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Underachieving Under the Arch

By: Chris Kalna August 27th, 2010

It is really a sad commentary involving St. Louis Cardinal baseball when the team loses two of three games to the perennially pathetic Pittsburgh Pirates and the first contest against the Strasburg-less Washington Nationals in the heat of an agonizingly tight pennant race. But that is what the Redbirds did. After dwindling the Cincinatti Reds' Central Division lead back down to 2 1/2 games the Cardinals underachieved again.

Even though the Nationals and the Pirates have absolutely nothing to play for the rest of the summer besides pride and better a draft pick slot in 2011. They handed the confusing club from St. Louis three humiliating losses in a row. Three losses that truly define this maddening season. Three crucial defeats that may signal the beginning of the end for this talent rich squad.

After Thursday nights loss to the Washington Nationals in extra innings the St. Louis Post Dispatch's front page Cardinal coverage honored Albert Pujol's 400th moonshot of his fabulous career. Making El Hombre the third youngest player to accomplish that milestone in the history of the game behind only sure fire Hall of Famers Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. Congratulations Albert, but it reminded me eerily of the summer of 1998 when Mark McGwire entertained the city by swatting 70 home runs, allowing winning baseball games to take a backseat to the long ball while it road shotgun. I am in no way comparing Pujol's seemingly performance enhancing free accomplishments to Big Mac and the cloud of steroid abuse that forever will follow him. I am suggesting that, while 400 homers was a feat worth mentioning in the sports section, shouldn't the front page have lead with a more appropriate headline. Maybe a headline mentioning the devastating loss just suffered in extra innings pushing the Birds back in the standing to 4 games out?

I am not intentionally knocking the Post, I have read it and respected it religiously for almost 30 years. It is just a bit disturbing putting an individuals achievements ahead of the team while experiencing a very crucial loss during, a very crucial time. If we were 12 out and the season was a complete loss than it could be justified, but not while the home team is in the middle of its most serious pennant race in over a decade. Not while the Reds are cruising like a disturbing Iranian missile and we are falling faster than the stock market.

What is the reason this baseball team has been riddled with sloppy play and inconsistency? Poor fielding and even poorer base running. Mediocre relief pitching and some of the absolute worst RISP hitting. Steven Hawking would have a better chance at driving in a runner in scoring position than some of the Cardinals. You know, because he "drives" a wheel chair and talks in a cool robotic computer simulated voice. I know that should not be funny, but neither is this completely frustrating season!

Who is to be held accountable for this developing debacle. The obvious answer is Tony LaRussa. And he rightfully should shoulder a great deal of the blame. For it is also he who basks in the adoration of adoring fans and the throngs of media that label him genius and put him on a pedestal for team accomplishments. Though I am not a rabid supporter of Tony's, he has helped guide St. Louis teams to unprecedented success over these last 14 seasons. Some may argue that the surplus of talent on the field that he has always possessed allowed for his success, but either way he has continued to add to the glorious tradition and rich history of Cardinal baseball. That cannot be argued.

What is currently at issue here is the core talent that this particular squad boasts. St. Louis rosters two of the elite starting pitchers in all of Major League baseball in Cris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. They also have arguably the best rookie starting pitcher in Jaime Garcia. On the offensive side of the diamond there's Ryan Ludwick, oh no that's right, we traded him for Jake Westbrook, a savior, I mean pitcher who has performed admirably, but is a disappointing 1-4. Matt Holliday is a top 20 hitting outfielder, or at least he is getting paid like one and of course there is Albert Pujols. Hands down the very best that baseball has to offer. Yet with all of this weaponry we cannot compete against the Pirates and Nationals in the thick of a division race?

How is this possible? It reminds me of the Oakland Athletic team of 1990 that LaRussa captained. It too was loaded with both pitching depth and a feared power laden roster. Though that team did make the World Series, they somehow were swept by the inferior National League representative Cincinnati Reds 4-0! Same as the 2004 Cardinal team did against the Boston Red Sox. The nation chalked that up to destiny and Curt Schilings Superman act, but realists knew better. LaRussa has a reputation for choking in the big games. It just seems like he has started to do it a bit earlier this season. Pinch hitting pitchers in the clean up spot and changing his line up more than John Kerry changes his mind.

After tonight's 4-2 victory in Washington the Redbirds were still treading water as the Reds were also winners keeping St.Louis at bay. Thankfully there is a wild card possibility too. The Cards are nipping at the heels of the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Fransisco Giants as they limp into September.

As an eternal pessimist I fear that this season may be lost, but it is not over yet. There are plenty of games remaining on a daunting schedule in which the Cardinals will have played 44 games in 45 days dating back to August 20th. The final 31 without an off day. With marquee match ups against the Division leading and suddenly despised Reds on Labor Day weekend at home and another tough four game series against the currently first place Braves in Atlanta. Wow! That will test this troubled team allowing the fans to see what type of character it has. Because what a tragedy it would be if Albert Pujols wins the Triple Crown, but is golfing in October instead of playing in front of standing room only crowds in Busch Stadium.

So before you fold up your tents, pack away your Cardinal hoodies and wait for the NFL season to start, let's watch this exhausting race to the finish with an open mind. And remember at least we aren't playing for a better draft pick spot.

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