It was a good weekend for the Cardinals. Like, a really good weekend. A really really good weekend, in fact.
They swept the Milwaukee Brewers, looking like a legitimate title contender for the first time in quite a while. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds played each other, with the Reds taking two of three from the Buccos. That was probably the optimal result from the Cards' point of view, as they managed to gain ground on both teams, but slightly more ground on the team directly ahead of them.
The pitching was amazing, with Adam Wainwright throwing a complete game on Saturday night and Kyle Lohse tossing six innings of scoreless ball last night. Joe Kelly wasn't nearly so dominant or efficient in the series opener, but he held on, kept the game close, and let the Cardinal offense do what the Cardinal offense does. There were no major hiccups from the bullpen.
In short, pretty much everything went pretty much exactly right for the Cardinals this weekend. Of course, such a magnificent weekend of baseball kind of makes one wonder about what the future holds for this team. After all, as good as they looked beating up on the Brewers, it is getting a little late in the season, and the Cards have been treading water for an awful long time.
Then again, we don't have to look too very far back to see what can happen when a team gets hot late in the season. Just about one year, in fact.
Just in case you were wondering, this was in fact my favorite song when I was sixteen. And it's still kind of nice now, in fact.
The 2012 Cardinals have, in many ways, looked a lot like the 2011 edition. Both teams started out their seasons on absolute tears before falling off in a major way. The 2011 version played .615 ball in April; this year's winning percentage in the season's opening month was a remarkable .648. Last year's team managed to play well in May as well before tanking in June; this year May began the slide and June just continued it.
Last year on the 6th of August, the Cardinals were 8 games over .500 at 61-53, 3.0 games out of the division lead. This year they are 10 games above the break-even mark at 59-49, but are 7.0 games back of the Reds. However, they are in better shape in the wild card race, so there's that.
The run differential comparison isn't even close. Last year on the 6th of August, the Cards had a +48 run differential; this year's team has an absurd +110, the best mark in all of baseball. However, it is interesting to note that the Cards had the best run differential in their division both seasons; last year the Brewers were only +22 while the Cards were at +48, while this season the Reds are at +72 to the Cardinals' +110. In other words, both the 2011 and 2012 Cardinals were probably the best team in the NL Central, at least in terms of their true talent level -- this year's team may actually be one of the very best in all of baseball -- but underachieved relative to their won/loss record, while another team overachieved their way to a division crown.
Both teams could lay much of the blame for their underachieving ways at the feet of shaky bullpens. Last year's team had the early-season nightmare of Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batitsta before getting the mix right down the stretch; this year the seventh inning has been a major bugaboo, and the left side of the 'pen in general has been best watched from between one's fingers.
The one really nice thing the 2012 team seems to have going for it is this: if they're going on a run, they look as if they might be starting a little bit earlier. The 2011 team had to go 18-8 in September to sneak in to the playoffs, and didn't climb to 10 games over .500 for good until they hit 77-67 on the 9th of September. This team has, with the exception of losing two of three in Chicago, been very good over the past couple weeks, going 12-4 since the 20th of July. So maybe, just maybe, the 2012 team decided they don't want to wait until the very last minute to make their run. Sort of like going shopping on the 22nd of December, rather than waiting until 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve day to get started, you know?
The Cards take on the San Francisco Giants tonight, looking to continue this mini run of brilliance they've been on. My crystal ball is, unfortunately, in the shop right now; I have no idea if this team has any shot at replicating the magic of Autumn 2011.
But, hey, it doesn't hurt to dream a little, right? And it isn't like we haven't seen something awfully similar in the fairly recent past...