Monday, August 24, 2009

August loves the Cardinals, and so does Chris

A Monday off-day is a good time to catch up with the St. Louis Cardinals, whose fans have been living the dream this month. On August 7th, the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs were effectively tied atop the National League Central Division, with the Cubs enjoying a three game advantage in the loss column. Seventeen days later, the Cardinals have charged out to an 8 game division lead with 36 more to play. (The Cubs have 40 games remaining.) The Birds have not lost a game in the standings to the Cubs on any single day this month in which they played a game.

It's especially satisfying to the fans in that this Cards' club is truly "The People's Team". Relentless lobbying on the part of club boosters and chat room generals helped force the hand of General Manager John Mozeliak in separate deals for the versatile Mark DeRosa, hungry Julio Lugo, masher Matt Holliday, and future Hall-of-Fame hurler John Smoltz. DeRosa and Holliday, in particular, were popular choices for potential acquisitions among the chatmeisters dating back to the spring, and those of us that advocated the dealing of "promising" young players like Brett Wallace and Chris Perez in return for an aggressive pennant drive in 2009 are being vindicated by the performances of the veteran newcomers.

DeRosa has clobbered 8 home runs in 131 at-bats since arriving from Cleveland, Lugo is batting .303 as a Cardinal, and Holliday, one day younger than Albert Pujols and batting behind him in the lineup, is this year's version of Will Clark, hitting safely in 43 of his first 108 at-bats, good for a .398 average and a 1.151 OPS (slugging avg. plus on-base avg.). In his first start Sunday, Smoltz allowed only 3 hits in 5 innings, striking out 9.

The only irritating topic during 'dog day' baseball conversations is some detectable scuttle around the league that the success of these four ballplayers in their new home has more to do with escaping to the National League than joining a well-coached and well-managed clubs with enthusiastic, compassionate fans. The conventional wisdom these days, you see, is that the American League is the dominant circuit, and this is confirmed by the fact that Holliday, Lugo, and Smoltz, in particular, were each enjoying subpar seasons before joining the Cards. USA Today's Bob Nightengale went so far as to say last week that Smoltz's pitching career was over unless he could sign on with a National League organization.

I don't buy it. The bulk of the evidence to support this hypothesis is anecdotal, and for every Matt Holliday or Manny Ramirez thriving beyond compare in the National League, there's a Matt Mulder, Tino Martinez, or Adam Kennedy washing out in the Senior Circuit, and that's just the ones over the last few seasons with the Cardinals. I also offer up as example the Cubs' Milton Bradley, who was an All-Star slugger with Texas in the AL, but has taken a well-publicized nosedive on Chicago's north side. Of course, there's also the Giants' well-paid Barry Zito, former ace of the Oakland pitching rotation now trying to remember how to throw a baseball across the Bay, and Scott Rolen was hitting at a .320 clip for the season in Toronto, good for third in the AL, before being dealt back to the National League only to go 2 for his first 17 with the Reds. Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett are former sore-armed NL hurlers now propping up the starting rotation of the best team in the American League, the Yankees, and Brian Fuentes, a middling mostly-second-division closer in the NL, is now an Angels' All-Star with the potential for 50 saves before the season is over.

The American League has gotten a lot of publicity for reeling off a winning streak of 12 in the All-Star Game series, and the high-profile and top-spending Yankees and Red Sox are both in the AL, but no National League general manager constructs his ballclub with an eye towards winning the Midsummer Classic, and National League clubs have won 2 of the last 3 World Series, 3 of the last 6, and this despite not having home-field advantage in any of the 6 series.

The baseball-focused mind is trained over time to search out items to fret about, and August has been so very good to me and my team that I'm worrying instead about crap like this. That's a good thing, I guess. Enter, September.


I talked to you a month ago about how tight the all-time series is between the Cardinals and the Dodgers. After another matchup this past week in L.A., and the red team claiming 2 of 3 contests, the Dodgers now lead the all-time series 995-994. But did you also know this? The Cubs and Dodgers completed their head-to-head series for the year yesterday, and after taking 3 of 4 in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers now lead that all-time series 1,017 to 1,015. I say, that's downright amazing! This is why football is popular with gamblers, and baseball isn't.


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