Smells Like ‘04
By Chris Russell on Murders Row Alright, after watching this revamped Cardinals team for 19 games now I’m going to take an unusually optimistic vantage point. Yes, the Birds dropped the final two games of their homestand to the Triple-A caliber San Francisco Giants, but I’m willing to chalk that up to a case of sick bats (Pedro Cerrano, you know what I’m talking about). A quick shot of Jo-Boo’s rum and I think the boys can right the ship. I’m almost scared to say it, but this year feels a lot like 2004. History tends to repeat itself in baseball, just as it does in life, and the world that is the MLB may have come full circle in the last 4 years.
In ‘04 every baseball pundit picked the Cardinals to finish 3rd behind the Cubs and Astros. And to the delight of millions of Cardinal fans, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The upstart Redbirds cruised to a Major League best 105 victories and made it to the World Series for the first time in club history since 1987. A-hem-thentheywerepromptlysweepbythebostonredsox-hack-cough. Excuse me. That team was built on a potent offense, surprisingly effective and consistent starting pitching, great defense and exemplary management. Sound familiar?
I know it’s too early in the season to make a concrete comparison, but this year’s team has more than a glimmer of similarity to the dominating Cardinals squad of 4 years past. Granted, this year’s lineup is not the murders row of Womack, Walker, Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen, Sanders, Renteria and Matheny, but they have shocked a wide audience with their offensive production so far (the last 2 games not withstanding). Before being shut out last Saturday the team ranked first in the NL in batting average and on base percentage. The emergence of Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel has given the Birds a boost in the power department, but what this team does really well is score runs with 2 outs… a trademark feature of the ‘04 offense. Like so many games in that magical year the Cards have been very good at producing late in the game, with runners in scoring position, with 2 outs and with the game on the line. It feels like they have more comeback wins already this season than they did all of last year. As everyone gets used to their roles and the kids shake out the butterflies, the runs will come in droves. And if your glass is half full, you know the best is yet to come.
An even greater similarity to the ‘04 campaign is the starting pitching. Chris Carpenter came out of nowhere that season along with Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan to lead a staff that finished a 100th of a percentage point behind the Braves for the best ERA in the league. Consistency was a huge factor along with their effectiveness, as witnessed by 154 starts made by the 5 man rotation. This season feels eerily similar. Although the Cards are waiting for their money arms to get healthy, the guys they’ve tossed in there have been great. With the exception of one bad start by Looper and anything from Joel Pineiro, the staff has been incredible. Even with those recent bumps in the road the team is still 3rd in the league with a 3.34 ERA. Everyone is taking the mound on their scheduled day and giving the team a chance to win. That’s what ‘04 was all about and these lads are following in those very large footsteps.
Speed and team defense, both pillars of a stable foundation four years ago, are being incorporated into this franchise again. With Schumaker, Barton, Ankiel and Izturis this team boasts the most speed the Cardinal organization has seen since that fateful year. And the defense is distinctly better that it was last year. The loss of Rolen hurts, but Glaus has been serviceable and even flashy to downright good on several occasions. Izturis is a monumental upgrade over Eckstein and Schumaker, Ankiel and Ludwick have been phenomenal thus far. Albert and Yadi are staples and continue to exceed expectations, which goes without saying.
This year’s club was predicted by every “stout baseball mind” in the country (except ESPN’s Skip Bayless for some reason) to finish 5th in this division just ahead of the Pirates. Tell me that’s not motivation for Tony LaRussa and company to come out with guns blazing. This is not a club that shies away from adversity. It never has been, and you get the feeling that if this group puts their collective mind to it, they can accomplish the unthinkable… especially in the “laughable” National League Central.
The Birds currently sit 1/2 a game out of first at 12-7. Here’s hoping a little of that ‘04 magic transfered over to the new stadium, and this year’s squad will just run away with this thing. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, or even likely, but if anyone can get the job done it’s Tony and his underdog crew.