On the whole, the St. Louis Cardinals -- everyone's favorite non-Pinstriped team you love to hate -- haven't been nearly as annoying to critics as they've been in the past. Deadspin hasn't been noting every Cardinals loss, the "satiric" BFIB Twitter account is finally being seen for the sad hackery it is and most of the "right way to play" heat has been directed more at others than at the Cardinals. Part of that is because the team hadn't been very good up until recently. The Cards were under .500 for more than two months, from June 3 to Aug. 8. And on June 24, they fell seven games under .500 for the first time in a decade. But it hasn't just been the losses. The Cardinals were playing a dispiriting, disjointed and downright sloppy brand of baseball. There isn't much need to hate on a team that's struggling.
But as of Wednesday night, the Cardinals might be relevant again … and they may have found a new charm.
America: Meet Rally Cat.
🎶 Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur ... 🎶 pic.twitter.com/DNoBCKmDJI- MLB (@MLB) August 10, 2017
Mere seconds after a random cat ran onto the field, parading toward Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain (who wisely kept his distance), and mere seconds after a poor groundskeeper got his arm clawed, Yadier Molina, who is having one of the most fascinating seasons in baseball, did this:
And just like that -- on a night when the Cubs, Brewers and Pirates all lost -- the Cardinals, a team that has spent four-plus months drifting, were within 1 1/2 games of first place with an 8-5 victory at home against Kansas City. Five days ago, Tommy Pham, the Cardinals' best player this season, said, plainly, "we're not good." The Cardinals haven't lost since. And now they have a Rally Cat.
(The groundskeeper is OK, by the way.)
The Cardinals have a history with varmints on the field, which is one of the reasons the fans have embraced Rally Cat so immediately. Busch Stadium was the home of the infamous Rally Squirrel in 2011, which sprinted in front of Skip Schumaker at the plate before Roy Oswalt could throw a pitch in the 2011 National League Division Series. Cardinals fans started wearing Rally Squirrel apparel the rest of that offseason -- I'll confess I was not immune that year -- which happened to coincide with one of the greatest October runs in MLB history. Cards fans are always looking for small mammals to inspire them.
They're not alone in this: Random animals on the field are constantly being credited for salvaging seasons and inspiring extended runs. In 2015, the A's got behind a Rally Possum. That same year, the Mets fired themselves up with a Rally Raccoon, a scavenger who invaded their weight room, which may tell you more about that area of Queens that it does baseball superstition. (They also had a Rally Parakeet that year.) Little critters seem to like the Cleveland Indians as well. In 2009, the infamous midges attached poor Joba Chamberlain in the American League Division Series, and two years earlier, seagulls got in the way of a ground ball to help beat the Royals.
Heck, the Padres even had their own Rally Squirrel a few years ago. (It did not ultimately do them much good.) And there is of course the Rally Monkey of the Angels' 2002 World Series run, though I might argue that he shouldn't count, considering he was a scoreboard concoction rather than a physical invader of the field of play. He was a virtual rally monkey. There will be no virtual varmints on my watch.
Whether the Rally Cat catches on or not depends entirely on whether the Cardinals can stay hot or not, and whether they can catch the Cubs. The Playoff Odds are against them -- they're at 16.6 percent to win the division Thursday morning -- but the Cubs are in a bit of a panic themselves, after Willson Contreras' injury in San Francisco that may have cost them their best hitter for the next month. If you are looking for a recipe to get the Cards back on the We Hate Those Guys radar, you couldn't do much better than a bunch of St. Louis fans (myself here gleefully included) launching back into the playoffs yammering about a Rally Cat.
It's worth noting that the Cardinals have not been as bad this season as it has seemed. Their Pythagorean record is four games better than their actual record; if they'd played to their runs scored and runs allowed, they'd be in first place by 2 1/2 games. Their rotation might be the best in the division -- hanging onto Lance Lynn at the Deadline is paying off right now; he, not Carlos Martinez, has been their most effective starter this season -- and during this five-game win streak, their bats have finally come around. Pham, the best hitter all year (and as close as the team has to an emotional presence), has cooled a bit, but everyone else has heated up, from Matt Carpenter to Jose Martinez to Kolten Wong to a just-off-the-disabled-list Dexter Fowler. But as always, the key has been Molina, who just two weeks ago was calling out manager Mike Matheny on social media. This was not an insubstantial thing: Molina is not only one of the most respected players on the Cardinals, he's one of the most beloved in the game. (Remember: He's the one who took the opening pitch from the Clemente family at the All-Star Game this year, an hour before that crazy gold chest protector.) It was a big statement to criticize the embattled boss at that moment. It seemed to put a somewhat lackadaisical team on notice.
It is also worth mentioning that it might have done the same to his manager. Matheny has been under fire all season, but over the past week, you've seen a greater urgency. He's riding hot hitters like Martinez and Greg Garcia rather than continuing to play slumping veterans. Matheny is pulling starting pitchers when they struggle rather than trying to get them to hold on for five innings and a win. He's, at last, mixing and matching the roster with all the options the front office has given him rather than seeming paralyzed by indecision or guided solely by inertia. There does appear to have been a change, and it likely came from Molina, not a cat.
But Wednesday night, the cat and Molina worked in tandem to provide the biggest highlight of the Cardinals' season. They might not catch the Cubs. But if they do, and everyone is grousing about the Cards again this October, you will be able to return to Molina's blast, the night of the Rally Cat. In the grand tradition of Rally Monkey, Rally Squirrel, Rally Possum, Rally Seagulls and Rally Midges, Rally Cat stands as yet another shining example of how random, and glorious, baseball can be. It's not about the Rally Cat. But it's about the Rally Cat.
One bad omen, however: They seem to have lost the cat. Uh oh.
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