The team is just coming off a middling 4-3 homestand. It started off well as they took close contests in the final two of the three-games-to-one series win over Arizona. For the Cardinals, it represented a much-needed conquest of a quality opponent. It was just their third series victory of the season over a team with a winning record.
But, any momentum gained was short-lived. Defensive miscues by reserves So Taguchi and Aaron Miles, forced to play due to a myriad of team injuries, put the Cardinals in a 0-2 game hole against San Francisco before the 40-45 Cardinals pulled out their final match before the break.
Other than soon-to-be home run king Barry Bonds, there is not much notable about the 2007 Giants, an aging, last-place team ten games under .500. It was the Cardinals' sixth series loss of the first half to a team with a losing record. Worse, four of those series defeats were in their home park, the new Busch Stadium, and three of the victors are holding down last place in their respective divisions (San Francisco, Washington and Kansas City).
Yet, the 2007 Cardinals, even with all their problems, remain within striking distance - 7.5 games out of first place – while trailing the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. The Chicago Cubs are four games ahead of St. Louis.
Help is on the way. Ace right-handed pitcher Chris Carpenter is nearing his return from surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow. Catcher Yadier Molina came back a week ago from a broken hand. Shortstop David Eckstein is still battling the after-affects from back problems, but is said to be very close. Even outfielder Jim Edmonds is feeling better from his assortment of aches and pains and may be back this month. Left-handed starting pitcher Mark Mulder's return from shoulder surgery is progressing, albeit slowly.
A number of position players need to show improvement in the second half. Slugger Albert Pujols is in the midst of an unusual power slump though his first-half numbers would be good for a normal player. While he insists he is healthy, Scott Rolen is clearly not himself at the plate. Second baseman Adam Kennedy has been a major disappointment after having been one of the Cardinals' key off-season free agent signings.
On the mound, Braden Looper has surprised most in his smooth conversion from relieving to starting, though he logged disabled list time himself recently. Like Kennedy, Kip Wells has been a bust as a starter, while Brad Thompson and waiver-wire acquisition Todd Wellemeyer have done their best to keep rotation spots warm for Carpenter and Mulder. Newcomer Mike Maroth is meeting expectations in early returns and Adam Wainwright is moving toward the greater consistency expected of him, given his considerable talent.
The relief corps remains a strength for the Cardinals. Closer Jason Isringhausen is 15 for 17 in save opportunities and his primary set-up man, Ryan Franklin, was just awarded a two-year contract extension. Veterans like Russ Springer and newly-signed Troy Percival add important depth, needed given the lack of health and stamina in the rotation.
General Manager Walt Jocketty says he plans to be a buyer, not a seller, this trade season. Like many of his peers, he is likely searching for a corner outfield bat and starting pitching.
Looking backward for a comparable season to this one, FSN Midwest's Al Hrabosky made an off-hand reference to the Cardinals' 2001 season on Sunday, So, I thought I would brush up on the specifics.
July 8, 2001 – At the All-Star break, the disappointing, underachieving Cardinals were 43-43, eight games out of first place.
Don Baylor's Chicago Cubs seemed the team to beat in the National League Central, while the Cardinals were treading water in third place, also five games back of Larry Dierker's Houston Astros.
August 2, 2001 – The Cardinals had made up almost no ground in the crucial month of July, the month that traditionally sorts out the buyers from the sellers. Basically, they remained in the same situation as four weeks before with a 54-52 record, 7.5 games back of the Cubs and four behind the Astros.
Time had seemingly run out on their season. After the trade deadline had passed and many had written off the year, Woody Williams was acquired from San Diego in what looked to be a simple dump trade of Ray Lankford. Both players had to pass through waivers and no other team wanted either one of them enough to put in a claim to block the deal.
October 7, 2001 - The Cards tied for first at 93-69 and entered the playoffs.
Their late-season surge was fueled by exceptional play, seven wins precisely, from the newly-acquired Williams. Prior to that point, he had been a career 58-62 pitcher. When that trade was made, no one, and I mean no one, had any inkling what was ahead.
Sure, it was a different time with (mostly) different players. Albert Pujols was a rookie and Mark McGwire's sore knee was telling him the end was near. Matt Morris rebounded from major surgery to post his best-ever 22-win season and the late Darryl Kile added 16 victories.
Still, this can serve as a reminder that the remainder of the 2007 season has yet to be played. Despite the fact we might think we can project what will happen ahead, stranger things have and will happen again.
Plenty of opportunities to close the gap remain on the schedule. The Cardinals have 19 head-to-head games coming up against the two teams in front of them in the standings. They have ten ahead against Milwaukee while they face the Cubs nine more times.
Let's give the defending world champion organization – players, coaches and executives - three more months to show us what they can do. There is still a long road ahead with turns not yet anticipated, hopefully like in 2001.
(A tip of the cap to Project Retrosheet for the historical data.)
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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