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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cardinals are showing flaws after hot start

By Bernie Miklasz

After an impressive takeoff to start the season, the Cardinals leveled off in recent days. A little air came out of their balloon. It's nothing drastic, and nothing that can't be reversed. But yes, it's happening. Some flaws have been exposed.

Sunday's 8-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants was embarrassing in a couple of respects. By dropping their second in a row to the visitors and getting outscored 11-2 in the process, the Cardinals lost the season series to the Giants, winning only three of seven games. The Giants will undoubtedly finish among the NL's worst teams — so what, if anything, does this say about the Cardinals?

Second, it's one thing to be controlled by supremely talented Giants starter Tim Lincecum, who was the boss player in Saturday's 3-0 win. But Sunday's victor, Jonathan Sanchez, entered the proceedings with a career 5.55 ERA.

The lefthanded Sanchez, described as "erratic" by Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, walked four and had to heave 101 pitches but somehow managed to shut out the Cardinals for five innings.

Here we go again: The Cardinals are traditionally helpless against lefthanders, and that futility is taking hold again. In their last 12 games, they're batting .216 vs. lefties. So was it a surprise to see Sanchez chew up their bats?

"The guy who pitched yesterday (Lincecum) was outstanding," La Russa said. "I don't care what your offense is doing, that guy shuts you down. That guy today (Sanchez), he's got a good arm, and he made some pitches early. I think if we would have stayed close, especially since he was using so many pitches, we could have had a chance to win the game later against him or the bullpen."

That became virtually impossible when Cardinals starter Braden Looper got torched for six runs in the third inning by a fetid Giants lineup that entered the game tied for last in the majors in runs scored. The Giants batted .292 against the Cardinals this season; against other NL teams they're batting .210. Go figure.

Looper's thrashing gave Cardinals starters a 5.05 ERA in the last 12 games. That's another point of concern, though Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer are in sharp form.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals lineup is wavering. Yes, the Cardinals jacked the Giants for 11 runs on Friday, but scrimped only five runs, total, in their three losses during the disappointing 3-3 home stand.

In the last six games, the Cardinals have undermined their offense by hitting into 12 double plays. Moreover, Cardinals hitters have struck out 56 times in the last eight games.

Rick Ankiel, Yadier Molina, Cesar Izturis and Brian Barton are slumping, and third baseman Troy Glaus has yet to homer. The infield bench strength is weak, which puts La Russa at a tactical disadvantage.

"We've been able to get some key hits when we've needed them the first 16, 17 games," Glaus said. "We've gotten some timely hitting so far. The last couple of days we haven't. But I think if guys from top to bottom — if we get going and everybody starts putting it together, maybe we can go on a pretty good run."

What does this all mean?

After a scintillating start, some bad habits have appeared, and some distressing trends are forming. Still, their record is a healthy 12-7, and the Cardinals rate among baseball's biggest first-month surprises.

It means that the Cardinals go to Milwaukee for two, then to Pittsburgh for two, and they'll have to find a way to make corrections and get back on track. That's what quality teams do.

Friday, when the Cardinals return to town, they launch an interesting nine-game home stand against the Astros, Reds and Cubs.

After the initial glow generated by a quick start, some questions about this team have surfaced. The Cardinals will have an immediate opportunity to answer them, starting tonight in Milwaukee.

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