In Major Leeague Baseball The St Louis Cardinals just romped the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series. Final score? 9-1
In Know Your Enemy, and Cardinals as Villains? it seems that my beloved Cardinals have begun to be like the Yankees – enough success that everyone sees them as the establishment and their opponents as the underdogs that many want to root for.
My reaction? Quite a bit of surprise, actually.
I lived for 37 years in Chicago, after living my first 18 years in the St Louis area, when the Cardinals won exactly 2 World Series – one only days before I entered the Army. So, like the other fans who want their teams to do well, I know what it is like to root and see my team come up 2nd best or 4th best time after time.
In Chicago I couldn’t root for the Cubs, but it was nice to have an alternative, the White Sox. It took me exactly 30 years to see them win anything. Of course, I still did have the Cardinals.
But the Cardinals – what did they win from 1985 to 2006? No World Series, for 21 years. Exactly how long the Pirates didn’t have a winning season. And the Cards weren’t even IN one after 1987. Oh, the Cards occasionally made it to the playoffs, so there was some excitement in there – but no winners.
Now since 2006 they string together some good teams, and there is reason to think that may continue after this year, with the talent they have (most of it young). But you never know.
Now, living in the NW suburbs of Chicago, almost everyone is a Cubs fan. As bad as the Pirates success has been over the years, the Pirates can hardly compare to the Cubs in futility. Yes, they nearly go to the World Series in 1984 2003. But before that you had to go all the way to 1072 to find two consecutive years when the Cubs had a winning season. And they are now at 105 years of no World Series wins.
How do I treat my Chicago friends who are Cub fans? I like GOOD baseball, and I know it when I see it. And good teams come from good baseball judgment – of talent, of solidity, of coachability – and of good coaching itself.
Good baseball comes from not beating yourself on the field. In the Cardinals organization everyone learns how to not give the other team more than the allotted 3 outs per inning, and to do that over the course of a full season, consistently – year in and year out. The Cubs can’t seem to teach their players that well enough.
The Pirates? Oh, man, I have seen them give away several games in the last two months. That is not a good sign. And in Game 1 they made those kinds of mistakes again. It is not good baseball to give extra bases and extra outs. They need to learn to give the other team only what the other team EARNS – and no more.
If you look at St Louis, you see players like Daniel Descalso, Shane Robinson, Pete Kozma, Allen Craig, Matt Adams, John Jay, David Freese – players who, when you put them into the lineup, they play as good on defense as anyone else on the team. And add Matt Carpenter to that mix, though hs has become now a star in his own right – but last year he was only promise. Craig in his second full year as a starter (replacing the future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujos, not a position anyone would want to be in) was fourth in the Major Leagues in Runs Batted In until he hurt himself a few weeks ago, when the Cardinals were neck and neck with the Pirates. Adams stepped in for Craig and has won several games for the team, with very solid defense, too.
Many people do not appreciate that what happens on defense is more important than what happens on offense, when taken one player at a time. A player typically gets 4 plate appearances in a game. In the infield the players often get 6 to 10 opportunities. David Freese in Game 1 took away a double down the 3rd base line. On balance that is equivalent to him hitting a double. In addition, that effectively gave the Pirates ony 2 outs in that inning – the hitter earned a hit, a double, but it was turned into an out. That is a +1 for the Cards on the out and a +2 for the team because there was no man on second base. 3 good results on one play.
A good defense MAKES a good pitching staff. Over time it affects the pitchers very positively to know that their defenders will not let them down – and that occasionally the defines will come to their rescue. (Not so with the Cubs. Not true a bit too often with the White Sox. Not true with the Pirates even now.) The Cardinals’ pitchers can feel that they don’t have to take all the responsibility on their own shoulders, making it possible for them to just let their athleticism do its job.
In one of the articles last year’s Washington Senators were mentioned, that the Cardinals burst their bubble. Well, that Senators team was built around pitching, though they had some amazing young hitters, too. A quick look at that team this year shows: 107 errors vs STL’s 75. The Pirates? 106. Those are a lot of extra errors – 42% more and 41$ more.
Like in football, in baseball team wins with defense (in which I include pitching). Two very poor San Francisco teams won World Series recently with pitching and defense.
For the near future the Cardinals will be the standard against which other teams will compare themselves. The Cardinals play GOOD baseball, and the rest should aspire to do so, also. Of course, they DO – but the baseball judgments of other teams so far are coming up short – most of the time. The Cards are consistently in the running because of the WAY they play, not because they are the Cardinals. When the Cards have bad defense they don’t win, either.
So, when people put the Cardinals up there as the big, bad corporate team, by ANYBODY, you can be sure it is being said by people who don’t understand what winning entails, and they should look to their own team’s shortcomings, not the Cardinals as an Evil Empire.
BTW, some years past St Louis was gauged to be to best baseball town in America – even down to their fans and the fan’s appreciation for exactly what I am talking about: Good baseball. Cardinal fans are known to give standing ovations to excellent plays by the opposition.
Good baseball – that is what they come to see. In Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, it doesn’t matter whether good baseball is being played, because they will draw 2.5-3.0 million people every year, anyway, to see a schlock team. Why do they come? The park is labeled as the world’s biggest bar; people come to drink and have fun – not to watch good baseball. So the Cubs have no motivation to field a good team.
Speaking of fans, lets’ talk about market size:
St Louis and Pittsburgh are almost identical in market size, as is Cincinnati – about 2.5 million people in their areas. All are small market teams. Why do the Cardinals win more often? Or come close SO often? It isn’t money. The Card ($116M) are bout middle of the pack on spending this year. The Pirates are about half that at $66M. The Cubs and White Sox spend about equal to the Cards, with much less to show for it. But that $66M by the Pirates means that they are going to be a momentary blip on the radar screen – unless they pay to KEEP most of their players. This they have rarely done. So for their fans this may be their one LUCKY chance.
The Pirates have gotten lucky with Francisco Liriano, who was all but washed up, even with his prodigious talent. Signing of Justine Morneau, who is a very pale shadow of the player he was before his concussion of 4 years ago.
As much as I’ve discussed defense above, the Pirates don’t have enough offense to help their pitchers – NOT with their leaky defense. St Louis on the other hand was able to win down the stretch even without Craig, who ended up with 97 RBIs in spite of missing 1/6th of the season. They have had a remarkable year for hitting in the clutch:
Their .330 mark (447-for-1,355) is the best in the Majors in at least the last 40 years, eclipsing the 2007 Tigers and the 1996 Rockies — who set the previous high at .311.
“That’s been our trademark all season,” said Matt Carpenter. “… We’ve done a great job with that, top to bottom, all of our lineup has done really well. It’s been something that we did an amazing job all year with. Hopefully, we’ll keep that going this postseason.”
The Cardinals landed five players among the top six hitters with runners in scoring position. Allen Craig, who hasn’t played since Sept. 4 due to a sprained left foot, finished the season hitting .454 with runners in scoring position. In the last 40 years, only George Brett (.469 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.459 in ’97) finished with better marks than Craig.
Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman (.443) finished second, while Matt Holliday (.390), Carpenter (.388),Carlos Beltran (.374) and Yadier Molina (.373) rounded out the top six.
Opportunistic offense, excellent defense, solid pitching – all are needed, and if it is true that “May the best team win,” then as it stands the Cards are doing it right. That doesn NOT mean they will win over the Pirates or everyone else – but it does mean that the Cards will be the least likely team to blink. The Pirates have shown some blinking lately. And if they lose this series it will be because they didn’t have all the pieces put together yet.