As the Cardinals and Cubs locked horns for the first time in the 2005 season, I found myself torn between some very positive indicators and some troubling ones about the course of the Redbirds this year. For as much as the starting Cardinal rotation continues to impress and eat innings like a Pac-Man, there are also causes for concern that hopefully will resolve with time.
Wednesday night's loss was a winnable game from the standpoint of Jeff Suppan's pitching performance. This was the sixth straight game in which Cardinal starters have performed superbly. Thursday's win makes seven. After some rougher performances through the first turns taken by Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis, and Suppan, their collective work on the road was terrific and promising for the remainder of the year. Mulder, especially, recovered nicely from a horrendous first outing and seems to have rediscovered the reason that Jocketty-La Russa–Duncan, LLC so highly coveted him. How elated do you imagine the entire team was with Matt Morris's gem?
Suppan certainly pitched well enough to win against the Cubs were it not for the silence of the bats and some shaky defense. Suppan struggled to win at home last year and he took the loss Wednesday, albeit undeservedly. I'll gladly give the jittery Carlos Zambrano credit for pitching a terrific game. My memory of his behavior last year against the Cardinals is long, though, and I would have much preferred to see him pounded long and hard. Zambrano is a compelling young talent. I hope he has learned to act like an adult.
Carpenter's complete game Thursday was masterful. His breaking pitches were there when he needed them and his location was reminiscent of Woody Williams. The only question about Carp this year was the fullness of his recovery from the nerve injury that afflicted his pitching arm at the end of 2004. There should be no further questions. Since his opening day loss, Carpenter has now cut his ERA in half.
Those who have read my drivel in the past know that I am an unapologetic Jim Edmonds fan. I remain endlessly fascinated by his ability to haul in seemingly impossible shots around center field. That said, his play Wednesday night was curiously out of character. He let some balls get past him that he usually fields cleanly and holds runners on base without scoring. You could even see the exasperated look on his face trying to figure what he was thinking. Wednesday night's game was unrepresentative of Edmonds' usual high level of play. I'm sure his funk, though peculiar, is temporary.
I was surprised when Nomar Garciaparra signed to stay with the Cubs. I respect him tremendously and thought he would want to part company with the baby bears after their 2004 train wreck. It was hard to watch Nomar writhing in agony in the batter's box after he suffered a seriously torn groin muscle. Nomar is a class act and one of the game's superstars. His loss to the Cubs is a loss to all serious baseball fans who won't be able to enjoy seeing him play for quite some time.
I remain concerned about the Cardinals' hitting. The most powerful line-up in baseball seems to be baffled by many of the starting pitchers they've faced this year. I'll give Zambrano credit due, but Ryan Dempster wasn't overwhelming today and he gave up only one earned run on four hits. Like Suppan the night before, he could just have easily won this game. The Cardinal's offense is stuck in the pattern of hoping their starting pitching is good enough to keep them in the game until the opposition bullpen can take over. That's not the way to win baseball games in the long run. I'll feel much better when those big bats start to boom.
What's missing so far this year is that great overall team effort in which the offense, defense, and pitching all combine for a series of solid wins. I'm certainly not complaining about the road trip just past, but I'm also overlooking the one 11-1 win against the Pirates. You'll recall that the Cards only led 2-1 going into the their half of the ninth inning. The late 9-run explosion against Ryan (T-ball) Vogelsong and company was the difference between a 1-run game and a wipe-out. On average, the Cardinals have been rather – well – average.
Soon, and I hope very soon, the Cardinals will begin clicking with the confidence and authority they displayed in 2004. This team is already a World Series contender on paper. When they start hitting on all cylinders, this team should experience a smooth and efficient run to the roses in October. A World Series closer to venerable Busch Stadium would be the perfect conclusion to the service of that downtown St. Louis landmark.
You can write to Rex Duncan @ firstname.lastname@example.org