HALFWAY HOME Weve reached the midpoint of the 2003 baseball season and, as our Redbirds continue to fight back toward respectability, the parent St. Louis Cardinals have a battle of their own in the months ahead. A few observations after three months of baseball at Busch:
Injuries hurt. And how. The Cardinals couldnt have imagined how precipitous their decline would be in the absence of closer Jason Isringhausen. When you take two months to determine that Cal Eldred is your best option for the ninth inning . . . yikes. Izzys return has at least eliminated one variable to Tony LaRussas winning formula. Serious injuries to second baseman Fernando Vina -- out at least until August after hamstring surgery -- and Eli Marrero (the teams most valuable reserve) have forced the Cardinals to rely on the likes of Wilson Delgado and Kerry Robinson . . . players who would look really good in Memphis uniforms. The surprising success of Bo Hart after his June call-up may be a subtle tonic for this wounded ballclub.
Albert Pujols is scary good. This man became the first player in the history of the game to bat .300, hit 30 home runs, drive in 100, and score 100 in each of his first two seasons. And hes getting better. Despite nursing a throwing elbow injured in April, Pujols is making a mockery of the National Leagues MVP race. Hes at or near the top of the league in batting, home runs, RBIs, runs, doubles, hits, on-base percentage, fielding-percentage, and managerial praise (the normally reserved LaRussa has said Pujols is the finest player hes ever managed). Keeping Pujols healthy is the only chance this underachieving team has at raising a pennant; hes that kind of difference-maker. As you watch Pujols do his thing this summer, keep in mind: no one has won the Triple Crown since 1967, no one in the NL since 1937.
The bullpen woes have nothing on the starting rotation. Woody Williams has been brilliant, but dont you expect the injury bug to bite with every start? Matt Morris has been a shadow of himself for a month (ERA over 10.00!). St. Louis doesnt have the support in their rotation to allow either of these two to miss a beat. General manager Walt Jocketty needs to perform some of his magic to solidify this all-important unit, or there will continue to be a lot of 9-6, 11-7 games won (or lost) by the Cardinals. Jason Simontacchi is all heart. Garrett Stephenson is a competitor of the first order. Brett Tomko, well, hes trying to find his stuff. None of these men will ever win a World Series game.
What if? You think LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan wouldnt give an arm -- literally -- to have Darryl Kile and Rick Ankiel in their rotation? Its a sad hypothetical to ponder. Were Kile still with us, and Ankiel of sound mind, their combining with Morris and Williams would be an intimidating foursome. You have to wonder why the baseball gods cast such tragedy and tribulation on the same franchise in such a short period of time. Rest in peace, DK. Get well, Rick.
Ignore the pitching! This may be the best group of hitters since Whitey Herzogs jack rabbits of 1985: Willie McGee (MVP that year), Vince Coleman (Rookie of the Year), Tom Herr, Jack Clark, Terry Pendleton, Ozzie Smith, and Andy Van Slyke. St. Louis could well finish
the season with five .300 hitters, five players with more than 20 home runs, and four with 100 RBIs. Even if you discount Pujols Triple Crown chase (and his 40-point lead in the National League batting race), Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria, a healthier J.D. Drew, and a revived Tino Martinez give this club the kind of offensive numbers rarely seen outside slowpitch softball leagues. This formidable collection makes it all the more imperative that LaRussa and Jocketty find that missing piece to their pitching puzzle. (A whispered note: Ankiel pitched seven shutout innings last week at Double-A Tennessee. He struck out 12 and -- hush! -- walked only three.)