Well, it’s that magical time of year again—interleague Play is upon us. We got a taste of it earlier in the year with that odd Marlins series, but this is the real deal, ladies and gentlemen. Our proud Indians start off the interleague slate with a trip to the banks of the mighty Mississippi to face the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals.
After a hot start that got the citizens of St. Louis to forget all about a Machine that used to function there, St. Louis has fallen back to earth and now trails the division leading Reds by three games. The Indians, of course, trail the White Sox by 1.5 games coming into the series, and with Chicago facing the mediocre Astros this weekend, Cleveland needs to get the job done.
Despite the loss of the great Pujols, the Cardinals have not seen a real dropoff in offensive production from last year. Signing Carlos Beltran as a free agent has proven to be a master stroke by general manager John Moziliak. Beltran has plainly shaken off the bad juju that haunts Flushing, Queens and has returned to the MVP-caliber, or at least All-Star caliber, play that got him that fat contract from the Mets. He’s leading the league in homers with 15 and posting a 148 OPS+, and the knee issues that cramped his style in New York seem a thing of the past. It’s wonderful to see him return to what he had been for the Royals and Astros (and Mets too, for a couple years) because he is a wonderful player. It’s also a bit funny a couple levels—as soon as he leaves the Mets he is a god on the diamond, and he’s playing for the team that downed the best Mets team of the last 25 years back in the ’06 NLCS with his famous called third strike on a curveball from Adam Wainright to end the series.
Though we’re going to see a lot more interleague play next year, right now it’s still a little neat, isn’t it? The novelty of it is still there a little bit, because these are players on the Cardinals you don’t normally get to see or hear much about. Lance Berkman is on the DL, but other guys like World Series MVP David Freese or Matt Holliday or Yadier Molina, these are wonderful players to watch. Despite their record the Cardinals are one of the best teams in the league, and will show it. They can hit everywhere in the lineup, with six of their nine current starters posting an OPS+ over 120. Rafael Furcal continues his ageless wonder schtick leading off every game and still carries a fine glove, and near-no names like Allen Craig are filling in for Berkman to the tune of a .482 wOBA and seven homers in only 71 plate appearances. John Jay took over in center field for the once highly touted Colby Rasmus and has held his own, posting a .369 wOBA, drawing walks and hitting for extra bases. It’s a team that presents itself like a small market club, but is quietly a powerhouse with talent up and down the lineup.
Just an aside, but did you know that even with all their riches and success at the major league level, the Cardinals still have the top-ranked pitching prospect in the game? His name is Shelby Miller, and he’s slated to be a true, unavowed ace. What an organization.
We all know the Indians, because we love them, but they’re playing some fine ball again. Shin-Soo Choo has found a true home at the top of the order. He’s hitting .329/.412/.494 in the number one slot, and having a power threat like him to start games off, before the pitcher has settled in, is a luxury we haven’t enjoyed since the halcyon Grady days. Speaking of which, Grady apparently is going to start running soon, but trainer Lonnie Soloff told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian there was no timetable for his return because it would be unfair to Sizemore. I can’t decide if it’s frustrating or sad or what. I just want the guy to be healthy and happy. He loves baseball so much.
It will be interesting to see what Acta does with the lineup in St. Louis. He’s been tinkering a lot lately, basically going with the hot bat in the three-hole, Choo up top, and going from there. Against the Tigers this past series we saw Asdrubal Cabera batting second, Jason Kipnis third and Carlos Santana at home in the four-hole. They scored 18 runs with that lineup in Detroit, something that would have been unheard of a year ago. Michael Brantley continues to hit, extending his hitting streak to 15 against the Tigers including his first homer, could it be that he’s found his power stroke? Or is he just streaky? Who cares, as long as it continues in St. Louis. Brantley just looks so much like a ball player, it boggles the mind when he doesn’t succeed.
Matt LaPorta is still with the club, though whether we see him is the question. Casey Kotchman had a pretty good time up in Detroit (a homer and a multi-hit game anyway) and brought his average over .200 at least, so maybe Acta is hoping it carries over to the St. Louis series. His glove at first is invaluable. It’s a tough thing to wonder though, whether Shelley Duncan or Matt LaPorta should be in left. Or Johnny Damon. LaPorta still can’t hit curveballs, Damon is questionable everywhere, and Duncan is, well Duncan. At least Damon brings some speed to the equation, I guess. Left field is a real black hole right now, that’s for sure. Luckily everything up the middle is solid gold.