If we've learned anything about Octobers the last few years, it's that the month tests, stretches and hones every aspect of loyalty fandom. Typically, we pretty much just tell our friends that we'll see them sometime in November. It's a stressful time.
Therefore, to adequately preview the madness that is the baseball playoffs, we've invited some of our favorite bloggers for each of the eight playoff teams to write about their teams, similar to our NFL Season Previews. No sport has better individual team blogs than baseball, and these writers are some of our favorites.
These will be running all day today, and we very much hope you enjoy them.
Up right now: The St. Louis Cardinals. Your writer is Larry Borowsky.
Larry Borowsky blogs about the Cardinals daily at Viva El Birdos. His words are after the jump.
Being the favorite sucks. The St. Louis Cardinals were that heading into each of the last two baseball postseasons — juggernaut teams that recorded 100+ regular-season wins and had Hall of Famers up and down the lineup — and they got bupkis to show for it. Lost to second-place clubs both years.
They were the latest instances of a growing Cardinal tradition: front-runner failure. The trend dates back to the mid-1980s, when the exceptional Whiteyball teams lost two World Series to weakling clubs they were supposed to manhandle, the '85 Kansas City Royals and the '87 Minnesota Twins. (The latter remains the worst — per regular-season record — World Series champion in history.) This custom has really blossomed under Tony La Russa: In each of their last five Octobers (2000-02 and 2004-05), a team with fewer regular-season wins than the Cardinals knocked them out of the playoffs.
Well, they made damn sure that won't happen again. The 2006 Cardinals not only won the fewest games (83) among the eight teams in this year's playoff field, they posted the third-lowest win total of any postseason participant in history; only the '73 Mets and the '05 Padres (whom the Cards swept in the NLDS last year) had fewer victories.
Avoiding overdog status evidently has been the Cardinals' top priority since the end of last season. Why else would the front office have replaced stalwarts like Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders and Matt Morris with waiver-type refuse like Sidney Ponson, Larry Bigbie and Junior Spivey? The strategy lowered expectations from the get-go — some preseason pundits picked the Cardinals to finish as low as third place — but it was defeated by Albert Pujols, who was so incredible in the first two months of this season that the diluted Cardinals still reached Memorial Day with the best record in the NL (second-best in MLB) and a five-game lead in their division.
But they don't call La Russa a genius for nothing. With the Cardinals threatening to gallop off toward a third consecutive 100-win season, he pulled just the right levers to help break their stride. When No. 2 starter Mark Mulder messed up his shoulder in late May (turned out to be a ripped rotator cuff) and began adding 75 points to his ERA with each outing, La Russa pretended not to notice and ran Mulder out there for another seven starts, six of which the Cardinals lost badly. He jerked promising rookie Anthony Reyes in and out of the rotation while ensuring that dysfunctional veteran Jason Marquis (league-worst 6.02 ERA) never missed a start. When closer Jason Isringhausen's arthritic hip flared up, La Russa wouldn't hear of disabling him, nor of spreading the save opportunities around; Is'hausen obliged by blowing 10 saves, a league high. And La Russa created hundreds of at-bats for reliable outmakers like So Taguchi, Aaron Miles and Timo Perez, to deprive the Cardinals of runs and wins.
Worked like a charm — the Cards went 40-44 between Labor Day and Memorial Day and compiled two eight-game losing streaks in a six-week span. But let's not give La Russa all the credit here. He had plenty of help from the front office, which further enfeebled the roster with in-season acquisitions (Jorge Sosa; Jose Vizcaino), and from Dame Luck, which inflicted significant injuries on Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein.
But the rest of the National League outflanked St. Louis and played uniformly terrible baseball. Despite all their efforts, the Cardinals reached September 20 with the league's second-best record — and, with the Mets faltering down the stretch and plagued by their own injury problems, the suffocating front-runner mantle threatened to hug the Cards' shoulders by default. Not to be denied, they mustered one final, heroic seven-game losing streak, evoking comparisons to the '64 Phillies and serving notice upon the whole baseball world that this year's Cardinals are not a team to be reckoned with.
They enter October with no No. 2 starter, no closer, a one-man rotation and a roster packed with retreads and hobbled regulars. In a season where the breaks kept interfering with their quest to hold no advantage over any postseason foe, the Cardinals finally got lucky when they drew the Padres instead of the Dodgers in the NLDS. The Cardinals beat the Dodgers all seven times the team played each other this year, a disturbing echo of their former dominance. But against the Padres they were reassuringly bad, losing four of six head-to-head games and allowing six runs per contest.
Everybody's got San Diego down as the favorite. And being the favorite sucks.
The Padres can't like their chances.