I have a few theories about baseball, a few of which seem to be coming into play lately:
1) A superstar does not win a World Championship
2) A good team will find a way to win when faced with adversity
3) If your plan for something is to not use it, it probably doesn't work
4) During any turn through a starting rotation, a good team will have two starters with subpar performances
Now, like most Cards fans, I weighed in on what I thought the Cardinals needed to do with Albert Pujols out for an extended period of time. I have to admit that after an initial faltering the Cardinals thus far have exceeded my expectations in a lot of respects.
The first theory is pretty basic: one guy can't single-handedly win it all. Albert Pujols prior to his injury was as close to a one-man team as I'd seen. Down late and Albert coming up seemed to invite the kind of heroics you tell your grandkids about, but part of it was that other key players weren't pulling their weight. I hope we all can look back in October and say that Albert Pujols' injury was the best thing that could have happened to this team. Scott Rolen has stepped into the leadership position in the offense looking more and more like the player that owned the first half of 2004. Juan Encarnacion and Yadier Molina both stepped up as well and leaving their early season slumps behind them and helped offset the loss of Albert's production and made the lineup a more consistent threat from top to bottom.
Theory #2: Albert Pujols' injury as also seemed to unfortunately coincide with a hiccup in the starting pitching rotation's consistency. Chris Carpenter off the DL looked shaky in his first outing; Mark Mulder has put up a string of poor outings and Sidney Ponson faltered after a strong start. The lineup responded by a burst of offense scoring five or more runs in 8 of 12 games. Jason Marquis responded with two strong starts, Chris Carpenter returned to form after his first start coming off the DL and Jeff Suppan had two respectable outings. In short, they made due with what they had and managed to play over .500 ball even though things were clearly not going the way they would have hoped.
Theory #3: If there was a glaring hole that the last few weeks has revealed it's the bullpen. With some of the starters struggling, the bullpen was called on for longer outings for a stretch. The bullpen hasn't been what I'd call awful, but it's been incredibly inconsistent starting with closer Jason Isrinhausen's well-documented struggles and working its way down through the middle relievers. A couple weeks back Brian Walton did a nice piece on the bullpen pulling their weight and it seems his analysis was timely indeed. The Cardinals have been noted for their strong bullpen in recent years, but they've also been one of the least-used bullpens as well. The weakness seem to appear most in the postseason when Tony La Russa seems more likely to go to his bullpen earlier than stick with a starter. This seems like it might be a recurring problem and perhaps a bit of retooling might be in order.
Theory #4: This isn't a hard and fast rule, there are streaks of course, but it seems that over the long haul it more or less evens out. It might seem distressing that only 3 of 5 starters are performing well in any given stretch until you realize that breaks down to around 97 wins a season. There are other factors that come into play of course, pitchers can lose good starts and win bad ones not to mention the role the bullpen plays in both wins and losses. In either case, until anyone in the rotation does a full-on belly flop, I'm not going to get too worked up.
I've been watching Mulder's swoon as much as the next Cards fan, but Dave Duncan has worked out harder cases before so barring some sort of medical reason, I would expect Mulder to come around. He might not live up to the great ace hype that surrounded him when he was brought over, but a solid 15 game winner that induces ground balls is hardly something to sneeze at either. As for the rest of the starters, Suppan and Marquis have always seemed to be streaky, often finishing strong. Only time will tell how Ponson reacts, but given how professionally the team responds, I'm not deeply concerned.
Jocketty is likely to make a few
deals between now and the end of the season anyway, but maybe we shouldn't be
pulling too hard for a high profile player. Who would have thought the biggest
acquisition last year would have been a career minor leaguer from the
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