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  • Cards story on Sportsline

    I haven't actually read it yest, so there probably isn't anything new.

    JUPITER, Fla. -- Camp looks the same. The uniforms are as crisp as ever. The wheels in manager Tony La Russa's mind continue to whir. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Matt Morris are ready to rock. Some things rarely change -- Red Schoendienst now is in his 63rd season of professional baseball.


    Chris Carpenter is among the many intriguing questions on the Cardinals pitching staff.(AP)
    But the Cardinals' doorbell isn't ringing quite so often this spring. There are new kids up the block with cool new toys. The Chicago Cubs got a brand new -- sort of -- Greg Maddux this winter, and Houston brought home a Roger Clemens and an Andy Pettitte.

    Suddenly, after three years as everybody's favorites in the NL Central, the Cardinals this spring are looking through their picture window while the sidewalk foot traffic walks on by.

    "We beefed up our pitching staff," Cardinals right-hander Woody Williams says. "They've got the big-name guys, but we've added some people, too."

    Yeah, but corralling starters Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis, and adding veteran relievers Ray King and Julian Tavarez ... in this division, isn't that a little like adding a couple of water pistols in a high-powered shootout? Even if closer Jason Isringhausen's shoulder problems are expected to be a thing of the past?

    "I guess people want to say they've got better teams, because they've got better pitchers," Cardinals swingman Jason Simontacchi says. "If that's the way it is, you know what, why do we play the season?

    "It's like last year. We were favored, and we finished third."

    The way these Cardinals see it, high-profile status in the NL Central during the past few seasons hasn't exactly sent them to the champagne room in late October. Three consecutive first-place finishes from 2000-2002 didn't produce one World Series appearance.

    So why not try something different?

    "It's not like it's, 'Oh, no, we're not favored to win,'" Simontacchi says. "Some people are like, 'You guys are underdogs now.'

    "So be it."

    As usual, it's going to come down to pitching for these Cardinals. Though La Russa is still deciding on a leadoff man, the St. Louis lineup isn't leaving much to chance.

    With Pujols, Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria and Reggie Sanders, they're going to score their share of runs.

    With Gold Glovers Edmonds, Rolen, Renteria and Mike Matheny, they're going to win their share of games with defense.

    Which leaves...

    Look, it's no secret. As they loosen up and throw and sweat in the March sun here, the Cardinals' staff knows what a big burden it carries this year. And it doesn't need constant reminders of Maddux and Pettitte and Clemens -- heck, every time one of the pitchers looks up, he sees some TV picture of one of these guys in his new uniform.

    "The competition was always there between those teams, anyway," Morris says. "Houston and us have been battling for the last four or five years. And obviously, with Chicago's young guns, it's a huge rivalry. With them adding Maddux, and with Houston adding Clemens and Pettitte, it intensifies things for you.

    "It's going to come down to the pitching staff for us, starters' innings and quality games. Our offense is going to go. Pitching is going to be the key."

    The Cardinals badly need Morris to stay on the field after their ace had a rough season in 2003. A broken bone in his hand, a sprained ankle and a month-long dead-arm period in June combined to hold him to 11 wins. The fact the Cardinals finished only three games behind the Cubs after all of that wasn't lost on him, either.

    "If I could have won four or five more games, we would have been in there," he says.

    The dead-arm period, Morris thinks, is partly as a result of him trying to pitch too many innings early in the season while the bullpen was unsettled. Isringhausen missed the first two months of 2003, and others were pitching out of their normal roles.

    Consequently, he's going to attempt to keep his vision long-term, rather than short, this season.

    "When it's early April or May and it's the seventh inning and I'm feeling strong and Tony asks me if I'm OK, I think I'm going to back off an inning or two this year," Morris says. "I think keeping me strong will be beneficial."

    Says pitching coach Dave Duncan: "I think our bullpen is going to be good enough to do that without giving him the option (of whether to stay in a game or not). Your bullpen controls a lot."

    Right now, Williams, Suppan, Marquis and Chris Carpenter are in line behind Morris in the rotation. Williams, though, has been slowed by shoulder tendinitis this spring and Carpenter hasn't pitched in the majors since 2002 because of two shoulder surgeries.

    "I'm a lot less concerned now than I was at the beginning of the camp," La Russa says regarding Williams, a 17-game winner last season. "He's made a lot of progress, and he's shown the last couple of years that he can do more with less preparation than just about anybody.

    "He's intelligent. I think we should be optimistic."

    Duncan, meanwhile, is optimistic because of a few lesser-known options.

    "I think we have alternatives if (Woody) is late in getting going," Duncan said. "Alan Benes, here's a guy who is throwing better now than he's ever thrown. He can do more things. He's legit. Jason Simontacchi has won at the major-league level. Josh Pearce is coming into his own. Kiko Calero, this guy can pitch. And Jason Ryan, he's a surgeon out there.

    "There's no doubt in my mind that all of those guys could start in the major leagues."

    Pearce, the Cards' second-round pick in 1999, started last season at Single-A and wound up making seven relief appearances in the majors. Calero pitched well out of the Cardinals' bullpen last summer before a knee injury ended his season in June. Ryan, though 28, led the Pacific Coast League with a 2.70 ERA for Triple-A Memphis last season.

    Not exactly marquee names, but who knows? It's spring, the time when optimism meters run dangerously high.

    And though they didn't bag a Clemens or Pettitte, the Cardinals remain very high on those whom they did add.

    "Jeff Suppan, I think he's very underrated," Williams says. "He's thrown 200 innings for the last three or four years (five consecutive seasons, actually). That's hard to do. And he was in Pittsburgh. I think having this defense behind him will make him that much better.

    "I think it will help him get three or four more wins. I really do.

    "And Tavarez has one of the best sinkers in the game. If you can eliminate one inning, that's a big help. Most dominant teams have two dominant pitchers at the end of games. It used to be one. Now it's two."

    And with Isringhausen and Tavarez ...

    The only thing that's certain, of course, is the Cardinals, more often than not, find a way to stay in the race. They've won four division titles in La Russa's eight seasons in St. Louis, and they've finished under .500 just twice.

    None of that, though, matters when the calendar page turns. It's a new season, full of new faces and new expectations and, suddenly, the Cardinals feel like yesterday's news in the ol' neighborhood.

    "I think so," Morris says. "Not by people in St. Louis, obviously, but by people around the league and nationally. They're overlooking us, they're looking at Chicago and Houston. And maybe that's a good thing.

    "It's a role we're not used to, but it's worth a try."
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