Burning Up The Clutch (Hitting)I have been looking forward to writing a blog like this for a while.
Cardinal pitchers finally got a chance to exhale this Memorial Day weekend (except for tough-luck starter Adam Ottavino who was fairly valiant in his major league debut in hostile Wrigley Field). The Redbirds actually appeared to be swinging wood bats instead of over-sized icicles as they scored 36 runs in their last four wins, vaulting them back into a first place tie with the Reds.
Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter both held serve against the Cubbies. P.J. Walters looked like a keeper in San Diego giving up only 6 base runners in 5 innings. I'll take a right-hander that only tops out at 88 MPH when he throws a sweet change-up like the one Walters possesses and Jaime Garcia continues to handle himself like a veteran coming back from a rain delay yesterday to settle down and earn a win against the hot-hitting Reds. Garcia is on pace for 16 wins. Unless Heyward hits 30+ homers, how can Garcia not be in the NL Rookie of the Year discussion with numbers like this?
On the back-end, Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan have been lights out and Mitchell Boggs has made definite progress this year. Motte has become a shutdown fireman with a 2.61 ERA and a nice 23-5 K/Walk ratio. McClellan has also cranked up the Ks and reduced the walks to go along with a stellar ERA (2.01, 22-7) and while Boggs has shown some vulnerability he continues to get better and better (3.57, 18-9).
But enough about pitching - let's talk hitting.
Of the 36 runs scored in the four wins, 15 came with two outs. All NINE runs of the 9-1 win over the Cubs came with two outs. You also may have heard that Albert finally looked like Albert by blasting three home runs in a game for the first time since 2006 (honestly, I'm shocked it had been that long). Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick are both warming up. Ludwick looks great in the two-hole and Holliday is working his way into that "protect Albert" mode - he had the big two-out hit yesterday, making the Reds pay for an intentional walk to Pujols to load the bases.
Holliday has hits in 9 of the last 12 games, Pujols, 5 of the last 7, and what a month for David Freese. Batman hit in 21 of the 28 games and currently leads the Cards with his .318 average. He crushed - CRUSHED - a homer onto Waveland Avenue this weekend and we know his power is only going to get more consistent. How is he going to look when his 13-homer pace starts creeping toward a 20-homer line? He better win Rookie of the Month, no disrespect to the devastatingly talented Jason Heyward. What a trade this turned out to be for John Mozeliak (Jim Edmonds for Freese). The only bittersweet part of the story was that Freese didn't get his major league career on track last year due to injury.
If Skip Schumaker and Yadier Molina can return to .300-form and Colby Rasmus can learn to be more consistent, I think we will have achieved St. Louis Cardinal Nirvana. As it stands, with the Phillies recent offensive struggles the Cards now have the best run-differential in the NL at +51.
No need to be sneaky in moving to the Hard Nine this time. What a weekend of MLB action.
The Hard Nine
1. Welcome to the No-Run Support Club, Rook! I really hope Adam Ottavino's parents left Wrigley Field proud of their son who made his major league debut and lost 5-0 to Carlos "Cy Young" Silva. I guess the boys didn't want to show favoritism to the rookie and actually give Silva some kind of challenge when they've been short-changing the entire staff all year. But seriously, it has not been easy road for Ottavino. The big guy was a first-round draft pick in 2006 and really never got on track in the minors until the end of last year. He has taken his licks and persevered.
And in his debut, he came within one out of a quality start but instead walked the pitcher, Silva, to load the bases. And here is my only gripe on the weekend for Tony La Russa - he sends in Mitchell Boggs who, himself, is still very green and does not possess pinpoint control. Boggs walks the first guy he faces to force in a run and tack on a fourth earned run to Ottavino's ledger, denying him the quality start.
Obviously, the game was lost already, but Ottavino battled some flighty control problems and still did an admirable job and he deserved better. Maybe I'm also warming up to the kid so quickly because I swear he looked like old Matty "Mo" Morris up there on the mound, wearing Morris' old #35. Both guys have a similar build and a similar hitch in their delivery. Sue me: I get crushes easily. I will be very excited if Adam can develop his control to go along with his 95 MPH fastball.
2. Fantasy and Reality Collide at Home Plate - I have a love-hate relationship with fantasy sports games. I used to be a diehard fantasy football player, then I saw the error of my ways and quit, but then I picked up fantasy baseball this year just so I could build up my CBS account rating enough so I could write these stupid blogs. So here I am, back in it.
On my fantasy team, I picked my first baseman late, which is a very common (and smart) strategy as the pool of good offensive first baseman is very deep and once you get past Albert Pujols, you really don't need to stress picking your corner power hitter. I made a great pick - Kendry Morales in the sixth round, right after another player took Joey Votto of the Reds (either would have been fine). Morales was the clear MVP of the Angels so far this year and this past week hit a walk-off game-winning grand slam. As he reached home plate, he lept in the air and landed awkwardly, breaking his leg. He is now essentially out for the entire regular season.
Someone explain to me how bigger men in the NBA can jump up and down all day and not have the same thing happen. Well, ok, it DOES happen to them on rare occasion, but, DUDE - I just lost my first baseman for the year and so did the Angels fans!
3. Lost and Found - How nice was it to see Albert Pujols smile again? Has he found his stroke? I don't think so - he's been limping noticeably for the past month. And as one scout said recently about Pujols, "Take a big man's legs from him and you take away his power". But for one game, he found his smile and that's enough. This is a game, after all.
4. Left-handed Windmills - Pujols spoiled about three or four borderline pitches from Ryan Dempster before hitting his second home run onto Waveland Avenue, which got me thinking: I really never see left-handed power hitters do the same, as a rule. Slap-hitting lefties do it all the time (like Ichiro Suzuki or Wade Boggs for old farts like me), but the thumpers just pile up Ks without a thought (Adam Dunn, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard). The Cardinals have had some lefty boppers that could whiff with the best of them. Jim Edmonds, J.D. Drew and Ray Lankford come to mind. What with enduring Colby Rasmus and Jon Jay's all-or-nothing approaches, I've wondered when was the last time we had a regular lefty that was tough to strike out?
Last year, Skip Schumaker struck out 69 times in 586 plate appearances which is about standard for a lefty slap-hitter. I wouldn't say that is an overly tough guy to strikeout. Back in 2004, Tony Womack had 60 Ks in 606 PAs. You have to go all the way back to 2001 when Fernando Vina struck out only 35 times in a whopping 690 plate appearances.
Of course, it helped that Vina always stuck his elbow over the inside third of the strikezone. Ah, I loved Vina. He'd get hit by a pitch and run down to first, grinning, every time. What a pest.
5. D-Train Gets Derailed - The Tigers designated Dontrelle Willis for assignment this past week due to ineffectiveness that really has plagued him since 2007. Even now he is only 28 years old. What a sad story and one Cardinal fans can reflect on as Willis arguably was the better pitcher in 2005 when Chris Carpenter won the Cy Young and Willis finished second. Dontrelle was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2003 at age 21. He's a World Series Champion. He lead the league in wins with 22 in that '05 season with a 2.63 ERA. The two-time All Star was one of the most popular, marketable, and happiest guys you'd seen in those MLB commercials.
But maybe something happened in that big season, because the following two years he became extremely hittable (475 hits allowed in 428 innings in '08 and '09). Perhaps too many innings pitched too young. There were also some anxiety problems mentioned at times. Here's to hoping the D-Train gets back on track.
6. Stop Reading My Mind - I love Joe Posnanski's baseball columns. Do yourself a favor and read him if you love the game at all. He's a purist and also a Mid-Coast-er (you know, near the banks of the Mighty Mississippi). The first thing I thought when I saw Roy Halladay had thrown a perfect game against the Marlins was, "Another perfecto? What is going on?" And apparently, so did Posnanski, as he wrote a great blog about that very subject. Here are my thoughts on it - read Joe's if you like a "professional" opinion.
There have been 20 perfect games and over 200 no-hitters thrown in baseball history (obviously, all perfect games are no-hitters as well). But three of the last four no-hitters have been perfect games. Two of the 20 were thrown THIS MONTH. What the what?!
I recall beginning in the 90s there were a rash of no-hitters - even pitchers who LOST no-hitters (due to the pitcher's own team committing errors, allowing unearned runs) which happened to Andy Hawkins on September 4, 1991. A later rule-change took his no-hitter away completely, so at least he received that "consolation".
Teams have thrown COMBINED no-hitters as the Houston Astros did to the Yankees on June 11, 2003 using six pitchers to accomplish the feat. A combined no-hitter? Sounds like really boring Olympic event.
So maybe this is just the natural evolution of pitching. If you're going to throw a no-hitter yourself, and actually win it, you may as well throw a perfect game.
7. Somewhere, Bill Veeck is Smiling - Speaking of the Marlins, you gotta hand it to their marketing department. That cheapskate team never misses a beat. They have announced that they will sell the rest of the unsold tickets at full face value to the game in which Roy Halladay threw the perfect game against them . That's like a circus promoting their lion for eating the ringmaster. Classy.
8. The St. Louis Blues, the Cubs of the NHL - I am grudgingly happy for Chicago as they are about to drink from Lord Stanley's Cup - something the Blues are not likely to do in my lifetime. Let us remind the readers (yet again) that the Philadelphia Flyers had 88 points in the regular season and at least get to play in the Stanley Cup Finals while the Blues, who earned 90 points, missed the playoffs entirely. But just like the difference between the NL and AL, the NHL Western Division the Blues play in is much tougher than the east and it is showing. The Blackhawks lead the finals 2 games to none. Hey, at least Detroit can't win it again.
9. The Epic Quest For Hit #2 - Former Cardinals organizational Player of the Year, Allen Craig, is back up with the big club as they sent Joe Mather down (good riddance). Craig, has one hit in 19 at bats for a .053 average. He's not batting his weight. He's not even batting my five-year-old's weight. This can't last forever, can it? Just one of those minor dramas I take sick pleasure in.
Epic Quest Update: "Outfielder Allen Craig was optioned to Triple-A Memphis, one day after being recalled." Well, hit #2 will have to wait...