Friday, October 21, 2011

Cards Miss Chance to Take Series Lead; Head to Texas Tied 1-1 with Rangers

Few figured the St. Louis Cardinals would ever make it to the 2011 World Series. But now that they’re here, it’s hard to resist admiring their tenacious spirit. Alas, they squandered a chance to take a 2-0 Series lead last night, losing a 2-1 squeaker in which their closer du jour, Jason Motte, proved unable to do what he’d done the previous evening: pitch a scoreless ninth inning and keep the enemy at bay. Instead, their opponents, the Texas Rangers, scored two runs in the top of the final frame and turned a 1-0 deficit into victory.

The Rangers look on paper to be the superior team--a nicely balanced collection of sweet swingers and impressive young relief arms--with strength up the middle defensively, especially the shortstop/second base combo of Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler, who pulled off a nifty double play in the 4th inning of last night’s Game 2, then pulled off a totally amazing force play to end the 5th inning. Plays like that kept the Rangers in a real nail-biter, as did their gritty relief pitchers Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz, the latter firing 100 MPH BB’s in the ninth inning to put away the spunky Cards.

The series now moves to Texas for Games 3, 4 and 5.

Of course, it’s a surprise that each team has only scored four runs in the first two games of the series. (St. Louis won the series opener, 3-2.) There are big bats on that field, from the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli to the Cards’ Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and clutch National League Championship Series star David Freese.

So far the pitchers are in charge, with maybe the exception of the Rangers’ Alexi Ogando, who was an excellent starter for the team this season (13-8, 3.51) but has been pressed into middle relief in the postseason. In each of the first two Series games, Ogando has faced the Cards’ pinch-hitting Allen Craig, and twice has yielded key run-scoring singles.

But while the season stats seem to favor Texas, the Cards might be able to ride it out on the wave of their continued improbable run, from presumed also-rans to National League champions.

Amazingly, the Cards clawed back from a 10-game wild card deficit in late August to slip into the playoffs on the final day of the season. And they did so having completely replaced their regular middle infielders, a move almost unheard of among World Series contestants.

Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker were the main DP combo this year, based on games played and at-bats. Yet after acquiring shortstop Rafael Furcal from the Dodgers on July 31 for a minor leaguer, manager Tony LaRussa eventually paired him with unheralded veteran second baseman Nick Punto, an offseason pickup from Minnesota (career batting average: .249) who appeared in only 63 regular season games.

Furcal, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2000, is--believe it or not--playing in his first World Series, after many previous postseason appearances with Atlanta and Los Angeles. He turns 34 this Monday. He and Punto (turning 34 on Nov. 8) can’t combine youth and athleticism like Andrus and Kinsler can, but they nonetheless have provided solid defense, and Punto has surprisingly rapped out three hits in six at-bats.

Reliever Motte’s also an interesting case. He hasn’t been around the big leagues that long--parts of four seasons--yet he’s a bit of a journeyman at 29 years old. He only has 12 career saves (9 in 2011) but--with a high 90s fastball--has emerged as the big closer for LaRussa, despite the fact that Fernando Salas led the team with 24 regular season saves.

For the Rangers, they can breathe a sigh of relief that they escaped St. Louis with a split of the first two games, despite the fact that their big hitters are stuck in neutral. Hamilton, Young, Beltre and Cruz are so far a combined 5 for 28, and memories of the 2010 Series, when the Rangers’ bats were silenced by the San Francisco Giants’ excellent pitching, are not that far in the forbidding past.

Returning to Texas should provide some tonic for the home team’s hitting woes, but if the Cards continue to get good starting pitching, they might hold off the Rangers until their own bats come alive.

Media Notes
I still can’t figure out what Tim McCarver is talking about. The FOX color guy seems to make up the most ridiculous stuff passed off as expert observations. His verbiage meanders into fanciful explanations that simply have no basis in fact or even in logical conjecture.

Last night, McCarver offered this (paraphrased): “In order to get a good bunt off him, you’ve gotta not bunt at the ball. You’ve gotta bring the bat down so the ball goes under it, and then maybe you’ve got a chance.” Huh? Tim is 70, and we might suggest that hardening of the arteries explains his ridiculous surmises--except for the fact that he’s been doing the same thing for almost 15 years.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

ALCS Notebook

After losing veteran outfielders Delmon Young and Magglio Ordonez to injury heading into the American League Championship Series, things have looked bleak for the Detroit Tigers.

Yet Jim Leyland's team rebounded Tuesday night to defeat the Texas Rangers in Game 3, 5-2. Texas still leads the series, 2-1, but don’t count the scrappy Tigers out.

Postseason play has often provided opportunities for little-known players to achieve and win the hearts of hometown fans, and the Tigers’ Andy Dirks and Don Kelly--Who?--are a couple of nobodies who will now have to step up and make some contributions to the cause.

Dirks is a 25-year-old rookie outfielder who hit .251 during the regular season in 78 games. Kelly is a 31-year-old utilityman with a career batting average of .240 in parts of four seasons. Both will play the outfield, though Kelly has also seen time at third base spelling regular Brandon Inge, who batted a woeful .197 this year.

Despite being undone by bad karma, and seemingly outmanned by the potent Rangers' bats, the Tigers still have some gamers in former longtime Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta, veteran Ramon Santiago (subbing in at second base for injured Carlos Guillen), speedy centerfielder Austin Jackson, plus super-DH Victor Martinez, who unfortunately seems to have pulled a rib muscle Tuesday night in the process of hitting a game-changing home run. He’ll have to limp along with the rest of Detroit’s walking wounded.

The Tigers still boast the American League’s probable Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, and they’ll need him to get back to dominance after some less than perfect recent outings. But if there’s one single reason why the Tigers still have a shot at a World Series appearance, it’s first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who is probably the best player in the game that you never really thought about.

Check Cabrera out at His career numbers are astonishingly good--.317 career batting average--and he’s only 28. He’s been playing some tremendously good defense in the postseason as well. He’s the type of guy who can carry a team, though the Rangers have three or four guys like that themselves. (Cabrera has also rather famously been involved with some off-the-field booze incidents. Whatever. He looked stone-cold sober to me when he drilled that 7th-inning home run Tuesday night.)

I see the Rangers’ bats and bullpen winning the ALCS and returning them to the World Series, but the Tigers have already made things interesting.

Media Notes
Meanwhile, we remain stuck with FOX Sports’ godawful broadcasting team for the ALCS. There’s play-by-play guy Joe Buck--who refuses to acknowledge that since we’re watching the game on television we don’t need him to constantly, incessantly, interminably keep his pompous gums flapping with stupid speculations and pointless information. And is there anything worse than the FOX stats geeks putting up a graphic for us to see on the screen, and then Buck ponderously reading off every word and digit aloud? Clearly, Buck’s head is far up his ass, and we’re flummoxed by the network execs’ affection for pretty-boy Joe.

Worse on the announcer front is Tim McCarver. The so-called “color” guy remains an annoyance, mainly because he makes up all kinds of stupid stuff. McCarver seems bound and determined to turn baseball analysis into The Science of Tim and it would be flat-out embarrassing if it weren’t so gosh-darn laughable. Tuesday night, for example, he dared to suggest that guys that hit more home runs hurt themselves more when they foul-tip balls off their bodies. Really, Tim? REALLY???

McCarver doubtless was a popular guy during his playing career, which stretched from 1959 to 1980. Yeah, that’s a lot of “good-ol’-boy” back-slapping and high-five-ing and fanny-patting for the Timster, so someone like that is apparently tough to fire. Everyone knows him and I guess enough people think of him as an institution. Whereas I only think of him as a lucky SOB from Memphis. Maybe Donald Trump could help: “Tim? You’re fired!”

Go here-- you want to jump on the anti-McCarver bandwagon. There’s also this site:

Ken Rosenthal is the third wart on the FOX baseball ass. God knows who he blackmailed, or which relative called in a favor, but Rosenthal has ascended to the position of FOX’s lead baseball sideline/dugout guy. A weenie of the first rank, Rosenthal actually wore a puce bowtie on the job during Game 2 of the ALCS. Really, Ken? Puce?? REALLY??

Rosenthal is a corporate-clown dullard, and you can’t even begin to imagine that Kenny the little kid ever played an inning of baseball or a down of football, ‘cause his mom most likely wouldn’t let him out of his violin lessons. He never has an insightful thing to say, either. It’s all boilerplate. Not even the law of averages can help him out there. Plus, he looks like a dork on TV. We’d vote you off the island, Ken, but someone upstairs likes you so it would be pointless for us to try. Oh well, there’s always the mute button on the remote.

BTW, McCarver missed the first two games of the series due to a health check-up. Subbing for him was former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who was actually rather good--understated, friendly, just trying to call things as he saw them without a lot of meaningless blather. Too bad Francona can’t stick around. But maybe, since he’s no longer a manager--for the time being, anyway--he might be persuaded to do more broadcasting. (We certainly know who he could replace.) ;o)