The pennant race has certainly gotten warm. Much is left to be decided, and the picture could be much more clear following a weekend series in Chicago, but the Cardinals are certainly in the thick of things. The pessimists out there believe that it would all be for naught. Any entry into the postseason would result in a quick exit. The realists understand that anything can happen in October and handicapping it is pointless. The optimist believes that, should the Cardinals creep into the tournament, the stars will align as they chase down championship number 12. Just for fun, I’m going to side with the optimist today. Though I will stop short of declaring a World Championship run. Let’s finish the regular season first.
The 2006 Cardinals were one of the truest examples of “anything can happen”. An 83-win team that backed it’s way into the playoffs on the final day (remember, they lost game 162, but Busch Stadium was doing the tomahawk chop that Sunday afternoon as the Braves defeated the Astros to keep them in 2nd place). That season featured 2 8-game losing streaks, as well as an additional 7-game streak for good measure. They lost their closer in September, Jason Marquis featured an ERA over 6, and the major trade acquisition was Jeff Weaver. Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and David Eckstein combined to sit out 111 games. It wasn’t a pretty picture. They just happened to play in a very underwhelming division.
A few of those things sound familiar.
Health Was Everything
The team managed to get into the playoff tournament and then, almost suddenly, they were healthy. A lineup that had been pieced together between DL stints finally came together at the same time and very closely resembled the core that had won 100 games the year before. The MV3 (just two seasons removed, at least) resided in the middle with Eckstein at the top. Deadline acquisition Ronnie Belliard, solid Juan Encarnacion, and 22 home run rookie Chris Duncan stacked up well around them. Arguably, October was the first time that the Cardinals were able to put their best lineup on the field.
I see that same possibility with the 2017 Cardinals. It has seemed as though every time a player returns from an injury, another gets hurts. Tommy Pham and Paul DeJong were not part of the equation when others were healthy at the seasons start, and the season has been littered with DL stints up and down the lineup since they emerged as regular pieces. With Fowler and Gyorko on the mend, perhaps sometime in the final few weeks we could see a lineup that features Carpenter, Pham, DeJong, Fowler, Molina, Gyorko, Wong, and Grichuk. That would be a combination of the teams best offensive talent that, to my knowledge, we have not been able to see assembled together this season. Maybe for a few games during the 8-game winning streak? Not sure, but doesn’t that kind of make my point?
Finding good health on offense in the final weeks would make this a very formidable lineup heading towards October, and a lineup that we really haven’t been watching all year.
Notes on the Rotation
This Cardinals team, no matter how you slice it, has a better top-to-bottom starting rotation than either of the franchise’s previous two World Champions. Both of those teams had Chris Carpenter, and he was a different animal, but the drop off was sharp after that. Carlos Martinez has the talent to rise to the level of Carpenter, Lance Lynn is better than (and just a reliable as) Jeff Suppan and far more reliable than Jaime Garcia. Michael Wacha has more talent than Anthony Reyes or Edwin Jackson. And do you remember who the x-factor was in the 2006 run? A svelte right-hander with the last name Weaver. Yeah, the 2017 team has one of those as well. The upgrade that Luke Weaver has been to this rotation cannot be overlooked, and it sets up a strong 4-man crew for any playoff series.
No Bullpen, No Problem
It’s unfortunate that Juan Nicasio is ineligible for postseason play. He would be a very nice piece to have. Hopefully he plays a major role in getting the Cardinals to the tournament. Should they get there, I’m sure many fans will view the bullpen as a huge weakness. I can’t blame them. But again, think about 2006. Just as the Cardinals lost Trevor Rosenthal this year, Jason Isringhausen was shut down late in 2006. Adam Wainwright had a solid rookie year, but he was not a proven closer, not even close. Josh Kinney had some success in his 25 innings pitched, but was a relative unknown. Lefty Tyler Johnson hadn’t done much, to the tune of a 4.95 ERA (and 5.13 FIP) in 56 games. However, those three would prove to be sensational in the postseason.
Could the 2017 cast emulate that performance. I don’t know. I do know that Tyler Lyons has had a very good year and could lock down the 9th inning. Everyone else has pitched pretty well of late, with a 2.96 ERA in September and better numbers across the board in the 2nd half. Remember, I’m siding with the optimist. You never know who could come out of nowhere to be an October star.
Baseball is Fun
Don’t grill me for all of this. I’m just having some fun. When it comes down to it, I’m a fan. Plain and simple. I’m still the 9-year old that watched Mark McGwire hop around the bases like a similarly-aged little kid after hitting home run #62. I’m still the fan that hopped around the room myself when Scott Rolen homered off of Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the ’04 NLCS. This franchise has given me so many great memories, especially in October. So when faced with the possibility of another playoff run, you can bet I’m siding with the optimist. That’s the joy of a being a fan.
Actively part of it.
Emotionally invested in it.
Let’s Go Cardinals!
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