La Russaâ€™s card tricks keep St. Louis afloat
By Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports
ST. LOUIS â€“ It was the middle finger, of course, as though the baseball gods were pulling some kind of a joke at the expense of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Here you go, boys. Letâ€™s see you handle this one.
Oh, that was only the beginning, the pop on starter Adam Wainwrightâ€™s right bird that sent him to the disabled list. Next to come up lame was Albert Pujols, only the National Leagueâ€™s best hitter, with a strained left calf that put him on the DL for at least three weeks. Then pitcher Todd Wellemeyer getting battered around after missing a start with elbow pain, the two perhaps intertwined. Followed by former Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter complaining of pain in his own elbow on the way back from Tommy John surgery.
And still, here they are, the Cardinals, the little team that could, sporting the NLâ€™s second-best record halfway through June with a makeshift lineup and thrown-together rotation. No longer can it be passed off as an illusion. The Cardinals â€“ when healthy â€“ are legitimately a good team, enjoyable to watch, easy to root for, the antithesis of what pundits, yours truly included, figured theyâ€™d be.
Then again, that caveat â€“ when healthy â€“ is imperative, because their NL Central rivals, the Chicago Cubs, are playing like the best team in baseball. The Cardinals, at 41-29 after a 3-2 victory Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies, face their toughest days ahead without Pujols, their rock, Wainwright, their ace, and perhaps Wellemeyer, their panned gold.
â€œLately itâ€™s gotten a little unfair,â€ Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. â€œYou lose Albert, you lose Wainwright, (Joel) PiÃ±eiro was missing. All that stuff gets to be a little unfair.
â€œIf it gets excessive, it kind of pisses you off.â€
La Russa is a lot of things. A whiner isnâ€™t one of them. He has taken a team of two stars, a few veterans and a cache of retreads and fringe prospects and turned them into a team intent on winning. His ability to so marry the group to one cause ranks among his best managing jobs yet in a career now in its 30th season.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of fight in us,â€ said outfielder Ryan Ludwick, one of the retreads who might have played himself onto the All-Star team with a virtuoso performance as a 29-year-old. â€œI donâ€™t see a whole lot of guys worried about whatâ€™s going on.â€
Ludwick glanced around the clubhouse.
â€œLike, Skip Schumaker,â€ Ludwick said, referring to the 28-year-old playing his first full major-league season. â€œWatching him, I knew he was a good player, and it was a matter of time for him to play every day. Heâ€™s a .300 hitter. Youâ€™ve got Rick Ankiel. Guyâ€™s a good player. Heâ€™s only going to get better. And I got hurt at 23 and fell through the cracks, but I always felt like I could play.â€
On Ludwick went, covering half of the Cardinals roster â€“ literally, he trotted out a dozen names â€“ before stopping himself. Let the record speak for the team instead of the team for the record.
â€œWe just have to stay afloat,â€ Ludwick said. â€œYou lose Albert and Waino, and, yeah, you get really upset, but I donâ€™t think our seasonâ€™s over. If you look at it that way, youâ€™re done.â€
Admit defeat? Now that isnâ€™t La Russaâ€™s style. For more than two months, the NL Central and others around baseball have been waiting for the other spike to drop, and it hasnâ€™t. The Cardinals have played three-card monte with their rotation, somehow cobbling it together out of eight starters, three of whom have been on the disabled list, with Wellemeyer perhaps making a fourth.
Two more are scheduled to be activated, though Cardinals brass realize that counting on a healthy Mark Mulder and Matt Clement is like believing the cable guyâ€™s going to show up when he says so. Yes, it would be nice to slot either in the rotation and replace rookie Mitchell Boggs, who replaced Mike Parisi, who looked like an ant versus a shoe.
La Russa knows better than to count on anyone, Pujols â€“ his iron man with a like threshold for pain â€“ included.
â€œEvery day you look at whoâ€™s available,â€ La Russa said. â€œYou compete with what you have. Itâ€™s counterproductive to say, â€˜Boy, we donâ€™t have, we donâ€™t have.â€™ Weâ€™ve got plenty here to compete and have a chance to win. Itâ€™s whoâ€™s playing, not whoâ€™s missing. Thatâ€™s how you survive.â€
The Cardinals would make Gloria Gaynor proud. Itâ€™s not just the Ludwicks and Wellemeyers, the ones in whom new general manager John Mozeliak had such faith. Itâ€™s the Cardinalsâ€™ remarkable ability to cover the field, Ankiel and Pujols and Cesar Izturis and, yes, even Troy Glaus making a nifty number of plays out of their zone. And itâ€™s pitching coach Dave Duncan, Leo Mazzone without the self-promotion, molding a suspect staff into a strength.
One of the starters, Kyle Lohse, pitched eight great innings Saturday. He missed most of spring training angling for a big-money contract and settled for one year at $4.25 million. Now, having bought into Duncan and the Cardinals, heâ€™s primed for that extension.
â€œWeâ€™ve shown the whole time we can scrap out wins like we did today,â€ Lohse said.
And thatâ€™s the right word: scrap. The Cardinals are not the most talented team and theyâ€™re not the prettiest and theyâ€™re not the most athletic or fastest or smartest or even best. Theyâ€™ve just won, and theyâ€™d like to keep doing so, injuries be damned.
â€œWeâ€™re trying to stay alive,â€ La Russa said.
Later on, La Russa stared at the wooden podium in front of him, curled up his fist and rapped it twice. He turned it toward his face and gave an additional pair of knocks. He knows that the Cardinalsâ€™ success isnâ€™t due to luck. But he doesnâ€™t want to take any chances.
Well...Passan finally admits something the rest of us have known for a while now...
The Cardinals â€“ when healthy â€“ are legitimately a good team, enjoyable to watch, easy to root for, the antithesis of what pundits, yours truly included, figured theyâ€™d be.
However, he still had to get in his anti-Cardinal comments:
The Cardinals are not the most talented team and theyâ€™re not the prettiest and theyâ€™re not the most athletic or fastest or smartest or even best.
And some more:
He has taken a team of two stars, a few veterans and a cache of retreads and fringe prospects and turned them into a team intent on winning.
I understand what this article was supposed to be...it was supposed to be a compliment to LaRussa and the job he has done this year. But it still doesn't really give credit to the team for what it has been doing. Passan, and a lot of others are more or less saying, "LaRussa is winning in spite of his crappy team." To say LaRussa has done a great job, is fine...he has done a great job. But he always does a great job...this is nothing new.
This Cardinals team is just flat out better than most people thought they would be...and the "experts" are having a hard time admitting it and looking for reasons for their success other than the fact the Cardinals are just flat out good.
How long before people quit saying the Cardinals are winning using smoke and mirrors and actually recognize how good the Cardinals are?
Passan mentions the Cubs and how they are the best team in baseball. And their record shows that...but it annoys me that the Cubs, with their lineup, don't get the same "overachieving" label that the Cardinals have.
You can't say the Cardinals are overachieving without saying the Cubs are as well. Half of the Cubs lineup is playing better than their career averages. So take from that what you will.
Once Wainright and Pujols come back, the Cardinals get that much better...not that they have dropped off any since they went down...but still.