COLLAPSE OF THE CARDS
The Chicago Cubs are champions of the National Leagues Central Division. Despite suiting up the most dangerous offensive bunch this side of Atlanta, the St. Louis Cardinals are on the golf course today. What happened to end the Cards three-year streak of postseason appearances? A few explanations:
Injuries. I know . . . oldest excuse in the book. But lets review the list of Cardinals who missed at least a month of play: Fernando Vina (Gold Glove second baseman, leadoff hitter), Eli Marrero and Miguel Cairo (two most valuable reserves), J.D. Drew (enigmatic future star, made of glass from head to toe), Matt Morris (staff ace, hands down), Jason Isringhausen (closer). Thats a sinister six, folks, especially the loss of Izzy for the first two months of the season. When Cal Eldred is trying to hold a lead in the ninth inning, you can forget October baseball.
Horrendous pitching. Its easy to blame the myriad gopher balls slung by Garrett Stephenson and Brett Tomko, but the mound troubles of the 2003 Cardinals go much deeper. Woody Williams won 18 games, but only four over the seasons final two months. He was outpitched by Tomko -- who led the league in hits allowed -- during August and September. Dan Haren -- called up from Memphis in June -- is at least a year away from finding big-league stuff. As for the bullpen, gasoline to a fire. Isringhausen will be back, but expect a purging of his colleagues. Bottom line: St. Louis has exactly one keeper on its pitching staff (Morris).
Missing the big hit. With a dreadful record in one-run games (14-25), the Cardinals simply failed too often when a game was on the line. And this responsibility rests on the shoulders of the big boys: Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, even Albert Pujols. All of them stars, but too little production after the seventh inning. (Remember the horrendous trip to Chicago in early September? The Cards lost two games by one run, another by two . . . in 15 innings. Rolen, Renteria, and Pujols combined to hit .173 in those five contests. Dont blame Cardinal pitching for that.) The fact is, this team had no speed beyond Renteria. A station-to-station club is not going to be able to manufacture the critical runs necessary in tight ballgames.
A pair of late-season games revealed a lot about the 2003 Cardinals. On September 5th, St. Louis hosted a Cincinnati club gutted by injuries and salary dumping. The Reds sent a parade of hand-me-down pitchers to the mound, a group that -- after giving up a first-inning homer to Pujols -- shut out the vaunted Cardinal lineup for 11(!) innings. Five days later, the Colorado Rockies -- with the worst road record in the National League and having lost 13 of 14 games -- came to Busch Stadium and summarily spanked a team in contention for a playoff spot, 8-1. Not the stuff of champions. And a club without nearly the resolve we saw in the grief-stricken division champions of 2002. Worst of all? The much-celebrated Busch faithful were as lifeless as their ballclub, the most energy-sapped collection of St. Louis baseball fans Ive seen in the eight-year Tony LaRussa era.
Longtime Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog used to make four or five deals during the off-season, no matter how comfortable he was with his roster. A baseball team that grows too familiar, in Herzogs eyes, also grew stagnant. Ballplayers need just enough insecurity in their jobs to remain hungry. You can count on some deals out of St. Louis in the coming months.
LaRussa has already indicated hell be back. But youve likely seen the last of Vina, Drew, Tomko, Stephenson, Eldred, and Jeff Fassero in Cardinal uniforms. You have to believe there will be an arms race of sorts, as general manager Walt Jocketty is challenged with rebuilding an entire pitching staff. This may mean the departure of a position player that might surprise (Edmonds?). The club will shop the overpaid, over-the-hill Tino Martinez and the remaining year on his contract. At this point, Martinez clogs the batting order and is preventing the permanent move of Pujols to first base.
Its now hockey season in St. Louis, a sad way for Cardinal Nation to spend October. For the most disappointing Cardinal team in many years, a familiar mantra might be called upon during the hot stove months ahead: Change is good.