If you think Cards can recover, you're nuts

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holliday_error.jpgCongratulations Matt Holliday, you’ve just entered Steve Bartman territory. Of course, Bartman would have caught that ball.

For those of you who missed it – and judging by the empty seats at Dodger Stadium tonight, I’m guessing some of you did – Holliday helped the St. Louis Cardinals snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by dropping what would have been the game-ending fly ball in Game 2 of the NLDS on Thursday night.

Catch the ball and the Cardinals win 2-1, tying the best-of-5 series at one game apiece. Instead, James Loney’s liner sought out Holliday’s, umm, lower midsection, completely missing his glove along the way. One Ryan Franklin meltdown later and the Dodgers were sitting pretty with a 3-2 victory, a 2-0 series lead, and needing just one more victory to advance to the NLCS.

(Watch the Holliday play here. You will be amused, unless you’re a Cardinals fan.)

If this had been the World Series, Holliday’s gaffe would be on par with Bill Buckner’s famous error in 1986.

As it is, he’ll just get to watch the blunder over and over again on ESPN, TBS, FOX sports – heck, probably even Al Jazeera — and wonder if that single play will affect the dollars thrown his way in free agency. (Here’s wondering if that single mistake will actually encourage the Mets to sign him. Seems like a good fit, no?)

It’s a shame for Holliday, who is not only a great hitter (who hit a home run on Thursday, by the way), but is normally a quality defender. In fact, he has rated above average in range rating throughout his career and above average in UZR every year but 2006. He had made only one error in 63 games after being dealt to the Cardinals this season.

Manny Ramirez, he is not.

But while Holliday must now figure out how to deal with his newfound infamy, the more important thing from the Cardinals’ point of view is to figure out how to beat the Dodgers — in a hurry.

Can they do it? Well the Cardinals certainly have the right attitude, banding together to back Holliday while placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of … Dodgers fans?

“I mean, that ball got lost in 50,000 white towels shaking in front of Matt’s face,” (Adam) Wainwright added. “It doesn’t really seem fair that an opposing team should be able to allow their fans to shake white towels when there’s a white baseball flying through the air. How about Dodger Blue towels?”

Wainwright’s bravado, while admirable, probably will not be enough to save St. Louis. Teams that suffer through a gaffe like this tend not to recover. The Red Sox certainly didn’t rebound from Buckner’s error in 1986. The Cubs didn’t bounce back from Bartman in 2003. And the Cardinals were unable to recover from Don Denkinger’s blown call in 1985. (See a list of famous goats here)

And in the current series, St. Louis just went 0-2 with their two Cy Young candidates – Chris Carpenter and Wainwright — on the mound. The offense racked up 21 hits and six walks in those two games, yet scored just five runs, stranding 21 base-runners in the process. That’s 1.2 runners stranded per inning.

The Dodgers have made it a point to avoid Albert Pujols, the likely NL MVP, who has only one single in the series, yet a .444 on base percentage on the strength of three walks. Would someone like to drive Pujols in once in awhile? The time to do so would be now, Cardinals.

St. Louis will send out Joel Piniero in Game 3 to face the Dodgers’ Vicente Padilla. Piniero has had a great season (15-12, 3.49 ERA), but then again, so had Franklin, and we saw how far that got him. If things go well, it’ll be the veteran playoff stud John Smoltz against Chad Billingsley in Game 4, then back to Carpenter in Game 5.

Maybe somewhere along the line, Matt Holliday will get a chance to redeem himself. Maybe he will make people forget about Thursday’s blunder. But he’s going to going to need a lot of help from his teammates, and it’s going to have to take an epic comeback to do so.

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez defected to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.