Back In the Saddle (Hopefully, Anyway)

For the past couple of weeks, I've been feeling really kind of rough. Not sick, necessarily, but just not all that well. Every few days, I would feel a little better, but then the next day it would be right back down. I had a hell of a time mustering the wherewithall to complete much of anything. No energy, kind of just icky, you know? I didn't think too much of it at the time; just the cost of doing business when you've got too many hours worth of work to get into the day.

So anyway, I spent the night up at my parents' house over the weekend. I had gone up to watch the ballgame, had dinner there, and ended up just passing out on the sofa. My mother got up Sunday morning, headed downstairs, and noticed something sounded a bit amiss the way I was breathing. Sort of a watery sound. 

Long story short, I've been the hospital the past couple days with pneumonia. Apparently I've had it for a couple weeks and my left lung was about 50% full of fluid. I figured if you were half drowning you would notice, but apparently people walk around with it often enough the doctors weren't even all that surprised, though they were a bit taken aback how bad it was. 
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So I come back to the land of the living and the first sporting event I witness is the greatest game ever played, that Hollywood-scripted contest last night between the Detroit Tigers and your new American League Central champions, the Minnesota Twins. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it, but it was still a little blurry. I think at one point in time I was jumping around in the hospital bed, doing my best Lou Brown impression. 

There's a lesson to be had here, I'm sure; something about taking better care of oneself and not assuming if you feel like crap it's just because you're busy all the time. I'm also just as sure it's a lesson which will be largely lost on me. 

I tell you this not to elicit sympathy (though donations are certainly welcome; I do take cash), but because I'm actually feeling quite a bit like our very own Redbirds today. I've been in a funk lately but couldn't quite figure out what the deal was. Now, I still feel mostly like crap even though I've been told I'm getting better, mostly because I haven't noticed any difference yet. 
So where do the Cardinals really stand going into the playoffs today? Well, to be honest, it isn't a particularly bright picture, but it could also be a whole, whole lot worse. 

Personally, I have to say I think the Cards probably actually got the best draw. Sure, they have to open on the road, but after watching the Rockies the past couple weeks extensively, I think I'll take my chances with the Dodgers' rotation. I want no part of Ubaldo Jimenez twice in a short series, and the Colorado offense is much scarier than that of Los Angeles at this point, I think. 

Pitching Matchup

So tonight it's Chris Carpenter against Randy Wolf. The pitching matchup would appear to heavily favour the Cards, given that Chris Carpenter is, in fact, Chris Carpenter and Randy Wolf appears not to be. Nonetheless, you have to be at least respectful of Wolf. 

Wolf is just the sort of pitcher the Cards should absolutely light up, considering the right-handed thunder they currently boast. When you can roll out Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick and Mark DeRosa, left-handed pitchers should be easy pickings. Unfortunately, Wolf is just the sort of pitcher the Cardinals consistently fail to light up, as they have been, quite frankly, awful at hitting lefties, even since the midseason roster shakeup. 

As for Chris Carpenter, if there's any one player on this roster not named Pujols I would bet on to perform, it would be him. Carpenter has been nothing short of brilliant of all season, putting together a campaign certainly worthy of Cy Young consideration. The key matchup for Carpenter, I think, will be Andre Ethier. Ethier is easily the most dangerous left-handed threat in the Dodger lineup, and while Carpenter showed virtually no platoon split this season (.616 OPS vs LHB, .550 vs RHB), he has had a bit of a split for his career. (.781 OPS vs LHB, .674 vs RHB)

Offense

Okay, let's face it: neither the Cardinals nor the Dodgers have be lighting the world on fire as of late. Down the stretch, both clubs let up off the gas in a big way, the Cardinals because they sewed up a postseason berth relatively early and the Dodgers because, well, I'm not really sure why. 

Overall, I have to give the edge to the Cards on offense, though I still feel this is a team which has underachieved at times with the bats. The Dodgers do have very good depth with their bats, but they simply don't have the same kind of thump the Cards do. Manny Ramirez has the name recognition, of course, but hasn't been the same guy since coming back from suspension the Dodgers thought they were getting. (.881 OPS post-suspension vs 1.133 pre-suspension) Matt Kemp may be the most dangerous hitter on LA's roster, but his OPS is only .852. Don't get me wrong; that's still a very good hitter, but not quite in the same league as the guys the Cards have in the middle of the order. James Loney and Casey Blake are both nice players, but again, more in the mold of complementary guys than big-time threats.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, have plenty of thunder in the middle, beginning with the game's best hitter, Albert Pujols. Pujols is close to being a lock for the MVP again this season, posting an OPS above 1.100 for the fourth time in his nine-year career. Add to that the Cards' big midseason acquisition, Matt Holliday, who posted an OPS of 1.023 for the Cardinals, and you have quite possibly the most dangerous 1-2 punch in all of baseball. 

Beyond the big guns, there are some nice complimentary pieces for the Cards, but here's where the Dodgers do have an advantage, I think. Ryan Ludwick is a solid hitter, Yadier Molina has been good, and Skip Schumaker has been almost exactly league-average from a position where average is anything but, but on balance the LA lineup is probably a bit more dangerous at the top and bottom. 

Defense

Both of these teams are excellent defensively, with the Dodgers a shade stronger. Up the middle, Los Angeles has the advantage, with nearly equal defense at shortstop in Rafael Furcal and a much better second baseman in Orlando Hudson. In center field, the Cards have the advantage with Colby Rasmus, but only if they use him. Tony La Russa is already hinting he may use Schumaker in center at some point, which would be just absolute lunacy. (Then again, it just wouldn't be October in St. Louis without La Russa doing something nutty, now would it?) 

At the corners, the Cards are better at first, the Dodgers better at third. The corner outfield positions go to the Cardinals, with both Ryan Ludwick and Matt Holliday being above-average defenders for their positions. (And yes, I'm perfectly well aware Holliday can look a little goofy out there on his routes sometimes. It doesn't change the numbers, and he gets the job done.) 

Overall 

I have to say, I like the Cardinals in tonight's game, and in the series as a whole. The real concern is whether the Cards can somehow turn their August and early September magic back on, which is a big reason why I think it's probably a good thing they're playing the Dodgers. Both of these teams have been playing weak baseball for awhile; I think the Cards match up better against a team scuffling themselves, rather than the very hot Rockies. (Though as I write this, Colorado is now getting knocked around by Philly, so what the fuck do I know?) 

The real story of this series is going to be the starting pitching for each club. The Dodgers come in with huge question marks all over the place, beginning with an injured ace in Chad Billingsley and ending with their uber-talented but hugely inconsistent young lefty, Clayton Kershaw. The Cardinals, on the other hand, come in with two of the top three pitchers in the National League this season in Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and their third starter, Joel Pineiro, has done a passable imitation of a Deadball era Hall of Famer this year. I do worry about the Cards' bullpen, but the Redbird starters are just going to be too much for the Dodgers. 

My prediction: the Cardinals gradually come out of their funk (and here's hoping I do as well), and the right arms of their top two guys carry them through. 

Cards in 4. 

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