ST. LOUIS -- Apparently the elbow is fine.
Those red flags that were waving across the Midwest this spring weren't St. Louis Cardinals banners; they were warning hankies foretelling that superstar Albert Pujols' elbow was about to burst. "Have the surgery," the flags screamed into the breeze that would inevitably blow the Birds into the NL Central's second tier. "Your team's not going to be any good this season anyway."
Pujols didn't listen, and those concerns now seem like they were raised years ago.
Right now, Pujols is as locked in as he's been at any point in the past two seasons -- he's hitting .359 with 13 homers and 35 RBIs.
The Astros, another surprising team this season, were in town for a key three-game series, which featured teams within a game-and-a-half of the first-place Chicago Cubs in the Central. All Pujols did was go 6-for-10 with two homers and four runs scored as the Cards took two of three.
It's not like the Astros suddenly decided it would be a good idea to challenge the big fella, either. In the second game of the series, they elected to walk Pujols with runners on second and third and no outs in the first inning. Didn't really work in the Astros' favor; the Cards scored three times, on a bases-loaded walk, a wild pitch and a weak groundout.
Pujols walked two more times in that game as the Cardinals won 6-1 behind another strong performance -- eight innings, three hits, eight strikeouts -- from starter Adam Wainwright. It was the eighth time in 11 starts that Wainwright -- who is bearing more of a resemblance to injured ace Chris Carpenter with every start, in terms of both production and mannerisms on the mound -- has thrown at least seven innings.
Pitching was the key to this series. In the opener, Shawn Chacon turned in another excellent game as the Astros won 8-2 to pull into a second-place tie with the Cardinals.
Chacon has had a rather odd season. Despite eight quality starts (defined as at least six innings, no more than three earned runs), he has a 2-0 record. "He's pitched well for the most part all year," manager Cecil Cooper told reporters after the game. "He just had one, I thought, shaky outing about three starts ago but other than that he's kept us in every ballgame and given us a chance." Hunter Pence was 5-for-5 and the Astros jumped on starter Braden Looper for four first-inning runs and never looked back.
Wainwright was the story in Game 2, and the Cards won the rubber game behind another strong starting performance, this time from Kyle Loshe. He took a shutout into the seventh before Carlos Lee opened the inning with his 12th homer. Lance Berkman hit a solo shot for his 17th homer, but it wasn't enough as the Cards held on for the 3-2 victory on Thursday.
The Cardinals are two games ahead of the Astros in the battle for second place.
If this series is any indication, both teams figure to fight the good fight the entire season. And that doesn't just mean they'll hang around. Both teams can get better, and both are capable of winning the Central.
For the Astros, Roy Oswalt has been a shell of his normal self, though he did look sharp through most of Thursday's game.
For the Cardinals, there's the promise of a return by Carpenter sometime in the second half.
And, most importantly, there's a sense of confidence that neither team was expected to have this deep into the season.