La Russa's Cards look out of it

For every feel-good story — you know, like the Rangers defying their bankruptcy sale, the Padres snubbing their noses at payroll constraints, the Braves throwing a going-away party for Bobby Cox, the Rays proving there is no roof on their talent, the Reds becoming the latest to spread the Magic Dusty — comes a corresponding one of despair and disappointment.

While there are several good candidates for flop of the year — the Angels, Red Sox, Mariners, Cubs and Dodgers — our vote as the hands-down winner would be the Cardinals, even before their last-gasp weekend series against the Reds.

Picked by almost every expert to win the National League Central, the Cardinals had fallen — almost impossibly, given their talent — into near-complete disarray. Their 11-15 August was the worst in the tenure of manager Tony La Russa, who might not be back next season, whether he wants to be or not.

September started with the end of a 2-8 trip to Pittsburgh, Washington and Houston, teams with a combined .399 winning percentage. And, uncharacteristic of a La Russa team, the Cardinals suffered through their second five-game losing streak.

Toward the end of the trip, Astros infielder Geoff Blum told the Cardinals "didn't look like they wanted to beat us at all."

Earlier, Buzz Bissinger, who wrote a book about La Russa, Tweeted that the manager "has lost his interest in baseball. And his team reflects it. No one lasts forever."

It is hard to believe La Russa would want to retire after this kind of season, unless the Cardinals somehow turn things around in the last four weeks.

The final push: For contenders, the game changes in September, at least for those not experienced in must-win-every-day situations.

Remember the White Sox feeling the noose around their neck in 2005, when they saw a seven-game lead on Sept. 1 melt away to 11/2 games on Sept. 22? At least they recovered and went on to win the World Series (thank you, Jose Contreras).

Over the last three Septembers, four of 12 NL teams that led at the end of August have stayed home in October — the Mets in 2007 and 2008, the Padres in 2007 and the Diamondbacks in 2008.

The Padres appear on the verge of doing it again, having lost seven in a row heading into a weekend series at home against the Rockies. The Braves (from the Phillies) and Twins (from the White Sox) also are in trouble.

And that doesn't include the Yankees and Rays, who are waging their own little war, although the loser is pretty much guaranteed a wild-card spot.

Here's what we knew heading into the Labor Day weekend, with help from Baseball Prospectus, which computes odds by running a simulation of the rest of the season 1 million times:

•The Padres' odds of holding off the Giants and winning the NL West dropped almost 14 percent with the seven-game losing streak. But they still have a 78 percent chance of winning the division to the Giants' 18.5 percent, even though they play only four games against a team with a losing record (the Cubs, who are improving).

They end the season in San Francisco and by then could be worrying about holding on for the wild card.

•The Braves still have a 78 percent chance of winning the NL East, compared with 21.5 percent for the Phillies. And the Braves still have 18 games against the Mets, Marlins, Pirates and Nationals.

The season ends with a series at Turner Field against the Phillies, and the loser likely will win the wild card.

•The Twins saw their chances of winning the AL Central fall, but only to 86.4 percent, after their 13-inning loss to the Tigers on Thursday. The White Sox's chances, according to Baseball Prospectus, are 13.4 percent.

The Twins have 19 games against non-contenders (if you count the A's, which is a safe bet) and six against contenders (three each vs. the Rangers and White Sox). Their season ends with four at home against the Blue Jays.

Lefty is right: Already with a surplus of young arms — perhaps the finest in the National League — the Reds could take their time with Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. But when he finally arrived at Great American Ballpark, they seemed to be in a hurry. He made spine-tingling back-to-back relief appearances for Dusty Baker's team.

Baker has earned — right or wrong — the reputation of overworking pitchers, especially young ones. It was solidified when Kerry Wood and Mark Prior fizzled out under him with the Cubs and media started meticulously recording pitch counts.

So Baker wasn't about to hear anything about a workload on Chapman after he appeared for a second time Wednesday.

"He only went one inning," Baker said. "Down in Cuba, they don't have pitch counts. That was a walk in the park for him."

Chapman topped out at 103 mph — on the second night. On the first night he used eight pitches — seven for strikes — to retire three Brewers.

The word "special" was used to describe Chapman, who was signed after his defection.

"When they give him $30 million, that's special," Baker said. "You don't find guys like that just falling out of trees."

The last word: "It's kind of like what the Supreme Court said about pornography: 'You'll know it when you see it.'" — Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein on when he would know his team no longer has a realistic chance at the playoffs.

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