After the mind-boggling start by the 20-12 St. Louis Cardinals, one has to step back and ask: How did we get here? Things could not have gone better for the Redbirds this young season, and to the absolute delight of Cardinal Nation, the future looks even brighter. A myriad of circumstances and scenarios had to go just right this season for the Cards to pull off their surprise attack on the Central Division… and they did. Here’s a checklist of the necessary and, at times, downright surprising string of events that led to the team’s current first place standing.
Albert Pujols must start off hot…CHECK
Arguably the game’s most feared hitter has had little to hit this season, but El Hombre has made the most of his opportunities. Pujols is leading the team in average (.358), homeruns (6), RBIs (23) and OPS (1.122), not to mention he’s leading the Major Leagues in walks (33) and OBP (.518). He’ the first player to get the Bonds treatment, since, well, Bonds. And he doesn’t seem to be phased by it. Pretty decent numbers for a guy that rarely sees a pitch to hit, wouldn’t you say?
Beat the Cubs…CHECK
In 2008’s first meeting between the National League’s two biggest rivals, the Birds took 2 of 3. The Cubs, clear favorites to win the division this season (and some even think the NL) looked like a good baseball team last weekend, but the Cards looked like the better team. Great pitching by Adam Wainwright and Todd Wellemeyer and offensive heroics by Pujols and Skip Schumaker beat down the reptilian Cubbies and gave the Cardinals a 1.5 game lead in the Central.
Make this patchwork rotation into a formidable staff…DOUBLE CHECK
Coming off the worst starters’ ERA in franchise history last season, Dave Duncan had his work cut out for him. After Wainwright, every starter in the rotation was a question mark, even heading into opening day, but Duncan put on his miracle worker’s uniform and went above and beyond the call of duty. The relatively unknown quintet of Wainwright, Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro, Kyle Lohse and Wellemeyer have been nothing short of spectacular and are a big reason why the Cardinals have the 2nd best team ERA in the National League (3.53). The Birds are no worse than 3rd in every major pitching category in the league. Not bad for a bunch of castaways, scrap heapers and former relievers (except for Wainwright of course). Pitching has been the key this season, and it was supposed to be the team’s biggest weakness.
Beat up on the NL Central…CHECK
The Cardinals have yet to lose a series to a divisional opponent and their 12-7 record against the Central is not only a feather in their cap, but a main ingredient of their first place stature. Beat up on teams in your division, play well at home and try to stay above .500 on the road. That philosophy worked pretty well for the 2004 Cardinals… looks like this year’s team is following suit.
Teach Adam Kennedy how to hit…CHECK
I can hit!!Quite possibly the biggest disappointment of last year’s team and dubbed one of the worst free agent signings in franchise history, Adam Kennedy had nowhere to go but up. That is if he wasn’t booted off the team. Somehow, this season, something clicked. A.K. is on fire and is hitting the ball with authority. The former bench-warmer is batting a Pujols-esque .329 and has 11 RBI in only 23 games. He’s also been the perfect fit for the 2-hole hitting in front of Albert. I don’t know what Kennedy is doing differently this year, but he’d be smart to bottle it and sell it. Or at least give it to the rest of the guys on the team.
Improve the defense…CHECK
Schumaker, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick/Chris Duncan/Brian Barton have been phenomenal in the outfield, the combo of Ceasar Izturis and Brendan Ryan is a huge upgrade over David Eckstein, Kennedy has been downright acrobatic, Troy Glaus has been surprisingly nimble and sure-handed at 3rd and Pujols and Yadier Molina have continued their Gold Glove caliber defensive play. That pretty much covers it.
Make sure the bullpen remains effective…CHECK
Last year’s biggest strength for the first 5 months of the season, tired in September, but this season things in the pen seem to be going swimmingly once again. Aside from 3 hiccups by Jason Isringhausen, who has been dominant in all his other appearances, the bullpen has been solid. Kyle McClellan and Ron Villone have been fantastic additions with their 2.04 and 0.79 ERAs respectively. Ryan Franklin seems to have regained last year’s 1st half form and lefty Randy Flores has yet to allow a run this season. The starters have been keeping this team in games day in and day out, always giving the Cards a chance to win, and the pen has been right there to pick up the slack for the last couple innings. A well oiled machine.