Jason Isringhausen isn’t a sabermetrician, a mathematician, or an oddsmaker. Instead, Isringhausen is still the Cardinals closer, a job he has held with distinction since 2002, racking up 194 saves in six seasons for the team he grew up rooting for in Brighton, Illinois.
However, Isringhausen can state one fundamental fact about his team’s chances of repeating as World Series champions. “We’re still mathematically alive,” Isringhausen said. “Until you’re eliminated, you always have a chance. And if you have a chance, then there is always the possibility of something good happening.”
The Cardinals were proof of that last October. They barely held on to win the National League Central with an 83-79 record after having a seven-game lead whittled to a half-game in a 10-day span in late September. Then, they made an abrupt turnaround in the postseason, as they knocked off the Padres, the Mets, and then the Tigers to win their first world title since 1982. “We showed that all it takes is to get into the postseason,” Isringhausen said. “Once you’re in, you have as much of a chance as any other team.”
As former Cardinals ace pitcher Joaquin Andujar liked to say a quarter of a century ago, “youneverknow,” and that is the attitude his old team is taking as it tries to hang around in the NL Central race this season. The Cardinals find themselves with a 50-57 record, but still have at least a puncher’s chance at the division title because they are eight games behind first-place Milwaukee. This despite a season that has been a struggle ever since spring training, going back to when manager Tony La Russa created the first of many distractions by being arrested for driving under the influence. The Cardinals were swept at a home in a three-game series by the Mets to start the season, and have spent only one day over .500 (on April 11). The Cardinals have been as many as nine games under .500 when they dropped to 20-29 on May 29, and as far back as 10 ½ games back (June 30). Yet, they remain on the fringe of contention. “It all stems from the man in the manager’s office,” Isringhausen said, referring to La Russa. “Tony never allows us to let up. He insists that we play hard every day, every inning and every out. When you have that kind of attitude, you never feel like you’re out of it. As up and down as we’ve been all year, we’re not ready to give up on this season.”
La Russa seems to have become re-energized as the season has gone on. His DUI arrest coupled with reliever Josh Hancock‘s death April 29 in an automobile accident in which it was determined the right-hander was driving drunk led many to believe La Russa would resign at the end of the season when his contract expires. However, the thinking around the Cardinals organization is that La Russa will return in 2008 for a 13th season in St. Louis.
Perhaps La Russa showed he still has the fire Saturday night when he dusted off one of his old managerial tricks in a 12-1 loss against the Nationals in Washington, by having starting pitcher Joel Pineiro bat eighth in his National League debut. La Russa believes having a position player hitting ninth makes the batting order like one in the American League, with two leadoff-hitting types. You can understand his incentive to try something-the Cardinals’ offense is struggling, scoring just 4.4 run per game to rank 11th in the NL. The load is being carried by first baseman Albert Pujols (45.8 VORP), with some help from left fielder Chris Duncan (26.5).
The pitching certainly could use a big upgrade as St. Louis is allowing 5.4 runs per game. The Cardinals got Pineiro from Boston this past Tuesday at the trading deadline, hoping that by moving him back to starting, they might rejuvenate his stalled career. General Manager Walt Jocketty also thought he had a deadline deal in place to bring Matt Morris back from San Francisco, but perennial doormat Pittsburgh pulled a stunner by acquiring the right-hander when they agreed to pick up the remaining $13.7 million on his three-year, $27 million contract that runs out after next season. However, the Cardinals are still hopeful of acquiring a starter in a waiver deal at some point this month. Converted relievers Adam Wainwright (3.0) and Braden Looper (2.0) are the only two members of the rotation to rank in the top 60 in the NL in SNLVAR. Thus, the outstanding bullpen duo of Isringhausen (3.304 WXRL) and set-up man Ryan Franklin (2.915) haven’t had many leads to hold.
While the Cardinals’ chances of getting back to the postseason would improve with pitching help, La Russa’s first objective is just to reach .500. “Games back depends a lot on what the club ahead of you is doing,” La Russa said. “Us compared to .500 is totally our call. I want us to be a winning club. We have to get to where we’re at plus-one and then go. Until we get there, I don’t even pay attention to the rest of it.”
While the Cardinals are seven games away from getting to .500, La Russa isn’t giving up. “I have great admiration for this club, because it would have been very easy a whole bunch of times to say this is not our year,” La Russa said. “We could have just disappeared, and we kept cranking out the wins just to get one win in the series. If that’s in place and we start doing the baseball things better, character-wise we’re in great shape and we can have some fun.”
The clubhouse went into a bit of an uproar in response, since the Twins were six games out in the AL Central race and 5 ½ behind in the wild-card chase at the time. “It’s not just about hope,” Twins ace left-hander Johan Santana told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “In a realistic world, you have to really make it happen and go for it. You always talk about future, future. But if you only worry about the future, then I guess a lot of us won’t be part of it. Why waste time when you’re talking about something that’s always going to be like that? It’s never going to be beyond this point. It doesn’t make any sense for me to be here, you know?”
Santana and closer Joe Nathan are eligible for free agency after the 2008 season, while center fielder Torii Hunter can walk after this season. Santana sounded like a man ready to bolt. “I’ve been here for eight years, and I’ve seen a lot of those kinds of things,” Santana said. “I’ve seen a lot of those guys (like Castillo) come in and leave. (The decision-makers) don’t care. They always talk about caring about it. I don’t think they care. Because if you’re always talking about having young players-that’s the philosophy the team has, and I respect all that-but it’s been proven that it’s not enough to go all the way to the World Series.”
The Twins have only gotten as far as the American League Championship Series once during their recent postseason runs, losing to the Anaheim Angels in 2002. They haven’t been to the World Series since 1991. “We’ve been close,” Santana said. “And in all those times, we seem to be a couple players away from winning it all. So I respect all the decisions they make, but I won’t say that they’re right all the time. They protect their young players. They protect their organization, their roots, everything. But I guess I won’t be a part of it. A lot of guys don’t feel like they can be part of it, and they have to move on.”
Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said he was only being realistic by not adding help at the deadline. “We’ve got some problems,” he said. “Detroit and Cleveland are awful good, and then if you look at the other things that are going on in our league, we’ve got an awful lot of work to do.”
From a performance standpoint, the timing of Bell’s decision seems odd. The Royals are 37-35 since May 12, and had winning months in June and July, the first time they had been over .500 in a month since July, 2003. “It’s been a hard decision and I wanted to wait until things were better,” Bell said. “They’re still not as good as they’re going to be, but I wanted to wait until things were progressing the way I think they should and then see how I felt. And I still feel that way.”
While Colletti’s reluctance to deal may hurt the Dodgers in the short term, he believes they will be stronger in the long term and positioned to be perennial contenders. “I think our young players are starting to become more established here and becoming, in some ways, equal to our veterans,” Colletti told the Los Angeles Daily News. “Would I trade one of our young players? In a heartbeat. But it has to be the right deal for the organization, and it has to stand the test of time and not be an eight-week thing.”
From the rumor mill: Detroit would like to add a veteran utility infielder now that Neifi Perez is done for the season after a second suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s amphetamines policy. The Tigers nearly acquired shortstop Jack Wilson from Pittsburgh at the trading deadline, and have also asked about Houston’s Eric Bruntlett. If the Tigers eventually land Wilson, they would make him the starting shortstop next season, and subsequently move Carlos Guillen to first base. … The Chicago White Sox failed to move right-hander Jose Contreras at the deadline, but will look to trade one of their starting pitchers before next season begins as Contreras ($10 million), left-hander Mark Buerhle ($14 million) and right-handers Jon Garland ($12 million) and Javier Vazquez ($11.5 million) are scheduled to make a combined $47.5 million in 2008. … The White Sox will also be trying to sign right fielder Jermaine Dye to a contract extension after not trading him. The have instead decided that outfielder Scott Podsednik does not fit into their long-term plans, and will likely deal him before the August 31 deadline for setting postseason rosters. … Baltimore could be active in the trade market this month, as right-hander Steve Trachsel, first baseman Kevin Millar, and outfielders Corey Patterson and Jay Payton figure to clear waivers. … Atlanta reluctantly designated 48-year-old first baseman Julio Franco for assignment this past week after acquiring first baseman Mark Teixeira from Texas in a trade. The Braves are hopeful Franco will stay in the organization, as they would like to bring him back on September 1, when the roster limit expands from 25 to 40.