SweetSpot: Allen Craig

Taveras debut triggers big Cards questions

May, 31, 2014
We’ve been waiting for this for a while, but top Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras is up. Maybe just for now, maybe not forever, but it’s in his hands. Given the anticipation attending his call-up, that’s just as well, since he’ll be swinging the bat with them.

Projections for what Taveras might do are reliably upbeat for the soon-to-be 22-year-old. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS puts him down for a .779 OPS this year; Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has him at .787; and even FanGraphs’ more modest Steamer forecast of .754 would do. The only serious question about him in the big picture is whether he can handle center field in the majors on an every-day basis, but as a right fielder his cannon of an arm should be a major deterrent to opponents’ basepaths mayhem. He can help the Cardinals win right now, and, if he hits and makes a good impression in center, he might also get to stick around beyond Matt Adams’ stint on the disabled list.

[+] EnlargeAllen Craig
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesAllen Craig might eventually be on the move if Oscar Taveras is ready to stick around.
Because that’s kind of the core issue, which Cardinals GM John Mozeliak touched on immediately. This isn’t just a matter of Taveras being ready or Adams being hurt. As Mozeliak noted, the call-up "made sense in two ways: One, let Matt Adams heal, and two, it's an opportunity to give Oscar some playing time and not have to worry about the balance of power and worry about who's playing and who's not."

And that’s the bigger issue for the Cardinals because, if Taveras’ best position is right field, this is where they run into not just the benefits but also the hazards of the machinelike efficiency of their farm system cranking out yet another excellent prospect. Because if Taveras has to play an outfield corner regularly, instead of living up to the organization’s wishcast that says he has the athleticism to handle center, it’s only a matter of time before he stakes claim to a corner for keeps. Maybe that happens this time around, maybe it has to happen later this summer, but, as Led Zeppelin suggested, Oscar’s time is gonna come.

The question of when one lineup slot becomes his permanently depends not just on Taveras but also on what the Cards want to do with their first base/outfield corner trio of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Adams. Say Taveras earns his keep now -- can you really send him back down? Something’s eventually going to have to give, and that means other people’s playing time.

In the longer term, as far as how Cardinals GM John Mozeliak might juggle this much talent, keep in mind that Holliday is making $17 million per year and should be Cardinals property through at least 2016, 2017 if the team picks up its option. He’s also already armed with a full no-trade clause. Adams won’t even become eligible for arbitration until 2016. And between those two is Craig, a month and a half shy of turning 30, signed for $25.5 million for 2015-17 with a $13 million club option for 2018 (with a $1 million buyout).

Looking at that ledger, if everyone’s healthy, you can see how this becomes a bit of a playing-time crunch in 2015 and beyond. Sure, let’s say you can spread at-bats around by playing mix-and-match, sitting Adams against all lefties, rotating Craig from first to right to left to give everyone else a rest day every week. Maybe Mike Matheny can make that sale and preserve clubhouse amity. Adding another pennant this year might buy more time.

But at some point you’d have to think the Cards will want to swap out Craig or Adams to patch a hole somewhere else on the roster. Having two guys at very different price points and at different points of their careers as far as service time affords Mozeliak plenty of flexibility to entertain offers down the road. He won’t have to make a deal, but if you want a first baseman you can afford (such as Adams) or an experienced win-now option for first base, DH or either outfield corner (such as Craig), you’ll probably be ringing Mr. Mozeliak. But in the long run, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cardinals deal Craig before his deal is done, much as they traded away David Freese (and Fernando Salas) this past winter to get center fielder Peter Bourjos (and Randal Grichuk).

First, though, Taveras has to deliver in the majors, here and now, and not just because we’ve been waiting for him, drooling in anticipation of what he might do. And the rest of it? That’s a problem for several someone elses at a different pay grade, regardless of whether -- or when -- Taveras takes his place among the game’s next generation of superstars.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
St. Louis Cardinals fans have been feeling a little jittery when closer Trevor Rosenthal enters games -- and with good reason. He hasn't been the same dominant ninth-inning reliever we saw in October, when he faced 40 batters, retired 33 of them and struck out 18. After spending most of the season as a setup reliever, Rosenthal's scoreless postseason was a big key to the Cardinals reaching the World Series.

For the most part, Rosenthal simply blew hitters away; 149 of his 174 pitches in the playoffs were fastballs, averaging 97.7 mph and touching 100 mph multiple times. Batters knew the fastball was coming and still couldn't touch it. His ascendant performance had many expecting him to be one of the premier closers in 2014. Maybe not Craig Kimbrel, but one of a handful of guys lining up behind him.

Instead, as we saw on Sunday when the Braves rallied for two runs in the ninth to pull out a 6-5 win, Rosenthal hasn't been lights out and is 0-2 with a 4.98 ERA, two blown saves and 14 walks in 21 2/3 innings. His velocity is down just a bit from what we saw in the postseason, as he's averaging 96.2 mph on his fastball and has yet to touch triple digits on the radar gun. But command has been Rosenthal's biggest problem, as witnessed by the high walk total.

On Sunday, working for the fourth straight day (more on that in a second), Freddie Freeman led off with a first-pitch line-drive single to left field, beating the Cardinals' shift. Working ahead in the count, Rosenthal struck out Chris Johnson and got Andrelton Simmons to pop out, but pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit drilled a 96-mph fastball into the right-field corner for a double, Freeman holding at third.

Rosenthal put in a bind

Pinch-hitter Evan Gattis then stepped in and Rosenthal, perhaps a bit cautious after giving up two first-pitch hits or told to work carefully after a meeting at the mound, fell behind with two fastballs off the plate, at which point Cardinals manager Mike Matheny elected to intentionally walk Gattis and pitch to Jordan Schafer.

I'm not usually a big fan of loading the bases in this type of situation since, protecting a one-run lead, Rosenthal is especially forced to throw strikes or make the perfect pitch to avoid a hit. Keep in mind: He has struggled with walks all season, was working for the fourth day in a row and Matheny elected to go against the platoon advantage to face the left-handed Schafer. In defense of Matheny, Schafer was just 2-for-26 on the season, including 0-for-2 in this game, so Matheny elected to go after the weaker batter.

I probably would have gone after Gattis, a guy batting .242 with a .278 OBP -- with five walks and 30 strikeouts, so he's the kind of batter you can pitch to. Throwing four days in a row, I'm not sure you wanted to rely here on Rosenthal's ability to throw strikes.

Anyway, against Schafer, Rosenthal threw eight fastballs, all 97 and 98 mph. He threw three balls way up and out of the zone and Schafer fouled off two 3-2 pitches before finally walking on a 98-mph four-seamer at the knees. It was at the knees, right at the bottom of the zone, too close to take in that situation, but Eric Cooper called it a ball so the Braves caught a break. But the Cardinals also put themselves into that bases-loaded situation with no margin for error.

That was it for Rosenthal after 23 pitches. Carlos Martinez came on and threw a wild pitch and the Braves won.

Back to that four days in a row thing. Was it a mistake to use Rosenthal? He had thrown 26 pitches over 1 2/3 innings on Thursday, 17 pitches on Friday and nine pitches on Saturday. Matheny didn't have any issues going to his closer once again.

"It came down to one pitch right there which maybe could have been called [a strike]," Matheny told reporters after the game. "We were one pitch away. He's a tough kid and he wanted the ball today. As soon as he got to two outs, it's his game. Today it just did not work out."

Rosenthal refused to blame his recent usage.

"Physically I felt good and mentally I was ready to go," he said. "No one feels worse than me, walking in the run that eventually loses the game. But you have to bounce back. There will be another opportunity. You just have to learn from it."

Managers rarely use their closers four days in a row. Only Francisco Rodriguez has saved four games in four days in 2014, and only Joe Nathan and Edward Mujica (with the Cardinals) did so in 2013. Only Grant Balfour and John Axford did it in 2012.

Before you argue that managers have gone soft, that's not completely true. Dennis Eckersley pitched four days in a row just once in his career. Mariano Rivera did it just three times. Going back a generation, Bruce Sutter did it five times and Goose Gossage twice.

I'm not going to fault Matheny too much for this one, however. No, the blame is better placed on Matheny for using Rosenthal in a 4-1 game on Saturday or even a 5-2 game on Friday. If his closer wasn't sharp pitching a fourth day in a row, look back to wasting with him with three-run leads.

Carpenter and Craig are not the same

A couple more quick notes on the Cardinals. Rosenthal isn't the only Cardinals player lacking some of the magic of 2013 so far this season. Take Matt Carpenter, an MVP candidate last year. Carpenter laced line drivea all over the field last year, hitting .318 while leading the National League with 199 hits and 55 doubles. That helped him score 126 runs, another league-leading figure.

Carpenter had a big game on Sunday, going 2-for-2 with three walks, raising his average to .265. But he's not driving the ball with the same authority, with just seven doubles and home runs. Compare his hit charts from 2013 and 2014:

Matt Carpenter hit chartESPN Stats & Information

Look all those doubles in the gaps and down the right-field line in 2013. Carpenter had 73 extra-base hits last year and 301 total bases (third in the NL), putting himself into scoring position on a regular basis. He's on pace for just 30 extra-base hits this year, one reason the Cardinals have struggled at times to score runs. He's not killing the team, because he's getting on base via walks (.371 OBP), but he's clearly not the same hitter.

Allen Craig developed a reputation as a clutch hitter by hitting .427 with runners in scoring position the past two seasons. But as we've seen time and again, clutch hitting isn't a "proven" skill. Look, Craig's record was pretty remarkable, considering it covered 301 plate appearances. But he's not a .427 hitter. He's batting .220 with RISP in 2014, including 0-for-3 on Sunday. He's hitting .226 overall with four home runs. The lack of power from Carpenter and Craig is a major reason the Cards are 29th in the majors in home runs, with just 23.

OK, despite all that bad news, it wasn't a horrible week for the Cardinals. They hit rock bottom with a 17-5 loss to the Cubs on Monday to drop to 19-20, but then won four in a row before Sunday's defeat. Sunday also saw the return of Jaime Garcia, who pitched seven innings. He adds more depth to a rotation that is second in ERA in the NL behind the Braves.

Still, the Cardinals are 23-21, hardly cause for alarm but not playing like that best team in the NL that I expected back in March. If they do turn things around and start playing like the team many expected, I suspect Rosenthal, Carpenter and Craig and be big reasons why.
In a World Series already replete with craziness, we get a little bit more of it for Game 5:

1. Shane Robinson will start and bat second for the Cardinals.
2. Jonny Gomes will hit cleanup for the Red Sox.

The biggest move, however, the one that isn't so strange, is that Allen Craig is back in the starting lineup for the Cardinals and playing first base, bad foot and all. That move makes sense since Matt Adams hasn't been hitting and with Jon Lester starting you get the right-handed Craig back in there instead of Adams. He'll bat sixth, presumably because he can barely run. Still, you can argue that if he can play, why not put him higher in the lineup?

"We ended up kind of holding back on him, making sure he's going to be ready to DH those games [in Boston]," Mike Matheny said before the game of Craig. "But yeah, he felt better yesterday, much better than what he thought he was going to feel, and even better today. So that's continued to move forward."

Matheny's choice to not hit Craig cleanup has a ripple effect: With no Adams and Craig well below 100 percent, he needed a cleanup hitter, so he moved Carlos Beltran down from the No. 2 slot to the No. 4 slot, and moved Robinson into the starting lineup and batting second.

Playing Robinson makes some sense. Again, it gets another right-handed bat in there against Lester instead of Jon Jay. Robinson, in limited duty as a reserve this season, did post a .345 on-base percentage, although just .319 against left-handers. He has next to no power, his home run against the Dodgers more of a fluke than a sign of real ability. Hitting Robinson second is something Matheny rarely did during the season, however; Robinson started 30 games and hit second just nine times (and leadoff twice). When he started, he normally hit seventh because he's a No. 7 or 8 type of hitter.

Fine, Craig can't run. Why not keep Beltran second and simply move Yadier Molina up to the cleanup spot, hit Craig fifth and David Freese sixth? Molina hit .333/.374/.509 against left-handers. No, he can't run either. But ask yourself this: Ninth inning, down a run, you have your 2-3-4 hitters up. Would you rather want Beltran and/or Molina to be assured an at-bat that inning ... or Shane Robinson? Team speed isn't really in the St. Louis playbook, but it appears Matheny became overly fixated on that with this lineup.

As for Gomes hitting cleanup, he's in there because Shane Victorino is again unable to play. And because he hit a terrible pitch from Seth Maness over the fence in left field in Game 4. But Gomes versus Wainwright is a poor matchup, the strikeout-prone Gomes against a good strikeout pitcher in Wainwright. Gomes hit .167 against curveballs from right-handed batters this season, but that's only 18 at-bats; over the past three seasons, he's hit .145 against curveballs, with 33 strikeouts in 58 plate appearances. Good luck.

I do like that John Farrell was willing to move David Ortiz up to the third spot. He clearly wanted to alternate his left- and right-handed hitters to make Matheny's late-game relief substitutions more difficult, going Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz, Gomes and Daniel Nava (a switch-hitter, but much more potent from the left side). As with the Cardinals, I would have stacked my best hitters together. You could have gone Ellsbury, Nava, Ortiz, Pedroia (if you wanted a right-hander to protect Ortiz), or just stayed with the Game 4 order -- Ellsbury, Nava, Pedroia, Ortiz, Gomes. At this point, it doesn't really matter who hits behind Ortiz: If there's an open base, the Cardinals are likely to pitch around him.

The bigger problem with the Red Sox's lineup is Stephen Drew, David Ross and Lester in the 7-8-9 slots. Drew is 4-for-49 in the postseason with 17 strikeouts and one walk and looks helpless (or is it hopeless?) at the plate. But he's understandably in there for his defense. So is Ross, who has become Lester's personal catcher. But Ross hit .216 and struck out in 37 percent of his plate appearances. It's difficult to imagine the bottom of this lineup doing any damage against Wainwright.

So everything is pointing to a low-scoring game.

Which means the final score will probably be 8-7.

This could be one of those games. Not a momentum game, since that’s a term that attempts to describe mass and velocity of an object, not something that happens in the standings. No, it’s more like one of those games you remember when the season is over and your team has won the division title or reached the playoffs. One of those games that sticks out in your memory, like a first kiss or, if you're a Reds fan, a flat tire.

Allen Craig hit a big grand slam in the seventh inning as the St. Louis Cardinals rallied to beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-6, moving the Cardinals a half-game past the idle Pittsburgh Pirates and back into first place in the NL Central for the first time since July 29. Put this game in your back pocket and check back in five weeks.

The Reds were in command, leading 5-3 heading into the bottom of the seventh. Teams that lead entering the seventh have won 86 percent of the time this season; the Reds were 57-7, an 89 percent success rate. The Cardinals were 7-38 when trailing in the seventh. Odds of them pulling this one out? About 1-in-10.

Craig delivered that one. With one run already in, J.J. Hoover had entered with runners on second and third and two outs to face Matt Holliday. He fired six four-seam fastballs to Holliday, who finally drew the walk on a 3-2 pitch that was low and outside. That brought up Craig with the bases juiced and Craig loves to hit in that situation. He was 6-for-9 this year with two sacrifice flies and a .433 average in his relatively brief career.

[+] EnlargeAllen Craig
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonAllen Craig powered this latest Cardinals win, and he has the bat to deliver more.
He’d never hit a grand slam, though.

Hoover reared back and threw another four-seam fastball. The radar guns would clock it at 95 mph.

This is one of those moments that make baseball so great. Craig is one of the best fastball hitters in the game. In fact, his .404 average against fastballs leads the majors. When putting the first pitch in play, he’s hitting .453 -- 14th in the majors -- because, again, he’s a good fastball hitter. Get ahead in the count and you can put him away with offspeed stuff. If you get ahead.

Hoover is a fastball pitcher. He has thrown 971 pitches this season, 726 of them fastballs. His second pitch is a curveball. But Hoover is a fastball guy -- a high fastball guy. Fastball hitter versus fastball pitcher.

Probably would have been a good time for Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco to call for a curveball on the first pitch. Maybe a more veteran catcher -- say, Yadier Molina or Ryan Hanigan -- calls for a breaking ball there, knowing Craig’s killer instinct against fastballs.

Mesoraco set up low and away, but Hoover caught the middle of the plate. Craig lined it over the wall in right, drawing a curtain call from the home fans after the high-fives and smiles in the dugout. A first-pitch fastball to Allen Craig with the bases loaded, the smiles seemed to say, are you kidding?

Craig is kind of the unsung hero of the Cardinals, at least outside of St. Louis. He hasn’t matched his power numbers of a year ago -- in just 21 more at-bats he has nine fewer home runs -- but he’s still been a big run producer, hitting in the cleanup spot most of the season. Manager Mike Matheny kept him there despite Craig not homering until May 4. He has rewarded his manager with 95 RBIs, tied for second in the NL with Brandon Phillips behind Paul Goldschmidt’s 101.

Yes, Craig has had guys getting on base in front of him in the deep St. Louis lineup, including leadoff batter Matt Carpenter, who leads the NL in runs scored. But he has also done his best hitting with men on base. Craig is hitting .317 overall, but .452 with runners in scoring position. While he strikes out 17 percent of the time overall, he cuts that down to 10 percent with RISP -- an approach that suggests he’s cutting down on his swing, looking to put the ball in play more than looking for the home run.

Just as importantly, he has stayed healthy all season after playing 119 games last year and 75 in 2011, when he was a key bench player who hit three home runs in the World Series.

Craig is no longer a bench guy. He's an All-Star and maybe the toughest out in the St. Louis lineup.

Especially if you try to sneak a fast one past him.

The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.
Paul GoldschmidtStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesPaul Goldschmidt has been money in late-inning situations for the Diamondbacks in 2013.
So Paul Goldschmidt's "clutch" credentials so far are pretty spectacular:
  • He's hitting .431 and slugging .914 with runners in scoring position.
  • He has four go-ahead homers in the eighth or later, most in the majors, including this three-run homer with two outs in the eighth on Friday against the Giants. (Why Goldschmidt was allowed to face a left-hander there is another discussion).
  • He's hitting .368 and slugging .754 in so-called high-leverage situations.
  • He leads the majors in a statistic called Win Probability Added, which calculates the change in probability of a player's team winning the game based on each individual outcome while batting. A single in the ninth inning of a tie game, for example, is worth more than a single in a 10-0 game. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs calculate the results a little differently, but Goldschmidt is best on both sites -- 4.0 WPA at B-R and 3.6 at FanGraphs.

The myth of the clutch hitter is one of the key sabermetric tenets, but that doesn't mean Goldschmidt hasn't been clutch; he has. He's been amazingly clutch. In focusing on the WPA statistic, for example, the only other players with a WPA of 3.0 are Chris Davis (both sites) and Josh Donaldson (FanGraphs). Miguel Cabrera, who leads the majors with 67 RBIs, ranks seventh on B-R (2.5 WPA) and sixth on FanGraphs (2.6 WPA). He's hit .493 with runners in scoring position, but has also had many more opportunities than Goldschmidt, who has 58 RBIs; Cabrera has 93 PAs with RISP versus 69 for Goldschmidt. But no hitter can match Goldschmidt's late-game heroics.

What sabermetricians argue, however, is that clutch hitting isn't a predictable result. Right now, for example, nine batters are hitting at least .400 with runners in scoring position -- Cabrera, Carlos Beltran, Freddie Freeman, Goldschmidt, Brandon Phillips, Adrian Gonzalez, Kelly Johnson, Alejandro De Aza and Allen Craig. Last year, only Craig finished at .400. Cabrera hit .356 with runners in scoring position, but he hit .356 because he's a good hitter. In 2011, nobody hit .400 with RISP, with Victor Martinez topping the list at .394.

Since 2009, the top 10 leaders in batting average with runners in scoring position are Craig (.367), Joey Votto (.360), Cabrera (.357), Adrian Gonzalez (.357), De Aza (.351), Joe Mauer (.341), Salvador Perez (.336), Goldschmidt (.328), Donaldson (.328) and Jordan Pacheco (.324). No. 11 is Jesus Guzman. There are some odd names in there (De Aza is even slugging .554), but I've never heard anyone refer to De Aza or Pacheco as one of the game's best clutch hitters. But the odd names are guys with small sample sizes; the big names -- even Craig is a career .302 hitter -- are guys who hit well regardless of the situation.

Back to Goldschmidt. What I'm getting at is that his clutch hitting will likely slow down, considering he's on pace for over 10 WPA. Here are Baseball-Reference's 10 best WPA seasons since 2009:

1. Prince Fielder, Brewers, 2009: 8.0
2. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays, 2011: 8.0
3. Albert Pujols, Cardinals, 2009: 8.0
4. Prince Fielder, Brewers, 2011: 7.7
5. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers, 2011: 7.6
6. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers, 2010: 7.5
7. Joey Votto, Reds, 2011: 7.1
8. Joey Votto, Reds, 2010: 6.9
9. Ryan Braun, Brewers, 2011: 6.4
10. Ryan Howard, Phillies, 2009: 6.4

(FanGraphs rates Pujols' 2009 as the best in this period at 8.2).

If we go back 20 years to include seasons when offensive levels were much higher, only three players have cracked the 10.0 WPA barrier -- Barry Bonds in 2004, Barry Bonds in 2001 and Barry Bonds in 2002. Both sites also agree that the only two other seasons to top 9.0 WPA were Pujols in 2006 and Mark McGwire in 1998.

How good was Bonds? Since we have play-by-play data (mostly complete since 1954), Baseball-Reference rates only one other season at 10.0 WPA -- Willie McCovey's 1969 MVP year with the Giants when he hit .320 with 45 home runs and drove in 126 runs despite being intentionally walked 45 times. McCovey hit .349 with RISP but he really shone in the same situations Goldschmidt has thus far: He hit .390 with eight home runs in "late and close" situations. Even then, however, his heroics didn't quite match what Goldschmidt has done. McCovey hit three game-tying home runs in the eighth or later, but no go-ahead home runs. He did hit three go-ahead home runs in the seventh inning.

That's how great Goldschmidt has been; he's been more clutch than one of the great clutch seasons ever.
There is no scientific way to pick an all-underrated team. Well, I suppose there is some formula we could come up with, but that would be about as much fun as watching Brendan Ryan take batting practice. So let's go with an unscientific approach: my gut instinct. Plus how many times Eric Karabell and I talk about these guys being underrated at dinner. (He's sick of me bringing up Kyle Seager every Monday night. I remind him he's the only good position player right now on the Mariners.)

So here we go: The 2013 SweetSpot All-Underrated team, guys who don't seem to receive as much national acclaim as they deserve. Note: It's hard to be underrated if you play for an East Coast team, especially ones named "Yankees" or "Red Sox."

C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Had a breakout season with the bat last year, hitting .320 with 12 home runs in between a stint on the DL for breaking his hand when a suitcase fell on it. Aside from his offense, statheads know Lucroy as one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Assuming he stays away from suitcases, the Brewers will reap benefits from his team-friendly contract: He'll make $15 million through 2017.

1B -- Allen Craig, Cardinals
Craig is still looking for his first home run of 2013, but a year ago he replaced Albert Pujols and hit .307/.354/.522 -- that's a higher on-base and slugging percentage than Pujols had with the Angels. Craig hit over .300 in the minors but his lack of a defensive home kept him off prospect lists and he didn't play 100 games in a major league season until last year, when he was already 27. He's a late bloomer but that doesn't mean he can't rake.

2B -- Neil Walker, Pirates
Unlike Craig, Walker seemed to spend forever on prospect lists, first as a catcher, then as a third baseman. He's settled in at second base, but playing for Pittsburgh his solid ability at the bat goes unnnoticed. He's not a star, but a solid contributor who should hit .280 with 12-15 home runs and adequate defense.

3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager got off to a bad start and Karabell told me ESPN fantasy owners were dropping him like Raul Ibanez drops flies. Oh, the rash judgments of April. After a two-hit night Monday, Seager is up to .276/.337/.487. Unheralded coming up through the Seattle system, he has proved to be a better hitter than his North Carolina teammate, Dustin Ackley.

SS -- Brandon Crawford, Giants
OK, OK ... do I think his hot start with the bat is for real? No. Crawford has never really hit. But he's kind of a poor man's Andrelton Simmons, and while everyone raves about Simmons' ability in the field, nobody talks much about Crawford's. Just show them your ring, Brandon.

LF -- Josh Willingham, Twins
Willingham has put up good numbers at the plate for years -- including a monster 35-homer, 110-RBI season last season -- but he has played for the Marlins, Nationals, A's and Twins when they all had bad seasons and has never appeared in a postseason game. He may get that chance this year if the Twins trade him to a contender. (Not that the Twins can't contend! You never know!)

CF -- Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
He's finally getting some recognition thanks to his hot start (.366 average, better-than-Votto .521 OBP), but even then some people just want to talk about his shaky defense in center. He was a good player for the Indians for several years before coming to Cincy and I see his first All-Star Game in his future.

RF -- Norichika Aoki, Brewers
He came over from Japan last year and quietly hit .288/.355/433, lashed out 51 extra-base his, stole 30 bases and played a very good right field. He also made appearances as Bernie Brewer and at least four times raced as the Italian sausage.

SP -- Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
Quick: Which starting pitcher has led the AL in ERA since last July 1? I hope you guessed Iwakuma. In 20 games, he has a 2.44 ERA, edging out Justin Verlander's 2.51 mark, and held batters to a .225 average. He's off to a great start in 2013, with a 1.69 ERA through four starts and just 12 hits in 26.2 innings. His fastball isn't overpowering, but he gets away with throwing 90 mph fastballs up in the zone and mixing a good splitter.

SP -- Mike Minor, Braves
I'll break my East Coast rule to include Minor, who also has been dominant since last July 1, with a 2.00 ERA that is second in the majors only to teammate Kris Medlen. I believe he's for real.

What do you think? Whom would you put on your All-Underrated Team?

By the way, check out the video. Who do I think is overrated? You may be surprised.
Bryce HarperAndrew Innerarity/ReutersCan Bryce Harper make the jump to MVP in just his second year in the league?
It's that time of year when everyone is starting to make their predictions: division winners, playoff teams, World Series champion, number of wins under .500 for the Yankees.

Of course, we're also making Most Valuable Player picks. I sent in my selections to our editors the other day and went with Mike Trout (AL) and Joey Votto (NL). Not exactly going out on a limb there. I suspect most picks you'll see will be similar, players culled from the game's recognized elite: Past winners like Miguel Cabrera, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and Votto, or stars like Trout, Matt Kemp, Robinson Cano, Andrew McCutchen, Prince Fielder and so on.

It wouldn't be a surprise if any of those players ultimately takes home MVP honors in 2013. What may surprise you, however, is how often the MVP winner is a surprise, at least when looking back at prediction time in March.

Since 1980, there have been 66 MVP winners -- 19 of them were players who had never previously finished in the top 15 in MVP voting. That's 29 percent. Twelve of those 19 had never received any MVP points, not even a 10th-place vote. That means there's a pretty good chance one of this year's MVP winners will be a choice nobody really expects right now.

I'm going to present my top-five stealth MVP candidates in each league. First, however, keep in mind two primary de facto rules for MVP voting:

1. Your team has to reach the postseason. Nearly every MVP winner in recent years has come from a playoff team. In cases where two players have a solid claim, the award always goes to the guy heading to the postseason (Cabrera over Trout in 2012, Braun over Kemp in 2011, Votto over Pujols in 2010, etc.).

2. It helps to be an RBI guy. Voters still love RBIs.

OK, let's review the previous 19 surprise MVP winners since 1980 to see what we can learn (with each player's previous high in MVP voting listed):
  • Joey Votto, 2010 NL (22nd in 2009) -- Added power, Reds made the playoffs.
  • Dustin Pedroia, 2008 AL (none) -- Led league in runs, hits and doubles.
  • Ryan Howard, 2006 NL (none) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.
  • Justin Morneau, 2006 AL (none) -- RBI guy (130) in weak group of candidates.
  • Miguel Tejada, 2002 AL (16th in 2000) -- RBI guy (131) on team that won 103 games.
  • Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 AL (none) -- Led league in hits, steals, average (.350).
  • Ken Caminiti, 1996, NL (none) -- Veteran had all-time fluke season.
  • Mo Vaughn, 1995 AL (17th in 1994) -- Led league in RBIs.
  • Jeff Bagwell, 1994 NL (19th in 1992) -- Led league in runs, RBIs, slugging, hit .368.
  • Terry Pendleton, 1991 NL (none) -- Veteran had career year at the plate, leadership.
  • Barry Bonds, 1990 NL (none) -- Young player who took big leap.
  • Kevin Mitchell, 1989 NL (none) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.
  • Jose Canseco, 1988 AL (20th in 1986) -- Led league in home runs, RBIs.
  • Roger Clemens, 1986 AL (none) -- Went 24-4 in first full season.
  • Willie McGee, 1985 NL (none) -- Hit .353, only year to receive MVP votes.
  • Ryne Sandberg, 1984 NL (none) -- Future Hall of Famer in breakout season.
  • Willie Hernandez, 1984 AL (none) -- Reliever was one of unlikeliest MVPs ever.
  • Cal Ripken, 1983 AL (30th in 1982) -- Second-year shortstop led O's to World Series.
  • Robin Yount, 1982 -- (17th in 1980, 1981) -- Got better and Brewers won division.

What are the lessons here? Not surprisingly, 18 of the 19 were on playoff teams, the exception being Howard on the 2006 Phillies. As you can see from the notes, many of them were RBI leaders or guys like Morneau, Tejada and Caminiti, who each drove in at least 130. There are younger players (Pedroia and Ripken were in their second seasons, while Votto, Morneau, Canseco, Clemens and Sandberg were in their third). There are younger veterans hitting their peaks (Tejada, Bagwell, Bonds, Yount). There are complete surprises (Caminiti, Pendleton, McGee, Hernandez). And Ichiro, who is kind of in his own category.

With that in mind, I'm going to focus on younger players on playoff contenders. Thus, no Giancarlo Stanton, Starlin Castro or Anthony Rizzo, since the Marlins and Cubs are unlikely playoff contenders. So here are five stealth MVP candidates for the National League, guys who have never finished in the top 15 of the MVP voting.


Who is the best NL stealth MVP candidate?


Discuss (Total votes: 6,909)

5. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves. Best MVP finish: 20th in 2010. Heyward's all-around game is beloved by sabermetricians, and at 23 he could be ready for that monster season after hitting .269 with 27 home runs last year while winning a Gold Glove. The key may be that batting average: Since 1990, the only non-pitcher MVP not to hit .300 was Jimmy Rollins in 2007 (he hit .296).

4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals. Best MVP finish: 16th in 2010. Admittedly, this doesn't feel much like a stealth selection since Zimmerman finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2006 and has been an outstanding player since. But he's never placed high in the MVP voting, so he qualifies as a sleeper. He's had some injury issues in the past, but in the second half of last year he hit .319 AVG/.381 OBP/.564 SLG with 17 home runs. Do that over a full season on a team that could be the best in baseball, and you're in the MVP debate.

3. Allen Craig, 1B, Cardinals. Best MVP finish: 19th in 2012. Craig fits a lot of the parameters above. While he's entering his age-28 season, he's also had just one full season in the majors (and even then, he played just 119 games last year). He can hit -- .307/.354/.522 in 2012 -- and drove in 92 runs in those 119 games. That prorates to 116 over 150 games. His biggest obstacles are that the Cardinals could have other MVP candidates, such as Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday, and Craig has to stay healthy.

2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks. Best MVP finish: None. Go through the checklist. Young player who could make the leap? Check. (He's entering his second full season.) On a playoff contender? Check. (I like Arizona's chances to win the West.) RBI guy? Check. (Hitting in the middle of the Arizona order, he drove in 82 last year.) Obviously, he'll have to improve on his .286/.359/.490 line, but if he turns some of his 43 doubles into home runs and raises that average 20-25 points, he could drive in 120. Plus, he stole 18 bases in 21 attempts and plays a solid first base. Teammate Miguel Montero is another sleeper, but Goldschmidt is the better bet for a breakout season.

1. Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals. Best MVP finish: 30th in 2012. Too young? Maybe so, but he hit .270/.340/.477 as a 19-year-old rookie, improving down the stretch, and young players can show huge year-to-year improvement. Consider also that Pedroia, Howard and Ripken went from Rookie of the Year to MVP in their sophomore seasons (Canseco and Sandberg did it in their third years), so there's precedent there as well. Harper hit 22 home runs and swiped 18 bases last year in 139 games; 30-30 isn't out of reach. As with Heyward, Harper will have to show improvement in his batting average, and his RBI total will depend on a large degree to where he hits in the Nationals order, but if he does end up hitting third, I won't be surprised if he puts up the numbers to impress the MVP voters.

You may think the following players are stealth, but they've finished in the top 15 of the MVP voting: Chase Headley, Pablo Sandoval, Clayton Kershaw, Martin Prado, Jay Bruce, Justin Upton.
We've heard the rumors and seen the tweets and gone to bed dreaming: The Miami Marlins will listen to offers for Giancarlo Stanton. Now, listening to offers isn't the same thing as actively looking to make a deal, and assistant GM Dan Jennings told Jim Bowden yesterday on MLB Radio that they aren't shopping their young outfielder. Others have tweeted that the Mariners and Marlins discussed a deal, but they ain't close.

Which begs the question: Is it even possible to trade Stanton? I mean, it's possible, of course; these are the Marlins after all and they'll do anything, and they'll presumably have 28 teams besides the Mariners making at least a token inquiry ("Hello, would Peter Bourjos, Mark Trumbo and a lifetime pass to Disney World do the trick?").

First off, let's see who Stanton is right now, besides a big dude who hits home runs that could clear Alligator Alley. He just completed his age-22 season (and spent the entire season at 22) and hit 37 home runs despite missing 39 games. He hit .290 and led the National League in slugging percentage, even more impressive considering the Marlins' new park was a tough home run park. Basically, we're talking about a guy who has 650 plate appearances could hit 50 home runs and is young enough to improve his batting averages and on-base percentages. He compiled 5.4 Wins Above Replacement in 2012 and already has 12.0 in his two-plus seasons in the majors.

Importantly for any trade, he still has four years of team control until he hits free agency.

What I want know: Has there ever been a player like Stanton who has been traded? A guy so young and so good?

I went back to 1950 and found the position players who had accumulated the most value through their age-24 seasons. If Stanton has two more 5.5-win seasons, he would have 23 Wins Above Replacement through age 24 -- squeezed in between No. 15 Willie Mays and No. 16 Barry Bonds. (Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. are 1-2-3 on the list.)

Stanton is already 87th on this list.

From what I can gather, seven of the top 100 were traded before their 25th birthdays. Five of those seven were traded as prospects and don't really compare, but let's list them anyway:
  • Willie Randolph (No. 22): From what I can tell, Randolph was essentially a throw-in an exchange of pitchers -- Dock Ellis for Doc Medich -- between the Pirates and Yankees.
  • Hanley Ramirez (No. 45): Traded for Josh Beckett.
  • Ryne Sandberg (No. 51): Another throw-in, when the Phillies and Cubs exchanged shortstops, Ivan DeJesus for Larry Bowa. The Phillies just missed the boat, even though he'd played well as a 21-year-old at Triple-A.
  • Tom Brunansky (No. 89): Brunansky had been a first-round pick of the Angels, but they traded him to the Twins for reliever Doug Corbett and second baseman Rob Wilfong. Brunansky hit 107 home runs through his age-24 season.
  • Elvis Andrus (No. 93): While still in Class A, part of the Mark Teixeira trade.

So that leaves only two of the top 100 traded after they had established themselves as major leaguers. The first of those was Roberto Alomar. He was just 23 but had already spent three seasons in the majors when the Blue Jays and Padres made their infamous challenge trade at the 1990 winter meetings -- Alomar and Joe Carter for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. That deal doesn't really apply since the Marlins would be looking for a package of prospects.

So that leaves one comparable deal. Perhaps not surprisingly, it involves an ex-Marlin, Miguel Cabrera, who was traded to the Tigers after his age-24 season. Cabrera only had two seasons left of team control at the time but he'd already had two top-five MVP finishes. The Marlins received six prospects in the deal (Dontrelle Willis also went to Detroit) but the two prizes were Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller.

Obviously, the deal didn't work out, but Maybin and Miller were both consensus top-10 prospects at the time (Maybin No. 6 and Miller No. 10 on the Baseball America list). Considering Stanton has four years of control, he would likely command more than that in a trade. Conservatively, we're looking at a player who will compile 20 WAR over the next four seasons and more likely closer to 25, with a high probability of a couple MVP-caliber seasons.

What kind of deals are even remotely close? Remember, R.A. Dickey was just traded for two of the Blue Jays' top prospects, including the highly-rated catcher Travis d'Arnaud.

1. Rangers send Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt and Martin Perez for Stanton and Ricky Nolasco. Jim Bowden tossed this one Insider out there last week. Profar is the No. 1 prospect in the game and is highly regarded enough that 20 WAR (or better) over six seasons isn't a stretch of the imagination. Olt should have a nice big league career as well, although he has some swing-and-miss to his game that raises concerns.

2. Mariners trade Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and Nick Franklin for Stanton. If the Marlins want young pitching that is close to big-league ready then the Mariners are the team to deal with. Walker appears to be a consensus top-10 overall prospect although Hultzen's status has dropped a bit after control issues in Triple-A. The Mariners could include a major-league ready outfielder like Michael Saunders.

3. Cardinals trade Oscar Taveras, Shelby Miller, Allen Craig and Trevor Rosenthal for Stanton. The Cardinals have prospects to deal and could move Carlos Beltran to first base if Craig is dealt. Taveras and Miller are top-20 prospects although Miller's minor league numbers raise questions and neither is a consensus top-10 guy. Rosenthal looked dominant in the bullpen during his big league call-up but started in the minors.

4. Pirates trade Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Alen Hanson for Stanton. This is similar to the Mariners' deal -- Cole is a top-10 prospect with a huge arm, Taillon is another pitcher who probably ranks in the overall top 20 and Hanson is a comparable infield prospect to Franklin. An outfielder like Starling Marte could be included. And, like the Mariners, the Pirates probably wouldn't want to deal away their young pitching anyway, no matter how great Stanton's future.

We're already stretching the possibilities and I'm not sure the Marlins would do any of those trades. The Orioles would have to start with Dylan Bundy and add other parts. The Rays could start with Wil Myers and some of their young pitching. The Padres have a lot of young talent in the pipeline, but no one player who stands out.

The Marlins may be listening, but will they stay on the line?

What do you think?

We just witnessed one of the most amazing games in postseason history. Whether this game will eventually earn itself a place alongside other legendary games remains to be seen -- after all, Cardinals-Nationals doesn’t quite have the same buzz to it as Red Sox-Yankees or Dodgers-Giants -- but I can assure you this: None of us has ever seen this before.

No team had ever rallied from more than four runs down to win a sudden-death postseason game, and only two teams had done that -- the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 7 of the 1925 World Series against the, yes, Washington Senators, and the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

The St. Louis Cardinals made history in remarkable fashion.

Of course, that means, with the 9-7 loss, the Washington Nationals made history in the most heartbreaking fashion possible.

I had an entire post written, telling Nationals fans that winning in the postseason isn’t easy, that even holding a six-run lead is never easy, that playoff baseball makes your stomach churn and all that.

I wrote that assuming they would hold on to the lead. Even after Gio Gonzalez once again lost the ability to throw a ball over home plate and the Cardinals scored three runs. Even after Edwin Jackson was for some reason summoned from the bullpen to pitch an inning and allowed a run. Even after Daniel Descalso homered in the eighth off Tyler Clippard to make the score 6-5. But when the Nationals added an insurance run in eighth, it felt like Nationals fans could finally breathe.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Descalso
AP Photo/Nick WassDaniel Descalso, right, drove home the tying runs, then scored the final one of the Cards' comeback.
On the other hand, as Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma -- a man apparently of few words -- said after delivering the go-ahead two-run single: "Never give up."


* * * *

Friend of mine after the game, not a Cardinals fan or Nationals fan: “If the Mariners ever lost a game like this, I'd be in a hospital.”

Postseason baseball is the most exhilarating ride in sports.

Postseason baseball is the cruelest of sports.

* * * *

Carlos Beltran is awesome. He singled in the first, walked and scored in the fourth, walked in the fifth when the Cardinals scored twice off Gonzalez, doubled in the seventh to move Jon Jay to third (Jay would score), doubled to deep right-center off Drew Storen leading off the ninth. What a game. Five plate appearances, five times on base. One of the great sudden-death game performances a hitter has had.

* * * *

Calvin Schiraldi, Bill Buckner, Donnie Moore, Grady Little and company, Jose Mesa, the guy pitching in the Francisco Cabrera game (actually it was two, Doug Drabek and Stan Belinda), David Cone and Black Jack McDowell … and, yes, even Mariano Rivera. And now Drew Storen.

* * * *

Yadier Molina had a terrific at-bat in the ninth inning with two outs and Beltran on second. He was 2-for-18 in the series when he stepped in and had left the bases loaded in the fifth, flying out to right field on a 2-0 fastball from Gonzalez. The pitch sequence:

Slider low.
Fastball fouled back. (Fans standing, cheering, mustering strength to wave their red towels, two strikes away!)
Fastball outside.
A 96-mph fastball fouled away. (One strike away!)
A slider that dipped low. I don’t know how Molina held up. Tremendous pitch awareness and bat control.
Fastball high.

From the moment that Allen Craig struck out, Storen threw 12 pitches, any of which could have ended the game. Six pitches to Molina. Six more to David Freese, who also walked. The 13th pitch was a 94 mph fastball that Descalso ripped hard up the middle, off the glove of Ian Desmond, the ball bounding far enough into center field to easily score pinch runner Adron Chambers with the tying run.

* * * *

Kozma, a guy who hit .232 in Triple-A, playing only because of the September injury to starting shortstop Rafael Furcal, then lined a 2-2 fastball into right field to score two more runs. (Descalso had smartly stolen second base).

Washington manager Davey Johnson could have walked Kozma once Descalso stole second base. Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who had pitched the eighth inning, was due up next, although Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had sent backup catcher Tony Cruz, the last player left on the bench, to the on-deck circle as a decoy. He’d be entering the game anyway for Molina, who had been run for. Kozma has been pretty hot, hitting .333 for the Cardinals during his September call-up and homering earlier in this season.

Johnson could have put Kozma on and pitched to Cruz, which would have served two purposes: Force Matheny to bat Cruz, a guy who hit .254/.267/.365 in 126 at-bats, but also a guy without an at-bat in nine days. More importantly, it would have likely forced Matheny to pull Motte. Matheny already used Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs, so that would have meant the Cardinals would be using, at best, their fifth-best reliever in the ninth.

Huge mistake by Johnson and I can only guess he was in such a state of shock he didn’t have time to think the situation through properly.

* * * *

Yes, the Nationals could have used Stephen Strasburg. That’s obvious. Whether that lost the series for them is debatable. But I’m pretty sure he would have helped somewhere along the line.

Well, that was insane.

Fans of the new system will say this is exactly the kind of excitement baseball needs.

Critics will suggest this game sums up everything that’s wrong with a one-game playoff series. One bad throw (or three), one mental error, one ... umm, one bad umpiring call shouldn’t knock you out of the postseason.

Did I say bad call? Atrocious? Abominable? Disgraceful? How do you properly sum up what happened in the bottom of the eighth inning when umpire Sam Holbrook raised his right arm and all hell broke loose?

If you watched the game, you know what happened: The Braves trailed the Cardinals 6-3 and had runners on first and second when Andrelton Simmons popped out to shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma drifted about 70 feet beyond the infield dirt ... and suddenly peeled off, the ball plunking harmlessly onto the grass in front of Matt Holliday. The Braves had the bases loaded and the Ted was rocking with noise.

Except ... say it ain’t so. Holbrook called an infield fly rule, raising his arm right about the time Kozma peeled off. That meant Simmons was out, and Jason Motte would eventually escape the inning when he blew a 98-mph fastball past Michael Bourn with the bases loaded. The Braves got two more runners on in the ninth but Motte retired Dan Uggla to finish off the 6-3 victory.

But the whole complexion of the game changes if the Braves have the bases loaded with one out and Brian McCann up. Maybe the whole complexion of the postseason changes. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested the game, but the infield fly rule is a judgment call, even when the judgment is terrible.

Rule 2.00 refers to a ball that "could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder." It doesn’t mean the ball has to be in the infield. The rule is in place so an infielder can’t trick baserunners by purposely dropping a pop fly to turn a double play. In this case, Kozma was so far out in the outfield, a trick double play would have been an impossible and absurd feat to attempt.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez, Sam Holbrook
AP Photo/Todd KirklandFredi Gonzalez and the Braves played under protest after the infield-fly call by Sam Holbrook, right.
So Holbrook’s name will now go down in history alongside Don Denkinger and Richie Garcia, the umps on the Jorge Orta play in the 1985 World Series and the Jeffrey Maier/Derek Jeter home run in the 1996 American League Championship Series, respectively.

That play will tarnish the result of this game. Braves fans tarnished the game by littering the field with garbage, forcing a long delay as the Cardinals had to temporarily leave the field. And the wild-card round began its history with a game that will be long remembered.

* * * *

Controversy aside, the Braves played about as bad a game of baseball as you can play: Physical errors, mental errors, terrible managerial decisions. It was typical Bad News Braves in the playoffs; the franchise is now 9-20 in the postseason going back to the 2001 National League Championship Series and losers of seven consecutive playoff series if you include this one-game affair.

Sadly, with the big “10” carved into the outfield grass and the thunderous ovations he received each time he came to bat, Chipper Jones’ final game of his career will also be remembered for his crucial throwing error in the fourth inning.

Carlos Beltran had singled to lead off the inning, the first hit off Kris Medlen (whose streak of the Braves winning 23 consecutive games he started would end). Holliday drilled a one-hopper that Chipper snared -- an easy double-play ball. Except Chipper chucked the ball into right field. Allen Craig followed with an RBI double over Martin Prado’s head in left field. After an RBI groundout and sac fly, the Cardinals had three runs and a 3-2 lead instead of zero runs and a 2-0 deficit.

After a Holliday home run made it 4-2, the Braves fell apart again in the seventh inning. Uggla bobbled and then threw away David Freese’s routine grounder, putting Freese on second base. Mike Matheny pinch-ran speedster Adron Chambers, a key maneuver that would pay dividends moments later. A sac bunt moved Chambers to third.

Now, consider the situation if you’re the Braves: You’re down 4-2, with a runner on third with one out. Your season is on the line. You can’t afford to give up any more runs. What’s the best way to escape the jam? You need a strikeout. Do the Braves have a reliever like that? Anybody you can think of? Anybody who struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced this season, the highest rate in the history of major league baseball?

Did Gonzalez call on Craig Kimbrel? Nope. He brought on Chad Durbin, a pitcher who struck out 19 percent of the batters he faced. Durbin did induce Kozma to hit a grounder to Simmons at shortstop, but the rookie bobbled the ball and rushed his throw home (with the speedy Chambers running, he didn’t really have much of a chance once he bobbled the play), throwing wildly to let Kozma reach second. If Freese had been running, maybe Simmons doesn’t hurry the throw. That made it 5-2 and Matt Carpenter's infield single scored Kozma. After committing the fewest errors in the league during the season, the Braves made three in this game.

Another head-scratching move came in the bottom of the fourth when the Braves had runners at the corners with one out and Simmons -- the No. 8 hitter -- up. Gonzalez apparently called a safety squeeze. Simmons bunted in front of the plate -- slow-footed Freddie Freeman either missed the play (which is what the TBS broadcasters said Gonzalez told them) or decided not to run since the bunt was too close to the plate. On the resulting throw to first, Simmons ran too far inside the baseline and was ruled out for interference when the throw bounced off his head (it was clearly the correct call). Medlen struck out to end the threat.

This game goes down as the Holbrook Affair. Braves fans will forever blame the umps. In truth, the Braves have nobody to blame but themselves.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield

Cardinals' unhappy formula for failure

September, 16, 2012

If there’s one takeaway where the defending world champs are concerned, it’s this: Even wounded, these Cardinals could still fly. Most teams, you scratch a No. 1 starter, a leadoff man and a cleanup hitter, and you might expect them to be long since dead in the water. But even without Chris Carpenter, without Rafael Furcal, without Lance Berkman -- all of that in the post-Pujols era -- no matter how many blows the Cards take, they aren’t dead, not by a long shot.

The big question, though, isn’t why they’re still going, but why they’re not ahead just the same. With a record that is games worse than expected, they’re supposed to be able to lose games like Saturday night’s -- a 4-3 defeat in Los Angeles -- and not break a sweat. But that’s not where they are. Instead, they’ve fallen into a tie with the Dodgers for the National League’s last slot.

It isn’t supposed to have worked out this way. Allen Craig plated every run the Cardinals scored, a Pujolsian feat that also reflects a creeping problem for the Cards’ offense: The league-leading attack that had been scoring 5 runs per game before the All-Star break has dropped off to score 4.4 runs per game since. They were allowing 4.2 runs before the break, and they’re at 4.0 runs allowed per nine after, but because of the offense’s drop-off, the margins they get to work with have narrowed.

The first-half question over why the Cardinals weren’t doing as well as they should has become more persistent in the second half, and after a swing game like Saturday’s, the uncomfortable questions are unavoidable.

Is it the manager? Rookie manager Mike Matheny’s under fire, but he was tasked with the impossible task of following in Tony La Russa’s footsteps as the old mast heads down the road to Cooperstown. It’s easy to single out the Cardinals’ record in one-run games -- now 18-25 -- and assert that some better manager to be named later would do better than that.

But that’s looking for a fall guy, and Matheny may not really deserve that, save as a matter of expectations as the first-year skipper managing a defending world champ. Any suggestion that La Russa might be the Cardinals’ missing man most missed might have needed one particular proof this night: Would the bullpen deliver? Love it or hate it, that’s the gold standard by which most managers get judged by many commentators and fans, because ’pen management is the one task that’s transparent to the public.

After getting a good game from Jaime Garcia, without getting too clever playing matchup games Matheny ran through his crew in straightforward style: Edward Mujica to Mitchell Boggs to Jason Motte ... and Motte blew it, giving up a two-out double in the ninth to Luis Cruz for the tie, then gave up the game-losing single to Juan Rivera.

There was no special brand of genius involved, just a scripted set-up gone wrong: Closer tasked with closing, leaves the door open, then sees it blown off its hinges. If Matheny’s to be judged, it’s by exactly the same standard that Casey Stengel suggested back in the day, in happier circumstances after winning the 1958 World Series: “I couldna dunnit without the players.”

To Matheny’s credit, he managed other elective tasks just fine on Saturday night. Swapping around in the middle infield midgame is the Cardinals’ lot. Early on they paid the penalty of making Daniel Descalso a shortstop as a matter of need: His first error in the first inning created the Dodgers’ first score. With second baseman Descalso playing short and converted outfielder Skip Schumaker starting at second, the Cards have been sacrificing defense to put their best available players in the lineup. Is that on Matheny? No more than the subsequently regretted decision to dump key utilityman Tyler Greene on the Astros.

With a lead six frames into the game, out came Schumaker, in came good-glove Pete Kozma at shortstop, and Descalso slid back to his natural position. Lineup management isn’t particle physics. Inveterate tinkerer La Russa may be history in every sense of the word, but this sort of lineup tinkering can still go on without him as Matheny tries to compensate for losing Furcal.

Given the Cardinals’ increasingly narrow margins, watching every run, every opportunity, forces Matheny to make tough calls. You can’t really blame him for the choices he made, given the options he had. No less than the bullpen blowing the game, you can’t blame him too badly for having Descalso at short. The agony for the Cardinals right now is that it’s adding up to just enough to lose.

Jason MotteHarry How/Getty ImagesWell that Jason Motte might cover his face after blowing the save on Saturday night.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Is the stretch Freese's time of year?

September, 2, 2012

Every season has its bright lights, new and old alike. Take the question of whose star burns brightest at the hot corner in the National League, right now. David Wright might be the obvious answer for best ballplayer at third base, but playing for the Mets, he might as well be shining down on the rest of us from the galaxy Irrelevant, light years away from a pennant race. Chipper Jones would probably be the next-best answer, but he’s a month and change from going nova and calling it quits, a superstar so bright he’ll be putting people in the shade from Cooperstown for decades to come.

Instead, right now, as the shadows of the season grow long, the question might be whether it’s that time of year again, that time when it will be David Freese’s star that burns brightest. That’s because the hero of last October’s action for the Cardinals could not have chosen a better time to reignite than on Saturday, because now, as then, the Cardinals absolutely need him.

Against the Nationals, Freese ripped a second-inning two-run homer that helped run Jordan Zimmermann out of the game early, then plated the deciding score in the ninth off Nationals set-up man Drew Storen in the Cardinals' 10-9 victory. It was a nice time for Freese to step up for all sorts of reasons: He helped end a four-game losing streak, he fueled an offense that had been limited to a lone run in those games, and he broke with his own recent bad run, as he’s struggled with a .650 OPS over the previous four weeks.

Last year might have represented Freese’s coming-out party, when he starred in October for the eventual champs by plating 21 October runs while clouting five homers, coming right on the heels of a nice September run (.844 OPS). Well-timed, sure, and maybe just that. But nice to have if he's on your team.

But coming-out or not, Freese's arrival has been something of a slow-moving development because of a career frequently interrupted by injury: He lost the second half of 2009 to surgery on his left foot, more than half of 2010 to ankle surgery on his right foot, and almost a third of the 2011 season to surgery to repair a broken hamate. As a result, Freese is already in his age-29 season, so there is no better time for him to blaze away than right now.

His recent slump aside, he’s nevertheless in the front rank of third basemen in this or any league. Despite the injuries he’s been remarkably strong year-to-year in his three full-ish seasons in the majors, never delivering a BABIP below .356 -- no, everybody does not inevitably “regress” to .300 -- while putting up career-best power (.172 Isolated Power) and a career-best walk rate (over 9 percent) in 2012. Hitting as many line drives as he strikes out -- 22 percent of the time for both -- puts Freese in rare company with younger sluggers like Carlos Gonzalez, Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt.

The Cardinals haven’t had a long-term answer at third base since they traded away Scott Rolen, and one of Freese’s many tests is whether he’ll be more like Rolen and less like another injury-prone temporary fix like Troy Glaus was for the Cardinals, briefly -- good to rent, but not reliably available. If he stays healthy, Freese could be better in his 30s than he was in his 20s, because you marry his past consistency with regular availability, and it's easy to anticipate good things.

In the meantime, if the Cardinals are going to have any shot at repeating last year’s 18-8 September run to get to October, they need Freese to heat up. Sure, they need Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday to deliver as well -- but both have struggled badly to get on base, putting up OBPs in the .260s in the last month. But a strong offense fires on more than one piston, or two. The ill-timed loss of Rafael Furcal to a torn-up elbow is a bad break, but even then, the Cardinals’ lineup has plenty of potential heroes. Allen Craig could fend off his own lengthy injury history and star down the stretch again. The Cards can hope that Lance Berkman’s comeback from an injured knee isn’t limited to sporadic spot starts and a whole lot of pinch-hitting. They’ll need Yadier Molina to bounce back from his most recent home-plate collision and continue crank out his own brand of MVP-level production from behind the plate.

But if now is the time that Freese fires his star back up again, it’ll make one cold August a quickly and easily forgotten memory. As much as the sabermetric community has happily helped kill off notions like clutch hitting as some innate, separate skill from being able to just flat-out hit, you can’t blame a guy like Freese for becoming famous if, now as then, he’s ready to run for the stretch, and perhaps blaze as brightly as any other star.

Bryce HarperBrad Mills/US PresswireJust what the Cardinals need, more home-plate mayhem for Yadier Molina his first night back.

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

July, 28, 2012
  • Three players this week -- Brett Lawrie on Sunday, Desmond Jennings on Wednesday and Starling Marte on Thursday -- took the very first pitch of the game out of the yard. Five players have now done that this season. Derek Jeter and Zack Cozart both pulled off the feat in June.
    In Marte’s case, it was his first major league at-bat, making him the first Pirate to homer in his debut since Don Leppert on June 18, 1961.
  • In Friday's game at Wrigley Field, Matt Holliday started the Cardinals' scoring with a solo homer in the first inning. Yadier Molina promptly went deep in the second; Lance Berkman in the third; Matt Carpenter in the fourth; and Allen Craig in the fifth. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cardinals are the first team to homer in each of the first five innings since the Astros did it on the final weekend of the 2004 season against the Rockies (Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, Biggio again, Eric Bruntlett and Kent again). And it was a first in Cardinals team history.
  • [+] EnlargeTravis Wood
    AP Photo/Paul BeatyChicago's Travis Wood became the first starter ever to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
    Travis Wood gave up all five of those homers, making him the fifth pitcher in Cubs history to surrender five long balls in a game (Carlos Zambrano did it last season), and according to Elias, the first starter ever -- for any team -- to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
  • Jim Johnson of the Orioles had a fairly rough Friday night. He started the ninth inning with his team clinging to a 9-8 lead. After a leadoff groundout, he gave up five singles and a walk in succession. All six runners would score, and Oakland rallied for a 14-9 win. Johnson is just the second pitcher this year to surrender six or more runs in a save situation. Brett Myers did it for Houston on June 28, although only one of his six runs ended up being earned. Since saves became official in 1969, only two other Orioles have done it -- Jim Hoey in 2006 and Doug Jones in 1995 -- and neither of them entered in the ninth.
  • Matt Harvey made his major league debut for the Mets on Thursday night, and promptly mowed down 11 Diamondbacks -- nine of them swinging -- in the process. It's been nearly two years since a pitcher hit double-digit strikeouts in his debut. Nope, not Stephen Strasburg (he did do it in 2010, but he's not the last). That would be Thomas Diamond of the Cubs, who struck out 10 Brewers on Aug. 3 of that season, but also gave up three runs and took the loss. Harvey, however, earned himself an even better distinction by getting a two-out double and a two-out single in his two plate appearances. Elias says that makes Harvey the first player in modern baseball history (since 1900) to strike out 10-plus batters and get two hits in his major league debut.
  • Chris Johnson had three hits for the Astros on Friday night -- a homer, a triple and a double. He never got the "elusive" single, striking out in his final at-bat. Johnson did walk in the game, but alas, this is not 1887 (the year when walks counted as base hits). That means Johnson became only the fifth player this season to miss the cycle by a single. Paul Goldschmidt (June 23) was the most recent. By comparison, 32 players have needed the homer, 11 the double and 149 the triple.
  • Couldn't let this week end without one leftover Kernel from last Saturday. The Cardinals sent 17 batters to the plate in a 12-run seventh inning against the Cubs. Allen Craig was up third, pinch hitting in the pitcher's spot. He doubled and scored. As the inning continued, Craig came up again as the 12th batter. He doubled and scored again -- thus becoming the first "pinch hitter" to have two doubles before taking the field since Bobby Kielty of the Twins did likewise on June 4, 2002.
    St. Louis went on to hit seven doubles in that inning, a feat accomplished only once before, by the 1936 Boston Bees (the five-year experimental rebranding of the Braves).
    As for the 12 runs in that inning, that turned out to be the only scoring in the game. The Cardinals shut out Chicago 12-0. And that had also happened only once before in MLB history. The Indians scored all 12 runs in the fourth inning to shut out the Yankees on July 2, 1943.
Statistical support for this story provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.