There are several undeniable truths about Tony La Russa managed teams. One is that they are tough, resolute and competitive. Another is that players generally play their best while playing for La Russa. And another still is that when they are considered the underdog, they usually do a good job of proving the doubters wrong.
This 2011 edition is no exception. No team in baseball has been harder hit by injuries than the Cardinals. After losing their top starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, before spring training games even began, other components started falling by the wayside. Cleanup hitter Matt Holliday missed a week with appendicitis. Second baseman Skip Schumaker was lost to a hyper-extended elbow. Third baseman David Freese was knocked out for two months after being hit on the hand by a pitch in Atlanta. Centerfielder Colby Rasmus missed time this week with an abdominal strain. Key left-handed specialist Brian Tallet is just coming back from an injury suffered in the season’s first week. And on Wednesday, the Cards lost both Holliday and No. 5 hitter Lance Berkman to injuries.
In addition to those injuries, the Cardinal bullpen has let them down. As the Redbirds enter interleague play in Kansas City, six of their 19 losses have come after they led in the ninth inning. While teams with closer issues try to soften the blows and accentuate the positives, the fact of the matter is that nothing has a more profound effect on a team’s outlook and morale than losing games in the ninth inning. The Cardinals have blown nine saves and lost eight games in the final at-bat of the other team, yet are still in first place in their division.
Despite being beat up physically and emotionally, the Cardinals have been mentally tough enough to grab first place in the NL Central. Despite having their hearts broken, the Redbirds have enjoyed five such wins of their own. When Ryan Franklin squandered a lead in San Francisco on April 8, the Cardinals got him another lead the very next day. And when he did it again on April 9, the Cardinals rebounded to win the finale of the series.
Mitchell Boggs lost a late one in Houston on April 26, and the club rebounded to win four in a row. After Eduardo Sanchez lost one in the ninth to Florida on May 4, St. Louis came back and won 4-of-5. The mental toughness of this club, on a game to game, and even inning-to-inning basis (see Tyler Greene’s error vs. Philadelphia on Tuesday night), has been exceptional so far.
The list of players that have played their best ball for La Russa is a long one. From stars like Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Edgar Renteria to lesser lights and role players like Craig Paquette, Abraham Nunez, Aaron Miles and Miguel Cairo.
Granted, guys like Ron Gant, Troy Glaus and Tino Martinez didn’t play their best ball for La Russa, but the number of successes far outweighs the failures.
Of course, this applies to Dave Duncan’s pitchers as well, and several this year have been nothing short of incredible. Jaime Garcia has morphed into perhaps the best left-handed starter in baseball this season. Kyle Lohse has come back from two miserable, injury-filled years to be one of the best starters in the National League. And Kyle McClellan has been an amazing revelation.
After shutting down Houston over eight innings on Thursday, McClellan is the first NL pitcher to win six games. This from a guy that entered spring training for the first time in three years planning to be in the bullpen. But when Wainwright suffered a torn elbow ligament, the McCluer West product stepped into the rotation and didn’t miss a beat. McClellan is 6-1 with a 3.43 ERA, and has pitched 57 1/3 innings. He’s just 18 innings away from his career high after never starting a major-league game before.
The interesting thing about McClellan is that he doesn’t appear to be wearing down. He’s so efficient that it doesn’t apear that he’ll tire physically. Perhaps the workload of starting will catch up to him, but in his eighth start on Thursday, he delivered those eight innings with just 90 pitches. Of the 29 batters he faced, 18 saw first-pitch strikes. McClellan is a shining example of a player that adheres to what La Russa and Duncan preach, and then make it happen. It’s safe to say that if he doesn’t spend his whole career with the Cardinals, he’ll be like Woody Williams or Kent Bottenfield or Jeff Suppan and spend the best years of his career in St. Louis.
Because of the injuries, a less than stellar defense, a young bench and a young bullpen, the Cardinals weren’t expected by everyone to be a major contender in the NL Central this year. But this team is like several others here in St. Louis, most notably the 2002, 2004 and 2006 editions. Even though they weren’t predicted to do special things, they just might. They’re resilient, they’re mentally tough, and they have some guys playing better than anyone expected.
It’s a long season, but it sure seems like we’ll be watching an interesting story unfold this summer at Busch Stadium.