The Cardinals Are Luke’s X-Wing

You could look at last week as a test for the St. Louis Cardinals.  After all, they had two worthy opponents coming into their home territory.

You have the New York Yankees and all that represents, plus the fact that for 2014 they are an above-.500 team competing for the AL East title, something that’s never easy to obtain.  As they touched down in the land of the Arch, they had three more wins than losses and sat just two games back.

The Cards lost two of three to the team from New York and while you could argue that they could have won the first game, so far baseball games aren’t played in courtrooms and you don’t get to make a case of why you should be chosen for the playoffs.

Then there were the Giants.  The team with the best record in baseball coming into the series, this was the truest test of just how good this Cardinal team was.  They needed a solid passing grade on this portion to salvage the overall test.

Test failed.

We’ve already talked about the first two games in the San Francisco series, so let’s quickly recap this weekend’s action.

Saturday (2-0 win)

Hero: While the easy and reasonable choice in this game would have been Oscar Taveras given his home run in only his second at-bat, especially since the entire focus of Cardinal Nation was upon him, it was still just one run and, if there’s anything we’ve seen this week, one run isn’t necessarily enough.  The reason it stood up this time was mainly due to Michael Wacha, who not only threw six scoreless innings but did so interrupted once by rain.  (OK, technically twice, but he didn’t come back after the second rain delay.)  Wacha struck out seven, allowed just three hits, and reminded folks that there was another phenom on this team.

Goat: The Cardinals only mustered four hits themselves, so sorting out all the 0-fers is a difficult task.  The lines really do all look alike, but we’ll give it to Matt Holliday, who struck out while leaving two on, unlike Kolten Wong, who had the same line without the strikeout, or Yadier Molina, who only left one on.  Flip a coin, any of those could have been named.

Notes: Taveras was the focus of the game and rightfully so.  His home run was probably the most dramatic regular-season shot since Rick Ankiel‘s first as an outfielder, I’d guess.  Certainly the most dramatic in a game that wasn’t fraught with meaning since then.  And, on a side note, he’s now tied for third for the team lead in home runs!  (All right, not really, but it feels that way, doesn’t it?  He actually is tied with Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos–which would be expected–and Matt Carpenter, which wouldn’t be.)

The bullpen was outstanding in this one as well.  Sam Freeman got some high-leverage work and did a great job with it, perhaps giving Mike Matheny the confidence to use him more often when lefties are involved especially.  Pat Neshek continues to stake a claim to being the eighth-inning guy and Trevor Rosenthal looked like the 2013 version, throwing a perfect inning while striking out the side.  That’s the kind of save I like to see.

Sunday (8-0 loss)

Hero: Matt Carpenter.  When the team only musters four hits and loses by such a margin, it’s tough to find anyone worth singling out.  Carpenter at least made it easy by getting two of those hits before getting the last inning or so off.  Carpenter’s hitting streak is now at 14 games, which is a nice little streak and, given the way the Cards have played this week, one of the few things worth looking for.

Goat: Lance Lynn.  After all the talk about not having a “Lynning” in a while, Lynn goes out and has one in the first inning.  After all the talk about the “Lynning” being the only scoring inning, Lynn then allows runs in two more.  Perhaps there was a physical issue, but as Tara said in her post last night, you’ve got to be able to know when you are hurting the team and let them know the leg isn’t right if that’s the case.

Even if Lynn tries to stay in the game, it’s incumbent on Matheny and the coaching staff to protect the player and the team from his competitive instincts at times.  Then again, the Cards are in a stretch where they don’t have a day off until next Monday, meaning that they didn’t want to have to go to the bullpen in the first inning.  However, 1) if that’s the case, you have to say it after the game and 2) if the leg issue becomes a big deal, you’ve got to explain why the bullpen was better than Lynn’s health.  I’m guessing that the team just didn’t figure that the leg was all that bad, even as the results seemed to indicate maybe it was.

Again, who knows if that’s what caused any of the problems.  Lynn obviously struggled from the get-go, giving up three hits and a run before that play anyway.  We’ve also seen enough struggles from Lynn in the past that a game like this, well, it just didn’t shock us even coming off the shutout on Tuesday.

Notes: Taveras found out that the big leagues isn’t all fun and games, going one for four and grounding out with the bases loaded and two outs in the third.  We did get a chance to see his speed as he took second on a wild pitch, a ball that didn’t get far past Buster Posey.  The bullpen wasn’t bad–Carlos Martinez got a more extended look and did fair with it, allowing one inherited run and one run of his own in 2.2 innings, Seth Maness had two scoreless frames and Jason Motte finished it off–but the damage really had been done.

As I say in the post title, the Cardinals are reminding me of Luke’s X-Wing in the Dagobah swamp.  (I apologize for the more-often-than-usual Star Wars references, but we’re doing a SW-themed VBS at my church and so it’s been on my mind even more than normal.)  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this clip:

Luke crashed his X-Wing when he came to Dagobah and it finished sinking during his training.  Yoda tells him to get it out but Luke doesn’t feel like he came.  He gives it a try (“No.  Do.  Or do not.  There is not try.”) and comes up short.

Over this homestand (and I count the three games in Cincy as a convenience to make the point), we’ve seen the Cardinals start to rise.  We, like Yoda, have watched with eyes wide as we think we are finally seeing the team emerge from the lukewarm swampy water that they’ve been mucking about in.  This week, though, the Force is not strong enough and the ship has settled back into the murk.  Now, it’s not all their fault, of course.  The Giants were a very good team and they had about everything go their way this weekend, hitting balls out of the strike zone for doubles and basically playing out of their minds.  Still, it’s a reversal for a team that was starting to look like the team we had been waiting for.

After such success earlier in the month, it’s tough to see a week when St. Louis is down 7-0, 8-0, and 9-0 in three separate games.  That’ll kill enthusiasm and excitement quicker than I can make a Star Wars reference.  And that’s quick, folks.

It’s very difficult to be excited about this team right now.  We saw the Redbirds get within 1.5 games of the Brewers, only for them to now slump back to four games out.  You’ll probably continue to hear about the 2004 team for a little while, as they were just 27-23 as June arrived before going 19-9 in that month and not losing 10 games again in a month until September, but does this team really feel like a legendary squad?  I guess maybe ’04 didn’t either, coming off a weak ’03, but it’s tough to see this team tearing through the NL in such a manner.  Even if they do start winning like that, it’ll definitely be in a different fashion–that team had two 40-home run hitters.  This team will most likely get to 40 homers as a group, since they are now at 30, but it may take until the All-Star Break.

Perhaps it’ll take some sort of external kick to get this team going.  As Taveras made his debut and made the outfield situation, at least for the long-term, even more convoluted, there were rumors that the Minnesota Twins were looking at Jay.  That doesn’t necessarily solve the logjam that will be created when Matt Adams returns from the disabled list, but it is the first real credible sign that the trade market might involve St. Louis this year.  We’ve said before that John Mozeliak is going to have to make a move, most notably this winter with the pitching surplus, only to see him hang on to everyone.  I’m not sure he’s going to have that option for very much longer.

It’s the second year of the goofy home-and-home two-game sets for the Cards and the Royals.  This year it starts in St. Louis as the homestand we thought would be the most important two-plus weeks of the season for the Cards comes to a close.  Overall, they didn’t take quite as much advantage of the situation as they should have and now, with seven road games against American League teams coming up starting Wednesday, they will have to step up to make sure they don’t slide so far under the swamp that even Yoda can’t pull them out.

Shelby Miller goes for the Cardinals this evening, trying to shake off that disastrous outing against the Yankees.  He faces a Royals team that is sitting last in the AL Central and, if you think this hasn’t been the season that Cardinal fans had been expecting, imagine rooting for the team on the other side of the state.

Nori Aoki 15 14 7 0 0 1 1 1 2 .500 .533 .714 1.248 0 0 0 0 0
Total 15 14 7 0 0 1 1 1 2 .500 .533 .714 1.248 0 0 0 0 0
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/2/2014.

Apparently Miller missed out on facing the Royals last season, as the only player he’s faced was Nori Aoki and that was from his time as a Brewer.  Those numbers don’t make you feel all that excited about this one, given that Aoki is Kansas City’s leadoff man and, if those are accurate, he’ll be on quite often.

The Royals have their own former stud prospect in Danny Duffy.  Duffy’s had arm surgery and been bounced between the bigs and the minors by the front office in the past, but he’s been in the majors most all of this year and has done well.  However, in his last two starts, he’s given up 11 runs (10 earned) in 10 innings against the Angels and the Astros.  He’s only made five starts, with six outings out of the bullpen.  He’s walked 17 while striking out only 24, so the Redbirds will need to be patient with him.

Jhonny Peralta 9 9 3 2 0 0 0 0 2 .333 .333 .556 .889 0 0 0 0 0
Mark Ellis 3 3 2 0 0 1 2 0 0 .667 .667 1.667 2.333 0 0 0 0 0
Daniel Descalso 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Jaime Garcia 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Matt Holliday 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0
Yadier Molina 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 .000 .500 .000 .500 0 0 0 0 0
Total 20 19 5 2 0 1 2 1 8 .263 .300 .526 .826 0 0 0 0 0
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/2/2014.

I wasn’t surprised to see that the former American Leaguers on the roster had faced him before, but I didn’t realize the Cards had actually seen him on the mound in the past.  The last time he was in a game against the Cards, Albert Pujols left with a wrist injury that was feared to end his season–with the remarkable healing history of Pujols, of course it only kept him out 15 days.  Hopefully everyone gets out of this one in one piece!

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