If you'd told me sometime around early 2009 that the Cardinals were going to put Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday on the same team with Albert Pujols, I would responded that a benevolent God would never allow that to happen. Either that, or the team the Cardinals put them on was probably in the AL East. (I've got a lot of zingers stacked up in case someone travels back in time to make outrageous-sounding predictions). I would also have assumed the Reds would still be second-class citizens in the NL Central. There are plenty who question the sustainability of the Reds' success. But while either of these teams could suffer more injuries, regressions or a challenger from the teeming undercarriage of the NL Central, the fact remains that, for the second season in a row, the Reds and Cardinals are locked in what appears to be a long-term struggle for first place.
In that paleo-futuristic scenario, I probably would never have guessed that Albert Pujols would be the least productive of those big three. But that's been the case, through nearly a month and a half of the season. In fact, Pujols has been under-performing the likes of Colby Rasmus and David Freese too, while making outs a higher rate than Ryan Theriot. But despite Pujols' early downturn - which is naturally measured against his previous out-sized performance - the story for the Cards is the performance of the players that are more than picking up his slack, whether by legitimate breakout or over-achievement, adding up to an NL-leading 5.3 runs per game.
So are the Cardinals an irrepressible offensive juggernaut? Rasmus and Freese are probably better than you'd like to credit them. And, as I'm sure we're like to hear at least once (per plate appearance) this weekend, Pujols isn't going to be as un-Pujols as he's been to date. By the same center-seeking logic, Holliday and Berkman aren't going to flirt with .400 all season. And, if they are, I don't really want to think about it. On balance, this is an offensively superior team than the one that landed on our Ohio River bankhead nearly one year ago. But the pitching staff, in the presence of Westbrook's struggles and without Wainwright, is weaker. And there are some defensive liabilities on a team that shipped out Brendan Ryan and put Berkman back in the outfield.
As Joel mentioned on Twitter, the similarities between this series and its 2010 prequel are striking: The Cardinals were 20-15 and Reds were 19-15 coming in. While the Cardinals have beefed up on offense and look at least as formidable on the whole as last year, the Reds aren't slouching, churning out the second-best runs-per-game mark in the NL at 5.1. In the aggregate, this series has much the same statistical background as it did one year a go - just arrived at by different routes. If you're looking for an edge that suggests the current trajectory favors the Reds, you could certainly start with the fact that Cueto and Bailey are freshly-returned and looking good. Jay Bruce is a sleeping giant. Scott Rolen will almost certainly improve on the 3rd base committee that was keeping his spot warm.
It's tempting to look at head-to-head match-ups between rivals as some kind of ledger. But the unpredictability of the season outstrips any attempt to figure out a division winner through debits and credits in May. On top of which, these series only last three games. The "false sense of security" strategy pursued last year worked pretty well, but it also involved keeping everyone honest by winning 2 out of 3 in the mid-May tilt. Just to be safe, why not pick up the sweep?
What they're saying
Unless I've missed it, nothing quite bat-kick worthy has come across the wire recently, though there has been of simmering passive-aggression. It's not "WLB," but maybe it'll get your blood-boiling if you hate strategic pitching rotation scheduling, parroted Kraft-brands based trash-talking or making fun of things that are probably fair game.
Dusty said this thing:
"It’s always important to play well against the Cardinals," Baker said. "The last two years, we didn’t match up well against the Cardinals. We didn’t match up good with Carpenter. We didn’t match up good with Wainwright. We didn’t match up good with Garcia. That’s what it boiled down to. They were setting their rotation every time."
Not sure what the tone was here, but I'm going to imagine Dusty was seething with rage and yelling this into his own shattered reflection in the mirror. FACT CHECK: Dusty is mostly right here, though the Reds did face Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse and PJ Walters earlier in the season.
Colby Rasmus said through a social media platform (probably Friendster, "ha ha"):
Great having "LaRussa" at the game today lol. Time to go to Cincy and stock up on lunchables and maybe steal a shirt or five
Not very funny, I guess. But also, pretty hard to be at all upset about. One dig is a vague, innocuous reference to Brandon Phillips' making fun of St. Louis cuisine. The other, of course, mentions a dumb-dumb thing a Reds' pitcher did. A little late on that one, but otherwise fair enough, most of us made fun of that PR black-eye too.
Sorry, but we don't have enough grist for the mill yet.