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Monday, October 22, 2012

St. Louis Cardinals Comfort Zone

The St. Louis Cardinals are in their third round of the National League playoffs. They are in their third elimination game. They have had their opponent one game away from elimination three different times and failed to advance. Should the defending World Series champions trail in the ninth inning or later of tonight’s Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and be down to their final strike, it would be the third time in the past year the Cards have had their backs against the wall.


In a vacuum, the Cardinals journey in the National League Championship Series looks like wasted opportunities and an omen of doom. St. Louis takes advantage of a light hitting Giants lineup and puts San Francisco into a 3-1 hole with their two best career postseason pitchers, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, on the hill for Games 5 and 6.

Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, taking the hill for the Giants in those games, respectively, have their best outings of the postseason at a time when they could ill-afford anything but their absolute best. Now the Giants have their ace, Matt Cain, at home matching wits against the Cardinals best starting pitcher in 2012, Kyle Lohse. Lohse has pitched well in the 2012 playoffs, but has been frequently touched up prior to this year.

Don't get too excited! 3


Baseball is not played in a vacuum. Regarding the St. Louis Cardinals recent postseason performances, they appear to have an advantage when their backs are against the wall. Being on the edge of the postseason cliff is beginning to appear like a walk in the park for this team, like they don’t wake up until their season is about to be ended.

This is the same Cardinals team, last season, that was 8½ games back of the Atlanta Braves for the (only) Wild Card spot at the beginning of September. This is the same Cardinals team that trailed the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies two games to one in the best-of-five 2011 National League Division Series only to rally and win Game 4 at home then go on the road to nip the Phillies, 1-0, in the decisive Game 5. This is the same Cardinals team that was down to its final strike of the season twice in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, trailing the Texas Rangers three games to two, only to win in extra innings and rout the Rangers in Game 7.

The good fortune extended to 2012, beating the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta in the Wild Card game then coming back from a 6-0 deficit in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS to beat the Washington Nationals. In short, during the past two postseasons the Cardinals have played in five playoff rounds prior to this NLCS, been one game away from elimination six times, down to their final strike in four at bats, and have safely reached base, survived the elimination game, and won the series each time.

Ask Jayson Werth of the Washington Nationals about dancing on the Cardinals' grave prematurely. 2


While the Cardinals have a track record of surviving the pressure cooker, the only relevant performance, right now, is their performance tonight. Matt Cain vs. Kyle Lohse at AT&T Park in San Francisco is a matchup that would appear to ever so slightly favor the Cain and the Giants. Cain has not been lights out in the playoffs while Lohse (by and large) has been, but Cain has never been rocked while Lohse has only made it to the seventh inning once in his three starts. This means the Cardinals touch and go bullpen will have to come into play.

These dynamics play into the hands of the home team, which gets the final at bat if necessary and has, from top-to-bottom, a better pitching staff. The Giants bats, often flaccid during the regular season, have risen to the occasion this postseason. The Giants know about having their backs against the wall as this will be their sixth game during this postseason in which the Giants have had to win or go home. The scales are very close, but the tipping factors all appear to tip the Giants’ way.

That’s why they play the games. The Cardinals have a longer and deeper recent history of bending in the postseason. Until they break, I expect the Cardinals to win this battle of the last two World Series champions.

Advantage: Cardinals
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