May 4, 2015
The Best Rivalry In Baseball (Right Now)
Since the start of the 2011 season, the St. Louis Cardinals have won two NL Central titles, but reached the playoffs all four seasons (and they’re off to a blazing start that gives them a very good chance of extending that streak). It’s not quite fair to say that they’ve dominated the division—their two wins have been narrow, by five combined games, whereas they lagged well behind the Brewers and Reds in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Still, there’s no question the Cardinals are the dominant power of the group.
To wit, they have steamrolled three of their four (and for two seasons, four of their five) divisional foes in head-to-head matchups over the last four-plus seasons. Here are the records of those encounters:
St. Louis Cardinals, 2011-2015, Head-to-Head Records
The Pirates have bucked the trend, when it comes to the Cardinals and their division rivals. Instead of rolling over for the regional powerhouse, Pittsburgh has played them nearly to a draw. Of these 72 games, 26 were decided by a single run, and nine more by two. The Cardinals have won the last six games of the series—three to start September last year, and all three over this past weekend. However, they’ve only outscored the Bucs by seven runs in those six games. The last four were walk-off victories. This weekend set lasted 35 innings. The two teams seem to be constantly threatening to score, but rarely scoring, with good pitching stemming the tide of rallies mounted by deep, OBP-centric offenses. Tension builds, and the bubble never seems to pop.
If you ask me, a rivalry doesn’t need brawls. It doesn’t need subplots or hatred or wars of words and beanballs. It only needs good games, and ideally, games that tease out every detail of a team. I want to see teams draw out one another’s strengths and weaknesses, in equal measure, and make the strengths shine and make the weaknesses really hurt. I want teams who leave town in tatters after playing one another, exhausted not from an unusually strenuous effort—because every game counts the same in the standings, so you’d better bring the same intensity and passion to the park every day—but from the sheer tautness and difficulty of facing that opponent.
To that end, I offer this:
Pitcher Usage, Cardinals v. Pirates, 5/1-5/3
The Cardinals, on the other hand, now have a tall order to fill. The Cubs are coming to town, not playing terribly well (they’ve lost three of four, and their offense has had a rough stretch) but dangerous, and fresher by far:
The Cardinals aren’t giving the wins back, though. One lesson we can learn from a great rivalry like the one the Pirates and Cardinals now have is that there are hardly any—there are probably no—Pyrrhic victories in baseball. Sure, asking a starter to throw 140 pitches in a game is reckless and damaging, in the broader scope, but it’s probably also not contributing anything to one’s chances of winning. Emptying a bench, canceling days off, asking a reliever to pitch on a third or fourth consecutive day, these are all unfortunate choices a manager must make sometimes. When a series forces managers to make them, though, and the result is still as beautiful as the baseball the Pirates and Cardinals played this weekend, that’s the mark of a great matchup. St. Louis might be ever so slightly staggered, but they took the Pirates’ best punch and are still standing. Pittsburgh is reeling, but if the standings dampen their Monday moods, they can take solace in the fact that they played really, really good baseball, and came out of the fight a bit cleaner than their opponent did. They can now get healthy against the directionless Reds, and wait for what figures to be an even more beleaguered Cardinals team to visit them at PNC Park starting this Friday.