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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rebuilt Cards provide much more fun than the '07 model

With the calendar on the verge of flipping into the second month of this grueling six-month grind, every morning we scan the major-league standings and it's difficult to tell whether we're looking at ghastly misprints or the product of a dyslexic stat man's befuddled view of the baseball universe.

Are Baltimore and Tampa really sitting on top of the AL East? Do the woebegone Marlins really reign in the NL East? Could star-studded Detroit really be an 11-15 cellar dweller in the AL Central?

There's one other head-scratching puzzle that continues to glare out from those daily standings as we come to the end of April: your St. Louis Cardinals. With two games remaining in the season's surprising first month, the Redbirds are only one game behind the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs, and even the most bubbling Cardinal optimist never saw it coming.

The month began with this club coming out of spring training cloaked in gloomy preseason predictions and surrounded by so many question marks that you almost expected the team's uniform would be switched for the comic book villain Joker's wardrobe. Then the regular season started, and the temp-service pitching staff got hot, a few unpredictable bats got even hotter and the team burst out to an unlikely 12-5 start.

Yet even after Monday night's 4-3 loss to the visiting Cincinnati Reds — the Cards' sixth loss in their last 10 games — it might be more helpful to stop wondering whether the good times can last and instead appreciate what the good times really are. Even if this flawed ballclub does settle back toward the middle of the National League pack as so many preseason predictions promised, the April whirlwind of events has provided us with enough data to draw a few bold conclusions. This rebuilt '08 Cardinals model is already far more appealing and entertaining to watch than its creaking '07 predecessor.

They still have more than enough obvious flaws that this season could surely edge toward a predictable .500 crest by June or July. However, even if that happens, it won't look or feel as bad as last year, because this is the sort of ballclub that was made to order for Tony La Russa and his pedal-to-the-metal managerial style. "That's slam dunk stuff," said La Russa. "You just look at the people we have here. They're pushing each other for playing time. I still don't know how good we are, but I know how hard we're going to play."

Shedding former All-Stars on the downside of their careers and replacing them with inexperienced young guys trying to make a name for themselves is not exactly the worst way to go for a franchise in transition from champion-in-decline to youth-infused work-in-progress. As he sat at his desk scribbling pregame notes and glancing at his lineup card, La Russa began to scan the names that were not in that starting lineup.

"(Skip) Schumaker's not playing. Brian Barton's not playing. Brendan Ryan's not playing. Jason LaRue's not playing. Aaron Miles isn't playing," he said. "But with each of those five guys, I'm not thinking, oh man, if he's not playing, I'm worried that we're going to have a drop-off in intensity."

Every night, he surrounds his core of superstar Albert Pujols with all these interchangeable parts in the infield and outfield, and somehow it has worked because playing time is the ultimate motivation for any player who has a passion for the game.

"That's probably the most confident thing I can say about this team," La Russa said. "I know that we are going to play hard. These guys are willing to fight hard every night, we're going to give ourselves a chance. You knew that when we started because all of those guys knew coming in that there was an opportunity (to play) here. It wasn't like there were going to be guys who were frustrated because no matter what they did, they didn't have a chance (to play)."

La Russa peeked over his wire-rimmed glasses and smiled. "Things were set up right for guys to come in here and make an impression," he said.

The impression now is that it's fun to watch these rebuilding Cardinals, and that's something even the biggest optimist never saw coming.

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