Sunday Morning Coffee with Ray Mileur

Saturday the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Washington Nationals 9-2 in front of a hometown crowd of 3,899 fans at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter Florida, the home of the Comeback Kids (forget about last year's fourth place finish) and perhaps the next Comeback Player of the Year and Cy Young Award contender, Chris Carpenter.

Chris Carpenter cruised through two hitless shutout innings on just 19 pitches, 13 of them for strikes, a near perfect day depending on how you look at it. Carpenter did hit one batter, but I don't see that as a mistake, even if the pitch did get away from the 6-foot-6 righthander, it's time pitchers start claiming their territory at home plate.

Manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan had Carpenter scheduled prior to the game to pitch his arbitrary pitch count of 40 pitches, enough pitches to work in his entire repertoire and continue his conditioning considering he was making his first spring training start since 2007. After just two innings and 19 pitches, La Russa and Duncan were both naturally pleased with Carps performance and made the "right" decision not to extend the former Cy Young Award winner any farther.

As I have said in several interviews this winter, if anyone is going to make it back after all the things Chris Carpenter has been through over the last two seasons, Chris Carpenter will. He's the kind of kid you can build a staff around, for that matter a team around. He's tough, he's smart and don't let the nice guy exterior fool you, he's a fierce competitor and as tough as anyone on the mound since Bob Gibson.

Carpenter has pitched all of 21.1 innings in the last two seasons. After coming back from 2007 Tommy John surgery last July, Carpenter lasted just three starts before going on the DL with a strained shoulder. He made one relief appearance in September, a decision I was strongly against. Carpenter had to have elbow surgery in November, a procedure that included decompression and transposition of the ulnar nerve, that sent another scare across Cardinal nation, putting the beginning of the 2009 season in doubt and any hopes of the Cardinals returning to postseason play in serious jeopardy.

The bottom line is, Carpenter is back, with 36 days before opening day there is plenty of time before the season begins for him to get ready for the regular season. La Russa and Duncan made the right decision Saturday in taking Carp out after just two innings and 19 pitches. Carpenter is scheduled to start again Friday at home against the New York Mets and will likely be on a three inning, forty pitch count.

Offensively Saturday, outfielders Joe Mather and Ryan Ludwick led the offense, with Mather driving in three runs and Ludwick adding another two. Rookie Jon Jay is making a name for himself as he hit safely for his third straight game, stretching what perhaps should have been a double into a triple, driving in another run. Shortstop Tyler Greene went 2-for-2 on the day, driving in and scoring a run.

The bullpen looked sharp with Ryan Franklin on in relief of Chris Carpenter, pitching three scoreless frames. The Nationals were held scoreless until the ninth frame when they broke through and scored a couple of runs off of Fernando Salas before Charlie Manning came in and shutdown the offense and close out the game.

The Cardinals will send Joel Pineiro to the mound against Anibal Sanchez and the Marlins today. St. Louis is the "visiting" team at Roger Dean Stadium for a 12:05 p.m. CT start. Kyle McClellan and Brad Thompson all are slated to pitch.

Position Battles

Third Base – Front runner status isn't carrying much weight here. David Freese crowned the early front runner to replace Troy Glaus at third, is sidelined indifinetly with left Achilles tendon soreness that has bother him since he twisted it an automobile accident in January. Joe Mather, wearing the number 7, a sign that he isn't going anywhere, appears to be the new third baseman until somebody takes it away from him. I don't know if you have ever been up close to Mather, but taking anything away from him isn't going to be any easy task. Other potential contenders at third, Brett Wallace, Brian Barden and Joe Thurston are going to see fewer and fewer opportunities to showcase their skills at the hot corner with Mather playing at third.

Second Base – It's basically a done deal, Skip Schumaker will be starting at second. Brendan Ryan has turned out to be a non-factor in this competition as he deals with tendinitis in his right wrist and Joe Thurston, Tyler Greene and Brian Barden aren't going to bump Schumaker from second.

Utility Infielder – Brendan Ryan held front runner status here after the announcement that Schumaker would move to second, but he faces some stiff competition from Brian Barden, who can play all over and Tyler Greene who is off to a fast start, hitting .500 (5-for-10), while scoring three times and driving in two runs. Greene has played in all four games this spring and could end up winning a spot on the bench.

Outfield – Everyone knows the outfield is crowded with; Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Chris Duncan, Joe Mather, Brian Barton, Colby Rasmus, but it's minor league outfielder Jon Jay who's making all the noise this spring with his bat and speed on the basepaths. Jay is hitting .364 (4-for-11), leading the team in total bases (7) while playing in three of the first four games, with only Colby Rasmus with more plate appearances than Jay. Jay isn't likely to make the 25-man roster, but it won't be for a lack of effort. I have Jay at #6 on the Cardinals outfield depth chart, with Schumaker at second and Mather sticking at third until Glaus returns.

Final Cup of Coffee

Get ready for another exciting season of St. Louis Cardinals baseball. This team is going to give the Chicago Cubs and the National League all they can handle this season and if you aren't pumped by now, maybe you should stop drinking de-café.


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