Sunday was a remarkable day in this regard for the Cardinals and for Cardinal Nation. Certainly while fans were expecting better results than a 6-4 home stand against lesser National League teams, we were certainly reminded that when you are on top, every other opponent wants to knock you off. Upstart teams like the Colorado Rockies showed off some talented young arms in the shadow of the Arch, and took the Redbirds down to the 9th inning wire for a split in the four game series.
I was at the game last Sunday and was a groaning witness to Abraham Nunez's base running error that could conceivably have cost the Cards a win against the Pirates. You remember. With Hector Luna on second and Nunez on first with one out and the Cards ready to break out in a big inning, hot hitter Yadier Molina muscled up a long fly ball to deep right field, two Pirate outfielders in hot pursuit. The ball hit off the wall, caromed back on to the field, and was scooped up by the right fielder.
Every one of the 47,000 in attendance, every Pirate, and almost every Cardinal saw that the hit was a clean double. Luna scored, Molina rounded first and charged for second – right past the retreating Nunez, who inexplicably thought the ball had been caught. Molina passed Nunez and was called out. A stunned Nunez was paralyzed by confusion between the bases and tagged out. Instead of having runners at second and third with one out, one run scored but the double play halted the inning.
Nunez was distraught, embarrassed, and certainly ashamed for his performance on this play. Personally, I've never seen it before at the major league level, and I felt badly for Nunez, who has filled in so superbly for the injured Scott Rolen at third. Only one week later, Nunez went from goat to hero.
In yesterday's game against the Rockies, Nunez got a spot start at shortstop to give David Eckstein a breather. Besides turning a dazzling fielding play on a near-double play, Nunez drove home the game winning run in the bottom of the ninth. With that marvelous twist of irony that only Ol' Abner can weave into his game, the runner who scored AHEAD of Nunez was none other than Yadier Molina. The weight of the baseball world was lifted off the shoulders of the joyously redeemed Nunez.
Want more? Sure you do. Who hasn't reflected on the magnificent irony of new Cardinal shortstop and fan favorite David Eckstein being voted by the fans in to the All-Star Game while his high priced predecessor, Edgar Renteria, will probably stay home stewing about his decision to join the Red Sox. Eckstein has shown that he is a winning shortstop, full of spark, determination, and skill to compensate for his inadequacies. His appearance at the All-Star Game should be proof-positive that the Cardinals have the finest general manager in baseball today in Walt Jocketty. It should also silence the critics of Eckstein who can't see the forest of his contributions for the trees of his physical attributes, i.e, weak arm, small size, yadayadayada.
Hey, we're on a roll. Let's go for one more. Despite the less-than-stellar home stand, the Cardinals now have a double-digit lead over the second place Cubs. The Baby Bears had a nightmarish homestand and were swept by the upstart Washington Nationals. Now a .500 team, the Cubs seem to be heading in the wrong direction even though their vaunted starting pitching should be back in place. That Derrek Lee is starting ahead of Albert Pujols at first base in the All-Star Game will be an afterthought in October. Lee is truly having a marvelous year and is due his recognition.
Clearly, we haven't seen the best that the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals have to offer. As they return to health and get some time off during the break, the rest of the National League should take notice. Once the Redbird offense gets untracked and matches the performance of the pitching staff, the best team in the league in the first half has every prospect of being better in the second. For all the ups and downs of the first half of the season, the half way point reached yesterday bode well for the rest of the season and post-season. The new stadium contractors should be warned not to hit that implosion button too quickly. It looks like the Cardinals are going to need old Busch well in to October.
You can write to Rex Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org