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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Cards look tough enough to stay in the race

By Jeff Gordon

America just saw what St. Louis has already discovered. The Cardinals have enough to stick around the National League Central race this summer.

The Cards reiterated this point by beating the Cubs 5-3 in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball presentation.

“Exhausting game,” manager Tony La Russa said afterward. “They are so difficult to play against. There are a lot of tough teams in this division. I just want us to be one of them.

“It makes for exciting baseball.”

When The Home Team rolled journeyman Todd Wellemeyer onto the mound Sunday night, the Cubs countered with ex-Card Jason Marquis. Wellemeyer needed 95 pitches to labor through five innings, but he still departed with a 4-2 lead.

“He struggled,” La Russa said. “He was missing his location. He never quit trying to make the next one and he made enough of them.”

Marquis, on the other hand, did not. He is still the same guy, an ultra-competitive individual incapable of meeting his considerable potential. Cards fans mustered only a smattering of boos when he finally trudged out of the game.

Why kick a guy when he’s down?

While Cardinal Nation has been sweating closer Jason Isringhausen’s unsteady work, Cubs fans have been subjected to the Kerry Wood Adventure this season.

Both men are long on guts, but both have been struggling to make good pitches. Izzy steadied himself to retire the Cubs in order and bank another save.

“A game like this tells you all you need to know about Izzy,” La Russa said. “That’s why he is the closer. He’s a very, very tough guy.”

Skip Schumaker isn’t one of the National League’s big-name leadoff guys, but he is a heck of a lot better than $136 million Cub Alfonso Soriano to this point of the season. Schumaker, batting .298 this season, got the Cards offense started with an RBI single.

And in left field, Chris Duncan looks like a Gold Glove contender compared to the hapless Soriano.

The Cubs have lots of firepower, but the Cards still have Albert Pujols -– whose two-run double in the fourth inning put the Cards on top. The man is batting .358 this season and posting Barry Bonds-like walk totals.

The Cubs have flame-throwing reliever Carlos Marmol, but the Cards have young Kyle McClellan adding muscle to their pen.

Yes, the hometown kid got in trouble Sunday night. But, yes, McClellan also manned up and coaxed a bases-loaded fly ball out from dangerous Derrek Lee before exiting. Count that as another credit in his postgraduate education in the majors.

“They kept battling,” La Russa said of the Cubs. “They made it scary. They could have broken through.”

So the Cards may not be a juggernaut this season, but ought to last the summer. They took two of three games from the Cubs over the weekend at Busch Stadium, improving their division-leading record to 20-12.

Your cyber-correspondent still likes Chicago to win the National League Central. Lou Piniella is the right manager to take on the 100-year drought, although it was odd to see him manage Game 1 of this series (a 5-3 Cards victory in 11 innings) like it was Game 1 of the NLCS.

(How many times will a starting pitcher get yanked trailing 1-0 IN THE FIRST INNING of a game in early May? Piniella pulled that stunt Friday night, pulling scatter-armed Rich Hill and putting undue strain on his bullpen.)

He came close to reaching his wit’s end last week. This series may edge Piniella closer to his inevitable detonation.

Won’t that be fun? The Cards really are good enough to keep the heat on this season, contrary to what so many experts said. Now they take their act on the road to Colorado and Milwaukee.

It promises to be a difficult trip. “I’ve been bragging about how tough we are,” La Russa concluded. “Let’s show it.”

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