Posted by: mdegeorge | September 4, 2010

Anatomy of a collapse

It was shaping up to be one of the most compelling divisional races in baseball, a burgeoning rivalry laced with violent animosity.

That was three and a half weeks ago. Since then, it seems only half of the NL Central equation has been willing to comply.

The St. Louis Cardinals were flying high on Aug. 11 after delivering a beat-down to the Reds (literally and figuratively) in the form of a three-game sweep in Cincinnati to put them atop the division by a full game.

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The Redbirds have plummeted back to earth with the grace of a rogue meteorite, only engulfed in more flames. It was a portion of their schedule in which they should have coasted, compounding their lead while the Reds embarked on a lengthy West Coast swing. The results bore little resemblance to that hope:

A dropped three-game set at home against the Cubs, failing to capitalize with the tying run in scoring position in the night inning of both defeats. A pair of 3-2 losses with the lowly Brewers in town. A series win against the Giants, the only winning team they faced during the debacle.

Then, the bottom really fell out. Two of three dropped to the abysmal Pirates. Three of four squandered to the newly Stephen Strasburg-less Nationals. Then a three-game sweep at the hands of the Astros.That’s a 5-13 record, including a disgraceful 2-8 road trip against teams holding a combined .408 winning percentage.

The Reds obliged the Cards’ apparent desire to high the golf course by the first weekend in October, going 14-4 over the same stretch, including a seven-game win streak and their current five-gamer. They picked up NINE games in the standings and along the way clinched their first division title in 15 years (yeah, that’s right, the Fat Lady has already sung, changed out of her stage attire, grabbed dinner at Sardi’s, a nightcap at the hotel bar, and settled into bed).

The utter annihilation of the Cardinals’ divisional aspirations needs little explanation (mainly because thinking about it makes me more than somewhat queasy), but here’s just what has gone so catastrophically wrong.

– First off, the Cards haven’t been beating the bottom-dwellers whose only purpose this time of year is to pad the win totals of contenders. They’ve now lost six (that’s right six) straight series to teams with losing records.

– It’s hard to blame the pitching staff for the recent slide. Their ERA over these 18 games has been a respectable 4.14, and they’ve only surrendered more than five runs in a game on four occasions. Of their 18 starts, 10 have been quality starts (however useless that stat may be), and only three outings have been bad starts in which the pitcher didn’t give them a reasonable shot to win.

– Well then it must be the offense. And it’s only logical to assume an offensive swoon begins at the top with Albert Pujols. But not so, as The Machine has hit .333 over this span, including seven home runs and 11 RBIs. The only downside: six of his seven dingers have been solo shots.

– That brings us to the rest of the misfiring Cardinals’ order. Take your pick out of this sorry bunch. Matt Holliday’s hit .267, though he has managed 12 RBIs. The newly acquired Pedro Feliz started his tenure in St. Louis with an eight-game hitting streak, but has managed only a .245 average with the team. John Jay, who was hitting over .360 through the first three months of his season, has seen his average plummet over 30 points thanks to a .235 spell. Allen Craig, seeing more and more time in the outfield with the injuries and struggles of Colby Rasmus, is .176. Brendan Ryan, never to be confused with Ty Cobb even at his best, is hitting .204, while Felipe Lopez and his .133 average and two-hits-per-week pace now finds himself on the bench. Yadier Molina (.327) and Skip Schumaker (.302) haven’t seen the bottom fall out, but there’s no one for them to drive in.

– Not only aren’t they hitting, but they’re also not getting on base. The Cards have been wildly impatient, striking out 110 times over the last 18 games while earning just 56 bases on balls.

– Finally, as difficult as it is to conceive, the Cards’ bats have gone even more frigid with runners in scoring position. They’ve managed a paltry .256 with ducks on the pond, but if you exclude their two blowout wins during this streak, the average free falls to .219. They’ve also averaged leaving almost 8 runners on base per game.

Certainly some of the blame for this recent offensive anemia must be put on the decision to offload Ryan Ludwick in the Jake Westbrook trade (though Westbrook has pitched well and anyone witnessing the exploits of Jeff Suppan and Kyle Lohse lately are grateful for his presence). And some might place in on the Glenn Beck crazy curse.

Whatever the reason, the Cards have a preciously narrow window to climb back into contention, which must start with a three-game sweep of the Reds this weekend.

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Responses

  1. I had the Cards winning their division. They’re making me look bad.


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