WHEELER: Sunday, Bloody Sunday For Cards (Boggs) and Blues

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Well, that sure was a disappointing Sunday wasn’t it? The Blues needed just a single point against the worst team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff spot and they couldn’t get it. At the same time, the Cardinals were playing a very competitive 3-3 game against the Phillies into the 8th and then Mitchell Boggs melted down, allowing 4 ER on 4 H in 1/3 of an inning.

Ouch.

For the Blues the setback against Colorado, while disappointing, is hardly a big deal in the grand scheme of things. They still only need one point to clinch with three games remaining and they have Colorado again on Tuesday, Calgary on Thursday (already eliminated from the playoffs) and a Chicago team that has nothing to play for on Saturday.

They will be in the playoffs and that’s all that matters. In fact, it might be better for them to not rise too high in the West before the start of the playoffs. The Blues are 6th in the West right now and finishing 4th or 5th would likely mean a 1st round matchup with the LA Kings. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Blues can’t beat the Kings. Maybe getting over the hump against a team that has pushed them around is exactly what they need to start a long playoff run but I’d prefer a matchup against Vancouver, at least to start.

The truth of the matter is that you have to go through anyone and everyone if you’re going to win the Stanley Cup so it shouldn’t really matter what order you play them in. But in this case I think it might just matter. Sports are about matchups, not just comparing talent levels. The Kings’ game gives the Blues fits so I’m not going to blow a gasket if the Blues finish 6th or 7th instead of 4th or 5th.

Getting in is really all that matters but avoiding LA in the first round would be perfectly fine by me. I’m not saying Vancouver or Anaheim would mean automatic advancement for the Blue Note, I’m just saying I like the Blues’ chances of establishing their game for a playoff run better if they start against one of them instead of LA.

It’s all too obvious that anyone can lose to anyone in an NHL playoff series.

As for the Cardinals, well, the late innings continue to be a major problem and for Boggs things aren’t getting any better lately. They’re getting worse. His command has completely fallen apart. Last night every ball that the Phillies hit was a belt high fastball. When you’re a guy like Boggs who has a nasty mid 90’s sinker and an even nastier 90 MPH slider – both pitches with sharp downward movement – the only way hitters can make quality contact with you is if you leave the ball up in the zone. Everything flattens out.

And that, along with walking far too many hitters, is what is doing Boggs in. There is no way a guy with his stuff should be allowing hard contact like he has, no way should he have 20 base runners allowed in 8 2/3 innings.

But why is this happening to him?

Certainly there is a mental aspect to Boggs’ struggles. We’ve seen it in the past and so did Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. They gave him a brief shot at closing a couple of years ago but pulled the plug on it pretty quickly. Boggs says all of the right things but his reactions on the mound tell us more than well thought out answers to post-game questions.

But is there more to it than just tightening up when the game is on the line? I mean, this guy pitched in some pretty big situations last year, including in the playoffs. Are we to believe there is something about the 9th inning of games in April that is more difficult than pitching in the 7th or 8th inning of tight playoff games?

Boggs appeared in 9 playoff games last year, all of them coming in the 7th or 8th inning. He didn’t allow an earned run in any game that was decided by less than 5 runs. To be more specific, the only games he allowed an earned run in during that stretch were Games 5 and 7 of the NLCS and they lost those games to the Giants 5-0 and 9-0. So it’s not like he blew those games.

So if he can perform reasonably well under the pressure of tight games in October then why wouldn’t he have the mental ability to handle regular season games in April?

That tells me that Boggs’ problems aren’t entirely in his head, though certainly these kinds of struggles can have a compounding effect when they place doubt in the mind of the pitcher. But there was no compounding effect in Boggs’ first couple of rough appearances.

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers here. I believe there are multiple layers underlying Boggs’ problems and that’s why it’s been so difficult for him to get things going in the right direction.

He is most definitely pressing right now. The struggles are getting to him – as they would just about anyone – and he has to find a way to break that cycle. Perhaps by focusing on the physical aspect of what’s going wrong he can take his focus off the frustrating mental side and press the “reset” button a bit.

Sometimes focusing on mechanics and the timing of the delivery can keep a pitcher from dwelling on the mental side. Whether his mechanics are out of whack or not, there is often a benefit in shifting a struggling player’s focus on to something they can control. And they can control the work they do on mechanical issues.

Boggs is leaving the ball up in the middle of the zone far too often and that’s not because he’s mentally unable to locate the ball down in the zone. There is something in his delivery that is leading to that. Now, Boggs has never had a “text book” delivery so we should only compare his mechanics to what they were when he was having success.

His release point is off right now. Maybe that’s because of how closed off he’s getting when he comes set before delivering a pitch, maybe it’s just a timing issue. Pitchers experience timing problems just like hitters do. Sometimes they speed up or slow down at different points during their deliveries and that leads to pitches not hitting the target.

If their arm lags behind the rest of their body – even if it is just a little bit – that can cause pitches to stay up in the zone. When a pitcher’s timing is off, often described as being out of rhythm, all kinds of things can go wrong. Focusing on the simplest of things, like getting the arm started a little sooner or placing an extra emphasis on (sometimes to the point of exaggeration) extending toward home plate  before releasing the pitch, can often reinforce good habits and put the pitcher in a better state of mind.

Boggs’ problems are both mental and physical right now and neither is more important than the other. We’ve all seen him pitch in much tougher situations than the ones he’s faced so far this season so there is no doubt he is capable of handling pressure. Finding a way to get him back to that point, both mentally and physically, is the challenge facing the Cardinals.

I think Boggs will return to being the guy he was last year at some point in the not-too-distant future but for that to happen he’s probably going to need a break from tight, late-inning situations for a little bit.

And this is where the job gets tough for a big league manager. Trying to fix players that are off their game while also doing what needs to be done to win games in the short term is one of the great challenges a skipper can face. Mike Matheny always keeps a level head about these kinds of things but they’re not easy to handle and that’s why managers get paid the big bucks.

Obviously we’ll be talking about a good bit of this tomorrow afternoon from 2:00-3:00 PM during the Mike Matheny Show here on KMOX…

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