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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.