Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. The Cardinals and The Brewers are set to square off in a pivotal(not crucial) three game set that will close the first half of the season before the All Star Game in Minnesota next week. Coming into Milwaukee, the Cards are 2 games behind the Brewers for first place. Before we get into more topical ideas, let’s discuss the big elephant in the room.
The Yadier Molina injury/Molinaggedon
I dished my take on this topic over at Arch City Sports yesterday, so I will give you the short version. This morning, the sun came out in St. Louis. The skies were blue and not dark. The Cardinals jerseys were still red and white instead of venomous black. Life goes on. Baseball gets played. The Cards will just keep going. The Molina injury is devastating. That much is known. You don’t replace Yadi. He is the heart and soul of the Cardinals. He is Rambo, Indiana Jones, and a Jedi all rolled into one. He controls the pitching staff, hits .300 and will retire with more than 10 gold gloves. Baserunners fear him. Opposing pitchers loathe him. Teams prepare a game plan against him. Without him, the Cards are weaker but this isn’t the first time the Cards have faced supreme adversity. Adam Wainwright went down in 2011. Chris Carpenter missed a ton of 2012. Jason Motte was gone in 2013. Yes, Molina has an impact on 95 percent of the games while those gents may have 20-35 percent, but the reasoning is still there. One man hits the ground and another rises up. Tony Cruz will get a bulk of the starts. George Kottaras(recently put on waivers by Cleveland) will back up Cruz. Tony has been mentored under Yadi for two seasons and he deserves a chance to prove the doomsday crowd wrong.
After Cruz’s 0-3 performance at the plate and his inability to coax magic out of Shelby Miller’s right arm, more than a few Cardinals fans stormed the beaches and said he isn’t cut out for the job. Those are the Best Fans in Baseball at work there. After one start from Cruz, they had seen enough. If only the National League had these fans as scouts. Decisions wouldn’t take so long on prospects. It’s unlawful to judge Cruz so quickly. Let him run with it for a couple weeks. The deadline lurks a little less than three weeks away. If Cruz/Kottaras completely suck it up until then, Mo will pull the trigger on something bigger at catcher or elsewhere in the lineup.
Here’s what needs to happen. The other highly paid hitters in the lineup make up for Molina’s missing bat. Suspect #1 Allen Craig. Matt Holliday. Kolten Wong. Oscar Taveras. Pick up the slack. Holliday and Craig are paid to slug over .400 and haven’t done so through a half season. That needs to change. Instead of demanding Mo to trade the Arch, The Imos brand, David Backes, Fredbird and Toasted Ravioli to another team for the likes of a superstar pitcher/hitter, let’s see the members of this 40man roster step up and take charge.
There’s no crying in this game and that includes when the MVP of the league goes down with a huge injury. Molina is out of the game but he isn’t dead. He will be around. His surgery was today. He will be back in the dugout soon. He can scout opposing lineups and help Cruz with game plans. He can be an extra coach for Matheny. He may even call the signs from the dugout. Who knows? Molina may be gone but he is far from useless. The rest of the team needs to step. Which leads me into….
The Return of Joe Kelly
Kelly will help a lot. His loose and goofy attitude will take a load off a clubhouse that could be feeling the pressure at the moment. Kelly’s return couldn’t have come at a better time. He will help a rotation that looks fine from the outside but is fraying internally. Kelly has provided second half magic two seasons in a row, with an especially strong 2013 finish. He was 10-2 after June last season and went 5-0 in August. Kelly is a contact pitcher but a mentally strong hurler who will pour gasoline on the mound but keep the match from being lit. He’s a versatile pitcher who will bolster a flailing rotation. Look for him to throw 85 pitches tonight and hopefully keep the Brewers in check. The return of Kelly is why I saw no need for Jake Peavy.
Shelby Miller Troubles
Whatever the team prescribed for Miller a couple of weeks ago isn’t working. I won’t go the medical route here and blame his back. It may be stiff but the command of his secondary pitches is more rigid. Miller is a one dimensional starting pitcher who doesn’t perform at a consistent level. Before you hit me with “he’s young and only in his 3rd year” brigade, consider this. He isn’t improving or making adjustments. He is starting to get pounded by hitters because they know Miller has zero confidence in his curveball and they just gear up for the fastball. Miller needs Memphis. That can’t be debated. He hasn’t looked good in sometime. That Toronto gem seems like months ago. Miller walks too many hitters, doesn’t go deep into games and his starts aren’t quality. Send him down. This was one of the few reasons a deal for Peavy or another pitcher made sense. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tim Cooney or Marco Gonzales, Miller needs a bus trip down I-55.
The Allen Craig Decision
While it’s not as popular as a certain NBA player, this decision is becoming a bigger issue in Cardinal Nation. What to do with Craig? I hit on this topic last weekend, asking for Matheny to bat him lower in the order and showing some faith. Well, I have left that side of the story. In baseball, games happen every day so perspectives will shift. Here is what Allen Craig did since my article. One hit in 15 at bats with 3 strikeouts and a ton of groundballs to third base. Craig isn’t adjusting or improving. He had a horrible June. He isn’t doing much better in July. How much longer do you start Craig over Oscar Taveras or Peter Bourjos for that matter? With Craig in right field due to Matt Adams’ lethal bat, an outfielder has to sit. You lose the bat of Taveras or the defense of Bourjos. Jon Jay will get his starts whether he hits or not. That’s a fact.
Oscar Taveras was sent down in June so Craig could get another shot. Will Oscar be sent down again to allow Craig even more time? The Cards can’t afford it. With Molina out and the offense still in questionable mode, the decency dished out by Matheny towards “his guys” has to be reduced. Play the young gun. Oscar Taveras is only 5-21 in his past 7 games but that includes 2 hit games on Tuesday and Wednesday. Taveras hasn’t gotten the opportunity that Craig has gotten. Oscar has ate bench due to the renaissance mission of Craig. I respect and like Craig. He produced two great seasons in 2012-13 and was a fine part time player in 2011. Here’s the deal. He isn’t hitting and shouldn’t start over Oscar. Not now. Bad timing. The only reason I compare Craig to David Freese is because Freese was great for two seasons just like Allen was before pitchers exposed him and turned him into an average player. It’s a scary comparison.
It may be best to give both Miller and Craig a ticket to Memphis.
The Good News
The Cardinals won three of four from the Pirates and pushed them back. After losing two of three to Miami, the team needed to respond against Pittsburgh and fired an ace. I saw some ledge hopping last night from several Cards fans on Twitter and was surprised. In this town, a fan base goes from “Yeah, we are back” to “This just has to change” inside 24 hours. The Cards have made it this far and are very close to taking over first place. With all the hardships thrown on them in 2014, the team is 50-43 heading into a big series against a team that has lost five straight and eight of their last ten games. The Brewers are playing bad baseball. Ryan Braun still can’t carry this team. The pitching is finally coming undone. The Phillies just swept the Brewers and to add on top of this turn of events, Yovani Gallardo is pitching tonight and the Cards have great success against him.
Milwaukee is right where the Cards want them. Molina is gone, Craig is still starting and not hitting, but Joe Kelly is back and there’s a good chance he will be the same old reliable fellow. I am not telling you to disregard the injury to Yadi but to not give up on these Cardinals. They have fought hard to stay in this race and within striking distance. On July 11th, they are right there. Do the Cards take advantage or will they fail this weekend?
As I advised yesterday, they simply must keep playing. What happens in the past doesn’t tell you where you need to be. The days and games ahead decide your fate in this brutally emotional game.
Play on, Redbirds.