My view from the sports office today is sunny, with a chance of clouds. But as we all know, weather forecasting is pure guesswork – even with all that technology and a college degree.
I was encouraged by what I saw last night at Busch Stadium. It’s been open season on Mike Matheny and the Cardinals, with the doomsayers projecting that first couple of weeks over the course of the season. I’m with you – they have not looked good, and cracks have appeared in what we thought could be a good team. To win a major league game you have to win three of the big five categories: hitting, starting pitching, defense, bullpen and bench. Lance Lynn was the better starter on the mound, the defense didn’t do anything to prolong innings or let in costly runs, and the bullpen bent but didn’t break. Hence, they overcame another night of weak hitting. The trouble with this team is that all too often we’re seeing poor pitching and defense to go along with a punchless offense and an overworked bullpen IN THE SAME GAME. That leaves the bench, and there haven’t been any heroes coming in late to perform magic. And we can pile on the manager for his lineup decisions, but Matheny hasn’t exactly had a lot of options.
But now for the clouds. It’s distressing to see the Cardinals fall back into the comfort zone of last season (bad defense, no clutch hitting and a reliance on the home run). The stated goal was to improve in the field, on the bases and in the clubhouse, but at the first hint of trouble the lineup got filled like it did last year. The manager tries to be a progressive thinker out of the dugout, arranging team-building activities and bringing in speakers that promote positive beliefs and goal-setting; but reverting to what produced 86 wins a year ago once the games start is fixed mindset thinking. It’s also dangerous.
John Mozeliak has shown that he won’t hesitate to make changes – he’s pretty good at taking emotion out of the equation. Unproductive players may be good people, but goodness doesn’t win games and so decisions will have to be made if things continue to trend down. But not yet – the division is turned upside down with the Reds and Brewers in front, and the Cubs are the real target only two games ahead. April is not the time to push the panic button, so let’s see what tonight brings – a winning streak would be a good thing to have by 10:30 tonight.
By that time tomorrow we could be looking at the Blues moving into the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. We’ll get to the Blues and Wild in a minute, but that’s one of four potential first-round sweeps. Did you see that coming? Probably no more than anyone saw the kids from Toronto leading the Capitals after three games. Anyway, if the Blues, Predators, Ducks and Penguins complete their sweeps, it would be the most four-and-outs since the opening round went to the best four-out-of-seven in 1987; a little statistical giveaway for you.
It would be great for the Blues to finish off Minnesota tomorrow; from a pure energy standpoint in particular. That was the biggest reason Ken Hitchcock thought last year’s Blues team got derailed in the conference finals – too much mental energy spent after both Chicago and Dallas stretched their series to the full seven games after falling behind three games to one. So now comes the argument: rest or momentum?
It’s easy to make the case that it’s a good thing to get healthy and have several days off to rest up for the next round. There is also the school of thought that a team that’s red hot such as the Blues would want to keep the roll going and get the next round going as soon as possible. So what does history say? It’s a tossup. Since 1987, teams that swept a series went on to win 54-percent of their next series; not as much as I would have thought. Over that same period, 20 of the 26 Stanley Cup winners swept at least one series on their path to the title; I’ll leave that up to you to decide how relevant it is.
Another good sign for the Blues: Paul Stastny was out skating with the team this morning. How close he is to returning is anybody’s guess but having him in the lineup for the second round sure improves the depth and gives the Blues one more player who experienced that run to the conference finals last year.
I hate to peek too far ahead, but how many of you would rather face Nashville in the second round instead of Chicago? Like the Blues, the Predators won the first two games at the United Center – and by shutout. A Jake Allen vs. Pekka Rinne duel in the nets would be riveting. The Preds won the season series, 3-2, but the Blues won their only matchup since the Mike Yeo era began. It would be a high energy tangle that most assuredly won’t end in a sweep.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. And by the way, if you haven't seen Audrey Dahlgren's visit with the parents of defenseman Joel Edmundson, I encourage you to check it out:
Until next time.