Editors' note: The Playoff Pulse, a weekly look at the Major League Baseball playoff races, will appear every Monday until the end of the season.
CHICAGO – In the weird world of Tony La Russa, where the pitcher hitting eighth makes complete sense, flecks of psychology, reverse psychology, us-against-the-world prattle and other mind games are applied liberally.
Knowing that, it is no surprise to hear La Russa's approach to managing a St. Louis Cardinals team that, despite its sub-.500 record, is still hanging around the National League Central standings like a freeloader snoring his way through the day. They don't look the part, they don't feel the part, they don't belong. And the only thing that would make them believe they do – the fact that a similarly moribund Cardinals team won the World Series last year – is, by La Russan logic, unworthy of discussion.
"It's a totally different year," La Russa said. "We're trying to separate ourselves from last year. I'm not going to be a part of getting this year and last year in the same sentence, because that would be exactly the opposite of what I've told our club to do."
It is a different season, and this certainly is a different team. Only Anthony Reyes remains from the Cardinals' rotation last season, and he is 2-12 with a 5.61 earned-run average. The rest of St. Louis' starting staff consists of Adam Wainwright (their playoff closer last year), Braden Looper (also a reliever), Kip Wells (6-13 with a 5.24 ERA) and Joel Pineiro (who couldn't hack it in Boston's bullpen). Their starters' ERA of 5.11 is the worst in the NL.
Then there is St. Louis' lineup of Albert Pujols and whatever eight replacement-level players they can conjure. Fine. It's not that bad. But the Cardinals' second-best hitter, Chris Duncan, is 6 for 40 with 18 strikeouts in August. Their best hope right now for a second threat is Brendan Ryan, a 25-year-old rookie who has hit four home runs in 79 big-league at-bats after hitting seven in five minor-league seasons.
Right fielder Juan Encarnacion, mad that he got benched for a few games so the Cardinals could see Rick Ankiel, cried over spilled milk and almost got sent to the disabled list. Third baseman Scott Rolen's shoulder could fall out of its socket any day. Center fielder Jim Edmonds is brittle enough to be sold by a confectioner.
And yet here they are, nipping at the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, and just three games back of first place after beating the Cubs on Monday. After a 5-3 loss to the Cubs on Saturday in which the Cardinals had a bad call go against them, La Russa refused to lament that extra run. It wouldn't have mattered much, he said, though diplomacy guided his words, because La Russa, whose day is not complete without managerial maneuvering, plays different in a one-run game than he does two behind.
"I like how we're competing," La Russa said. "If we keep doing that, we'll be fine."
If that's all it takes – if the Cardinals, with their dearth of talent, really can win the division – it might be the saddest indictment on the NL Central yet. In reality, the Cardinals need better pitching, equally strong bullpen work, injuries resolving themselves and, most important, a hefty helping of luck.
Nor would it hurt to remember last season, when their near-collapse in August and September fueled a surge through October.
"We've got the ring," La Russa said. "That's going to work against us more than it works for us.
"We need to get hungry to get another chance."
Mark Teixeira, Atlanta, 1B: Only Prince Fielder has more home runs than Teixeira's seven since he joined the Braves, and only three others have more than his 19 RBIs. Since Teixeira's arrival, the Braves have actually lost two games in the standings. Through no fault of his, certainly.
Arizona: How can the Diamondbacks have scored 23 fewer runs than their opponents and be 11 games over .500? They're awesome at getting blown out, as Chris Jaffe explains, and following some post-All-Star break troubles, they've won 21 of 27.
Raul Ibanez, Seattle, OF: Over the last three weeks, Ibañez is slugging .833 and making up for the season's first four months, when his on-base-plus-slugging had dipped below .700. His seven home runs this month are more than he hit in April, May, June and July combined, and the Mariners are averaging more than six runs per game in August.
Brandon Inge, Detroit, 3B: Not exactly a paragon of discipline, Inge has been a free-swinging mess in August: 55 at-bats, 26 strikeouts and two walks. Seeing as he shares a Tigers lineup with two walkless wonders, Pudge Rodriguez and Ryan Raburn, it's no wonder Detroit's fate seems to fade daily.
Philadelphia Phillies: Yes, the Phillies remain in the wild-card hunt, and should Chase Utley return next week they might be the favorites. But it's games like Saturday's and Sunday's, in which Philadelphia blew four-run leads against the NL's worst team, Pittsburgh, that haunt teams.
Corey Hart, Milwaukee, OF: For someone who has spent most of his at-bats in the leadoff spot, Hart was easy prey for the vagaries of a slump. He trifled with his approach too much, and in 55 August at-bats, Hart has struck out 15 times and hasn't drawn one walk.
SKEPTICAL HOMETOWN COLUMNIST OF THE WEEK
Mitch Albom, Detroit Free Press
The Tigers lost four of six at Cleveland and the New York Yankees last week, and now they've got them again – only at home, where the Tigers struggle compared to the road.
Jeremy Bonderman lost his fifth straight decision Sunday. And while Albom has a little fact issue – the Cardinals won 83 last year, not 85 – the sentiment is all the same: The Tigers need to start winning now or risk fading over this upcoming seven-game gantlet.
(T)he Tigers cannot do this week what they did this past weekend.
They cannot put runners on base, then strike out to leave them stranded.
They cannot blow a double-play ball with an error.
They cannot send starting pitchers out there as if surviving six innings and surrendering five runs is some kind of goal.
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
With Cleveland rolling and Detroit reeling, the Indians could open a commanding lead in the AL Central by sweeping their three-game series. It happened earlier this season, when the Indians swept the Tigers at Jacobs Field in late May. Detroit won two of three in their July series. And now, the final one in Cleveland this season features three distinct pitching matchups: a Cleveland advantage (Fausto Carmona vs. rookie Jair Jurrjens in Game 1), a Detroit advantage (Justin Verlander vs. Paul Byrd in Game 2) and a toss-up (Jake Westbrook vs. Nate Robertson in Game 3).
Unless a team pulls a White Sox circa '05 and starts spinning complete games through the playoffs, bullpens will win and lose series. And though they tend to be judged solely on ERA, perhaps the more important number for relievers is how many inherited runners they allow to score.
Salvaging jams is usually the difference between a bad inning and a disastrous one. Even with Eric Gagne's implosions of late, Boston's bullpen still ranks as the best among the 16 playoff contenders when weighing equally the ERA and percentage of inherited runners who scored.
Surprises: The Cubs, whose ERA ranks 12th, have the second-best inherited-runner percentage. And the Angels, long thought to boast a stellar bullpen, have the fourth-worst ERA and second-worst inherited-runner percentage.
No surprise: The awful Phillies have allowed close to 40 percent of inherited runners to score, almost twice the Red Sox's number.
PLAYOFF ODDS REPORT
Considering six weeks remain until the playoffs, it would seem a smidgen early to offer postseason odds from Baseball Prospectus and their resident genius-in-stats, Clay Davenport. And yet a look at the first Pulse from last season shows that the top four teams in each league ended up as the four representatives in the playoffs.
So take this with an entire lick of salt, of course, and enjoy.
Boston Red Sox: 98.5 percent
Los Angeles Angels: 86.02 percent
New York Yankees*: 69.73 percent
Cleveland Indians: 62.72 percent
Detroit Tigers: 39.97 percent
Seattle Mariners: 36.46 percent
New York Mets: 95.55 percent
Arizona Diamondbacks: 70.39 percent
Chicago Cubs: 58.24 percent
Milwaukee Brewers: 34.27 percent
San Diego Padres: 34.01 percent
Philadelphia Phillies*: 30.24 percent
Atlanta Braves: 28.49 percent
Colorado Rockies: 20.6 percent
Los Angeles Dodgers: 18.3 percent
St. Louis Cardinals: 9.4 percent
* – Wild card leader: More than 57 percent of the Yankees' chance comes from the wild card, where they are overwhelming favorites ahead of Seattle (15.86 percent). The NL is a big mess, with wild-card-leading Philadelphia actually the sixth-likeliest team to make the playoffs. The Phillies' 23.95 percent chance ranks ahead of the Braves (22.8 percent) and the four NL West teams.
"The way he threw today, he might have gotten 17 strikeouts against … the 1927 Yankees." – Texas manager Ron Washington on Johan Santana, who, even if he's not in playoff contention, merits some kind of mention.