The good, bad, and ugly of St. Louis sports in 2018

Win or lose, sports pull you in. Every year, teams take the field or ice, do battle, and find new ways to wage war inside our hearts and minds.

Ask any sports fan and they can try to hide it, but denial is easy to read. The person who says they aren’t going to games until the owner does this or that–wrong. The fan who complains about not getting this player will still show up, hat and heart in hand.

For St. Louis sports fans, it was not a very good year, but things look a little brighter for 2019 and on. Sometimes, a win/loss record can be overshadowed by the foreshadowing of good times ahead. If one thing is for sure, 2018 left fans wanting more and overall disappointed, so before we look ahead, let’s look back at what the past year delivered.

Disclaimer: I won’t dish as much on college sports here. Quite frankly, I don’t watch or cover enough of it to produce a rationally or sound opinion. That would be like asking a guy who just had a cheeseburger at a restaurant what he thought of the pizza. There will be some, but not a lot.

Having said that, let’s get moving before 2019 gets old already.

Player of the Year: Miles Mikolas

This wasn’t an easy choice, but it came down to a pair of pitchers and a centerfielder: Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, and Harrison Bader. All three took a down year and placed a flair of greatness on top of it in their own ways. Flaherty showed that he had rotation ace ability and a poise that could bring down the Central, and Bader gave us Jim Edmonds hot flashes. Neither of them produced an overall appeal and performance like Mikolas.

Coming into the 2018 season, he was the “who is that guy?” candidate that Cardinals fans simply couldn’t understand. Signed to a two-year deal that seemed at first like more of a wait and see approach, but later turning out to be the result of a minor bidding war that included the Chicago Cubs.

Mikolas didn’t just pitch well. He hit a grand slam in the first month to help beat the Brewers, became a consistent force every fifth day, and was the staff ace by the All Star Break. After four years away from the Major Leagues spent overseas, Mikolas went 18-4, compiling a 2.83 ERA (3.28 FIP) with just 29 walks given in over 200 innings. He was the sure thing, someone who didn’t strike out many but found a way to get ahead of hitters.

Carrying the look of Wyatt Earp and a personality that bought real estate on the laid-back part of town, Mikolas was a drama-free pitching machine who came out of nowhere. He came to the team as a giant unknown, and he could have a long-term contract before a pitch is thrown in 2019.

Worst Player of the Year: Dexter Fowler

Fowler’s 2018 was about as good as Patrik Berglund’s time in Buffalo: highly unfortunate and suddenly treacherous. After being a sure-fire 2-4 WAR producer, Fowler’s wins on the field finished on the negative side of things, the result of a terrible start, injury-plagued second half, and a series of unfortunate events. A Post-Dispatch story revealed mental anguish and depression played a part in Fowler’s downfall this past season, but the results on the field tell the quick story.

In 90 games, Fowler’s slash line was .180/.278/.298, and he had nearly four times as many strikeouts as extra-base-hits (75 to 18). After Mike Shildt became manager, Fowler showed some signs of life before a broken bone canceled his season. Since the final pitch was thrown, the team has backed him for a 2019 comeback, calling him their starting rightfielder.

Now, they have called him their leadoff man and centerfielder before as well, but things change in baseball. Only time will tell if Fowler can hold down the spot and Tyler O’Neill from taking over, and reclaim some lost glory and dignity that 2018 robbed him of. He has a chip on his shoulder, like it or not, so it will be interesting to see if he rewrites his time in St. Louis or produces a closing chapter.

One thing is for sure: it has to be better than 2018.

Most Disappointing Player(s) of the year: The Porter Brothers

Coming into last season, Michael Porter Jr. was supposed to take Missouri basketball to the next level. Then, a mysterious back injury kept him out of all but three games of the season. Did it happen before? What exactly was wrong? Who knows? Michael Porter came and went in a flash; a briefly exciting trailer instead of a full movie. With his older brother’s absence, Jontay Porter took center stage for Mizzou. The center was a big time highlight reel and talent, making fans almost forget about the disappointment of Michael. And then October happened and a knee injury took Jontay out of the picture.

A torn ACL deleted the younger brother’s season, bringing the year to a close for both brothers in black and gold. Who knows what Jontay will do when healthy? Michael went to the NBA. The Tigers are 9-3 on the season and have won six in a row, but still miss the powerful presence of Jontay.

Sometimes, fairy tales don’t have a happy ending. The Porters in Missouri reminded us of that.

Best Sports Event in St. Louis: The PGA Championship

I’m not a golf fan, but I loved every minute of the coverage of this event. Seeing Tiger Woods walk down the fairway with a gigantic horde of people following his every step showed people the power of “if you build it, he will come.” Seeing Woods almost recover from a slow start to win the tournament was Rocky-like; an old lion trying his best to outrun the young guns.

Chesterfield turned into Shea Stadium with The Beatles for a week, and people became golf fans over the course of those seven days. Rain couldn’t stop it. People from across the country came into town and helped create the best spectacle this town has seen since the Winter Classic two years ago.

It could have been a boring tournament and still registered as a hit. The thrilling finish only made it more memorable. All this St. Louis resident could do was smile.

Most Disappointing Sports Team: The 2018-19 St. Louis Blues

The season isn’t over, but honestly, are the Blues truly still alive? I’ll take a hard pass on a recovery. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The biggest pessimist in the world had to like the Blues’ chances on paper coming into the season. Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Pat Maroon, and Tyler Bozak looked like solid additions, and most of them have fared well so far. The team as a whole have looked like Chinese food left out overnight that the cat got into.

It was bad in October, got worse in November, and looked to be slightly better in December before an embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh the other night. What’s wrong? Mostly everything. The defense is feeble, the goaltending isn’t good enough, and the top players on the team, outside of O’Reilly, have been disappointing. Maroon has been missing in action, but Vladimir Tarasenko hasn’t been the expected force his career has projected him to be. He is on pace for his lowest goal total and point total of his career. He’s shooting, but it’s not going in. Predictable angles, a lack of one-timers, or something. He hasn’t been consistent enough.

The team’s prospects are impressive, but need time to grow. The goaltending situation is a revolving door of backups. Hope doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. A firesale or at the very least a big shake-up is coming. I wouldn’t expect playoffs. The Blues are predictable in disappointing their fans. On the ice, they won’t die, but don’t really know how to live.

Biggest sign that the apocalypse isn’t happening: Mike Matheny being fired

You can sit there and tell me the Cardinals’ midseason turnaround wasn’t all Mike Shildt’s work, but you can’t tell me things would have gotten better under Matheny. He was a signature form of bad. You don’t need Joe Sheehan’s rankings to tell you that; just look at the overusage of bullpen arms, tireless lineups, and resistance of change.

Matheny couldn’t adapt, but was ill-equipped the first day he walked into the job. A man with zero knowledge is bound to fail. Think about letting a 13-15 year old drive a stick shift in the rain with no practice. A crash is likely. The Cardinals with Matheny were going nowhere, roster cleanse or not. Behind Shildt, things turned around quick.

After so many head-scratching nights, fans felt relief when a thunderstorm washed Matheny out of a job in July. 2019 instantly looked better right then and there.

Remarkable talent that never stops impressing: Yadier Molina

Take a moment and remember that Molina took a 100+ mph fastball to the testicles in May. He lost nearly a month of play, but came back better than ever and faster than any athlete in the history of sports. Take the toughest fighter on the planet or the biggest football player, and tell them to crotch down and take a Jordan Hicks fastball with movement off the privates. See how they react.

Molina defied Father Time for another season, earning his ninth Gold Glove and finishing with a .750 OPS and the most home runs (20) since the 2012 season while striking out just 66 times in over 500 plate appearances. Molina’s consistent surge allowed the team to unload Carson Kelly, and will keep the young pitching stocked with unmatched guidance for at least two more seasons. Molina will be 37 in July, but I wouldn’t bet on him slowing down.

“Yadi” is truly one of a kind.

Player that left you wanting more: Marcell Ozuna

It’s hard not to think of letdown when you think of Ozuna, because of the expectations drawn for him when 2018 started. He was the anti-serum to the miss on Giancarlo Stanton, and an answer to the Cardinals prayers for middle of the lineup help.

Instead, the team got a singles machine for the first two months of the schedule. Ozuna rebounded, hitting 23 home runs, driving in 80, and finishing with a respectable .758 OPS. However, when placed next to Molina’s .750, that is a disappointing finish. Ozuna’s .433 slugging percentage was .100 less than his 2017 total, and his defense in left field was atrocious.

However, a shoulder ailment greeted him in February, and it got cleaned up over the offseason. Let’s hope that returns him to lethal territory during his contract season.

Breakout talent that most people don’t know about: Tyron Woodley

“The Chosen One”, and Ferguson, Missouri product put the previously unbeaten Darren “The Gorilla” Till in a rear-naked choke in September, winning his 19th fight and defending his title for a fifth straight time. Woodley only fought once in 2018, but continues to be a beacon of light for a tortured part of the city, and a burgeoning star in his sport.

Woodley beat Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia in 2017, and looks to have a big 2019. That is if Dana White can find him a good fight and not someone to simply choke out and walk away from. Woodley deserves the top of the card, and should get it soon. There’s a lot of people who still don’t know about this guy. Get with it.

Things are looking up in St. Louis. The Cardinals traded for Paul Goldschmidt, bringing a legit MVP superstar to the team for the first time since Albert Pujols. The XFL is coming to St. Louis in 2020, and will pay the America Center $100,000 for each game. The MLS to St. Louis became a true reality due to the Taylor Family. The Blues will host the 2020 All Star Game, which will bring revenue and lots of eyes to the newly revamped Enterprise Center.

Things are looking up, and I am hopeful that the records will also go up in 2019, at least for the Cardinals.

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