Homestand an important test of Cardinal character

Rex Duncan is nervous - for a good reason.

The next few days might be telling for the future of the 2005 Cardinals. As they stand 19 games over .500 with an 8½ lead over their nearest Central Division rival, what's to worry about, right? Perhaps I'm jousting at windmills, but I am worried. This stretch of games against some of the lesser teams in the National League should be a time when the Cardinals must be cleaning up. On the contrary, it seems that they are playing without the passion and intensity one would expect of a potential world champion, and it is costing them.

Over the past two weeks, the Cardinals have played the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and swept them. Then they moved on to Cincinnati, an intra-division team that is struggling at best, clearly out of the playoff picture, and ready to dump salaries and start over. The Cards lost two of three games against the Reds. They came home to play four against Pittsburgh and split. It's easy to say from the cheap seats, but clearly they should have won three of those games, the last of which was particularly disturbing.

Looking ahead, they start a homestand Tuesday with two more against the Reds and four against the Colorado Rockies. Both teams are at or near the bottom of their divisions and should be fodder for St. Louis' heavy artillery.

In a way, the Cardinals are lucky. The Cubs haven't made a strong run at them during the past two weeks, but that won't continue as Mark Prior and Kerry Wood return to boost the starting pitching for the Northsiders. This three-week stretch should be a time when the Cardinals are distancing themselves from the Cubs and burying the baby bears' playoff aspirations. That hasn't happened.

Essentially, if the Cardinals are to defend their dominance in the NL Central, they must take advantage of the opportunities presented to them with this light stretch and pound on the league's bottom-feeders. In other words, they must play like world champions against all comers.

The past two weeks have been frustrating for Cardinal fans expecting a juggernaut-in-red this year. Sunday's loss to the Pirates may have been a watershed moment when this team realized that they have been playing below their potential and, at least Sunday, embarrassingly so. Tony La Russa faces the challenge of re-inspiring his squad and motivating a group of highly-paid professionals whose minds seem elsewhere.

Sunday's game was a debacle, and hopefully that point from which there is no way to go but up. With three notable exceptions, the Cardinals seemingly conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

First the good news – Yadier Molina continues to hit with authority, defend well as he gunned down two base stealers, and for such a young man stands his ground against anyone. Jason Marquis pitched well enough to win, allowing only three earned runs. Hector Luna played a superb right field. As one who questioned sending Scott Seabol to Memphis and bringing Luna up, I will gladly order a crow salad for lunch.

The solid play of Molina and Luna was overshadowed, though, but weaker efforts by others. For the life of me, I can't figure out what Abraham Nunez didn't see that Molina and Luna did see when Yadier hit the pseudo-double to right field. You remember – Molina was called out for passing the retreating Nunez between first and second base as Nunez was tagged out standing helplessly trying to comprehend what was happening. Instead of having runners at second and third with one out, the inning ended with one run scoring.

Other opportunities were missed. The Cardinals had the bases loaded with no one out. They failed to score in an inning that saw a 5-2-3 double play. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Julian Tavarez pitched to one batter and retired the side. Rather than bring Tavarez back in the ninth, La Russa predictably brought in nerve-shattering closer Jason Isringhausen, who dished up a game-tying gopher ball to lead-off hitter Jason Bay. In the ninth inning, they had runners at first and second with one out and failed to score. In the tenth, with the Pirates now leading by a run, the Cardinals failed to score and the game ended on another double play.

Usually not one to criticize La Russa, I certainly disagreed with his decision to pinch-hit Larry Walker late in the game. Benched by a neck injury, Walker had only played once in the past week. With John Mabry and Einar Diaz on the bench, Walker was used in a key situation with a runner in scoring position. Overmatched, he fouled out weakly to the catcher. La Russa later said he regretted pinch-hitting Walker in that situation.

If Sunday's game is to be indicative of the work of this team in the coming days, we may be in for difficult days ahead. This is an eminently talented group who are now playing below their potential. It will be a pressing challenge to get them motivated. While that responsibility falls to La Russa, every player must reach deep within himself to move his performance to a higher level, one that will carry the whole team into the 2005 World Series. That's what champions do.

Rex Duncan can be reached via email at

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