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by alex ciepley
Last night's game was Wagnerian, hair-raising, and in the end, ugly. It was the postseason in July, reminiscent of last year's five-game set at Wrigley, where the Cubs put away the Cards with four wins.
Not this year.
This has been the Cardinals' season in the Central. I don't really understand it -- the Cardinals' nine-game lead seems to have come out of thin air. But simultaneous coolish streaks by the Cubs, Reds, and Astros, combined with a red-hot St. Louis ballclub has brought them to the brink of an unconquerable lead in the division, despite over two months of play left. I don't think the Cardinals are as good as their lead is, and certainly the Cubs are a better team (and despite injuries, have *played* like a better team) than their current record. Baseball Prospectus's adjusted standings reflect this, showing the Cubs underperforming their record by a whopping six games, while the Cards are overperforming by a couple games. The chips just haven't fallen the Cubs way to this point in the season.
The Cardinals are certainly a good team, and have reason to celebrate, but they certainly aren't a great team, despite having the best record in baseball. Jeff Suppan, Chris Carpenter and Jason Marquis have surpassed expectations, but they're still Suppan (lifetime 4.78 ERA), Carpenter (lifetime 4.72 ERA), and Marquis (lifetime 4.34 ERA). It's called regression to the mean, and the Cards have to hope the regression doesn't come until next year, and not when the Cards are in the playoffs. (BP, by the way, agrees again with this impression of the Cardinals' staff, seeing their starting rotation as the second-luckiest in baseball.) You could argue that Matt Morris is due for improvement, but he hasn't really looked right this year, and his falling K/9 ratio has to be a bit concerning. The Cardinals have the offense to overcome any stumblings in the pitching staff, but I think it's unlikely this is a team that can steamroll its way through the playoffs in the same way they have the NL Central.
As for the Cubs, this is all a disappointment. But chin up! This team can and should win the Wild Card this year, and if healthy would easily be the scariest team to face in the NL postseason. This is a team that arguably has had the best starting pitching in the game despite missing months of Prior and Wood. Again, while I wouldn't shy away from a Randy Johnson trade, this team needs offense more than it needs pitching -- you can't give up only eight runs in a four-game series with Milwaukee and only come away with a split.
Another comment on last night's game: Carlos Zambrano has, without question, emerged as my favorite player on the team, but his second plunking of Jim Edmonds last night was just stupid and immature. The Pedro-esque wagging of the finger was one thing (the type of machismo you hate unless the guy is on your team), but the second beaning was a toddler's rant, a tossing of unwanted baby food in the face of its mother. Alex Belth wrote me this morning, a short note about the Cubs game:
[Zambrano] sure is a good pitcher, but from a distance, I think the guy is a clown. Even after Rolen's dinger, the Cubs were still in the game. But he allowed himself to get caught up in the emotion of the moment. He's only 23, so I figure he'll figure a way to channel his energy. But I thought he acted like a punk last night.
Zambrano is starting to get noticed around baseball for the good things he does on the field (even among those insular Yankee fans!), and it would be a shame if he now became more well-known for occasional punkish behavior.
Rusch v. Morris in a few. The Cubs don't need to win this one to make a last statement against the Cards; they need to win to start their trek towards capturing the Wild Card.