Cards put on early Heat alert

Friday, February 16, 2007
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kip Wells (21) throws during baseball practice as manager Tony La Russa looks on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007, at the Roger Dean Stadium, in Jupiter, Fla. Pitchers and catchers held their first workout Thursday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

La Russa uses the NBA champs'struggles as an opening warning for his World Series champions.

JUPITER, Fla. -- Scanning newspaper headlines after arriving at the team's spring training facility, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa found material for his camp-opening speech to the World Series champions.

The fodder was Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who blamed his team's .500 record on a hangover from the NBA title. "We blew the start of the year," Riley said earlier this week after returning from a medical leave of absence. "We weren't ready. I wasn't ready."

Guarding against a similar letdown, La Russa relayed that cautionary tale before pitchers and catchers hit the field for the first organized workout that was interrupted by rain.

"Yeah, I mentioned that," he said. "It's too good of a coincidence to miss."

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina laughed with a teammate during practice Thursday in Jupiter, Fla. Pitchers and catchers conducted their first workout. (RICK BOWMER ~ Associated Press)

Adam Wainwright, a rookie stand-in closer during the postseason who begins spring training as a member of the rotation, got the message. He won't let the strikeouts that ended the World Series and NLCS go to his head.

"That was basically the whole message: Be ready to play from Day 1, because if you don't, it'll be too late and you'll find yourself at home and in last place," Wainwright said. "We're all playing for new things this year."

Old memories can drive them, too, like the plane toting a banner urging the Cardinals to fire La Russa and general manager Walt Jocketty a few springs ago.

"We lose a couple of games, they'll bring that plane back," La Russa said. "I know that committee. They didn't disband, they're still sitting there waiting."

Still, revving up again is easier said than done. It's one of the reasons there's been a different World Series winner each year this decade, and why no NL team has repeated as the pennant-winner since 1996.

"That's human nature, man," La Russa said. "Guys take too many congratulations. So thank you very much, say congratulations, and it's a brand new year."

The biggest reason the Cardinals might not repeat is an almost brand new starting rotation, with ace Chris Carpenter the lone holdover from opening day last year. Free agent pickup Kip Wells, young Anthony Reyes and converted relievers Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper fill out the rotation entering spring training, each addition accompanied by question marks. Wells won two games in an injury-plagued 2005 and Reyes, though impressive in the World Series opener against the Tigers, had only five wins.

Wainwright was a success as the stand-in closer for injured Jason Isringhausen, but neither he nor Looper has ever made a major league start.

"All these guys, they're bringing the right mental frame to win a job," Carpenter said. "It's going to be a great experience, I think.

"I'm looking forward to when it's all said and done and everybody is set in that spot and all the decisions are made and we're starting to work together as a group just like we've done in the past."

The Cardinals fell short in the bidding for Weaver and Jason Schmidt, never made a serious play for Suppan and made no effort at all to retain Marquis, a big disappointment who was left off the roster the last two rounds of the postseason. But La Russa sees this only as opportunity for the new members of the rotation.

"I'm less apprehensive and more excited to see the guys and talent, and see what they do with it, than I have with other parts of our club," La Russa said. "So, the next question is 'What are you apprehensive about?'

"We'll give that to you in bits and pieces."

The other major pitching concern is Isringhausen's health coming off hip surgery in September. Isringhausen has thrown several times already, and had a 25-pitch outing at what he described as 75 to 80 percent on Thursday.

The schedule calls for Isringhausen to pitch in his first spring on March 15, so he said 100 percent effort could wait.

"I've done that in the past and ended up missing some time," Isringhausen. "So I just want to be patient and go by the protocol for the rehab."

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