This team already has the hallmark of a classic La Russa success story.
He's 64, and has spent more of his life managing baseball games than not. He has managed more games and won more games than anyone still in the game, and something keeps him coming back. After winning a surprise World Series title in 2006 and fulfilling his "#10" mission, he came back. Even after immediately suffering deep personal humiliation in the spring of the next season, robbing him of the grace period that usually accompanies managers who bring in the rings, he came back.
His games-managed odometer rolled over the 4,000 mark some time ago. He passed his mentor, Sparky Anderson, just recently and hasn't looked back. There are amazing men who will pile up amazing accomplishments but reach some point of inscrutable personal satisfaction – Barry Sanders, to use a football player, or perhaps Mark McGwire to use an example closer to home – and simply walk away, without having attained the highest level of honor.
If La Russa has that point, where he can step back and be pleased with what he's done, he doesn't seem to have reached it yet.
This takes a certain kind of personality. A love of being tested, and being found right. A love of being challenged, and not wilting. This is a man who has done his best managing when faced with the steepest challenges. He galvanizes the team, pushes them through the worst of times as a natural extension of constantly pushing himself.
The challenge also makes him a better, smarter manager. In the absence of a test, La Russa isn't above creating one for him and his team by willfully pulling bonehead stunts – like batting Khalil Greene cleanup, for example, or benching his rookie third baseman on opening day. You won't see any more of that when the team's alert level is orange.
Which begs the question, what would he do with himself if there was no baseball? Would he chase tornadoes with Bill Paxton? Wait for nor'easters and pilot trawlers off the coast of Maine? Lead Casper Van Dien into space battle against giant alien insects?
So while there's plenty of turmoil in the Cardinals' season, at the least we know there's no panic in the dugout.
They're just three outs, like any other, right?
Don't tell that to Jason Motte. Courtesy of Baseball Reference, here are his splits by inning just two weeks into the season:
--- In the sixth; faced seven batters, BA against .142, OPS against .286, K's 3, WHIP 0.50
--- In the seventh; faced seven batters, BA against .167, OPS against .452, K's 1, WHIP 1.00
--- In the ninth; faced 14 batters, BA against .462, OPS against 1.192, K's 2, WHIP 2.57
B-R offers perhaps a more succinct way of looking at it, by measuring the "leverage index" of when a reliever pitches. (High leverage = high pressure.) In low-leverage at-bats, opposing hitters are batting .091. In high leverage at-bats, opposing hitters are tuning him up at a .545 clip with as many doubles as singles.
To my mind, this is a good thing. There's no question Motte has a live fastball, a pretty good slider, and the natural ability to get guys out. He's also still very new to this side of the mound. The question is whether he can harness his emotions, put his game in the hands of his catcher (as a catcher himself, this is no doubt the hardest thing to do), and make his best pitches when the game is on the line. If he can do this, I have more faith in him in the 9th than the Knight from Walks-a-Lot, Chris Perez.
Speaking of which, Perez is hopefully still a better option in the pen than Brad Thompson, who has officially reached 26th-man status. He may reach the majors again, but without a quality second pitch to complement that jumpy little tailing fastball, he won't stick.
Birds with the Bat
As Derrick Goold reports in his excellent daily read 10@10, Yadier Molina is already off to his best start as an RBI bat. No projection system was bullish on his return to being an offensive plus, let alone a .300 hitter. But it is possible that this improvement is real. And La Russa has been giving him RBI opportunities in his ever-changing lineup, batting him 6th more often than any other spot.
Ironically, though, he's done his most damage in the 7 spot: a .615 average with three extra-base hits, four walks, and six of his 9 RBI.
On offense right now, the team is basically built around three good bats – his, Pujols', and Ludwick's – one hot bat in Chris Duncan, and a bunch of out-makers. Ankiel is off to a terrible start, and La Russa can't seem to find a comfortable spot for him in the lineup. (Psst! He's batting a thousand in the nine spot so far!) Skip Schumaker has completed his transformation into a second baseman by hitting like a second baseman. And Colby Rasmus is still waiting for the rest of the league to recognize his future greatness, and serve up some meaty fastballs so he may better fulfill his destiny. So far, no dice.
Around the League
Twitter for baseball beat writers is a beautiful thing. It reduces baseball commentary to its most essential form, without the need for extraneous narrative or the syrupy-sweet human interest angle.
During the first game of the Cubs' home series against the Cardinals, Chicago Sun-Times beat writer Gordon Wittenmyer captured Milton Bradley's first at-bat in Wrigley field in well less than 140 characters:
Bradley makes home debut as Cub -- strikes out as PH on bad call, goes off on ump, quickly tossed. All in a day's work.
This, after Bradley had just claimed in an interview with that very paper that he had "outgrown it, a lot of the stuff that I did when I was younger." Turns out that the ump-bumping stunt that he was supposed to have outgrown will cost him two games without pay. He is appealing, of course, and for now Lou Piniella is wearing the straight face. A humble prediction: this will not end well.
The Cardinals' other opponent in the coming week is the Mets, a high-priced team that boils down to one Superman who plays every five days, and a bunch of other guys who are just barely getting by. The Superman, of course, is Johan Santana, who has allowed one earned run all season, has 27 strikeouts against 5 walks, and can catch bullets between his thumb and forefinger.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, they should miss Santana this time around. But it's worth revisiting the trade that netted him from Minnesota, which might go down among the worst all time – if there weren't so, so many terrible trades in the long history of baseball.
The Mets received Johan Santana, a 29 year old who has won two Cy Youngs and is a preseason favorite this year to bring in his third. (The Mets also received the right to pay him $137 mm, but at least he is pitching like he's worth it, something Barry Zito and so far CC Sabathia are thus far unable to say.)
The Twins received Carlos Gomez, a toolsy center fielder with speed but not a lot of power (duh, it's the Twins), and three pitching prospects: Kevin Mulvey (currently listed 8th in Baseball America's top 10 for Minnesota), Delois Guerra, who has been stuck in high A for three seasons, and Philip Humber, the supposed gem of the deal who was DFA'd this week.
As fishermen go, Minaya at least lands a pretty good catch every now and again. This one is one of the best.
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