Somewhere on a Himalayan mountaintop, there sits a wise guru who philosophized that "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." Although he pursues a peculiar career choice, the guru is right, especially in relation to the Cardinals. As the sick list grew over the past month, the team held together and at the present stands securely atop the National League Central Division 20 games over .500 and 8.5 games ahead of the Cubs.
With the chips down, Tony La Russa has been able to deftly slip his bench players in to fill in for the missing starters and, they have performed admirably (particularly Abraham Nunez). As they have surmounted the present adversity, there are real dividends to be garnered by this team as they enter the latter half of the 2005 season.
La Russa has always been a believer in and practitioner of the philosophy that you bring in quality bench players, and then give them as much playing time as can be reasonably granted. This year, his top three pine-riders haven't been hanging around the dugout very much. Nunez, So Taguchi, John Mabry and, recently, Scott Seabol, have been thrust into prominent roles while gaining valuable experience and refining their games.
Just a few weeks away from the All-Star break, these "substitutes" have been busy. Consider the dynamic Nunez. Through Monday, he had 144 plate appearances and a .299 average while appearing in 51 games. He had 18 rbi's. He fielded 81 total chances defensively with a .988 fielding percentage. So Taguchi had 123 at-bats, appearing in 53 games with a .252 batting average and 13 rbi's. He'd handled 53 defensive chances without error. The venerable John Mabry had 120 plate appearances over 43 games. He was batting .258 with 20 rbi's, including the first grand slam of his career.
Even Scott Seabol, with his heroic home run against the Yankees, has seen a ton of action. He already has 54 plate appearances over 26 games with a .259 average and 8 rbi's. He has seen 26 infield defensive chances and a .926 fielding percentage. He has also handled 5 defensive chances flawlessly in the outfield. Roger Cedeno, we hardly knew ye.
As the long season drags on and the aging players continue to take the poundings that their bodies are loathe to recover from, these super-subs will be getting more and more playing time. In the crucible of actual game conditions, Taguchi, Seabol, Nunez, and Mabry will only get better and will present La Russa, always game for personnel experiments to increase the chances for winning, with a myriad of new and interesting line-ups.
Also, La Russa will be better prepared to rest his regulars without a huge loss in productivity. Would I expect Abraham Nunez to be a 100% replacement for Scott Rolen? No, but the Cardinals have certainly won with Nunez at third and when Rolen needs a breather, La Russa can make that switch with minimal anxiety.
One other thought on injuries. No one wishes injuries on players, but spending time recovering from an injury also provides a period of mid-season rest and relaxation that can reenergize a recovered player and propel him more strongly into the play-offs. With the quality of bench players the Cardinals have, they aren't in the position of having to rush someone like Rolen back in to the line-up. With the luxury of extra time off, the nagging aches and pains are reduced and a more complete recovery is achieved.
Abraham Nunez, So Taguchi, John Mabry, and now Scott Seabol have been used to their fullest potential by La Russa and they have responded by bringing their "A" games to the ballpark every day. They have demonstrated to management and Cardinal Nation that when one of the regular players is injured or needs a rest, they are ready and able to fill in when needed. By the quality of their offensive and defensive play, the Cardinals hold a dominating lead in their division.
Even better, though, the Cardinals are uniquely positioned to extend that lead in the weeks to come. With a strong bench that has seen plenty of action and handled it well, the Cardinals may be one of the best rested teams down the stretch run to the play-offs. It's too early to hand the division crown to the Redbirds, but no other team in the National League will be able to field as fresh and rested a group of players as those with the birds-on-bats on their jerseys.
You can write to Rex Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org