I won’t lie to you and say that Thursday’s loss in Colorado didn’t leave a decent gap in my stomach lining and had me hot and fiery with my temper for hours afterwards. A game that the Cards came back to take 2 leads, saw those vanish, and ended up losing in 15 innings is always going to hurt a fan. We used 10 pitchers, most of the bench and couldn’t win the series in Denver, a notorious rough place for visitors. While it was hard to watch and warning signs became more visible, I will say the Cards did their job and at least split the series. At this point for the streaking Birds, staying the course and avoiding an extended period of inept play is the key. Failing to win the Colorado series left the Cards only a game ahead of the Pirates and 2 ahead of the Reds, but as always, the Rogues in Red kept things interesting and avoid the spectacle of being perfect. Which baseball team is perfect?
Let’s look at the facts. The Cardinals are 25 games over .500 with 9 games to play and they enter a series with Milwaukee tonight. Shelby Miller takes the mound with Lance Lynn starting on Saturday. Every game isn’t crucial but another chance to hammer the nail in further. If the Cards can win the remaining 3 series, it will be hard for the Reds or Pirates to catch them because they are facing each other 6 out of the last 9 games. The Birds are in the driver’s seat and can stay there as long as they don’t blow up their own car. Think of it as sitting in the room with a bomb but needing the enter the detonating code yourself for things to get messy. There are no games with PITT and CIN left on our schedule. We face the Brewers for 3 and finish with the Nationals and Cubs at home. While Washington has played well lately in their own pursuit of a playoff berth, the home confines of Busch should play into our hands.
Things to Think About As The Last Stretch Begins-
*The Reds and Pirates duel tonight with Matt Latos and Francisco Liriano facing off in Pittsburgh. The best pitchers on their team starting things up could set the tone for that series.
*Huge starts for Miller and Lynn this weekend. Now isn’t the time for either young pitcher to implode or give away a game. Losing to the Brewers isn’t horrible. Losing the series could be very bad. The rookies will have a substantial role in how this weekend plays out. Miller has been great against Milwaukee this season, going 3-0 with a 1.08 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 25 innings. Lance Lynn hasn’t been as sharp but will need to continue his September renaissance for the Cards to be successful. In his last 2 starts, Lynn has pitched 12.1 innings and allowed 2 earned runs. He pitched well against Milwaukee at home last week but the road is another story. On August 20th, Lynn gave up 4 earned runs on 9 hits in 6 innings. Joe Kelly pitched on Sunday and looks for revenge against a club who handed him his only loss in 10 starts dating back to July 27th.
*The Bullpen got taxed in Colorado, giving Miller and Lynn more reason to shine. Trevor Rosenthal was burned in Monday and Thursday’s games, making his three post fatherhood appearances a little darker than usual. Rosenthal has been great this season but could be tiring out after a ton of work. It’s possible. Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist remain fierce steady options. Fernando Salas did give up the game winning yesterday but got 4 outs before crumbling. Tyler Lyons was stout yesterday in extended work. With the exception of Adam Wainwright, no starter went more than 6.1 innings in Colorado. At some point, one of the other starters has to be more durable. Think of the bullpen as a secret weapon in a playoff series. If they are seen too often, exposure heightens and a breakdown is more reasonable.
*Be worried about Edward Mujica but don’t start hating the guy. This is his first year of closing. He could have reacted like Mitchell Boggs to the closer role and lost his mind and ability. Instead, he is 37-41 and has been one of the biggest reasons the Cards are in first place. Talk all you want about Matt Carpenter’s emergence or Yadi Molina’s brilliance but forget all of it if Mujica doesn’t rescue the bullpen and seal the door. If you don’t have a good closer, everything else doesn’t matter. In August and September, he has started to show signs of wear. In August, he pitched more than an inning 4 times, firing off 3 two inning stints in succession. He allowed hits but finished the month with a 1.71 ERA. In September, things have gotten worse. In 7 appearance this month, Mujica has allowed 12 hits and 5 runs in 6. 1 innings of work. He has only walked 4 guys the entire season yet given up 8 home runs. It’s important to remember Mujica is a contact pitcher and not a swing and miss guy. He gets a lot of whiffs with his splitter but for the most part, pitches to give his defense a chance to make a play. He could be getting tired, worn down and hitting a wall. He struck out Todd Helton to convert a save on Wednesday but gave up a homer to Helton to lose Thursday’s save. The first pitch was a high inside fastball. The second was a floating splitter. At this point, Eddie has to be perfect with his pitches or they will get hit. Does this mean you make a change? No. Mujica is our guy. Don’t pull the guy who has done the kind of job he has without getting a ton of dirty looks. If he blows another in Milwaukee this weekend, you look at him again and make sure he really is healthy. Is he hurt or just wearing down? Mujica has been solid all year but his magic could be coming to an end. Luckily, the Cards will have options IF our current closer continues to fail.
*Adam Wainwright righting the ship means everything to this ballclub. After 2 horribly graphic losses to Cincinnati where he was tipping pitches, Wainwright has responded with 3 Ace like starts against Pittsburgh, Seattle and Colorado. He is pitching deep into games, throwing 115 pitches with ease, and winning. He had a rough first inning in Colorado but shut them down for the next 6 innings in route to a comeback Cards win. In his last 3 starts totaling 22.2 innings, Waino has allowed 4 runs and struck out 22 batters. He is back to being the steady dominant pitcher we have come to expect. When Waino is right, the Cards are at their best. Every team needs one ace, one good closer and one clutch hitter.
*Matt Carpenter has a chance at 130 runs scored and 200 hits. That’s MVP talk right there. He will be in the conversation yet probably won’t win the award.
*The John Axford trade is looking pretty good at this point. Short term and small sample size but in 7.2 innings as a Cardinal he has allowed 2 runs and struck out 9. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist is working closely with the former Milwaukee closer to sharpen his release point and movement. Pitch selection is all coming from Yadi. The Ax has proved to be a nice bullpen weapon. One more reason to cut Fernando Salas loose.
*The only reason one can think of to keep Jake Westbrook around is in case an emergency start is needed but with his inability to warm up quickly or switch gears from reliever to starter, how good of an option is that? When Matheny realizes he already has two hungry young starters in his bullpen in Carlos Martinez and Lyons, the need for Jake will decrease.
*Speaking of Baby Carlos, where was he yesterday? No reasonable excuse can be given for Salas entering that game before Martinez. Forget experience. Go with skill level. Fernando didn’t embarrass himself but did give up the run and failed to tag the runner out when he overran homeplate. Decisions come back to haunt a manager.
*That said, Mike Matheny is having a good season. He has improved in record and done well with another long list of agonizing injuries. After losing Allen Craig, Matheny has used Matt Adams, Molina and Brock Petersen there to shore up the tide and get as much production out of it. His Martinez irritation aside, MM has used the young guns with ease this season. Where would the team be without the contributions from the rookies? Seth Maness gets talked about a lot but it’s hard to give his unique ability to escape jams enough credit. How many 6th-7th inning blunders happen without his double plays? A TON. Matheny called for the kid in June and the results have been solid ever since.
This Cards team looks completely different than it did entering spring training and we are 25 games over .500 and in control of a division title. It would be our first since 2009. Think of all the injuries. Chris Carpenter, Rafael Furcal, Jason Motte, Jaime Garcia, Westbrook for 2 stretches as well as Molina for a stretch and now Craig. Siegrist, Maness, and Rosenthal fully emerging. Mujica becoming a solid if not flashy closer. Carpenter entering the talks for MVP. Jon Jay’s troubling season steering him into play tonight with 65 RBI. David Freese’s disappointing season still holding the opportunity for redemption. Carlos Beltran streaky yet steady bat(anytime now Carlos, you have 6 hits in your last 37 at bats with 0 HR). All the resistance this team has faced in 2013 and we are right there.
Remember the details. 9 games left. Win every series and it will be hard to remove the Cards from their perch. 153 games into another long, exciting, epic and frustrating season and the Cards are at the top looking down on others while still reaching for more. Home field advantage isn’t that far away. The postseason is less than weeks away. A chance at 12th world championship isn’t far away either.
Cardinals fans, things are starting to get very interesting. The long walk is over. Now the sprint begins!
Thanks for staying,
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Arch City Sports/United Cardinal Bloggers/Red Wolf Roll Call Contributor