St. Louis plays next seven against NL Central's top teams

Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has guided his team to within 5 1/2 games of the first-place Brewers. (Tom Gannam ~ Associated Press)

The Cardinals find themselves 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers.

ST. LOUIS -- Not long ago, the Cardinals seemed to be a team that had wandered way off course.

Scott Spiezio sought treatment for possible substance abuse last week, the third in a series of incidents making front page news. Reliever Josh Hancock was driving drunk on the last day of April when he died in a crash. Manager Tony La Russa was arrested for drunk driving in spring training.

Somehow, all of that heartache hasn't been quite enough to finish off the defending World Series champions. Thanks to a very ordinary NL Central, the Cardinals are five games below .500, 5 1/2 games out of first place and dangerous heading into a seven-game trip starting today against the Brewers and Cubs, the teams they're chasing.

"I know there's been a lot of hard hits in the organization all year long, up and down, this whole season," Albert Pujols said. "You look at our record and it's not the best.

Cardinals outfielder Rick Ankiel watched his three-run home run against the San Diego Padres on Thursday in St. Louis. (Tom Gannam ~ Associated Press)

"But we're still in the mix."

The Cardinals' 55-60 record is not that far off the not-so-lofty standard they set last year, when they finished 83-79, nearly blew a seven-game lead with two weeks to go, and then turned it on in October to win their first title in 24 years. Opponents remember their dominant postseason as much as they remember the team's troubles on and off the field this season.

"Any lineup that's got Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds and those guys, they're still a deadly force," Dodgers center fielder Juan Pierre said. "They back-doored their way in last year, and if they get some momentum they can definitely make a push.

"This thing with Scott Spiezio, it'll just make them stronger and pull them together even more."

Thus far, the Cardinals have hit the jackpot with Spiezio's replacement. Rick Ankiel, a one-time phenom left-handed pitcher who flamed out due to wildness and injury, resurfaced as a power-hitting right fielder last week and has three home runs, six RBIs and a .375 average.

Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols laughed as he joked with the Dodgers' Roberto Hernandez between innings Saturday in St. Louis.

La Russa said Ankiel's three-run homer in his debut Thursday compared favorably to Adam Wainwright nailing down the final out in the World Series last fall against the Tigers' Brandon Inge.

"Next to striking out Inge, that's the happiest I've been in this uniform," La Russa said. "It's great for the team, it's great for him."

Ankiel's arrival helped spur the team to a 5-2 homestand that quickly quieted down the hubbub over Spiezio's departure. The biggest question is whether they can maintain that momentum or whether they'll continue to tease a loyal fan base that has allowed them to sell out every game since new Busch Stadium opened last year.

Late last month, the Cardinals took three of four from the Brewers, then undid all of that hard work by going 1-5 at lower-tier Pittsburgh and Washington.

"You ask yourself, 'Did this just happen?'" Pujols said.

Rick Ankiel, right, celebrated with teammates after they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday in St. Louis. (Tom Gannam ~ Associated Press)

All of it has happened, and more. Minus ace pitcher Chris Carpenter, who ended with more surgeries (2) than starts (1), a rotation that lost Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver to free agency and Mark Mulder to rotator cuff surgery has been heavily reliant on former relief pitchers.

The Cardinals have been at the bottom of the NL in ERA most of the year, and two starters, Kip Wells and Anthony Reyes, are a combined 7-24. Mulder, initially believed to be ready in May, now is hoping to pitch in September.

The no-names the Cardinals are stuck with allowed six runs in the last six games of their just-completed 5-2 homestand.

Most of this month, La Russa has resorted to a gimmick lineup he used in 1998 to aid Mark McGwire during his then-record 70-homer season, batting the pitcher eighth and a singles hitter ninth as a second leadoff man. His theory: a struggling lineup has a better chance after the first time through the order.

"But if the team was doing better," La Russa said, "you don't mess around."

The lone addition to the everyday lineup, second baseman Adam Kennedy, has been a bust, and now he's on the 15-day disabled list with torn knee cartilage. Outfielders Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion had slow starts following offseason operations, World Series MVP David Eckstein missed time with a pulled side muscle and Scott Rolen's power is way down while he deals with recurring shoulder issues.

La Russa has often said the Cardinals very easily could be 15 games out of first place, playing out the string. There's fresh controversy now for the manager with Encarnacion, the odd man out during Ankiel's dramatic debut, carping about playing time.

"We're battling right now and you've got to deal with that stuff," reliever Tyler Johnson said. "It's part of life. There's no reason to dwell on yesterday or the day before or the day before."

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