Cardinals offense flexes muscles in August heat

Friday, August 14, 2009
Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, center, celebrates with teammates Wednesday after hitting a solo home run during the third inning in St. Louis. (TOM GANNAM ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- So far, the St. Louis Cardinals are making the most of a favorable August schedule.

They lead the NL Central by 4 1/2 games and are 12 games above .500, both high water marks, heading into a three-game series against the NL West-trailing San Diego Padres today. For the month, only a three-game set in Los Angeles next week is against a winning team.

The players recognize the opportunity in front of them and are capitalizing, taking five of six from struggling Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. They picked up three games on the second-place Cubs in a four-game span.

"We have a good team with a lot of good players," 12-game winner Chris Carpenter said. "When you run into a team that's scuffling a bit and hurting a bit, you should beat them."

It's easy to check the pocket schedule and make assumptions. Of course, you've still got to execute.

"Not by any means is it an easy thing to do," Carpenter said after matching his season high with 10 strikeouts over seven dominant innings in a 7-2 victory over the banged-up Reds on Wednesday. "You go out and play your butt off, then you should win."

The acquisitions of Mark DeRosa, Julio Lugo and especially Matt Holliday gave the Cardinals a huge lineup boost heading into the final two months. All three have made big contributions, with Holliday bunching five games with three or more hits while hitting .486 since joining the team July 24, DeRosa belting eight homers and Lugo batting .356.

Manager Tony La Russa still tinkers with the lineup, using 101 combinations in the first 116 games. But not as much lately, and he has dumped the gimmick of batting the pitcher eighth because the holes around home run leader Albert Pujols have been plugged.

The rotation is picking up momentum, too, with Kyle Lohse appearing finally ready to shake off a forearm injury that hampered him for several starts after coming off the 15-day disabled list. A 15-game winner last year, if he can rebound it will provide a formidable fourth arm behind Carpenter (12-3, 2.27 ERA), Adam Wainwright (13-7, 2.73) and Joel Pineiro (10-9, 3.22).

Carpenter is 7-0 with a 1.67 ERA in his last eight starts, while Wainwright is tied for the NL lead in wins and Pineiro has two shutouts. La Russa considers Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young winner, the Cardinals' pitching equivalent of two-time NL MVP Pujols.

"From the pitching side? Exactly," La Russa said. "The ball's just jumping out of his hand. He definitely can click it up."

La Russa wants that from the rest of the roster, too. He's hungry for a return to the postseason after a two-year absence following a World Series title in 2006.

Pujols said the schedule shouldn't matter, that instead it's the confident attitude they're going to keep winning.

"It doesn't matter who we face," he said. "Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have given us a tough time in the past and you don't want to take those guys for granted. We knew we had to win the series and we did."

Until the final week, he insists, it's too early to take a peek at the standings.

"Adding a couple of guys to our ballclub obviously gave us a little boost and we're pretty excited where we're at," Pujols said. "But there's still a lot of season left. Anything can happen."

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