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11 May 2011

The Report on UCB Radio Hour Tonight

Join The Redbirds Report on the UCB Radio Hour at 9:30pm CDT tonight.  Just follow this link and listen live.  I will be joining Bill Ivie and we will spotlight the current Cards/Cubs series, and look ahead to this weekends big showdown in Cincinnati against the Reds.

Here's the rundown for tonight's show
9:30-9:45pm  Bill and Mike will open the show giving a quick breakdown of recent events and either a game recap or updates on the game progress
9:45-10:10pm  Bill and Mike will be joined by Ryan Maloney of Prose and Ivy to discuss the series with the Cubs and what the Cubs fans feel about the remainder of 2011.
10:10-10:25pm  Bill and Mike will welcome Dave Mitchell from Battle Of Ohio Baseball to discuss the upcoming series with the Cincinnati Reds. 
10:25-10:30pm  We put the wraps on another show.

Interesting topics about the Cardinals and a couple of NL Central division rivals.  It should be enlightening and enjoyable.  If you can't listen live, you can download it from iTunes, or listen on Blog Talk Radio.

Let's Talk Nice About the Hitting Coach

There are many thankless jobs in professional baseball.  Every decision of a manager is easily scrutinized and criticized if things don't go as hoped.   A general manager who is praised when he signs a player the fan base is clamoring for can be lambasted by the same fan base when that player gets hurt or doesn't perform up to expectations.   But the singular most thankless job in baseball is that of hitting coach.

Often, the hitting coach is unknown by a majority of fans.  Most people outside of the clubhouse don't have any idea exactly what the hitting coach does, or has any idea of how much impact he has on the performance of the team.

Yes, being a hitting coach is truly a thankless job.  Normally, the hitting coach is invisible until a team-wide slump strikes his team.  Outsiders cannot judge him any other way.  And the truth is, is he really going to change the swing and approach of great hitters like Albert Pujols, Holliday, and Berkman?  No.

Mark McGwire
The St. Louis Cardinals have a high profile hitting coach in Mark McGwire.   And perhaps it is time to note that by all appearances, he is doing a fine job.

After a horrible first week of the season, the Cardinal batters have been the class of the NL Central division.  In fact, the Redbirds lead the Major Leagues with a 286 batting average - 15 points better than second place Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  Their prowess with two outs and runners in scoring position has been exceptional so far. 

Matt Holliday has been training with McGwire for years, and is off to an unbelievably hot start to 2011. Holliday is still hitting nearly . 400 - his .393 average leads all MLB players.  Lance Berkman has been the steal of the off-season free agent pool with 10 HR's and leading MLB in RBI's after showing fading skills the last couple of seasons.  And of late, Daniel Descalso has proved to be clutch in late game high-leverage situations.

Hitting a baseball is a tricky thing.  If you've played any ball at any level, you know that thinking about what you're doing courts disaster.  If you're confident, you see-ball, hit-ball.  If you're not confident you miss the meat and swing at cheese.

From all I've read, McGwire's approach has been to look for a pitch the batter can handle, and put a good, solid swing on it.  Drive the ball.  In the long haul of the baseball season, that is the essence of the equation.  The recipe for success.

Another big mark in McGwire's favor is the lessening of reliance of video scouting of pitchers.  It may be the main culprit for the disturbing trend in recent years of the Cardinals turning rookie starters into Bob Gibson.  If you rely on video to prep for a pitcher, how do you prep for someone with no video?  You don't.  You need to go out and see-ball, hit-ball.

The sample size is small, and he can't swing the bat for his charges.  But what I've seen thus far, Mark McGwire is a success as hitting coach.

08 May 2011

McClellan's Mother's Day Masterpiece

Kyle McClellan (source: Wikipedia)
Kyle McClellan had a Mother's Day gift for the maters of Cardinal Nation on Sunday, pitching a gem as St. Louis beat the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1.  The Hazelwood West High School grad thrilled the home crowd by crafting eight innings of excellence.  It marked the longest outing of his big league career.

McClellan was impressively efficient, only throwing 108 pitches on the day.  Even more impressive is the fact that he had to throw 10+ extra pitches in the first inning due to a Tyler Greene error on a easy chance on a Prince Fielder ground-ball.  The Cardinals put the infield shift on for the left-handed hitting Fielder, and Greene did not come up with the play ranging slightly to his left on the outfield grass.

In Greene's defense, he did make good with the bat.  He went 3-3 on the day with one run scored.  But the big hit was by Colby Rasmus in the fifth inning.  Facing a tiring lefty in Chris Narveson, Rasmus stroked a two-out two-run double that gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead.

Milwaukee starter Chris Narveson - the former Cardinal - was on his game early.  Often he had the Cardinals flailing wildly at his pitch.  He especially picked on the hot-hitting Lance Berkman.  Berkman, batting from his weaker right side, was exposed by nice change-ups from Narveson.  But Narveson was not as efficient with his pitches, and the Cardinals followed their now usual norm of wearing down a starter and pouncing on opportunities when they tire.

The story of the day was McClellan offering even more proof that he is more than just a capable fifth starter.  He showed moxie escaping the first-inning bases-loaded jam that was set up by the Greene error.  McClellan wasn't necessarily sharp at the beginning of the game, but once he escaped another jam in the fourth (thanks to a smart defensive play by Albert Pujols), McClellan found his groove.  He breezed through the next four innings, and started the ninth inning.

In the ninth, Prince Fielder lead off and poked a seeing-eye single through an infield skewed to the right because manager Tony La Russa employed the shift.  It was a weak ground ball, and would have been an easy put-out if not for the shift.  As thanks for coaxing the big-hitting Fielder into a what should've been an out.  La Russa pulled McClellan and inserted Eduardo Sanchez to get the save. 

I do not agree with TLR's handling of this situation.  If he had no faith that McClellan could handle a touch of adversity, why put him back out there in the ninth?  McClellan induced a weak grounder from Fielder that got through the infield because of the shift. McClellan did his job, strategy failed.  If the hook was coming simply because one batter got on despite McClellan's work, why not bring in the youngster Sanchez to work from a less stressful clean slate?  McClellan was in the zone, and got what he wanted fromFielder.  If he was good enough to do that, he should be good enough to handle the rest of the inning.  But big league managers pull this crazy stuff all the time, and no one knows why - including the managers that pull this crazy stuff.

Anyway, Sanchez sandwiched two outs between two walks, and with the bases loaded could not put pinch-hitting veteran Craig Counsell away.  On the 13th pitch of the at bat, Counsell hit a sharp grounder into the hole between short and third that Theriot made a good play to stop from reaching the outfield but had to wisely stick in his pocket as Fielder scored from third.  It was a run charged to McClellan, when it was anyones fault but his.

By then La Russa had seen enough of Sanchez' drama, and fetched Fernando Salas from the bullpen.  Salas promptly dispatched Rickie Weeks, striking him out on three pitches.  The game - and the series - belonged to the Redbirds.

07 May 2011

Cardinals Jaime was El Jefe Tonight

Jaime Garcia (source: Wikipedia)
Everyone in Cardinal Nation - if not baseball - is agog at the performance of Jaime Garcia tonight at Busch Stadium against the Milwaukee Brewers.  I have to admit I missed most of it as my sister-in-law had an automobile emergency at game time that I had to respond to.  I wasn't happy about missing the game, but a man must do what a man must do.

I caught the game in the top of the sixth via at bat on my iPhone as we drove back across the city towards home.  It did not take long to notice how quickly Garcia was getting the ball, getting signs, and delivering.  The score was 6-0 at this point, and Garcia's actions made me think more was involved.  A quick touch of the box score showed that my instincts were correct.

What I did see of the sixth and seventh inning told me that Garcia had it all working.  Every pitch was low in the zone, and the movement was exceptional.  The furtive swings of the Brewers' batsmen told me the backstory I had missed, and their body language as the looked at called strikes solidified my extrapolations.

In our house lives a beautiful 15 year old girl.  A girl who has lately  discovered the joys of baseball (I thank the Arizona Diamondbacks and their fun ball park for this).  After one out in the eighth, I was thinking I had the perfect opportunity to show her the second-by-second drama that only sports can provide.  And the build-up/release rollercoaster that is at the heart of what baseball is about.  But before I could stand up to do this, Garcia walked a man.  Now pitching from the stretch, he promptly lost the no-hitter to Yuniesky Betancourt (of all people) on a sharp ground ball that found the hole between second base and shortstop.

The quick loss of the no-hitter once a man reached base did not surprise me.  In fact, I was looking for it.  The past week taught me some lessons.

It marked the fifth time this week that such an event occurred.
I first noticed the trend during Garcia's last start on Sunday when he started the game with four perfect innings.  But the fifth inning started with a single.  The it went  out, 2-run HR, walk, single, and a run-scoring single.  Then on Monday, Kyle Lohse was lights out again through two 1/3 innings, then he lost all control.  The Gaby Sanchez grand slam punctuating my point.  I thought it all a fluke until Jake Westbrook cruised through 4 2/3 innings Thursday without allowing a Florida Marlins getting a runner on base.  But once Greg Dobbs reached base and Westbrook began delivering from the stretch, the Marlins next 4 batters reached base and two runs scored.

Of course, the Marlins getting their first hit with one out in the eighth is hardly evidence of some latent failing amongst an otherwise outstanding starting staff.  But once Garcia finally let a runner reach base and approached Betencort from the stretch, the no-hitter was lost.

Why?  I don't know.  Perhaps losing a good groove then pitching from the stretch  is just enough to tip the balance of competition to the favor of the hitters.  It has also been a certain something the Cardinal hitters have exploited.  If nothing else, it's an interesting trend - one I noticed only because all the starters were lights out...until someone got on base.

06 May 2011

I Miss Skip

(source: Wikipedia)
I have heard/read/inferred that segments of Cardinal Nation are not missing Skip Schumaker while he's on the DL.  Many of these opinions are based on a recent hot streak - and one scintillating home run - by Daniel Descalso.  I want to make a public statement: I still miss Skip.

Why do I miss Skip?  First, I have drank the Tony La Russa Kool-Aid.  I prefer proven veterans with a track record of success as my everyday player.  Skip has proven to be a successful big league hitter with a .290 career batting average.  He remains a liability against lefties, but he hits .308 against right-handed pitching.  And in case you haven't noticed, there is a preponderance of right-handed pitcher in baseball.  Additionally, he has been clutch in his career - batting .288 with RISP and .321/.371/.491 with runners on third base.
Secondly, Skip's defense is not as horrible as it is made out to be.  Clearly Descalso has the better skills at second (it is the position he came up playing), but Skip has some positives.  I have come to appreciate a good arm at second base, and Schumaker's hose was the envy of Rick Ankiel we he was in St. Louis.  A strong arm helps tremendously on turning double plays and on relay throws, and Skip's allows him some wiggle-room to compensate for his unfamiliarity on positioning and footwork in the infield.  And those instincts are improving.  Skip is a determined worker, who managed to fill a gaping hole in the roster in 2009 with only an off-season of training.  A more infielder-focused training regimen this past winter had Skip looking more fluid in the field this spring, with an easy to identify increase in range to his left.

Thirdly, his attitude and grit are needed.  The Cardinals will take the field of battle 162 times each season.  La Russa's clubs are celebrated for playing a "Hard Nine" innings every game.  Schumaker is the type of warrior his mates want fighting to the end every day.  Identified as a core player of the team by his manager, one can infer his teammates and coaches feel the same.  His sacrifice to make the adjustment to 2B goes a long way in my book.  A superlative defensive corner outfielder, his power wasn't up to the standards of that position, but it fits well as a middle infielder.

While Descalso has impressed thus far in his major league career, he still is just a .238 hitter who has had some awful at bats against elite pitchers this year.  Descalso at the moment is best used as a defensive replacement and spot starter.  He is still vulnerable to being over-exposed as a hitter at this stage in his career.
Surprisingly, as a left-handed hitter he hits lefties better than he does right-handers.  With David Freese's bad ankles and bad luck, Descalso provides depth at that position.  And the Cardinals have been desperate for a decent backup at third for some time now.

Yes, I miss Skip.  We need him in the lineup as the starting second baseman.  Descalso has value as a platoon against lefties and a late-inning defensive replacement at 2B.  It also gives La Russa the flexibility with resources that he so desires.  All of this adds up to utilizing Descalso in a way that maximizes his chances for success.

Next year?  It could be a different story.  If Descalso keeps growing - and hitting - as he has been lately, it might make for some tough decisions for St. Louis GM John Mozeliak when Schumaker's contract ends after this season.  Maybe then Skip can be rewarded for his sacrificial move to 2B with a bigger contract with a lesser team in need of his talents.

But for now, we need Skip.  Cardinal Nation should be missing him as I do.

04 May 2011

Cardinals Descalso First HR Means Victory

St. Louis Cardinals utility infielder Daniel Descalso had never hit a Major League home run coming into Tuesday nights game against the Florida Marlins.  Granted he had only 90 at bats on the grand stage.  But in 1,808 minor league at bats, Descalso totaled 27 dingers and a slugging percentage of .406.

What all those stats sum up is that we should have seen it coming.

Seen what coming, you ask?  Let's set the situation.  The Redbirds are trailing the Marlins 5-4 in the bottom of the seventh inning.  The Cardinals had squandered multiple opportunities with the bases loaded and less than two-outs, only tallying one run from such riches.  Now they have two on and two outs.  Lance Berkman has just been thrown out at the plate running on contact on Yadier Molina's ground ball back to the pitcher.

Perhaps the Marlins felt a shift in the wind, as they changed pitchers so that right-handed reliever Clay Hensley can face the left-handed hitting Descalso (don't ask me why, I just report the facts).

Hensley offers Descalso an 84-mph sinker, which is fouled off.  I'm not sure why it's classified as a sinker, but any 84-mph pitch from a major league hurler would appear to those watching as having a "sinking action". 

Let us examine this more closely.  Descalso has some pop in his bat, totaling 5 doubles and a triple this season amongst his 12 hits.  But he's batting .214 with a .333 slugging percentage for the season entering the game.  Hensley replaced Ryan Webb, who served up 95-mph heat to Yadi in the previous at bat.  Not sure why Florida manager Edwin Rodriguez decided that Hensley's stuff was a better match against Descalso than Webb's.  Sometimes the thought of facing Cards manager Tony La Russa makes lesser men out-smart themselves.

Back to the action.  On his second pitch, Hensley balloons an 80-mph off-speed delivery that Descalso deposits with dispatch into the right-field seats for a three-run homer.  Shades of Tom Lawless.  Go crazy, folks.  Go crazy.

Matt Holliday hit a home run in the first inning to spot starting pitcher Kyle McClellan a two-run lead.  But McClellan wasn't sharp.  And neither was the St. Louis defense.

The top of the third was a carnival, as the Marlins plated two runs without the benefit of a hit, an error, nor a ball hit to the outfield.  How does such a thing occur?  Horrific official scorekeeping, two walks, a passed ball, and the random, odd occurrences that make baseball so special.

La Russa added to the circus atmosphere by crazily inserting reserve infielder Tyler Greene as a defensive replacement in LF for veteran former (and current) outfielder Lance Berkman!?!?!  In the top of the sixth, TLR replaced power bat Allen Craig at third base for better defense with light hitting Nick Punto.  Craig was due up second in the bottom half of the frame.

Craig got the start at third, contributing a run scored, a double on a hustle play, two walks, and an RBI when he was walked with the bases loaded in the second inning.  Craig did air-mail a throw to first base that allowed Gaby Sanchez  to reach base leading off the fourth inning - an inning that the Marlins scored twice.
He did nothing to lose the third base job in the absence of David Freese, nor did he stake any claim to the job.

Eduardo (don't call him "Dirty") Sanchez got the save, following two innings of relief from Eduardo Sanchez and one perfect eighth inning from Jason Motte.

It was an ugly, eventful, long, but fun game Tuesday.  Wednesday night Chris Carpenter will have the ball for the NL Central Division leading St. Louis Cardinals.

03 May 2011

Craig Gets Crack at Hot Corner for Cards

Allen Craig will get the start at third base for the St. Louis Cardinals in tonight's game against the Florida Marlins.  Craig will replace the injured David Freese who broke his hand Sunday when he was hit by a pitch.

Craig began his minor league career with the Redbirds as a third baseman, but was switched to the outfield.  Though always a successful hitter, Craig did not show the same capabilities in the field at the hot corner.  St. Louis manager Tony La Russa had intentions to give Craig some time at third base during spring training, but many of his innings were devoted to getting a longer look at prospect Matt Carpenter.

Freese has been a valuable part of the potency of the Cardinals lineup thus far in 2011.  He goes on the DL with a season batting average of .356 and 14 RBI.  He has exhibited a knack for delivering in the clutch,  hitting .500/.563/.500 with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, knocking in 6 runs in 14 such at bats this season.

Craig's Bat is Best Replacement
Though anticipated to be a hack in the field, Craig's powerful hitting stroke is really the best option the ball club has to replace Freese in the lineup.  Daniel Descalso has shown he can pick it at third base in his brief big league career, and Nick Punto is a proven veteran gloveman at third.  But neither has the power to back up Lance Berkman in the 6-hole in the lineup. 

The loss of Freese gives frightening reminders of the problems at third base last season.
Felipe Lopez and Pedro Feliz proved frustratingly inept at the plate, and that black hole coupled with the lack of offense from shortstop meant Cardinal rallies ended when the bottom of the lineup came up to bat.  Skip Schumaker has the ability to shore up the end of the lineup, but he's at least three weeks away from returning from injury.

Craig has an impact bat.  In 33 AB this season, he is hitting .303 with 1 HR and 7 RBI, though he's been limited to only 12 games played due to his own stint on the DL.  And while his MLB career has been spotty, he has hit when given regular at bats.  He was an absolute rake at Triple-A Memphis.

The Bat Must Make Up for the Glove
The hope in this corner is that Craig can play third just well enough to earn 3-4 AB's in 4-5 games per week until Freese can finally come back.  Craig must improve on his horrible fielding stats at third with the big league team - one chance, one error.  It would be good for Craig to get a second chance in the first inning tonight - a simple play made flawlessly.  It would be good for his confidence.

The Cardinals need that, because they need his bat.

Cardinals Loss on Pitchers This Time

By User shgmom56 on Flickr (Original version) User UCinternational (Crop) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By User shgmom56 on Flickr
The St. Louis Cardinals managed to lose to the Florida Marlins on Monday night 6-5.  For the first time in a while, this loss can be pinned fully on the starting pitcher Kyle Lohse.

Lohse was cruising through the first two innings, needing only 17 pitches to retire the first seven Marlins hitters he faced.  The lone baserunner reached on a ball that went through SS Ryan Theriot's legs for an error.  But Lohse lost the strike zone in the third inning.  After getting the first out, Marlin's pitcher Chris Volstad got the first hit against Lohse - a single.  Now pitching out of the stretch, Lohse walked two more Marlins.  You can guess what happens after you give the opposing pitcher and then walk two, right?  You guessed it, a two-out two-strike grand slam by Gaby Sanchez.

The Big Puma Strikes
The Cardinal hitters came to the rescue, and regained the lead 5-4 in the bottom of the frame on a three-run dinger by Lance Berkman - his ninth of the season.  Fresh off a second NL Player of the week award, Berkman drove in four runs on his two hits, and added a walk.  But Lohse kept struggling with the strike zone and his pitch count kept rising.  Marlins slugger Mike Stanton launched a bomb into Big Mac Land at Busch Stadium, tying the game.

The game would remain tied until the eighth, when Stanton struck again, greeting Mitchell Boggs with a lead-off triple.  The next batter, Greg Dobbs, was able to plate Stanton with a sacrifice fly and the Marlins had the late lead.

Tyler Greene Fails
Now to the bottom of the ninth with Florida leading 6-5.  Daniel Descalso lead off with a walk.  Tyler Greene was asked to move Descalso over with a sacrifice bunt but he failed, bunting straight to the pitcher who got a force-out at second.  Allen Craig - fresh off the DL - struck out.  Ryan Theriot then singled.  If Green does his job and gets the runner to second, the Cardinals tie the game.  Alas, Leo Nunez coaxed a ground ball out of Colby Rasmus, and the rally - and the game - were over.

Greene was particularly brutal this game.  He went 0-4 and failed to get the sacrifice bunt down.  Now batting .219 on the season, Greene again is failing to show he has the stuff to be a Major League ball player.  As Bernie Miklasz points out, Greene is now 1-6 in his career in sacrifice situations.

With David Freese's broken hand and Skip Schumaker still on the DL, the Redbirds will need someone to step up and replace some of Freese's slugging.  Greene has shown good power in the minors, but at the big league level, he just doesn't hit.  Plus, Greene has been inconsistent with the glove with the parent team.  Daniel Descalso has had some good at bats lately, but he went hitless on Monday also.

Monday's loss went to Mitchell Boggs, but Kyle Lohse finally had a poor start.  He was due one, though.  He still looks healthy and this observer expects a very good season from him. 

29 April 2011

The Lance Berkman Factor

Lance Berkman
Lance Berkman celebrates a home run (Getty/Bob Levey
I remember when I heard the news that one of my most favorite players was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.  I was bartending at the time, and as I came into work my customers broke the news to me.  I was delighted.  I knew this player was solidly in the autumn of his career - a career that seemed to be snowballing to the end because of injuries.  But I did not care.  I cherished the idea that his ability to take over any given game with his bat was only matched by a tremendous amount of baseball savvy.  I believe I did in fact dance a little jig once I determined they weren't pulling my chain.

The year: 2004.  The player: Larry Walker.

Now it is deja vu all over again.  In the past off-season I was thrilled in a like manner with the news that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak had fought off the efforts of his Chicago Cubs counterpart and secured Lance Berkman for a year.  I did not dance a jig this time, but I was pleased.

I knew of Berkman's knee injury.  I knew that he had in his past played a passable if ugly outfield, but had been relegated for years to first base.  I had concerns, but the pluses of having this guy with the Birds on the Bat far outweighed the negatives - despite the overwhelming response of an underwhelmed media.  I did not hesitate to claim a charter membership in the Lance Berkman Fan Club  amongst the Cardinal fans on twitter.

But I never thought Berkman would be this good.  Apparently, the Houston Astros never thought he'd be this again, either.

Berkman returned to his old stomping grounds this week and destroyed Houston in Minute Maid Park.  He laced 8 hits in 14 at bats during the series, including 2 home runs, two doubles, and drove in eight runs.  That gives a slashline of .571/.571/1.143 and and an incredible OPS of 1.714.  On Thursday, Berkman raked in a 4-5 night, 2 homers, a double and 11 total bases.  He had a home run, a single, and 4 RBI in the Cardinals 9-run sixth inning alone.  His 3-run blast that inning was from his weaker right side giving St. Louis a lead it wouldn't relinquish and made a winner of starting pitcher Kyle McClellan.  He also added a solo shot in the ninth.

And he wasn't simply a weapon with the bat, he showed some glove with at least two eye-popping catches in right field.  His wonderful running catch deep in the right field corner on Wednesday was a big factor in St Louis holding off the Astros late inning rally.

Berkman is now batting .410 on the season, which is second in the Major Leagues behind teammate Matt Holliday's .432 mark.  Berkman's 8 HR is second in MLB and he ranks 3rd in RBI with 22.  He is also riding a streak of seven straight games with multiple hits.  Additionally, he ranks first in the majors with 66 total bases, first in slugging at .795, second with an OPS of 1.263, and fourth in on-base percentage with .467.

It's a helluva start for a player deemed to be over the hill.  But his knees have been given a chance to heal and provide a solid base from which he can hit the ball with authority.  And he has.

It is only April, and the baseball season is a long one.  It is not out of line to remain concerned if Berkman's health will hold up enough to maintain his regained power.  But unlike Walker, Berkman does not suffer from a degenerative condition that leaves his short-term future cloudy.

If he stays healthy, Berkman could leave Mozeliak open for questioning his judgement in signing the Big Puma.  No longer wondering why the GM went out on a limb to sign Berkman, but rather "why for only one year?"

25 April 2011

Yadi Gives Cards Last Laugh

It was a dark and stormy night again in the midwest.  But this time mother nature spared the St. Louis area long enough for the Cardinals and Reds to finish their early season three game set.

Oh, there was rain.  But the thunder came off the bat of Yadier Molina with a huge two-out three-run home run (you can access the video via this link) off Cincinnati starter Edinson Volquez to provide all the scoring in the game, and give a little shot to Brandon Phillips and the contentious Reds.  Yadi sprinted around the bases reminiscent of Phillips HR trot on Friday. 

For his heroics, Molina got a taste of lightening in the form of an Aroldis Chapman purpose pitch during his next at bat in the eighth.  Many observers saw that coming, given that the Reds and their fans blame Molina for the brawl last summer as much as Cardinal fans blame Phillips.  And while Yadi did sprint around the basepaths, he did it with his right arm raised in the air.  

This was a real pitchers dual, not a poor hitting display as is usually the mislabeling of a game with few hits and fewer runs. St. Louis sent out Jake Westbrook on short rest to face Volquez. Westbrook clearly has been the Cardinals worst starting pitcher this season, coming in with a record of 1-2 and had given up 23 runs in only 18 1/3 innings.  He also was the only starter in the National League who had not yet reached the sixth inning.

Volquez entered haunted by demons of his own.  His first inning ERA was 29.25 when he started the game.   But he was much better tonight, and escaped the first with only a zero on the scoreboard.  And he was sharp, allowing baserunners but always managing to get a key strikeout to avoid runs.

Westbrook was even better.  Through six innings of work, he allowed just 3 hits and worked around three walks while recording four strikeouts.  One of his walks was to intentionally pass Joey Votto after Brandon Phillips stroked a two-out double.  Westbrook did what he does best when he's on, getting Jonny Gomes to meekly ground out to short.

After Molina's thriller, the bullpen can in and shut down the Reds.  Shut them down hard.  Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez each got two strikeouts in their respective inning of work.  Then Mitchell Boggs again came into the ninth to seal the victory.  Reigning NL MVP Joey Votto touched him for a double with one out, but Boggs wasn't fazed and struck out Gomes and Jay Bruce to notch his third save in three chances.  Just don't call him the closer yet, he just happens to be the guy called on in the ninth so far - according to manger Tony La Russa.

After the game, Molina was undaunted. "Every time you hit a home run, what do you want?" Molina asked rhetorically. "You want to be mad? Or sad? No. You've got to enjoy it, man. Especially me. I don't hit a bunch of home runs. Every time I get an opportunity to enjoy it, that's the way you have to play this game. Fun." 

Well Yadi, Cardinal Nation enjoyed it.  And apparently Brandon Phillips enjoyed the weekend's entertainment too, despite the Reds losing two of three in the series.  He blew a kiss to the fans after making the first out in the ninth. 

Man, there's going to be some fun to be had between these teams all season long.

24 April 2011

Should Cardinals Let The Grass Grow?

The St. Louis Cardinals are a ground-ball machine.  And no, I am not referring to the pitching staff.  I mean the hitters.  The Cards are currently leading the entire Major Leagues with 28 Grounded Into Double Plays (GIDP's), with a healthy lead in the NL (the Pittsburgh Pirates come up short yet again with only 20 GIDP's).

The Redbirds have an astounding 18 GIDP's at home in Busch Stadium in only 11 games.  Compare that to a (still) healthy ten in the team's ten road games.  Granted, in the first home-stand of the season many GIDP's were caused by a scuffling lineup rolling over on pitches and managing only weak grounders to the opposing middle infielders, while in the last five games at home it's been sharply hit balls that account for many of the double plays the team has endured.

Perhaps it's time to let the grass grow at Busch III.

That may seem like a joke, but maybe we should take a moment to consider it.  In the last five games at Busch, Colby Rasmus has three GIDP's.  Tyler Greene and Nick Punto have one each.  On the current home-stand, the entire team has a total of eight.  The three players listed represent a large portion of the team's speed.

If the infield grass was let to grow a tad higher, perhaps those grounders turn into productive outs - moving the runner up.  At worst, they may have only been force outs.  And this is important, as 11 of this season's home GIDP's  came with at least one runner on base with no outs with no runs scored in the inning - true rally killers.  Additionally, four GIDP's at home have been super rally killers, transforming two on, no out opportunities into wasted innings.  Missing that many wonderful chances to post runs has left the team vulnerable to the bullpen implosions suffered in 2011.

Of course this all supposition.  If the grass was longer, and the ground balls slower, the Redbirds could have even more  GIDP's (perish the thought).  Or well struck grounders for hits instead could become standard ground outs for Cardinal batsmen.  I know of no way to quantify this, not being a stat freak (gimme some help?)

But here's something to keep in mind.  Pitching coach Dave Duncan has pruned and preened his staff to be worm-murders - preaching the sinker and his pitch-to-contact philosophy.  With an infield defense focused on offense, would higher grass and slower ground balls mollify the middle infield's lack of range?  I know only one way to prove my theory - practice it.  Have the grass mown long.  There are proven eye-ball analysts sitting (or standing) in the Cardinals dugout every day their in Busch III.  It wouldn't take long for them to get a feel for the way it's working.  And if the experiment raises the hackles of TLR, Dunc, and the Ol' Redhead it's an easy fix to return to the way it was.

I'll admit, this all sounds like a joke.  But with the double-play hindering St. Louis' run differential, raising the issue for debate isn't really such a ridiculous a thought.

23 April 2011

Video of St. Louis Tornado

I just ran across this video.  It shows the formation of the tornado that hit Lambert International airport in St. Louis, and has some of the best, close-up pics of the damage there:

Cards Win As Reds, Phillips Blow Into Town

A foul wind blew into St. Louis Friday afternoon.  And no, it was not the big mouth of Cincinnati Reds 2B Brandon Phillips.  Mother Nature unleashed her fury with devastating tornadoes that damaged Lambert International Airport, and delayed the highly anticipated start of the Cardinals-Reds series.  The game was played amongst the debris.  And now the NL Central is part of the debris as the Redbirds roost alone atop the division - 1/2 game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Forgive me if I sound flippant about the storm sitting cozily in warm weather in Tucson.  My son lives in Ellisville with his mother.  I have friends and family in Maryland Heights, Overland, Florissant, and Hazelwood.  Additionally, my mother still lives in southern Illinois which has not been spared by the recent weather.  I am very concerned about the news.  My prayers go out to the entire area.
Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa showed a heapin' helpin' of Hall of Fame cool for playing chicken with the weather.  LaRussa made a last minute decision to start Miguel Batista against the Reds, knowing full well what the forecast portended.  And he was vindicated when the game was delayed six pitches in.  Reds manager stuck with scheduled starter Edinson Volquez, and he was done without throwing a single pitch in the game.   Perhaps Baker knew what he was doing with Volquez, who's given up 6 HR's, 20 hits, and 17 runs in 22.2 innings thus far this season.

When the storm abated and the game resumed, Kyle McClellan also resumed his anticipated start (technically in relief).  With no outs and a runner on second, McClellan escaped the first without damage.  And he continued to perform as he has all year - 6 innings pitched, 2 ER, 7 hits, 3 BB, and 2 K's on 93 pitches.  Actually, it may have been his worst start of the season - if it was indeed a start.

Ryan Theriot is proving himself to be quite the brown-noser, proving Cardinals GM John Mozeliak correct for bringing the former Cub aboard.  Theriot went 3-4 with a double, and scored 2 runs to get the home team to an early lead they never relinquished.  Theriot is now batting .321 as the replacement for light-hitting Brendan Ryan.  Albert Pujols managed 2 RBI's, and the Lance Berkman Fan Club was thrilled as the Big Puma keeps impressing, matching Theriot's line exactly.  Yadier Molina again had one big hit, a two-out RBI single in the fifth that gave the bullpen the space needed to lock down the victory.

Is it fair to lump the job former reliever McClellan did into the body of work the bullpen did tonight?  I don't think so.  Their performance stands alone.  Eduardo Sanchez was called upon in the sixth inning to save K-Mac in a two-on no-out situation.  The rookie showed jitters, throwing two wild pitches that lead to one Red run, but limited the damage and escaped the jam.  Jason Motte worked himself into a jam, giving up two singles in 2/3 of an inning.  He gave way to Mitchell Boggs who went old-school, pitching over an inning to earn his second straight save.

Let us not forget about the man who created the hype of this series and the burgeoning rivalry between the clubs - Brandon Phillips.  He was the one Red to get good wood on a McClellan offering, depositing his second home run of the season into the left-centerfield bleachers in the fifth.  Phillips showed some class by not grandstanding the performance - he hustled his way home on what had to be a satisfying home run trot.  Cardinal Nation hates him, but his antics upped the hype, and has the final two games of the series on national TV - Saturday afternoon on FOX, and the Sunday night game on ESPN. Here's what the Reds All-Star second baseman has to say after tonight's show:

  You can follow him on twitter @DatDudeBP.  Honestly, he's one of the best MLB players to follow. 
We have national TV, national media, controversy, adversarial competitors, and two good divisional teams facing off in late April.  This rivalry is everything the Cards-Cubs should be, it's Yankees-Red Sox for the rest of the nation.  It was an exciting win for the Redbirds tonight.  I can't wait for tomorrow.  I can't wait to see how this drama plays out through the summer.

22 April 2011

This Cool, Red-Hot Cardinals-Reds Rivalry

It's only April, and we are barely 10 percent of the way through the St. Louis Cardinals summertime sojourn, but the season seems ripe for a big series.  Behold, it is upon us as the defending NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds cross the Rubicon Mississippi, and invade the battlefield of Busch Stadium tonight to begin a three game tussle.

It's a long awaited confrontation heightened by the hijinks of last August.  This nascent but vibrant rivalry has been brewing since the 1800's, began budding when former Cardinal GM Walt Jocketty was hired by Cincinnati for the same position, and bloomed with The Brawl last season(video).  Add a jigger of the intensive on-field antagonism of managers Tony LaRussa and Dusty Baker, fill to the top with a healthy dose of Scott Rolen, and stir with the inflammatory controversy of Brandon Phillips' comments:
"I'd play against these guys with one leg. We have to beat these guys. I hate the Cardinals. All they do is [bleep] and moan about everything, all of them, they're little [same bleep, plural], all of 'em. I really hate the Cardinals. Compared to the Cardinals, I love the Chicago Cubs. Let me make this clear: I hate the Cardinals."
What you have brewing is an intoxicating cocktail that is served best flaming hot, and is to savored.  Yes, I find this flowering rivalry quite cool.

What wasn't cool was the kicking of frustrated futbol-star Johnny Cueto ripping up Chris Carpenter with his spikes, and the career-ending concussion to Jason LaRue.  Sissy-kicking gets you kicked out of the club, Mr. Cueto.  It's a bigger offense to my sensibilities than shoplifting t-shirts.

This entire brouhaha really was ordered by the big mouth of Reds All-Star second baseman Phillips.  Before what appeared to be a crucial series last August, Phillips made statements about how the St. Louis team were a bunch of whiners, and how he hates the Cardinals.  While whine is not a part of this recipe, the hates the Cardinals thing makes a wonderful garnish.  His comments were met with an icy reception across Cardinal Nation, however this observer thought that his shot across the bow was quite cool.

I mean, what is he supposed to say?  The usual, boring platitudes that most professional spout out these days?  Humbug on that.  The Reds team liked their make-up last year, and were ready to take down the Yankees of the division.  He put his confidence on the bulletin-board for all to read and fit his mates for battle.  Phillips and his mates lost that battle, but won the war - and proved their mettle.

Now the teams meet again, tied for the division lead and looked to be running side-by-side all season.  Without Phillips fanning the flames of rivalry, this would just be another early season intra-divisional series.  Now we've got fun, folks.  Good ol' get-in-your-face, spit-on-your-shoes fun.  

Spring flowers in a long-awaited showdown before Memorial Day.  Such things are rare in baseball.  And myself, I will drink in every drop of this new Cardinal-Reds Rivalry cocktail because victory will smell so sweet.  

Let us all wish that Mother Nature doesn't crash our party, leaving us with naught but karaoke this weekend.  Singing the blues about how our awaited refreshment was spilt.

21 April 2011

You're Better Fans Than This, Cardinal Nation

It has been a very tough first three weeks for Cardinal Nation.  It has been horrific for St. Louis reliever Ryan Franklin.  He has suffered through repeated beatings on the mound.  And he doesn't know why.

In the first game of Wednesday's double-header, Franklin was called from the bullpen for his first appearance not as the club's designated closer.  For three years Franklin had been an above-average closer with stretches of brilliance.  But not so thus far in 2011.

With the team down two runs, Franklin pitched an uneventful seventh inning.  In the eighth, Franklin gave up yet another home run - a solo shot to Lance Nyx - that gave the Washington Nationals a 8-5 advantage.
The home run was not crucial to the outcome of the game, but the St. Louis crowd responded with a cascade of "boo's".

After the game, Franklin's frustrations got the best of him and he lashed out at the fans as reported by Fox Sports Midwest's B.J. Rains:
"Sure, I hear it," Franklin said after the game. "I guess they have short memories too because I think I've been pretty good here. It doesn't bother me, but it just shows some people's true colors. You're either a fan or you're not.  
"You don't boo your own team. I don't care who you are or what you say or just because you spent your money to come here to watch us play that somebody happens to make one bad pitch and give up a homer and you are going to start booing him? I've been here for five years, and four years I've been pretty good.
"You should go write stories about the fans booing. They are supposed to be the best fans in baseball. Yeah right."
That last paragraph sent Cardinal Nation into a tizzy throughout the nightcap of the double-header.  The Redbird fans on twitter were brutal - even personal - in the response to those statements.

This scribe is embarrassed by Cardinal Nation throughout this incident.  No, I don't begrudge the booing at the stadium after the home run - that's simply a part of the industry of Major League Baseball.  But the personal and hateful nature of comments about Franklin's performance (and even the man himself) are utterly out of line.

Franklin never asked for the closer role.  It was thrust upon him when Jason Motte obviously couldn't handle the emotional strain of the ninth inning.  And for three years, Franklin has been a more than adequate closer.  A 90% save rate is the envy of most big league teams during his tenure.  And look at the thanks he gets.

Why the bile?  Where does this come from?  Many commenters were absolutely hateful in their comments.  Listening to them, you'd think Franklin was a convicted mother-hugger and father-raper.

This is not Manny Ramirez loafing to get released from his big contract so he can sign another larger contract.  No.  This is a veteran who has done what has been asked of him to the best of his ability.  This year his ability has been lacking - or at least the results have been.  Commitment and perseverance are admirable qualities.  It's the players job to take the ball when called upon.  When he gets the ball is entirely on the manager.

Do not get me wrong.  Lashing out at the fans is not the proper way of handling the situation.  But keep in mind that Ryan Franklin is not a PR professional nor a politician.  Hell, he isn't even a star accustomed to the attention and milking it all the way to the bank.  Once a journeyman starter, he was unceremoniously put into a high profile role and he's done quite well with it.  But the frustrations of letting his teammates, the fans, and himself pushed him to do something that seems way out of character for an Oklahoma boy.

Now Cardinal Nation wants him tarred, feathered and run out of town riding a rail for being human for three weeks.

After the nightcap, Franklin apologized for his comments:
“Obviously these last 2 1/2 weeks have been frustrating for me, and I’m frustrated with myself. I can understand why the fans are frustrated. I’ve loved my time here in St. Louis. It’s my favorite place to play. It’s just a frustrating time for me right now, because I feel like I’m letting everyone down.
“First and foremost, I’m letting myself down. I’m letting the team down and obviously the fans. It’s just been a hard time for me right now, and it’s something I’ve never been through. It’s just really frustrating. Things didn’t come out the right way. It was right after the game and I said things I shouldn’t have said. I apologize for that. It was the wrong thing to say, but at the same time I was frustrated. I am frustrated. I’m just trying to do my best to do everything I can to get back on track. So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to get back out there and help this team.”
There is a certain irony that Rick Ankiel was treated to a standing ovation the same day Franklin was booed out of the stadium.  Yes, Ankiel put out an ad in the paper thanking Cardinal fans for their support.  It's a shame that there was no support for Franklin, who has contributed more to the success of the Cardinals for far longer than Ankiel ever did.

Cardinal Nation likes to think of themselves as the best fans - knowledgeable and supportive.  But this episode exposes a nasty truth that has materialized the past few years; there is no niceness nor support for players who continue to take the ball while hurt or struggling.  Ask Chris Duncan about it.  Ask Jason Isringhausen.  We don't need to ask Franklin.  Maybe the one to ask is the man that continues to put them in positions to fail - manager Tony LaRussa.

And it's not the dissatisfaction with performance that has raised my ire, rather it's the personal nature of attacks on these players.  So they've disappointed fans.  It is no reason to denigrate them personally, nor to take it personally.  This is just a game folks.  A game played by flesh and blood human beings, not by bits inside a gaming console.  If a player disappoints, hate the game not the player.

To those fans who have shown such bitterness I ask if perhaps you've never been frustrated or disappointed in yourself?  Perhaps you've never acted out of character under an extreme period of stress.  If you swear you haven't, you can throw stones.  But we'll give Franky a bat, and maybe you'll find out how difficult it is to get a fastball past a better athlete than you.  Then we'll stone you for either being in cahoots with the devil or for being a bald-faced liar.

Booing Cardinal players who have performed well in the past, who have never given less than 100% to the team, and who are struggling in the short term is not indicative of the best fans in baseball.  Come on, Cardinal Nation.  You are better than this.

20 April 2011

Cardinals Showcase Mark Hamilton

Mark Hamilton
With the poorly timed Designated Listings of valuable contributors Skip Schumaker and Allen Craig, the St. Louis Cardinals made a surprising call-up from Triple-A Memphis, first baseman Mark Hamilton.  Additionally, the forgotten Nick Punto was actived from the DL.

Hamilton's recall was surprising.  He is a power bat who plays a position that he will not be filling - first base.  He is most likely to be used as a pinch hitter and a couple of on-the-job training starts in the outfield.

We expected Adron Chambers to get his cup of coffee for the next fortnight, but the organization is suddenly short on available outfielders after a frightful collision that robs us of reading Shane Robinson's last name arching over his smallish shoulders.  It's also in the best interest of team and player for the still developing Chambers to get regular playing time in the minors than rot away on big league pine.  Hamilton, on the other hand, really doesn't have much left to prove in the minors.

What Mark Hamilton needs to prove is value to another team as a Major League player.  It is unlikely that if Albert Pujols finds a different franchise to pony up the paychecks for his demands in free agency, a career minor league player will replace the future Hall of Famer on a perennial contender.  Hamilton's true worth to the Cardinals organization is as a trade chip.  Without playing time with the parent club, he isn't much of one.

This is what I believe the reasoning was behind his being the butt in the seat on the plane to St. Louis.  Hamilton needs to show that his long, looping swing can fulfill his minor league home run totals against top calibre pitching.  A couple of dingers in a couple of weeks would make a non-contending team take some notice of him - especially in the DH League.  It's a little something something St. Louis GM John Mozeliak could find handy to have in his back pocket around the end of July.

Our First Look At Nick Punto

I am excited to finally see Nick Punto sporting the Birds on the Bat across his chest.  The very definition of a super-utility guy, Punto is a weak bat-strong glove infielder who gets in base despite a low BA.  He was a valuable member of many successful Minnesota Twins teams the past few years.

An off-season signing of the Cardinals, Punto arrived in Jupiter belly-aching with an aching belly.  He was diagnosed and supposedly fixed with a surgeons blade.  The sports hernia maybe the very reason Punto was deemed expendable by the Twins.

When the Redbirds signed him, I heard from many Twins fans - either on twitter or via email - that Cardinal Nation was gonna love this guy.  Many in Minnesota thought that letting Punto escape was a bad move.  He's a gritty-gutty gamer, who often was in the middle of good things - cut from the Jose Oquendo sparkplug mold.

Dirt on the uniform and thinking between the ears is Punto's hallmarks. And those qualities will always endear a Cardinals player to this life-long fan.

18 April 2011

No More Apologizing for Franklin

This armchair manager has held firm to the idea that St. Louis Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin needed to work out the kinks because they're aren't any better candidates to handle the mental toughness issues of the closing job. But after the ballclub endured the fourth blown save of the young season (in only five opportunities mind you) on Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, even this Franklin apologist cannot support bringing him in such a high-leverage situation any time in the near future.  The time to regroup is now upon us.

A dumbfounded Ryan Franklin,
asea with only his beard
Franklin has been far more effective than pretty in his closing era with the Redbirds.  Relying on his location and savvy with a vast repertoire of pitches, what Franklin has lacked in strikeout ability has always been successfully substituted with the ability to coax weak groundouts from opposing hitters on a minimum of pitches.

Something isn't up to snuff with Franky's stuff this year.  Even when he makes what he thinks are great pitches this season, they are meeting the sweet spot of opponents bats.  Exhibit A: Matt Kemp hitting what Franklin described as a pitcher's pitch a long way into the LA afternoon sunshine.  There is a profound and abnormal lack of movement on Franklin's late inning offerings this season, and that gets him hit hard.  Really, really hard.  And balls hit in the air, too.  Really high up in the air.  Traveling long, long distances in the air.

Mentality So Important
Closing big league games take a special type of mentality.  A closer needs to be tougher between the ears than stronger in the arm.  Confidence is key to get batters to hit your pitch not theirs.  And a short memory is so very important, because all closers get beat in excruciating fashion from time to time.

Leaving such humblings behind to take the ball the next day and get the outs necessary for the win is not something every man can do.  It's something every closer faces at some point in his career.  Some lose their confidence and/or their stuff and lose the closers job.  It's happened before, and it will happen again as long as it is human beings taking the field with their gloves and hats.

Blasting the job he's done, and calling for Franklin's ouster from closer is one thing.  To pin-point a successor is another.  Trading for a reliable replacement is not a real-world answer in mid-April.  Let's take a look at the options available to manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan.

Miguel Batista - ugh
TLR will most likely fall-back to his usual position in such situations and look to a veteran with experience in the role.  Miguel Batista is the one that fits both those descriptions.  He did have 31 saves in 2005 for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Unfortunately, it took 39 chances to do it.  A quick glance at 41 career saves makes a case, but do the math and you come up with a save rate of 70.6%.  Miggy in the ninth will make Franklin's history in the role look like that of a Hall of Famer.

Jason Motte - meh
Motte has speed on his side.  Unfortunately the straightness of his heat defies the law of physics.  He is extremely capable of allowing the killer walk-offs that currently have Cardinal Nation in a tizzy that he really is unreliable.  Lest we forget, his spectacular failure in the ninth inning of opening day 2009 is the singular event that gave Franklin the closers role.

Eduardo Sanchez - hmmmm
Sanchez has exploded into the Major Leagues with 8 strikeouts in just three innings of work.  First blush, this makes you excited.  But in time, players will get a fix on his stuff and approach and make the subsequent adjustments.  Before I hand such a crucial responsibility on Sanchez, I want to see him get knocked around and come back with the adjustments a professional reliever constantly does.

Fernando Salas - maybe
Salas has been a closer throughout his minor league career.  The focal point of that sentence is "minor league".  This might be his future, but we are dealing with an immediate problem, and there is a more palatable replacement.

Mitchell Boggs - Yes!
Mitchell Boggs
(Source: Getty Images)
Boggs seems to have worked out the slow start caused by a bad back in spring training.  He has heat, and his filthy hard sinker is the envy of the Cardinals pitching staff.  He has some experience in big-league high-leverage situations (though not a saving a one-run lead in the ninth inning).  There is a list in GM John Mozeliak's mind (if not his desk) of pitchers the club planned on grooming this season to eventually replace Franklin as closer, and Boggs is very high on that list.

Boggs has not proven that he has the mental make-up to handle the role, but there is only one way to obtain that proof - throw him in the lake and see if he swims to shore.

If experience is key, Boggs has to get some sometime.  Perhaps as early as Tuesday.

16 April 2011

All Aboard the Berkman Bandwagon

Lance Berkman, Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
The train left the station on the afternoon of March 31, 2011 as Lance Berkman was introduced as a St. Louis Cardinal on opening day.  A longtime rival as a member of the Houston Astros, Berkman epitomizes a professional ballplayer - killing your team while never doing a thing to tick you off.  He always seems affable while crushing baseballs all over the field - or over the fence.

But even this avowed Berkman fan has watched in awe as the outfielder-cum-first baseman-cum-outfielder has put on an exhibition this week of what is a true professional hitter.  His two solo home runs last night in Los Angeles against the Dodgers give him 6 HRs in his last five games.  After a disappointing 2010 season that saw his power sapped by a knee injury in spring training, Berkman is obviously feeling more comfortable and confident at the plate. 

He started slow at the plate, but swings kept getting better and balls were struck hard, but his best efforts kept finding gloves.  One way to break out of that cycle is to miss gloves, and Berkman has by transporting pitches to the bleachers.  If a home run finds a glove out there, statisticians don't care.

Of course, this pace cannot be sustained (if it is, this charter member of the #LBFanClub would be calling for PED testing right away).  But there may be a lasting legacy of Berkman's barrage this week.  Pitching coaches and staffs must now respect the return of his power.  With the emergence of a very dangerous Rasmus forming bookends around the very formidable force of the Pujols-Holliday coupling, St. Louis now has a heart of the order as intimidating to pitchers as the MV3 force from last decade.  Intimidation means a higher possiblity of mistakes, and these hitters have a history of punishing mistakes.

I knew I couldn't be the only member of Cardinal Nation who longed to see the Big Puma in a Cardinal uniform.  And I found out that I wasn't.  As I detailed here , Cardinal twitter Nation debated Berkman's approval early on in the season.  In fact, Christine Coleman of Aaron Miles' Fastball blog  declared herself the President of the #LBFanClub - and I have proof:
Christine also gave some some love to the concept (and this humble scribe) in a recent post .

Berkman's easy going manner in the clubhouse and in the papers is refreshing.  His production is invigorating.  And now to one of MLB's largest fanbases, Lance Berkman is finally lovable.

The Report Now on StL Baseball App

A big day for The Redbirds Report.  Mitchell Applications great app StL Baseball updated with version 1.5 for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch today.  The new version now includes The Report amongst its exemplary line-up of 13 St. Louis Cardinals related blogs.  The app is also available for Android devices.

If you are not familiar with StL Baseball, the app gives easy access to recent posts by 13 blogs, as well as stories from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Belleville News-Democrat, KMOX, and  The Stl Baseball app allows you to socialize with other users, save articles, and view the activity stream of other Cardinal fans who use the app.  Fans share their photos related to Cardinal baseball, and you can upload yours as well.  There are sections displaying the 2011 schedule, and an in-depth history of St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

One feature I truly enjoy is the ability to access daily Cardinal news and opinion on my iPhone within the app, leaving me the opportunity to stream audio content in the background in my Safari browser (The Dan Patrick Show is my morning entertainment of choice).

StL Baseball is free, and available in the Apple App Store and in the Android Market.  The latest iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch update has improved the interface making it even easier to find current information on the Cardinals.

The blogs featured in version 1.5 are:
Aaron Miles' Fastball
C70 At The Bat
The Cardinal Nation Blog
Cards Droppings
Cardinal Diamond Diaries
i70 Baseball
Ivie League Productions (UCB Radio Hour and more)
On the Outside Corner
Pitchers Hit Eighth
The Redbirds Report
Stan Musial's Stance
Stl Baseball (Official blog of the Stl Baseball app)

If you have a supported device, but haven't checked out StL Baseball, why don't you do so now.  It's free, but worth more than that.  This was not a commercial advertisement for StL Baseball, but rather a piece of shameless self-promotion.  Now back to our irregularly unscheduled writing.

15 April 2011

Theriot Big Piece of Cards Offensive Revival

Lost in the recent explosion of offense from the St. Louis Cardinals is the role shortstop Ryan Theriot has played.  Since taking a day off on April 9, Theriot has been on a tear going 10-24 in the last 5 games of the road trip - a .417 clip.  It is no coincidence that those five games correspond to the 5 straight games the Redbirds have scored at least six runs.

During the off-season, the Cardinals added Theriot to the roster and shipped fan favorite Brendan Ryan to the Seattle Mariners.  Many fans in Cardinal Nation were unhappy with the switch sensing that Theriot would be a major defensive downgrade from Ryan, not to menition his taint as a former Chicago Cub.  Then on opening day, Theriot mishandled the exchange off a poor throw from the outfield and the San Diego Padres scored the go-ahead run in the 11th inning.

Plugged in as leadoff man in the Cardinal lineup, Theriot was caught up in the offensive malaise that gripped the Redbird bats during the season opening homestand, hitting just .182 through the first six games.  In fact the last home tilt on April 6 is the only game of the young season that Theriot went hitless.  But since the plane left Lambert International for the west coast, the veteran shortstop's bat has heated up with 12 hits in the six games he has played.

Despite the small sample size, The Riot appears to be the upgrade in the lineup that GM John Mozeliak was shooting for.  Theriot's average is .314, with an on-base percentage of .386 and a slugging percentage of .353 for the season.  He has also been clutch, getting seven hits in 12 chances with two outs and more importantly is batting .500 with runners in scoring position.  Add in a surprising five RBI from the leadoff man, and Theriot has put up numbers vastly superior to the black hole in the lineup the shortstop position was last season.

The questions about defense may be valid as Theriot has already committed four errors this year, though he had two after the first two games.  But the middle infield has not been a wasteland of leather as the most pessimistic of Cardinal fans feared entering the season.  Skip Schumaker looks far more comfortable at second base thus far, and the Theriot/Schumaker double-play combo has jelled early on.

Matt Holliday's return to the lineup, Albert Pujols return to a level of normalcy, and Colby Rasmus' consistent hitting has been key to the resurgence of scoring.  But Theriot has also been a vital part of the offense as well.  Former Cub or not, his performance early in the season deserves some love from the Cardinal faithful.

14 April 2011

The Lance Berkman Fan Club

Lance Berkman's
2011 Topps Baseball Card
If you are one of the hundreds in Cardinal Nation following on twitter, you probably have run across mention of the Lance Berkman Fan Club (hashtag #LBFanClub).  It all began on April 4 of this year when some of the tweeps couldn't show love for the Big Puma because of the "Astros Ick" (wonderfully phrased by @annabell151).

The twitter crowd was split between those who are still under the influence of the heated rivalry last decade between Berkman's old team - the Houston Astros and our beloved Redbirds, and those who saw Berkman as a talented, classy player despite the damage he inflicted on the Cardinals.

I will state for the record that I am in the latter category, and I am proud to be a self-described charter member of the Lance Berkman Fan Club.  There is plenty of room on the bandwagon.  And we're going to need a big bandwagon now, after the awe-inspiring display of power LB just unleashed in the desert against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

April 11:  2-5  2R, 2HR, 3RBI, 8 Total Bases

Berkman started the series with three pathetic at bats against D'backs starter Barry Enright.  But against the Arizona bullpen, LB began to heat up.  In the 7th inning with St. Louis holding an increasingly tenuous 4-1 lead, Berkman took a Sam Demel pitch deep the other way for a solo shot.  Then in the ninth, Berkman did what he was brought in to do, scoring Albert Pujols (and himself, of course) with a two-run dinger, and blew the game open.  It was his first two home runs of the season.

April 12:  3-5 1R, 1HR, 2RBI, 6 Total Bases 

Though the Cardinals lost 13-8 in this slugfest, Berkman again shone at the plate.  In his first at bat  Berkman hit a solo home run again against Diamondback's starter Armando Galarraga, giving him homers in three straight at bats.  He added two other singles in the game, one in the sixth inning that drove in Ryan Theriot.

April 13:  1-3 2R, 1HR, 5RBI, 1 BB, 4 Total Bases

What could Lance do to finally endear himself to the entirety of Cardinal Nation?  How about delivering the ultimate in retribution to a pitcher that had just plunked a teammate?  In the top of the 2nd, struggling Arizona starter Ian Kennedy hit Matt Holliday in the wrist to load the bases.  Kennedy was getting beat up badly and the Cardinal dugout appeared to take the beaning as an insult - especially the pitching staff. Berkman answered the best way possible as he launched a 3-2 Kennedy pitch into the stands at Chase Field for a grand slam to the obvious delight of the pitchers who hooted and offered catcalls to the shell-shocked the D'backs righty.  The score was now 8-0, and the rout was on.

When Berkman was available in the off-season, the Cardinals jumped at the chance to grab the veteran switch-hitter - even upping the offer to  $8 Million for one year to keep the Cubs out of play for him.  It was not only his career offensive production that intrigued, but his easygoing personality and positive clubhouse presence.  The fruition of the former showed itself in the series in Arizona, and Bernie Miklasz gives us a glimpse of the latter here.

Berkman is coming off a lost 2010 season that saw him suffer a knee injury in spring training and then dealt at the trading deadline from Houston to the New York Yankees as the Astros finally committed to rebuilding their aging, disappointing roster.  Berkman had the worst season of his career in 2010, and many felt he had gone past his prime.

The decision to return Berkman's glove to the outfield was heavily debated.  So far, he has not been anything other than he was with the Astros - adequate for the job.  He is no ballerina on defense, but he is a professional veteran who knows the fundamentals.  He knows to keep balls in front of him from getting past him, and can reliably hit the cutoff man.  These are not things we have seen from other, younger, more lithe Cardinal outfielders thus far this season.

Once given the nickname Fat Elvis for his portly appearance, Berkman has noticeably lost weight.  The knee injury of 2010 seems to be behind him, as he is running the bases and in the outfield surprisingly well.  The elbow soreness that slowed him early in spring training this year appears to not to be a problem any longer.

Cardinal Nation is well acquainted with the destructive power of Berkman's bat from his time with Division rival Houston.  The reluctance to love a player that has done such damage to the hometown team is understandable.  But these past three games give testimony to why this fan is bullish on the Big Puma wearing the Birds on the Bat.

So does recent history leave a bad taste in your mouth, or are you a member of the Lance Berkman Fan Club?  Give us  your vote in the comments.

12 April 2011

Why St. Louis Is A Baseball Town

Living in Arizona and being a St. Louis Cardinals fan gives me a unique perspective on what constitutes a true baseball town.  I lived the first half of my life in southern Illinois and a short time in the St. Louis area.  The second half as been spent in Arizona - mostly in Tucson.  Baseball fandom is as different as the geology.

Hard to play wiffle ball with this
standing where 2nd base should be.
In Arizona, baseball has plenty of devoted fans.  The problem is that so few are Diamondback fans.  Most are like me - relocated and distanced from their childhood team.  The D'backs have no adults that grew up rooting for the hometown team, because there was no team when they grew up.

Arizona is full of Red Sox fans, Cub fans, Tigers fans, Yankee fans, and Cardinals fans.  The Dodgers are the true kings of the area.  For generations, every Dodger game was broadcast here.  If the native Arizonans talk about their father's team, it is almost always the Dodgers.  Most everywhere you go in this country, you will see the colors of the above six teams.  It is no different here.

Despite a long and valued history of great college teams and the Cactus league for spring training, baseball is not ingrained in the very fabric of everyday life like it is back in the Midwest.  My father learned the nuances of the game from an old man that watched the kids play in a vacant lot near the house.  He taught me those lessons.  I have tried to expand upon them.  I rarely meet a native Arizonan with that type of background.  And we all have grandmothers and/or mothers who are devoted Cardinal fans.  There is no such animal in Arizona, because there was no team.  And Los Angeles is a long way away.  Vin Scully is great, but if you never go to a game, you just aren't the same sort of fan.

How I spent my summers growing up in the Midwest
I have been a Cardinals fan since before I can remember.  I really didn't have a choice.  Dad listened to Jack Buck announce the games every night on a transistor radio as the family watched TV.  He would turn it up for everyone to here when something exciting happened.  Our family vacations often centered around a Cardinals game.  St. Louis was a two hour drive.

Now I live in Tucson, a two hour drive from Phoenix.  I have driven that freeway to see a game a few times - always to watch the Cardinals.  Twice have I gone to see someone else, and both times the tickets were free.  I went because I love baseball, not to see the D'backs play.

Once, there was excitement for baseball in Arizona, especially for one magical October.  Every baseball fan remembers the 2001 World Series.  Arizona vs. Yankees.  The Diamondbacks were Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Byung Hyung-Kim.  Juan Gonzales, Steve Finley, and Miguel Batista were big heroes as well.  But the payroll was too much to bear, and the team was torn apart.  Without a historical fanbase, the fair-weather fans drifted away.  That would never happen in St. Louis.  Never.  The memories of our fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmas won't allow it.  And that ever renewing legacy is the reason St. Louis is such a great baseball town.