Ankiel! (Redux)

OK, let’s hit the good stuff first. I still want to know where the phone booth is in the Cardinals clubhouse, because apparently Rick continues to duck in there to put on the Superman outfit. Two home runs yesterday, one of which gave the Cardinals the lead after Maroth (more on him later) had let Pittsburgh tie it up? 7 RBI? From a guy basically learning at the highest level how to hit? It’s absolutely amazing and really has perked up the team, I believe.

In today’s day and age, however, no great story seems to go unchallenged. It was disappointing to log on this morning and see the ESPN headline about Rick and HGH. When I read the story, though, and got past the sensationalism and the impression that he had shot up right before hitting yesterday, I saw that, even if he took them (which does seem probable), it looks like he stopped in ’04, before the MLB ban on the substance.

Does it meant that it was OK to take the stuff? No. Though he had a prescription for it, apparently, some other places are noting that it is and was illegal unless you had a specific need, none of which would seem to fit Rick’s case. But does that taint what he is doing now? Again, I say no. If he’s not taken any for three years, it’s not likely it’s doing much for him now. So in that case, it’s really not much of a story. (Though today’s story at VEB does seem to indicate it was possible Rick would have gotten it for rehab and that it would be legal with a valid prescription. If that’s true, it puts a whole new light on things.)

Some people were comparing the reaction to the Rick story at CCH to Barry Bonds and saying the reactions should be consistent. I’m not sure about that. For one thing, the situations are very different. Bonds was already at the top of his game and actually starting the decline phase when he allegedly started taking steroids. We don’t know if and when he stopped taking them, though he has never failed a drug test. The major circumstantial evidence for his using was that Bonds was improving at an age when normal players are declining.

Ankiel is improving at an age when players are supposed to be improving. He’s 27–this should be the beginning of his prime. According to this story, he stopped taking things before he really became a prospect, so most everything he’s done has been natural, as it were. It’s natural that fans come to the defense of their players more quickly than they would for others–see Mark McGwire, who still has defenders (and I probably would be considered one) in St. Louis–but the situations are a bit different and do call for different responses. (EDIT: Actually, he’s 28 (7/19/79). Point still holds, though.)

As for the claim that the media should “leave him alone,” well, that’s just nuts. This is a story, it’s not them rehashing the 2000 playoffs. You can’t expect the papers and press not to follow up on this. It’s not a personal vendetta, it’s just news. Granted, there are going to be columnists that probably go overboard on it, but that goes with the territory.

(EDIT2: Great story on this at Deadspin.) 

OK, enough of that. After the jump (a little blogger lingo there), more on yesterday and this weekend.

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Letdown

So the new-and-improved Mark Mulder made his debut last night and looked a lot, at least in results, like the old-and-ugly Mark Mulder.  6 runs in 4 innings was a tough thing to swallow, especially after Rick Ankiel–again!–hit a two-run shot to make up most of the early 3 run deficit.   Giving 3 more to the Pirates right after that really took it out of the team, I think.  I note that Duncan is saying he thinks Mulder would be better next time, and there were some good signs, but right now, all we can do is hope.

I mean, the Cards have a six-man rotation, but we’re not even sure who is in it and who is out.  Pitchers that were in it pitch their way out and vice versa.  Eventually, they are going to run out of pitchers to try and have to stick with someone that’s not named Wainwright or Looper, and that decision could be the toughest one TLR has to make this year.

And, of course, that blowup comes on a night where Milwaukee scores 14 and the Cubs score 8 and leave no doubt that this morning’s standings would look like:

Chicago —
Milwaukee 0.5
St. Louis 2.0

Then the Cards run out Mike Maroth today, not knowing what they are going to get from him.  Unless he’s made some major improvements from his first time around with St. Louis, there’s a strong chance they’ll lose this series, and a team that wants to stay in the race can’t afford to lose a series (especially a four-gamer) to the last place team in the division.

The Cards face Bryan Bullington in this afternoon’s finale.  He’s a rookie, so the Cards haven’t faced him (though he pitched 1.1 innings back in ’05, I can’t quickly see who they were against).  That leads me to my newest theory, that the Cards have taken on the personality of their manager.  TLR and Duncan are some of the most prepared people out there.  When they have the information, they pass it on to the hitters, and good things happen.

However, guys they’ve never seen or only seen a couple of times, they don’t have enough data to make conclusions.  Therefore the hitters are kinda “on their own” and not so good things happen.

Hopefully they’ll disprove that theory today.  He is a righty, so that does help some.  And that means that The Natural, as some have taken to calling Mr. Ankiel, should be back in there today to work some more magic.

1 Game

Amazing the difference one simple game can make. Right now, it’s the difference between the Cardinals being a winning team and being an average team. And it’s the difference between the Cardinals being a third place team and being a first place team, a gap that could be closed tonight.

I didn’t see any of the game last night, save Russell Branyan’s long bomb, but it sounded like one of those typical Pineiro-type games. He scattered eight hits over just under 6 innings, but was able to limit the damage. He has a WHIP of 1.26 since joining the Cardinals, which isn’t as bad as I was thinking it’d be. He’s limited the walks (7 in 39.2 innings) and if he continues to do that, he’ll probably continue to be successful.

Albert Pujols last hit a home run on August 22, 12 games ago (11 for him, since he sat out on Sunday). If I remember correctly, that was the game that he stepped out during the at-bat with pain before smacking his 30th of the year. Since that game, his numbers are .231/.231/.348. That’s right, his BA and SLG are exactly the same because Pujols has not had an extra-base hit in that span. If that doesn’t tell you that he’s hurting, I don’t know what does. Thankfully the rest of the team is picking up some of the offensive slack, but I don’t know how far the Cards will go if AP isn’t firing on at least most of his cylinders.

Tonight’s game is one that has been pretty anxiously awaited for a while, as Mark Mulder makes his season debut. I think everyone knows that he won’t be the dominant Mulder of his Oakland days, at least not this year. The hope is that he’ll be close enough to give us hope that, with an offseason of rest and work, he’ll be at or very close to that level in 2008. If nothing else, his arm is fresh for the stretch run.

This is what he’s done against the Pirates in the past. Not sure if you can use those numbers for much given the situation, but there you have it anyway. A few guys have had success against him putting the ball in play, but not a lot of long balls on that list. So if he can use his defense tonight, he could roll.

The Cardinals face Tony Armas. Armas faced the Cardinals a month ago, during that disasterous 1-5 road trip they went on after sweeping the Brewers. He allowed only one run in 6.1 innings, getting the win. Historically, he’s been tough on the Cards as well, though Jim Edmonds has 2 HR off of him. It could be a long night for Cardinal batters, unless they can get Armas’s pitch count up and get into the Pirates bullpen.

Scoreboard watching: The Dodgers and Cubs meet up again tonight. Seems like a lot of night games at Wrigley. I’m thinking that, if I were ever to go there, I’d want it to be a day game. A night game makes it seem like just about any other park. The tradition of day games should be emphasized, in my mind. Anyway, it’s Ted Lilly for the Cubs and Eric Stults for the Dodgers. The pitching matchup seems to favor the Cubs, though three of his last four outings have been tough. I’d say the Dodgers don’t really have the offense to take advantage of that, but they obviously brought the bats to Chicago. Game’s on ESPN, if you want to keep an eye on them.

Milwaukee, just a half game out, host Houston. Yovani Gallardo, the young pitching stud compared to Francisco Liriano before his call-up, has been erratic, like you’d expect young pitchers to be. He gave up only 2 earned in 7 last time out, but 5 in 3 the outing before that and is only a few outings away from a horrendous 11 in 2.2. He’ll be facing Matt Albers, who the Cardinals made look like Cy Young on Sunday but carries a 5.36 ERA into the game. Could be a pitcher’s duel, could be a slugfest. You just never know.

Eating Crow

OK, first off, Paul Maholm didn’t throw yesterday for the Pirates. Apparently ESPN has their schedule off, so I’ll start checking the official site from now on. And today’s matchup is a very interesting one, but we’ll discuss that after I’ve finished my meal of crow.

Perhaps Walt knows what he is doing by not offering Wells an extension during the season. After such a good run, Wells has fallen back into his early season results, going 0-3 with a 10.80 ERA in his last outings. That’s not going to cut it, especially when the Cards are in the hunt. Maybe Duncan can get with him and figure out what’s gone wrong. Or maybe I just need to talk him down like I do Looper and that’ll improve things all the way around.

Glad to see that the Brewers and Cubs both lost as well. I was afraid they’d lose ground with that blowout, but thankfully Carlos Zambrano wanted to imitate Kip Wells and the Milwaukee bullpen blew another one. So everything is the same, but one less day to make up the ground. That said, they weren’t going to win every one the rest of the way, so if they’ve got to lose, nice that the other teams in the race did the same.

OK, new day, turn the page, etc., etc. Today’s matchup (and I’ve double-checked this time!) is old friend Matt Morris vs. new Cardinal Joel Pineiro. Here are Morris’s numbers against his former team. It looks like Albert Pujols learned a lot about Matty Mo when he shared a clubhouse with him. That said, Pujols had good numbers against Ian Snell as well, and that didn’t pan out quite the way we wanted yesterday. Sadly, the player with the most experience against Morris (and with success, as well) is Juan Encarnacion, who obviously isn’t available.

Pineiro has been looking fairly good since he came over, but to make sure, he’s a terrible pitcher who will get lit up from the first pitch. (You can’t be too careful, you know.) Only four pirates have ever faced Pineiro, but three of them (Bay, Nady and Phelps) have home runs. Keeping the ball in the ballpark will be key this evening.

Scoreboard watching: Houston visits Milwaukee this evening, Brandon Backe vs. Carlos Villanueva. Backe’s making his first start of the year (seems to be a trend this week, with Pedro yesterday and Mulder tomorrow), so it’s hard to know what’ll happen there. Also, the Dodgers and Brad Penny tangle with the Cubs and Steve Traschel in another night game. Pitching wise, the edge is to the Dodgers, so maybe a good game by the Cards will get them a game in the standings.

Personal edit: My interview with VEB founder Larry Borowsky can be found here at CardsClubhouse.  A couple more interviews with Cardinal-related people are in the works.

Break Out the Brooms

Nice to see the Cardinals were able to actually take care of business this weekend. The Reds gave them some scares–I really was worried on Friday night that they’d blow their opportunity–but they battled through them and came out on top every day, with major credit due to Mr. Ankiel, who started it off again today with a home run and drove in another with a sac fly. With Juan Encarnacion out and with Ankiel hitting lefties the way he is, I’d say there’s a good possibility he’s going to be playing almost every day from here on out. And that’s likely a good thing from the Cardinals’ point of view.

As for Encarnacion, the news isn’t good from that horrifying incident from Friday night. It looks like he’ll be fortunate just to be able to see out of the eye again, much less play baseball any more. Hopefully it’s not as bad as they think it is, but that is out there. It’s amazing that, in the split second it took from the ball to leave Aaron Miles’s bat and hit him in the face, Encarnacion’s public perception took a 180.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem with Encarnacion. The biggest problem with him, I think, was his contract. Walt Jocketty signed him to a deal that was really more than he probably was worth, which is what got everyone really up in arms and let him slide easily into the Cardinal Whipping Boy slot recently vacated by J.D. Drew. All the other criticisms, in my mind, flowed out of the fact that we got him at above-market rates. If he’d been a bargain, a lot of the complaints levelled at him would have been shrugged off, I think.

Anyway, now if Encarnacion shows up at any Cardinal function, he’s about guaranteed to always get a warm ovation. It’s a little sad that it takes something as drastic as this to see and care about the person underneath, instead of the abstraction that we think of when we think of a baseball player.

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Superman No More?

As Albert struck out in the top of the fifth with two runners on, a friend of mine IMd to say “Typical of the Pujols of 2007”.

I responded, “What, just superhuman not perfect?”

However, it struck a chord with me. Pujols seems to have been a little less reliable in big situations this year than in the past. Before, it was almost automatic that he was going to get a run in, now you aren’t as surprised when it doesn’t happen. But was this true or more of a subjective issue?

I hunted back through some stats on ESPN’s player page. The stats went back to 2002, which is pretty much the length of his career. So what do we see? Let’s take it bit by bit. Read the rest of this entry »

A Little More Conversation

So yesterday, I mentioned that Looper was hitting the wall. I didn’t realize that he was going to hit it going 60 mph. The FSN was again not being shown down here last night (something I will definitely have to check on if it continues after my vacation) so I was spared the graphic violence that was Pittsburgh against the Cardinal pitching staff. Even Jack Bauer winced under that kind of torture. Mike Maroth has likely thrown his last pitches for the Cardinals, as a move will have to be made this weekend to activate Tyler Johnson. If he won’t accept an assignment to Memphis, I’d think he would be DFAd. Something has to give, even in this clubhouse where mediocre results are considered a positive step.

Also, in the game thread at the Clubhouse yesterday, I tossed in this note: “The Pittsburgh starter is 0-3 with an ERA about 7. This typically means the Cardinals will struggle to get three hits in the game.” Sometimes I wish this team wasn’t quite as predictable as it is.

Speaking of predictable, I had to laugh at the line in the official site’s game preview: “Opposing Reyes will be Shane Youman, a pitcher who has two qualities that suggest he’ll have a good chance against the Redbirds: he’s left-handed, and they’ve never seen him before.” There’s no doubt left-handed soft tossers drive the Cards up the wall. This has been an organizational weakness for at least 4-5 years, even during the strong 2004-2005 campaigns. When my son (now 2 1/2) started throwing balls, he did it left-handed (sadly, I think he’s moved over to righty status now) and I was fairly sure that he could keep the Cards down for six innings as well.

I’ve got hope, though. I believe Anthony Reyes can come out and take care of this Pirates team and the Cards will be able to score enough to win the game for him. We’ve got an early start (before noon here in the Central time zone) so we’ll find out soon enough, but my gut feeling is that Reyes knows he’s pitching to stay out of Memphis, because even with Maroth’s struggles, you can’t rule out this regime sending him back down if he struggles.

I don’t usually do predictions, but I’m saying a 3-1 Cardinal win in a very quickly played game.

Programming note: I am leaving tomorrow on a week-long trip, hitting St. Louis tomorrow and then spending the rest of the time in Ohio (Reds country). I don’t expect to have much internet access or be able to keep up quite as much with the Cards, so don’t expect another post here until the 12th or 13th, somewhere in there. Hopefully the Cubs will be out of first place and the Cards closing in on the top spot by time I get back.