September 10, 2008

4thebirds 4thoughts

There's not much left for the Cardinals to do during the perpetual hype of the Cubs/Cards rivalry except prep and play.

It appears the Cards will be without the services of third baseman Troy Glaus; for how long, no one's sure. Felipe Lopez figures to be his replacement, but depending on what kind of lineup manager Tony La Russa will mark up with left-hander Ted Lilly on the hill for the North Siders, this could take some thought.

The Glaus shoulder injury will strain a bit more than his shoulder, as it is unlikely Rick Ankiel or Skip Schumaker will start. And though there are calliups to use, one of them isn't Joe Mather, so it wouldn't be surprising to see Lopez in left. This would be a good time for TLR to get Stavinoha back into the mix, except that Lilly will eat him up with off-speed.

Due to Lilly's ability to mix curves and change speeds, it might not be a bad idea (and we know this goes against TLR's grain) to use an extra singles hitter. God forbid we have two players shorter than six-foot tall as it is, but bat handling instead of fanning may be the best order of business tonight. Until Lilly is done for the night, anyhow. Then, you can pinch all the power into the batters' box you want.
Cubs' manager Lou Piniella has shot the works with his post-game tirade, so if his squad fails to react, he has nowhere to go with another media show. Do look for Piniella to shake things up on the field if possible. In other words, Yadi better get ready to go a-gunnin', because it is entirely possible that the Cubs' skipper will be sending anyone who reaches first base, until Yadi proves he can thrown them out. Also, Molina has a lot of season on him, so another Cubs' base running technique will be to break for the next base when the ball is in the dirt. There is no waiting to see if Yadi scoops the ball, or blocks it, or whether it deflects away; it's just, go.

Otherwise, look for Piniella to use the hit-and-run whenever possible. There's few things that can get a team's momentum going like a risky hit and run, especially with a pitcher like Braden Looper, who almost never walks anyone. When a pitcher is that much around the plate, a batter is much more likely to get a decent pitch to hit, increasing the chances for contact and success on the play.

These are not strategies of desperation, however. It just seems like the Cubs will be looking for plays that instill confidence, so they can quit thinking about how and when the other team is going to "come get em." (The Cards know that feeling, and so does Cardinal Nation.) When Soto, for instance, failed to execute proper placement on a sacrifice bunt last night, the result was a demoralizing (for the Cubs) double play. It's possible Mr. Piniella will yet use some bunts tonight, but maybe with a player that has actually performed the play at least once this entire season.

One key to getting to Ted Lilly will be to get him in the set position, where his effectiveness goes way down. He does lose some movement and zip on his fast ball with base runners aboard, and is likely to overuse his breaking ball, even more so than his change-up, and he has excellent command of both. When this occurs, it would help if the Cards could do some stealing, but don't count on it as TLR favors the longball, even if it comes once every three innings. These factors play against the Cards, but getting Lilly into the set, and keeping him there, is still the Cards best shot at getting to the awesome Cubs' hurler.

(And it may sound funny, but the Redbirds would probably be better off if they were facing Carlos Zambrano.)

Certainly the Cardinals are aware of Lilly's favored pitching progression against them, and you couldn't blame the lefty hurler for using the same pattern, at least until the Cards' batsmen can prove they can overcome the mix. What we're talking about here is a constantly alternating (if that isn't redundant) pattern of fast ball up and in, off speed low and away, fast ball up and in, off speed low and away, etc. If the Cards go chasing after this common pitching approach, you will see Lilly not only continue the pattern, but throw nothing over the plate. Once Lilly determines that the Cardinal hitters are will to hack inside and reach outside, the pitches in this pattern will get farther and farther outside the strike zone. And who could blame him?

This is simply the challenge of facing a great pitcher. If you're lucky, he's off location or just doesn't have his stuff. That's what happened to Lohse. It can happen to Lilly. But don't rely on it.

Better that the Cardinals beat Lilly like they did Dempster; on a night where he does seem un-hittable. In that way, you suck up all the confidence and momentum and leave nothing but despair for your opponent. We'll just have to see who accomplishes this tonight.

The great thing about baseball, however, is that none of this could happen. A game can take on any demeanor and change the strategy by the inning.

Last projection, sort of out on a limb, sort of not: Pujols will go on a tear at the plate, but not for the reason you might think. This has nothing to do with the fact that he has just hit three homers in three games. What it has to do with is that Pujols is riding a high as far as playing for those kids last weekend, the whole Walk in the Park thing, which means a lot to Pujols. And on a mechanical note, I've said long ago, when Pujols was going through what I would call a rough patch which I though was caused by a swing set up to pull only. Back then, I stated that when Pujols hitting most effectively, he has some drives into the right-center field alley, and beyond.

Well, that's what I saw last night, and so, tonight, I look for him to really punish the baseball, left, center, right. The bigger question is whether La Russa can place anyone in the lineup to protect him, and the only way I can see to do that is with 9-1-2 as contact, singles hitters, even though TLR will probably hit power in the number two slot. The clean-up hitter is critical tonight, because we're about out of options.

  • not Ankiel; a lefty
  • not Glaus; he's injured
  • not Mather; he's injured, and a shame, because he can really see the off-speed stuff and hit it hard
  • Ludwick, and hope he gets on track, but with Lilly and his off-speed skills, yikes
  • Stavinoha, on a risk; off-speed challenged
  • not Duncan, he's injured, and, a dead-pull lefty
  • Phelps, with enough big league experience not to fold, but not enough recent ABs to be sharp, a risk

No, my pick would be Yadi. Sounds goofy at first, but it does make sense. Either that or stick with Luddy, who although has struggled of late, has indeed, played a big part in the what success the Cardinals offense has had.

Out of time. Game starts in a few hours.

photo by Barbara Moore