Wreigning at Wrigley

How sweet it is!

I wish the Cardinals could have clinched the NL Central crown at Busch before a sold-out throng clad in red and screaming at the top of their collective lungs.  It would have been so appropriate for the Redbirds to have clinched at home in the shadow of the Arch and in the presence of adoring Cardinal Nation.  2005 has been a marvelous effort of an extended team that includes the 25 players and 3.5 million faithful who have packed and rocked the house all season. 


But if the Cards can't clinch in St. Louis, and as one who appreciates high irony, there is no other place I'd rather they clinch than Wrigley Field, against the Chicago Cubs and for all of Cubbiedom to see and lament.  This weekend's four-game set with the Cubs encapsulated all of the entertainment, solid performances, and occasional animosity stimulated by the emotions of the best rivalry in baseball.


Thursday's rain-shortened win was a pitching gem for the quietly effective Jeff Suppan.  For all the spotlights glaring on Chris Carpenter and his potential Cy Young year, Mark Mulder for his on-again, off-again performances, Matt Morris for his remarkable comeback, and Jason Marquis for being, well, Jason Marquis, Suppan has been something of the odd man out.  To his infinite credit, he has crafted a fine year and Friday's performance may have been the gutsiest of the bunch.  An added red feather in the cap was that the Cardinals made short work of Cubs ace Mark Prior, who lasted only five innings and gave up three of the Cardinals six runs on the day.


Suppan pitched eight full innings of shut-out baseball under stereotypically harsh Wrigley Field conditions.  Despite a steady and sometimes pounding rain, he was solid from start to finish.  As conditions deteriorated and memories of Eli Marrero's horrific ankle injury in swampy right center field at Wrigley resurfaced, Suppan seemed unfazed and focused.  Removed for reliever Al Reyes after giving up a harmless lead-off homer to Derrek Lee in the ninth, he was soaked but satisfied and justifiably so.  Suppan had pitched a whale of a game and got the win the old-fashioned way.  He had earned it.


Friday's loss featured starter Matt Morris on the mound.  I actually thought Matt pitched pretty well, giving up 4 runs and 7 hits over 7 innings.  This was one of those tough losses that pitchers get saddled with.  The Cardinals chronically struggle to beat Cubs starter Glendon Rusch.  He remains a riddle to the Redbirds, who are 0-2 against him this year.  With a season ERA of 4.59, Rusch sports a 2.76 ERA against the Cardinals this year.


Saturday's clincher behind Mark Mulder was another solid pitching and hitting effort.  The Cardinals solved the indomitable and classy Greg Maddux in the clinching effort.  When Cards GM Walt Jocketty set out over the off-season to secure that missing rock-solid starter and the Edgar Renteria/David Eckstein swap created salary room, he brought in Mulder in an expensive trade with Oakland.  Mulder hasn't always been that rock-solid addition, but he showed Saturday that he has the potential. 


Mulder gave up one run in seven innings, which is quite an accomplishment in Wrigley Field.  He appeared dominating at times, and was seldom in trouble.  He was also helped by two Redbird double plays. 


The Cardinals handled the end of the game with class, offering subdued congratulations on the field while reserving the festivities for the locker room.  Cardinal broadcaster Mike Shannon, who has been through several of these locker room celebrations during his playing career, offered an interesting perspective on the moment when he said "These guys have their priorities straight.  They'll spray the champagne and drink the Budweiser."


Sunday's game was interesting only because of Tony La Russa's reverse managing and Chris Carpenter's visit with Dusty Baker.  Never one to be considered a candidate for a major league managing job, I couldn't get used to La Russa pulling Carpenter early to protect his chances at the Cy Young, or pulling his regulars early on and inserting his younger players.  Ever the consummate professional, even against the Cubs, La Russa knew better than I the luxury of exercising restraint and playing out the second half of the game protecting and resting his regulars.


The most interesting moment came in the fourth inning when Carpenter chose to engage Dusty Baker near the Cubs dugout in a heated conversation that apparently was based on problems from the previous Cards-Cubs series.  Carpenter is a fierce competitor and not usually one to be sidetracked by banter from the opposing dugout.  Whatever was said, it was clear that Carpenter was furious and, unfortunately, it seemed to have cost him his concentration on the mound as he proceeded to give up more runs in one inning than he has since April.  When the Cardinals tied the score in the top of the next inning, La Russa pulled Carpenter to prevent a loss and protect his shot at a Cy Young Award.  That is a decision made by a seasoned manager, not a hotly-competitive fan like me who only sees Cubbie blue in front of him.


The last couple of weeks of the regular season will seem bizarre in comparison to the past 5 months.  Sunday's managerial decisions were an inkling of what to expect as La Russa's priority shifts from winning to playoff preparation.  Yet as the Redbirds wing their way to Cincinnati for the next series, they should smugly enjoy the satisfaction of clinching at Wrigley.  How sweet it is!


Rex Duncan






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