High and Lows of the Weekend

The first days after the All-Star break can be treacherous. After getting those few days at home with families, players can be slow to rebound back to regular season intensity. That the Houston Astros were coming to town with their late first half surge that offered them the opportunity to reenter the NL Central race was a motivational blessing to Tony La Russa. By Monday morning, the news coming out of Busch was both electric and depressing.

No professional baseball player should have to be motivated by others knowing he has to face Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, and Roger Clemons. They are simply one of the best 1-2-3 starting pitching combinations in baseball, and to play them successfully would require a 100% team effort. The Cardinals countered with Matt Morris, Jason Marquis, and Chris Carpenter. The results are a compelling statement about the quality of Cardinal starting pitching.

Pettitte, Oswalt, and Clemons were strong, but Morris, Marquis, and Carpenter were brilliant. The Astros made some key mistakes. The Cardinals minimized theirs. The Astros, who have struggled to score runs this season, were held in check by the Cardinal starters and relievers (even considering Izzy's Friday night hiccup). Cardinal batters made the most of the few opportunities they received. The sweep is now in the books and the Astros leave St. Louis mired in third place a full 14.5 games out and tied with the Brewers, who begin a four game series Monday night at Busch. Yet for all the good news when one looks at the standings, this has also been an expensive and sobering week.

The news regarding Yadier Molina's hand injury is that he is being placed on the disabled list effective Sunday. Molina suffered the injury on his catching hand when he was hit by a pitch in San Francisco. The non-displaced fracture will heal fine, but that hand takes around 110 to 130 beatings per game. Despite Yadi's youth, it has been slower to heal than was first thought. A team can back-date DL status up to ten days, so even though Yadi is now on the 15day DL, he could come back as early as Thursday or Friday against the Cubs.

Congratulations, by the way, to rookie catcher Mike Mahoney, who was called up from Memphis to replace Yadi. Mahoney collected his first major league base hit Sunday, a clean single to right. Mahoney formed the battery with Chris Carpenter and caught his shut-out game nicely. While Mahoney's return to Memphis is certain once Molina returns from the DL, he has clearly impressed Cardinal management.

The news regarding left fielder Reggie Sanders is not so good. X-rays have determined that Sanders suffered a hairline fracture of his leg just above the ankle in that scary collision with Jim Edmonds Friday night. Sanders is now on the DL and may not see action for 6-8 weeks. That's a big loss of a classy guy who was a major contributor to the team during the past few weeks. His defense and offense have been superb. That and his great good humor and leadership will be missed.

Called up from Memphis in Sanders' place is hot-hitting John Rodriguez, the 2005 John Gall du jour. Unlike Gall, the clamor to promote Rodrguez has been answered and it is likely that he will receive several starts in the outfield while Reggie convalesces. Rodriguez has been pounding Pacific Coast League pitching to the tune of a .342 average with 17 home runs and a stunning 1.227 OPS.

J-Rod, as he has become known, may be the AAA version of Derrek Lee. Obtained by Memphis from the Buffalo Bisons (the Cleveland Indians affiliate), he batted .247 with 23 homers and a .770 OPS in just over a year with the Bisons. It will be interesting to see if the Redbirds J-Rod or the Bisons J-Rod shows up at Busch.

Lastly, and of great concern, remains the condition of Scott Rolen's left shoulder. Clearly weak from surgery, Rolen is being punished by a barrage of inside pitching that is forcing him to engage that shoulder in order to fight off those pitches. Unless a pitcher misses out over the plate, Rolen has looked overmatched. More tests today will reveal if there are more problems. Cardinal fans need to cross their fingers in hopes that there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Rolen's continued recovery. It is very possible, though, that he may have to either be DL'd or see reduced playing time while he builds up more strength in that shoulder.

In the final analysis, the Cardinals will have Molina back soon enough. Sanders' loss looms large, but the young J-Rod along with So Taguchi and John Mabry should be able to hold things together and still platoon with Larry Walker. The most disturbing news is the potential loss of Rolen. For all the good work done at third base by Abraham Nunez and John Mabry, no one covers the hot corner like Rolen.

The Astros and Chicago Cubs have one foot in the proverbial grave and the other on a banana peel in the NL Central standings. One slip and they become distant fodder for the Wild Card competition. With the weekend sweep of the Astros, it's clear that La Russa is focused on maintaining the relentless pace set by the Cards in the first half. His challenge will grow in direct proportion to the disabled list. In order to continue that hot pursuit of perfection, Redbirds-cum-Cardinals like Mahoney and Rodriguez will have to stand tall and take full advantage of their opportunities. Let's wish them well.

You can write to Rex Duncan at rdunc221@yahoo.com

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