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September 27, 2006

Prospectus Today

One Game Closer

by Joe Sheehan

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Thanks for the messages of sympathy and the advice on how to back up my data in case of future problems. (And, um, hi to the Mac folks out there. Y'all have a phone tree or something?) However, I was able to restore my laptop to its former state, and I figure as long as I never turn it off again, I'll be fine. Today's column is stale before it hits the Web, but hopefully it'll have some value.

If only Tony La Russa could solve his problems so easily. Here are two sentences that say everything:

  • The St. Louis Cardinals have been tired or ahead in the seventh inning of their last seven games.

  • The St. Louis Cardinals have lost their last seven games.
Ouch. I'm not one for associating sports success of failure with the general character of the players, and I won't start now. However, if any situation may call for the "c" word, I think we're looking at it. The Cardinals had a seven-game lead with 12 games to play. They now have a 1 -game lead with six to play. It's hard to lose 5 games off of a gap at any point in the season; doing it in the season's dying days is just a nightmare. I'm perhaps the most dogmatic analyst you'll find about the value of the "informed outsider" perspective, and I concede that the Cardinals' chance to win the NL Central-81.5% in today's Postseason Odds Report--has as much to do with things only insiders can know as any analysis I can make about their play.

As I pointed out yesterday, the Cards' bullpen let the team down in Houston, with an assortment of pitchers unable to get key outs, from Adam Wainwright and Randy Flores in the seventh to Tyler Johnson and Braden Looper in the ninth. La Russa has a matchup bullpen, but he lacks anyone who can come in and throw two innings and get strikeouts against all hitters. Wainwright, who was that guy in the first half, has struggled in the second, and La Russa needs that pitcher right now.

The bullpen's struggles affected La Russa last night, when he asked for a bit too much out of Chris Carpenter for a second straight start. Last Thursday in Houston, La Russa let Carpenter face Lance Berkman with two outs and the tying run on. Berkman, for his entire career, has had significantly more power from the left side than the right, and turning him around in any game-changing situation is standard practice. Carpenter wasn't notably tired or at a high pitch count, but he himself as a fairly large lefty/righty split. If La Russa trusted his bullpen, he would have made a change then. Berkman hit a two-run homer to win the game and set the tone for that series.

Fast-forward to last night, when in the seventh inning, the Padres cut a 5-2 lead to 5-4 on a Josh Bard double. At that point, Carpenter had allowed seven of the last 11 batters to reach, including the last four, on five hits and two walks, and he'd been pitching out of the stretch for nearly two innings straight. Again, had La Russa sufficient faith in his bullpen, I believe he would have pulled Carpenter. He didn't, and the righty eventually allowed a double to Mike Cameron that gave the Padres the lead, one they would not relinquish.

I don't mean to criticize La Russa. I think the decision to ride Carpenter in the ace's last two starts illustrates the position the manager has been placed in. La Russa likes to go to the bullpen, likes to work matchups late in games. That he hasn't done so in situations that warranted it shows that he has a lack of confidence in his options. He eventually went to Wainwright in the eighth, and he allowed an insurance run on three hits.

It's not helping that the Astros keep winning. The team that couldn't score for months at a time put up a seven-spot on the Pirates for their sixth straight win. Tonight is a critical game for them, as they send Jason Hirsh to the mound in a tough park against a team that has played very well at home in the second half. As big a story as this comeback has been, the Astros have very little margin for error; even one loss could make their task impossible.

Heck, the Cardinals have managed to put the Reds back in the race. With their road win in Miami last night, they're just 2 out with five to play. Their chance is even smaller than the Astros', in no small part because they're missing about 75% of their Opening Day lineup, some of that their own doing. Still, it's notable to be that close to a playoff spot with so few days left to go, and as long as the gap keeps closing, they have to given their due. If the Red Sox can be on national TV twice in three days while being eight games removed from a playoff spot, I think the Reds deserve a little attention.

The Dodgers moved back into the playoffs last night, beating up Jason Jennings while the Phillies dropped a game to the Nationals, in part because a Chase Utley home run was ruled foul. The two are now tied, and the possibility of a one-game playoff looms large. Last night's starters--Greg Maddux and Brett Myers--would be the most likely ones in a 163rd game, making for an intriguing matchup between Hall of Famer and young starter, finesse vs. power.

I haven't written nearly enough about the Phillies, who have gone from playing out the string to the brink of the playoffs. I'll correct that Thursday.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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