Who says a general manager can't fire up his baseball team?
Two mere days after coming home on a morbid flight following a rough road trip, the St. Louis Cardinals are in a completely different state of mind after sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates. That's how fast things can change in baseball with the daily action; losing ways can give way to optimism within 48 hours. On the eve of Monday's game against the Pirates, GM John Mozeliak gave a state-of-the-union-style address about accountability and how the entire roster needed to do more this week.
What followed was unconventional for manager Mike Matheny, who stuck with career backups Greg Garcia and Jose Martinez, leaving Jhonny Peralta on the bench and Matt Adams nowhere near left field. Mozeliak squashed the Adams in left project, giving more credence to the fact that he doesn't just shape the roster, but perhaps triggers its usage as well during desperate times.
Like a computer taking two weeks to boot up, the Cardinals have slowly activated in key parts of their roster while leaving something to be desired. The pitching bent, but didn't break. The defense cleaned up its act, but the offense remained meager and cold.
With three consecutive 2-1 victories, the Cardinals only scratched out 17 hits, with five of them going for extra bases. Kolten Wong hit a solo home run on Monday, but gathered only a single base knock the rest of the series. Garcia didn't tear the cover off the ball, but drove in a key run on Tuesday and provided slick defense at third base over the three games. Martinez — who couldn't scratch the lineup card during the two-week swoon — started all three games and had a hit in each. He also knocked in a run and scored another.
Dexter Fowler had more strikeouts than hits when the team hit the field Tuesday, but provided all the offense they needed Wednesday via the long ball. Fowler's bat is slowly coming to life the past few games, proving that some players need the time in the early going. When Fowler and Matt Carpenter start clicking, this lineup will take off.
How about the starting pitching? After getting drilled in New York, the starters held their ground against a team that just swept the Chicago Cubs. Lance Lynn needed a boatload of fastballs and a handful of breaking pitches to silence the Pirates on Monday, and then the Michaels took over to finish the deal. Leake has gone from "free-agent bust" to "baseball wound stitch artist" in a month, and Wacha has given some reassurance to his critics about how his pitching will be different this season.
Leake is working over hitters, inducing groundballs, and doing a fine impersonation of vintage Joel Pinerio, while Wacha's fastball velocity of 95 mph is greater than his last three seasons. The question marks in the rotation have been the most sound, because baseball is weird that way.
The bullpen is still shaky, with baserunners lurking during all three ninth innings, and "closer" Seung-hwan Oh allowing a run on Monday and loading the bases Tuesday night. Trevor Rosenthal is back to throwing 100 mph bullets, which gives Matheny some closer insurance. Brett Cecil, formerly known as the Kyle Schwarber bat flight attendant, has pitched solidly in his last two outings. Slowly but surely, the bullpen is sizing up.
The defense made a couple errors during Wednesday's finale, but has finally found the corner of the field where runs are saved and not given back. When Matt Carpenter dropped a throw today and the bases proceeded to be loaded, he made a diving grab to save two runs, and escape the inning. Runs saved at last.
The Cardinals are 6-9 heading into a four-game set against the surprisingly steady Milwaukee Brewers this weekend, and can return home on Monday to Busch on a happy flight possibly; a team being compared to other horrid starts to the season to .500 ball approaching. Some baseball teams just take time to come together.
What these Cardinals lack in domination they will make up for with cardiac-arresting moments late in games. While Matheny is no Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge, this team is showing it has some fight. There isn't a legit gold glove in the infield or outfield, and a few players are playing positions they do not know well. They are a team unworthy of your trust, but also one that you can't detach from.
I'd like to think part of the reason a baseball season is so long is due to the complexity of the game and how it can swivel around so easily during a single week. As Frank Sinatra classically sang, "You can be riding high in April and shot down in May, but I know I'm going to change that tune." For the Cardinals, it could be crash landing on April 15 and soaring on April 19. That's life in baseball.
In the completely useless in April standings check-in, the Cards are tied with Pittsburgh for last in the Central Division, but this evening, it feels like a little dignity has been restored. Playing the "If" game is common practice in sports, and it goes without saying in St. Louis; if they can hit a little better, this season may not be a winner, but it could stave off the sadness for a bit longer.
The 2017 Cardinals may be otherwise known as the "use as directed" squad; with ibuprofen and anti-acids being required even when they win. Get ready to pace across your front porch all summer long.
The Birds are still far from perfect, but they are winning at last.
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