The trip is finally over.
Tonight, the Cardinals come to the end of their two-city, eight-game slog that began so promisingly, and has foundered so badly. Sunday's contest was, most likely, the worst game I've seen this team play so far this year. There was zero life to the team, except Albert Pujols, who had so much life he couldn't keep still on the bases. Braden Looper struggled to throw the ball lower than belt level, although he did at least keep the team in the game. The defense even struggled, one of the real strong points of the team thus far.
Of course, your chances of posting early offense numbers are greatly reduced when Cesar Izturis, one of the worst hitters in all of baseball, is the man you're counting on to strike the decisive blow.
Suppan was at 65 pitches, with five walks, after three innings. He departed after seven innings of one-run baseball, having thrown a total of 110 pitches. That's right; 65 through three, looking like an early exit for Soup, even if they can't put up a crooked number. He tossed 45 pitches over the next four innings; ''Hell of a game, Jeff, you really settled down after some early struggles.'' The Cardinals, following their season-long pattern, simply cannot score the knockout blow. Pitchers just throw carefully to the guys they don't want to get beaten by, and then roll through the soft underbelly of the bottom of the Cards' lineup.
On Sunday, surrounding Braden Looper, the Cardinals had Jason LaRue batting seventh, with his batting average of .067, and Cesar Izturis batting ninth, with his robust .232.
Looper himself came in hitting .385, 86 points higher than those other two combined, but he is still a pitcher. Don't get me wrong; he handles the bat very well for a pitcher, but the opposing hurler still has to feel pretty good about his ability to make a pitch and get Looper out.
With Skip Schumaker having apparently decided that he no longer wants to either take a walk or drive the ball, the offense once again was in the position of having three automatic outs -- and one guy who's nearly an automatic out at the moment -- in a row. I'm sure Skip will come around and hit better than what he did Sunday, but the other three are what they are.
Two of the absolute worst hitters in baseball surrounding the pitcher. Not a whole lot of fear in pitching to any of that triad.
So what's the answer? Well, I'm sad to say it, but I don't really know if there is an answer. Obviously, your backup catcher doesn't play all that often, and Yadi is much stronger than LaRue offensively. Even so, Molina isn't a plus offensive player; he's just back there to make highlight reel throws. Cesar Izturis is doing pretty much what he's done his whole life. Izturis hit well for about a year and a half; 2004 and the first half of 2005, but then ended up hurt and going under the knife for Tommy John surgery.
Whatever forward momentum Izturis had going for him was lost in the rehab process, as well as the part-time playing situation he found himself in over the next couple of years. Izturis had done a nice job this year of being selective. At least he did a significantly better job than what he has the rest of his career. Izturis is still, though, pretty much exactly what he is: an above average defensive shortstop with that wet copy of a newspaper that he uses as a bat. There will be no real improvement there.
Add in Adam Kennedy to the bottom of that lineup, and even though Adam is managing to hit for a high average this season, you still have four players in the lineup with slugging percentages lower than .400, which is nobody's idea of a recipe for success.
Bottom line, this club is going to struggle offensively. There's a strong pattern developing in the way pitchers approach this lineup, and I don't think they're going to change what's been working pretty well so far. You pitch ever-so-carefully to about five of the hitters in the lineup, (at the most; depends on how well Ankiel or Glaus are currently swinging) and then just breeze through the rest of it, even if you do put some men on base.
I don't have any solutions to offer, to be honest. I'm afraid we're just going to see these sorts of games a lot this summer; putting men on and struggling to close the deal. I'm interested to see what La Russa tries to do to get his team moving in a better direction; regardless of my own personal feeling toward the man, he's one of the most creative managers you'll ever see, especially when he needs to be.
Maybe La Russa has an ace up his sleeve and can come up with a way to maximize the offensive contributions of 40 percent of this lineup. I must say, though, that if he planning on pulling an answer out of somewhere, he may want to stand up.
The end of the road trip tonight. What began so promisingly has now bogged down in a morass of stranded base runners, missed opportunities and bullpen disasters. At least it's finally over. I guess I should feel alright about 4-4. Even good teams rarely play much above .500 ball on the road. But I can't help but think that the Cardinals have really lost their chance to put a stranglehold on this division, and now are in serious trouble. I hope I'm wrong, but it doesn't feel like it.