A Playoff Run Cut Short

Oct 12, 2009 at 1:40 am
Somehow, it was perfect Rick Ankiel should be the one to make the last out. 
It was perfect on so many levels for Swingin' Dick to be up there, taking his hacks as the last chance of the 2009 season, that it almost seemed scripted. Almost as if Tony La Russa had decided to temporarily stop being the Smartest Manager Ever and instead become the Most Poetic Manager Ever. 

The decade of the 2000s is over for the Cardinals, and it was ended by the man who, for better and for worse, was the ultimate story of the decade. The decade began with Rick Ankiel a fireballing young phenom melting down on the mound in the playoffs. It ended with Rick Ankiel a deeply flawed but still talented outfielder swinging through a belt-high fastball to send the Cards home to an early offseason. It was likely the final at-bat of Ankiel's Cardinal career, and the end of one of the strangest and most fascinating chapters in Redbird history. 

From a slightly less widescreen view, though, it was fitting Rick Ankiel make the final out of the season for other reasons, too. For all Ankiel's talent, he was ultimately undone by a lack of fundamentals and discipline, an inability to make the adjustments all ballplayers, no matter how talented, must make it they are to take that next step. 

What went wrong with the Cardinals in the playoffs wasn't something completely out of the blue. It wasn't a lack of talent, but a lack of execution. We all saw it coming from a mile away, as the team struggled to score runs throughout September. Poor at-bat followed poor at-bat, with plate discipline seemingly a dirty word in the Cardinal clubhouse. On days when they strung together a bunch of hits, they scored runs. Most days, though, It got to the point Tony La Russa, ordinarily one to bemoan a lack of aggressiveness in his lineup, began instead to worry about the lack of patience. Even so, the team proved incapable of making any adjustments. As a team, the Cardinals amassed 1061 at-bats in the month of September, and they struck out 219 times. There's nothing wrong with striking out in and of itself, of course; a strikeout is just an out, after all. But to whiff more than 20% of the time as a team, that's a bit worrisome. There's an awful lot of contact not being made in there. 

Also a bit like Rick Ankiel, the Cardinals were largely done in by the failure of their magic beans. Ryan Franklin and Joel Pineiro both had outstanding performances this season, and little in their past performances to indicate either could keep it up indefinitely. Franklin in particular scared the crap out of many of us (and by many of us I mean me); a pitcher who throws almost exclusively high-leverage innings has very little margin for error, and a pitcher who strikes out as few a hitters as Franklin is always living on the edge to begin with. At some point, a few of those balls in play are going to drop in, and bad things are going to happen. It was much the same with Pineiro. Yes, it was incredibly enjoyable to watch him impersonate Chrisy Mathewson for most of the summer, but there's a reason it's unheard of for a pitcher to do the job in just that particular way nowadays: it just doesn't work. Back in the days of balls that were used for weeks at a time and huge parks with irregular dimensions, allowing hitters to put absolutely everything into play wasn't necessarily such a bad thing. Plus, maintaining a 70%+ ground ball rate is virtually impossible. At some point, Jo-El was going to regress. 

More than anything, though, the Cardinals just picked the absolute worst time of the year to go completely in the tank. For a month and a half, they looked completely unstoppable; a juggernaut to rival the 2004 team. Then everything came crashing down and reality flooded in. They weren't an offensive juggernaut who could score at will. They couldn't come back against the game's top closers every single night. No, ultimately, this Cardinal team was a group of talented ballplayers who just didn't execute when the chips were down. 

So I say goodbye to the 2009 Cardinals, a wonderful bunch of ballplayers who came up short in the end. Fun to watch, an outstanding story, and at times, utterly brilliant, but ultimately lacking that last little bit to put them over the top. 

As I believe I said at the beginning of this, it's fitting Rick Ankiel took the last at-bat, isn't it?