Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Slip Sliding Away

The St. Louis Cardinals are in the midst of the biggest collapse since the stock market crash of '29. A week ago the Cardinal had a lead of 8-1/2 games on the Astros and a magic number of five. Today, they have a 1-1/2 game lead on the Astros and a magic number of five. They have lost seven games in a row. They are the first team in the history of baseball to have two seven game losing streaks in the same season without falling out of first place. The Cardinal have a worse record than all of the remaining teams vying for the wild card. In fact, the Cardinals would be 2-1/2 games behind if they were in the wild card hunt. And in two days, they may very well be in the wild card hunt.

The '64 Phillies probably have the dubious distinction of being the holders of the most famous September collapse in history. They led the NL by 6-1/2 games with 12 games to play. Not only did they not win the division, they didn't even come in second. They went on to lose 10 games in a row and ended the season in 3rd place. The '69 Cubs failure wasn't quite on the scale of the '64 Phillies but is well remembered because they ended up losing to the miracle Mets. They had a 5 game lead with 25 games to go and ended up losing 5 games in a row to lose that lead. The '95 Angels led the Mariners by 6 games with 17 games remaining on the schedule but somehow managed to lose that lead as well. That run by the Mariners is looked at by many as the reason that the Mariners got a new ballpark and stayed in Seattle. Of course that '95 Seattle team ended up beating the Yankees (in Don Mattingly's only playoff appearance) in the playoffs and breaking my heart, so I'm not too thrilled about that one.

The Cardinals found themselves in the exact same situation as the Phillies found themselves in that long ago pennant race. They were up by 6-1/2 with 12 games to go. They haven't quite lost 10 in a row yet, but they seem to be well on their way. They sent their ace to the mound last night and even he could not stop the bleeding. Their closer is gone for the season and their bullpen is leaking like the Titanic. They still have Albert Pujols, who is the best hitter in the game, but he can't get on the mound and pitch.

They have been the victims of a lot of late comebacks. In fact, their downfall of late is almost totally due to the lack of performance from their bullpen. In the first loss of the current streak, they went into the bottom of the 9th tied at zero, and lost the game when a reliever gave up walk off home run. That was just the start of what has become a week long nightmare for the Cardinals, their pitchers and their fans. On Thursday night, they entered the 8th inning with a lead, but LaRussa was afraid to go to the bullpen, so he left the starter, Chris Carpenter, on the mound and he gave up a two run homer and the lead. On Friday they went into the 8th inning with a 3 run lead. The bullpen gave up two runs in the 8th and two runs in the 9th to turn a win into a loss. On Saturday they went into the bottom of the 9th with the score tied and the bullpen gave up a three run homer for another loss. On Sunday they entered the bottom of the seventh with the score tied and the bullpen imploded again and gave up four runs for another loss and a almost unimaginable sweep at the hands of the Astros. Just last night they led 5-2 going into the 7th inning, only to have Carpenter give up four runs, the lead and eventually the game. In every game of the losing streak the Cardinals have either led or been tied heading into the seventh inning and they have lost every time. The odds say that they should have won at least a couple of those games, but the games, unfortunately for the Cardinals, are determined on the field.

Can the Cardinals turn it around in time to salvage their season? It's hard to say. Considering that only once in the past 40 years has a team blown a lead this big in such a short time, I'd say that history is on their side. However, losing, like winning can become contagious. There isn't a pitcher in the bullpen who has been effective during their recent slide. They have either led or been tied late in every game of their seven game losing streak only to see the bullpen or lack of faith in the bullpen result in a loss each time. Tony LaRussa is supposed to be a baseball genius (just ask him). He always wants everyone to know that he graduated from law school (Big freaking deal. I graduated from law school, you don't see me managing a major league team. Although I ought to be.), like being a lawyer makes him somehow more qualified to run a team. He led the Oakland A's of the late eighties. They were the best team in baseball for 3 years and they won exactly one World Series. His powerhouse Oakland teams that ran roughshod through the AL for three years, lost to the undermanned Dodgers and Kirk Gibson and then lost to the underwhelming Reds and Barry Larkin. His goal in St. Louis has been to win a World Series. He's gotten them there once in ten years and got swept. I'm not quite as convinced of his baseball genius as he is. Let's see if he can pull the team together over the next five days. It might just be his greatest hour, but if they fail to make the playoffs, I think the finger should be pointed squarely in his direction.



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