July 6, 2008

Cubs series a good yardstick to measure needs

If there's anything good to take away from the series loss to the Chicago Cubs, it is that the Cards can use the series as a yardstick to measures just what they need to improve on, and how much.

Obviously, the Cards extra-basehit approach has given them a lot of wins. Can't argue that. But the balance might be a bit on the muscular side, so to speak. The big-hitter two-hole thing is a case in point. La Russa can make that strategy work because of how he slots the pitcher in the lineup, but too much power leads to streaky offense.

The balance of power is something from which the Cards can take a lesson from the Cubs. The Cubs are constantly threatening to score a run, almost every inning, because they put that inning leadoff batter or the next batter on base with one out. Do that enough and you're going to score runs. Not always the big inning, but runs just the same. And the amount of constant pressure that puts on the opposing pitcher is worth its weight in innings.

Of course, you can't just order: "Score more runs." But an evaluation of how a couple more contact hitters might impact the lineup might be in order. At least such an investigation, or experiment, is worth a try, considering it has to be a record of some kind how many different lineups La Russa has used this season.

Because there's no place to fit in the extra contact hitter due to the makeup of positioning, if any of the power-strokers are good enough with a bat to do what the Cubs hitters do when there down in the count, they ought to feel free. And what we're talking about here is putting the ball in play versus the big whiff. Believe it or not, one could argue that this is the exact strategy that Ankiel employed in his walk-off single on Saturday. Where normally, Ankiel works for the big hit (which is okay, it is what his swing and lineup position demand), he seemed to have shortened up just enough for control, and the results gave the Cards a win.

The Cards have some guys who can slap-hit and work the left-right and bunt in the forms of Izturis, Miles, Ryan, Kennedy, and even Molina. So what we're after here is for players like Glaus, Duncan, Ludwick, and Ankiel to keep the pressure on the defense. This is one of the reasons Pujols hits for such a high average and power, too. His ability to work the ball where it's pitched when he's down in the count gives him the skills of the slap and contact hitters, but with the ever-present danger of his power at the ready to blast anything that floats in as a mistake pitch. Up in count, power, down in count, contact.

The strategy is arguable, and is not what has gotten the Cards to there current state in the NL Central and in the league as a whole. But what we're trying to measure, here, after getting handled in both of the losses to the Cubs, is what is necessary to beat them, as they will certainly be one of teams to which the Cardinals will have to measure up to in the second half.

You have to look at these types of strategies, which also require working a skill-set, when both the good and weak pitchers of the opposing staff(s) are equally efficient at handling the middle of your lineup. This is asking a lot, to be sure, but if not this strategy, some other, because it's going to take a lot to come out on top of the NL Central, or even to go after the Wild Card.

When you hear about a team holding onto first place through thick and thin, good times and bad, you can only ask: "How are they doing that?"

When you get a chance to play them, and they beat you two out of three battle you down to the last in their only loss, you don't have to ask how they do it, because you know, you experience it.
The feast-or-famine offense can be awesome, but it can place one heckuva strain on a pitching staff, and that may be something the Cardinals cannot survive much longer.

So this yardstick is a measuring tool, and it doesn't mean you have to do exactly what they do, because your team's makeup might not be condusave to what works for them. But the yardstick measuring who is best is something you cannot ignore. You must find a way, their way, your way, some way to compete on that level. It requires risk and working for new strategies and skills. Sometimes they blow up in your face, and sometimes they put you in contention. When you can finally measure where you are as a team, however, and it becomes obvious some things need to be analyzed, you are behooved to act.