The Reds weren't taught a lesson by the Cardinals this week in Cincinnati, they learned a couple.
Brandon Phillips isn't a self-absorbed Chad Ochocinco type of guy. Oh, the whole "hate the Cardinals" routine was silly and overstated and ill-timed, and when you're playing that reliable a team that is managed by a man who prepares as if he's ready to do battle like Edward Bennett Williams, why set people off? Back in 1978, the hard-nosed Rick Burleson said, "I hate everyone who wears the Yankee uniform," and the ramifications were only that every Yankees baserunner tried to take out Burleson's second baseman Jerry Remy by knocking him into center field.
Phillips should have known better than to tap Yadier Molina on the shin guards and yuk it up like all he was doing amounted to Ocho-trashtalk. He might think Tony La Russa's Cardinals are a little overbearing -- and Scott Rolen may bear a grudge against his former team -- but they're not into the first-person pronoun attention disorders that dot some of the sports culture. He knows that now.
The best part of the series in Cincinnati is that the Phillips incident helped create what the National League Central needs as the Cubs retreat and regroup from their march to the Russian front. St. Louis and Cincinnati are great baseball towns within driving distance of one another, and because the Reds haven't had a winning record since 2000 (or finished in first since 1995) and the Ohio economy has faced hard times, they had become an afterthought franchise. Now, the Reds are good again, they are relevant and the two teams' fans hate one another. Good. What happened in that fracas from injuries to Johnny Cueto's kicking is unfortunate, but those things have happened over the years. Ask Mike Mussina or Bruce Kison.
If there is a lesson the Reds should have learned, it is this -- Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter make the Cardinals the favorites in any series they appear. The Cards are built on starting pitching, as Jaime Garcia aces his rookie season and general manager John Mozeliak proved at the non-waiver Trade Deadline by dealing Ryan Ludwick for reliable starter Jake Westbrook in a three-team deal. Wainwright and Carpenter have won more games (65) than any duo in the game the past two years. Wainwright is first in wins with 36, Carpenter sixth with 30. Wainwright leads all starters these past two years in ERA (2.35) and innings pitched (409 1/3). There are those who argued he could and should have won the NL Cy Young Award last season, and there will be arguments for him again this year by the time the season ends.
Wainwright and Carpenter made their points, pure and simple. Lesson No. 1 this week. Here are five others we learned this week.
Lesson No. 2: Roy Oswalt's dominating performance on Wednesday made everyone in the NL realize that when Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard all return, Oswalt and Halladay give the Phillies what Wainwright and Carpenter give to the Cardinals. You want to bet against the Phillies in any series between now and Thanksgiving (or whenever the World Series ends)? Go ahead.
Oswalt is 71-25 after the All-Star break for his career (the Mets' Johan Santana is 64-20 with the lower ERA).
"Roy is rejuvenated going to this Phillies team, with its personality and toughness," said one NL GM. "It was clear that he had gotten stale, maybe even bored in Houston as the Astros rebuild."
Phillies pitchers grilled closer Brad Lidge about their new addition, and Lidge told them that while Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were great, everyone on the Astros team knew Oswalt was the No. 1 pitcher. One of his former catchers once said, "Roy has never thrown a pitch he didn't think was perfect," and that conviction will come up big down the stretch. After pulling off a near-miraculous comeback against Jonathan Broxton and the Dodgers on Thursday, the Phillies go to New York for three games with the Mets, then play 17 out of 24 games in their custom-designed ballpark with Utley, Victorino and Howard coming back.
The Phillies are two games back of the Braves. Their run differential is nowhere near as good as that of Atlanta, and they trail the Cards, Reds, Padres and Giants in that meaningful statistical category. But those numbers don't include the final 48 games of the season, 48 games to be played with Utley and friends getting healthy and a guy 71-25 after the All-Star break for his career in a rotation with Halladay. Beware.
Lesson No. 3: Buck Showalter is reminding the Orioles that they are Major League players. Yes, on his second day on the job, Showalter had the woebegotten O's out on the Camden Yards field for an hour in 105-degree heat. But when Brian Roberts called his father this week to wish Mike luck in the Cape Cod League finals, he told his dad, "This man loves baseball the way you and I love it."
The O's are going to get a heavy dose of fundamentals and attention to detail, the way Showalter built the Yankees, D-backs and Rangers from either chaos or, in the case of the D-backs, conception.
"What I'm trying to do from the outset is remind the players that they shouldn't prepare by thinking about the other teams' and players' strengths," said Showalter. "They need to stop giving the opposition too much credit and start realizing they can win any day if they play the game right. There's a lot of self-esteem that's been lost here, and we need to rebuild it."
"That," said Mike Roberts, "is exactly what's happened to Brian. He's lost almost all his confidence. That's why he is so excited about Showalter."
Roster reality tells us that the Orioles are not going to suddenly turn into a challenger in the American League East, because that isn't happening, maybe not for a couple of years. The Yankees and Red Sox are what they are, the Rays are built to contend the next few years despite revenue issues and the Blue Jays are a young, talented team whose young starting pitchers give them legitimacy for the next three seasons. But for the first time since Peter Angelos ran GM Pat Gillick out of town, one can look at the Orioles and think about what it's like to be at Camden Yards when it means something.
How great would it be in 2012 if the Orioles and Nationals staged a Beltway Beatdown?
Lesson No. 4: The Astros got what they needed, even if it isn't what they wanted. When the super-competitive Drayton McLane was finally convinced that 2005 wasn't coming back and the Astros began trying to change the culture under manager Brad Mills, all of a sudden the franchise came back alive. They got Brett Wallace, Jason Castro is playing and, most important, Chris Johnson finally got the opportunity to play.
Understand, there were a lot of people in the organization who didn't give Johnson one shot in Sugar Land of being an everyday player, which is why they spent their offseason dollars on Pedro Feliz. Well, check these numbers put up by Johnson since the All-Star break :
First in the NL in batting average at .432;
First in the NL in OPS at 1.152;
Tied for first with Brian McCann in RBIs with 25.
Remember, Johnson was shipped out this spring because so few thought he could beat out Feliz.
"Just getting the opportunity to play has been great," said Johnson. "There's a lot of energy feeding off one another with Brett and Jason and some of us getting the chance to play. It's also been tremendous getting to work with [hitting coach] Jeff Bagwell. He has such a presence. Everyone listens to him intently. He's brought some swagger back to the Astros. He works tirelessly on my swing, and perhaps best of all is his preparation. What I've learned from him is how to prepare against each pitcher to try to know what pitch I want to hit. Hitting is all about getting a good pitch to hit and doing something with it, and Baggy has taught me a ton in a short period of time."
These haven't all been easy times for Johnson. His sister, Bridget, was recently the victim of a horrific accident that has her in a Nashville, Tenn., hospital. Their father, Ron, was given a leave of absence by the Red Sox, so he could be at her bedside.
"Dad's been incredible, holding us together," said Johnson. "But the Red Sox have been unbelievable. Her birthday was Wednesday, and not only did the team send her all kinds of presents, but a lot of the players called her to wish her a happy birthday. It's a blessing for our family that dad works where he does."
Lesson No. 5: The Twins are the Twins because of scouting, development and their culture. This week, they had a huge series with the White Sox, but when Kevin Slowey had some trouble getting loose between starts, manager Ron Gardenhire ordered him to miss a start. The Twins thought Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano each needed an extra day because of the heat and their innings. Glen Perkins came up and started; they lost that game, but Liriano won the finale and left Chicago with a one-game lead.
Then there's the issue of Justin Morneau's concussion.
"We're not concerned with when Justin's back in the lineup, we're concerned with him being healthy, having a normal life and knowing he's going to able to function in everyday life," said Twins GM Bill Smith. "Justin's long-term health is a lot more important that a series with the White Sox."
Lesson No. 6: The Giants figured out how to develop great pitching, and they've figured out ways to build around that pitching. GM Brian Sabean added Jose Guillen from the Royals on Friday at no cost. He got Pat Burrell at no cost, and in his first 53 games, Burrell hit 10 homers and posted a .946 OPS. In the offseason, he made the bargain-basement signing of the year by getting Aubrey Huff for $3 million and watch him hit 20 homers and post a .924 OPS. A year ago, the Giants signed Andres Torres after he was released by four teams, and as one NL scout said, "He's become a legit center fielder." In fact, Torres' .879 OPS is the second best of any Major League center fielder, after the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez.
Meanwhile Sabean's organization has developed Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Brian Wilson, who is second in the league in saves and third in closer ERA at 2.10.
Sounds like a possible NL Executive of the Year.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.