July 8, 2008

Hey, Mr. Mulder ... go for it!

Not a day goes without some type of report concerning one of the bevy of ailing Cardinals' pitchers. It's hard to keep them all straight.

Whose shoulder? Which elbow? How many fingers? And every question is followed by "is injured" or "is aching" or "is in need of medical assessment." No sense giving you a list, either, because by the time it's posted or you get your 4thebirds feed after getting home from work, somebody's arm will have a new status.

Point is, all the, "He should be back in action by [insert July or August or September]" statements are nothing more than guesswork, and when you're a Redbirds' fan, the tendency to believe a particular hurler will be back in time to have an impact on the pennant race is probably skewed by wishful thinking.

The less patient Cards' fans may be throwing a collective fit if and when a certain pitcher returns, only to find out that while he's doing okay, the "okay" part would better describe a pitcher in Spring Training, or the earliest part of the season. For any one of the long list of once-proven, high-quality hurlers to step up that mound and mow 'em down inning after inning would take a bit of a miracle.

And should each of the long-time rehabbers do well, you have to take into account that they're probably not going deep into a ballgame.

Yet there is a chance that a lengthy absence can be a plus, in the case that hitters, while well-tuned in August and September, will be looking at unfamiliar pitches, delivered by men who they either haven't hit off of for a year or more, or have never faced at all. This represents one of those rare instances when all the scouting reports and video are available on the batsmen, but very little or nothing on the pitcher.

Some of these pitchers have been out of commission so long, that any data collected on them probably won't mean much to the hitters that will face them. How could they possibly trust that a pitcher's fast ball runs the same way, or that the bite on his curve is familiar enough to stay in the box on a tight pitch? For that matter, the release point might be different, arm angles varied, as formerly injured pitchers have made adjustments in order to compete once more at the major league level.

The plus/minus on this subject is something that makes fans, coaches, and these days, the media, as-nervous-as-all-get-out. Why? Because there's no way to measure a potential performance.

Hardly any decisions from the front office or the dugout seem to be made without consulting a thick textbook of data. And just watch how all us writers jump on the fence regarding this issue, if anyone dares write about it at all. Data-data-stat-stat-stat, it's the Morse Code of modern baseball.

Don't believe it? (I defy you to find an ESPN preview, for instance, that has more than one paragraph in a row without reference to a stat.)

But figuring out a line, so to speak, on pitchers having instantaneous success on comebacks, that's "out on a limb" stuff.

Puts most of the pressure on the pitcher taking the major league re-test, but a lot of tension runs through the coaching staff as well. How's his stuff? Did he just twinge? Crimanee, he's huffing and puffing already. He seems okay, but I think he was rolling his eyes. Wake up the dead in the pen, I don't care if it is the second inning.

Of course, if the initial comeback appearances are anything less than stellar, then the less-educated or negative fan believes he was rushed back too soon. Or: "He's washed up. I told you so."

So now we get to the names, some of them, anyway.

No ... check that. We don't need that long list to see what it's really going to be like for these pitchers whose arrivals are probably more anxiously awaited than Santa Claus to a seven-year-old.

Mr. Mulder is going to illustrate the unknown variables, when he gets a start against the Phillies. Because La Russa might be able to hand-pick the initial appearance, but even he knows it's inevitable that Mulder (or any one the rehabbers getting within throwing distance, so to speak), are just going to have to find out if they still got it, and we mean, really still got it.

Scary stuff, for those about to return to the battlefield where the foes are less than 70 feet away. And pretty nerve-racking for the rest of us, too.

So Cardinal Nation, don't be too harsh, don't get too sad, don't get overly happy. And don't believe not a one of us writers, bloggers, whatnots, about how Mr. Mulder will do, or won't do. Because you can't reduce his imminent situation to probabilities, except for the obvious, that it won't be easy for him.

This will just have to be one of those tension-filled games that defy predictability. In other words, at least for the first few innings, a fun game to watch, and an example of why baseball fans have to watch.

We know you'll do your best, Mr. Mulder. Go for it!