At the very end of Martin Scorsese's pool hall classic, The Color of Money, Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) proudly proclaims before he cracks the eight ball game of pool at the end of the table: "Hey, I'm Back!" So are the St. Louis Cardinals, who moved into a first place tie in the National League Central Division with their eighth straight win Saturday night, a 6-5 triumph over the Atlanta Braves.
Like Newman's master Hustler, the Cards used a combination of tactics to get back in the saddle again, including a new set of sights and a springboard from the division rivals. Felson used the heat of Tom Cruise's Vincent to renew his own passion in the game-and that afforded him a comeback. "You breathed that back into me, kid" was what Felson told the young Vincent. The younger Cubs breathed new life into the Cardinals by showing them the backdoor was open for a dogfight. The residents of the Lou took the fight to them and the Brewers.
Let's look at a few of the factors that helped the Cardinals regain the stride in their step:
~A weak division's inability to seal off the season. The Brewers had plenty of opportunities, spending the majority of the season in first place with the lagging Cubs and Cardinals behind them like Ford trucks with faulty engines. Then the Cubs got into first place towards the end of July, but couldn't hold onto the lead. They acquired Jose Quintana and Alex Avila, won six straight, and had all the momentum. Sometimes, the enemy has to show a little weakness for the hero to save the day. A tell that gives it all away. If the Cubs or Brewers play decent ball, the Cards are too buried to climb out of their hole.
~A new pair of glasses (that's what Eddie got in the movie) isn't the best way to say it, so let's go with a fresh perspective and state of mind. Ever since the Cardinals declared they weren't for sale or making huge trades to prepare for 2018, something in this team recharged. They are 9-3 since the team stood pat at the deadline, which included the retainment of Lance Lynn, who has the best earned run average on the team right now. Call it the wrong move (I did) that lacked a true direction (stated clearly), but the Cardinals knew 2017 wasn't over yet. General Manager Michael Girsch told Fox Sports Midwest reporter Jim Hayes that the Cardinals intentions were catching the Cubs. I laughed. The team did not.
~Meet Dexter Fowler, worthy cleanup hitter. A guy like Dexter makes the entire team look better-and that includes the lineup. While Fowler was rehabbing his latest injury, the likes of Stephen Piscotty and a slumping and possibly hurt Jedd Gyorko were manning the cleanup spot. Fowler has stepped in and fortified the vital spot over the past four games, going 5-12 with a game winning grand slam.
He is 8-19 since his return from the disabled list, sparking the rest of the team. Like a winger having a very good center in hockey to set him up, the Cardinals needed Fowler's versatile bat and ability to slug in the right spot. That has happened and sent a surge through the rest of the lineup. Matt Carpenter, Tommy Pham, and Paul DeJong are creating a lethal setup before Fowler and Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong are helping the train roll towards the end.
~The bullpen got a new set of eyes-and it begins and ends with Trevor Rosenthal returning to the closer role. With no offense to Seung Hwan Oh-who still makes one of the best setup guys in the league-Rosenthal has filthy pitches that make a hitter break bad at the plate. Rosenthal can turn it up to triple digits with his four seam fastball or turn it down real low to the mid-eighties with his changeup. And there's a curve in there too just to spice up the dish a bit. Rosenthal had to return to the ninth to give a misguided bullpen a new set of eyes. Matt Bowman, Tyler Lyons, and company have settled into their roles, at least when Mike Matheny isn't trying to actively blow games.
~DeJong may remind some of Randal Grichuk (which isn't exactly the end of the world), but he's locking down the toughest position in sports at shortstop. With condolences to Aledmys Diaz, DeJong is hitting like someone who doesn't want to move out of their apartment, instead opting for a year long lease as opposed to the month to month. The 17 home runs and 16 doubles at the plate counter-balance the 97 strikeouts, but it's the defense at short that is also bringing a suture to the troubling defense. According to Fangraphs, DeJong's UZR/150 is 18.4. That takes into account the opposing parks played in and the season long hold-up of his current Ultimate Zone Rating, which is 3.4. In only 64 games, DeJong has posted a fWAR of 1.9, which is impressive.
~Lance Lynn's pitching is catching up to his postgame interviews. After a rocky June where he posted a 5.68 ERA, Lynn went 3-1 with a 1.47 ERA in July, and has continued to be ruthless in August. He is rewriting the book on what a pitcher can do in his first season after Tommy John Surgery. Sure, he is benefiting from luck on batted balls put in play and his fielding independent pitching mark isn't as strong as past seasons, but Lynn is reminding Cardinals fans just how consistent he can be.
Lynn took a baseball off the side of his head, and stayed in to pitch a good game Thursday night. In a season where the rotation has been strong yet disjointed at times, someone had to step up and throw an anchor down. Lynn has pitched at least six innings in his last seven starts. 2017 isn't just a decent year for Lynn; it may be his best showing yet.
That's not all. Kolten Wong's batting average is sticking around .300 along with his high on base percentage. Pham is finding new ways to make a dent despite plate struggles. Jose Martinez is becoming the best extra man in baseball. Matt Carpenter is reaching base, setting the table, and slowing pushing up the batting average. Molina looks better behind the plate and in front of it than he has all year. Brett Cecil is still blowing up games, but someone has to be dragging.
More importantly, Cardinals Nation is happier and farther away from dread. They have switched back to beer from bourbon. Just look at the Twitter feed and it shows. I won't give all the credit to a stray cat, but Rally Cat has brought some fun back into the fanbase that has already found its way into the clubhouse. Instead of worrying about 2018 and beyond or comparing a cat to a squirrel, embrace the comeback.
The Cardinals have won eight straight games, and the upcoming schedule doesn't present a huge challenge. Outside of two games against the Boston Red Sox, the remaining games fall mostly inside the division, a place where the team must improve at in order to stay in the race. The last 22 games of the regular season come against N.L. Central opponents, including a final seven face-off with Chicago and Milwaukee.
The Cardinals are indeed back, but can they sustain the momentum? Fast Eddie Felson never got another sequel-I personally would have watched a few more films-but baseball allows for plenty of sequels. 45 games remain and first place is up for grabs, so what are the Cards going to do about it.
If they keep getting production from the fourth spot in the lineup and can shut down games, their chances are good. A week ago, the Cards were exhaling after a win in Cincinnati, which followed a stretch where the team lost three of four. They haven't lost a game since that Friday night, sparking a frenzy, the good kind. Baseball is good again.
Let's keep it that way.