It’s a new year, but the same old story, except this time it has an unfamiliar twist. As we approach the Major League Baseball playoffs, the St. Louis Cardinals sit atop the National League Central, while the Boston Red Sox, defending World Series champions, are in the cellar of the American League East.
These two teams have dominated the past decade of postseason baseball, and the Cardinals are back for more. Through a combination of quality pitching, solid defense ad high on-base percentage, St. Louis grabbed the late-season lead from the Milwaukee Brewers, who melted down in the summer heat.
As for the Red Sox: they also finished last in 2012, a year before they won the World Series. So they have made a round trip out of their much celebrated Worst to First sojourn.
So what’s with this team? I still think they’re one of the two best organizations in baseball, but this inconsistency is frightening, especially if you’re a Boston fan.
Pitching is, as always, the key. The Sox need to refresh this rotation with strong, consistent, young talent. John Lackey is gone (to St. Louis, of all places) and Clay Buchholz cannot anchor a staff by himself.
The addition of A’s phenom Yeonis Cespedes will surely help the offense out in the future, but if they hope to compete against the excruciatingly tough AL East, they need good arms.
On the other hand, the Cards seem to have hit their stride just at the right time. Their ever-regenerating farm system keeps them constantly on top or just a notch below.
Adam Wainwright, is pitching at a peak level, having won his 20th on Monday. At 33, he has a 2.38 ERA and has lost very little off his fastball. As his manager, Mike Matheny, put it, “When you watch the ninth inning and you see the 95 (mph) pop up there, you realize this guy still had a lot in the tank.”
Wainwright anchors a staff that includes a fine No. 2 starter, Lance Lynn (15-10, 2.73 ERA) and a rapidly improving No. 3 in Shelby Miller who is 23 and has been all but untouchable in September, posting a 0.69 ERA.
Although the Cards are not counting on last year’s postseason sensation Michael Wacha (limited to 102 innings this year because of a “scapular stress fracture”), they received a boost by the return to form of Lackey.
In his first eight starts for St. Louis, Lackey had a 5.05 ERA and even spoke the dreaded words “dead arm.”
But the 35-year-old right-hander came back to life with 7 2/3 strong innings (one run allowed) in his most recent start, against Cincinnati. His fastball which had been topping out at 90, was a consistent 92 against the Reds. Lackey looks ready to reassert himself in what is now looking like a formidable rotation.
And with his 100 mph heat, Trevor Rosenthal is one of the most feared closers in the sport. He has not been as lights-out consistent as he was last year, but then, this is the Year of the Blown Save. Most teams are sweating when their closer enters the game.
When it comes to the postseason, you have to back the team that knows how to get the job done. It’s a far different thing than picking the most talented team in the field.
While the LA Dodgers or the Washington Nationals may look great from the outside, neither has had postseason success in recent years. The other contenders look to be the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, who have deep pitching rotations.
There will be no bad team in this year’s playoffs, but make no mistake, there’s only one team that knows how to get the job done. Watch out for the Cardinals to yet again make another long postseason run – all the way to the World Series. Again. And this time, they don’t have the high-payrolled Red Sox to worry about.