The most intriguing story to come out of the first week of the St. Louis Cardinals season is the same story that drew our interest in the spring.
Where did this guy come from? And how long can he keep it up?
It’s been fun to see a 28-year-old rookie, not just get his long-awaited crack at the majors, but suck the marrow out of the experience by putting himself on top of the National League leaders boards. Kudos to manager Mike Matheny for taking full advantage of Hazelbaker's hot hand.
Should fans be bracing themselves for a reality check? There must be some reason, after all, that Hazelbaker was left to languish in the minors for 10 years before finally forcing the issue with the Cardinals' skipper during spring training. Hazelbaker is now on his third organization with little on his resume to suggest that he's going to be an All Star.
But what’s the ceiling on this guy?
Don't buy the comparisons of Hazelbaker to flash-in-the-pans like the immortal Bo Hart or Stubby Clapp, who found a place in the hearts of Cardinal fans with fast starts and hustle. Hazelbaker could stick, though, if even as a fourth outfielder.
What we've seen so far is good speed, great defense and some attitude. Our man Dave Wilhelm, who did the excellent feature piece on Hazelbaker after his 4-for-4 performance in the home opener, and other press box writers reported that the rookie is "playing angry" — a decade down on the farm has put a chip on his shoulder.
And here's an interesting statistic: Hazelbaker has improved statistically following each minor league promotion. He batted .248 over two years in A-ball, .269 in four years in AA, and .274 over four years in AAA. Improvements in slugging and on-base percentages followed accordingly. He hit .333 in 233 plate appearances at Triple-A Memphis last season.
Is he maturing as a player? Can he up his game even further with this most recent promotion?
There's no way to know what this means, if anything, but these details add to a story that already has been fun to follow.
Now what about this Eric Fryer ... ?
What were they thinking?
Stan Kroenke may have made himself and the Scrams the toast of Tinseltown (for now) but have the football operations people gotten any better at building a roster than they were in St. Louis?
Doesn't look like it.
St. Louis' legion of ex-Rams fans should be enjoying news out of Los Angeles that the organization traded away six draft picks for the Tennessee Titans' No. 1 overall pick. Yep, they gave up two first-rounders, two second-rounders and two third-rounders ostensibly so they can draft either Carson Wentz of North Dakota State or California's Jared Goff, a pair of quarterbacks in the top five of nobody’s draft boards.
Our own Joe Ostermeier emailed me when the announcement was made: "Six draft picks for one guy? I wouldn't do it if Peyton Manning had drunk from the Fountain of Youth and was entering the draft as his 22-year-old former self."
Of course you wouldn't. These deals historically backfire.
If you want some recent history, just look at what the Redskins did in 2012 to land Robert Griffin III. Washington gave our own beloved Rams three first-round picks — including No. 2 overall in 2014 — and a second rounder for the right to draft him.
RGIII led Washington to a pair of fourth-place finishes before losing the starting job and landing in Cleveland. Now the Redskins are starting over. Of course, it’s hard to argue that the Rams made anything of that bounty of draft picks — they’re still looking for their first winning season since 2003.
“Our philosophy has always been to build through the draft,” coach Jeff Fisher said.
By trading half of it away? That's the same thing they said when they were hoarding (and wasting) draft picks in St. Louis.
This move is all about making a big PR splash in Los Angeles and has nothing to do with building a winner.
Parity in the Southwestern Conference
It's been an interesting prep baseball and softball season in the Southwestern Conference, where no team on paper looked to have a lock headed into the season.
The Edwardsville boys (13-4) may have been the closest to a sure thing with its depth of pitching. But O'Fallon (15-3) served notice with a 12-2 short-game win over the Tigers Thursday. Next up for the Panthers will be Belleville West (12-4), which was a 7-3 loser to Edwardsville April 7.
One of those teams can make it's move toward a conference championship. Don't count out Alton (11-5), though, which has a win over Edwardsville, but losses to West and O'Fallon.
All of these teams will be players in either the Belleville West or Alton Regionals. We could see two of them in Bloomington for the sectional.
The softball standings, too, are tight, though Edwardsville could be making its move. Even with the loss of BND Player of the Year Kallen Loveless, the Tigers are 11-2 and riding an eight-game winning streak. They’ve had no trouble scoring runs, but the key has been the adequate job in the pitchers circle by junior Jordan Garella (10-0, 2.15 ERA).
Among Edwardsville’s wins was a 14-1 short-game of Belleville East (10-6), which is off to surprisingly slow start considering the experience returning from a team that finished strong in 2015. Don't give up on the Lancers, though. Sophomore pitcher Kristina Bettis is developing into a solid compliment to Angela Vanderpluym and Tori Lonsdale.
Behind pitcher Brittany Rhoady (.73 ERA), Alton is off to an 11-1 start. It's only loss, though, is to Edwardsville.
O'Fallon is 9-4 but, apart from a 3-0 loss to Normal, hasn't lost by more than two runs all year. The Panthers could be the sleeper in the bunch and pitcher Addison Barnouski could be the most under-appreciated athlete in the league.
The Collinsville and Edwardsville regionals will be the sites of some post-season fun next month.
Thanks to reader Tom Weber for pointing out an inaccuracy in last week's column detailing highlights from 135 Opening Days in St. Louis. Weber noted astutely that the Cardinals did not open their 1966 season at the new downtown Busch Stadium until May 12, almost a month after their official home opener at the old park at the corner of Grand and Dodier.
On-line readers saw the corrected version of the column early Monday. For the rest of you, here's what happened in the spring of ’66:
In the last opener played at Busch I, the Cardinals' Curt Flood had RBI hits in the first and eighth innings, but John Hernstein drove home Dick Allen with a pinch hit single in the 12th inning to give the Phillies a 3-2 win.
Weeks later, a helicopter lifted home plate from the former Sportsman's Park and lowered into the empty space awaiting it downtown in the brand-new Busch No. 2. The game was another 12-inning affair, this time with the home team walking off with the win. Lou Brock was the hero when he roped a single off knuckle-baller Phil Niekro to drive home Flood.
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