Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Russian is Cut!

I hate watching the St. Louis Cardinals.

That’s actually an understatement. I can barely bring myself to watch the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, last night I was able only to flip in and out of the game throughout the evening in short five minute bursts. Why is this? Because watching the Cardinals makes me feel bad. And I don’t like to spend three hours of my free time feeling bad.

The Cardinals are the giant corporate conglomerates of baseball. They come in to your pleasant, colorful hometown and they turn everything black and white. They are the Walmarts and Olive Gardens that drive your favorite mom and pop shops out of business. They are the Agent Smiths of the Matrix, plunging their hands into your chests, filling you with an oozing black emptiness until they absorb everything good and human about you. And mostly, there is nothing you can do stop them. Mostly.

Matt Carpenter may be the perfect embodiment of this spirit. Tonight he came up in the bottom of the ninth, in a tie game, to face Tyler Thornburg with the game on the line…and he looked like he just rolled off the couch on a lazy Saturday afternoon. No emotion. No energy. No pizazz. Just a cold, stubble-bearded hitter walking to the plate trying to hit the ball as his job entails. And when he struck out six pitches later, he quietly turned around and walked back to the dugout presumably to put on his glove and continue the evening with his fielding duties. I mean, the Cardinals players are practically walking embodiments of the latest App for your Baseball Franchise. Just download and watch them hit. You might even call them Angry Red Birds.

Each one is essentially a clone of the next one too. Outside of Yadier Molina, Carlos Martinez, John Jay, and Johnny Peralta, the entire team is comprised of 6-2, 195 lb, white guys with either stubble beards or full beards. The stubble beard guys seem to gather on one side of the field and excel at spoiling good pitches and hitting over .300 despite the lack of any real pedigree. The fully bearded guys gather across the field and all fully demonstrate the ability to throw an easy 99 MPH despite never having done so in the minors or with other teams. For some reason, the clones of the St. Louis Baseball Apps always seem to come with an inherent upgrade upon download.

Download the latest Cardinal App at I Tunes today
My mentor, Bill Simmons, put it best last year when the Cardinals met the Red Sox (Simmons's team) in the World Series and he quipped:

"..I've worked up a healthy amount of animosity toward this Cardinals team...the amount of crappy guys that are on this team that make plays for them, is really like way above the limit; Descelso, Wong, John's frustrating."

Welcome to Milwaukee, Bill.

And that’s the worst part about watching the Cardinals, and why they make me feel bad; they are just so damn good, independent of whom they throw out there. Computers always seem to have the upper hand when dealing with humans and their pesky emotions. Just ask Garry Kasparov.

Over the last few years, from a Brewer's fan perspective, it has felt like all Brewers-Cardinals games are filled with a sense of impending doom. It is difficult to just sit back and enjoy the game when you constantly feel like something terrible is about to happen at all times. And even when things are going well, you  never let you guard down, because when you do, that is exactly when the Cardinals strike. They've done it with such frequency and uncanny efficiency over the years that watching these games for me has essentially become an exercise in blood pressure balancing. From 2011-2013, the Brewers are 20-32 against the Cardinals with a -60 run differential. But ask a Brewer's fan what the record feels like, and those numbers don’t even come close to reflecting the weight that is carried by Brewers' fans in regard to this rivalry. With the additions of tough playoff losses in ’82 and ’11 (Milwaukee's only two chances at the World Series in four decades), in Milwaukee, it feels like we've won about 3 games ever in the history of Brewers v Cardinals.

And then something happened.

Last night, April 29, 2014, with most of Milwaukee's star players out of commission for the evening, the bad things that always seemed to happen against the Cardinals just…stopped. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, the Cardinals put runners on first and second with one out. Naturally, Randall Grichuk!, the newest stubble-bearded, no-name App...stepped to the plate, laced a liner into left, and won the game for the Cardinals....Exceppppt…the liner didn’t go into left. It was caught by Jeff Bianchi for the second out. And after the entirely predictable error to load the bases on the next play, John Jay weakly grounded out to second and the inning was over. The Cardinals hadn’t won.

Again, they threatened in the tenth, leading the inning off with a double. But, this time, it was quickly wiped away on the next play by a fielder’s choice at third. Of course, they put another runner in scoring position two plays later...only to be thwarted by Zack Duke ending the inning with no further damage. Zack Duke! The Brewers were now giving the Cardinals a taste of their very own medicine - we’ll see your Grichuk and raise you a Duke.

Finally, the Brewers were able to eke out a run in the 12th even executing a sacrafice bunt along the way. And then came the ultimate test. With the one run lead, the Brewers brought in heretofore - lights out - Frankie Rodriguez, to close things out. The Cardinals love to give that glimmer of hope before they knock you on your ass and show you who's boss. Here is where they would put an end to K-Rod’s magic. Shatter the confidence of the Brewer’s bullpen (when you cut off the head, the body will die). steal a win from the Crew. And prove to everyone that, to be the best, Woo, you have to beat the best. And they damn sure tried there dandiest. K-Rod retired the first two batters before giving up a hit to Yoddie Molina followed up by what seemed like a 20 minute sequence that saw clone trooper, Allen Craig, walk and then journeyman, Johnny Peralta, foul off a collective 375 would-be-game-ending pitches before finally flying out to end the game.

K-Rods reaction after retiring Peralta was priceless. He shook his head in disgust, expectorated toward the ground, and screamed an expletive, loudly. The reaction perfectly reflected the feelings of every Brewer’s fan across Wisconsin that was still up watching. Whether it was relief, defiance, anger with himself or more likely, a combination of the three; it was a battle cry stating loudly, that the Crew is finally willing to exert that much effort (12 innings and endless pitch counts) to win just one game against our arch nemesis. In years past, we may have just let them have it because it was late and we were tired.

We took that battle cry into the next night and essentially replayed the night before: a one run victory in 11 innings with K-Rod slamming the door again. Except this time, things were just a bit easier. We wrapped things up an inning sooner.  The usually stubborn Cardinals started going down in order in the later innings, even striking out in big spots! (17 times in total). K-Rod had to use only 13 pitches for the close.

Had something changed? Did last night’s breakthrough win in a game in which the Brewers normally would have folded show them a way to get to the Cardinals? And did our rock bottom, injury depleted lineup actually help overcome the Brewers mental block against St. Louis, seeing that they essentially played the last two nights with nothing to lose?

Who knows for sure? There is a long season left to go. The Brewers and Cardinals will play 14 more times this year and the Cardinals could certainly win all 14 of those games. But what I do know, is that while still frustrating, St. Louis just isn't as scary as they have been over the last couple of years. They still have the pesky guys, but they no longer have those multiple "Fear of God Guys" that absolutely terrify you every time they come to the plate. Pujols is gone. Berkman is gone. Beltran is gone. Brewer killer - David Freese - is gone. Matt Holiday is 34 and another day removed from his prime every time he suits up. Really, Molina is about the only guy left that truly-truly scares you. 

The Cardinals have been able to get away with their Descelso’s, Mark Ellis’ and John Jay’s over the years because they were sprinkled lightly throughout a lineup of clutch veteran superstars. But when the entire lineup begins to consist wholly of scrappy guys playing above their pedigree, it gets harder to find those clutch hits that win ball games night in and night out. And yes, the pitching is still pretty dominant, but this team, on the whole, isn't necessarily your dad’s St. Louis Cardinals.

Having said all that, I still hate watching the St. Louis Cardinals. I certainly feel that we gained some headway against this team, confidence-wise over the last two nights. And while maybe I’ll be able to watch tomorrow's game with both eyes open and my defibrillator in another room, I am still a long way from feeling safe at any time during these match-ups. The Cardinals will continue to keep me on edge and suck the joy out of everything they touch with their “Cardinal Way,” as long as baseball continues to exist.

But my team will continue to keep me happy. Over the last two days they have persevered (and I swear if Bill Schroeder and FSN use the term “scratch and claw” one more time in the next 24 hours, I am going to “scratch and claw” my eardrums out of my skull) and found ways to not only beat the Cardinals, but beat them in the “Brewer Way,” with a little swagger and a lot of fun… 

Victory Selfie courtesy of Kyle Lohse
I’m sure Cardinals fans enjoy the semi-robotic way that their organization goes about playing the game; everybody look the same, everybody act the same, respect the game, blah..blah..blah. And I’m sure they enjoy the winning that goes along with the Cardinal Way. But while St. Louis may have their cupboards lined with hardware (and yeah, we’re jealous, that’s pretty much the point of this whole column), we have our TEAMS. We have the Wallbangers, Team Streak, Stormin Gorman, Rockin Robin, The Baby Brewers, Beast Mode, T-Plush, Greinke Interviews, The Ax-Man, Evil Braun, Fighting Go-Go, and even Face-Punching K-Rod. Milwaukee will have these things forever. Teams and Characters will always last longer than bronze and silver. St. Louis can keep pointing to their trophies (and that GD magic squirrel) as much as they'd like (and they will), but for at least two nights in 2014, the “Brewer Way,” was the better way.