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Bruised and battered, the Cards roll on with spirit-and great pitching

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  • Bruised and battered, the Cards roll on with spirit-and great pitching


    Bruised and battered, the Cards roll on with spirit-and great pitching
    By Joe Strauss

    CHICAGO The Cardinals 147-game march brought them Thursday to a fitting place to fasten ties that bind.

    Within the tight confines of the Wrigley Field visitors clubhouse, where the Cardinals first dealt with a horrible loss three summers ago, preparations are being finalized for the club's fifth celebration of a playoff berth in six seasons.

    The Cardinals were one out from clinching that berth as they led 6-1 in the bottom of the ninth on Thursday. Then a rain delay put the celebration on hold, at least temporarily.

    Three Junes ago, manager Tony La Russa stood at the base of these clubhouse steps wondering whether the death of pitcher Darryl Kile the day before would take his team's heart along with its soul. Instead, the Cardinals went on to win 97 games and the National League Central Division while looking to Kile as their inspiration.

    Now the Cardinals hope to use the same backdrop to celebrate a midseason reinvention. However, the team announced during Thursday's game it would put off any big celebrations until the division was won, not just the clinching of at least a wild card spot.

    Threatened by injuries to some of their core players, these Cardinals have responded with a relentless push for the game's best record, its earliest clinch, and a more clinical approach.

    "To me, 2002 was so personal and emotional. I believe that you create your own destiny, but it was almost like there was a plan for us," La Russa said of a team that in the playoffs swept the Arizona Diamondbacks before losing a five-game series to the San Francisco Giants. "I don't feel that this time. I feel this is more normal. The reason we've won is because we've played the best. If we play the best in the postseason, we should win. And if we don't, we'll get beat. But 2002 was the only year I had the feeling it was inevitable."

    The manager does not like comparing his teams. But he doesn't shrink from what this year's bunch is doing.

    "What's different about this club, when you have this many setbacks, it's usually part of why you don't win or you barely squeeze by in the last week of the season with a good but not great record," said La Russa, whose daily homily typically preaches the values of relentlessness. "To have this kind of run and play this quality of baseball for this long is why this club deserves a very different kind of credit."

    A team advertised as driven by its offense has dominated with pitching. Much of a $90 million payroll's lineup has been bruised and fractured, only to be buttressed by a group of career minor leaguers, role players and unprovens.

    "This won't be so much an accomplishment for our team as it is an accomplishment for the entire organization," said utility player John Mabry, who has taken part in three postseasons with the Cardinals. "This team hasn't relied on two or three guys. It's been everybody. When guys went down, others stepped up. No one here has just been along for the ride."

    The Cardinals were supposedly a power team reliant on their "MV3," the three players who finished in the top five in voting for last season's National League Most Valuable Player - first baseman Albert Pujols, third baseman Scott Rolen and center fielder Jim Edmonds. The trio combined last season for 122 home runs, 358 RBIs and a .317 batting average, compared to this season's 71 home runs, 218 RBIs and .277 average.

    Their third-leading RBI man this year is leadoff hitter David Eckstein, and they stand an excellent chance of becoming the first team since the 1969 "Amazin' Mets" to win 100 games with only two players amassing more than 65 RBIs.

    The Cardinals will finish the season with nine players owning 40 or more RBIs, and perhaps as many as eight with 50.

    "This was a win achieved by the entire organization, not just a few central players," said general manager Walt Jocketty, whose 11-year tenure with the club is poised to include a sixth postseason appearance. "You look at the role players, all the guys from Memphis (the Cardinals' Class AAA affiliate) and what they did. Everyone came up and contributed in some manner. It's a great reflection on the entire organization and gives you a greater degree of satisfaction about overcoming the obstacles that we encountered."

    Eckstein, Pujols and Edmonds are the only opening-day position players not to miss significant time because of injury.

    So Taguchi, whom the club non-tendered last December before re-signing him to a reduced contract, got more at-bats than opening-day left fielder Reggie Sanders and right fielder Larry Walker.

    Signed to a minor-league contract barely a month before spring training, infielder Abraham Nunez has served as the club's everyday third baseman since Rolen returned to the disabled list July 22. Nunez, a middle infielder in eight seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, had played only eight games at third base before this year.

    "Not only has he made the team, except for Albert and Carpenter, I think Nunez is our team MVP," said reliever Ray King.

    As the Cardinals stood ready to clinch, Nunez, a career .238 hitter before this season, was batting .293 in a career-most 375 at-bats. Rolen's season ended with Aug. 29 surgery to repair his damaged left shoulder. He took only 196 at-bats for the season and failed to hit a home run after a May 10 collision with Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Hee-Seop Choi tore his shoulder capsule.

    "Our role guys have become our feature players," La Russa said.

    "It's not about me or anybody else on this team," Pujols said recently. "It's about the guys like Nunez and Mabry and (Hector) Luna. Those guys have been unbelievable. It's about everyone. That's why this season has been so great."

    Sanders, 37, was en route to a huge season when he fractured his right fibula in an outfield collision with Edmonds on July 15. He missed 54 games before returning Monday.

    Walker, 38 and nearing retirement, began experiencing neck discomfort in spring training. The problem was eventually diagnosed as a herniated disc, requiring three cortisone injections around his spine. He missed 26 games after landing on the disabled list July 23, the day after Rolen's departure, and has been treated with traction for much of the second half.

    "If you could look ahead knowing those key guys would miss so much time, you'd really stretch to think you could pull it off," La Russa said.

    The Cardinals instead took the division lead in their ninth game and never let go. They stretched the edge to five games May 9 and to 10 games July 3, a week before the All-Star break. The lead never slipped to fewer than 8 1/2 games before climbing a season-high 16 games Tuesday night.

    With 15 games left, the Cardinals remain the only team in either league yet to suffer anything worse than a three-game losing streak. They have lost only three of their last 23 series - all to the Chicago Cubs - and have dropped back-to-back games only twice since June 23.

    "There hasn't been that much said about it because Tony, the coaches and the players have made it look so easy," Jocketty said.
    Last season the Cardinals were perceived as an offensive machine despite a pitching staff that came within one out of winning the National League's ERA title. That perception has grudgingly shifted. The Cardinals' rotation leads both leagues with 77 wins, and Chris Carpenter has emerged from three injury-scarred seasons to become the first pitcher since 1920 to go undefeated in 16 consecutive starts while lasting at least seven innings and allowing no more than three earned runs in each start. The bullpen stands second in the league in relief ERA.

    "Guys got banged up, and all of a sudden the starting pitchers took off," King said. "We've won games 2-1. We've more or less said to the offense, 'We're going to pitch until we get healthy.' Meanwhile, every guy who came up has contributed."

    The "Memphis mafia" of Scott Seabol, John Gall, Brad Thompson and Anthony Reyes have contributed game-winning RBIs or pitching performances. When catcher Yadier Molina suffered a broken hand shortly before the All-Star Game, Mike Mahoney, a 32-year-old veteran of more than 2,500 minor-league at-bats, got his first major-league exposure since 2002. His first major league home run came against seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. Randy Flores, a 30-year-old lefthander who never had begun a season in the major leagues, assumed the role left behind by departed free agent Steve Kline.

    Jocketty liberally spreads credit around his front office and minor-league system. It was director of player development Bruce Manno who traded for 27-year-old career minor-league outfielder John Rodriguez on June 9.

    Barely a month later, Rodriguez made his major league debut. Within a week, he had stenciled "J-Rod" on the heels of his spikes. Within another week, La Russa had suggested another handle - "J-Load." Filling in for Walker, Rodriguez hit safely in his first 10 starts and entered Wednesday's game batting .306 against righthanders.

    "We really didn't reach down to Memphis last year," King said. "This year we did. When the time comes to clinch, I think everybody will feel like they're part of it." [/b][/quote]

    "Can't buy what I want because it's free...
    Can't buy what I want because it's free..."
    -- Pearl Jam, from the single Corduroy