Game 4: Pirates 4, Cardinals 3

Kyle Lohse turned in five solid innings before his first walk of 2011 came back to bite him in a 4 run sixth inning. All in all, probably one of the better fundamental games of the season. Considering the lack of fundamentals, I’ve decided that was worth noting. However, here are my three thoughts.
In the bottom of the 8th, the Cardinals had Lance Berkman on first, Albert Pujols on third, with Allen Craig at the plate and none out. Tony LaRussa had Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene sitting on his bench and didn’t opt to pinch run for Berkman. I’m curious as to why as it probably became the game changing move after the Pirates short stop bobbled the ball and managed to just beat a sliding Berkman to second. If anyone faster is on first, there isn’t an out and you get another at bat in the inning. 
Yes, you’d already used your other outfielder on the roster in a pinch hitting situation, this is a place where only having 24 usable players has hurt the Cards. However, with the will to shuffle Descalso or Greene could have been used. Either Greene goes to right field or Schumaker does, in either case Greene or Descalso can play second. But LaRussa was probably unwilling to move Schumaker from second base. 
I know I got on Tony last season for managing us out of games, but this is one time where he sat on his hands and shouldn’t have. There were a couple of us on Twitter that realized this and we’ve never managed a major league ballclub, so why did we know it was the right decision?
That leads into my second point. How does Tyler Greene only have one plate appearance this season? The way he was talked about in the offseason led me to believe that he was going to be the primary guy off the bench this season. Instead, it’s Descalso getting the opportunities. For once, Tony has surprised me with how he’s handled guys off the bench. Part of me wonders if Greene is hurt and we just haven’t heard anything.
And finally, Lance Berkman should have played more outfield in Spring Training. His error in the top of the 4th was a result of having not played enough outfield and not having the right instincts. As a guy who plays outfield a lot, and usually right field at that, once you’ve decided how to pursue the ball you don’t change your mind. In this situation, Berkman was charging hard at the ball and changed his mind at the last minute and the ball bounced off his shoulder and away from him. Luckily it didn’t haunt us this time, but it’s something he’ll need to get back if he wants to be an every day right fielder. 
Hero of the Game: Tough call. I really liked how Lohse threw six of his seven innings. He bounced right back from the four runs, but I think it has to go to Lance Berkman. Beyond the error, he went 1-for-2 and drew a couple walks. (1-for-2, 1 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB)
Zero of the Game: As much as I’d like to give it to Albert for another 0-for performance, it goes to David Freese tonight. Twice he came up with an opportunity to make something happened and struck out. (0-for-4, 2 K, 5 LOB)

Game 3: Cardinals 2, Padres 0

Finally! The Cardinals break through for the win on the back of Jaime Garcia. Garcia, who had looked shaky during Spring Training, put some worries to rest with his dominant pitching performance. He used just 102 pitches to work through the 9 innings, showing some improvement over a problem he faced often in his rookie season. Last year he would commonly be inefficient with his pitches and hopefully this is him turning over a new leaf. It was just his second complete game shutout, the last was a 3-hitter he tossed last August against San Francisco.
After just getting through watching this game on the MLBtv Archive after missing it because I was on the road this afternoon, there are a few thoughts.
First, Skip Schumaker still looked awful at second base. How long until his fielding problems become a bigger issue? Today he couldn’t hang onto a pretty decent throw from Molina to attempt to catch someone stealing and then he made a bad throw on a double-play ball in the top of the sixth that got Garcia into the most trouble he was in all afternoon. 
Secondly and luckily, Daniel Descalso held onto a sharply hit line drive to him and managed to pull off the unassisted double play while San Diego had the bases loaded with 1 out. It ended the inning and got Garcia out of a big jam. Had he not made the play, this game would have looked very different and it would have all unraveled because of that bad double play toss from Schumaker.
Thirdly, there was an interesting graphic that has shown Yadier Molina‘s batting average drop the last three seasons. From .304 in 2008 to .293 in 2009 and then to .262 in 2010. Part of me wonders if this isn’t due to the strain on the body of playing all the innings? In 2009 he played the most innings behind the plate of any catcher in the big leagues, and he probably did it again in 2010 (haven’t been able to find a list to confirm, though). Are we riding Molina into the ground or should we be easier on him in the hopes his career lasts? At this point he’s nearly due a new contract and those knees have a lot of innings on them.
Hero of the Game: There really is no doubt here. The man who dispelled all the questions with his performance today, Jaime Garcia. (9.0 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 0 ER, 9 K)
Zero of the Game: Not sure what’s wrong with him, but there is plenty to speculate about. For the second time in three games, Pujols goes hitless and he added another to his already MLB high GIDP total. Albert Pujols, you get your second ZOG award. (0-for-4, 1 GIDP, 4 LOB)

Albert Pujols doesn’t owe Bobby Bonilla?

Consider it news to the entire Cardinals’ fan base or a non-issue to some. In B.J. Rains’ article this morning about Albert Pujols’ 10 year anniversary of making that opening day roster in 2001, Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa is quoted saying that the story that Bobby Bonilla’s injury gave Pujols his opportunity to make the roster, isn’t true.

As the story goes, Pujols was destined to begin his 2001 season at Triple-A Memphis. However, he was dominating in Spring Training. Ultimately, it was a hamstring injury that resulted in Bonilla hitting the disabled list that opened up a spot and allowed Pujols to make the team. Since then, it’s been history.

Pujols has dominated at the majors becoming one of the best hitters in baseball history.

Today, that story was thrown into doubt as LaRussa was quoted. “That story has been retold a bunch of different times, and that was all because of Bonilla. That wasn’t true. That’s been worked over a little bit. I think it made for a better story, but no.”

Obviously in 10 years, recollections can change and your opinions can change. There’s no doubt that Pujols earned his spot and maybe that’s what LaRussa is referring to with the statement, but would he have had one if Bonilla hadn’t gotten hurt? Was the team prepared to eat the $900,000 on Bonilla? Was it another spot that he was going to take?

But what can we find out? Well, we can look at quotes from articles about Pujols. If the Bonilla story wasn’t true, wouldn’t you have had one of the top members of the Cardinals speaking up sooner than 10 years after the fact? To me, I think it highly unlikely that it was never brought up in an interview.

In a May 16, 2001, article by Steve DiMeglio for USAToday Baseball Weekly, DiMeglio talked about the rise of both Albert Pujols and Rafael Furcal. In this article, Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals’ GM at the time, was quoted. “Each week when we had our cut meetings, there we were, figuring he had to go back to the minors at some point, and each week he kept impressing us more and more. It got to the final week and we just said, ‘Look, we’re a better club with him,’ the way he was playing.”

In the same article, Tony LaRussa said that veterans politicked to have Pujols on the major league roster, and it was injuries to McGwire and Bonilla that gave him the extra playing time in Spring Training.

Yet nothing indicating that the team intended to keep him with the major league team, if anything the quote by Jocketty indicates that they intended to send him to Memphis.

We can also look at the 2001 Opening Day roster.

There were the usual suspects on that roster. Mike Matheny and Eli Marrero on as the two catchers. Mark McGwire, Fernando Vina, Edgar Renteria, Placido Polanco, Ray Lankford, Jim Edmonds, and J.D. Drew as your starting position players. The bench players on the roster were Craig Paquette, John Mabry, Larry Sutton, and Albert Pujols.

Now, that’s 12 position players and they kept 13 pitchers on the roster, which we know is something LaRussa likes to do, especially on a west coast road trip. St. Louis started the season on the road against Colorado and then Arizona.

Other position players competing for a spot in Spring Training for the Cardinals that season were Bobby Bonilla and Bernard Gilkey.

Since you aren’t going to remove anyone from the starting lineup, where do you go from there? You look at the bench players. John Mabry was a favorite of LaRussa’s. So much a favorite that he played for the Cardinals’ three times. Brought back three times via free agency, despite being traded away once. Odds are he makes the roster.

Craig Paquette was viewed as a member of the third base platoon with Placido Polanco. Paquette didn’t hit for average in 2000, but he did hit fairly well for power, hitting 15 homers in 420 plate appearances. At first glance he might be cuttable, but then you notice his $1.5 million salary in 2001 and he becomes quite less so. So he makes the roster.

How about Larry Sutton? He was a utility player whose name I’d never heard. He hit .320 in 23 games and 33 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2000. Also, according to a USAToday Spring Training recap on the NL Central from March 28th, he was hitting .464 with a week to go. Odds are they were going to take an established .300 hitting pinch hitter who was more familiar with the role coming off the bench than an unproven rookie.

That leaves a three-way competition for the final spot. Bobby Bonilla, Bernard Gilkey, and Albert Pujols. Before the season started, the Cardinals released Bernard Gilkey. And then there were two.

Pujols was tearing up spring training and LaRussa was highly favorable of Bobby Bonilla in the same Spring Training recap I mentioned earlier. “If you know Bobby (Bonilla), it’s not a surprise. He’s got excellent hands, he runs good routes, he gets good jumps. This guy has played on winning ballclubs. And what’s been really positive has been his conditioning. He’s put a lot of time into all parts of the game.” Not really the words of a person getting ready to cut a guy in just under a week, who will cost you $1 million to cut.

Ultimately the decision was never made and there are only a handful of people who know where Pujols was going to end up at the end of the season. It was a decision that LaRussa never had to make. But I think there’s more than enough evidence out there to show that Pujols was destined to make the trip down I-55 to Memphis.

Was he worthy of making the roster? Definitely. I think that’s what LaRussa is getting at with his comment, but I don’t think for a moment that he would have actually made it had Bobby Bonilla not had hamstring problems.

As LaRussa was quoted in the Baseball Weekly special on Pujols and Furcal:

“You don’t do what we’ve done with Albert very often. You’re mindful of shattering a player’s psyche, concerned about bringing a player up too soon considering the lack of experience and age. It is rare – very rare – that a player so young and so lacking in seasoning and experience will survive.”

That’s about all you need to know.

Game 2: Padres 11, Cardinals 3

If you thought Thursday’s game was bad, Saturday’s was worse. Ugly is about the only word I have to describe what happened.

Thanks to Allen Craig, who picked up where Holliday left off, the Cardinals scored a pair of runs on his two-out double in the bottom of the first. But Padres worked Jake Westbrook hard all afternoon. He had thrown 51 pitches by the end of the second inning. In the second inning, Chase Headley tripled in a pair of runs to tie up the game.

Albert Pujols said no, when he led off the bottom of the third with his first hit of the season. A solo shot. But that could be all the Cardinals could muster while the Padres continued to dominate Westbrook.

The Padres added another in the top of the fourth and then broke it open for what LaRussa would call a crooked number in the top of the 5th. In the end, the Cardinals pitchers had trouble throwing strikes and a fielding error by Theriot, his second error in as many games, cost the Cardinals.

If one game with a severe lack of fundamentals wasn’t enough to panic, is two? Two games into this season and the Cardinals are still showing all the same issues we point out as things that killed their chances last season.

We can only hope that Jaime Garcia has put his Spring Training struggles behind him tomorrow and can pitch a gem. Because that’s what we’ll need to win, but if you ask Chris Carpenter, even that’s not a guarantee.

Boxscore

Hero of the Game: Tough to call this one, but it’s between Albert Pujols and Allen Craig. I will give Albert Pujols some love for breakout out of his 0-for-6 to start the season in style. So it goes to Albert Pujols (2-for-4, 1 HR, 1 RBI)

Zero of the Game: This one was pretty easy. Jake Westbrook gets it. (4.1 IP, 6 H, 5 BB, 3 K, 8 ER)

Preseason Approval Ratings: Position Players

Many readers are familiar with the Approval Ratings that Daniel at C70 at the Bat does over the course of the Spring. With his permission, I’m taking them to the next level (cue cool voice voicer).

I’m a little late, but real life has kept me away from writing much for the blog the last couple days. Today though, the Redbird Dugout Approval Ratings make their debut as I talk about our position players.

As mentioned during Wednesday’s UCB Radio Hour, the man who is now without his appendix is the highest rated Cardinal. That would be Matt Holliday. Holliday, who is entering his second full season, scored a 9.3 with Cardinals fans. Out of all the fans surveyed, he scored just one 7 and one 8 and the rest were 9s and 10s. Personally, I gave him a 10 because I he has far surpassed my expectations. When he came in, I expected him to be a .300, 20 HR guy because those were his career averages outside of Coors Field. Then he had his 2010 season and that all changed.

The second highest rated position player is none other than Albert Pujols. He scored a 9.0 from Cardinals fans. I find it interesting that he slots in behind Holliday, and also did on C70′s approval ratings. There are two potential reasons that Pujols falls, in my mind. First would be last season where his 7.3 WAR was the lowest WAR he’s had since his sophomore season in the majors and combine that where he slumped while the Cardinals kept falling farther and farther behind the Reds near the end of last season. Second would be with his contract situation. I know that I knocked him a point for it to just an 8. It takes two to tango and if they really wanted to come to an agreement over this offseason, Pujols and the Cardinals could have.

Moving on, we come to Yadier Molina, who came in third with an 8.0. Molina has been one of the most durable catchers in the major leagues. I know he caught the most innings in 2009, and I suspect he did the same in 2010 even with his removal from the lineup in the closing weeks to rest his knees. The knees and high innings are an issue to me, but that’s got nothing to do with my approval for Molina. Rather that rests on the guy who pencils him onto the lineup card everyday. I gave him a 9.

Colby Rasmus will be entering his third year in the majors, and most will tell you that it will be the make-or-break year for him. Mental maturity has impacted his success to this point, but he definitely has the physical tools. Despite some lack in his play last year on the defensive side of the ball, Rasmus still scored a 7.3 with the fans. In his third year and getting the opportunity to hit in front of Albert Pujols, Rasmus is poised to have a breakout year. Can he overcome the mental aspects of the game and put it all together? I’m excited to find out, I gave him a 7.

After spending the last half of last year on the disabled list, David Freese makes his return this season to the lineup. Despite the injury, Freese is probably riding high on his quick return from the injury and the performance he put on last season, when he was one of the top rookies when he went down with injury. Freese ended up with a 7.0 from the fans, and he got a 9 from me. Hopefully he can stay healthy this year and can become the player we all hoped.

A little surprising to me, but the next three guys on the list are expected to be bench players. Jon Jay scored a 6.9 from the fans and a 7 from me. Last season he proved himself a solid defender and solid with the bat. Coming off the bench, he’s going to do all we need him to do.

Allen Craig scored a 6.6 from the fans and got a 7 from me. I was a little surprised that he got relatively high marks. Many fans that I know think that he is nothing more than the AAAA player who is great in AAA, but below average in the majors. Personally, I think he can turn into a successful major leaguer if he gets a chance. With Holliday’s appendectomy, he seems to be ready to get that chance. Hopefully he takes it and runs with it.

Meanwhile, Daniel Descalso is riding his successful September as he scored a 6.2 from the fans and got a 7 from me. It’s no secret that I’ve called shotgun on the Descalso bandwagon and feel that he’s ready to start at second base. I’d love to see him take the starting role at second base away from Skip Schumaker this season, but he will hopefully get his chance there next season at least as Schumaker’s in the final season of his contract.

Back to the starters with Lance Berkman who scored a 6.0 with the fans. I gave him a 7, which wasn’t too far off. He suffered the case of getting a lot of 5s from people who didn’t want to make early judgements on new players.

Skip Schumaker comes in with a 5.7 from the fans. Schumaker had the largest disparity, as he was the only player to get a 1 and a 10 on his card. On the UCB Radio Hour, Mike Metzger of Stan Musial’s Stance said he would have given Schumaker high marks because he accepted the move from outfield to second base. I can understand that, but I gave him a 3. With experience, he should be improving at second base, but he’s not. And his bat fell off last year with the defensive struggles. To me, he’s just got more to show me before I can give him anything higher than a 5.

After Schumaker, comes Gerald Laird who scored a 5.6 with the fans. As the backup catcher, he doesn’t have much to do. I gave him an 8, but a lot of guys were reluctant to move him above a 5 because he’s new.

Then we have Tyler Greene who scored a 5.3 in the ratings. I gave him a 6 and was honestly surprised I had rated him that high. I’ve not been very impressed with Greene at any time. Well, except maybe that one diving catch in the outfield during spring training. But in general, I’ve not thought of him as a special player. I do hope he can prove me wrong though.

And the final player of our major league run is the new Ryan Theriot. Theriot scored a 4.9 in the ratings, and I had given him a 4. I’m not expecting much out of him and the slow start in spring training didn’t help that any. He was bouyed up with the 5s that a lot of guys gave new players. I think he is the player that is poised to vary the most this season.

I also had two minor league position players on the list. Last season’s first round draft pick, Zack Cox scored a 7.3 riding high on the way he finished the Arizona Fall League and the stories of him showing up early and working hard in the spring. Then Matt Carpenter is riding his strong spring to an 8.1 rating. I expect that to fall over the course of the season as people stop paying as close attention to him. Freese will likely have to get hurt before Carpenter is given an opportunity in the majors this year, and I don’t think anyone is wishing for that.

Look for the breakdown on pitchers on Monday morning. I’m about to dig in for game 2 of the 2011 season. Hopefully this one is better and the guys just had some Opening Day nerves on Thursday.