SweetSpot: Lance Lynn

Back in spring training, Lance Lynn was sort of the forgotten guy in the St. Louis Cardinals' rotation. There was Adam Wainwright, the ace and Cy Young contender; there was Michael Wacha, coming off that dynamic postseason run and entering his first full season; there was Shelby Miller, the much-heralded first-round pick coming off an excellent rookie season; even Carlos Martinez seemed to get more attention, as fans and writers wondered whether Martinez would transition from hard-throwing eighth-inning reliever to the rotation. You even had Jaime Garcia and Joe Kelly.

While Wainwright has had another big year, the others all suffered issues: Wacha just returned from a DL stint; Miller was inconsistent much of the season but has pitched better down the stretch; Martinez is still in the bullpen; Garcia got hurt again; and Kelly was dealt to Boston in the John Lackey trade.

Meanwhile, Lynn has gone from forgotten man to most important man. He's 15-9 with a 2.68 ERA entering his Sunday night start on ESPN against the Reds. The win-loss record shouldn't necessarily be a surprise, as Lynn ranks third in the National League in wins since the start of 2012 with 48, trailing only Wainwright (52) and Clayton Kershaw. Maybe more importantly, as Wainwright hit some rough patches after the All-Star Game, Lynn has pitched the best baseball of his career, with a 7-3 record and 1.89 ERA in 14 starts since the beginning of July.

Is Lynn a different pitcher than the one who recorded a 3.97 ERA in 2013? A quick glance may say that's not the case: His walk and strikeout rates are similar to last year (his K rate is actually down slightly, from 23.1 percent to 20.5 percent); he's allowed a few fewer home runs (14 in 201 2/3 innings last year, nine in 191 2/3 innings this year), but that wasn't a major problem last year. His FIP -- fielding-independent pitching -- is 3.18, nearly identical to his 3.28 mark of 2013.

Lynn's batting average on balls in play has declined from .323 in 2012 and .321 in 2013 to .293, about the league average. So is it simply a pitcher with better luck or better defense behind him? It's not always that simple, and in Lynn's case, there are some obvious reasons for his lower ERA.

One major reason is he's avoided the blow-up inning that has plagued him the past two seasons. In 2012-13, Lynn had 24 innings where he allowed three-plus runs; that's happened just just six times in 2014. This suggests a pitcher who has performed better out of the stretch. Indeed, with men on base, batters are hitting .219 against him with just one home run; in 2013, opponents hit .248 with seven home runs with runners on.

Another thing I noticed is that Lynn is throwing his fastball more with runners on: from 71 percent in 2012 to 74 percent last year to 84 percent this year, according to ESPN data. This is a definitely change in approach. Two years ago, he threw his curveball 19 percent of the time with runners on, but that's down to 5 percent this year. Lynn has both a four-seamer and a good two-seam sinker -- one reason he doesn't give up many home runs -- and it simply appears he's trusting these pitches more, especially the sinker, which he's also thrown more in general since the beginning of July. Which makes sense: Brooks Baseball has batters hitting .249 against the sinker after hitting .332 against it last year.

Some of that probably is improved infield defense: Jhonny Peralta has rated very well at shortstop this year, better than Pete Kozma; Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis rate better than Matt Carpenter at second; and Carpenter rates better than David Freese at third. Overall, the Cardinals have gone from minus-39 defensive runs saved to plus-61.

But Lynn also has improved against left-handed batters. It used to be that he was afraid to challenge them, resulting in high walk rates and home runs when he did go after them. Through the years against left-handed batters:

2012: .272 average, .456 slugging, 11 HR
2013: .259 average, .404 slugging, 6 HR
2014: .235 average, .350 slugging, 4 HR

Again, Lynn is simply throwing more fastballs -- 70 percent two years ago compared to 80 percent this year -- relying on fastball movement and command and fewer curveballs/sliders/changeups. Against lefties, he likes to pound the outside corner with his fastballs, but in checking his heat maps, this looks like a guy with much-improved command from 2012:

LynnESPN Stats & InformationLynn's fastball location versus lefties in 2012
LynnESPN Stats & InformationLynn's fastball location versus lefties in 2014

To me, this adds up to a better pitcher. Yes, there is perhaps some good fortune going on here -- Lynn has held batters to a .133 average with runners in scoring position since July 1 -- but he's better against left-handed batters, and he's made some minor adjustments in his approach.

Don't focus on the static strikeout rate. A hard sinker may not get a bunch of whiffs, but it gets ground balls and limits home runs. I believe that Lynn is a better pitcher in 2014. Next up: He'll get a chance to show it in the postseason, where he's struggled in the past -- in five starts, he's never made it through six innings and three times got knocked out before the fifth was over.

New-look Lance Lynn dominates Nationals

June, 13, 2014
On Friday night, Lance Lynn took the ball against the Washington Nationals and added another gem to his streak of quality performances this season. The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander no-hit the Nationals into the sixth inning, and ultimately pitched eight shutout innings with eight strikeouts, no walks and just two hits allowed. The victory against Jordan Zimmermann's own remarkable start came after Lynn held a red-hot Toronto Blue Jays lineup to two runs in his last start.

Lynn now owns a 3.16 ERA on the season with a 3.39 FIP that indicates there is little to no luck involved with his first 14 starts of 2014. With Shelby Miller somewhat struggling after his strong 2013 season, and early-season shoulder problems for Jaime Garcia, Lynn has grown into an important part of the Cardinals' rotation. With eyes on him, Lynn has performed remarkably well, and if he wasn't pitching in one of the strongest rotations in baseball, he could be in consideration for the elusive "top-of-the-rotation pitcher" title.

But over the last couple of seasons, Lynn can only be described as a solid starter. He was far from an ace-type starter, and it's been easy for him to fly under the radar playing alongside teammates Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Miller and Michael Wacha. One could call Lynn underrated, but the fact is that fan expectations rarely had him as more than a mid-rotation starter.

Lynn wanted to change those expectations this offseason, and he showed up to spring training looking like a strikingly different and leaner pitcher. He lost a lot of weight and it was difficult to even recognize who he was at first sight.

Every February and March, dozens of players show up to camp claiming they're in the best shape of their lives, and occasionally a new diet or workout regimen will contribute to a player's performance on the field. CC Sabathia made headlines the last few spring trainings by showing up significantly slimmer. Hopes for Sabathia were high, but the southpaw ultimately had the worst season of his career in 2013 and his velocity has continued to drop while his command has wavered.

Sabathia is one example to other players that you shouldn't fix what's not broken, but Lynn now exudes the opposite message.

Similar to Sabathia, Lynn showed up to camp this offseason much lighter. On recommendation of the Cardinals' chef, Lynn has changed his dieting habits and cut out refined carbohydrates and fats. In March, Lynn's fastball wasn't necessarily any harder, his command didn't significantly improve, but the pitcher clearly looked healthier and leaner.

Lynn's new fitness may not show up on a velocity gun, but it's showing up in his numbers. In fact, his success dieting could be an inspiration for many other teams to follow-up with their own nutritional guidelines for players. Most importantly for the thinner and healthier Lynn, Cardinals fans certainly knew who was on the mound Friday night.

Michael Eder writes for It's About the Money, a blog on the New York Yankees.

SweetSpot TV: Position battles

February, 19, 2014

Eric and myself discuss a few of the more interesting position battles going on this spring.
World Series history is filled with dramatic Game 6 contests -- 2011 (Cardinals-Rangers), 2002 (Angels rally), 1993 (Joe Carter), 1992 (Jays clinch in extra innings), 1991 (Kirby Puckett), 1986 (Bill Buckner), 1975 (Carlton Fisk)... just to name a few.

We didn't get a classic Game 6 this time. Instead, we saw a lot of fear of David Ortiz, we saw Michael Wacha's October run end in sadness, we saw Red Sox fans celebrating a World Series clincher at home for the first time since 1918. Which is a cool way to end the baseball season.

Hero: Shane Victorino had missed the previous two games with lower back tightness, but returned wearing patriotic cleats and delivered the big hit of the game. With the bases loaded and two outs in the third inning, he drilled a 2-1 fastball from Wacha high off the Green Monster in left-center for a bases-clearing double as Jonny Gomes just barely beat the throw home for the third run. In the fourth, he singled home another run with two outs for a 6-0 lead.

Back to that double. It was set up by a few things. In order:

1. Ortiz's first-inning plate appearance, in which he worked a nine-pitch walk, fouling off three pitches before finally taking a curveball below the knees.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury's leadoff single in the third and Dustin Pedroia's broken-bat ground out to third base that moved Ellsbury to second. Think of the little things that can turn a baseball game: What if Pedroia doesn't break his bat and instead grounds into a 5-4 force play? That means first base would have been occupied. Instead, there was a runner on second and one out.

3. The intentional walk to Ortiz. "We are going to be careful," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before the game about pitching to the scorching hot Ortiz. "We haven't made it any big secret, and sometimes when we're doing that, it doesn't even work out how we're playing it. It's a situation where you have a hitter that we know and everybody sees, he's swinging the bat very well."

Sabermetricians are not big fans of the intentional walk, mostly because extra baserunners can lead to big innings. Matheny isn't usually a fan of the intentional walk -- the Cardinals ranked next-to-last in the National League in free passes handed out. But he decided to give the Red Sox a free baserunner; the Cardinals would pay the price.

My take: I'm not a fan of the intentional. Yes, Ortiz was hot. And I'm sure that first-inning walk influenced Matheny's decision. At that point, Ortiz had swung and missed at only three pitches the entire Series. But just because he was hitting .750 in the Series doesn't mean he's a .750 hitter. And if you walk him? Well, then he's a 1.000 on-base guy. The move is even riskier with just one out instead of two. As far as intentional walks go, it was certainly understandable as to why it was done. Don't let Ortiz beat us. But it also reminded me of Ron Washington walking Albert Pujols in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 6 of 2011 to pitch to Lance Berkman (who would knock in the game-tying run). When you intentional walk a batter in those situations you're assuming the next batter (or batters) are going to hit .000.

4. Hitting Gomes. Wacha struck out Mike Napoli with a 94-mph fastball that looked down the middle. At that point, Matheny's move looked like it would work out. Batters were 0-for-14 against Wacha in the postseason with runners in scoring position, wtih six strikeouts. He just needed to get Gomes. Instead, he hit him.

That brought up Victorino. He fell behind with a curveball inside and fastball below the knees. Victorino took a fastball on the corner but was still sitting 2-1 fastball and got one. Wacha had only thrown five changeups at that point (he got Pedroia on one) and you can certain second-guess going to another fastball there. But again: Bases loaded, can't walk somebody. Victorino cleared the bases, but the intentional walk helped set up the inning.

Goat: Cardinals offense. Look, for all the talk about whether or not to pitch to Ortiz, it wasn't Ortiz who had beat the Cardinals through the first games so much as the Boston pitching (Jon Lester in particular). But the Cardinals scored just 14 runs in six games, hitting .224. They did have nine hits in Game 6, but just one was an extra-base hit (they had just 10 in the entire Series) and Matt Holliday's two home runs (one hit while down 8-0 in Game 1) were the only two the Cardinals hit. The bats simply didn't produce with Matt Adams hitting .136, David Freese .158 and Jon Jay .167.

Big Papi redux: In the fourth inning Stephen Drew led off with a home run and Ellsbury doubled with one out. After Pedroia flew out, Matheny again elected to give Ortiz a free base. He again paid the price for not wanting Ortiz to beat his team. Down 4-0, the game and season on the line, he went to ... Game 4 starter Lance Lynn to face Napoli. Not Carlos Martinez. Not Seth Maness. Not John Axford. Certainly not Trevor Rosenthal (he's the closer!) or Shelby Miller (he was left on the runway in St. Louis). Again, I'm not sure Lynn was any worse of an option than Martinez, Maness or Axford, but it was a bit curious. Lynn faced three batters, gave up two hits and a walk and it was 6-0.

As Keith Law tweeted about yet another intentional walk, "It's almost like putting a hitter on base deliberately, refusing him the chance to make an out on his own, is a bad idea."

Lackey in control: John Lackey wasn't dominant but spaced his hits and worked out of a couple jams, most notably in the second inning when Allen Craig and Yadier Molina led off with hard singles. He retired Adams on another hard liner to deep left, got Freese to fly out to right on a 3-2 curve and then struck out Jay on another curve. Red Sox fans can look back at those two curves as the two big pitches Lackey would make. After that, he seemed to right himself, kept the ball, threw first-pitch strikes and became the first pitcher to start and win clinching games for two different teams (he started Game 7 for the Angels as a rookie in 2002).

Going out in style: Ellsbury is a free agent and with Jackie Bradley Jr. on the horizon, speculation is Ellsbury signs with another team. If it was his final game in a Red Sox uniform, what a game: He went 2-for-4 with a walk, starting both Red Sox rallies. Ellsbury was a late-season add back in 2007, hit .353 in 33 games to earn a starting spot by the postseason and then hit .438 in the World Series. He's had his ups and downs in his Boston career, but he makes the offense go from the leadoff spot and scored 14 runs in 16 postseason games.

Splitting hairs: And the final pitch: A Koji Uehara splitter that Matt Carpenter swung on and missed, the pitch diving off the plate something wicked. The single best pitch in baseball this season was the final one of the season. The guy without the beard let the beards begin the celebration.

The best team won: The best team doesn't always win. But the Red Sox were the best team in the regular season, tying for the most wins in the majors while playing in easily the toughest division. They were best team in the playoffs, beating a good Tampa Bay club, that lethal Detroit pitching staff, and a St. Louis team that was better than its 2006 and 2011 World Series winners. Congrats to the Red Sox.

Another fun World Series game, with big hits, big decisions and a final score of Boston 4, St. Louis 2.

Hero: Jonny Gomes. Inserted into the lineup only as a replacement for Shane Victorino, who couldn't go because of lower back tightness, Gomes was chosen over Mike Carp, even though Cardinals starter Lance Lynn has a sizable platoon split, and has been much less effective against left-handed hitters. Gomes has sort of been John Farrell's hunch bet this postseason, even though he entered the game hitting just .152/.200/.212. In fact, his .125 career average in the postseason entering the game was the lowest of any active player with at least 40 plate appearances. When he grounded into a double play in the second inning, the second-guessers had a good laugh.

In the fifth, still facing Lynn after David Ortiz hit a leadoff double, Gomes fell behind 0-2 but worked a 10-pitch walk, with Ortiz eventually scoring the tying run on a sac fly.

In the sixth, Dustin Pedroia singled with two outs and Lynn gave Ortiz a four-pitch intentional unintentional walk. It was an interesting set of decisions by Mike Matheny that inning:

1. He could have brought in a lefty to face Ortiz. Remember, Ortiz hit a pedestrian .260/.315/.418 against left-handed pitchers in the regular season. Matheny was either (A) influenced by the fact that Ortiz had homered off Kevin Siegrist and singled off Randy Choate; (B) not wanting to pitch to Ortiz with anybody; or (C) factoring in that there were still at least three more innings and wanted to save his lefties for later in the game, especially with Carlos Martinez unlikely to pitch for the fourth time in five days.

2. Let Lynn pitch to Gomes.

3. Bring in a reliever to pitch to Gomes.

Lynn was at 89 pitches and had allowed five of the previous 10 batters to reach base. While it certainly seemed strange to pitch around Ortiz and then pull Lynn, I can understand the decision to go to Seth Maness, especially considering Gomes' tough at-bat against Lynn the previous inning.

Anyway, in came the rookie and his sinkerball pedigree. Maness threw a 2-2 sinker that didn't sink and Gomes crushed it into the left-field bullpen for a three-run homer and 4-1 lead.

Goat: Maness gave up the home run. Matt Holliday and Matt Adams went 0-for-8 in the third and fourth slots. But Kolten Wong, WHAT IN THE NAME OF LOU BROCK WERE YOU DOING? Pinch running in the ninth, Wong got picked off first base for the final out with Carlos Beltran up as the tying run. Carlos Beltran. One thing we've learned the past two nights: We can't predict the endings to these games. Why was Mike Napoli even holding him on with two outs?

Wasn't going to happen: There were some calls on Twitter to hit for Lynn in the bottom of the fourth with two runners on and two outs and the Cards up 1-0, the arguments being: (A) Lynn probably isn't going to go much deeper in the game; (B) it was a high-leverage pinch-hitting opportunity (maybe for Allen Craig); (C) the Cards have a deep bullpen.

I disagreed with the premise. First, no manager is going pinch hit there, considering Lynn had cruised through four innings facing the minimum. Second, I'm not sure the Cards' bullpen was that deep for this game. Consider that Martinez was probably unavailable, Matheny has little trust in Edward Mujica and Shelby Miller has barely pitched in a month and is clearly an emergency-only option. You would be asking for five innings from your relievers. Third, you'd be facing a mutiny from your starting pitchers if you pulled a guy pitching a one-hitter after 50 pitches. While there is a sabermetric case for hitting there, it's a hard one to transfer to a real-life situation.

Velocity isn't everything: With Clay Buchholz battling shoulder tightness, the Red Sox weren't exactly sure what they'd get out of him. In his two starts against the Tigers in the American League Championship Series he allowed just one run total in the first five innings of those games, but six runs in the sixth innings. So Farrell had to figure he'd get five innings at the most, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 pitches. Buchholz's velocity was down in the first inning, topping out at 89 mph when he's normally at 93-94 in the early frames. But he battled, and while his fastest pitch was 91 mph (his final one), he kept the ball down, making it through four innings and 66 pitches before being lifted for a pinch hitter. The only run he allowed was unearned, when Jacoby Ellsbury bobbled a hit to allow Matt Carpenter to get to second base. Maybe this performance wasn't quite Curt Schilling and his bloody sock, but it was a gritty effort.

At-bat of the night that wasn't a three-run homer: The Cardinals score a run in the seventh to cut the deficit it to 4-2, two runners on, Holliday up. Junichi Tazawa comes on. Holliday takes a called 93 mph fastball for a strike, what looked like a pretty hittable pitch. He then hits another fastball hard on the ground but right to Pedroia.

The bottom of the eighth: As my editor said, using Johnny Wholestaff in Game 4 of a seven-game series is a bit unusual. Even though Koji Uehara threw just three pitches in Game 3, Farrell went to Game 2 starter John Lackey. He pitched around a Xander Bogaerts two-base throwing error and a wild pitch to escape the jam (Jon Jay popped out with Yadier Molina on third and one out) to preserve Boston's 4-2 lead. Now ... just because it worked doesn't mean it was the right decision. I'm not saying it was the wrong move; certainly Farrell had a good idea of what Lackey could give him on two days' rest, but it was still a little bizarre that he didn't go to Uehara for six outs or five outs and even four outs.

Big, indeed: Ortiz went 3-for-3 with a walk and was involved in every Red Sox rally. At the point of his double in the fifth inning he had seven of Boston's 20 hits in the World Series. In four games, he's hitting .727/.750/1.364. The key in the final three games may be whether the Cardinals can figure out how to get him out.
Some random thoughts on a whole bunch of things as we wake up from Saturday evening's crazy, once-in-a-lifetime ending:
  • Everybody is talking about the obstruction call, of course, but as Jim Caple pointed out, Red Sox manager John Farrell is as much a goat as Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Will Middlebrooks. In the ninth inning, he let Brandon Workman bat with one out against Trevor Rosenthal -- Workman's first at-bat as a professional. Workman hit .481 as a senior at Bowie (Texas) High School, but never had an at-bat at the University of Texas. How many guys had their first professional at-bat come in the World Series? Not sure it's ever happened before, considering most American League starters will at least bat in interleague games and relievers rarely are allowed to hit in a postseason game.

    Farrell conceded that Workman facing Rosenthal was a mismatch, but said that he wanted to get an extra inning out of Workman with the game looking like it would go extra innings. But Farrell also basically admitted he screwed up, pointing out he could have double-switched when Workman entered, putting David Ross in for Saltalamacchia. It's interesting, whenever the World Series goes to the National League, everyone suggests the AL manager could be at a disadvantage. I don't know if anyone actually ever believes this -- I mean, how hard is it to double-switch? -- but it does appear as if Farrell's inexperience with the NL game caught up to him here. (To a certain extent he was also conceding they were unlikely to score off Rosenthal, but I'm pretty sure Red Sox fans would have liked to have seen Mike Napoli get an at-bat.)
  • With Clay Buchholz and Lance Lynn starting Game 4, there's a good chance both managers will have to dig deep into their relief corps. Buchholz's health is a question and he's unlikely to go deep into the game even if he's pitching well. Lynn has made four postseason starts the past two years and his longest outing was 5 1/3 innings in Game 4 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. In his other three starts he got knocked out before five complete innings. In the regular season, Lynn had a pretty large platoon split; he allowed a .299 OBP against right-handers but .361 against left-handers. Basically, his slider is more of a wipeout pitch against right-handers, but against left-handers he nibbles and ends up with more walks and fewer strikeouts.

    In the postseason, Lynn has changed his approach, throwing his curveball more -- a lot more. He increased his overall rate of curves from 10 percent of his pitches to 24 percent. With two strikes, he's increased from 11 percent curveballs to 39 percent. In the regular season, just 17 of his 198 strikeouts came via the curveball, but in the postseason it's been seven of 12. This doesn't mean the results have been better -- he's allowed a .304/.407/.457 batting line in 11 2/3 innings -- but it seems to suggest that he realizes his fastball/slider combo hasn't been that effective against left-handed batters.

    It gives Farrell some interesting lineup decisions. Stephen Drew is 4-for-44 with 17 strikeouts in the postseason, so Farrell could play Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and Middlebrooks at third. But do you sit Drew and his left-handed bat, losing something on defense in the process, or play him since he's a better matchup against Lynn, his current struggles notwithstanding? Likewise, Saltalamacchia is hitting .188 with 19 strikeouts in 35 PAs. Does Ross get the start over the switch-hitting Salty? Buster Olney wrote about Boston's possible lineup decisions, including the out-of-the-box idea of playing Napoli at third base. I have a hard time seeing that happening since Napoli has never played there in the majors and Buchholz gets a lot of ground balls. But stranger things have happened, right?
  • As for Buchholz, ESPN Stats & Information points out that he's been leaving his fastball and cutter up in the zone against left-handed batters in the postseason. In the regular season, lefties hit .165 off those pitches; in the postseason, they're 9-for-17 with a 43 percent line-drive rate. With that in mind, look for Daniel Descalso to get the start over Pete Kozma at shortstop. Farrell is in a more desperate situation than Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, so he'll have to have a shorter hook on Buchholz. Felix Doubront looked good in throwing two scoreless innings on Saturday; he threw 25 pitches so he should be available as a long man for a couple of innings. I can't imagine Farrell has much faith right now in Ryan Dempster, but he's the other option as a long man. Workman started in the minors but threw 30 pitches Saturday night, so he's probably in more of a last man out of the pen role for Game 4.
  • Aside from that, Farrell has to get Koji Uehara in the game. He's now let one lead slip away in the seventh inning and started the ninth inning of a tie game without his best reliever on the mound. Yes, he finally brought in Uehara in Game 3 after Workman allowed a base hit, but maybe all the craziness never happens if Uehara starts the inning. The point: Having a guy who had one of the most dominant relief seasons ever isn't a big weapon if you don't use him in the most critical situations. If the Red Sox are going to win this game I think they may need to get six outs from Uehara, even if that means using him in the seventh inning to get out of a jam.
  • Carlos Martinez has pitched three times in four days, which he had never done, and threw just nine of his 20 pitches for strikes Saturday night. In other words, he looked more like the 22-year-old who had a 5.08 ERA in the regular season than the setup guy who had been so good in the postseason. You have to think Matheny will be reluctant to use him in a fourth straight game, so look for somebody else to pitch in the eighth inning if the Cardinals are leading. Matheny still has plenty of weapons down there -- Kevin Siegrist, ground-ball maestro Seth Maness, former Brewers closer John Axford or even exiled closer Edward Mujica. I suspect Axford gets the eighth inning unless Maness is still available. The other question: Is Shelby Miller on the roster? The Cardinals are carrying 12 pitchers but Miller has pitched one inning the entire postseason. I have a feeling we'll see him at some point in Game 4.
  • David Ortiz is now 2-for-2 against the Cardinals' lefty specialists -- a home run off Siegrist in Game 1 and a single off Randy Choate in Game 3. Matheny shouldn't let those results affect his decision-making in Game 4. You still want left-handers facing Ortiz in high-leverage situations.
  • Can't wait for this one. We may not get the crazy ending again, but the matchups, lineup decisions and reliever usage should be fascinating.

You know how the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Michael Wacha? Yes, with the 19th pick of the first round of the 2012 draft.

But you know how they acquired that pick? The got it from the Los Angeles Angels.

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMichael Wacha's delivering an easy answer for whether or not he should start in the postseason.
For losing Albert Pujols as a free agent.

So not only did the organization save $240 million in salary on a player in decline, they acquired a pitcher who is looking like a future star. After his near no-hitter on Tuesday against the Washington Nationals in his ninth career major league start -- Ryan Zimmerman's infield hit with two outs in the ninth made everyone sad -- it seems pretty clear that Wacha has to be in the Cardinals' postseason rotation.

Wacha is 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA in 64 2/3 innings (he has made six relief appearances as well) and has allowed no runs in three of his five September starts. He did allow 12 hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings in his last outing, but that came in Colorado, so it comes with an asterisk. When Wacha is commanding his mid-90s fastball like he did against the Nationals, it makes his changeup all that much more unhittable, a pitch opposing batters are hitting just .190 against without a home run.

The question for manager Mike Matheny: Assuming the Cardinals hold on and win the division, do you go with two rookie starters in your four-man playoff rotation? Here's how the other four starters have fared of late:

Adam Wainwright: He gave up 15 runs in back-to-back starts against the Reds in late August/early September, but has looked good with a 2.12 ERA and strong peripherals over his past four outings.

Lance Lynn: After a rough five-start stretch from Aug. 15 to Sept. 5 (43 hits, 25 runs in 27 1/3 innings), he has allowed just four runs in his past three starts (two of those came against the Brewers, the other against the Rockies in Colorado).

Joe Kelly: In his second year, the righty has a 2.32 ERA since moving into the rotation in early July. His strikeout rate isn't impressive but he gets ground balls with that hard, sinking fastball and keeps the ball in the park (just three home runs allowed his past 75 innings).


Where would you slot Michael Wacha in the postseason for the Cardinals?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,574)

Shelby Miller: The other rookie, he's 14-9 with a 3.12 ERA, although he has a 4.23 ERA and a poor 15/13 SO/BB ratio in 27.2 innings over his past five starts.

Certainly, Wainwright draws the Game 1 start. But do you slot the veteran Lynn in the No. 2 hole? While he has been better of late, do two good starts against the Brewers have you convinced that he's back on track? Plus, Lynn has experience in the bullpen from 2011 and didn't pitch well in last year's postseason. Maybe he's best utilized like the Giants used Tim Lincecum last year, as a multi-inning long reliever. But Miller hasn't been as strong down the stretch and the Cards presumably want to watch his innings anyway (he's at 167).

I'd probably go Wainwright, Wacha, Kelly and Lynn, keeping Lynn on a short leash and hoping Miller can amp it up a bit in a relief role. The fact that Wacha has only nine starts could actually be to his advantage as opponents just haven't seen him.

The rotation isn't the only issue for Matheny to resolve. Trevor Rosenthal got the final out on Tuesday and now has saves in back-to-back games. Is he now the closer over Edward Mujica? If so, does that make Mujica the eighth-inning guy? But is one role really any more valuable than the other? Do you demote Mujica and put him in a role in which he may pitch with more runners on base?

While uncertainly can create some nervousness, it can also create flexibility, which can be a good thing since you're not stuck with pre-designated roles. A smart manager knows you don't -- and shouldn't -- manage October that same way you manage April through September.

And if that means two rookies in your rotation and a rookie closer, I'm OK with that. I see no reason why the Cards can't win it all doing that.
Some quick thoughts on the most important results and plays of the day, and a look forward to Friday.

Key stolen base and at-bat of the day: Mariano Rivera on in the ninth to close out the Yankees' miracle comeback -- they had scored six runs in the seventh inning to take an 8-7 lead over the hated Red Sox, sending the Bronx into a small frenzy of jubiliation. After Mike Napoli singled with two outs, Quintin Berry pinch-ran. He was 21-for-21 stealing bases last year with the Tigers. On the first pitch, Berry took off, beat the throw and went to third when it bounced into center. Stephen Drew then lined a soft single over Robinson Cano's head to tie the game. The Red Sox would score the winning run off Joba Chamberlain in the 10th. (Note: Imagine if teams kept that pinch-runner type or an extra pinch-hitter on the roster all season, instead of a seventh or eighth reliever.)

A devastating loss for the Yankees and Rivera's sixth blown save of the season, the most he's had since also blowing six in 2003. With all the Rivera tributes going on this year, it has to be pointed out that the Yankees have now lost four games they led heading into the ninth, which is one more than the major league average (3.2). All four were blown saves by Rivera (he was the losing pitcher twice).


Which team will win the AL wild card?


Discuss (Total votes: 761)

Caught stealing of the day: Alfonso Soriano was on second base in the bottom of the ninth with one out when he tried to steal third -- hey, he'd been 9-for-9 on the season. Yale grad Craig Breslow was pitching for Boston and you got the idea he probably knew about Soriano's surprise weapon. He turned around and threw to second as Soriano broke for third and got caught in a rundown.

Pitching performance of the day: Former A's farmhand Brad Peacock came back to haunt his old team by pitching seven-plus strong innings as the Astros beat the A's 3-2. Peacock had a good curve on this night, throwing it a season-high 30 percent of the time and recording seven of his nine strikeouts with the pitch.

Most important win: Todd Frazier homered twice as the Reds beat the Cardinals to take three out of four in their series, moving 3 games behind the Pirates and 1.5 behind the Cardinals. Lance Lynn was ineffective again for the Cardinals, surrendering three home runs, and allowed four-plus runs for the fifth start in a row (7.57 ERA, .368 average, 25 runs in 27.1 innings). The Cardinals host the Pirates this weekend and the rotation needs to show up with some strong performances -- the Cards are 28th in the majors in rotation ERA since Aug. 15.

Most important loss: Yankees. On a night where the Rays would later lose 6-2 to the Angels (David Price gave up three runs in the second and third innings), the Yankees missed a big opportunity to pick up a game on Tampa, instead remaining 2.5 out of that second wild card.

Friday's best pitching matchup: Anibal Sanchez versus James Shields (Tigers at Royals, 8:10 ET). After Greg Holland blew a save in the ninth on Thursday when Raul Ibanez homered with two outs and two strikes, the Royals ended up winning in 13 innings on Mike Moustakas' walk-off homer. The Royals are barely hanging in there, 4.5 behind the Rays (but also behind the Yankees, Orioles and Indians). They're 7-6 against the Tigers and need to win two of three -- if not all three.

Player to watch: Evan Longoria, Rays. In his past 11 games, he's hitting .146 with one RBI and no extra-base hits. The Rays are in Seattle for three games, although they'll miss Felix Hernandez.

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.

Consider this: From 2002 to 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals appeared in more World Series than the New York Yankees. They won more championships than the Yankees. Over those 10 seasons, the Cardinals appeared in more league championship series than the Yankees.

So, maybe the Cardinals should be considered baseball's Evil Empire?

OK, OK ... the Yankees spent about $1.87 billion on payroll over that decade -- more than twice the Cardinals’ $900 million.

But it is interesting to note that the team taking advantage of the addition of a second wild-card team is one of the National League’s powerhouse franchises.

Two days after their stirring, never-seen-before comeback from a six-run deficit to shock the Nationals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Cardinals hitters picked up right where they left off, pummeling Giants starter Madison Bumgarner for eight hits and six runs in 3.2 innings, taking a 6-0 lead and holding on for a 6-4 victory. The Cardinals are difficult enough to beat when Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are hitting; but when Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma start contributing key hits, they’re pretty much unbeatable.

The two middle infielders, the seventh and eighth hitters in the St. Louis lineup, had the big hits against the Nationals. Leading 2-0 in the fourth against the Giants after David Freese's two-run bomb in the second, those two got things going with one-out doubles. Jon Jay later added an RBI single and Beltran then hit his 14th home run in 29 career postseason games to knock out Bumgarner.

Descalso said they expected Bumgarner to come right after them. "We knew he was going to attack, he has the fastball and that cutter," he said. Indeed, Descalso's double came on an 0-1 fastball; Kozma hit a first-pitch slider. Bumgarner, usually in the 90-92-mph range with his two-seamer, didn't have his good fastball on this night. Descalso hit an 89-mph fastball, Jay singled on an 0-2 89-mph fastball and Beltran saw four sliders in a row, the fourth one deposited in the left-field stands.

Against the Cardinals, if you don't bring your good stuff, forget about it.

* * * *

The good news for the Giants is their bullpen was outstanding, delivering 5.1 hitless innings. Tim Lincecum pitched two of those, and has allowed one run in 8.1 innings of relief in the postseason. You have to think he’s now in line to start Game 4 over Barry Zito. The Giants have won the past 12 Zito starts but you can’t run a left-hander out there against this St. Louis lineup. Plus, Zito struggled in his start against Cincinnati and allowed a .468 slugging percentage against right-handers during the regular season. We probably won't see Zito in this series unless in a mop-up role or if he’s needed in extra innings.

* * * *

Mike Matheny nearly let the game get away from him with a slow hook on starter Lance Lynn in the fourth inning. Lynn pitched in relief in the Nationals series, appearing three times, including a 50-pitch effort in Game 3 while replacing the injured Jaime Garcia. The 18-game winner returned to the rotation in place of Garcia, three days after he served up the game-losing home run to Jayson Werth in Game 4.

Lynn didn’t allow a hit through the first three innings, but tired in the fourth, in particular unable to get the ball inside to the left-handed batters. With two outs and a runner on, Hunter Pence singled, Brandon Belt dumped a soft single into center, Gregor Blanco lined a triple into the right-center gap and Brandon Crawford lined a hard double down the right-field line. After pinch-hitter Aubrey Huff walked, Matheny finally went to the pen and Joe Kelly got Angel Pagan to ground out to second baseman Descalso, who made a diving stop and flip for the force at second.

The Cardinals have eight relievers, and they’re all good. This series may hinge on how Matheny employs them. Last year, Tony La Russa went with the game plan to yank his starters early and trust his deep arsenal of relievers. If you’re going to carry eight relievers, don’t be shy about using them. Six of them appeared in this game and combined for two hits allowed in 5.1 innings.

* * * *

One of those relievers is rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who impressed once again with his upper-90s gas. He’s below Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte in the pecking order, but what a weapon for Matheny to turn to. Baseball America’s No. 11 Cardinals prospect heading into the season, the former 21st-round draft pick from Cowley County Community College in Kansas started in the minor leagues but has pitched out of the pen in his brief stint in the big leagues, which plays up his fastball as he airs it out in these short stints.

Rosenthal is an example of why the Cardinals compete year after year: great draft picks, many unheralded, especially since they never select high in the draft. Descalso was a third-round pick out of UC Davis. Kozma was the 18th overall pick out of an Oklahoma high school in 2007. Lynn was the 39th pick in 2008 out of the University of Mississippi. Boggs, a fifth-rounder out of the University of Georgia. Jay, a second-rounder out of the University of Miami. Kelly, another rookie, was a third-rounder out of UC Riverside. If you notice a trend, you're right: The Cardinals historically love college players, which means less projection required and often quicker paths to the majors.

Mix in a few free agents signings to plug in holes -- Holliday, Beltran, Kyle Lohse -- and you have a winning approach.

Hey, why not? Let’s play another fifth game. There’s no such thing as too much baseball.

Jayson Werth saw 13 pitches from Lance Lynn leading off the bottom of the ninth. After taking the first two fastballs for strikes, he fouled off seven pitches and worked the count full. On the 13th pitch, Lynn fired a 96 mph fastball down the middle and Werth crushed it into the bullpen in left-center for the game-winning home run. It was a 2-1 victory for the Washington Nationals and the first home playoff win for a team in our nation’s capital since Earl Whitehill pitched a shutout for the Senators in Game 3 of the 1933 World Series at Griffith Stadium.

That Washington team featured guys named Buddy, Goose, Heinie, Ossie, Lefty and General. This one features guys named Jayson, Jordan, Bryce and Ian. It’s a different generation and this club wants to leave its mark. It believes it’s the best team in baseball, but in the previous two games had looked more like the 2009 Nationals than the 2012 version.

The Nationals would get only three hits in this game, but two were home runs -- Adam LaRoche hit one in the second inning off Kyle Lohse. With Jim Joyce’s rather liberal strike zone behind the plate, pitchers on both teams dominated. The Cardinals had only three hits of their own and Nationals relievers struck out eight batters in a row at one point. When Matt Holliday was called out on a pitch several inches outside the strike zone in the eighth, he simply turned around and laughed as he headed back to the dugout.

It came down to Werth versus Lynn -- pitching out of the bullpen after winning 18 games as a starter. As a starter he works 91-94, with two fastballs, a curveball and an occasional changeup or slider. Out of the bullpen, where he pitched in last year’s World Series run, he mainly works fastball/curveball.

He threw 10 fastballs in the showdown, three curves. He missed outside the zone with two curves; Werth fouled one off. Maybe he could have pulled the string with a 3-2 changeup, but you also don’t want to walk the leadoff man. Lynn challenged him. Werth delivered.

"I felt pretty good going into the at-bat," Werth said. Referring to his former teammate with the Phillies, he added, "Watching my boy Raul Ibanez do it last night, he gave me something tonight."

Werth began the season batting in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup but then broke his left wrist in early May. Returning in August, he eventually settled into the leadoff position, filling a void the team needed. Werth’s .387 OBP led the team and while he hit only five home runs -- the wrist injury may have affected his power -- he hit .300, got on base and cut down on his strikeouts. After whiffing 160 times in 2011, he cut his strikeout rate from 24.7 percent to 16.6 percent. You saw the ability to hang in during at-bats against Lynn.

The Nationals got a terrific effort from Ross Detwiler, who threw 104 pitches and allowed just an unearned run over six innings, after throwing 100 pitches in a game just once all season. Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann struck out the side in the seventh, Tyler Clippard struck out the side in the eighth and Drew Storen got two more in the ninth, with Ian Desmond making a nice running catch of a blooper in the Bermuda Triangle area near the left-field line to retire the side.

You can question whether Mike Matheny should have gone to Lynn. Mitchell Boggs, in relief of Lohse, had thrown just 14 pitches in the eighth. Lynn had thrown 50 pitches on Tuesday and gave up two home runs. In a game where runs were nearly impossible to come by, perhaps Matheny should have soaked one more inning out of Boggs and then turned it over to closer Jason Motte in the 10th, leaving Lynn for later in the game if it stretched out that far.

We now get a Game 1 rematch of Adam Wainwright and Gio Gonzalez. Obviously, Gonzalez can’t walk seven batters again. He’ll have to get through all that right-handed power in the St. Louis lineup, but Gonzalez’s curveball makes him a tough reverse platoon lefty -- right-handers hit just .199 off him this season. All hands will be on deck. Zimmermann threw just 12 pitches, Clippard 16. Storen threw 26, so he’s probably available for just one inning. The Cardinals are similarly well-rested. Don't be surprised to see rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who was throwing 99 mph cheese on Wednesday, at some point.

More baseball? Let's do it.

Ten struggling players to watch

September, 3, 2012
As we head into the September stretch run, let's examine 10 players on playoff contenders who had big first halves -- most of these guys were All-Stars -- but have struggled of late.

1. Mark Trumbo, Angels

He was a deserving All-Star after a monster first half, but he's been terrible since late July: .208/.265/.268 in his last 38 games, with just three home runs and zero (zero!) doubles. Remarkably, he's got just one double in last 68 games. His strikeout rate also spiked in August (43 K's with just seven walks), As Trumbo morphs back into Dave Kingman, dare I say the Angels would be better off with Vernon Wells in left field?

2-3. Michael Bourn and Dan Uggla, Braves

Bourn also earned an All-Star spot after a .311/.366/.451 first half, but the numbers have dipped to .236/.326/.335 in the second half. Braves fans are annoyed with Uggla's .208 average, but he does lead the National League with 80 walks, so his .340 on-base percentage is still acceptable. Still, he's hitting .182 in the second half as his batting average on balls in play has dropped from .286 to .239.

4. Carlos Pena, Rays

Joe Maddon has finally benched Pena against left-handers (with Jeff Keppinger playing first base), but if you have to wonder if he should remain in the lineup against right-handers. He's hit .171/.287/.293 since the All-Star break, and only marginally better against righties -- .188/.305/.304. Maybe it's time just to play Keppinger there every day.

5. Curtis Granderson, Yankees

His all-or-nothing approach has turned into a lot of nothing of late -- .174 since July 28. He does have six home runs and 21 RBIs in that span but he's also scored just 13 runs and the Yankees are 16-17 in the 33 games he's played. There's a reason the Orioles are stilling hanging close.

6. James McDonald, Pirates

Everything has fallen apart for McDonald in the second half. After walking just 31 hitters in 110 innings before the All-Star break, he's walked 31 in 51.2 innings since the break. On Sunday, he allowed four home runs. Opponents have pounded his fastball in the second half: .321/.422/.620 with 10 home runs in 137 at-bats.

7. C.J. Wilson, Angels

He won his last start against Boston, ending an 11-start winless streak, but even that required 108 pitches through six innings as he allowed eight hits and three runs. This could be a string of bad luck; in the first half, righties had a .246 average on balls in play but that's rocketed up to .333 in the second half. His strikeout rate and K/BB ratio have actually improved in the second half and after looking through his heat maps, I don't see an obvious issue going on here. Wilson isn't the Angels starter to watch, however: The rotation combined for a 5.37 ERA in August.

8. Ryan Vogelsong, Giants

In his first 21 starts, allowed more than three runs just twice (four runs both times). But in his last four starts he allowed eight runs, eight hits and three runs in an abbreviated three-inning sting, three runs (all home runs) and then four runs in six innings against the Astros. The Giants start Monday with a fairly comfortable 4.5-game lead over the Dodgers, but they'd feel more comfortable with Vogelsong got back on track.

9. Yu Darvish, Rangers

He's fanned 10 in back-to-back starts, so maybe he's back (the second start on Aug. 28 coming on 10 days of rest). His second half ERA remains an inflated 5.71, however. With Darvish, it's all about limiting the walks. The strikeout is phenomenal and he's allowed 13 home runs in 154.2 innings, a pretty good rate for pitching half his games in Texas. If the past two starts are an indicator of what he'll do down the stretch, he may slot in as the Rangers' No. 2 postseason starter behind Matt Harrison.

10. Lance Lynn, Cardinals

Already banished to the bullpen after five straight poor starts, Mike Matheny at least expected he'd be adding another power arm to a staff looking for relief depth in front of closer Jason Motte. But Lynn -- a first-half All-Star -- has struggled in his first three relief appearances, picking up the loss on Sunday when he allowed four hits and two runs in one innings. Remember, Lynn was a big key to the Cardinals' postseason run a year ago, especially in the NLCS when he pitched 5.1 scoreless innings against the Brewers.

This is how we learn to love and hate. This is how we develop affection and fear. This is how legends are born.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, playing their biggest series of the year in their most important season since 1992, needed some wins. The Pirates entered Monday's series against the Cardinals with a 9-15 record in August and five losses in six games. They'd dropped two games behind the Cardinals for the second wild-card berth, and after Monday's loss fell three games back. Their magical season was slipping away, fans getting that anxious feeling of desperation when we break out in sweat over every home run allowed or missed scoring opportunity, the dream turning into a nightmare.

Pedro Alvarez to the rescue. Whatever happens the rest of his career -- maybe he'll hit 30 home runs a year for the next decade, maybe he'll go back to hitting .191 -- Pirates fans will always remember these two games in late August and what he did against the Cardinals in 2012.

Especially if the Pirates somehow end up making the playoffs. If that happens, then you can guarantee Cardinals fans will long remember Pedro Alvarez as well.

Ask Cardinals fans about Ryne Sandberg in 1984. Ask Mets fans about Chipper Jones in 1999. Ask A's fans about the years of George Brett destroying them.

Alvarez has absolutely hammered the Cardinals this year. To fans in St. Louis, they must think they're seeing the reincarnation of Willie Stargell, a burly slugger launching mammoth home runs that no park can hold. On Tuesday, Alvarez went 4-for-5 with two home runs and four RBIs in Pittsburgh's 9-0 victory, including the longest home run by a Pirates player in PNC Park history, a 469-foot blast that drew a rousing curtain call (here's the awesome video of that home run, including the reaction of an Alvarez look-alike in the stands). Wednesday night, he went 2-for-4, including a three-run homer off Joe Kelly that gave the Pirates a 4-0 lead. The Pirates won 5-0 and now they're one game back of St. Louis. Yes, give credit to James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez for two gems in shutting down the National League's top offense, but these games will be remembered for Pedro's power.

This isn't the only damage Alvarez has inflicted upon the Cardinals. In the 19-inning game Aug. 19, it was Alvarez who hit the go-ahead bomb in the 19th (here's the video of that one, including a great reaction from his wife, Kelli). In a 7-3 victory on June 30, he hit a first-inning grand slam off Lance Lynn. The day before that he drove in four runs in a 14-5 victory. On May 3, he had two hits, including a go-ahead, two-run homer. On April 21, he drove in both runs in a 2-0 Pirates win.

Man, talk about owning a team. For the season, Alvarez hit .389 against the Cardinals with seven home runs and 20 RBIs in 15 games. The Cardinals are done with Alvarez on the Pirates for 2012 ... unless the teams meet in the playoffs, of course.

With Andrew McCutchen hitting just two home runs in his past 40 games, Alvarez has become the biggest threat in the Pirates' lineup. There's a lot of swing-and-miss to his game (144 strikeouts), but when he connects the ball goes a long, long way. After a disappointing 2011 in which he hit below .200 and was sent back down to the minors, we're seeing again why scouts loved the power potential that made him the the second pick in the 2008 draft (just ahead of Eric Hosmer and Buster Posey, among others). His 26 home runs now rank tied for the fifth in the NL (here's a fun blog entry of his first 25 home runs).

We have a lot of baseball left. The Cardinals still have to rate as the favorite to beat out the Pirates for the second wild card (the Braves are 2.5 games ahead of the Cards), and the rejiggered Dodgers are just a half-game behind Pittsburgh.

But you can put away those Steelers jerseys, Pirates fans; it's still baseball season in Steel City and you have a new hero to root for. And Cardinals fans have a new enemy to fear.

Pedro Alvarez Charles LeClaire/US PresswireGiving Pittsburgh something to celebrate? It's high(-five) time where Pedro Alvarez is concerned.

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.

The best days of pitching in history

June, 22, 2012
A week ago, Matt Cain threw his perfect game. R.A. Dickey tossed the first of his back-to-back one-hitters. And Lance Lynn struck out nearly half of the 26 batters he faced. It might have been the best day of pitching in baseball history.

That all depends, of course, on how one defines it. First, let’s review how it all happened.

Dickey began by baffling the Rays at Tropicana Field with his signature knuckleball. Only a handful of misplays on defense -- David Wright’s throwing error and Mike Nickeas' two (understandable) passed balls -- marred the line score. If not for an infield hit that hopped to Wright slower than a Dickey knuckler, the Mets hurler would have had a no-hitter.

Meanwhile, back in St. Louis, the Cardinals’ Lynn was busy striking out 12 of the 26 batters he faced. That’s not bad for a pitcher about whose stuff general manager John Mozeliak once said "doesn’t necessarily overwhelm you" and who was summoned to join the team’s rotation this year only because of Chris Carpenter’s injury. But like Dickey, the right-hander’s outing wasn’t a fluke: Lynn has been among the league’s best pitchers as Dickey, Cain and Lynn rank seventh, eighth and 10th, respectively, in the majors in Fielding-Independent Pitching.

But Cain saved the best for last. Just about the time that Lynn departed the Cardinals-White Sox game, Cain was warming up to take the hill at AT&T Park for the Giants’ game against the Astros. When he had finished dispatching his 27th batter, Houston’s Jason Castro, for the final out, he had thrown the season’s second perfect game.

As an aside, although some observers have remarked on the fate of pitchers in their outings following their perfect games, what’s interesting about both Lynn and Cain is how they performed immediately prior to their outstanding games. Dickey spun -- perhaps that’s not the right word, given his repertoire -- a four-hit shutout over seven-plus innings, striking out eight. In his previous start, Lynn established a career high in strikeouts with 11. Six days later, he broke it with his 12-K night. Similarly, Cain was ramping up for his perfecto with nine strikeouts and only one walk over seven shutout innings.

So back to the claim: Was this triumvirate of pitched games the best ever?

In terms of stinginess, Cain and Dickey’s one hit allowed between them was not unique. Baseball has had pitchers toss a no-no and a complete-game one-hitter in the same day before:

In probably the most brilliantly pitched single game (in 1995, members of the Society for American Baseball Research voted it as the greatest game ever pitched) the Cubs’ Bob Hendley would’ve made headlines on Sept. 9, 1965 for his one-hitter had it not been for the fact that his opposite number, Sandy Koufax, was perfect. Although Pascual Perez’s no-hitter was a rain-shortened five-inning affair, not one but two pitchers -- Mark Langston and Dave Stieb -- joined him on Sept. 24, 1988 with one-hitters.

And of course baseball has actually had two no-hitters in the same day. So for a two-pitcher performance in a single day, it’s hard to beat Fernando Valenzuela and Dave Stewart back on June 29, 1990.

If it’s strikeouts you like, three pitchers with at least 12 strikeouts each, while impressive, isn’t a first, either. Dennys Reyes (yes, that Dennys Reyes), Darryl Kile and Curt Schilling were the last ones to do it, on Aug. 20, 1998.

The estimable Dave Cameron at FanGraphs.com used Game Score, a Bill James invention, to find some of the best recent pitching combinations on a single night and found that the dual performances of Cain and Dickey ranked among the best since 1992.

Another way to assess pitching performances is through fielding-independent pitching statistics, such as Defense-Independent Pitching (DIPS) and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). Fielding-Independent Game Score (FIGS), like Game Score, attempts to quantify the success of a pitcher’s start. It differs from Game Score in that its formula is comprised mainly of fielding-independent statistics, like strikeouts, walks and home runs.

The game has changed over the years, and with it pitching (and hitting) styles, so that fielding-independent approaches might not be as valid historically. But going back to 1973 -- the year in which the designated hitter came into being -- the Cain-Dickey games rank as the top. My method for determining best pairs is to take the highest minimum of the two scores in the pair. So for example, when Cain and Dickey had scores of 88 and 82, respectively, their pair score is 82.

The thing about the June 13 games was that adding Lynn’s as the third game makes the combined low score for the three pitchers a still-amazing 77. Since 1973, the closest trio in terms of FIGS was Rich Harden (78), A.J. Burnett (77) and Ricky Nolasco (76) on Aug. 19, 2008.

Was June 13, 2012 the best day of pitching in major-league history? As with any legendary baseball argument, it comes down to the stats to which you give the most credence. For those who prefer fielding-independent pitching stats, like me, who claim June 13, 2012 as best, you’ve got a pretty strong case.

Matt Philip writes for Fungoes, a blog about the Cardinals.