Senior Baseball Columnist

Weekend Buzz: Cards can separate from wild card pack with bigger hits in clutch


The Cardinals should get a big lift when Chris Carpenter rejoins the rotation on Friday. (US Presswire)  
The Cardinals should get a big lift when Chris Carpenter rejoins the rotation on Friday. (US Presswire)  

LOS ANGELES -- The Weekend Buzz while you were noting that the NFL continues to use replacement referees, the NHL has locked out the players, and neither league is getting roasted the way baseball would if similar things were happening there. ...

1. From small things, big things come: A dink, a doink, a dunk, Mike Matheny's Cardinals can use all of the above. You know ... all the things they got last September but have had difficulty buying at any price now.

The scramble for the second NL wild card spot is becoming more chaotic by the day. Coincidentally, that almost exactly mirrors St. Louis' struggle for offense. The Cardinals had lost 13 of 18 games before nipping the Dodgers 5-2 in 12 innings in Sunday's series finale here, provoking outfielder Matt Holliday to call the game a "must-win" and causing everyone to look toward Chris Carpenter rejoining the rotation Friday in Wrigley Field.

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"Don't think it's a coincidence that the bunting we're talking about lately puts us in position today," Matheny said, referring to Pete Kozma's sacrifice that helped ignite the Cards' three-run 12th.

"When you look at it over the course of a season, the teams that make the playoffs are the teams that capitalize in crucial situations and win one-run ballgames," said David Freese, last October's World Series hero.

Lately, with feisty Rafael Furcal and Lance Berkman done for the season, the Cardinals mostly have done neither. Though they continue to rank second in the NL in runs scored and first in on-base percentage, without Berkman and now Furcal, the past two weeks have been Charles Dickens bleak.

Beginning with a 9-0 loss in Pittsburgh on Aug. 28, the Cards over their past 18 games into Sunday ranked 15th in the NL in batting average (.233, ahead of only the Dodgers' .224), 15th in slugging percentage (.349, ahead of only the Dodgers' .339), 13th in runs scored (57) and 13th in on-base percentage (.297).

They are 18-25 in one-run games.

"It's not pretty," Freese said of the one-run decisions. "It's frustrating. One pitch, one play can change things in the clutch. And that's playoff baseball."

The Cardinals most decidedly have not been playing playoff baseball lately. That's why the Dodgers, who also have not been playing playoff baseball, somehow tied them Saturday night. And it's why the Pirates, who also have not been playing playoff baseball, remain relevant. And it's why the Brewers are closing fast, and why the Phillies were (until this weekend at The Alamo, er, Houston).

"We can talk potential all day long, but if you don't execute, it's just talk," Matheny said.

Even without Furcal and Berkman, the Cards think they have the personnel in place to return to the playoffs. Because they think their guys should be able to get bunts down -- like Jon Jay finally did -- and knock out a few situational hits every now and again.

"It's something the guys are frustrated about, because we know we're a better team than this," Matheny said. "It's not even small ball. It's taking advantage of little things. We've been doing more situational hitting [in pre-game work]. We've been working more on bunts, believe it or not."

With Albert Pujols long gone, Allen Craig (21 homers, 80 RBI) is hitting an NL-leading .393 with runners in scoring position this season. Jay is hitting .344 (tied for fourth in the NL) with a .409 on-base percentage (fifth) since Aug. 6.

No question, the Cards miss Furcal. When playing shortstop Daniel Descalso often makes a fine second or third baseman. But it's what the Cards have (well, him and Kozma).

"You talk about Rafael Furcal, it's all about his energy," Freese says. "The energy he brings day-in and day-out. That's what I noticed first thing when he walked in last year.

"We miss his energy."

What they need to do is reverse course on the 25 one-run losses and late-inning crushers. They've dropped 17 decisions in the final at-bat. That doesn't change, their flights won't be so happy the rest of the season.

2. Pink Floyd Player of the Week: The Wall? After nearly knocking himself onto the disabled list with a shoulder injury late last month while crashing into the fence in Colorado, Matt Kemp hurtled into the Dodger Stadium wall trying to track down a Yadier Molina drive to start the ninth Saturday.

Here's the thing: The Cards led 3-2 at the time, and though he didn't catch it, he didn't give up on it after it bounded off the wall. Kemp chased the carom down and hurled a one-hopper to third to nail Molina. Without that play, the Dodgers don't come back to get a desperately needed win. Plain and simple.

"That play was unbelievable," manager Don Mattingly said. "Matt makes the last out in the eighth inning, that was the first play in the ninth, he's been struggling offensively (.114/.152/.205 in 11 games this month), after hitting the wall in Colorado ... that play, it was just great. Total all-out effort, not wanting to lose a game.

"It's one of the best plays I've ever seen. Especially considering the circumstances."

Said Kemp: "That's the way it's gotta be. I came out alive."

Now the challenge for the Dodgers, who again trail the Cards by one game for the second NL wild-card spot, is to do the same.

3. Jeter's Price is right: Derek Jeter moved past Willie Mays into 10th place on baseball's all-time hit list Friday night with a single against the Rays' David Price. Jeter collected his 3,000th hit last summer when he homered off of Price. When Jeter is inducted into the Hall of Fame, clearly, Price will introduce him.

4. Jose Reyes commits 500,000th error: My bad. At first, I thought they meant it was the Marlins' 500,000th error this season. Turns out, it was the 500,000th error in major league history.

5. The Athletics' wild ride: Two key reasons why Oakland is closing in on October: The A's 86 homers since the All-Star break ranks second in the majors. And until the streak ended Sunday, their starting pitchers had walked three or fewer batters in 44 consecutive games, the longest streak by an A's team since at least 1921.

6. The closer that made Milwaukee famous: How have the Brewers won 20 of 26 to make their upcoming visit to Pittsburgh count as one of the must-see series' of the week? John Axford is back on point and now has converted 11 consecutive save opportunities. Oh, and Ryan Braun reached a career-high 40 homers.

7. And he doesn't even have to deal with the Billy Goat: Yu Darvish now has 205 strikeouts, most by a rookie since the Cubs' Kerry Wood had 233 in 1998.

8. Ozzie Guillen back on Twitter: Must admit, I had zero idea boxing was even still a sport until Ozzie unleashed a barrage of tweets late Saturday night.

9. Red Sox for sale? John Henry denies it, and he's believable. Because Sox obviously operating under the "you broke it, you buy it" rule right now.

10. Padres honor Jerry Coleman: Cool statue unveiled at Petco Park on Saturday night paying tribute to an American icon (broadcaster, military hero, six-time World Series winner with Yankees). Best part? Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, from the broadcast booth, hanging a star.


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