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Sunday, August 31, 2003

ALBERTICUS had a funny afternoon. The starting pitcher for the Reds was Dan Serafini -- lefthander, ex-Cardinals farmhand, recent refugee from the Mexican League, career flunky. In other words, the type of pitcher Pujols eats for lunch. In his first at bat of the game, Serafini challenged Pujols with a succession of fastballs, and Bert was just missing 'em. He fouled off five pitches, all rips, almost all fastballs. On the 7th pitch of the at bat, Pujols skied a pop-up to the shortstop, and he stomped back to the dugout muttering and cursing to himself. The journeyman went at him, mano a mano, and the journeyman won. At least in the early going...

Round 2: Pujols came up in the third, and the brass-balled Serafini stared him down again. Three heaters right in Albert's wheelhouse, three foul balls, before he flied out, this time to right. But Pujols had now seen 11 pitches from this guy, and it seemed as if he was getting his timing down.

Round 3: Pujols should have come to the plate with a bib. Serafini threw one fastball too many, and Pujols jacked it. Way out. 477 feet to dead center, off a building beyond the wall and into the councourse at Great American Ball Park. By then Bert was in a rhythm. His next AB he watched two pitches go by from Danny Graves, then took one more swing and whaled on it: another home run to centerfield.

The Reds pitchers played coy for a few innings, but at the end of the day Pujols cosummated what he'd been looking for back in the first inning.

A STERLING PUN OF A PERFORMANCE Who knows if Justin Pope or Ben Julianel will ever pan out for the Yankees, or if Sterling Hitchcock will mar his unblemished record for the Cardinals, but so far our new acquisition is everything we asked for.

What was most impressive about his start was how legit it seemed. Last night Brett Tomko and four relievers played a game of Jenga all night, putting runners on inning after inning but somehow wriggling out of it. Tomko himself allowed 11 baserunners while recording only 17 outs, for a rather dubious win.

Hitchcock's win, on the other hand, was for real. He retired the first ten hitters he faced, and in 6 innings allowed only 2 runners to reach second base. He threw two strikes for every ball, and worked very efficiently, tossing fewer than 20 pitches in each inning (including one where he needed to work around an error). Granted, his opponent was the Reds, so you can give Hitchcock an asterisk if you want, but it was basically the same lineup that both Haren and Tomko struggled against the last two nights.

I doubt Hitchcock will be Doyle Alexander '87 or Woody Williams '01, but something like Ted Lilly '02 would be just fine with me.

FINALLY The Cardinals have sole possession of first place, after several weeks of trying. How'd we do it? Well, first of all, we're playing very consistent baseball. We've won each of our last 4 series, and closed the month 15-12. Another month like that and we'll finish with 87 wins, which, believe it or not, will probably be enough to get us into the postseason.

The other half of the equation is Houston. They've been choking lately, only 15-20 since July 24th and losers of their last three weekend series, to the lowly Padres and the lowlier Reds (twice). And the last two of those series were at home.

You don't need to look far to pinpoint the source the Astros' struggles -- they haven't been hitting. Their team batting average is only .244 since the All-Star Break (today they were three-hit by Jake Peavy and Co.), and their runs scored per game has dropped by nearly half a run. Check out these OBPs since the break: Craig Biggio (.316), Adam Everett (.294), Morgan Ensberg (.286), Jeff Kent (.283). That ain't gonna win any divisions, even one as crappified as ours.

Another sore spot has been Brad Lidge, who was lights-out for most of the year, but finished August with a 10.32 ERA. Lidge has suffered a variety of injuries over the years, and his workload this season (6th most appearances in the NL) suggests that he may be breaking down.

BUD WISER? During today's KMOX broadcast, Mike Shannon was talking about how many teams in the NL are still in the wild-card hunt, and he said "Bud Selig must be jumping up and down right now. He really pushed for the wild card and we're seeing a great race as a result." Wayne Hagin (a nice guy, but a company man if there ever was one) echoed the sentiment: "It's a real credit to Bud."

Sure, we have great races, but is this all because of the wild card? If we had the old divisional format (pre-1994), you'd have Atlanta and San Francisco battling it out in the NL West. Given Atlanta's record, you could say they'd be 5 games up. But San Fran has been coasting lately, nursing a huge lead, giving their pitchers extra rest, and letting Bonds have plenty of time to spend with his pop before he died. I think it's fair to say that under the old arrangement, Atlanta and San Fran would be in the middle of a dogfight rightabout now. And the old NL East would be a barn-burner: St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal, and Florida would all be clumped together in a tangled mass, pretty much as they are now.

So say what you will about the wild card -- sometimes it encourages good races, sometimes it doesn't. But I wouldn't say that this year's chase necessarily credits Bud's system.

DO THE MATH(ENY) Glove-minded catchers are like left-handed relievers and Supreme Court justices -- they have jobs for life. Which is why Mike Matheny, who has a rep as a sturdy, dignified, leatherrific backstop, will be playing major-league baseball 'til he's 42 years old, if he wants.

But there's another reason -- a more legitimate reason -- why Matheny will find employment in his gray-hair years, and it's this: he's learned how to hit lefthanders. Before this year, Math was as lousy against lefties as he was against righties, sporting a weak .234/.291/.347 AVG/OBP/SLG from 2000-2002. But this year he's turned things around, hitting .349/.387/.506 against southpaws, which is one reason he's starting today against the Reds LHP Dan Serafini.

There's one problem. Matheny still can't hit righties. If anything, he's worse than ever against them, scuffling along this year to the tune of .212/.291/.283 against right-handers. That's as bad as any catcher in baseball (about even with the equally putrid Brad Ausmus), and essentially guarantees that we have pitchers in both the 8 and 9 hole when we face righties.

Clearly, Walt Jocketty should shop around this winter for a catcher to platoon with Matheny. But there aren't too many dance partners out there. Most of the catchers who hit well against righties (Piazza, Kendall, Javy Lopez, A.J. Pierzynski) hit well against lefties too, and should never be platooned anyway. Doug Mirabelli, the Red Sawx backup catcher, and a free agent at the end of the season, has a big platoon split favorable to righties -- but only this year. Traditionally he murders lefties and hits like a banjo vs. RHers. Go figure. The best mate for Matheny may be Ramon Hernandez, the A's squat-man, who hits .293/.358/.495 against righties, but an abysmal .198/.248/.366 against lefties. But he's signed through 2005, so good luck prying him from Billy Beane's fingers.

Another option is to pray that Yadier Molina, our catcher down in AA, keeps coming along. He's hitting .279, and .392 over his last 20 games, but unfortunately he just turned 21 years old, and he still hasn't developed much power or strike-zone judgment. I don't know what the solution is, but finding a legitimate complement for Matheny at the plate will be one of Jocketty's prime chores this offseason.

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN THE CARDINALS LOSE? Back in June, that was an easy question to answer: the Cardinals lost every game they didn't score more than 4 runs. Remember that? We were on a crazy stretch (an entire month, from June 3rd to July 4th) in which we were 0-13 when scoring 4 or fewer runs, and 18-0 when scoring more than 4. In fact, in all 18 of those games we score 8 or more runs.

We've arrested that trend over the past month. Of our last 13 wins, over half have been games in which we score 4 runs or fewer. But we've got a new statistical quirk going. The answer to the question -- how do you know when the Cardinals lose? -- is now this: it's when our pitchers allow a big inning. Not two big innings, not no big innings, but one big blotch of an inning, like a goiter on a supermodel.

In our last seven losses, we've surrendered a 5-run inning (8/15), a 4-run inning (8/16), a 4-run inning (8/17), a 10-run inning (8/20), a 4-run inning (8/22), a 6-run inning (8/26), and a 5-run inning (8/29). So there's that number again: four. When we give up four runs or more in an inning, we lose; when we don't have a four-run inning, we win (at least for the past two weeks anyway). And collectively, we've given up 38 runs in those 7 big innings, but only 18 in the other 59. Strange.

My friend Brian over at the magnificent Sox Nation wondered what would happen if pitching were like seven-card stud -- you know, throw seven innings, keep the best five. We'd be on a 15-game winning streak or something. So the task for Hitchcock today: don't bunch hits, don't lose your composure, don't give up any grand slams. Because if we give up 4 runs in an inning, we may as well forfeit and preserve our arms for Chicago.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

THE AMAZING JEDMONDS The only other person I can remember robbing home runs in back to back games was Eric Davis. He pulled 2 back from over the wall, I think in 1987, robbing Jack Clark of homers both times (although it may have even been in the same game – does anyone remember for sure?). But as pretty as Davis' plays were, they weren't nearly as magnificent as Jedmonds' beauties last night and tonight. They're two of the most astonishing over the wall catches I've ever seen; even watching SportsCenter every night, I think both are undoubtedly top 10 all-time. And tonight Jedmonds took over the game offensively, too. I think he's my favorite player. I love that lazy bastard. Always will.

K-ROB This is old news by now, but Hall-of-Fame fan Josh Schulz describes a hilarious domestic scene in the aftermath of Thursday night's victory:

"[Thursday] night I was sitting at the dinner table (OK, the Samurai Sams booth but same idea) being kind of quiet and my wife asked me: 'You're thinking about Kerry Robinson again aren't you?'.

And the only thing I think was, you mean you're not?"

The rest of the post is just as endearing. We've all been there.

LIKE KISSING YOUR SISTER Suppose the Cards, Cubs, and Astros finish the season in a tie for first. And for good measure, let's say the Marlins and Expos tie us for the wild card. What would happen? Well, there's actually a process in place to deal with such a scenario, although it's sorta like disentangling 2,000 feet of Christmas tree lights. Dave Pinto tells us how it works:

What happens is that the division winner is decided first. Two of the teams play on day 1, and the winner plays the third team on day 2. The winner of day 2 is the division winner. At that point, the two teams that lost go back into the wild card pool, and you have a playoff with all those teams. The rules cover up to four teams, but can be easily extended to cover more. So the division losers would not be automatically eliminated from the post-season, as is the case of two teams tied for the division and another tied with them for the wild card.

I'm not sure what criterion qualifies one team for a bye in the first round of the intra-divisional playoffs. Head-to-head record doesn't work (because conceivably each team's record could cancel out the other -- i.e., Cubs win the season series from the Astros, Cards win the season series from the Cubs, and Astros win the season series from the Cards, which is how things stand right now). Maybe record within the division?

MEN IN BLUE Two night ago we went off on home-plate ump Brian Runge, who called the last game of the Cards-Cubs series at Busch like a drunken frat boy. Gary Huckabay has some interesting thoughts about the expectations of our on-field arbitrators:

Think about exactly what we ask of a home-plate umpire. They must stand behind a man prone to sudden movements, behind and perpendicular to another man who may swing a large club. For their own protection, they wear a mask that slightly impairs their field of vision. Then, they must determine whether a small sphere traveling at 90 mph and intentionally hurled to maximize movement along one or more axes passes through a small three-dimensional space. That three-dimensional space, by the way, changes approximately 80 times throughout the course of a normal day's work.

Sound difficult? It's not. It's impossible--at least to do it at a level acceptable for a game so dependent on the ability of a human to do this job.

Umpires will get better as they get improved training, and become more accepting of new technology that will help them do their jobs. But they won't ever be particularly great at calling balls and strikes, due to the physical limitations of the human eye and brain. The brain isn't particularly good at multitasking when it comes to picking up rapidly moving objects and comparing them to a fixed point of reference. Add in the fact there are three dimensions involved, and you guarantee that no human will ever be able to consistently distinguish unbelievably small variations under the conditions we ask home-plate umpires to perform. It's simply a limitation of physiology.

Friday, August 29, 2003

THE RED MENACE This was supposed to be the new-look Redbirds. Our pitching staff has been tight as a fiddle lately; we've got some new and old faces in DeJean and Morris; we've been winning those dramatic one-run games we used to lose. In other words, these aren't the same Cardinals who dropped 6 in a row to the Reds back in early May.

But here we returned to the scene of the crime, dominated by another no-name Reds hurler (tonight John Bale played the role of Jeff Austin), subject to yet another bullpen collapse at the hands of the upstart Redlegs. Sounds familiar, right?

Well, there's one big difference: these aren't the Reds of early May, or even the Reds of early July. This is, without getting too uncharitable, a Triple-A team. Literally. At least half the players in the Reds starting lineup would be playing for the Louisville RiverBats were it not for a rash of injuries and other roster upheavals.

What tonight does, essentially, is erase last night's heroics. (It even turns last night's hero into a goat, as Kerry Robinson got gunned out on the basepaths in the ninth.) A couple weeks back, Flynn said that the important games are not necessarily the big emotional ones, but the games AFTER the big emotional ones, the ones that turn temporary flukes into sustained prosperity. Tonight the Cardinals had a chance to waltz into sole possession of first place and (despite the inspired play of Scott Rolen) they once again failed to walk through the door. It's as if every team in the NL Central is doing their damnedest not to rock the boat. This one-step-forward-one-step-back routine may set up a memorable final weekend, but right now it's annoying as hell.

THE TANGLED KNOT Joe Sheehan has some interesting thoughts on the NL pennant race:

No one has any idea who the NL Central winner and the Wild Card team will be. Any team in baseball can play .600 ball over a 30-game stretch, which is all it will take to make it to October. The real differences among the teams will have an impact on what happens, but it's going to come down to which players get hot, or fall into a slump, for one month.

Rey Ordonez hit .326/.333/.533 in April; Jason Giambi was at .204/.357/.376 that month, as well. Jose Lima was 5-0 with a 1.44 ERA in June. We might be shaking our heads in wonderment at Chase Utley or Kerry Robinson a month from now, or wondering how Mark Prior's season could fall apart...

The longest winning streak in baseball belongs to the Brewers, who have won 10 in a row to move out of last place. They've been doing it with their bats, scoring 68 runs during the streak and pulling out a number of squeakers, including yesterday's 10-inning triumph over the now-last-place Reds. It's just another data point in the argument that over a short enough span of time, any major-league team can win a whole bunch of games.

Few teams will have as much opportunity to play spoiler in September as the Brewers will. They have six games left with the Cubs, six with the Cardinals, eight with the Astros, and three against the Diamondbacks. That's a lot of opportunities to be annoying. With so many games involving the Brew Crew, it's fair to say that how the three leaders play against the Brewers could be the deciding factor in the Central race.

CINCINNATI RED CROSS That's what some wag called the current Cincy team, and given that 17 players on their 40-man roster are on the DL, it's an apt description. Here was the Reds' opening-day lineup:

1. Larkin, SS
2. A Boone, 2B
3. Griffey, CF
4. Kearns, RF
5. Dunn, LF
6. Casey, 1B
7. Larson, 3B
8. LaRue, C
9. Haynes, P

And here's their starting lineup tonight:

1. Freel, CF
2. Castro, SS
3. Jiminez, 2B
4. Casey, 1B
5. Branyan, 3B
6. Mateo, RF
7. Stenson, LF
8. Stinnett, C
9. Bale, P

That's some blood transfusion -- just one man left standing, Sean "the Mayor" Casey. Also appearing in that game back on March 31st: Felix Heredia, Scott Sullivan, Gabe White, and Scott Williamson. All gone.

PORTSIDER The Reds hurler tonight, John Bale, throws from the left side, which is good news for our lineup, which feasts on lefties. Check out these splits vs. lefthanders:

Pujols .384/.424/.705
Perez .345/.457/.655
Renteria .365/.451/.646
Rolen .292/.423/.640
Jedmonds .247/.345/.649
Matheny .354/.378/.512

That's ferocious. Even Woody Williams slugs .625 vs. LHers.

MENAGE A HUIT Here are today's updated wild-card standings:

Team............Record... GB
St. Louis....... 70-63..... --
Houston....... 70-63..... --
Florida.......... 70-63..... --
Philadelphia.. 70-63..... --
Montreal....... 71-64..... --
Arizona.......... 69-64......1
Los Angeles... 68-64....1.5

That's right -- a five-way tie for first. And eight teams within a game and a half of each other. We're gonna have to get Bobby Fischer out of retirement to figure out the permutations of this pennant race.

A few things...

• "Thanks Gagne." Absolutely. But give even more thanks to Dave Roberts. Did you see his catch to rob Berkman of a two-run, game tying homer? Up the hill and out of the hands of a stupid Houstonian? Roberts and Robinson, giving theri all for the Birdnut.

• RF arms - I submit Hildalgo and Guerrero over Ichiro. But then again, there's that great deabte about arms - you can't look at OF assists becasue nobody runs on the truly great guns so they don't always have the high assist totals. (Brian's note: Vlad's arm is ferocious, but I docked him for the occasional wildness -- inaccuracy, throwing to the wrong base, etc.)

• STL Fans - this is the 4th year in a row the Cards are in the hunt in Sept. Dare I say it? Could the fans be getting "Atlanta-ized?" I mean the last time the Cards had a run like this (in four successive years) was the 40s.... The glory streaks in the 60s and 80s did include some "off" years when the Birds were out of it by now...

• More Cubs - on paper you say they have an easy schedule but then you look at the Pirates and say "hold on, they've been playing pretty well." Then they go and trade Giles after they're done playing the Cards but before they play the Cubs 7 more times. Oh, and the 10-Game streak Brewers? They just lost big bopper Jenkins for the year. The Cubs get them about 7 times too.

• Bud Selig - "So many fans have no hope of anything when the season starts..." Yeah, well, Bud maybe it should be - "The fans of my own piece of crap franchise that I ran into the gorund even with getting a fancy new stadium are getting screwed." Here we are at Labor Day and 10 of the 16 NL teams are within striking distance of the post season. When, exactly, has that ever happened before? And if you are a Mets fan you know there will still be postseaon ball in your city. So, there are only 5 towns with unhappy fans. Why isnt' Selig all ove the airwaves trumpeting this? Bud needs to learn from the commissioners of the NFL, NBA, and NHL (who are lawyers, not surprisingly) how to put a spin on things. Ever hear what David Stern says when he is asked about the gang of
criminals who play in his league? "We have a great group of young stars. I am confident the actions of one individual will not tarnish our great league and sport." And what about economic imbalance in the NHL? "The level of play on the ice has never been better." - Gary Bettman

• Surely Bud could sell a few cars in his day. How about using some positive vibes on the grand old game? Stop harping on what's wrong all the time. It makes people believe there is "SERIOUS TROUBLE" in baseball when really it has no more problems than any other sport.

• Finally - as a transplanted St.Louisan living in Chicago, I was forced to listen to the Cubs announcers for all the games of this series. Steve Stone is absolutely one of the best color men around. Smart, funny, deadpan, and articulate. Chip Caray, meanwhile, is like that dorky guy at the party who won't leave. Anyway, it is amazing how defeated they sound all the time. Example - Rolen hits the tying homer last night and Caray says "Well, a 4-5 record on this tough road trip is nothing for the Cubs to hang their head about." The game was TIED! With two innings left! He did the same thing on Wednesday night when the Cards loaded the bases and the Cubs had a two run lead. The sense of despair for every Cub fan I know is just undeniable. They are all waiting for the team to blow it. Caray and Stone made a huge deal about all the new guys the Cubs picked up and, to their point, they paid off against Flaky-G in the first game. The reality, though, is that no matter what the Cubs do, they are the Cubs. Losers.

• One last "never gonna happen" thought - Cubs vs. Red Sox in the World Series. America experiences a first time ever shortage of ink as every sportswriter goes completey insane.

PHIL "AIR" MIKELSON UPDATE Caucasian golfer Phil Mikelson is auditioning for the AAA Toledo Mud Hens this afternoon. Says Toledo GM Joe Napoli, "In the tradition of other two-sport athletes such as Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Jim Thorpe, and Gene Conley, we look forward to seeing what Phil can accomplish." Although my guess is that Mikelson is no Gene Conley, I honestly think it's the coolest thing he's ever done.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

MORE GAME NOTES, Cards 3, Cubs 2

• Cubs starters this series: 22 innings, 2 earned runs, 0.82 ERA. Any gameplan we had basically boiled down to this: get to their bullpen.

• The key to Matt Morris' success is keeping the ball down. When his shoulder was acting up, he had no strength and no follow-through, so everything was leaving his hand early. More hangers = more gopher balls. But now Morris seems to be able to get that nice, windmill action on his fastball, which suggests that his broken hand and sprained ankle were actually blessings in disguise, for they allowed his wing more time to heal.

• La Russa had Robinson/Hart 1-2 in the lineup for the 4th night in a row. Robinson's been hot lately, but his OBP is only .297 and Hart's is .322 and falling fast. That leads me to believe that La Russa is stuck in that old-school mentality that says, if he looks like a leadoff hitter, he is a leader hitter. That is: fast and scrappy = good guy up top. But clearly Edgar Renteria, with his .386 OBP, is the best man to be hitting ahead of our Pujols/ Edmonds/ Rolen troika. You can see how much Renteria is wasted by looking at this stat -- take all the times he's been on base, subtract the times he's driven himself home (via the home run), and figure out how many runs he's scored as a percentage of times on base:

Renteria has scored 65 of the 196 times he's been on base, or 33% of the time.
Bo Hart, on the other hand, has scored 40 of the 81 times he's been on base, or a whopping 49% of the time.

Now if you took Renteria's ability to reach base, and coupled it with the RBI potential of the heart of our order, you're talking a lot more runs, right? Of course, the word is that Renteria doesn't like hitting at the top of the order. (a) Too bad. (b) It's provably false. He's got a .391 on-base average hitting out of the two hole. That's where he should be.

• Carlos Zambrano may be the most underrated pitcher in baseball. There are some other unsung hurlers -- Darrell May and Johan Santana come to mind -- but Zambrano is overshadowed by the flamethrowers on his own staff. After all, Wood and Prior shared the SI magazine cover, but Zambrano's numbers are just as good, and he's younger than either of them. Hell, if Zambrano were playing in New York, he'd be dating Eva Mendes by now.

• Do you ever wake up in a cold sweat thinking of a rotation of Zambrano, Prior, Wood, Clement, and Juan Cruz c. 2005?

• Pujols reached base for the 8th straight time with a little dunker into right center in the 1st. Pujols has so many ways to reach base -- sawed-off singles, gap jobs, doubles down either line, power to all fields, even a fair share of infield hits (he hits the ball so hard that infielders must play him deep). If he played in Coors he'd hit .400.

• Here's how good Pujols is: the Cubs pitchers were throwing BBs this series (the lead-pellet kind, not the base on balls kind), and they almost literally couldn't get Pujols out. He reached base 10 out of 12 times against Little Bear pitching. There's been this weird backlash against Pujols in certain stathead circles, mostly just Bonds-mania in reverse. For example, a recent Baseball Prospectus chat session yielded the question, "Precisely what drugs must be ingested before Albert Pujols starts to look better than Barry Bonds?" and the moderator, Keith Woolner, replied, "Powerful hallucinogens would be a start." Come on, man, have some respect -- I still think Bonds is more valuable than Our Man Bert, but Pujols' .365/.438/.681 is not out of line with Mickey Mantle '54-'62.

• Is Milwaukee having the least-heralded 10-game win streak in history? Maybe it's not so bad that the Cubs and Astros play them 14 more times combined.

• Morris' double in the 5th, and then the underthrow he beat out in the 6th, showed that he can't run at all. His ankle is as tender as can be; it's a wonder he can push off from the mound, or even field his position. Pitchingwise, though, Matty Mo -- the one we all know and love -- is back.

• Remember that scene in North by Northwest, when someone slips a mickey into Cary Grant's drink, then puts him behind the wheel of a car, and the road starts dancing before his eyes like a crazy kaleidoscope? That was Brian Runge's strike zone tonight.

• Scott Rolen's foul-out with the bases loaded in the 5th proved that Mars' recent brush with planet Earth had enough gravitational force to move the pop-up out of the first-base stands and into the mitt of Randall Simon. Baseball is indeed a game of inches. But then again, what sport isn't?

• Carlos Zambrano evidently went to the Jose Lima/Pascual Perez/Orlando Hernandez School of Hyper-Animated Latino Pitchers.

• Sammy Sosa's strikeout/walk ratio, the last three years:

2001 1.3:1
2002 1.4:1
2003 2.2:1

At age 34, you gotta wonder if the guy is losing just a little bat speed.

• Cold War political scientists used to study the Soviet Union while trying to look beyond the impenetrable Iron Curtain; they called this all-but-impossible discipline Kremlinology. Trying to figure out the personal lives of ballplayers can be just as impossible -- a lot of guesswork and a finely tuned bullshit radar. I can never really tell which baseball players are jerks and which ones aren't. (You gotta figure most aren't too cool. I mean, imagine all the biggest jocks you knew in high school, then imagine them with ten times as much talent and ten-thousand times as much money, and you get a fair idea what pro athletes are probably like.) Joe Buck talked a lot this series about how the love affair between St. Louis and Sammy Sosa is over, how the feel-good tulips we threw his way in '98 have turned into daggers and boos. And based on my limited knowledge of Sosa, I'd have to say the man deserves it. When you consider his screwed-up charity work, his bunny-hops after he hits home runs, his super-loud music in the clubhouse, his corked bat (who cares if a corked bat doesn't help your bat speed; Sosa sure thought it helped), and his lying afterwards, you'd have to say the man deserves every boo he gets.

• I don't know if he lost his stamina or if his ankle was acting up, but Morris' breaking pitch had become, by the 7th inning, about as effective as Dole's right arm. He got out of the inning purely on the strength of placement and grit.

• A Brief History of Baseball Hair:
1880s-90s goatee
1900s-10s hair parted in middle
1930s-40s Brylcreem
1950s-60s crewcut
1970s-80s mustache
1990s-2000s goatee

• Has anyone noticed that A-Rod is now tied for the major-league lead in home runs? I seriously think that guy's one of the more underrated players in baseball. I'm not kidding.

• Bo Hart's fielding has been superb, and he has only 3 miscues all year, but Mike De Jean came in and saved him from making his second deadly error of the season.

• Once again, Kline came face to face with his nemesis Kenny Lofton, and he bitched out, as Lofton scorched a double off him into the gap. Consult the Payback-O-Meter at top left for further questions about Kline's fortitude.

• Edmonds' range may be a tad overrated, but no one has a better arm in center. No one. His strike to nail Glanville in the 8th looked like it was shot out of a 2A70 Cannon Launcher. Props, too, to Matheny, who's as good at blocking the plate as anyone since Mike Scioscia and/or Rick Dempsey.

• Here are my picks for the best arms at each position:

C: I-Rod
1B: Todd Helton (remember, the man was a QB at Tennessee)
2B: Luis Castillo
3B: Rolen
SS: Rafael Furcal
LF: Brad Wilkerson
CF: Edmonds
RF: Ichiro

• Until Edmonds' peg, I didn't for a second think the Cardinals were going to win the game. I don't know why -- it just didn't seem to be in the tea leaves. This is around the time each year when I stop being a rationalist about baseball and turn into some kind of mystic. You need a great team to win a pennant, but you need a bit of magic too. As in, you need Kerry Robinson to hit home runs.

• This series was not a disaster for the Cubs. They're only a game and a half out of first, their frontline starters proved they're as lethal as any in baseball, and they still enjoy a fluffy schedule the rest of the way. But man, they looked depressed these last two nights.

• Cards ERA this series: 3.67. Take out that disastrous inning by Stephenson (cheating, I know), and it's 1.67. Begs the question: do the Cubs have enough lumber to win this thing?

Thank you, Senor Gagne.

• Four of our last five games could have gone to either team, and the Cardinals won all four of them. Is this karmic payback for our nail-biting one-run losses early in the season?

• Favorite tidbit of the game: Jason Simontacchi, in the Cards' rightfield bullpen, caught Robinson's game-winning homer in his cap.

• Who knows if Robinson's homer will end up making a difference in the pennant race this year, but tonight it feels like Roger Freed in '79, or Oquendo in '87, or Lawless in '87 -- the revenge of the pipsqueaks.

GAME NOTES, K-Robs 3 Cubs 2

• Games like this are why I've been so hopelessly in love with baseball and the Cardinals since I can remember remembering.

• Matty Mo has established himself as an excellent big game pitcher – his playoff performances are the best indication of that. The only thing that prevents him from going from A to A+ in these games, I think, are intermittent losses of focus. An example from tonight would be after he got thrown out at 1st on a close play to end the second, and you could almost see that he was still thinking about it (to be fair, he may have been thinking about his ankle, too, but he looked so pumped up while at the plate against Zambrano – he even muttered something like "Come on, come on" in Zambrano's direction during his at bat – that I think he was still pissed he couldn't leg out a hit). This caused him to throw a meatball that the light-hitting Bako scorched for a double, which led to their second run. (Although Bako happened to score on a ball shallow enough for Jedmonds to throw out a guy about 75% of the time).

• Randall Simon doesn't have much wingspan for a first baseman. Our fans in the first couple rows who allowed him to get Rolen's 5th-inning bases loaded popout should be banned from Busch for life. A case of our "nice" fans hurting us. For a fleeting moment, I fantasized about being a Yankee or Red Sox or Phillies fan, because the fans in their stadiums probably wouldn't let that crap happen.

• Brian Runge, tonight's home plate ump, was notably inconsistent calling balls and strikes. I had little idea what he was gonna call.

• Your average 3rd baseman probably fields Alou's 4th-inning grounder and throws his man out about 75% or 80% of the time, but Rolen does it nearly 100% of the time. Scotty's baseball's perfect competitor – as you watch him compete over the marathon course of a season, you realize his contributions are relentless and sometimes seismic (e.g. his 7th inning blast).

• We made Zambrano throw a lot more pitches tonight than the Cubs made Morris throw. (One exception would be Tino grounding out weakly on Zambrano's first pitch of the 6th, just when his count was edging toward the cliff. Tino's situational hitting is absolutely atrocious at times, especially for a guy cast as a veteran exemplar). It's gonna be awfully hard to beat the Cubs this year with their pitching, but their hitting may help us do it.

• Morris' pants were baggier tonight than I can remember them being any other night. Is it stylistic, or has he lost weight? Somebody's gotta get to the bottom of this.

• I don't think I'd ever seen Bo Hart argue before he did on his 5th inning called third strike. Speaking of Bo, he almost never makes an error (only 3 all year), but when he does he makes sure they're HUGE.

• Renteria was 5 for 7 lifetime against Zambrano going into the game, so I would have much rather seen him hit directly before or after Pujols.

• How 'bout pinch-hitting Orlando Palmeiro for Bo Hart with runners on 2nd and 3rd and 2 out down by 1 run in the 6th? You lose your best defensive second baseman, but you gain a significantly better opportunity to tie the game, go ahead, or continue the inning to bring up Phat Albert.

• Did Carlos Zambrano stare into our dugout as he walked back into his after Rolen cuckolded him in the 7th? There was definitely some machismo going on out there tonight. It's gonna be fun in Chicago.

• Jedmonds' catch and throw home to get Doug Glanville and end the 8th tied is the play of the year for us so far. While the strength and accuracy of his throw seals it as a top 2 or 3 SportsCenter Top 10 Play, the way he jumped up for it made it awfully hard for Glanville to time his jump off third base. I think this was totally intentional, and another example of Jedmonds' intelligence out there. Kenny Lofton only dreams of making that play. Jedmonds may be an all-star, but he's still underrated; only a handful of players in the game could argue that they contribute as much on both sides of the ball. He's truly, truly special.

• I wouldn't mind going the rest of my life without having to see another DeJean-Sosa match-up. It discomforts me.

• We've occasionally given Kerry Robinson a hard time on this site, but we all love him tonight. He had the clutch double to get us on the board in the 7th, and then made an excellent hustle play off the wall to hold Randall Simon to a single in the 8th. But winning the game on a Kerry Robinson home run? That's some ridiculous, beautiful magic.

According to NY Newsday, the Cardinals could be interested in Jesse Orosco, who was just released by the Yankees with a 10.38 ERA. There's a string of drool currently hanging from Tony La Russa's lower lip.

SECRET WEAPONS Check out this game between the High Desert Mavericks (Class A affiliate of the Brewers) and the Lancaster Jethawks (affiliate of the D'backs). The Mavs' Scott Candelaria AND Johnny Raburn played all nine positions in this game. As pitchers, Candelaria and Raburn combined for a scoreless ninth in a losing effort.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

THANK YOU, BABY JESUS For most of this game I kept thinking about Walter Johnson. You know, the Big Train, ace of the Washington Senators for 21 years. Johnson won twenty-six games in his career by the score of 1-0. Twenty-six! Johnson has more 1-0 wins than Kerry Wood has wins (of any sort) over the last two years combined.

Nonetheless, Kerry Wood looked like the Big Train tonight, and for 7 innings I was convinced we were being Walter Johnsoned up the ass. Wood had everything working -- his high heat, his hard curve, his dipping slider, his straight change. One hitter after another went down like lambs to the slaughter, making our prior game against Prior seem like a downright slugfest.

On the other side of the ledger, Woody Williams was pitching a tidy little game, good enough to win normally, but one particular play made me think we were doomed. It came in the sixth, 2-2 pitch to Redbird Nation arch-enemy Kenny Lofton. He broke his bat on a dying quail into shallow right field, just out of the reach of Bo Hart. Worse yet, rightfielder Kerry Robinson took a Magellan route to the ball, and by the time he scooped it off the grass, Lofton was motoring into second. One wild pitch and one Sammy Single later, it was 1-0, and that's when I started thinking about Walter Johnson, and the Cardinals season in general, and I wondered if maybe this wasn't our year after all.

There was a sea of red in the stands at Busch tonight, but they were actually empty seats in the third deck. Last night I posed the question: why are so few fans showing up for this Cubs series? And today we got a host of conjectures via e-mail: the hot, soupy St. Louis weather; return to school for the kids; last night's lopsided pitching matchup; the slumping economy. While those are real reasons, the real real reason might be more spiritual -- many Cardinals fans feel (and I can't tell you how many times I've heard this phrase this summer) it's just not our year. It's like some Bizarro year, with the Cardinals, at the start of the evening, looking up at the Cubs in the standings, and the Cubs mantra ("wait 'til next year") turned inside out ("next year is now"). Aren't the Cubs supposed to be taking lousy routes to those outfield squibbers? Aren't the broken bats supposed to go our way? Aren't we the Midwestern Yankees to those poor, suffering Chicago Cub Sox?

Well, I was starting to think our good voodoo had run out, until some of that pixie dust (you know, the same stuff that made the Cubs 5-24 at Busch Stadium since the start of the 2000 season) settled on the Cubs in the 8th inning. This time it was our club stringing the hits together, our guys getting the bit hit (thank you, Tino "the Gentleman" Martinez), and the other guys throwing wild pitches and watching their bullpen fold like origami cranes.

Was this a must-win game tonight? You should know by now: this is Cubs/Cardinals, and this is nearly September, and they're all must-win games from here on out.

And one last note: the front page of has a big picture of Kerry Wood with the headline WASTED GEM. Wood was phenomenal -- no runs on four hits and 11 strikeouts in 7 innings. However: great pitchers close out games, and at 125 pitches (4.3 pitches per batter), Wood wasn't in a position to do that. Instead he had to turn things over to the Cubs middling bullpen. A great game, no doubt, but Wood left the door open just a little, and the Cardinals battered through it.

PAGING THE BUTLER Chris Kahrl's take on the Cards' recent deals? Here it is:

"As always, you have to be impressed with Walt Jocketty's efforts to upgrade his team despite a dire shortage of farmhands worthy of eliciting much interest from other teams. So when he decided to fire off some of the few bullets he does have, he gets...Sterling Hitchcock? The worst free agent signing of the winter of 2001-02? A mop-up man with no track record for being healthy and effective in the last four years? Admittedly, the Cardinals have the worst pen of any contender, and the third-worst in all of baseball, ahead of only the Tigers and Padres, so adding random stuff makes sense.

"The problem is that's been the program all summer. Mike DeJean hasn't had a great year, but he's not a bad risk, and the Cardinals may not have had to give up that much to get him (although it's easy to point out, they don't have much to give). But that's assuming the Cardinals have a plan, which in Hitchcock's case, they don't. Will he relieve? Possibly, and with Matt Morris back, it makes sense, since they've got the veteran foursome of Morris, Woody Williams, Garrett Stephenson, and Brett Tomko, and rookie Dan Haren in the fifth slot doing just fine. Although the blush is off of Pope as he's struggled in the Florida State League, he was still one of the best chits Jocketty had to bargain with, rating the organization's fourth-best prospect according to Baseball America. Sterling Hitchcock?

"If anything, the previous deal for Esteban Yan indicates how much thought the Cards are putting into fixing their pen, as Yan washed out pretty thoroughly. Settling for getting people you've heard of is no way to staunch the bleeding, but it has allowed the Cards to cycle through a lot of junk without actually fixing their pen."

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

HIT HIM In game one of last season's NLCS against the Rednuls, SF Giant Kenneth Lofton cracked a homer and proceeded to trot around the bases slower than Seabiscuit with a busted leg. In Lofton's next at bat, Redbird pitcher Mike Crudale whizzed an inside pitch to Lofton, a pitch that wasn't even close to hitting him, even though Lofton later claimed it was thrown at his head (judge for yourself here). Still, Lofton went nuts, and the benches cleared. But the Cards wont he battle -- Lofton slid into a 2-for-18 slump.

The problem is, Lofton won the war. His two lonely hits won game five -- and the series -- for the Giants.

The worst insult came in the 9th inning of the final game of the Cardnuts' season, when Lofton drove in the series-winning run and proceeded to taunt the Cardinals bench as he ran to first. As Brian pointed out a few weeks ago, Lofton chose not to celebrate the victory with his teammates, nor to jump joyously at putting his team into the World Series, but chose instead to childishly thumb his nose at the losing team. Steve 'Stink Hat' Kline, who gave up the hit to Lofton, said after the game, “He is the only guy I didn’t want to beat me. I don’t like that guy.”

No Cardinal should like Lofton. No Cardinal fan should like him. Taunting a team that's just lost a chance to go to the World Series is the height of assholic showboating. Totally classless.

And, as Matt notes in his post below, it's high time Lofton pay for it.

Redbird Nation's research staff has calculated that Lofton has faced Cardinals pitchers 34 times since that taunt, and not once during any of those 34 at-bats has a Cardinal pitcher put Lofton on his anus.

RBN has installed a Payback-O-Meter (above left) to keep track of bean-less Lofton plate appearances against the Rednut. The humiliating total will continue to climb until justice is served.

So let this post be an anguished cry for vengeance. Let the Cardnut coaching and pitching staffs hear our tormented wails and act on them. To tomorrow's starter Woody Williams we shout out two simple American words: Hit him.

MORE GAME NOTES, Harry Careys 7 Karen Fosses 4

• Scott Rolen came into the game hitting .342 in the 2nd half. He's earning every penny of his fat contract.

• When is a Cardinals pitcher gonna throw a fastball at Kenny Lofton's head? I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet. I'm gonna throw a party in my pants when it does.

• In the 3rd with runners on 1st and 2nd and one out, Alou hit a fly ball to left field, and Pujols put his hands up in the air as if he didn't see it before Jedmonds ran over to catch it and gun a throw to third. Joe Buck and that Dumb Hungarian kept talking about Albert missing it, but I think it was a decoy. First, Albert had a strained bad actor look of "Oh, no, I can't find the ball" on his face. Second, despite the bad actor look, his eyes seemed fixed on the ball the whole time. And third, I've seen him act like he's gonna field the ball a couple different times now before Jedmonds races in for a catch and throw. It's a smart thing to do.

• I bet Garrett Stephenson is comparing himself to Cy Young right about now.

• After a little bit of a shaky start, Sterling Hitchcock was awesome.

• The Cubs' lineup sucks. But tonight ours had some serious run-production obstacles, too, other than just Mark Prior. Kerry Robinson has been playing the best since he's been a big leaguer, but he's still got a .295 OBP. Miguel Cairo has a .308 OBP. Bo Hart, barring his first couple weeks, has a .277 OBP. And Chris Widger – who would be our 4th best hitting PITCHER (I'm not kidding – Tomko, Woody, and Matty Mo all have better offensive numbers, and I seriously think Tomko and Woody might outhit Widger if they all played every day) – has an OBP of .200. Help.

• Tomorrow's a big game, and I feel good about Woody's chances of setting things straight.

GAME NOTES Cubbies 7, Cards 4

• Tonight's pitching matchup -- Stephenson vs. Prior -- had me pencilling in an "L" before the game even started. But I still sense renewed vigor around Busch Stadium. We landed a legitimate bullpen arm in DeJean; Jedmonds has his groove back; Morris looks healthy; Vina is getting there... it's gonna be an interesting couple weeks.

• Mark Prior must have the sturdiest legs of any player in baseball. As any pitching coach will tell you, power is generated primarily from the legs, not the arms. That's what made Nolan Ryan so effective: huge lower body strength. What's more, Prior's motion, which puts very little stress on the arms and shoulders, seems to make him virtually injury-proof. Contrast that with the gyroscopic upper-body contortions of, say, a Dwight Gooden and you can see that this sumbitch is gonna be around for a lo-o-o-ng time (that is, if Dusty doesn't drive his pitch count into the stratosphere, which he'll do if you let him).

• Only two teams in the NL have a winning record on the road: Atlanta and Chicago.

• A few Cardinals played musical chairs with their uniform numbers before the game. Mitchell Page switched from 12 to 43, Cairo switched from 41 to 12, and Sterling Hitchcock ditched his 40 and nabbed the 41 left for him by Cairo. Here's some number-swapping trivia: when Stan Musial first came up he wore number 19. Only later did he switch to #6.

• Randall Simon's HR, which came with 2 outs in the 3rd and turned a manageable 2-0 deficit into a 5-0 Prior-fest, was insulting enough, but doubly insulting because it landed about one foot away from the McGwire "62" memorial (which Big Mac hit, of course, against the Cubs).

• If there's one guy in baseball who's got a bigger fetish than La Russa for weak-hitting veterans, it's Dusty Baker. The Cubs are starting to collect 'em like they were Pokemon stickers -- Lofton, Womack, Glanville, Grudzielanek, Ramon Martinez, Eric Karros (in place of younger guys like Hee Seop Choi, David Kelton, and the departed Bobby Hill). Think they'll trade us a Pikachu and a Jigglypuff for a Cairo and a Widger?

• Stephenson's game was really no different than his last game, against the Pirates -- another homer-happy breakdown after making some nice pitches in the early going. My girlfriend was walking through the living room while the game was on TV, and she misheard Stephenson's pitch count as "Stephenson's bitch count." I'm starting to think we should keep a bitch count for G-Steve; he might even lead the majors.

Felix Heredia (2.96 ERA, .228 opposition BA) is due to make about $115,000 for the remainder of the year. And we didn't claim the guy off waivers from the Reds? (The Yankees did instead, after we passed on him.) That's astonishing.

• Shouldn't Sterling Hitchcock's nickname be "The Butler"? Not only does that suit his Anglo-sounding name, but it also fits his current role on the staff (cleaning up our starters' table scraps).

• The other day my cousin Mark called the 2003 NL Central the weakest division in the history of pro sports. I submit to you the 1994 AL West.

• Tonight was Prior's first-ever win against the Redbirds.

• Good sign: Pujols' jack into dead center, which came on a nice, easy swing. Bad sign: next at-bat, Edmonds clutching his tender right shoulder after swinging and missing. Good sign: Edmonds' homer in the 9th, making me think his sore shoulder is one part injury, two parts Jedmonsian melodrama.

• Tonight's attendance: 36,563. Thirteen thousand empty seats? For a Cubs game? With first place on the line? In late August? Can anyone explain this?

• I went to college in Massachusetts in the years when the Celtics couldn't buy a win. But that didn't stop the Bostonians from gloating, after every humiliating defeat, about all the championship banners hanging in Boston Garden. In the same way, we here at Redbird Nation would like to point out that the last time the Cubs won the World Series, Leo Tolstoy was still alive, and the zipper, the crossword puzzle, and the state of Arizona did not exist.

Monday, August 25, 2003

MATTY MOMENTUM From our friend Will Carroll:

The biggest question with the return of Matt Morris was, "Would his shoulder benefit from the enforced rest?" Early results are good: his velocity was consistently around 90 and as high as 93. We'll know more after a couple more starts, but the Cards just got a lot better with one roster move. If Morris can gain stamina and keep his stuff, there's no reason St. Louis can't stay in this race to the very last game. The series with the Cubs will be huge this week, but if you have any questions why the Cubs are favored, just look at the pitching matchups.

Another reason Cubs Nation feels good -- just look at their schedule. They play 8 more games against the Cardinals (and of course those games will be huge) but here are their other series opponents to close out the year: Brewers - Brewers - Expos - Reds - Mets - Pirates - Reds - Pirates. That's called a cakewalk, my friends, and it tells us two things:

(1) The Cubs' record, though nearly identical to ours, was compiled against better competition to date; and
(2) We can't just break even against the Cubs and expect to win the division. While we're playing 6 games against Houston, and 6 more against decent teams like Arizona and Colorado, the Cubbies are going toe-to-toe with some Bavarian cream puffs.

Also this from Will Carroll: Fernando Vina should be back with the Cards by Wednesday, but don't expect him to be traded for anything short of a solid starter.

Don't get me wrong, I like Bo Hart. As a person, anyway. He's like our own resident Baz Luhrmann (short, blonde, perpetually caffeinated). But take away his first couple weeks in the majors, and he's a .242/.277/.344 hitter. That's Royce Clayton/Geronimo Gil territory. It'll be nice to have little Frankie Vine back.

"I just want to win. When I play basketball with my kids in the driveway, I try to beat the shit out of them. That's what I am." -- Jeff Kent, Astros second baseman

Sunday, August 24, 2003

THE GAME OF THE YEAR That's what Mike Shannon called it, and I'm inclined to agree with him. It felt like a playoff game, with plenty of gut-churning moments that could have gone to either team. But the Cardinals stepped up when it counted, took the series from a tough Philadelphia team, and kept pace with the Astros. It's Christmas in August, so Redbird Nation would like to hand out stocking-stuffers to the following players:

To Scott Rolen -- for his reliability, his comfort, and his incredibly soft hands, we give him a beautiful friendship pillow. Scooter did everything today -- smacked a couple doubles, scored a couple runs, made 3 great stops in the field, including a huge diving play to end the 6th. Do the Phillies fans who booed him last weekend realize they were making an eloquent argument for why no one should want to play there? I would think the boos made Rolen the happiest man alive -- he must have thought, "thank God I got out of this shithole."

To Brett Tomko -- for the goose eggs he tossed at the Phillies lineup, we give him a decorative egg. Tomko's tough to figure out -- he's either great, exasperating, or flat-out terrible. Today he was like a chainsaw juggler, constantly getting himself into trouble, and somehow wriggling out of it. It's the second time this month he's pitched a gem against a good lineup, raising the question (for the umpteenth time this season): Can he do it twice in a row?

To Steve Kline -- for his heart-pounding duels with Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome in the 7th, we give him a cooking holster with hot sauce. Kline's mental-patient routine wears thin at times (like on Friday night), but coming in to retire the heart of the Phillies order with the bases juiced and one out was reminiscent of Sutter in '82.

To So Taguchi -- for his picture-perfect suicide squeeze in the 8th, we give him a copy of Lloyd Kaufman's boobfest Squeeze Play. We criticized the Big Club for calling up So Taguchi to replace J.D. Drew, but the early results are good: 5 for 10 this year, with a walk thrown in for good measure. Will it last? Who cares -- we're in first place.

To Chris Widger -- for his crucial sac fly in the 4th to give us the lead for good, we give him an Elton John Greatest Hits CD, featuring his hit single "Sacrifice." Okay, Widger's flyball wasn't much, but it was more than the Phillies managed in similar situations, and besides, Widge doesn't get many shout-outs from us and he called a nice game.

To the Cincinnati Reds -- for going on the road and taking 2 of 3 from the Astros this weekend, we give them a little TLC from back home.

And lastly, to Albert Pujols -- a get-well e-card. We'll need his bat against the Northsiders on Tuesday.

THE SIMPSONS CURSE Lee Sinins points out that Esteban Yan almost certainly holds the major league game for worst career by a player mentioned in The Simpsons. In an episode this past Spring, Milhouse identifies himself as "Esteban Yan of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays!" At the time, Yan had two straight years with a reasonable 4.11 ERA, but he imploded after the episode aired, beginning with a 7.36 ERA in April.

But he's not the only player to encounter The Simpsons Curse. Other ballplayers saw their careers nosedive after being referenced in a Simpsons episode: Jose Canseco, Mike Scioscia, Ozzie Smith, Don Mattingly, Steve Sax, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry, and (yes) Tomo Ohka.

RUNNING IN PLACE Here are the number of games the Cardinals have been out of first, by day, over the last two weeks:

1 - 1 - 0 - 1/2 - 1 - 1 - 1 - 1 - 1 - 1 - 1 - 0

At the end of today, we can either have sole possession of first place, or we can be in third.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

I have a friend who writes long and entirely unprintable verses beginning, "What are you, Wales, but a tired old bitch?" and, "Wales my country, Wales my sow." -- Dylan Thomas to Pamela Hansford Johnson

I know we can be pretty harsh on La Russa on this site, and we don't apologize for any of our criticisms, but goddamnit he pulled the right strings today. He let Morris work through his tender ankle, but didn't push him too hard (only 75 pitches). He threw Hitchcock and DeJean right into the mix, letting them feel part of the team. He wasn't afraid to pinch-hit for a struggling Tino Martinez in the 6th inning with ducks on the pond. And, best of all, he brought in Jason Hausenhausen to get the last 5 outs of the game (whereas he usually doesn't lift the velvet rope for Izzy until the 9th inning). Isringhausen struck out Tyler Houston on a 3-2 pitch with one out and the bases loaded in the 8th to help preserve the victory.

The one-inning closer is not a phenomenon found in nature. It is essentially the invention of Herman Franks, who, as manager of the Cubs in the late '70s, used Bruce Sutter strictly in save situations, strictly to get the last 3 outs of the game. (Okay, sometimes Franks used Sutter to get more than 3 outs, but that was the gist of the plan.) This made sense for Sutter, as he injured his elbow early in his career and suffered frequent shoulder pain. Izzy's sort of a fragile guy, too, but for the most part there's no reason your top pitcher can't throw two innings rather than one. I'm glad today TLR thought outside the box and put his closer in there when we needed him most.

THE TRADES I support 'em. There's no reason to get too excited about sub-standard twirlers like Hitchcock and DeJean. But consider the Cardinals' situation:

1. Not much minor-league talent to give.
2. Not much money to spend.
3. A great core to our team and a few severely dysfunctional pieces.
4. Close enough to first that even small improvements will help.
5. An aging team (Williams, Edmonds, etc.) with little infusion of young talent on the horizon.

All of these tell me that we can't throw in the towel and rebuild, but we also don't have a lot of latitude to make big improvements. Therefore, swap out your worst elements (Yan/Pearson/Borbon/etc.) for some guys who aren't total disasters.

I think DeJean fits the bill for sure. He doesn't have great numbers, and he's got even worse peripherals, but he can get you a strikeout, he's effective against righties (although terrible against lefties), and he should perform well with our defense behind him. We can't fully evaluate this deal until we find out who the PTBNL are, but I trust they won't be future All-Stars.

Hitchcock is a trickier case. He hasn't been good for some time now, and the price we paid was rather steep. Justin Pope is only 4-11 down in A ball, but he's still a first-round draft choice, and his last start (7 innings, 2 hits, no walks, 7 strikeouts) portends good things for the future. Ben Julianel had good relief numbers in the low minors, but beyond that I don't know much about him. But honestly, Pope and Julianel weren't going to help us this year, or any year where Edmonds/Pujols/Morris/Woody figure to be important parts of our team. Hitchcock isn't exactly my cup of tea, but I'll take him over Yan or Pearson, and I'll even take him over Fassero as a spot starter, mostly because Fassero has trouble pitching deeper than 4 or 5 innings.

Are these trades a big improvement? No. Are they a big enough improvement? In a division where one game either way could spell the difference between the postseason and October tee times, quite possibly.

In other rosters moves, Yan has been released, poor Jason Pearson was sent to the minors, and Jimmy Journell went on the DL with a sore shoulder (which mitigates my criticism of La Russa for not bringing him in last night). It's odd -- no matter how frustrated I am with a guy like Yan, I still can't help but feel sorry for someone who's been released. Can you imagine if you were 28 years old, as Yan is, and your primary career was essentially over? It's a sad business, baseball.

THOME'D TO DEATH You know how, just before the climax of some movies, one of the characters will summarize the entire plot so that anyone who missed or forgot anything will be brought up to speed? That's what last night's game was like. A tidy little summary of our whole season, with a few exclamation points in case any kids in the audience didn't understand the main conflict.

And of course, our biggest crisis of all is our pitching staff. It was a damn good game until the 8th inning. Haren pitched very well, Matheny chipped in with two crucial RBIs, and the Cardinals grabbed the lead, then lost it a couple times, but each time battled back to wrest it away from the Phillies.

The crucial inning, then, was the 8th. A slim 4-3 lead, Polanco-Abreu-Thome due up. As Jason Simontacchi trudged out to the mound to begin the frame, my first thought was, "you gotta bring in Isringhausen." I know Izzy is usually reserved for the 9th, but I also figured that if we got through that inning unscathed, the game, and a share of first place, would be ours. But then I realized La Russa's plan -- let the Simo Man deal with Peaceful Polanco, then bring in the lefty Kline to stare down Abreu/Thome. Both Abreu's and Thome's numbers are much weaker against lefties than righties -- plus Kline hadn't surrendered a HR to a lefty all year -- so the move was a good one.

As you all know, Abreu slapped an infield hit and Thome crushed a terrible 3-2 slider from Kline into the rightfield pen. (Jim Thome is, without a doubt, the scariest opponent the Cardinals have had in my lifetime. He's now 22-for-49 against us with 13 home runs. Jesus.) Up to then, however, the game was still winnable. We were within a run, we had two innings to score, and our big boys due up. Besides -- failure from Kline, homers from Thome -- you can shrug that stuff off; we're used to it.

What I'm not used to, however, is what happened next. First of all, Kline was still so upset about the gopher ball, yacking at himself, stomping around the hill, that he gave up a smoking double to Lieberthal on the very next pitch. It's one thing to lose a showdown with Jim Thome, quite another to lose your composure, and it was clear Kline was not mentally prepped to continue. But he still managed to retire the rookie Utley, leaving an urgent two-out situation, with a Phillies insurance run sitting on second base. La Russa yanked Kline and made a call to the bullpen...

I will never in all my days be able to explain Tony LaRussa's love affair with Esteban Yan. It's like watching a guy commit hari-kari. He doesn't just use Yan frequently; he frequently uses him in tight, important games, even though Yan has shown little to no ability to pitch effectively. Broadcasters and pitching coaches gush about Yan's "stuff" (a mid-90s heater, nasty slider and splitter), but the guy has no control whatsoever. My cousin Mark recommended a game he plays while watching the Cardinals games: see how close Yan can get to Matheny's mitt. Watch for yourself -- he's usually a good foot or so off the target. I have a game of my own: see if Yan can go one inning without throwing the ball 3 feet out of the strike zone. I'm serious. The guy has 9 wild pitches already, and in at least half his appearances he'll throw a ball either two feet in front of home plate, or straight to the backstop, or (as he did last night) behind the hitter (3 times!). It would be unfair to call Yan's location merely "off." It's freakishly, hilariously off, night in and night out.

But La Russa manages his bullpen the same way a chicken plays tic-tac-toe: he just pecks away at the same old buttons. TLR could have used Journell last night in the 8th (my pick), or Izzy (perfectly legit choice, even with a 5-4 deficit), or Eldred (again, fine). But Yan came in, gave up a two-run jack to Burrell, then fell apart in the ninth (nearly instigating a bench-clearing brawl because he couldn't stop throwing directly at Marlon Byrd), and that was the game. Frustrating.

Friday, August 22, 2003

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS So another reliever swaps uniforms, but he won't be wearing the Birds on the Bat. Reds righthander Scott Sullivan (and a little bit of cash) was traded to the White Sox for minor-league infielder Tim Hummel.

Sullivan is 6-0 this year with a 3.62 ERA. He's a workhorse with solid career numbers (his problems last year were due almost entirely to rotator cuff tendonitis), who's pitching more effectively than every member of the Cardinals bullpen besides Jason Isringhausen. Could the Cardinals have had him?

Moneywise, yes. According to the Cincinnati Post, the Reds sent the White Sox one-half of Sullivan's pro-rated salary for the rest of the year. Sullivan makes $2.8 million a year, or $622,000 for the final 36 games, which leaves the Sox on the line for $311,000. Cards owner Bill DeWitt recently declared his willingness to spend an extra $500,000 to bring a division flag to St. Louis, so clearly Sullivan was affordable.

Did the Cardinals make a go at Sullivan? No. It is not clear whether Sullivan cleared waivers (and was traded afterwards) or whether the White Sox put a claim on him during the waiver process. Either way, the Cardinals would have had first dibs, according to the waiver rules. If we had put a claim on Sullivan, we would have forced the Reds to either trade him to us, release him, or rescind the waiver and keep him for the rest of the year.

Which leads us to the Big Question. Do the Cardinals have comparable talent to close a deal with the Reds for Sullivan? Tim Hummel is a good prospect. The one-time heir to Ray Durham in Chicago, he's been playing a lot of third this year, and putting up some strong numbers in AAA: .284 at Charlotte this season, with 25 homers, 15 doubles, and 78 RBI. He's one of the fitter batsmen in the International League, and gives the Reds a decent future infield that includes Brandon Larson, Felipe Lopez, and/or possibly D'Angelo Jiminez.

The Cardinals don't have anything comparable to give the Reds. Bo Hart is a possibility, but he's 4 years older than Hummel, and not a likely candidate. Our best youngish player in AAA is first baseman John Gall, but the Reds have Sean Casey signed through 2005, so they have no need for him. The only other trade bait we have is starting pitcher Rhett Parrott, and the Reds, as everyone knows, need pitching. But Jocketty has been reluctant to move Parrott, especially for 6 weeks of Scott Sullivan (he's a free agent at the end of the year), which seems like a wise decision.

And if you think we simply could have put a claim on Sullivan and worked a deal to purchase him outright, think again. What's going on in Cincinnati is not a firesale. Acting Reds GM Brad Kullman and Leland Maddox have been eager to land young talent for their cast-offs, and so far they've done an excellent job (especially their pitching haul of Aaron Harang, Brandon Claussen, and Phillip Dumatrait). The Cardinals, unfortunately, have nothing that attractive to give.

So if you want to point fingers at Jocketty for not acquiring Sullivan, go ahead. But the mistake wasn't made yesterday, for I doubt we could have had Sullivan even if we'd claimed him. No, the mistake was made slowly but surely over the last few years, as our crops down on the farm have yielded precious little fruit.

DO THE HUSTLE A couple months back, we here at Redbird Nation debated whether Jim Edmonds was a lazy player, and much of the argument involved the uses and misuses of the word hustle. My point then was that you can't judge a player's work ethic by a few isolated moments captured on TV (a head-first slide into third base, a dive for a ball that goes just out of reach, a wide turn at first). In fact, a more meaningful notion of hustle would include the long, slow, painstaking work that goes on behind the scenes, in the batting cages, or in the dead of winter, when a player is pressed to stay fit and hone his skills.

Today's article in the Post will make you pause the next time you think of Jedmonds as Mr. Lazybones. It talks about his intensive sessions in the batting cage, his drive to finish the season with great (not merely good) numbers, his doubts about whether to tinker with his swing. It's the type of legwork that accrues, drop by drop over many weeks, and occasionally spills over into a single, wonderful moment, like Edmonds' walk-off blast into right field.

CURIOUS MOMENT OF THE GAME Bottom of the 4th, no outs, Cards winning 1-0, runners on first and second, Matheny at the plate. What do you do? If you're Tony La Russa, you call for a sacrifice bunt. Tony's been doing this kind of stuff (throwing away Matheny's at-bats) more and more lately, and it makes little sense to me.

First of all, I don't believe in nibbling for runs in the early innings, particularly with our bullpen. Second, you don't typically increase your scoring by bunting over two runners like that. With men on 1st and 2nd and no outs, a team can expect to score 1.63 runs. With runners on 2nd and 3rd and 1 out, your run-expectation diminishes to 1.50. That's not a huge difference, I know, but it's enough to critique TLR for throwing away an out.

Well, you might say, Matheny is such a puny hitter that it makes sense to play for one run there, try to pick up a little cushion for Woody Williams. And indeed, the chances of scoring one run increases ever so slightly between 1st/2nd no outs (.66 chance) and 2nd/3rd 1 out (.71 chance). But look who the next hitter was: the Woodman himself. Now, Woody's a good hitter for a pitcher, but he's still a pitcher. He has struck out in 20 of his 61 plate appearances this year, or about as often as Jose Hernandez wearing a thick pair of beer goggles. Naturally, Williams did strike out in the 4th inning last night and the Cards failed to score. A small example of the way that Tony La Russa gives away runs.

SPEAKING OF WOODY That 132 pitch count hurts. But I don't blame TLR much for this one; I blame our GM, who hasn't given us even passable arms in the bullpen to protect a slim lead in the late innings.

DID BONDS CLINCH MVP LAST NIGHT? That walk-off homer -- the second in three nights -- seemed almost superhuman, and adds a nice "human interest" element to his MVP resume. A few years back Bill James developed a formula that predicted the MVP with a fair amount of accuracy. I can't remember what it was, but I recall that it relied heavily on RBIs (which makes sense if you look at the two MVP awards sitting in Juan Gone's trophy case).

But one thing that was not part of the formula, and perhaps should have been, is number of dramatic, indelible moments. Did Tejada win AL MVP last year for his 30+ homers at shortstop, or did he win it when he hit that walk-off dong to extend the A's winning streak to 18 games? Did Caminiti win NL MVP for his 40 home runs in 1996, or when he required two liters of an IV solution and a Snickers bar helped him overcome dehydration, diarrhea, and nausea and hit two home runs for the second straight game in Monterrey, Mexico?

MVP Awards seem to be some combination of good stats, a good team, and memorable moments. Pujols has some memorable moments of his own -- his clout against John Smoltz, his 30-game hitting streak -- but Bonds is playing the cinematic angle (especially how he fled the ballpark last night to rush to the side of his dying father) just a little better right now.

HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? The Phils sweep the Cardinals and the Brewers turn around and sweep the Phils? Let's hope the hex hasn't worn off as the Phils move into Busch this evening...

Thursday, August 21, 2003

FRANK VINE UPDATE Will Carroll reports that "Fernando Vina has been working out at home (what's that mean -- his wife is hitting him grounders?) and should be in Triple-A Memphis by the weekend." The TV broadcast last night showed Vina in the dugout, and Hrabosky and McLaughlin couldn't say enough about what great shape he's in. You gotta figure that having Bo "Benzedrine" Hart nipping at your heels is pretty good workout motivation.

MATTY AND MUGGSY There's no link to it online, but do yourself a favor and read Frank Deford's article in this week's Sports Illustrated called "Giants Among Men," about the odd-couple friendship of pitcher Christy Mathewson and his skipper John McGraw. Deford is, I think, the most evocative sportswriter alive, and his piece here is both lively and inexpressibly sad -- the best baseball article I've read all year.

PUJOLS/BONDS REDUX Aaron Gleeman disembowels the Phil Rogers piece we quoted the other day. Much fun.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

AND THE WIFF Sunday was the 50 year anniversary of the Wiffle Ball. If this charming article doesn't take you back a few years, then I'm gonna have to report your ass to Joe McCarthy.

GAME NOTES, Steelers 14, Cardinals 0

• The parallels with last night's game were eerie -- another 10-run inning, another guy with a 5-rbi frame. The revenge had to be the Pirates' most enjoyable moment of the year. They whupped us so badly that I didn't even get mad about it. After all, the Buccos need to eat a little cake now and again too.

• The look on La Russa's face after Stephenson plunked Sanders in the 3rd inning was priceless. He looked mystified, disappointed, and totally pissed off all at the same time. If Joe Torre is your dream Dad (Papa Joe, with ice cream cones for everyone), then La Russa is your nightmare Dad, the dick who points out the error you made in Little League and shakes your hand as you leave for college.

• Part of the reason I tend to dislike Garrett Stephenson is that he pitches just like I would. He thinks he can blow his fastball past every #8 and #9 hitter in the league, he gets upset when someone gets a broken bat single against him, he nibbles against the heart of the order. Billy Beane said that Lenny Dykstra was a successful ballplayer, in part, because he had the gift of forgetting. If he made an out, he'd be looking ahead, thinking "I'll get 'em next time." G-Steve has not the gift of forgetting, but the curse of remembering every bad pitch he makes, and it kills him.

• Last night we pointed out how Bo Hart's on-base average is sinking like the Nikkei index. I've noticed that opposing pitchers are feeding him a steady diet of breaking balls, and Bo seems a little lost. Strikeouts are up; walks are down (his walk tonight was only his second this month). Not an encouraging sign...

• Most Team Homers Given Up, NL:

1. Milwaukee 174
2. ST. LOUIS 172
3. Cincinnati 166
4. Montreal 153

That becomes even more astounding when you consider that Miller Park increases home runs by about 21%, whereas Busch decreases them by about 3%.

• Jason Pearson couldn't have come into a better situation for his Cardinal debut -- at home, no lead to lose, facing the soft underbelly of a soft Pittsburgh lineup... And yet he got shelled, leaving the game after 2 outs, 3 walks, 4 hits, and a 63.00 ERA. I felt bad for the guy, which is why it was so disappointing when our fans booed him mercilessly for walking D'Amico, then gave him a Bronx cheer when Tony pulled him from the game. It used to be Cardinal fans would only boo a guy for playing like a lazy bum; now I guess they boo you if you're doing your damnedest to make a living and coming up short.

• The Pirates have come to the plate 633 times against Cardinal pitching this year, which is about one full season for a single player. How does that composite Pirate player do against our staff? 583 at bats, 175 hits, 38 doubles, 4 triples, 28 home runs, a .300 batting average, .355 on-base percentage, and .523 slugging percentage. Carlos Beltran this year is hitting .301, with a .522 SLG, so you could say that Cardinals pitchers have turned every player in the Pirates lineup into Carlos Beltran.

• Does Esteban Yan pitch every game for the Cardinals or does it just seem that way? Actually he only pitches in half our games (38 games with him, 38 games without him since we acquired him in May).

• Want an example of how blah our division is? The team with the best record in the NL Central since June 14th is the Pittsburgh Pirates.

• So Pujols' suspension didn't have any impact on us. He sat out two games, one that we won, the other that we would have lost even with Pujols, Bonds, Ruth, and Jesus Christ in our lineup.

DECIMATION, PART 2 This time, the Cardinals are the bitches. In the 3rd inning of tonight's game, the Rednuts are being dominated by one of the worst pitchers in the major leagues, Jeff D'Amico. Stephenson's focus is slipping, as evidenced by the homerun he hands over to D'Amico (reminiscent of the homer he gave up to Hideo Nomo, a loss of focus that briefly cost G. Steve his starting job). Steve then gives up a 2-run shot to Rob Mackowiak in the 4th. In the 5th, the wheels fall off:

Kendall homers
Giles homers
Stephenson taken out, replaced by Pearson
Sanders homers
Stairs lines out
Hernandez strikes out (he's playing the Matheny role this evening)
Mackowiak singles
Wilson walks
D'Amico (!) walks
Redman singles
Kendall singles
Giles walks
Pearson executed on the mound, Yan replaces him
Sanders hits a grand slam

10 runs, 7 hits, 3 walks, 1 dead, several seriously injured. And, remember, these are the Pirates doing this to us.

ESPN poses and answers this rhetorical question:

Does the value of Pujols' streak take a hit for his sitting out a few games? Absolutely.

I'm not sure I follow the logic here. Isn't it, in fact, harder to keep a streak going if you sit out a few days? And didn't Pujols get hits on both Friday and Saturday nights, when he was already suffering from the flu? Doesn't he get credit for that? Besides, if you wanted to keep a streak alive, would you really sit down against the likes of Amaury Telemaco, Brian Meadows, and Jeff D'Amico? Seems to me Pujols' decision to rest has more to do with coddling himself and ensuring he's healthy for the stretch run than it does with coddling a hitting streak.

It's true, DiMaggio didn't miss any games during his 56er back in '41. And yes, he did play through a cold. On games #15 and #16 of the streak, DiMaggio was battling a cold and still managed hits on both ends of a double header -- so let's give Joe credit for that -- but he also made an error in the first game and three more in the nightcap (which ain't easy for a centerfielder). Playing through a cold seems to make Joe's streak slightly more impressive, but his contributions to his team slightly less so.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

DECIMATION The Astros had already won, the Cardinals were headed to the bottom of the 8th down by 2, and their best hitter was at home wrapped in blankets. And then this happened:

Palmeiro singled.
Renteria singled.
Edmonds walked.
Rolen doubled.
Tino walked.
Perez walked.
Matheny struck out. (woops)
Taguchi singled.
Hart doubled.
Palmeiro walked.
Renteria doubled.
Edmonds struck out.
Rolen singled.
Tino flew out.

10 runs, 11 baserunners, 8 high-fives, 3 chest-bumps, 1 virginal Cardinal fan offered up for sacrifice. Before this inning, the Cardinals were 5 for their last 35 with runners in scoring position. In the inning, they were 5 for 7 with 4 walks.

Not to spoil the fun or anything, but this is Bo Hart's OBP by month:

June: .446
July: .317
August: .262

Maybe Vina won't be Wally Pipped out of a job after all.

IS TONY USING FASSERO PROPERLY? Fassero has been much better as a starter than a reliever, despite his shaky outing tonight. But here's a stat that intrigued me:

When Fassero works on 0 days rest (i.e., in back to back games), he's got a 1.46 ERA and a 12-4 K/BB ratio. There were 15 such games. But in the 30 games he's pitched with one or more days rest, he's got a 9.95 ERA with a 12-11 K/BB ratio. If Morris does come back this weekend, there may actually be a place for Fassero, as the Honeycuttian lefthander who pitches to a batter or two every day.

PUJOLS VS. BONDS The front page of throws some gasoline on this month's hottest debate: NL MVP, Pujols or Bonds? Unfortunately for Cards fans, the advocate for Pujols is none other than Phil Rogers, who may be the dumbest sportswriter in the nation. Aaron Gleeman makes a hobby of eviscerating Rogers on his weblog, so we should try not to embarrass the guy even further, but some of his statements deserve a comment or two.

First off, Rogers writes that he would have voted for Pujols over Bonds for MVP in 2001. Mind you, this was the year Bonds hit 73 home runs, had the highest slugging percentage of all time, the 7th-highest on-base average, and so on and so on. Pujols had one of the great rookie seasons in baseball history, but to claim that he was more valuable than Bonds that year is preposterous.

Rogers next claims that Bonds' "only major edge over Pujols is the Giants' standing as an almost-certain playoff team." Nevermind that this is a negligible qualification for an MVP (the voting instructions sent out to members of the BBWAA do not include playing for a playoff team as a legitimate criterion for the award). Does Rogers seriously think that Bonds' 81-point advantage in on-base percentage doesn't qualify as a "major edge"? To say otherwise is flat-out disingenous.

Rogers makes a few other idiotic statements, but it's no fun shooting fish in a barrel, and besides, I don't like arguing for Bonds any more than the next guy. Don't get me wrong -- I'd probably vote for Bonds, and I'm prepared to make my case for him at the end of the season. But it wouldn't bother me at all if Pujols won. The guy's had a great year, everyone is bored with Bonds, and sometimes the award should simply go to the guy having the most memorable season. That sounds silly, I know, but consider this: if the MVP were totally objective -- i.e., given to the guy who contributes more wins to his team than any other -- then Mickey Mantle should have won the award every year between 1954 and 1962. Stan Musial should have been the NL MVP something like six or seven times. Bonds himself probably should have won MVP in both '91 and '95 (rather than Terry Pendleton and Barry Larkin).

But do we really want the MVP Award to honor the same names year after year? There are plenty of compelling arguments for Pujols for MVP, but the most compelling one may be as simple as this: Mix it up. It's more fun that way.

WORD IS that J.D. Drew's strained oblique muscle will keep him out for about two more weeks. Great.

AN INTERESTING ARTICLE over at Baseball Prospectus compares Pujols to Joe DiMaggio (you need a premium subscription to read the thing, but I swear it's worth it). Nate Silver, who wrote the piece, estimates that Bert has a 1-in-142 chance (give or take) of tying DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, and a 1-in-14 chance of catching Pete Rose's NL mark. That 1-in-14 sounds kinda good, until you recall that those are about the same odds that Joe Girardi gets a base hit in any given at bat, which makes you think that Albert is doomed.

DANNY ALMONTE SR. Longtime Astros broadcaster Milo Hamilton apparently went on talk radio this morning ("The Score," 670 AM out of Chicago, according to an online chatter) and guessed that Albert Pujols is 28 or 29 years old, rather than his listed age of 23.

Of course, these rumors have swirled around Pujols ever since he broke into the bigs, and it's not a small issue. Doubts about his true age not only taint his achievements so far ("Only Eddie Mathews and Joe DiMaggio had more homers than Pujols by age 23" -- wink, wink -- "but we all know Pujols is closer to 30..."), they also play a big role in projecting him forward, which is a crucial variable come contract time. A 23 year old with 105 lifetime homers is a lot more valuable than a 28 year old with 105 lifetime homers. And a Pujols with his best years ahead of him is a lot more devastating than a Pujols who has already reached his peak.

In this CNNSI article, Pujols' high school and college coaches insist he never fibbed about his age. But they never present much evidence in the way of concrete documentation. Marty Kilgore, Pujols' coach at Maple Woods Community College, says, "All I know is I’ve seen all the green cards and birth certificates -- and his word is good enough for me." What does that mean? The positive spin is that Pujols' documentation checks out just fine on its own. The negative spin is that Kilgore was never that diligent about checking the documentation anyway, and that he just took Pujols' word for it.

But it's still a big odd. What would a 22-year-old aspiring ballplayer get out of entering high school in the U.S. as a 16-year-old? A post on the Cards Talk Forum by a guy with the handle Bokonon has an interesting hypothesis:

I'm keeping an open mind about his age, although I doubt sincerely that he's really 23. He's said in interviews that he made his rounds of tryout camps in the Dominican and was rejected by everybody. He couldn't have been doing that until he was 16, and yet he still moved to the U.S. at 16, if you believe his story.

At Fort Osage high school near K.C., he was rated one of the top 100 baseball players in high school by Baseball America. But then, for reasons he's never explained, to my knowledge, he left high school midway through his senior year, got his GED, and played for Maple Woods Community College, where he was viewed skeptically by every organization in baseball before the Cards took a flyer and drafted him in the 13th round of the June '99 draft.

So I ask: How many high school kids, on the verge of being drafted in the top 5 or 6 rounds, make a move like that to play against better competition and lower their draft status? The only way it makes sense if he's several years older than the kids he's playing against, is afraid people will figure it out, and takes off.

As it turns out, no one has found proof that he's 23 or that he's not 23. I'm in the camp that thinks it would be pretty easy for a Dominican kid to get into an American school system with questionable age documentation.

A number of Dominicans -- most notably, Angels pitcher Ramon Ortiz, but there are a host of others -- have fiddled with their birthdates in order to increase their odds of landing a big-league contract. But these discrepancies only came to light after 9/11/01, when officials demanded that foreigners entering the country provide better documentation regarding their true age and identity. You'd think that Pujols would fall under the net of Age-gate, but, as far as I know, he's never gone back to the Dominican Republic since joining the Cardinals (most of his family now lives in the U.S.), so he's never needed to verify his age in a manner that satisfies U.S. customs officials. All I can say is that the Cardinals organization would do well to send a few lackeys down to Albert's hometown of Santo Domingo and poke around a bit before signing him to $18 million + per year. Although, hell, I might pay that much for the guy even if he was 29.