Winless stretch nothing new to Cards

Every team goes through its ups and downs throughout the six-month regular season. The St. Louis Cardinals, who are currently riding a seven-game skid heading into Saturday night’s inter-league contest with the Kansas City Royals, have been through struggles similar to the past week and a half before.

Twice the Cardinals suffered an eight-game losing streak en route to becoming World Champions in 2006. It’s obvious the Cardinals are in the worst slump of the season, but having been in identical situations before, this club will no doubt bounce back. All it takes is for one hitter and/or pitcher to get hot and then winning becomes not only contagious, but fun as well. Moods will sway and the clubhouse atmosphere will alter. Smiles will be seen throughout the clubhouse and guys will be enjoying themselves once more.

The current skid: Seven straight losses including being swept at the hands of division rival Milwaukee and National League East opponent Washington have plagued the Cardinals over the past week. Dropping the first of three to the Kansas City Royals of the American League Central divisiont prolonged the skid to a season-high seven games.

Over the drought:

1) The Cardinals have scored four or more runs just three times and are batting a dismal .193 (44 hits, 228 at-bats) over the span. They’ve been shutout twice; a 8-0 loss to the Brewers on June 10, and a 10-0 pounding dealt by the Nationals on Wednesday.

2) The starting pitching has been just as bad, if not worse. Only once over the last seven games has a Cardinals’ starter tossed more than six innings (Chris Carpenter, Friday night versus the Royals: 8 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 7 Ks, 1 BB). As a group, they’ve worked a combined 41 innings and have allowed 29 total runs, 26 of which were earned off 50 hits. The stat that jumps out is the eight home runs allowed by the starting staff.

3) From the offense to the starting pitching, and finally to the bullpen. The relievers have turned in better performances than of late for the Cardinals. Over the skid, the bullpen has worked a gruesome 17 1/3 innings, allowing 18 earned runs off 24 hits, all while surrendering five home runs. Opponents have teed off on the Cardinals’ bullpen.

-As the Cardinals fight their way through the tough times, it’ll be interesting to see how this team responds to more adversity. They’ve already been dealt a Christmas list worth of injuries and now a seven-game losing streak.

Could Romero upgrade Cards bullpen?

Last winter, General Manager John Mozeliak expressed interest in Philadelphia Phillie’s reliever J.C. Romero, but the lefty declined to take the route of free agency, signing a one-year deal with the Phillies for the 2011 season.

Over last couple of weeks, the Cardinals’ bullpen has struggled mightily, showing many signs of wear and tear, and could easily use the services of another veteran arm to keep the rest of the gang on top of their game.

So what does a reliever like Romero bring to the table?

1) He made his Major League debut 12 years ago with the Minnesota Twins and has fluttered around the big leagues since then, making stops in Los Angeles, with the Angels, as well as stints in Boston and Philadelphia. He’s a left-handed specialist. With that said, the Cardinals do have two left-handed specialists already on the active roster, including Trever Miller and Brian Tallet. Both Miller and Tallet have provided aid to the Cardinals’ bullpen respectively. Miller, who has only pitched 13 1/3 innings this season, has appeared in 30 games, allowing just four earned runs off 12 hits. His control has been a minor issue as he’s allowed eight walks to seven strikeouts. Tallet, who recently was activated off the disabled list after suffering a fractured right hand in early May, has shown signs of rust since returning from injury. In just 14 games, Tallet has allowed nine earned runs off 16 hits in 11 1/3 innings this season. A benefit of Tallet’s services includes being able to pitch in different situations, including when games are out of reach, a time when manager Tony La Russa needs one of his relievers to work more than an inning.

2) By acquiring Romero, the Cardinals would add more depth to their flustered gang of relievers. In 2008, Romero appeared in 81 games for the Phillies, but his numbers have diminished since then. In ’10, Romero made an appearance in just 60 games and so far in ’11, the lefty has seen action in just 24 contests before being optioned to the minors.

3) As always, adding another arm to the Cardinals organization means another project for pitching coach Dave Duncan. There’s no doubt that Dunc can remold Romero to his ’08 form. Like I previously stated, Romero brings experience above all other things to the table. As a member of the ’08 World Champion Phillies, Romero was unhittable as the seventh inning shutdown man.

-How Romero’s situation could pan out: According to Jim McCormick of the Philadelphia Sports Daily, “Where and when [Romero] might get the chance to work remains unclear, as the Phillies have three options with the 35-year old lefty; he must got through waivers for 10 days, and if he’s not picked up, then he’ll have an opportunity to stick with the club in the lower levels in the minors. The second option is that there is a MLB club interested and a trade could be worked out, a highly unlikely scenario, and third, he could be outright released by the Phillies.”

The Cardinals will have a week and a half to determine whether Romero’s services would fit their needs in the bullpen. It’s obvious the Cardinals are in need of dire help, but at what potential cost?

The most underrated closer in the game

When it comes to closers, the player who comes in to shut the door in the ninth inning, many think of Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, or Brad Lidge of the Philadelphia Phillies.

But when it comes to unheard of closers, Pittsburgh’s Joel Hanrahan is by far the most underrated stopper in all of baseball. Hanrahan was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the second round of the 2000 amateur draft. Following a standstill in LA, Hanrahan signed with the Washington Nationals in 2006, where he stumbled as a starter, compiling a combined record of 13-13. Three years later, Hanrahan was traded along with Lastings Milledge from Washington to the Steel City in exchange for Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan. Now, the 29-year old right-hander is a big reason why the Pirates are just four games out of first place in the National League Central Division.

Here’s my take on why Hanrahan is the most underrated closer in the game:

1) In 32 1/3 innings pitched, Hanrahan has allowed just six runs, five of which are earned. He’s given up just 25 hits, and has converted all 19 save opportunities for the Pirates.

2) His 29 strikeouts to just seven walks is astounding, and his 0.99 WHIP is remarkable. He simply gets the job done.

3) He owns a 1.39 ERA and opponents are hitting just .216 off him. The low batting average against along with his microscopic ERA makes him a dangerous weapon out of the Pirates bullpen.

Hanrahan is just one save behind league leader Brian Wilson of the World Champion San Francisco Giants. There’s no doubt in my mind that Hanrahan should be voted into the Mid-Summer Classic in Arizona come July. If he doesn’t, it’ll definitely be a head scratcher and will have many people thinking twice, including myself.

On the list of top closers in the game today, Hanrahan has emerged as one of the greats.

Do Reds have enough to hang with Cards, Brewers?

After completing a three-game sweep St. Louis with a 4-3 win on Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers leapfrogged the Cardinals to take sole possession of first place by half a game in the National League Central division.

After the interdivisional showdown between Cardinals and Brewers, two teams who many picked to claim the division crown come October, one question comes to mind: Do the Cincinnati Reds have enough artillery to hang with the Cardinals and Brewers?

Here’s my take:

1) After sweeping the Cardinals in mid-May, the Reds have stumbled, going 13-16 in their past 29 games. The skid includes dropping five straight, including being swept by both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Despite the tough stretch, the Reds are just 3 1/2 games behind the Cardinals and Brewers.

2) The Reds still maintain an explosive offense thanks to reigning MVP Joey Votto, who despite hitting just eight home runs thus far, has accumulated a .331 batting average while driving in 43 runs. You can’t forget about the starting pitching either. Edinson Volquez has looked much better since returning to the big leagues after being demoted for a short minor league assignment. In the past week, Volquez is 1-1, tossing 13 innings, allowing just three earned runs off 12 hits and recording 10 strikeouts to five walks. The run support isn’t where it needs to be when Volquez is on the bump for Cincy, but when it arrives, the 27-year old righty will be a force in the NL.

3) Despite the offensive numbers from Votto and Jay Bruce, who has smacked 17 long balls so far this season, the Reds will need to add another explosive bat to their already dangerous lineup. The services of a veteran hitter such as Padres’ left fielder Ryan Ludwick would have the potential to morph the Reds into the same category as the Cardinals and Brewers.

Having answered the previous question, another one lingers in my mind. Will the NL Central remain a three-horse race until October?

1)  To dismiss any one of these three teams would completely foolish and downright bogus. They feed off each other. Each team has its own strengths and weaknesses.

2) The Brewers, who struggled mightily in April, have suddenly found their groove, especially their starting pitching. Former Royal Zack Greinke is 6-1 in his last eight starts, and the right-hander has begun to mold the Brewers rotation just the way GM Doug Melvin envisioned when he traded for the former All-Star and talented youngster…Another centerpiece of the Brewers rotation came via a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, which sent Shaun Marcum to Milwaukee in exchange for Brett Lawrie, a 2008 first-round selection. The addition of Marcum has done wonders for the Brew Crew so far in 2011. The 6-foot right-hander has recorded a 7-2 mark through 14 starts. In no time, this veteran hurler has gelled and has been a great fit in Milwaukee. His 2.68 ERA ranks seventh best in the NL and .208 opponents batting average against is fourth best. On the contrary, the Brewers, as of today, have one of the most explosive offenses in the game, with soon-to-be free agent Prince Fielder at center stage. Fielder has launched 19 homers, second best in the NL. As a whole, the Brewers own a .255 batting average, which is seventh best in the NL, and they have scored a 300 total runs, fourth best in the NL. If a few more of their bats get going, the Brewers will emerge as a good candidate to win the division.

3) The Reds, as I previously mentioned, have an explosive offense that when hot, every opposing pitcher fears. Through the season’s first 70 games, the Reds have tallied an NL leading 345 runs, 15 more than the second place Cardinals have produced. The offense has gone limp of late, but expect the reigning division champs to warm up in the near future, further tightening the race for the division title.

4) The Cardinals, after having suffered a three-game sweep at the expense of the Brewers at Miller Park last weekend, have dropped two of three games to Washington, who is in the cellar in the NL East. The Cardinals rank in the top six in every major offensive category, including first overall in batting average (.272) and on-base percentage (.345). After a rough first month of the season, the Cardinals sit just a game out of first place in the Central, with a 38-31 record.

*In my mind, there’s no question that this season will remain a three-team race until the final out is recorded. As Hall-of-Fame sportswriter Rick Hummel said;

“The victory totals of the Central contenders may be higher than in some years because of how woeful the Chicago and Houston are at the bottom of the division. There should be many series victories by the contenders over those latter two clubs and, if Pittsburgh’s pitching falters, there could be a good portion of wins to be had at the Pirates’ expense, too.”

-For now, baseball fans, including myself, can just sit back and watch these three clubs battle it out for the rest of the summer with the hope of claiming it all come October.

Tide strike first

The Crimson Tide drew first blood in Oklahoma City, OK., versus the California Golden Bears as designated player Amanda Locke singled off the pitcher in the bottom of the second inning. After giving way to pinch-runner Keima Davis, the Tide were in business as Davis stole both second and third before true freshman Kaila Hunt drove an RBI single down the left field line, putting the Tide up 1-0.

Senior pitcher Kelsi Dunne has been magnificent so far. In her first three innings of work, Dunne has recorded six strikeouts and has allowed just one hit. It certainly appears Dunne has brought nothing less than her A game to Oklahoma City.

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The Alabama Crimson Tide (51-9) and California Golden Bears (44-11) are in the midst of the opening action in the 2011 Women’s College World Series in ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, OK.

Thursday’s opening round of play marks the seventh trip for the Tide (2000, ’03, ’05-’06, ’08-’09 & ’11) to Oklahoma City, the most of any team in the Southeastern Conference. The Tide have reached the semifinal in their last two trips, but sport just a 6-12 record at the WCWS.

The Tide are still in search for their first win at Oklahoma City as they are 0-6 in those contests. This Bama team is full of veterans. Eight have been to the WCWS before, with five finding a significant amount of playing time.

Senior Kelsi Dunne has tossed 40 2/3 innings in the tournament with a 2-4 record and a 3.10 ERA. Fellow senior Whitney Larson has crafted a .261 batting average with 23 lifetime at-bats in the WCWS. Junior Jazlyn Lunceford launched one of the most historic home runs in Alabama history, crushing a pinch-hit grand slam in the fourth inning versus Arizona State on May 30, 2009, to give her team a 6-2 victory.

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Golden Bears look for revenge…The last time these two teams met, California was thumped 13-1 on May 17, 2007. The Golden Bears look to reverse that trend this time around.

The Golden Bears are nearly perfect in their past 20 contests, recording an 18-2 record. A 9-0 win in game three of the Lexington Super Regional gave the Golden Bears their first appearance in the WCWS since 2005 and 11th in school history.