At the breaking point

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- No team could use the All-Star break more than the St. Louis Cardinals.

It's been an emotionally draining first half, like no other, and the last three weeks have been filled with sorrow. Though they're in first place in the NL Central and showed their resourcefulness during a 7-6 homestand to close the first half, it was never quite business as usual.

How could it, for a team that wears memorial patches on both sleeves -- one for Jack Buck, the other for Darryl Kile -- and gazes daily at a locker stall shrine to the pitcher who died at age 33 on June 22?

"We're not through all this," manager Tony La Russa said. "We're in this still."

That's why the three days off before the players reconvene in San Diego for a Thursday afternoon workout are so important. To pause, to reflect, to grieve privately, and to collect themselves for the long haul.

"After everything that's happened, we really need this break," cleanup hitter Albert Pujols said.

Seeing Buck's casket at home plate last month was a sobering experience for the team, even if his death at age 77 was not a shock. He had been hospitalized for 4 1/2 months and in ill health before that.

Kile's sudden death was another story. Two weeks later, the team was struggling to come to grips. Especially staff ace Matt Morris, who considered Kile a mentor and lockered next to the right-hander.

Morris struggles after Kile's death

In his last two starts, Morris pitched as if in a fog, allowing 11 runs in 10 2/3 innings and coughing up two big leads, then hanging his head afterward. La Russa said Morris has been bothered a bit by back spasms, but the bigger problem is getting over the loss of a friend.

On Sunday, Morris decided not to pitch in the All-Star game, although he will suit up and sit on the bench. Part of it is the injury, perhaps caused by a faulty chiropractic adjustment; part of it is that he's just not into the game mentally.

"I think it's fair to say it's hit Matt as hard as anybody," La Russa said. "I know it's taken a lot of joy out of his life."

Despite their woes, the Cardinals enter the break leading the second-place Reds by two games. Center fielder Jim Edmonds said the players can't afford to wallow in pity.

"We've had so many problems, but you just can't stop your whole life," Edmonds said. "If we were to sit there and take a month to heal and worry about Darryl and Jack and J.D. (Drew) being hurt and another guy going down, we'll go home in October and everybody's laughing at us because we're in last place.

"We're just doing the best we can to keep our heads up and play hard."

Even before the last few weeks, the Cardinals had more than their share of obstacles. In April, because of injuries, they used 10 starting pitchers. Luther Hackman came out of the bullpen to stand in for struggling Bud Smith on Sunday, making it an even dozen starters this season.

Drew, a catalyst at the top of the lineup, is on the disabled list with patella tendinitis until the second day after the break.

"There's our key to the second half," pitcher Woody Williams said as he watched the rehabbing Drew in the batting cage one day last week.

Now, Williams is hurt again, further jumbling the picture. Williams, who missed six weeks at the start of the season with a pulled muscle in his left side, left Saturday's start with back spasms on the left side and may have to go on the disabled list.

"It's sore," La Russa said. "I don't think it's six-weeks sore."

Williams was one of the seven starting candidates this spring who seemed to give the Cardinals untold pitching riches. Garrett Stephenson, not expected back from a hamstring injury until next month; Andy Benes, attempting at Triple-A Memphis to come back from an arthritic right knee that has derailed his career; and Rick Ankiel, shut down since March due to elbow tendinitis, are three of the others.

Add the failure of Smith, 0-5 with a 7.18 ERA, and that doesn't leave much. The Cardinals thus far have been extremely fortunate with the emergence of Jason Simontacchi, 7-1 with a 2.77 ERA, and Travis Smith. Both are rookies who were never remotely on the radar screen a few months ago.

Williams' injury and Smith's ineffectiveness likely open the door for Benes, who hasn't pitched in the majors since April 15. He could return sometime next weekend.

The team would have preferred that Smith pitch all this year in the minors. He'll likely be demoted if general manager Walt Jocketty is able to pull off a trade in the next few days.

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