103 wins to go

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Just like last season, the Cardinals have stumbled out of the gate.

Knowing they led the major leagues with 105 victories last year and won the team's first NL pennant in 17 seasons keeps them calm about their mediocre 2-3 start and in particular the last two games, a pair of double-digit severe beatdowns at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies.

"We're definitely dragging a little bit and we're not playing the best baseball we can play," pitcher Chris Carpenter said. "But I wouldn't put any question into what kind of ability we have and what kind of team we have.

"Go back and look at last year and see how we started. Give us a few months and we'll go from there."

The Cardinals dropped three of four at home against the Brewers to start the 2004 season, got swept at Houston at home later that month and were 12-11 at the end of April. But from June on, they closed with a 78-34 rush and outscored the opposition by nearly 200 runs over the long haul.

So they know there's plenty of time to put their stamp on this season.

"You're always concerned," manager Tony La Russa said. "It's not how we came out here to play. But whatever it is, I'm sure we'll fix it."

One thing that might help, some Cardinals feel, is a day off and they got one on Monday before beginning a two-game series against the Reds today at home. Center fielder Jim Edmonds was critical of the team's finish to spring training, a barnstorming tour that featured stops in Oklahoma City and Springfield, Mo., the new site of the Cardinals' Double A franchise.

La Russa hated to hear that, reading it as a lame excuse. He considered the side trip a positive experience in that it included a pair of night games, stops in cities players have never seen and adulation in Springfield "where fans are telling them 'I love you, I love you, I love you."'

"It wasn't a perfect trip but we got plusses from it," La Russa said. "Four more days in Florida and know what they would have been like? Toasted."

Without a break besides one practice at Busch Stadium on Thursday, Edmonds felt it might have been tougher for the Cardinals to turn the page from spring training to the regular season.

"You have a long spring training and you're in there and you think you're ready and you hear the questions, 'Are you ready, are you ready, are you ready?" Edmonds said. "You never know until it starts.

"Obviously, we weren't ready enough, and we need to make adjustments and move forward."

After splitting the first two games of the season in Houston, the Cardinals led for only a half-inning in their dismal three-game series against the Phillies. Shaky starting pitching that saddled the team with big early deficits each game shouldered most of the blame, with Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and Chris Carpenter -- who combined for 48 victories last year -- all off their game.

The offense also is out of sync. The heart of the order, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, was a combined 6-for-32 with four RBIs in the Phillies series -- reminiscent of the Cardinals' puny World Series showing when that trio was 6-for-45 with one RBI.

Phillies pitchers Gavin Floyd and Jon Lieber were dominating against everybody the last two games of the series.

"It seemed like we were a little bit behind on our swings," Edmonds said. "Guys were getting beat pretty often and that's unusual. Some of the pitchers have maybe turned it up a notch and we haven't yet."

Edmonds noted that pitchers were pounding the St. Louis hitters inside, and then he issued a warning.

"If they want to challenge, let them go ahead and keep challenging," he said. "Eventually it's going to get ugly for the other team."

The opposition thinks so, too.

"It's still way too early to say we shut down the Cardinals or whatever," Lieber said. "It's only six games into the season, we've got a long ways to go, and I promise you they're going to be a lot better."

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