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Monday, April 7, 2008

Initial surge shows Cardinals' potential

Initial surge shows Cardinals' potential
By Bernie Miklasz

After five games, you knew the Cardinals would be 4-1, right?

You predicted that they'd win four of five with Albert Pujols having as many runs batted in (one) as Braden Looper.

You banked on the starting pitchers allowing four skimpy earned runs in 30 2/3 innings, for an ERA of 1.17.

You predicted that Cesar Izturis would have five walks and a .474 on-base percentage, and that mystery-guest rookie Rico Washington would help win a game with a pinch RBI double, or that rookie Brian Barton would be hitting .444 and racing around the bases with dreadlocks flying, looking like Rams running back Steven Jackson in a baseball uniform.

You were sure that second baseman Adam Kennedy would emerge from the baffling malaise of a lost 2007 to bat .400 in the opening week.

You knew Rick Ankiel would be batting .316 with two homers and playing center field in a style that would make Jimmy Edmonds proud. Ankiel is playing so well, you plan to report him to the New York Daily News.

You were certain that Ankiel, Skip Schumaker, Kennedy and Izturis would make gold-star plays to maintain the tradition of quality Cardinals defense.

You could have told us that the Cardinals would be 4-1 with third baseman Troy Glaus off to a .167 start. And that they would be 2-0 against lefthanded starting pitchers.

And that the bullpen would hold up under the burden of heavy innings.

You were convinced that Tony La Russa would squeeze max results out of $65 million worth of talent. The Cardinals' 2008 payroll is $100 million, but $26 million of that is healing on the disabled list in the form of Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Joel Pineiro, Russ Springer and Matt Clement. And another $9 million is lost on two guys (Juan Encarnacion, Scott Spiezio) who won't play an inning for the Cardinals this season.

But La Russa was the wrong manager for a younger, cheaper, unproven roster ... well, at least that's what we were told.

OK, maybe you didn't know all of that.

Which would explain the empty seats and marked-down ticket prices on eBay.

Only 157 games to go. But for a ballclub that was dismissed as a sinking ghost ship, a shadow of the consistent winner that used to exist at Busch Stadium, these are interesting days.

"I think it's a pretty good sign for our team that we started out as hot as we did," said winning pitcher Adam Wainwright, who allowed two runs in eight innings Saturday as the Cardinals defeated Washington 5-4. "I don't even think it's hot. I think we're a good team. I think we're going to play tough all year and we're going to play aggressive. There's gonna be guys with tons of energy out there bringing good at-bats to the table and pitching well. I think we're a pretty good team. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."

Will any of this last? I really don't know, but I do feel better about my preseason vote of confidence. I didn't think this team would be nearly as dismal as the pundits insisted. The experts failed to recognize that the Cardinals prepared for 2008 by thinning the roster of descending players, choosing to rely more on ascending players. Or that the starting-pitching depth would be dramatically improved from a year ago.

Now, these 69-93 forecasts could turn out to be true. And there's already a mini-crisis going on with an overextended bullpen. But I'm already convinced that these Cardinals will fight hard to exceed the dire predictions.

"When you come off winning the World Series in 2006, and you're on an ultimate high, and the next year you just keep getting punched in the gut, it's really difficult," Wainwright said. "And it's nice to come in and start over this year with a bunch of fresh faces and new guys who play hard and play well. Just because they're young guys, it doesn't mean they're not good."

This has been a nice five days, and a rather unexpected uprising of good baseball. And there's nothing more to it than that.

But it's undoubtedly intriguing, and invigorating.

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