Rejected Game Story
Wednesday, August 24
ST. LOUIS — Well, this one was easy. Every Los Angeles regular got a hit in a 13-hit attack, and Juan Rivera drove in three as the Dodgers beat the Cardinals 9-4 Wednesday to complete a three game sweep. It was the Dodgers first three-game sweep in St. Louis in 18 years.
The loss dropped the Cardinals to 69-64 and 10 games behind Milwaukee in the National League Central race. They are also 10 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the chase for the wildcard.
Despite this, the Cardinals will win the World Series.
This may seem unlikely considering that Jamie Garcia is coming off his worst outing of the season, having allowed seven earned runs in five innings, and that the Cardinals have lost eight of their last 11 games, and that the Cardinals have given up 21 runs in two games to a Dodgers team that, except for Matt Kemp, hasn’t hit all year.
But I’m telling you. They’re going to win the World Series.
What you have to understand is that baseball has changed. For a long time, this was a game that was driven by excellence over a long season. April mattered as much as September. June fed into October. The best team in each league, as determined over 154 or 162 games, went to the World Series. The Yankees were almost always the best team, and so the Yankees almost always went to the World Series. These were the cold facts of baseball, the sort of facts that inspired a Broadway Show called “Damn Yankees,” because only in a fantasy world — and with the help of the Devil — could a Washington Senators fan hope to reach the World Series.
In 1969, the game was split into quadrants. This opened up some things. Now two teams in each league — and not necessarily the BEST two teams in each league, at least by record — played for that World Series shot. In 1973, three teams in the National League West had a better record than the New York Mets. But the Mets, with their disconcerting 82-79 record, played in the East, and they won the East, and they took out the Reds in a nasty five-game series and found themselves in the World Series. “Ya Gotta Believe,” was their slogan.
But in 1995, when EIGHT teams went to the playoffs — including one wildcard team in each league that did not even win its own division — baseball changed dramatically. The point is now, you don’t have to be a great team to win the World Series. You only have to have to be one of the best 25% or so to get into the playoffs. You only need a break or two, you only need to get hot for a little while, you only need to have things come together at the right time …
See, once you’re in the playoffs, some crazy things can happen. Some crazy things DO happen.
Oh yes, the Cardinals are going to win the World Series.
* * *
The Dodgers scored six runs in the third inning to put the game away Wednesday. In that inning, the first eight Dodgers hitters reached — the first two by walk. Matt Kemp continued his torrid hitting with a two-run single and blah blah blah blah blah … doesn’t matter, the Cardinals are going to win the World Series.
So, you’re getting irritated by this crazy talk. You are wondering how they’re even going to make the playoffs, much less win the World Series? Well, for one thing, they’re going to get hot. They’re going to win 23 of their next 32 games. How are they going to do that? Well, hey, look, this is a good offensive team. They’re going to average five runs a game from here on out. Albert Pujols will hit his typical .336/.403/.549 for the rest of the year. Lance Berkman’s going to get on base like crazy. That Rafael Furcal pickup will start looking a lot better — he’s going to hit pretty well the rest of the season. And keep an eye on that Allen Craig guy, he’s going to hit a couple of big home runs before it’s all done.
Oh, and by the way: Don’t worry about that Colby Rasmus trade. The Cardinals won’t miss him. Not this year anyway. You will be happy with some of the pitchers they got in the deal.
So, yeah, they’re going to win a bunch of games in late August and September. And a team is going to fall apart. Which team? Ah, you would think the Brewers, right? Young team. Has a history of collapse. All that. But, yeah, you can’t figure out baseball. The Brewers will play well enough. The Braves are the team that will collapse. I know, that seems unlikely, they’ve looked so solid all year. But it’s about to go very bad down there in Georgia. The Braves are going to lose, like, 17 of their last 25 games. They’re going to get shut out three times in September. No it’s true, it will be a semi-historic collapse. But it’s OK, nobody is going to notice because everybody will be mesmerized by the Boston Red Sox collapse.
Oh yeah, it’s true. The Red Sox are going to collapse too. Terry Francona will leave under fire. Theo Epstein will go run the Cubs. This will happen. Too much beer and fried chicken up there.
You’ll get that joke in about six weeks.
* * *
Sure, because this is a late August game story for what appears to be a going-nowhere team, you will want me to tell you that Garcia struggled against the Dodgers, and he has not pitched particularly well in a month. The Dodgers have now three straight Garcia starts. That’s OK. He will pitch a lot better for the next month. The Cardinals will win his next four starts, and he will have a 1.89 ERA for those. It will be OK.
This is baseball in 2011. If there was no wildcard, the Cardinals would not make the playoffs. Their record will not be good enough to win any division in baseball — not even close, really. But there is a wildcard, and the team leading it will play lousy for three weeks, and anyway it isn’t really about the record. It is about positioning. It is about getting into the postseason. It is about playing well in the right moments, at the right time. And something is happening to this Cardinals team, something that you can’t see because they don’t even know it themselves yet. The Cardinals are a special team. And they are about to start believing it.
What does that cliche even mean — that whole “Team of Destiny” nonsense? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to know. But the Cardinals, at this moment, probably don’t believe that they even have a chance to make the playoffs, much less the World Series. Soon, though, they will see it happening. They will see the Braves collapsing. They will see just how good the middle of their lineup can be — it’s easy to believe in big things when Albert Pujols is hitting. See that third baseman over there, David Freese, the 28-year-old local kid who doesn’t even play every day. Watch that kid. He’s going to start hitting. And then he’s going to keep hitting. And before it’s all done, they will intentionally walk him in Game 7 of the World Series rather than face him.
See that catcher? Yadi Molina? You know how good he is defensively already, he’s shown it for years. Well, that defense will intimidate the heck out of teams in the playoffs. They will fear him.
See Carp? Chris Carpenter? You already know he’s been great. He’s won a Cy Young. He came close twice more. He’s one of the very best pitchers in the game … or he had been. Now, he’s kind of mediocre, at least by the basic numbers. He’s 8-8 with a 3.57 ERA. But he’s still got greatness in him. He’s going to dominate the rest of the season. He’s going to throw a game for the ages against his friend Roy Halladay in the playoffs.
Yes, this is baseball in 2011. Every good team has the opportunity for a magical run. Every good team has good players who, for a few weeks, can play brilliant and wonderful baseball. Baseball is set up for this Cardinals team, a team that doesn’t yet realize what it is capable of doing.
Yes, this time around it’s going to be the Cardinals.
* * *
Tony La Russa is frustrated with his team. How can help but be frustrated? They’re losing. And La Russa cannot abide losing, any time, any place. La Russa has always been more football coach than baseball manager — every game is war, every loss is death, all those overwrought and inappropriate cliches that baseball people are usually well-adjusted enough to avoid. Baseball is supposed to be about the long season — “Turn the page,” managers tend to say — but it doesn’t seem that way for La Russa. He DOES get too high. He DOES get too low. He’s just wired that way.
He does not know that he’s about to go on the most magical run of his career. There has been a lot of baseball pain in La Russa’s career. He watched Kirk Gibson limp around the bases. He watched the Braves come back. He watched the Red Sox celebrate their first World Series title in a billion years. And the last couple of years — really ever since his LAST surprising and absurd run in 2006 — it has felt like the game has finally kicked his butt. In 2010, for instance, he had the best player in baseball, a strong cleanup hitter, three outstanding starting pitchers, and the team just kind of flailed around. There was talk of La Russa leaving after that — it has felt stale for a while.
But he stayed, and before this season even began the Cardinals lost their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, for the season. That seemed to seal things. The Cardinals were just a bland team that would win more than it lost but no more. That was clear from Day 1. The Cardinals did get into first place for a while in May, into June, but that was because of a middling National League Central division where no team had kicked in. Heck, the Pittsburgh Pirates were in first place as late as late as July 25. Then, the Brewers — who were widely viewed as the most talented team in the Central — DID kick in, and the Cardinals kept playing their bland baseball, and now the Cardinals are 10 1/2 games back and again there is talk that it is time for Tony La Russa to retire.
But the Cardinals are going to win the World Series. And La Russa is going to be in all his glory. He’s going to tinker and toy and switch and swap and nudge and drive people crazy and all the other things he does. The Cardinals, as you might imagine, will be huge underdogs once they get into the playoffs, huge underdogs against the Phillies. They will lose 11-6 in the first game and trail 4-0 against Cliff Lee in the second game.
But then La Russa will go to go to work. The Cardinals will use six pitchers and come back to beat Lee and the Phillies 5-4. He will use six pitchers, and David Freese will announce his presence as the Cardinals win Game 4. And then, yes, Chris Carpenter face his friend Roy Halladay in Game 5. The announcers will talk at length about the planned fishing trip Carpenter and Halladay will share in Brazil. Whatever. Carpenter will find his groove, throw a shutout, outduel his friend and the Phillies will go home with 102 regular season wins in their pocket, all of them worth less than a bus ticket.
Then the Cardinals will play the Brewers in a not especially interesting series. Those happen too in the playoffs. Only one of the games will be especially close, and the Cardinals will win that one 4-3 — St. Louis will score four runs in the first inning and then La Russa will use five pitchers to hold on. The Cardinals will win the thing in six games and go to the World Series.
Tony La Russa can’t even imagine that now. Or maybe he can. That’s one thing about La Russa — he understands that baseball takes strange twists. “You don’t know,” he says, again and again, and it’s true. You don’t know.
* * *
The Cardinals will win a wild, quirky, sloppy, dramatic, imperfect and wonderful World Series against the Texas Rangers. No, you can’t see it now, not after a 9-4 loss, not after a bad stretch of baseball, you can never see such things in the low moments. That’s true of all sports, but especially true of baseball. When a team gets crushed, it feels like that team will never win again. Then again, when a team does the crushing you can’t help but wonder if that winning will go on forever.
The Cardinals will win Game 1 of the World Series in a taut and tense game, a La Russa Special with lots of pitchers and sacrifices and intentional walks. But the Cardinals will lose Game 2 in large part because of a botched cut-off attempt by Pujols.
And then, the teams will go to Texas and it will stop being about teams, start being about individuals. Pujols will hit three home runs in Game 3. Derek Holland will throw 8 1/3 shutout innings in Game 4. And Game 5 will be just plain weird, one of the weirdest in World Series history, a game with six intentional walks, 10 pitchers, three errors, and one crazy bullpen phone. That joke, too, will make a lot more sense in a couple of months.
Game 6, back in St. Louis, will be the crescendo. The Cardinals will be down two runs going into the bottom of the ninth. The Cardinals will be down two runs AGAIN going into the bottom of the tenth — those two runs created by Josh Hamilton, who would say that God told him he would hit a home run. Game 6 will be one of those games that feel unreal even while it was happening, like when you’re having a strange dream and you KNOW you’re having a strange dream. The Cardinals will win that game, of course. David Freese — keep remembering that name.
And then, the Cardinals will win a less interesting Game 7, and St. Louis will celebrate like mad.
None of this seems possible now, but it will happen because the Cardinals are a better team than they have shown, because a team can do the remarkable when things start going right, because baseball caters to the unlikely these days. This Cardinals team doesn’t seem great to you now, not even close, but baseball more than ever is like the weather. Just wait.
The Cardinals start a four-game series with the Pirates on Thursday. Edwin Jackson is the scheduled starter.