Cardinals excited about full season with Holliday

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 ~ Updated 12:49 AM
Matt Holliday played in 63 games with the Cardinals last season after being acquired in a July trade with the Oakland A's. (Associated Press file)

JUPITER, Fla. -- Tony La Russa believes the St. Louis Cardinals could have won the National League Central without Matt Holliday last year. He concedes the finish likely would have been a lot tighter.

"I'd like to think I helped the team win a few games," Holliday said Monday.

The Cardinals really took off after acquiring Holliday from the Athletics not long after the All-Star break, pulling away with a 20-6 record in August. Holliday batted .353 with 55 RBIs in 63 games, production that helped him land a seven-year, $120 million free agent contract in January.

"I'm just happy we got him when he was hot, because he was probably the hottest hitter in the second half of anybody in the major leagues," leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker said. "He was incredible.

"Everybody knew we had the pitching, and now we had the offense to compete with anybody, and maybe we were even better than anybody."

Without Holliday, the Cardinals could not have afforded the 2-8 finishing slide that still left them with a 7 1/2-game cushion over second-place Chicago.

"I think it would have been a real contest," La Russa said. "I think because of the way our starters were working and our bullpen, I think we could have won, but we wouldn't have won easily."

Getting the 1-2 punch of Albert Pujols and Holliday for the whole year makes this potentially one of La Russa's best lineups ever. On paper, Pujols said, he can't recall a better supporting cast in his 10 seasons in St. Louis.

The only potential negative is a lack of left-handed bats. There are only two regulars, and one of the lineups La Russa has tinkered with has both Schumaker and Colby Rasmus at the top.

"We have a pretty good lineup and we have a pretty good ballclub," Pujols said. "No disrespecting the other ballclubs in the past, but this is probably one of the best we've had."

Holliday would make an ideal No. 3 hitter, except the Cardinals already have a pretty good one in Pujols.

"I've always liked to hit in the first inning," Holliday said. "With Albert there I know there's a good chance I'll get to do that every game."

Leaving Oakland for a contender spurred Holliday, too, but he pointed out he was starting to heat up before coming to St. Louis. He'd been 8 for 16 the four games before the trade, including a monster game going 4-for-5 with two homers and six RBIs against the Twins on July 20.

He ended up hitting .412 that month with a .487 on-base percentage.

"I was starting to actually hit really well in Oakland, I kind of found my swing," Holliday said. "I think it just so happened that it was about the time I was really getting in a good groove."

The only negative in his first two months with St. Louis was the botched defensive play in Game 2 of the playoffs. Holliday reiterated Monday that he simply lost a sinking liner that would have been the final out in the lights, evening the series, and said the miscue did not invade his thoughts in the offseason.

"It wasn't like I lost it because I couldn't catch it, because I'm not good enough to catch it," Holliday said. "Obviously, it was bad timing but it wasn't because of lack of effort or lack of skill.

"I had it easy and all of a sudden you can't see it and you get caught in trying to just smother it so it doesn't get by you. The lights, it was the lights."

Shortstops Julio Lugo and Brendan Ryan, who's rehabbing from arthroscopic wrist surgery, reported to camp Monday. Lugo had been unaware of Ryan's operation and the possibility he might not be ready on opening day.

"I didn't know Ryan had surgery, I just want to get ready," Lugo said. "There is always competition."

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