Monday, May 5, 2008
New-look Cards dealing winning hand
La Russa has youngsters playing like veterans
By Troy E. Renck
The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 05/05/2008 12:17:38 AM MDT
His office screams of preparation and winning.
Tony La Russa sat behind his desk on opening day, books behind him and mail scattered about. La Russa is a voracious reader, always looking for ways to motivate his team. To his left, flopped over the back of a chair was a New England Patriots sweat shirt — yes, a gray hoodie — from friend Bill Belichick, wishing him well.
This figured to be a club with which La Russa needed all the help he could get. The Cardinals were coming off a losing season and counting on a pitching staff that had more questions than an episode of "Jeopardy!" Yet, they begin a four-game series tonight at Coors Field as one of baseball's most surprising teams. They sit atop the National League Central, and their 20 wins rank second in the NL to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"The fans are not going to be embarrassed by our effort, how hard this team plays," said La Russa just hours before the Cardinals began the season against the Rockies.
True to his word, St. Louis has been fundamentally sound, a characteristic that took shape as the team basically won out during the final two weeks of spring training. But doing little things well doesn't mean much without big performances off the mound. St. Louis' starters have been remarkable, entering Sunday with a 15-6 record and a 3.51 ERA, which was tied for second in the big leagues. Compare that to the Rockies, whose rotation is 9-11 with a 5.43 ERA.
What gives? Isn't this basically the same Cardinals staff that imploded last April, setting the tone for a forgettable season?
"I believe there is a combination of in-house competition and game preparation from (pitching coach Dave) Duncan. Most of our starting staff began to feel that nobody was giving them any credit, as if to say, without (Mark) Mulder or (Chris) Carpenter that it was simply going to be a long year," said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' first-year general manager and a University of Colorado graduate.
"They feel they have something to prove and have approached each start that way."
The statement began early, as in the opening week against the Rockies. The Cardinals' rotation posted an 0.54 ERA as St. Louis claimed the series. Looking back, Kyle Lohse provided the most significant outing. The Cardinals didn't win the season opener he pitched, but he fired five scoreless innings. Lohse was signed midway through spring training to a one-year, $4.25 million deal, and has helped stabilize the rotation around ace Adam Wainwright and increasingly steady Braden Looper.
"The group has performed above expectations," Mozeliak said.
Offensively, these are not your father's, or even your brother's, Cardinals. Gone are David Eckstein, the 2006 World Series MVP, third baseman Scott Rolen and center fielder Jim Edmonds. The lineup is now heavy on organizational grinders like Skip Schumaker, Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel.
"A lot of us played together in the minor leagues, so it does create a strong bond," Schumaker said.
As for an identity, the Cardinals have morphed into a team that's more body blow than haymaker.
They have hit just 23 home runs, including only one from third baseman Troy Glaus, but rank second overall in on-base percentage. Mozeliak singled out Schumaker for helping change the team's approach as a catalyst from the leadoff spot.
"He's one player that has surprised me. He's done a great job," Mozeliak said.
Albert Pujols, hitting .358 and reaching base more than half the time, remains the hub of their universe. He's not putting up prodigious power numbers, but he is either scoring runs or driving them in. Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said that while no one changes a game as Barry Bonds once did, Pujols is "the elite of the elite."
It has been a remarkable transition for the Cardinals — from 2006 world champions to defying gloomy 2008 predictions.
"It's a long season," Mozeliak said. "But Tony is adjusting his lineup and playing the matchups."
Troy E. Renck: 303-954-1301 or firstname.lastname@example.org