The Impossible Team

Clara: If you don’t have a plan we’re dead.
The Doctor: Yes. We are. So just tell me.
Clara: Tell you what?
The Doctor: Well, there’s no point now. We’re about to die, just tell me who you are.
Clara: You know who I am.
The Doctor: No I don’t. I look at you every single day and I don’t understand a thing about you. Why do I keep running into you?
Clara: Doctor, you invited me. You said that–
The Doctor: Before that! I met you at the Dalek Asylum. There was a girl in a ship wreck and she died saving my life. And she was you!
Clara: She really wasn’t. 
The Doctor: Victorian London. There was a governess who was really a barmaid and we fought the Great Intelligence together. She died and it was my fault. And she was you!
Clara: You’re scaring me.
The Doctor: What are you, eh? A trick? A trap!
Clara: I don’t know what you’re talking about!
The Doctor: You really don’t, do you?
Clara: I think I’m more scared of you right now than anything else on that TARDIS. 
The Doctor: You’re just Clara, aren’t you? Oh!

–“Journey To The Center of the TARDIS”

The latest Doctor Who companion has been nicknamed “The Impossible Girl”.  For reasons that were explained out eventually (and that you either 1) don’t care about or 2) already know), The Doctor kept running into Clara at different points in history as slightly different people.  Just when he thought he knew her, she’d die and then eventually he’d meet her again.*

*Personal opinion here, because it’s my blog: I’ve only watched the revived series (Doctors 9-12) but there’s no doubt Clara is my absolute favorite companion so far.  She’s whip-smart, witty, impressed but not overly so with The Doctor and looks like Jenna Coleman.  Seriously, what’s not to like?  OK, let’s get to the baseball.

It’s a long, drawn-out, very sketchy way of tying a long-running science fiction show to the current squad of St. Louis Cardinals, but there’s no doubt that this really seems like The Impossible Team.  You think you get a grasp on them, just to see them completely subvert your expectations.  There are fragments of a good team here, but can they all be put together?  If they start to look like the team that we have expected, does that mean they have arrived or they are again fooling us, raising expectations only to return to their current reality?

For as many times as we’ve thought this team dead, they’ve now taken over first place.  For as many times as we’ve thought they’ve “turned the corner” (they’ve turned so many corners they’ve gone around the block seven times), we’ve seen the bats chill and the pitching wither.  Who is this team?  What is this team?  And do we dare attach our hopes and dreams to it?

The past five games have proven to be such a microcosm of what I’m talking about.  You can take what you want to take out of them, whether it be hope or despair, optimism or cynicism.  Let’s review:

Friday (7-2 loss)

Hero: Shelby Miller.  If Miller pitches like he did Friday for the rest of the season, he well could force himself into a conversation for the postseason roster.  (It’s not a conversation that turns out well for him, I don’t think, but it’d be better than being dismissed outright.)  Miller got through the seventh for the first time since he did so against Boston at the beginning of the month and for only the fifth time this season.  He allowed just four hits, though two of them were solo home runs.  Given the power the Cubs flashed this weekend, he could be forgiven for that happening.

There’s not oftentimes this season where you can say Miller deserved a better fate, but Friday was definitely one of those times.  If the offense that we saw at the end of the weekend showed up early enough in his start, he might have evened his record on the year.  The kicker: Miller’s command seems to be better.  If you toss out that disastrous outing against the Padres where he walked six, Miller has only allowed eight total walks in the second half of the season.  Which is why his second half ERA is a hair under 4.00–over a quarter of a run lower than his first half mark (which really probably should have been higher, given his walk totals).  Passing up Michael Wacha for the fourth spot in the postseason rotation seems like a long shot if Wacha is healthy, but that still remains to be seen.

Goat: Pat Neshek.  Neshek’s been incredible all year long, but as I mentioned on Twitter that evening, I was starting to get a little nervous about him coming into that game.  I don’t know what it was, because looking at the stats going into Friday’s game didn’t seem to show any reason to be worried.  Thankfully, he’s pitched a couple of times since this blowup with seemingly no ill effects.  It just shows you that some folks are going to have a bad game here and there and unfortunately, this one was uglier than me at the beach.  When you give up four runs and you can’t get the third out of an inning, you know it’s not your night at all.

Notes: I don’t know if the Cubs are going to be able to pitch when these young hitters reach their prime, but it won’t take a lot to keep them competitive.  Jorge Soler‘s homer off of Neshek may still be flying around.  It’s not fun to have a few pangs of envy toward those baby bears, but given the general lack of power this Cardinal team has shown in 2014, it’s not surprising we’d covet a little of what Soler and Javier Baez bring to the table.

As for the current crop of Redbird hitters, Jhonny Peralta and Jon Jay both had a couple of hits, but the club struck out (10) more than it hit (8).  If Kyle Hendricks really is this good, perhaps we really should worry that Chicago will be able to pitch and hit at the same time.

Saturday (Game 1: 5-1 loss)

Hero: Tyler Lyons.  It’s not just my favoritism that gets Lyons the nod here.  The Patron Pitcher of the Blog saved the bullpen, which was huge in a doubleheader, but beyond that put up perhaps the best extended line we’ve seen in a while.  Lyons came in with one out in the fifth and went the rest of the way, allowing just one hit and striking out eight.  If the bats would have been able to make any headway, he might have come out with a well-deserved win.  Striking out eight of 15 batters faced?  That’s just outstanding and it well may have moved him, at least temporarily, into this team’s rotation.

Goat: If it was a Justin Masterson start, it’s pretty obvious who is going to get this tag.  So obvious, in fact, that Masterson is now out of the rotation, going to the pen to see if that helps at all.  Tara and I discussed this last night on Gateway (skip to about the halfway point to find our show), trying to decide if the club would use him out of the pen (and you have to figure it’s going to be some really limited work, like when they are way up or way down, at least until he shows some improvement) or if they’d just outright release him.  I’m sure John Mozeliak doesn’t want to so openly admit a failure, which is at least part of the reason Masterson sticks around.  I do wonder what they’d have done had the rosters not been expanding, though.

Notes: Both teams had seven hits and the Cubs struck out 13 times versus the Cardinals’ six.  However, when three of your hits are home runs, that really helps toward winning a game.  The Cards scattered their hits as well, as nobody had more than one and only Peralta and Matt Carpenter drew a walk to go along with their knock.  After this game was over, having lost two games to the lowly Cubs, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see most folks start writing off this season.  However, the roller coaster was still on the tracks.

Saturday (Game 2: 13-2 win)

Hero: So apparently between games, Matt Holliday took a look at the calendar, took a look at his stats, and said, “Oh, man, I’m behind if I’m going to get to my normal totals.”  He then proceeded to try to completely catch up in one game.  Two home runs, five RBI, plus a walk and two runs.  I’d say that’s a pretty solid night.  His first home run was extremely clutch.  His second started off an inning the likes I’ve not seen before, at least not to that extent.

Goat: Where do you look for a Goat in a game where the only starter that didn’t have a hit walked three times, most everyone had an RBI, and the starting pitching and bullpen performed exceptionally?  I don’t know, honestly.  It’s one of the most unfair tags I’ve ever given, but I’m going to place it on Oscar Taveras because he left three on and hit into a double play to end the huge eighth (though the ball was laced).  Like I say, it’s not fair, but I don’t make the rules, each game has to have a Goat.  (OK, I guess I do make the rules on that, but I tend not to mess with them.)

Notes: When was the last time you saw a team bat around with no outs in the inning?  I mean, usually someone gets out in that mix or it starts with an out.  Not this time.  Holliday went yard and then came back up with runners on and nobody out.  It was the next hitter, Matt Adams, who stopped the string but even that was a sacrifice fly.  It was a wonderful inning to watch and one you just never wanted to see end.

All that padding meant there was no way Marco Gonzales wasn’t going to pick up his first major league win, which was well deserved.  Gonzales gave up a run in the first, but kept the other runners from scoring and then just cruised from there.  While Lyons did a lot to earn a start in Masterson’s place on Thursday in Milwaukee, Gonzales is right there in the conversation and it’s going to be interesting to see which one gets named as the starter.

Sunday (9-6 win)

Hero: Matt Holliday.  It was truly a Holliday weekend (hey, I think I’m contractually obligated as a quasi-writer to make such a remark.  I’m checking the contract right now.)  All Holliday did in this game was go 3-4 with a home run and key a rally from down 5-0, driving in four and scoring two.  You could say he was kinda fired up.

Goat: Tough day for Randal Grichuk.  0-5 in the two hole, leaving six men on.  If it weren’t for the rally, the back-and-forth of the late innings, Grichuk’s inability to come through might have been severely magnified.  It was an interesting idea for Mike Matheny to put Grichuk in front of Holliday, most likely thinking pitchers would challenge him so as not to have him on before The Incredible Hulk.  Unfortunately, that worked out much better in theory than in practice.

Notes: This is where this team starts earning its Impossible status.  I mean, we’ve seen this team down many times and very few times have we seen them show much fight at all, much less a complete comeback.  We saw them rally a bit against the Reds, but that was two weeks ago.  The bats are so often put to bed with a blanket and a glass of warm milk anytime the opponent gets up a couple of runs that it’s almost shocking to see the game not be called by the mercy rule when the other team is up by four or more.

And yet, with a chance at putting themselves in first place (which in and of itself is fairly Impossible-like), we saw a rally like we’ve not seen much of this year.  One in the fourth.  Three in the fifth.  Give up a run in the seventh but get two more to tie it up, then tack on three in the eighth to win this thing.  Exactly who is this team and where has it been all my season?

This team goes as Carpenter goes.  It’s not unrelated that both of these games when the offense came out to play saw Carpenter walk three times in the leadoff role.  He primes the pump more directly than most anyone I’ve seen in that position.  I’d love to see St. Louis’s record when he gets on base two or more times.  I bet it’s quite high.

Peralta keeps hitting as well.  I didn’t realize he was in the .270 range–I knew he was doing well and was hitting for power, but that’s even better than I was thinking.  There are people that didn’t care for that signing, people that were a little vocal when he was hitting under .200.  I don’t hear much out of those people these days.  Probably hanging out with those that think Holliday isn’t clutch.

Credit John Lackey for not having one bad inning affect the rest of his game.  He could have hung them up, could have just not worried much about pitching after giving up five runs in the second (and yes, three of them were unearned but they were related to his own error).  Instead, Lackey goes into the seventh, strikes out six, and keeps the Cubs from denting the plate again.  Many times, that kind of work would have been futile but sometimes, sometimes it’s not.  Thankfully, Sunday was one of those times.

Oh, and kudos to Trevor Rosenthal for being only the fifth Cardinal pitcher to record 40 saves.  Probably appropriate that one of those five was Jason Isringhausen, given how often those two have been tied together this season.  Rosenthal hasn’t been pretty, saves are a bit overrated, and this is in no way to suggest that he’s one of baseball’s elite closers, but at the end of the day, more often than not, Rosenthal gets the job done.  Not the way we want to see it and not in a way that makes us think he’s got this locked down, but a win is a win, right?  At least until you see the cardiologist bill?

Monday (5-4 win vs. Pittsburgh)

Hero: While you could easily go for the weekend trifecta and give this to Holliday again, since he did drive in the winning run and went 2-4 with three RBI, it’s quite difficult to overlook the dramatic impact of Kolten Wong.  Coming off the bench to pinch-hit since he’d taken a nasty tumble the day before, all Wong does is hit the first pinch-hit home run of the season to tie up the ballgame.  Yeah, that’s it, no biggie.  Without that swing, Holliday’s Captain America act might not have been anything but a footnote.

Goat: Rough day for Matt Adams.  Two errors, which brought his season total up to nine (he had another one this weekend as well) plus he went 0-4 and left three men on.  You wonder if the grind of the season is wearing down Adams.  After all, last year he spent a lot of it on the bench rotating in for Allen Craig.  This year, he’s playing most every day and in his last 12 games he’s 4-41.  Perhaps the pennant race and the cooler weather will invigorate him down the stretch.  September baseball in St. Louis does tend to do that for folks.  (Also, maybe we’ll see someone like Xavier Scruggs get the call and spell him a little more often at first in the final month.)

Notes: Two rallies in two days?  This is, well, Impossible.  Lance Lynn did what Lackey did, settling in to keep the team in the ballgame after giving up some early runs.  Given how the club was struggling against Gerrit Cole, it looked like a futile gesture, but if–IF–this team is really coming together, if it’s going to play baseball like we’ve been expecting it to play baseball, then starters are going to need to plan to hold teams at bay because the cavalry just might be coming.

While Rosenthal did a great job in the ninth with two strikeouts and only one of Adams’s errors allowing a base runner, what was also so interesting and exciting was to see Carlos Martinez return to that late-inning role and do a good job with it.  It wasn’t the cleanest or the prettiest, but to have two on and nobody out and not see a runner score is pretty good work.  We’re not going to see Martinez replace Neshek or anything like that, but if he can be an effective weapon in the late innings, it can only help this team.

Jay got a chance to be the leadoff guy and just went 2-3 with a walk.  Given Carpenter’s penchant for taking four balls as well, I don’t think we have to swap at the top of the lineup, but it’s nice to know that if Carpenter gets the day off there’s another leadoff guy that can pick up the slack.  Big day for Jay and a huge reason they won this one.

Clara: I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I’m going or where I’ve been. I was born to save the Doctor. But the Doctor is safe now. I’m the Impossible Girl, and my story is done.

–“The Name of the Doctor”

So where are we?  Are we on the cusp of seeing another great September run?  This weekend had that feeling, didn’t it?  The feeling of important games and the Cardinals knowing how to win them.  The look of fall and another roaring finish to a season.  Last year, the club went 19-8 in September.  2012, 17-13 after the calendar turned to the final month.  We all know about 2011’s 18-8 run.  Even 2010 had them going 17-15 at the end, though that was a bit disappointing.  Suffice it to say this team has played a lot of good baseball when it matters the most in the past.

This isn’t the past, though.  We don’t have slivers of the Impossible Girl going around fixing mistakes, heading off trouble, and basically keeping this squad alive.  We don’t know what’s coming and while this weekend provided a lot of exciting fuel for some wonderful October dreams, it’s prudent to note this isn’t the first time.  We’ve seen them rip off some good baseball, have a few rallies, and think this time it will be different.  It hasn’t been.

Now, the Cardinals sit alone in first place.  They are guaranteed to be there after tonight’s game for the first time all season.  Their story, no matter how it unfolds, is far from done.  It’s hard to believe that it’s finally coming together, but it’s hard not to be excited with the past few days.  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  But missing a magical run brings shame in and of itself.

In 2011, Mozeliak made a huge trade at the trading deadline, only to see the team go 15-13 in August.  This year, he made a couple of huge trades, only to see them go 16-13 in August.  Could we see a repeat of 2011, where the team comes together down the stretch and finally meshes into a congenial whole?  We’ll have to wait and see, but the spark of optimism is much higher than it has been most of this season.

Speaking of optimism, the return of Wacha might bring that as well.  Wacha threw two scoreless innings for Springfield on Sunday and, given the lack of available spots for him to start with the end of the minor league season, he could be added to the major league roster to have him continue his rehab.  Of course, he could go pitch for Memphis in their playoffs as well, which might be only fair given the fact the big league club might be stealing folks from their postseason roster.  My feeling is, though, we’ll see Wacha with the club, perhaps in a “piggy-back” manner for a start or two.

Jason Motte could return as well after throwing a scoreless inning Sunday, also with Springfield.  It’ll be interesting to see how he is used and whether the time off has helped him get stronger as he returns from Tommy John.  Motte was still a bit erratic and a little less than fully dependable when he was in the Cardinal bullpen, but he could be a major force in the postseason if he’s right.

We’ve probably rambled long enough, huh?  That’s what happens when I have to cover five games in one stretch and can do it in the evening when I have more time.  You get crazy things like Doctor Who tie-ins that would never have happened if I was pressed for time and sleep-deprived like I am most mornings.

Tonight is a big game because Adam Wainwright goes to try to get a series win for the Cards and guarantee they’ll arrive in Milwaukee in first place in some form or fashion.  We’ve seen Waino struggle recently with what he’s termed a dead arm, but hopefully seeing Yadier Molina behind the dish will revive that arm a little bit.  His last start was also against the Pirates where he gave up three runs in six innings–not bad, but he struggled to do it and, obviously, that’s not really vintage Wainwright.  (His start in July against the Bucs, where he threw seven scoreless innings, was more of what we expected to see.)

Andrew McCutchen 51 47 14 5 1 1 4 2 8 .298 .314 .511 .824 0 2 0 0 1
Russell Martin 41 35 11 2 0 0 2 4 6 .314 .415 .371 .786 0 0 1 2 1
Neil Walker 41 35 9 1 0 1 7 6 7 .257 .366 .371 .737 0 0 0 0 0
Pedro Alvarez 37 34 8 1 0 2 8 3 13 .235 .297 .441 .738 0 0 0 0 2
Clint Barmes 29 27 9 3 0 1 2 1 5 .333 .379 .556 .935 0 0 0 1 0
Starling Marte 29 26 4 0 1 0 0 1 8 .154 .241 .231 .472 0 0 0 2 1
Jose Tabata 26 23 6 0 1 1 3 2 4 .261 .346 .478 .824 0 0 0 1 1
Ike Davis 21 16 4 0 0 2 6 5 6 .250 .429 .625 1.054 0 0 0 0 0
Jordy Mercer 13 13 4 0 0 1 1 0 0 .308 .308 .538 .846 0 0 0 0 1
Edinson Volquez 11 10 2 1 0 0 0 0 3 .200 .200 .300 .500 1 0 0 0 0
Josh Harrison 10 9 3 0 0 0 0 1 1 .333 .400 .333 .733 0 0 0 0 0
Gaby Sanchez 8 7 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 .000 .125 .000 .125 0 0 0 0 1
Andrew Lambo 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Travis Snider 3 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Jeanmar Gomez 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Total 324 289 75 13 3 9 33 26 66 .260 .331 .419 .750 1 2 1 6 8
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/1/2014.

The usual suspects cause the problems here.  Ike Davis was such a thorn last week and that’s partially reflected here.  Pedro Alvarez hits anything that wears Cardinal red, including actual Cardinals.  (That may not actually be true.)  And Andrew McCutchen is an MVP, so that’s not surprising.

Which means that, while Wainwright may be able to harness his good stuff and shut the Bucs down, the bats are going to likely need to figure out Jeff Locke.  At the very least, they have to do more than last time, when Locke limited the ‘Birds to one run in 6.1 innings.  He’s a lefty hurler, but hopefully the fact that they just saw him will help them be a little more productive this time around.

Matt Holliday 12 11 5 0 0 1 4 1 2 .455 .500 .727 1.227 0 0 0 0 1
Matt Carpenter 10 7 0 0 0 0 0 2 2 .000 .300 .000 .300 0 0 0 1 0
Pete Kozma 7 6 2 0 0 0 1 1 1 .333 .429 .333 .762 0 0 1 0 0
Jon Jay 6 6 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 .333 .333 .333 .667 0 0 0 0 0
Yadier Molina 6 5 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 .200 .333 .400 .733 0 0 0 0 0
Adam Wainwright 6 5 2 1 0 0 0 0 2 .400 .400 .600 1.000 1 0 0 0 0
Daniel Descalso 5 5 4 0 0 0 1 0 0 .800 .800 .800 1.600 0 0 0 0 0
Jhonny Peralta 5 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Randal Grichuk 4 4 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 .250 .250 .500 .750 0 0 0 0 0
Matt Adams 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 .500 .667 .500 1.167 0 0 0 0 0
Shelby Miller 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 1 0 0 0 0
Peter Bourjos 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Total 67 58 18 3 0 1 6 6 11 .310 .385 .414 .798 2 0 1 1 1
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/1/2014.

They’ve hit him before, so hopefully they can hit him again.  The feelings and excitement from this weekend were a lot of fun and I’m not ready for that roller coaster to start its downward track just yet.  How about you?

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