FROM MY SEAT 

CHIRPING TOWARD A CHAMPIONSHIP

With Major League Baseball’s postseason merely a week away, I have a challenge for the statistics experts at the Elias Sports Bureau. In the history of the American and National leagues, has there ever been a team to win 100 games two consecutive years with but two players picking up as many as 400 at bats in each season?

Having won 97 games through Sunday (with five to play), the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals could become the first such club (their 2004 edition won 105). From this outpost of Cardinal Country, it appears Tony LaRussa has done his finest job in 10 years as manager of the Cardinals, save for the 2002 season when he kept his talented ship afloat in the aftermath of two deaths (Jack Buck’s and Darryl Kile’s) that threatened to wither the indomitable spirit of Cardinal Nation. With Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols the lone healthy holdovers from the mighty lineup that won the 2004 NL pennant, La Russa backed the best starting pitching in baseball with a patchwork batting order that often had as many as four players with time this season here in Memphis. Hector Luna, Scott Seabol, John Gall, John Rodriguez, Skip Schumaker, and Mike Mahoney often had to check their jersey for one redbird or two to remind themselves just where they were playing on a given night. And were it not for another former Memphis regular -- outfielder So Taguchi -- this final season at “old” Busch Stadium might not be one to celebrate.

St. Louis spent most of August with half their regular lineup on the disabled list. Star third baseman Scott Rolen missed more than 100 games (and will be absent in the playoffs) after an injury to his shoulder last May. Larry Walker has fought a painful neck ailment that requires a periodical cortisone shot -- just as painful -- to allow the future Hall of Famer to man his rightfield post. Leftfielder Reggie Sanders broke his leg in an outfield collision with Jim Edmonds. And catcher Yadier Molina -- already the backbone of this club according to insiders -- missed several weeks after a pitch broke his hand at the plate in early summer.

So what kind of chances will the Cardinals take with them into October baseball? As Abner Doubleday must have said when he drew up the game’s plan, it’s all about the pitching. Chris Carpenter (the likely Cy Young winner in the NL until his meltdown last Friday in Milwaukee), Mark Mulder (16 wins through Sunday, but also crushed by the Brewers in his last start), and Jeff Suppan (16 wins) will toe the rubber, followed by either veteran Matt Morris (who has struggled since the All-Star break) or young Jason Marquis (who only recently got his groove back after a dreadful stretch of 13 starts). The innings eaten up by these five starters have eased the pain of a bullpen not quite as strong as the 2004 version. Carpenter and Mulder are considerable upgrades over last fall’s foursome (Morris, Marquis, Suppan, and Woody Williams) which was simply overmatched against Boston in the World Series.

If the pitching retains its consistency for another month, St. Louis will count on the metronomic briliance of Pujols in the middle of the order to produce enough crooked-number innings for perhaps four more postseason wins than the team earned last year. Looking for a key variable between this team and the 2004 edition? The middle infield is the place. Shortstop David Eckstein (a member of the Angels’ 2002 championship club) and Mark Grudzielanek have been steady anchors, both with bat and glove. The 5’7” Eckstein, fittingly, does every little thing right from his leadoff spot, and Grudzielanek will be fueled by this being only his second postseason foray in 11 years as a big-leaguer.

Fact is, the Cardinals are fluttering as they near the playoffs, losing five of their first seven since they clinched their division title September 17th. And focus will be difficult this week, as St. Louis holds what amounts to a five-game festival to celebrate 40 years of history at the soon-to-be-imploded Busch Stadium. (Soon after the Cardinals’ final playoff game, the stadium goes down to make room for the completion of “new” Busch Stadium, which will be ready for Opening Day 2006.) Dozens of former players will be making appearances, with a parade preceding the regular-season finale this Sunday. Gibby, Ozzie, Red, and of course, Stan the Man. Plenty to celebrate as the Cardinals look back. Just makes you wonder -- looking forward -- if the 2005 club has what it takes for a second parade, to be held the first week in November.

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