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FROM MY SEAT: The Defense Rests



What price a championship?

I'll go out on a limb and argue that the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals season has been the most painful, trying campaign since this proud franchise first laced up spikes in 1892. Had any of the following five(!) events taken place, the season would have been played under a cloud:

• Pitching ace -- and 2005 Cy Young winner -- Chris Carpenter was beaten around by the Mets on Opening Day, then lost for the season with elbow damage. His surgery will keep him out a good portion of 2008 as well.

• Relief pitcher Josh Hancock -- driving drunk, without a seat belt, on his cell phone -- was killed in a car accident in late April.

• Scott Spiezio, the Cardinals' top reserve during their 2006 championship run, entered a rehab program in August to help him overcome a chemical dependence.

• On the last day of August, rightfielder Juan Encarnacion had his left eye socket crushed by a foul ball as he stood in the on-deck circle at Busch Stadium. The question now is not so much if Encarnacion will play baseball again, but if he'll have vision in his left eye.

• After a sparkling late-summer month that saw Rick Ankiel steal the national spotlight by hitting nine home runs in less than 100 at-bats, Ankiel's name came up in an investigation of an illegal pharmaceutical ring. According to the investigation, Ankiel received shipments of human growth hormone near his Florida home in 2004.

Wow. Take me out to the ball game, right? Keep in mind, these are merely the clouds that formed after Opening Day. Future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa was booked for driving under the influence last March after he fell asleep at the wheel near the team's spring-training facility in Florida.

Injuries and chemical substances are nice excuses if one chooses to go that route. But the fact is, the 2007 Cardinals were profoundly lacking in the one commodity a baseball team cannot win without: starting pitching. When the St. Louis brass decided to let sixty percent of last year's rotation (Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Weaver) leave via free agency, they did so not anticipating that the other forty percent (Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder) would miss virtually the entire season to come. Find any major league baseball team -- champions or otherwise -- and eviscerate its starting pitching to this degree, and calamity will ensue. The extra, often tragic, baggage endured by this year's Cardinals was merely distraction as the house burned. (Consider that the combined record of starters Kip Wells and Anthony Reyes is 8-31. Perhaps Suppan was worth an extra million or three.)

So what's next? Far more questions than answers as the Cardinals start their earliest offseason in four years. Will LaRussa return, and be part of the fix-it team? (The guess here is that he's gone. A pitching rotation can be dismissed in a single offseason, but rebuilt?) Will veterans Scott Rolen and Adam Kennedy -- shelved for the season's final month for surgery -- regain their primes, or will they be expensive baggage (that word again) surrounding Albert Pujols in 2008? And what about the kids -- Brendan Ryan, Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker, and yes, Mr. Ankiel -- who found more playing time at Busch Stadium than anyone anticipated in a title defense? Who among these names will be part of the solution?

Death, drugs, and catastrophic injury. If a deal was truly struck with some otherworldly power for the Cardinals' unlikely 2006 championship, the argument here is that the debt has been paid, and with considerable interest.

I'll wrap this week's column with seven words I've never spoken or written: I'm glad the Cardinals' season is over.

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