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Welcome back to Prospectus Game of the Week. This week, we’re back in the NL Central, with the top team in the division, the St. Louis Cardinals, facing the bottom team, both in the division and in the league, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cards are looking at the tail end of a great run where they’ve reached the postseason five times in six years. The core of that ballclub, which started out as Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and J.D. Drew, eventually evolved into Albert Pujols, Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and Larry Walker. After this season, Pujols and Rolen might be the only ones left of that nucleus. Edmonds, who is currently dealing with post-concussive syndrome, is 35 years old and a free agent at the end of the season. The team’s #2 starter, Mark Mulder, has been injured and was shut down for the season earlier this week. The Cardinals’ shortstop, David Eckstein, is also injured. As of last week, the only St. Louis starter with an above-average RA+ was ace Chris Carpenter.

That’s what makes today’s game so important for the Cards. Knowing that they will be without Mulder, and holding no illusions about their remaining starters, it is vital to the team that rookie Anthony Reyes step up and claim Mulder’s place in the rotation. Reyes was sent down in mid-August, because after a fine start to the season (1-2, 2.16 ERA in his first four starts), he’d gotten roughed up a bit in July (1-3, 6.84 ERA) and August (2-1, 5.40 ERA). But in two Triple-A starts after being sent down, Reyes didn’t allow a single run; meanwhile, Mulder’s physical problems and general ineffectiveness (his -15.1 VORP is the lowest pitcher VORP in the NL this season) meant that there was an opening in the rotation. Reyes has a month in which to prove he can provide the kind of pitching the rotation needs.

The Pirates clinched their 13th consecutive losing season earlier in the week. The team hasn’t finished within shouting distance of .500 since 1999, and ownership has helpfully announced that they’re not adding payroll for next season. To be perfectly fair, last offseason’s spending spree didn’t make an impact on the team’s won-loss record–no surprise here–and with most of that money coming off the books, the Pirates might still have enough on hand to add some talent over the winter.

Like the Cardinals, the Pirates’ disappointments are focused on their starting rotation. The Bucs came into the season with three highly-heralded young lefthanders in the rotation–2004 ace Oliver Perez was coming off a bad, injury-plagued season; Zach Duke, who came in fifth in last year’s Rookie of the Year voting, was 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA; and Paul Maholm made the jump from Double-A to the majors last season, finishing 2005 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA. Perez quickly pitched his way into new manager Jim Tracy’s doghouse, and never managed to pitch himself out, going from comparisons to an in-his-prime Randy Johnson in 2004 to demoted to the minors in 2006. Perez, once a shining light of the franchise, was dealt to the Mets-along with a reliever-for Xavier Nady. Duke and Maholm have endured sophomore slumps, both maintaining ERAs near five. Power lefty Tom Gorzelanny, who was brought up in late June, had to be shut down with elbow tendonitis, and onetime ace righthander Kip Wells was unable to come back after surgery for a blood clot in his shoulder. He was eventually dealt to the Texas Rangers, where he once again made his way onto the disabled list.

Righthander Ian Snell has been the default ace of the pitching staff, with a perfectly league-average 1.00 RA+, and a 12-8 record. Let’s take a look at the lineups Snell and Reyes will be facing today:

Pirates                                Cardinals
                      BA/OBP/SLG                               BA/OBP/SLG
Chris Duffy, CF     .210/.270/.271     Aaron Miles, SS       .275/.340/.358
Jose Bautista, 3B   .252/.347/.439     Chris Duncan, LF      .323/.388/.621
Freddy Sanchez, SS  .344/.380/.482     Albert Pujols, 1B     .317/.420/.655
Xavier Nady, RF     .286/.348/.472     Scott Rolen, 3B       .313/.386/.543
Jason Bay, LF       .286/.395/.531     Juan Encarnacion, CF  .290/.320/.458
Ronny Paulino, C    .316/.368/.401     Preston Wilson, RF    .266/.309/.418
Ryan Doumit, 1B     .188/.272/.325     Ronnie Belliard, 2B   .284/.335/.398
Jose Castillo, 2B   .275/.322/.419     Yadier Molina, C      .212/.264/.322
Ian Snell, P        .068/.091/.109     Anthony Reyes, P      .167/.167/.167

The dropoff between the top four spots in the St. Louis batting order, and the five through eight batters, is pretty stark. Aaron Miles isn’t just standing in for Eckstein, he seems to be channeling the diminutive shortstop–he’s performing around his 90th percentile PECOTA projection. Chris Duncan‘s performance doesn’t begin to be described by PECOTA–every scouting report says he has “a bit of power,” but none contemplate anything approaching a .298 isolated power, or 15 homers in 219 plate appearances. On the other side of the potential Hall of Famers, you have two players hoping to emulate the second half of Reggie Sanders‘s career, and the none-too-potent bats of Ronnie Belliard and Yadier Molina.

Meanwhile, for the Pirates, Chris Duffy has returned from exile, but is not necessarily new and improved. At the time Duffy was demoted and went AWOL, he was batting .194/.255/.276, in regular playing time since he was recalled, Duffy’s a .217/.275/.258 batter. After Duffy, you go through a string of pretty decent bats before reaching Ryan Doumit, another struggling prospect, whose season has been interrupted by a pair of stints on the disabled list. Nonetheless, the Pirates hang near the bottom of the league on offense, aided largely by a league-low .404 team slugging percentage.

I know, enough setup, let’s get to the game:

Anthony Reyes has a four-seam fastball in the low 90s, a straight change, and a tight curve. He’s got a classic pitcher’s build, and a high leg kick combined with his low three-quarters delivery. Chris Duffy, leading off the game, goes 2-2 against Reyes before swinging hopelessly over a changeup, dipping out of the zone. Reyes then gets ahead of Jose Bautista 0-2, climbing the ladder to put the third baseman away with high heat. Then up comes the NL batting leader, Freddy Sanchez. Reyes falls behind Sanchez 2-0, but works his way back even before putting Sanchez away on a fastball trailing out of the strike zone at the knees. Three up, three down, all strikeouts: a nice way to re-introduce yourself to the fans at Busch Stadium.

Snell has a much slighter build than Reyes, and a much more compact delivery. His knee comes straight up to just above belt level, and he seems to simply drop the leg straight down as he delivers. Snell has a fastball that he dials up to about 94 MPH, a hard curveball, and a slider. Leading off the bottom of the first, Aaron Miles tops a 2-2 pitch to Doumit, unassisted. Chris Duncan, who’s the son of the Cardinals’ pitching coach, is up next. Duncan is 6’5″, with a frame that’s reminiscent of a young Mark McGwire. He works the count full against Snell, before waving at the curveball, low and away, a strikeout victim. Albert Pujols takes that same pitch for a ball, then absolutely crushes Snell’s fastball, a no-doubt homer to left. Just like that it’s 1-0, Cardinals.

Each pitcher allows a hit in the second, but all is quiet until the bottom of the third inning. After Snell records his sixth strikeout, whiffing Miles to lead off the inning, Duncan singles on a line drive to right. This brings up Albert Pujols, who lines a first pitch fastball, low and inside, over the fence in left. In the slow-motion replay of his second homer, you can see how well Pujols keeps his hands back and how beautifully compact that power swing is. Reyes is now staked to a 3-0 lead.

In the top of the fourth, with one out, Freddy Sanchez doubles for the 46th time this season, an opposite field gapper. Sanchez is leading the league in hitting, which is quite a feat, for a player who wasn’t considered a viable starter at third base coming into the season, possibly even by himself. So, how is this happening? Looking at Sanchez’s performance record, he has played about as many games this year as he did last season, with 30 more at bats, 34 more hits, and 19 more doubles than he had last season. It sounds strange to say, since Sanchez has gone from useful spare part to possible batting champion, but the changes in his performance don’t seem all that profound. There hasn’t been a huge improvement in Sanchez’s walk or strikeout rates-indeed, both have dipped slightly. Sanchez’s career isolated power coming into this season was .095, following a career ISO of .121 in the minors. While his current ISO of .138 is an improvement, it’s not entirely out of the range of what you could expect from Sanchez coming into the season. All of this is to say that while Pirates’ fans should enjoy a fine performance this season, everyone should probably wait to see if he can do it again before anointing Sanchez the second coming of Tony Gwynn, or even Carney Lansford.

Reyes pitches out of the jam in the fourth. There’s something bothersome about Reyes’s mechanics–there’s a lot of lateral movement in his delivery, and his elbow is consistently dipping below shoulder level–usually a warning light that the pitcher is putting strain on his arm. According to Will Carroll, all of this is actually by design, stuff they worked on with Reyes in the minors to increase the deceptiveness of his delivery. Can’t argue with the results so far, since he’s throwing zeroes at Pittsburgh, but you have to wonder if this is in the long-term interest of a pitcher who’s no stranger to health problems.

In the fifth, with two outs and a man on second, Reyes gets a little help from his defense. Ian Snell grounds a 2-2 pitch down the left field line. The ball hits third base, hanging portentously in the air in front of Scott Rolen. Rolen makes the split-second decision not to try for the out at first, and instead catches the ball and dives forward in time to tag a sliding Ryan Doumit, the baserunner trying to advance to third base. It’s a beautiful play that illustrates why Rolen is probably the finest defensive third baseman of his era.

In the bottom of the fifth, Duncan hits a grounder to second, which eats up Jose Castillo. That’s scored a single, and it brings up Albert Pujols. After two homers on the fastball, Snell comes at Pujols with his slider and curve this time. You have to give Snell credit for going after Pujols despite the two monster jacks the big first baseman has already tagged against him. Just when it seems like this approach might work, Snell’s 2-2 curve stays up a little bit, and that’s all Pujols needs. This ball goes over the fence in left-center, and it’s now 5-0, St. Louis. Snell finishes the inning, but his day is over after 92 pitches.

In the seventh, Reyes allows a hard grounder to short, fielded by Miles, a really hard grounder to second, which Belliard can’t field for a single, and a 3-2 walk to Ronny Paulino on a very marginal call. At 99 pitches, Tony LaRussa sends Reyes to the showers, with nine strikeouts for the day. Adam Wainwright, the top pitcher in the St. Louis pen, bails Reyes out of the two-on, one out jam.

In the bottom of the seventh, Pujols has a shot at the record books. He comes up with one out and the bases empty against righthander Brian Rogers. Rogers throws a first pitch fastball, low and off the plate, Pujols goes for it, strike one. Perhaps realizing that he was a little eager on the first offering, Pujols takes a second fastball low and in for a ball. A third knee-high fastball, this time near the middle of the plate, gets a ride from Pujols, but Bay catches it on the warning track.

The big question in most fans’ minds is, will Pujols get another chance to hit a fourth homer? In the bottom of the eighth, against Pittsburgh’s Jonah Bayliss, they threaten to extend the inning all the way back to Prince Albert, netting another run on a rally which ends with leadoff man Aaron Miles, two batters away from giving Pujols another opportunity.

In the ninth, it seems that perhaps the Cardinals are still determined to give Pujols another shot at homer number four. Josh Hancock promptly allows two hits and a walk, getting the Bucs on the scoreboard and giving way to Jason Isringhausen after only a third of an inning. Isringhausen, apparently, is no longer bound by Tony LaRussa’s pledge only to use him in “classic” save situations-a gimmick designed by the manager after Izzy performed badly in a couple of tie games back in April. So far this season, Isringhausen has alternated bad months (5.23 ERA, 9 HR allowed in April, June, and August) with good months (0.79 ERA, 1 HR in May and July). Someone needs to tell Isringhausen it’s an odd-numbered month, because he surrenders a double to Ryan Doumit, scoring his remaining inherited runners. However, with the score 6-3 Cardinals, the excitement ends, as Castillo and pinch-hitter Joe Randa ground out to end the game.

That’s all for this week. Tune in next week when the scheduled matchup is Roy Halladay against Jered Weaver, Blue Jays at Los Angeles of Anaheim. As always, suggestions regarding players and teams you’d like to see are greatly appreciated, so feel free to email me at the link below.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek’s other articles.

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