* The St. Louis Cardinals open their 2011 season this Thursday at Busch Stadium against the San Diego Padres. So it's time for the pondering over Albert Pujols' next contract and the whining about Adam Wainwright's reconstructed elbow to end. The fortunes of the 2011 Cardinals will be determined largely by the answers to three questions:
Can David Freese and Lance Berkman produce runs? As a 27-year-old rookie last season, Freese (a former Memphis Redbird) hit .296 and drove in 36 runs in 70 games before being sidelined by an ankle injury. His slugging percentage was a pedestrian .404. As for Berkman, the longtime Astro has a career batting average of .296 and a slugging percentage of .545. But last year (as an Astro and Yankee), the Puma fell to marks of .248 and .413. How these two potential sluggers recover from their lost season will go a long way toward determining how much of Wainwright's absence can be filled with run production.
Will Jaime Garcia take a step forward, or a step back? Garcia was dynamite as a rookie in 2010: 13 wins, 2.70 ERA, 132 strikeouts in 163 innings pitched. But the 24-year-old lefty was roughed up at times during spring training. Has the National League caught up with his repertoire? Is he built for the long haul, as few homegrown pitchers in the Cardinal system have been of late? With Wainwright's injury, Garcia was elevated to the third slot in the rotation. If he can't shoulder the expected load, the domino effect will be felt all the way to Memphis, where P.J. Walters, Brandon Dickson, and Lance Lynn are all eager for some innings at Busch.
Will Chris Carpenter stay healthy? The former Cy Young winner pitched a career-high 235 innings in 2010. He turns 36 in April. And he no longer has Wainwright to share the responsibility of staff ace. When Carpenter has been healthy over the last seven seasons, the Cardinals have generally been in contention. The years he lost to injury -- 2007 and 2008 -- were disappointments. Every playoff team needs a stopper, the guy who prevents losing streaks from spoiling a pennant chase. For the Cardinals in 2011, that guy has to be Chris Carpenter.
* As much as we love the Cinderella story in the NCAA tournament, the event has been one for the giants of college basketball. Since seeding began in 1979, only four teams seeded lower than three have won the title: North Carolina State (6) in 1983, Villanova (8) in 1985, Kansas (6) in 1988, and Arizona (4) in 1997. Nine of the last 12 champs have been the top seed in their region.
Not this year. For only the third time, the Final Four will be played without a top seed in the mix (also happened in 1980 and 2006). And regardless of who wins the battle between Butler (seeded 8th in the Southeast region) and Virginia Commonwealth (11th in the Southwest), the championship game will feature a seed of eight (or lower) for only the third time (after UCLA in 1980 and Villanova in 1985). So the glass slipper is finally polished and ready for the dance floor.
In measuring history's underdogs, highlight VCU's entry in the record book. Not only did the Rams have to win a play-in game just to earn their spot in the main bracket (they're the first team to need five wins to reach the Final Four), but they beat a team from each of five power conferences to punch their ticket to Houston. It's safe to be a Rams fan next weekend.
Say what you will about his legacy here in Memphis, but John Calipari can put together a basketball team. A year after losing five players to the NBA draft, his Kentucky Wildcats are going to the Final four. Read that again; it's ridiculous.
* The Grizzlies' victory over the Celtics last Wednesday will go down as one of the most special this season, and really one of the most special since the franchise's last playoff run five years ago. Playing their 15th game without star forward Rudy Gay, this was the Grizzlies' first since learning Gay would miss the balance of the season to have shoulder surgery. They were playing in an arena where Boston was a cool 29-6. And facing a team fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The box score from that game is a study in team effort and commitment. Memphis won the first quarter on the scoreboard, lost the next two, then outscored the Celtics by six in the money quarter to win by three. They beat a team with three future Hall of Famers in its starting lineup without a single player scoring more than 13 points (Zach Randolph and former Celtic, Leon Powe). But Memphis had six players score between 10 and 13 points. It was a 48-minute team victory. Beautiful basketball.