Time to Worry?

The Cardinals have seen 4-1/2 games shaved off their National League Central lead over in the last nine days. With 11 games against the Cubs remaining and five more with Houston in September, this thing isn't in the bag yet.

How big was that three-game sweep against the red-hot Astros coming off the All-Star break? If those three games had gone the other way, the Cardinals' lead today would be just 2-1/2 games!


Still as it is, what was a very comfortable 13-game cushion as recently as July 20 has quietly been cut by over one-third to 8-1/2 games as of late Friday night.


No matter what happens in the final two games of this road trip, the upcoming stretch of seven contests against the NL East Florida Marlins (four games) and Atlanta Braves (three games) in front of the enthusiastic crowds at Busch Stadium will be crucial to help right a ship that is clearly not sinking, but has lost some momentum in the water and is starting to list just a bit.


Looking ahead, following next week at home, the Cards alternate road and home weeks before departing on the longest road trip of the season. From August 22 through September 4, the Cardinals will play 13 away games in 13 days. They'll begin the trip in Pittsburgh, then move to Washington, Miami and after ten days away from Busch, finish at Houston's Minute Maid Park for the final three games before Labor Day.


There will be no rest after that, as the Cubs come into Busch for three starting on the Monday holiday. In fact, after returning home for that series, the Cards play another 14 games in a row without a single day of rest. That makes in all, a stretch of 33 straight days of play, from August 16 through September 18.


To get through that grueling stretch, the Cardinals will need to rely on every one of their 25 men on the active roster, and hopefully a few that are currently on the disabled list. Of the four starters currently shelved, only Yadier Molina's timely return can be relatively certain at this point. We have to hope upon hope that injured stars Scott Rolen, Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker are able to rejoin the lineup to help fuel a September push.


With half the position players being written into the lineup each day having spent considerable time in Memphis in the recent past, it is understandable that the Cardinals are not likely to be able to extend their lead in the short term. In other words, hope to tread water until they can get healthy again.


Their pitching has been carrying the team, but the offense is 12th in the National League in July with a .253 average. The Cardinals batters have had a season low number of hits, three, on three different occasions this month.


Even though General Manager Walt Jocketty stated as recently as Wednesday night on national television that the Cardinals do not expect to complete a trade, how can he ignore the need for an offensive lift?


Certainly, the recent arrivals of John Rodriguez and John Gall are welcome. But, neither is battle-tested in the rigors of a tough pennant race. The players in the lineup each night are giving it their all, but it is understandably a step down from the level of play when everyone is healthy.


Still, when all is considered, the bottom line is not one to cause panic. After all, the Cardinals are a very respectable 15-9 this month. Yet, it is difficult to overlook the fact that they are only 4-6 in their last ten.


Even worse, the Houston club is not cooperating. The Astros are playing better than the Cardinals currently, which is why that lead is evaporating.


Similar to the Cardinals, who made hay in July and August last season, this year, the Astros have had one very solid period of play in late June and July. The Houstonians have been victorious in their last five games and 11 of 12. They are 23-7 in their last 30, 27-8 in their last 35, 34-12 in their last 46… Well, you get the idea.


Just like the Cardinals, the rumor mill has the Astros looking for a bat. Last year, the huge mid-season acquisition of Carlos Beltran helped fuel Houston's wild card push. While they may not make such a splashy move in 2005, home town product Adam Dunn would be the odds-on favorite of many Houstonians.


Can the Cardinals afford to stand pat, even if their key rivals don't make moves?


And, let's not forget about the Chicagoans. The Baby Bears are still lurking around, just three games behind Houston in the standings. They have shortstop Nomar Garciaparra on a rehabilitation assignment and fireballer Kerry Wood is scheduled to join him. Upon his return, Wood is going to be initially slated to join the bullpen, perhaps to be used like Curt Schilling in Boston. If Wood can put his injuries behind him and be effective again, the Cubs' seventh and eighth inning relief, their weakest link, could be strengthened considerably.


The Cubs are also looking for another proven hitter, having already added former Cleveland outfielder Jody Gerut last week.


The bottom line is that nothing should be taken for granted at this point. While some experts were conceding the NL Central to the Cardinals a few weeks ago, the injuries experienced by the Redbirds hitters have enabled the pack to start to close the gap.


There is much exciting baseball to be played ahead, with every game having meaning. After all, that is what a pennant race is all about. Let's bring ‘em on!


Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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