SweetSpot: Matt Holliday

It's a play that will go down in infamy, a game that may go down in infamy if the St. Louis Cardinals go on to win this World Series. The Cardinals beat the Boston Red Sox 5-4 in Game 3, but in a game that could be dissected in a thousand ways, everyone will be talking about the final play.

Hero: Allen Craig. Pinch-hitting in the ninth inning against Koji Uehara, he lined the first pitch into the left-field corner for a double that sent Yadier Molina to third base with one out. Then came the play, one of the most exciting, craziest, wildest, strangest, dumbest plays in World Series history. The Red Sox elected to pitch to Jon Jay -- with Pete Kozma and then Kolten Wong on deck -- and Jay grounded up the middle against the pulled-in infield, with Dustin Pedroia making a terrific diving stop and perfect throw to get Molina at home for the second out. That was the exciting part.

Now came the dumb part. With Craig and his injured foot running to third, Jarrod Saltalamacchia threw to third, even though Craig pretty clearly was going to beat the throw. Again: Two outs now, awful Kozma on deck. You can't risk the throw. Will Middlebrooks didn't help by not coming off the bag to catch the ball, which skidded off the tip of his glove.

Then came the crazy, wild and strange part. Craig scrambling to get up, tripping over Middlebrooks, Craig being thrown out but ruled safe due to an obstruction call on Middlebrooks. It's a judgment call, but I think it was the right call; Middlebrooks impeded Craig's progress to home plate. Third-base ump Jim Joyce made the call. Look, it's a hard call to make. Middlebrooks didn't have time to get out of the way; he's on the ground.

But how we got here: In the ninth inning, with one out, John Farrell let pitcher Brandon Workman bat. How can you concede an out in the ninth inning of a tie game? Mike Napoli was still available to pinch-hit. Afterward, Farrell said that, with the game looking like it may go extra innings, "We needed more than one inning out of Workman." No, you have to get to extra innings first. So Farrell not only gave away an out but used an inferior pitcher to start the ninth. Workman gave up the single to Molina to start the frame. So if you need an extra inning out of Workman, why go to Uehara? If you were going to use Uehara if a runner got on, why not hit for Workman? Completely inexplicable and awful decision by Farrell.

Goat: Salty and Farrell. You can't make that throw there. You have to hit for Workman and plan on two innings from Uehara if necessary. If that means using a lesser pitcher in the 11th inning, so be it.

Turning point: Well, there were three of them in the Cardinals' two-run seventh inning that initially broke a 2-2 tie.

1. Farrell brought in Craig Breslow to face the top of Cardinals' order. The top of the order for the Cardinals goes lefty (Matt Carpenter), switch-hitter (Carlos Beltran), righty (Matt Holliday) and lefty (Matt Adams), so there's really no big platoon advantage to be gained whether you go to the lefty Breslow or the righty Junichi Tazawa. You can debate whether Farrell should have pinch-hit for Felix Doubront in the top of the seventh with two outs and nobody on, considering Doubront had pitched two strong innings.

2. Carpenter reaches on a scratch infield single to shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who had just moved to third base after Stephen Drew had been hit for. Maybe Drew makes the play.

3. Beltran's elbow pad. Breslow's pitch barely grazed the pad, sending Beltran to first. New rule needed: Get hit on the pad, you don't get first base. Holliday followed with a two-run double off Tazawa.

Remember that bunt back in the first inning? The Cardinals scored twice in the first inning, getting four hard-hit singles off Jake Peavy (plus a lineout). But it potentially could have been an even bigger inning if not for Beltran's curious decision to attempt to bunt for a hit with a 3-1 count. It's not so much the bunt (which did move Carpenter to second) but the count: With a runner on and nobody out, Peavy is likely throwing a fastball there (and he did), which means Beltran was in a count to drive the pitch. There was speculation that if Beltran's sore ribs meant he couldn't swing left-handed, he shouldn't be in the lineup, but that will have to remain speculation for now. Beltran did look slow chasing after Bogaerts' triple later in the game, but seemed OK scoring from first on Holliday's double.

Missed opportunities: Twice the Cardinals had a runner on third with no outs and failed to score, inexcusable in any game, let alone Game 3 of the World Series. In the fourth inning, they loaded the bases with no outs against Peavy and the bottom of the order coming up. Kozma had an all-time awful at-bat, taking a called strike two and then a called strike three -- with the pitcher on deck. Look, the third strike was a perfect pitch -- a slider on the low and outside corner -- but you have to do anything to get that ball in play, even if it means grounding into a double play to score a run. Joe Kelly and Carpenter then both popped out. So credit to Peavy, but bad job by the Cardinals.

Then in the seventh, St. Louis again failed to score after Holliday reached third on his double (after an ill-advised throw home by Bogaerts) with none out. It looked like it would haunt the Cardinals ... then the play happened.
Some quick thoughts on Tuesday's results and a look forward to Wednesday.

Blown opportunity No. 1: The Orioles led the Yankees 4-1 after Chris Davis belted a big two-run homer in the fifth off Ivan Nova, but Alfonso Soriano and Mark Reynolds homered off Miguel Gonzalez in the sixth. Then it got interesting. Kevin Gausman had a one-two-three seventh inning, striking out Lyle Overbay and Brett Gardner, so Buck Showalter brought the rookie back out for the eighth. It's an inning Showalter might manage differently in an alternate universe. Alex Rodriguez doubled to lead off the inning, but Showalter left Gausman in to face Robinson Cano instead of bringing in lefty Brian Matusz. Cano singled to tie the game, and then Soriano homered again. No Matusz, no Tommy Hunter, no Francisco Rodriguez (until the lead had been surrendered). Hunter had pitched the day before but not two days prior. Matusz ended up pitching in the ninth anyway. Showalter put faith in his rookie, but Matusz versus Cano seemed like the obvious matchup there, with Hunter or Rodriguez facing Soriano.

Blown opportunity No. 2: Like the Orioles, the Indians had a chance to pick up a game on the Rays with Tampa Bay losing to Boston. They had 12 hits but grounded into three double plays, and the Royals won 6-3. Carlos Pena did not pinch-hit.

Blown opportunity No. 3: The A's led the Twins 3-2 in the eighth with a chance to pick up a game on the second-place Rangers, who would lose to the Pirates. The A's had lost just four games all season when they led heading into the eighth, but Sean Doolittle gave up a single and Ryan Cook entered to face Josh Willingham, who promptly deposited the baseball on the wrong side of the fence (for Oakland) -- the first homer Cook had allowed to a right-handed batter this season.

Pitching performance of the day: David Price allowed three hits in eight innings for the Rays. Unfortunately, two came in the same inning, as Boston scored twice in the fifth and Clay Buchholz and three relievers combined on a four-hit shutout.

At-bat of the night: Milwaukee's Wily Peralta had a no-hitter going in a 0-0 tie in the sixth inning against St. Louis. With two outs and Matt Carpenter on after a walk, Peralta fired a first-pitch, 95 mph fast one and Matt Holliday crushed it 426 feet to center field. The Cardinals went on to a 4-2 win.

Most important win: The Yankees climbed back to just two games behind the Rays.

Most important loss: Tough one for the Orioles, but at least Tampa Bay also lost. With St. Louis and Pittsburgh both winning, the Reds dropped three games behind the Cards and two behind the Pirates after losing to the Cubs (and Tony Cingrani left in the second inning with a back injury).

Wednesday's best pitching matchup: A.J. Burnett versus Matt Garza (Pirates at Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET). The Rangers are now 3-8 over their past 11 games, averaging fewer than three runs per game in that stretch. Garza likely needs a big effort as the Pirates go for the sweep. He's allowed four-plus runs in six of his past seven starts, not exactly what the Rangers expected when they traded for him.

Players to watch: Pedro Alvarez, Pirates, and Curtis Granderson, Yankees. Two similar lefty hitters -- home runs when they connect, but connecting can be a problem. Over the past two weeks, Alvarez is hitting .143/.217/.238 and Granderson is hitting .135/.200/.243.

Vote: Who has baseball's best outfield?

January, 27, 2013
Justin Upton has been in the news all offseason, especially once the Arizona Diamondbacks needed to fix their outfield logjam after signing free agent Cody Ross. Rumors throughout the winter included both Upton and Jason Kubel, but Braves acquired the 25-year-old to improve their already strong outfield.

There is no debate: Upton has been one of baseball's best outfielders over the past four years. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Upton has compiled the 10th-most Wins Above Replacement among corner outfielders since 2009, at 13.0. He ranks ahead of players like Giancarlo Stanton, Hunter Pence and Jayson Werth. Now part of an outfield that already includes brother B.J. Upton and another young phenom in Jason Heyward, the Braves arguably lay claim to one of baseball's best outfields.

That leads us to the obvious question: Which teams are in the mix for baseball's best outfield right now? I've come up with four candidates that could challenge the Braves:

Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout carries most of the weight here, as he alone gives the Angels one of the best outfields around. His 10.7 WAR last year was the most in a single season since Barry Bonds' 11.6 in 2002 and one of only 47 seasons of 10-plus WAR in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference (but not good enough for the AL MVP award, somehow). Trout does it all: hit for average (.326), hit for power (.238 isolated power), run (49 stolen bases in 54 attempts) and play incredible defense (he robbed hitters of at least three homers last season by my cursory research).

If this is starting to sound like an infomercial for the Angels' outfield, let me do my best Billy Mays impression: But wait, there's more! The Halos signed mercurial Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract during the offseason. Hamilton has been one of baseball's most feared hitters since joining the Rangers in 2008. Among hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances over the last five years, Hamilton's .386 weighted on-base average is 10th best, just a hair behind players such as Jose Bautista and Matt Holliday. The AL average wOBA in that span ranged between .315 and .330, showing how truly prolific Hamilton's bat has been. While Hamilton isn't much in the field or on the bases, he more than makes up for it with his offense.

Peter Bourjos will be splitting Trout and Hamilton in center field. While many think Trout should have remained the Angels' center fielder, no one denies Bourjos has the athletic tools to thrive as the captain of the outfield. In limited playing time, the speedster has already stolen 35 bases and showed offensive potential during the 2011 season in which he finished with a .271/.327/.438 slash line. In a full season, Bourjos projects to be an above-average player with a very high ceiling. Should he realize his potential, the Angels could very well have an outfield that combines for 15 WAR.

St. Louis Cardinals
Hard to argue against an outfield that has two potential Hall of Famers in Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday, and one of the United States' founding fathers in Jon Jay. Holliday hasn't finished a season with an adjusted OPS under 138 since 2005 in Colorado. The only other player with a 135 or better adjusted OPS in every season since 2006 is former teammate Albert Pujols.

Beltran had problems staying healthy in 2009-10, but has logged 500-plus plate appearances in each of the past two seasons at the ages of 34 and 35. Beltran's 128 OPS+ last season was one of only eight such seasons in the past four years by a player 35 years old or older. Beltran isn't close to finished yet, and along with Holliday will make up not only one of the most fearsome corner outfield combos, but also one of the most fearsome 3-4 duos as well.

Jay has turned into one of the game's better contact hitters. In three seasons, he has hit .300, .297, and .305, which has led to an aggregate on-base percentage of .359. He has also stolen 27 bases, 19 of which came last season. While he may not have the power of his outfield compatriots, he complements them perfectly and plays a solid center field, giving the Cardinals one of the more formidable outfields in the game.

Let's say Beltran can't stay healthy, or an unfortunate injury keeps Holliday or Jay out of the lineup. Then 20-year-old outfield prospect Oscar Taveras will be ready to step in and provide help. Last year with Double-A Springfield, Taveras posted a .321/.380/.572 slash line with 10 stolen bases, 23 homers and 94 RBIs. While there is no guarantee that Taveras would enjoy the same amount of success facing major league pitching, he is looking like one of baseball's few can't-miss prospects.

Washington Nationals
List of 19-year-olds to post a 5-WAR season in baseball history, according to Baseball-Reference:

Bryce Harper.

Yes, Harper is the only player to have had such a productive season at such a young age. Expand the age threshold to 20 and he is joined by a plethora of current and future Hall of Famers, including Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. The sky isn't even the limit for Harper; the expanse of the Milky Way galaxy seems to be, in much the same way it is for Trout. Like Trout, Harper does it all, and he does it all very well, which is why he went home with the NL Rookie of the Year award.

Werth, the $126 million man, works opposite Harper in right field. In the first year of his deal with the Nats, his production declined precipitously, leading many to declare his contract a failure. When he was healthy last season, he was extremely productive, finishing with a .300 average and a 125 adjusted OPS, numbers similar to those that made him such a good player in Philadelphia from 2007-10. While the days of him being a 35-plus homer threat, as he was in 2009, may be over, he still provides more production than most corner outfielders, which should make the Nationals plenty happy.

Rounding out the trio of outfielders in Nats Town is the recently acquired Denard Span, who will push Harper out of center field. Like Cardinals center fielder Jay, Span doesn't have the aesthetically-pleasing offense of his corner outfield teammates, but complements them well simply by getting on base, running the bases well, and playing competent defense. Span has finished with 3 or more WAR in three of his five seasons, making him one of the more valuable -- and underrated -- center fielders in recent years.

Oakland Athletics
Believe it or not, Athletics outfielders combined for the second-most home runs in the AL last season, trailing the New York Yankees 89 to 83. Josh Reddick led the way with 32 dingers as he broke out at the age of 25. He was one of nine players with 30-plus home runs and 10-plus stolen bases, joining the likes of Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen. While his low average and plethora of strikeouts depressed some of his offensive value, there was not much more the A's could have asked of him.

The Athletics were the surprising victors in the Yoenis Cespedes sweepstakes last offseason, signing the Cuban phenom to a four-year, $36 million deal. It looks like a mighty bargain right now. The 26-year-old finished with a 137 adjusted OPS, making him one of the game's most valuable hitters. Of course, Cespedes lost value spending 26 games at DH, spending a couple weeks on the DL and playing below-average defense when he was in the field. As he becomes ever more familiar with AL pitching, he will become better with age and he should develop into a consistent All-Star talent.

Coco Crisp patrolled center field at O.co Coliseum last year, but that position may fall to Chris Young, acquired from the Diamondbacks. Crisp has developed into a consistent 2-3 WAR player since coming to Oakland in 2010. In those three years, he has stolen 120 bases in 136 attempts (88 percent), hit at about the league average (which is great coming from a premium position), and played above-average defense in center field. Young missed time last year with a shoulder injury, but averaged 4.8 WAR in 2010 and 2011, when he hit 47 home runs and played a great center field. Look for Reddick and Cespedes to play every day, although they could be rotated through the DH spot as well.


Which team has baseball's best outfield?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,558)

With the Upton brothers and Heyward, where does Atlanta's outfield rank among the other four listed above? I'd put Atlanta's outfield at No. 2, behind the Angels.

1. Angels
2. Braves
3. Cardinals
4. Nationals
5. Athletics

The Dodgers' outfield (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier) was omitted because of health concerns. Due to defensive concerns, the Cincinnati outfield (Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo, Jay Bruce) was also omitted, and the Milwaukee outfield (Braun, Carlos Gomez, Norichika Aoki) was a close runner-up to the A's.

How would you rank baseball's best outfields?

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
Last weekend, I presented the top 10 teams in my personal power rankings. That was before the Blue Jays officially acquired R.A. Dickey, so I updated my top 10 after that trade, and, to spur on more debate, now present the rest of my rankings. Agree or disagree, but I do think this is the most parity we've seen in a long time. It's why the Orioles and A's were able to surprise this past season and why we will undoubtedly see another surprise team in 2013. It's a great time to be a baseball fan.

1. Nationals
Most talented rotation in the majors, deep lineup, depth. Re-signing Adam LaRoche to add another lefty power bat will help.

2. Reds
Superb rotation could be better if the Aroldis Chapman transition works, bullpen is deep enough to absorb his loss and Shin-Soo Choo provides a needed leadoff hitter.

3. Yankees
I think they can stretch things out more season with a deep rotation, excellent bullpen and power. Remember, they had the largest run differential in the American League last season.

4. Tigers
Deep rotation, great 1-2 punch with Miggy and Prince, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez should improve the lineup.

5. Braves
Left-handed power, power bullpen and a young team that could improve from last year's 94 wins.

6. Blue Jays
Addition of Dickey adds a needed No. 1 to a rotation that could be dominant if Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow remain healthy.

7. A's
Young teams that show big improvement are usually for real, and this team has a solid rotation, a strong outfield and power arms in the bullpen.

8. Dodgers
Have to love the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo and an offense with big upside if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez come close to 2011 levels.

9. Rangers
I think the rotation is playoff-caliber with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis.


Which of these five teams should be No. 1 right now?


Discuss (Total votes: 35,031)

10. Cardinals
Have to replace Kyle Lohse, but they'll score plenty of runs as long as Carlos Beltran (36 years old in April) and Matt Holliday (33 in January) keep producing.

11. Rays
Still some holes in the lineup, and replacing James Shields' 220-plus innings won't be that easy, but underestimate the Rays at your own risk.

12. Angels
Oddsmaker Bovada.lv has the Angels with the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Blue Jays), but I see a rotation with a lot of question marks behind Jered Weaver, and Josh Hamilton only replaces Hunter, who was terrific in 2012.

13. Giants
I discussed my issues with the Giants here. I could be wrong, although our friends at Bovada only put the Giants tied for ninth in their World Series odds.

14. Diamondbacks
Their run differential wasn't much different than the Giants last year, and they've added Brandon McCarthy, infield depth and still have Justin Upton.

15. Phillies
I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

16. Brewers
They can score runs -- most in the National League last season -- and if the bullpen regroups after 2012's gruesome late-inning efforts, this team could surprise.

17. Red Sox
There will be no expectations after the disaster in 2012 (the franchise's worst record since 1965), but I see a big rebound coming.

18. Royals
I'll buy -- but I'm not buying a playoff spot. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have to take huge leaps forward ... or the Royals could be headed for another rebuild.

19. Orioles
Last season's 93-win playoff team provided a beautiful ride, but the Orioles haven't added that big bat they need.

20. Padres
Young team is moving in the right direction after winning 76 games in 2012. Can rotation improve to push Pads over .500?

21. Mariners
Mariners have pursued a big bat all offseason but were only able to pick up Kendrys Morales, and he cost them Jason Vargas, opening up a 200-inning hole in the rotation. Looks like 2014 before Mariners can make a push in the tough AL West.

22. Pirates
Still no No. 1 or even No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J. Burnett is a No. 3 at best) and not enough support for Andrew McCutchen. One of these years, Pirates fans, one of these years.

23. White Sox
No A.J. Pierzynski, a declining Paul Konerko, good year/off year Alex Rios due for an off year. Then again, White Sox had a bigger run differential in 2012 than the Tigers.

24. Cubs
Rotation of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman could be competitive, but offense won't be.

25. Mets
At least Mets fans can dream of a future rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, the 2013 version still includes Frank Francisco and a bunch of fourth outfielders.

26. Marlins
Giancarlo Stanton still makes this team worth watching on a daily basis.

27. Indians
Getting Trevor Bauer in the Choo deal added a much-needed starting pitcher prospect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of rotation remains suspect.

28. Twins
Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey ... what, Rich Robertson and Sean Bergman weren't available?

29. Rockies
At least the Twins have a direction as they wait for young position players to reach the majors. I have no clue what the Rockies are doing, intend to do, want to do, wish to do or hope to achieve.

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.
Here's the transcript from Tuesday's chat session. We discussed the playoffs (of course), Matt Holliday's slide (needless to say), the umpires (hard to ignore), Josh Hamilton (his future), Alex Rodriguez (his future) and much, much more!
Marco ScutaroJayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireSt. Louis' Matt Holliday looks on after his slide injured the Giants' Marco Scutaro in Game 2.
Two snapshots from the San Francisco Giants’ 7-1 victory against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLCS that evened the series at a win apiece.

1. Top of the first inning, Matt Holliday on first base, Carlos Beltran on second base with one out, Allen Craig hits a relatively slow chopper to shortstop Brandon Crawford. Holliday takes out second baseman Marco Scutaro with a vicious late slide that extends well beyond second base, leaving Scutaro sprawled in pain on the ground. After watching the replay, it seems amazing Scutaro didn’t tear up his knee on the slide, which I would characterize as hard-nosed baseball, but a little more on the side of "cheap" than merely "aggressive."

(In the initial postgame interviews on FOX, both Angel Pagan and Ryan Vogelsong were diplomatic about Holliday's slide, saying they hadn't seen the replay yet. During an in-game interview during the broadcast, Matt Cain said he thought it looked like a late slide.)

2. Bottom of the fourth inning, Giants up 2-1, two outs and the bases loaded for Scutaro after Chris Carpenter had delicately pitched around Pagan with first base open. With the count 1-1, Scutaro lines a 91 mph sinking fastball over shortstop to score two runs, and when Holliday booted the ball, a third run scored.

Scutaro would remain in the game for another inning before finally leaving with a sore left hip that required a trip to the hospital for X-rays. Tough? Sure. But in reviewing Scutaro’s career, not exactly surprising.

Scutaro is one of those great baseball stories that make this game so appealing. Originally signed by the Indians out of Venezuela in 1994, Scutaro first reached Triple-A in 1997. From there, it only took him six years to land a regular job in the big leagues. The Indians traded him to the Brewers, who would eventually put him on waivers. The Mets would claim him and give him a couple cups of coffee in 2002 and 2003, but they’d eventually put him waivers so they could play guys like Daniel Garcia, Wilson Delgado and Joe McEwing.

The A’s claimed him and in 2004 -- now 28 years old -- he accumulated 477 plate appearances, starting much of the year at second base when Mark Ellis got injured and missed the entire season. He played a lot for the A’s the next three seasons, never really earning a regular starting job, but finding ways to get in the lineup. It wasn't until 2008, when he was traded to the Blue Jays, that he finally batted 500 times in a season. He was 32 years old and his career was just taking off.

Scutaro began this season year with the Rockies, but hit an uninspiring .271/.324/.361 with them. The Giants acquired him to shore up their problems at second base and he hit .362/.385/.473 in 61 games with San Francisco, becoming a key to the team’s surge on offense after the All-Star break. As Carpenter found out, he’s a tough out in bases-loaded situation because he’s that rare player who brings an old-school approach to the plate -- he puts the ball in play. He struck out in 7.2 percent of his plate appearances, the best rate in the majors, and swung and missed on just 5 percent of his swings, again the best rate in the majors.

Scutaro’s base hit was the game’s key play. Now the Giants hope they haven’t lost a key player.

* * * *

Vogelsong became the first Giants starter to last six innings in this year’s postseason, going an outstanding seven innings and allowing just four hits and two walks. Vogelsong normally gets more fly balls than groundball outs, but got eight groundball outs and three in the air. He also got five infield popouts, a sign that he was able to get inside on the Cardinals' hitters, such as when he jammed Holliday on a foul pop to first base in the fifth. Asked about pitching inside after the game, Vogelsong deflected that question by saying he just saw Buster Posey's glove and kept hitting it.

Here’s a look at Vogelsong’s Hot Zones during the season:
* * * *

The Cardinals’ defense had several miscues. Carpenter’s error on Crawford’s chopper helped extend that fourth inning. On the play, first baseman Craig originally charged the ball, but hustled back to first when he saw Carpenter had it. He never got his feet and missed Carpenter’s throw. Holliday’s error let in another run, and later David Freese and Holliday misplayed Aubrey Huff’s fly ball down the left-field line into a single, leading to two more runs in the eighth. Keep an eye on that St. Louis defense moving forward, especially the play of Freese and Craig at the corners.

* * * *

Cain will start for the Giants in Game 3, but manager Bruce Bochy hasn’t announced his starters beyond that, other than saying you can expect Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito in some order -- which apparently means we shouldn’t expect Madison Bumgarner the rest of the series. Considering the extent to which the Cardinals pummel left-handers, any start by Zito or an obviously gassed Bumgarner looks like a bad option at this time. Bochy will have to consider turning the Zito game into a bullpen game -- hope you get three innings out of him and then get him out at the first sign of trouble after that. (Which is why I would start Lincecum in Game 4; if you need to deploy your entire bullpen in Game 5, at least you get a day off before Game 6.)

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

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.

Underrated Holliday now an MVP candidate

August, 29, 2012
Matt HollidayAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesMatt Holliday leads the NL in RBIs and ranks in the top 10 in average, OBP and slugging.
ST. LOUIS -- Matt Holliday is not a guy who leaves much room for chance. The St. Louis Cardinals' All-Star left fielder is extraordinarily disciplined. From his eating habits to his preparation for a season, his work ethic is rarified air in baseball.

Every time Holliday walks from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box he puts both hands on the end of his bat and pulls it up in the air over his head. Next he taps the inside of his left foot, then his right. It is a quirky habit -- all baseball players have them -- but with Holliday it is one small gesture of a larger, intense baseball regimen.

It is in this, his ultra-disciplined lifestyle, that Holliday plays a quiet but huge role in the leadership of the Cardinals' clubhouse. For anyone spending time around him, it is hard not to notice the way he takes care of himself. Teammates see this and realize performance and production in baseball are not just by talent alone.

This sort of intangible aspect of a baseball player is difficult for front offices to know before they acquire a player. When Holliday signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Cardinals after the 2009 season, many analysts projected that the Cardinals overpaid for a player turning 30 years old who had spent most of his career compiling numbers in Coors Field. While Holliday doesn’t receive the type of national attention some of the power hitters the likes of Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder receive, he's been one of baseball's best hitters the past three seasons and has lived up to the high price of the deal, and in 2012 he has become an MVP candidate. He has to be considered one of baseball's most underrated players.

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals general manager, recalls Holliday’s early years playing for Colorado and says even then the Cardinals had identified him as somebody who they would try to acquire, should an opportunity ever become available.

"I recall trying to work out a deal with the Rockies before they ended up trading him to Oakland," Mozeliak said. "We weren’t successful, but in the end our patience paid off, because we ended up doing a better deal in the end with Oakland."

In 2009, the Cardinals traded third baseman Brett Wallace, outfielder Shane Peterson and pitcher Clayton Mortensen for Holliday. After hitting .353 with 55 RBIs in 63 games with St. Louis, the Cardinals signed Holliday -- with Albert Pujols on the team -- to the richest contract in club history

Beyond his talent on the field, Mozeliak had always heard Holliday was a high-character guy, but until the Cards acquired him Mozeliak didn't realize his commitment to the community, to his work ethic and to his health.

Holliday, at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, is now in his ninth year in the majors. He's hitting .309 and leads the National League with 90 RBIs heading into Wednesday's game against the Pirates (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). Over his past seven games he's hitting .452 with 14 hits and nine RBIs. Not only is he among the leading MVP candidates, he's putting together an impressive career. Among active players, his .314 lifetime average ranks sixth. Holliday’s ability to consistently get on base has given the Cardinals a solid core to build the team around.

Holliday says his key is his ability to hit the ball the other way.

"It’s really been the strength of my career and my swing, and sort of the hitter that I’ve tried to be is somebody that uses the whole field and can hit the ball the other way," Holliday said. "I think that’s probably the most important thing for getting on base. Obviously you can’t swing at a lot of bad pitches. [You need] to get the walks."

Manager Mike Matheny likes how Holliday has a good idea of his strike zone.

"When he gets in trouble he’s leaving his strengths, but overall he’s done a nice job of when [pitchers] make a mistake he’s got the physical ability to get the bat on the ball," Matheny said. "He has the strength to do it with some pretty dangerous velocity. So he has a unique mix of power and discipline that when he’s going well he really stays with his approach and makes the pitchers come to him."

Holliday also sets an example in other ways.

"He’s just one of those guys that grinds out at-bats as well as anybody," Mozeliak said. "He is just the perfect teammate in that regard. He plays every day; even when he has minor injuries he plays through them -- just a very tough guy."

In so-called "high-leverage" situations, when the game is closest, Holliday is hitting .307/.406/.568, with six home runs in 77 at-bats.

"I think that there are times when emotions get involved and doubt becomes an issue; you are not wanting to let your team down," Holliday said about hitting in clutch situations. "I think really, if you prepare yourself to have the same mental approach, whether it’s the first inning of a spring training game to the seventh game of the World Series, if you can have the same mindset of getting at the ball where you want it and hitting it hard and not worrying about the results, I think that’s your best chance as far as consistently putting a good at-bat out there.

"Really, if you try harder, you’re going to swing faster. It’s really counterproductive to what you are trying to do. A lot of your best at-bats are when you are at spring training, when there’s really no emotion or pressure. If you can take all the peripheral stuff out of [hitting] and just focus on finding a pitch in my strike zone and put my good swing on it, that’s really your best chance."

Mozeliak said playing in St. Louis has a unique dynamic.

"The thing about playing in St. Louis is there is a lot of pressure to win," Mozeliak said. "There was a lot of pressure on him when he signed that contract, a lot of pressure this year because we didn’t have Albert, and so he has to carry the weight maybe that normal [players] don’t," Mozeliak said. "So I think at times, even though he wants to simplify it and believe that I’m taking every at-bat one at-bat at a time, I do think he wears it [on his sleeve] a little bit."

* * * *

There’s no way around it. You can talk about Pujols leaving, you can talk about the team giving contracts to Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Lance Berkman, but Holliday is the guy the franchise sought to acquire and eventually sign to that huge contract. When asked about the weight of this and what he hopes to accomplish for the rest of his career in St. Louis, Holliday said simply he wants to be somebody the organization "can be proud of."

In St. Louis that is quite a heavy load to carry, because baseball in the Gateway to the West is more like a pilgrimage. A long winding road weaving in and out of generations -- great-grandparents, grandparents, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts -- pays homage to the greats of the past.

"I think at the end of my career I hope that people will just appreciate that I played as hard as I could," Holliday said. "That I was a good teammate, that I represented the organization in a positive light my entire time that I was here, that I was a good player."

Cueto putting it all together this year

August, 24, 2012
For a St. Louis Cardinals fan, saying something nice about Johnny Cueto, who in a 2010 brawl literally kicked Jason LaRue out of baseball, is possibly more difficult than complimenting Don Denkinger. (At least Denkinger never meant to hurt anyone.) Still, with Cueto helping the Cincinnati Reds to a National League Central-leading 76-50 record, I'll say it: Cueto is one of the best pitchers in the league this year and should be considered for the Cy Young.

That's less a personal opinion than a fact. Though he didn't pitch quite as well Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies -- allowing two runs in five innings, while issuing three walks in a game the Reds would lose 4-3 in 11 innings -- as he has for most of the year, Cueto entered the game with a 2.44 ERA, the best in the National League. Not bad for a guy who starts half his games in one of the majors' homer-happiest parks.

Somehow, he's keeping the ball on the ground, as his uncannily low 6.2 percent home run/fly ball ratio attests. But his third consecutive year with a single-digit homer-to-fly rate just might be due to something in his control, such as inducing weak contact. That's in no small part because of an increased reliance on his changeup, which he's featuring twice as often as he did in 2011.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Cueto
Eric Hartline/US PresswireJohnny Cueto and his NL-leading 2.47 ERA have been a constant for the injury-plagued Reds.
His non-traditional stats -- career bests in strikeout/walk (3.65), fielding independent pitching (3.04) and xFIP (3.62) -- are strong, but not as knockout-impressive as other Cy Young candidates such as Stephen Strasburg (11.33 K/9), Gio Gonzalez (2.80 FIP), Clayton Kershaw (2.84 FIP), Cliff Lee (6.04 K/BB) or Adam Wainwright (2.99 xFIP). Still, it's not like Cueto is a one-hit wonder: He would've won the NL ERA title last year with a 2.31 ERA had season-starting and -ending stints on the disabled list not prevented him from pitching a measly six more innings to qualify.

He has been healthy the entire 2012 season and therefore has been a constant for the Reds, who have at various times been without the services of key players such as Joey Votto, Scott Rolen, Drew Stubbs and Ryan Madson. Just how important has the righty been to the Reds? Despite Votto's ethereal .465 OBP, Cueto nearly matches him in WAR (wins above replacement), 4.3 to 4.8. So Cueto may more appropriately qualify as an MVP candidate than for the Cy Young.

As the surging Cardinals head into Cincinnati for a weekend series, Cueto will miss the action (he's next scheduled to pitch Tuesday). In addition to the built-in rivalry between the two contending teams -- including former Cardinals Rolen, Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Cairo, all of whom don a different red-and-white uniform now -- the matchup is a reminder of the ongoing bad blood between the Reds' ace and the defending world champs. The weekend tilt isn't the only meeting with Cardinals players that Cueto has missed this season. Though he was expected to join Yadier Molina (later replaced by Matt Holliday), Carlos Beltran, Lance Lynn, David Freese and Rafael Furcal on the NL All-Star team, former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa passed over Cueto, upsetting both the player and his manager, Dusty Baker. For his part, La Russa denied any vendetta, insisting that he omitted Cueto because he was scheduled to start two days before the game. La Russa also snubbed Zack Greinke, having a better year than Cueto, and of course is no stranger to head-scratcher lineup choices. But even so, the episode wasn't exactly an act of rapprochement.

Cueto made himself persona non grata with the Cardinals two years ago for his cheap shots in the fight. But there's nothing cheap about his 2012 campaign, which he's establishing with his arm. And that's what continues to make his presence on the field an unwelcome sight, not only for the Cardinals but the rest of the National League this year.

Matt Philip tweets at @fungoes and posts everything that doesn't fit at fungoes.net.
During Tuesday's chat session, Stephen Strasburg's name kept coming up ... and so did Ross Detwiler's. Is Detwiler that much of a drop from Strasburg as a potential playoff starter? We discuss that, Buster Posey's underrated season, the best 3-4-5 combos and make some World Series pick. Check it out in Tuesday's chat wrap.

Latos shows why he's Reds' true ace

August, 3, 2012

This past winter, when the Cincinnati Reds traded for Mat Latos, I remember there being a lot of talk that he would really suffer without having spacious Petco Park as his home field.

Of course, there obviously were going to be some difficulties for a pitcher moving from Petco to Great American Ballpark, and the big righty already has allowed 20 homers, a career high. But when you see Latos throw like he did Friday night, it doesn't matter what park he is in.

The 24-year-old dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates, shutting them out over 7 1/3 innings while allowing just seven baserunners and striking out five in Cincinnati's 3-0 victory. Most importantly, he was working down in the zone, and induced 13 grounders and just three fly balls. (As you well know, ground balls never leave the park.) Latos added a two-run home run for good measure and helped the Reds extend their National League Central lead to 4 1/2 games.

Latos definitely struggled a bit early on this season in his new digs, but in his past eight starts, he has a 2.13 ERA with 52 K's in 55 innings, and his talent is really starting to shine through. And while Johnny Cueto has better overall numbers, Latos is much better at missing bats and has the kind of stuff to thrive in the postseason, which is where the Reds appear to be heading. Long story short, if I'm Dusty Baker, I try to set my rotation to make Latos my Game 1 starter.

However, it should be noted that I might have a bit of a Latos bias.

Back in August 2005, I was working for Baseball America, and I was sent to Aberdeen, Md., to cover the Aflac All-American game. For those who are unfamiliar, it's a showcase of the best high school players in the country who are about to enter their senior year, and it is now known as the Perfect Game All-American Classic and takes place in San Diego.

Showcases like that are a lot of fun to cover because you know there are a bunch of future big leaguers there; you're just not sure who they will be. And as you can see at the bottom of this link, the 2005 class -- which featured Brett Anderson, Jordan Walden and Kyle Drabek, among others -- did not disappoint.

But as talented as those pitchers were, the guy who was generating the most buzz among scouts was Mat Latos. Given his 6-foot-6 frame and fastball that could then scrape 98 mph, it was easy to envision a 2006 first-round pick and a possible No. 1 starter. But there were murmurs about attitude problems, and Latos fell to the 11th round of the 2006 draft and signed with the San Diego Padres the following spring as part of the now-defunct draft-and-follow process for $1.25 million.

He looked like an immediate bargain and cruised through the minors in just two years, posting a 2.49 ERA and 10.5 K's per nine along the way. He finished eighth in the Cy Young Award vote in 2010, his first full season, and looked like he'd be in San Diego for a long time. But then the Padres decided to use Latos to rebuild, and traded him to the Reds this past winter for a package that included Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal.

It was easy to predict a drop in numbers for Latos since he was moving out of baseball's most pitcher-friendly park, but he is showing that his home park was just part of the reason for his success. (It reminds me of how people once thought Matt Holliday was a product of Coors Field until he proved he wasn't.) And while the Reds gave up a lot for Latos, they are in position to win their division -- and possibly a World Series -- because of his talent.

And those championship chances will only increase if he keeps pitching like he did Friday.

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.
The Cincinnati Reds are angry. Dusty Baker is very angry, accusing Tony La Russa of deliberately bypassing Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips in making his All-Star selections because of the infamous Reds-Cardinals brawl in 2010.

"A snub like that looks bad," Baker told reporters. "Johnny and Brandon were at the center of a skirmish between us and the Cardinals. Some of the Cardinals who aren't there anymore are making some of the selections."

La Russa
La Russa
Look, Cueto deserved to make the team. La Russa countered Baker by saying, "If Dusty had been more interested in Cueto being on the team, then he wouldn't be pitching him on Sunday. Cueto probably would be on the team if he wasn't pitching Sunday."

Still when you go through the process step by step it's clear why Phillips and Cueto didn't make the team.

At second base, the fans voted in Dan Uggla as the starter and Jose Altuve was the players' choice. Once reserves from the players' vote were added -- guys like David Wright and Ryan Braun -- La Russa had four positions to fill. He went with Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, a clearly deserving All-Star; Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, the club's lone representative; Reds outfielder Jay Bruce; and Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond.

Let's debate Desmond versus Phillips. Desmond is hitting .276/.308/.484; Phillips is hitting .285/.329/.442. Similar numbers. Even if you give Phillips an edge for his glove (which is debatable), I don't see where you can argue that Phillips got the short straw here. Especially when Aaron Hill is probably more deserving than Phillips.

The Bruce choice is actually a bit perplexing, especially when you consider that La Russa chose him over Matt Holliday or Michael Bourn, both of whom are having better seasons than Bruce. Holliday is hitting .307/.391/.502 compared to Bruce's .257/.326/.522. In fact, it's much easier to argue for Bruce's exclusion than it is for Phillips' inclusion.

OK, Johnny Cueto. He's 9-4 with a 2.26 ERA, a terrific ERA considering his home park. Once you get through the players' choices -- which included Lance Lynn -- La Russa had five spots for the pitching staff. His choices were Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Wade Miley, Huston Street and Jonathan Papelbon.

Miley was the Diamondbacks' lone rep. Street is the Padres' lone rep. You cannot fault for La Russa for choosing Kershaw and Hamels, obviously two of the best pitchers in the game and both having good seasons. The debatable selection is Papelbon, who isn't even having a particularly good season, and the Phillies already had Ruiz and Hamels on the roster. You can probably guess La Russa's thinking here: He'd prefer having a reliever pitching late in the game than a starter who isn't used to coming out of the bullpen. I'm not saying I agree with that, but I see the thought process, especially with Cueto scheduled to pitch Sunday.

La Russa did have a couple other options: He could have chosen Chase Headley as the Padres' representative -- but that would have meant over Desmond or Bruce. That would have allowed Cueto, Zack Greinke or James McDonald to be put on the roster instead of Street. He could have chosen Aaron Hill over Desmond, with one of the three starters going in place of Miley.

In the end, it comes down to difficult choices. Personally, I would prefer to see two of the deserving starting pitchers make it over the two relievers. La Russa better just hope that Papelbon doesn't lose the game.