The same Scott Rolen who hit a home run in his first World Series at bat of 2006 came up to the plate with only one out remaining in a much smaller game last Saturday. The bases were full of Cardinals, and any way of getting on base would have capped a tremendous rally from six runs down, to tie the game or better against the very team he faced in that momentous series.
Veteran closer Todd Jones, who on this day had already allowed two runs across on three hits and two walks, threw a high fastball –fast, no; a ball, probably. But with two strikes, Rolen had to swing.
The same Scott Rolen had faced the same Todd Jones in Jones' only save chance of that World Series, getting a hit off a pitcher's pitch, a two-out two-strike pitch well off the plate that was served softly into right field. It was a tiny bit of never-say-die heroism that resulted in a rally and a run scored, a shutout prevented, and a bit of momentum carried into Game 3 in St. Louis. It was characteristic of the "hard nine" Cardinal attitude that this overly quiet man from Jasper, Indiana exemplified to his core.
Heroism on the diamond is not built out of attitudes or intentions, however. Heroes are built when baseballs fall just between fielders, just over gloves, or even just out of reach of interfering fans. That our men cannot always be heroes, even when they try just as hard, even when they approach the plate with the same intention and the same attitude, with the same bat in hand and the same god-given ability to hit that baseball, is a bitter lesson that we must painfully swallow every time a Scott Rolen pops out to end the game. Every time an Albert Pujols grounds weakly to shortstop. Every time a Jim Edmonds strikes out looking. Every time an Adam Wainwright curveball fails to snap sharply off the plate, and ends up far from where it was thrown.
It's a lesson in humility, one we have been swallowing an awful lot of in this 2007 season. Our St. Louis Cardinals have played all kinds of bad baseball, losing blowouts and close games with equal flair to end up here in mid-May, with the shiniest championship rings on our fingers and the fewest wins in the Major Leagues.
However, as lessons go, this one isn't so bad. When you've turned over an entire generation of baseball talent without posting a winning season, as the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates have, there are no lessons to be learned, no moral platitudes left to fall back on. Nothing to do but try to get those baseballs to fall to the grass again.
The Perfect Storm
Pittsburgh has hit half again as many home runs as St. Louis so far this year, and still has one of the lousiest offenses in the game. For the Cardinals, lousiness is a disturbing new trend; for the Pirates, it's business as usual.
Pittsburgh's rank among the 16 National League teams in runs scored over the past ten years is steadily bad: 9th, 15th, 12th, 9th, 15th, 15th, 7th, 13th, 14th, and then finally reaching bottom this past year, finishing 16th of 16 teams. This is so steadily awful it seems to defy the law of averages. By all rights, shouldn't they have had at least a mild breakout one of these years, even on pure gambler's luck?
The Pirates' pitching staff has been equally woeful over that same span of time: finishing 8th, 6th, 6th, 12th, 15th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 13th, and rebounding back up to 8th place this past year, though most of that strength was in the bullpen, preserving close losses and preventing them from becoming blowouts. This year's staff has the opposite problem, with several strong starts registered early on, but an alarmingly high rate of blown leads by the bullpen, dubiously led by Salomon Torres.
There's always drama of some sort, though.
Though Pirate fans reside far away from the fishing waters off the coast of Maine, they know the story of the "Perfect Storm" by heart. Marginally talented pitchers who need help to win games, both in run support and from their defense, get little of either. These pitchers shy away from challenging opposing hitters, nibbling for calls at the edges of the plate. Umpires disdain this sort of cowardice, and the strike zone gets smaller and more capricious. Forced by the enclosing elements to come back inside, these fragile young men reach back for that "something extra" that boosts velocity but robs movement and accuracy, and frays tender ligaments. The pitches come off the hand and more often than not are immediately regretted – can't they put a yo-yo string on the ball one of these days? – but that regret barely has a chance to register before the pitcher's head is snapped around, following the long, trailing arc of the ball as it sails into the troposphere. Another batter comes up, high-fives his teammate upon the completion of his lap, and then digs into the box. Now the pitcher has no quarter, no safe harbor to guide his pitch into. His next three-ball count finds him afloat, with no sand left in his gut, and the slow parade of walks begins, finishing with a slow walk of his own back to the dugout at his manager's request.
This year, though, the Pirates get to watch all this from the sidelines, as Cardinal starters such as Anthony Reyes and Kip Wells (combined 1-15 record with 13 home runs allowed) act out the drama three times a week. It should be said that Wells, a former Pirate, didn't need to be taught the lines of this tragedy – he learned the role perfectly in his four-plus years in Pittsburgh. In fact, his 2005 performance, in which he lost 18 games despite barely allowing a hit per inning, would have been award-winning if awards were given out for this sort of thing.
No More Free Passes
Pirate skipper Jim Tracy and Jim Colburn, his long-time pitching coach, knew they had quite a bit of work on their hands upon arriving in 2006. They immediately made a pointed effort to cut down the walks given out by their staff – and, failing that, have cut the worst-offending pitchers out of their plans.
Thus exited Wells (4 BBs per 9 innings pitched as a Pirate), and Oliver Perez (4.8 BB/9) as well. Even promising closer Mike Gonzalez (5 BB/9 last year) was traded away, perhaps for the same reason. Accordingly, the team's rate of walks given up has improved from dead last in the NL in 2005 to 6th-best so far this season. And most importantly, the team's quartet of young starting pitchers, who collectively represent the hopes and dreams of future contention by the Pirates, have all bought in.
Power righty Ian Snell, and left-handers Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm – not a one over 25 years old – collectively are registering merely 2.43 BB/9 in this rough measure of grit and composure. 23-year-old reliever Matt Capps, perhaps a closer in waiting, is doing one better with a sterling 1.87 BB/9.
(To offer perspective on this statistic, control master Greg Maddux has averaged 1.5 BB/9 over the past ten years or so. Chris Carpenter the talented but frustrating Toronto Blue Jay fluctuated between 3 and 4 walks per complete game; Chris Carpenter the Cy Young-winning Cardinal has been consistent in giving out less than 2 free passes per.)
Expect this trend to continue – the Cardinals have become one of the league's worst teams at drawing walks. And for all my bluster earlier about heroism coming off the bat, heroes also know when to keep the lumber on the shoulder, from a "walk-off walk" by Mike Matheny with the bases loaded to beat the Cubs early in '04, to the more sublime beauty of Jim Edmonds' game-extending walk against Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, bringing Albert Pujols to the plate.
As with all the disturbing trends about our Redbird hitters, they start right at the core: Eckstein's plate patience, once average at best, is nonexistent this year; Rolen's declining batting eye is continuing from last year; Pujols is taking ball four at well below his usual rate; Edmonds, from 2000-05 one of the league's best at getting on for free, now does all of his walking back to the dugout. Among regular position players, only Chris Duncan and Yadier Molina are showing any improvement in this area.
Even the most optimistic of Cardinal followers has already said the words "rebuilding year" at least once this season, even if to argue vainly against it. But even if we come to accept this as our fate, there is a special insult in finishing the year below the Pirates, something that has only happened twice in the august history of the National League's Central division.
If we are to muster up a stand, and take these Buccos down a few pegs, I'd suggest a round of optometry visits first.