Cardinals’ lack of action could be their undoing

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It’s hard to blame the Cardinals for staying the course. Even with free agents Kyle Lohse and Lance Berkman set to depart, St. Louis ended 2012 with a roster that already looked like a winner entering 2013:

Rotation: Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal

Bullpen: Jason Motte, Rosenthal, Edward Mujica, Fernando Salas, Mitchell Boggs, Kelly, Marc Rzepczynski, Eduardo Sanchez, Victor Marte

Lineup: CF Jon Jay, RF Carlos Beltran, LF Matt Holliday, 1B Allen Craig, C Yadier Molina, 3B David Freese, SS Rafael Furcal, 2B Matt Carpenter/Daniel Descalso

What did it make sense to do from there? Upgrade at second base? Perhaps, but it was probably the weakest position in free agency this winter. The Cardinals were rumored to have made a run at Marco Scutaro before he re-signed with the Giants.

Upgrade the rotation? Since the Cards seemed committed to Carpenter and Westbrook, that probably would have meant sending Lynn back to the bullpen and there simply weren’t many starters available in free agency that were better bets than Lynn and those few would have been expensive.

Adding to the bench should have been a priority, and the Cardinals did. Unfortunately, they did so with Ty Wigginton, a defensive liability no longer worthy of a roster spot. They also signed Ronny Cedeno as a shortstop fallback rather than trust an encore performance from late-season surprise Pete Kozma.

Besides those two, the only notable newcomer is lefty specialist Randy Choate.

That the Cardinals did so little might have been just fine if not for the events of the last month. Carpenter is expected to miss the season after his nerve problems returned with a vengeance. Miller, the early favorite to replace him in the rotation, is sidelined with shoulder tightness. And Furcal, the lineup’s biggest question mark, is still having problems with his throwing elbow.

The Cardinals are still fairly well protected in the rotation. Even if they have to dig down deeper as the season progresses, top prospects Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha could prove ready. Rosenthal should be a big weapon wherever he happens to be deployed.

The team is also very well set in the outfield, what with top prospect Oscar Taveras available to step in if Beltran goes down. The Cards can even put Craig back in a corner and call up power-hitting Matt Adams to play first base if needed.

The middle infield is a big issue, though, particularly in light of Furcal’s ill health. Ideally, Matt Carpenter will prove capable at second base and win the job there. However, if he can’t handle the defensive responsibilities, the Cards could be looking at spending big chunks of the season with the light-hitting Descalso covering one spot and Cedeno, Kozma and Ryan Jackson vying for the other.

At third base, Freese also has an extensive injury history, and while Carpenter is a fine fallback there, he can’t play second if he’s starting at the hot corner.

With spring training games having even yet to start, the Cardinals’ depth has been whittled away. If it stops now, the team is still in very good position, particularly since it should have plenty of flexibility to pull off in-season trades. Still, it’s fair to express disappointment that the team didn’t do better than Wigginton and Cedeno for the bench. A Scutaro to start at second or a Kelly Johnson to give added protection would look quite nice right now. The left-handed-hitting Eric Chavez would have made a lot more sense as a backup to two right-handed-hitting corner infielders than Wigginton does. Time will tell if those misfires come back to bite them.

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).