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The Cards Turn Back the Clock -- To 2003

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You have to admit, there's something about the image of Grover holding the world in his hands that is almost unimaginably terrifying. 
Hey, who here remembers the year 2003? Yeah, I sure do too. It was a magical time for our great nation; Coldplay had yet to become the source of shame they would later, Mitsubishi commercials simultaneously aroused us, irritated us, and kind of made us want to buy our girlfriends pink Kangol hats. Nicolas Cage was almost -- almost, I said! -- tolerable thanks to Charlie Kaufman. And we all decided, for a brief and shining moment, that we would refuse to refer to them as French fries. 

All was not golden in 2003, though. We were all terrified of SARS. Hurricane Fabian humiliated thousands of people (or at least four), who were forced to suffer the indignity of being killed by a storm named Fabian. Johnny Cash finally lost his long battle with being too awesome and was swatted off this mortal coil by a universe which later admitted to just being jealous. There was some sort of armed conflict that kicked off in 2003, also, but I just can't recall the details. Something about weapons and some other reasons that didn't quite seem to pan out all that well later...eh. I'm sure if it had been anything important we would have heard more about it. 

Of all the maddening, saddening, and baddening things of the year 2003, though, none was more awful than the fate of the 2003 St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards that year had a ridiculously fantastic offense that season, with firepower to spare up and down the lineup. It was one of the best offenses in all of baseball, in fact. It was an offense that should have supported a team well into October with no trouble. Unfortunately, the 2003 Cardinals failed to even make the postseason, undone by pitching troubles, beginning with rotation injuries and ending with a bullpen that sunk the team almost single-handedly. 

Sound familiar? It should. 

The summer of 2003 was the summer of Esteban Yan. You may not remember Esteban Yan all that well; how much you recall of his time in a Cardinal uniform is likely inversely related to your ability to block out horrific tragedies. 

Yan's tenure in the Cardinal bullpen in 2003 consisted of 43.1 innings. In those 43.1 innings he posted an ERA of 6.02. He struck out just 5.8 hitters per 9 innings despite throwing really, really hard and looking like he should strike out a bunch of guys. He also managed to throw 8 home run balls in his brief Cardinal career, good for a 1.7 HR/9. That's...a really bad number. 

The summer of 2003 was also the summer of Pedro Borbon, a sidearming lefty who amassed a 20.25 ERA in 4.0 innings. Of Dustin Hermanson (5.46 ERA), and Lance Painter (5.50), and Jason Simontacchi (5.56 while throwing 126 innings!), and Jeff Fassero (5.68), and the bad version of Russ Springer (8.31 ERA, one arm surgery), too. But of all those guys, all of those big ol' cans of gasoline poured directly onto various fires, Yan is the one that really kind of sticks with me. He was the bottom of the barrel. 

I'm thinking Victor Marte is going to be 2012's Esteban Yan before it's all said and done. 

He's not there yet, by any means; Marte's current ERA of 4.54 doesn't have the same kind of horrorshow impact of Yan's 6.02. But that 1.4 HR/9 is definitely getting there...

The 2012 season is beginning to feel a bit like 2003 all over again. Jason Motte has been very solid, and Mitchell Boggs has been flat-out brilliant, but beyond them there hasn't been much to enjoy about the bullpen this season. Eduardo Sanchez, still one of my favorite pitchers I've seen in the past, say, five years, has walked nearly eight hitters per nine innings this year. Kyle McClellan was awful, and then he got hurt. J.C. Romero was so bad they actually made him leave town. Sam Freeman was interesting, but nowhere near ready. Fernando Salas has a 4.88 ERA (though he has improved of late); Marc Rzepczynski has gone from postseason stalwart to Walk-o-Matic and has a 5.28 ERA of his own. Maikel Cleto looked really, really intriguing, posting a 15.0 K/9 and just a 2.0 BB/9, but 4 home runs in 9.0 innings can make an ERA look ugly in a hurry. 

I've been a supporter of this bullpen so far this season. I really have. I even did a radio interview a couple weeks ago and said I thought the bullpen was going to get their shit together. (I did manage not to say shit on the radio, but it was a really close thing.) I love love love some of the power arms the Cards have managed to collect for their relief corps. There are a lot of strikeouts in this bullpen, and that's a very good thing. 

The problem, though, is this: we are now in the middle of July. The All-Star break has done come and went. The trade deadline is rapidly approaching. And Cardinal relievers have 15 losses on the season. (Yes, pitcher win-loss records are usually worse than useless. But you know what? I think that number actually does tell us something meaningful.) This is a team underperforming its Pythagorean record by five games, and it's largely due to poor performance in close games. One run games especially. And where is the first place you look for a culprit when a team is struggling to win the close ones? That's right. The bullpen. 

This is a team with a 16-9 record in blowouts (where the margin of victory or defeat was greater than 5 runs), but just a 10-15 mark in one-run games. That's a tough pill to swallow. 

Three more losses over the weekend to the red-hot Reds, all close games. All three could at least partially be laid at the feet of the bullpen. Especially the feet of Esteban Ya- er, Victor Marte. 

This season began so promisingly, with a brilliant April that saw a juggernaut offense crushing all opposition beneath its bloody wheels. Now, the Cardinals find themselves in a quagmire, stuck in third place in the NL Central, pissing away game after game, watching the same issues put Ls on the scoreboard night after night. 

The summer of 2003 was kind of a dark time for the St. Louis Cardinals, who saw a monstrous offense unable to carry a pitching staff that frittered away leads and gave away close games like so much Halloween candy. If Mike Matheny and John Mozeliak don't figure out something quick, the summer of 2012 is going to be remembered in much the same way, I'm afraid. 

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