that this team maintained their never say die attitude under Matheny and that bodes well for the future.  You could never count the Cardinals out.  Ever.  They produced one of the greatest moment of my sports life when they came back against the Nationals in Game 5 on October 12th.  That night will never leave my memory and will remain one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history.  If it had ended there, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.  I thought that during the 3rd inning when we were down 6-0.  Then, we stormed back and stole the game and series from an up tight Nationals team.   That can’t be forgotten.  The Giants did the same to us in this series.  They simply never stopped.

That’s all there is to say for this collapse.  Looking ahead to the future now.   Kyle Lohse will depart as a free agent because he will command 15 million or more a year at 4-5 years.  Scott Boras will get him that in Washington, Arizona, or Boston.  He finished up very well here giving two solid seasons for two uneven ones.  He reestablished his career in St. Louis.  When he came to us, he was 67-73 and stuck in Edwin Jackson territory.  A gun for hire.  He went 55-35 in St. Louis and will now command top of the rotation type money.   Lance Berkman will either retire to play a year in Houston as their DH.  I hope he finishes in Houston, where his triumphant and quietly Hall of Fame career started.  He was a good guy who got his World Series trophy here and now can rest easy.  I will miss his candid nature with the local media and I am sure they will too.  The rotation is set up for a dogfight at the end.   After the Cardinals use the Lohse money to lock up Wainwright long term, he will lead a rotation with Chris Carpenter.   Can Jaime Garcia avoid surgery and come back from a bum shoulder?  Lance Lynn just completed his first full year in the majors, which means he gets a spot in the rotation with his 18 wins and youthful ambition.  He struggled down the stretch but deserves a chance to be in there.  The kid is only 25 years old.  Jake Westbrook is coming back, even though there are young arms like Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller who deserve a shot.  Westbrook is eating up 8 million for a spot I am sure Kelly could fill well for less than a million.   Kelly impressed me when he took his spot in the bullpen and worked well out of the long inning spot.   After Waino, Carp, Garcia and Westbrook, there will be a dogfight between Lynn, Kelly, and Miller for that fifth spot.  Rosenthal makes for a great blazing bullpen weapon so he could stay there and take Mujica’s spot.   With Lohse and Berkman coming off the books that opens up 26 million in cash to play with.   Locking up Waino long term will cost the team close to 15-18 million per season at 4-5 years at minimum.   Taking into account his return from Tommy John and all, Waino performed well this season.  The Matt Cain contract end up paying Wainwright more money but I don’t think he will get overly greedy.  You pay him 5-7 million more than you are and that leaves 15-16 more to find a RH bat off the bench and a second baseman to challenge Descalso.  Kolten Wong is lurking as your future at second base in 1-2 years and Oscar Taveras will be ready for right field when Beltran departs after 2013.  This team has a deep farm system and a roster full of young talent.  The next 5-10 years will be exciting to watch.  Keep that in mind while you mend the pain of a sudden departure in the 2012 postseason.   We all saw the signs of this club breaking down over the last week or so.  We just wanted to overlook it because we were having so much fun watching this team.   Reality settled in.   There is no honest one real answer as to why we collapsed.  As is the case in any long season of baseball, there are various explanation and theories.  That’s baseball.  That’s life.  It’s never just one thing.  That allure brings us back every February for another round of torture.  See you then.

Look for the occasional blog on the Rams or sudden death of the Blues or film spots or random plugs, but it’s safe to say these hands will be taking it easy for a little while.

Thanks for reading this season,

Dan L. Buffa

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