FROM MY SEAT: A Deal with the Devil? 

If there's been a worse month in St. Louis Cardinals history than April 2007, describe it to a member of Cardinal Nation at your peril. From the mere disappointment of opening a title defense with weaknesses galore to the unspeakable tragedy of a player's sudden death, the 30 days after St. Louis beat Cleveland at AutoZone Park in the Civil Rights Game were among the worst the team has -- or will ever -- experience. Grab a numbing beverage of choice, and bear with me as I recount what certainly must be the Cardinals' darkest hour, dawn presumably on its way.

  • Opening the 2007 season with all the pageantry and ceremony a world champion will, St. Louis was eviscerated by the very team they beat in last year's National League Championship Series. With the franchise's 10th world-championship flag raised, and rings safely in the hands of those responsible for said title, St. Louis scored exactly two runs in a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Mets.
  • Pitching ace Chris Carpenter -- the only player on the Cardinal roster who can even approach Albert Pujols in value -- suffered elbow inflammation after the opening-night loss and now finds himself scheduled for surgery. The 2005 Cy Young winner will be on the shelf a minimum of three months.
  • Over the course of eight days (April 14-21), the Cardinals lost three games started by pitchers who started in the 2004 World Series for St. Louis. Matt Morris (Giants), Jeff Suppan (Brewers), and Jason Marquis (Cubs) played the enemy as the month began to spiral downward. The most bitter pill was certainly Marquis, whose profound mediocrity left him off last year's playoff roster (though his ring certainly shines every bit as brightly as Carpenter's). Marquis compounded the insult by beating the Cards again on April 28th.
  • As for the great Pujols, he finished the month batting .250. Which was better than fellow star Jim Edmonds(.222), and equal to that of perennial All-Star Scott Rolen. The headlining trio combined for nine home runs in April, which is five fewer than Pujols hit by himself(!) in April 2006.
  • Then there was April 29th. Shortly after midnight, 29-year-old relief pitcher Josh Hancock was killed instantly when his car slammed into a parked tow-truck on Interstate 64 in St. Louis. Having pitched three innings only a few hours earlier at Busch, the Mississippi native left a clubhouse -- and fan base -- trying to reconcile the emotional turmoil of losing games with that far heavier burden of losing life. For the second time in six seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals will need to play (survive?) a season with a black patch on their uniforms. If the ache of Darryl Kile's passing has yet to be numbed, how can Hancock's death be absorbed without the pain consuming young men trained to focus on hitting, throwing, and catching a baseball?

    Now a week into May, the Cardinals find themselves in the NL Central Division cellar, eight games behind a young and hungry Milwaukee Brewer club. The fact is, since they went 17-8 in April 2006, the Cardinals have gone 78-87 over six months of regular-season baseball. The aberration, it appears, may not be last month's stretch of losing, but rather the 11-5 record the club reeled off last October to win the World Series. Makes you wonder who manager Tony LaRussa may have been meeting with behind closed doors last fall, and if there was a pitchfork in the room.

    St. Louis finds itself with that rarest of phenomena for a defending champion: a rebuilding year. Two primary areas must be addressed -- and repaired -- before the Cards will see postseason baseball again. To begin with, their starting rotation is now comprised of four pitchers with a combined total of 37 big-league starts (or five more than Carpenter had in 2006 alone). The fifth starter? Kip Wells. Current Memphis starters Blake Hawksworth and Chris Narveson are eager -- but ready? -- to enter the mix. And you can bet St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty is listening to those Mark Buehrle rumors out of Chicago. (The White Sox hurler -- author of a no-hitter last month -- is a free agent at season's end and has been a Cardinal fan since childhood.)

    Just as challenging for the Cardinal brass will be rebuilding offensive support for the still-young Pujols. Jim Edmonds (who turns 37 next month) is now more valuable for his glove than for his bat (hitting under .200 with a single homer). The same can be said for Scott Rolen (32), who recently suffered an 0-for-25 drought. With Juan Encarnacion being fooled by Double-A pitching, the Cards have turned to Ryan Ludwick (eight home runs as a Memphis Redbird) for help. Ludwick is a career .237 hitter in 104 major-league games, though he drove in a run in Sunday's win over Houston.

    A baseball season can fly by when a team's having fun. The 2007 Cardinals, it appears, will spend much of this season gazing at that championship pennant, befuddled at how quickly the fun went away.

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