The Cardinals: Two Weeks in April

cardsWhile it’s not been the Dickensonian “best of times, worst of times” for the St. Louis Cardinals so far this season, 2009 has already had plenty of high points and low points in the first two weeks.  The Cardinals sit in a virtual tie for first with the hated Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, but have lost two of three going into what became a two-day break due to a Sunday night rainout.  A bullpen that was revamped over the offseason has protected some games, yet has already blown three games where the team led in the 8th.  A starting staff that has already one complete game shutout and two games that the opponent only had one hit at the end of seven innings has been decimated by an injury that could impact it for two months.
Kyle Lohse
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What has gone right for the Cardinals so far this season?  Let’s first look at the starting pitching staff.  The squad has posted an 8-1 record and a 3.36 ERA in this opening stretch, which includes a disastrous outing by Todd Wellemeyer in his first appearance, where he allowed five runs in five innings, and the career debut of P.J. Walters in Wrigley Field on Friday, where he allowed three runs in four innings.  Kyle Lohse already owns a complete game shutout, Chris Carpenter almost made it through seven innings without allowing a hit in his first outing, and Wellemeyer bounced back to only allow one run over seven against the Diamondbacks next time out.  Even Joel Pineiro chipped in with a solid two run, 6.2 innings outing.

Yadier Molina

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The lineup has looked promising at times as well.  Albert Pujols is Albert Pujols, of course and he already has a multi-homer day.  Ryan Ludwick, when he gets on the field and isn’t benched due to Tony LaRussa’s strategizing with lefties on the mound, is showing that 2008 was no fluke with a .405 average and five long balls.  Yadier Molina has proven to be a solid bat as well, plus has put together two things you’d never expect from any Molina, a triple and a stolen base.  Colby Rasmus hasn’t appeared to be completely out of his depth either.

Rasmus is hitting only .235, but has walked 8 times to push his OBP to .366.  Skip Schumaker has continued to hit as he makes the transition to second, which has gone better than expected.

You have to look a little harder to find strong points from the bullpen, but they are there.  Kyle McClellan has looked much better than you’d expect after his spring, even coming in and getting a save in a game where Jason Motte struggled.  Ryan Franklin has been perfect so far in save situations, allowing no runs and nailing down two saves.  Finally, until allowing a game-winning home run on Saturday, Dennys Reyes had been the most reliable of the left-handed options.
However, not everything has been rosy in Cardinal Nation.  The worst part has been the loss of Chris Carpenter due to a torn oblique.  Carpenter had left arm injuries behind, it appeared, and was picking up from where he left off before losing almost all of 2007 and 2008.  The blow of losing him for two months is one that the team still hasn’t completely addressed, at least from the standpoint of who will take his spot in the rotation.
The lineup has had its share of problems as well.  David Freese has struggled in his rookie season, hitting only .158 and losing time to both Joe Thurston and Brian Barden.  Freese could be demoted soon if the team believes they need another pitcher.  However, with the rainout and the day off, the need for another pitcher may be alleviated.  Rick Ankiel has had a rough start to the season as well, hitting .179 and posting 10 strikeouts in just shy of 40 official at-bats.  Whether it’s just a slow start, the pressure from impending free agency or the rotation of the four outfielders for three positions, he’s not showing the offensive punch he did last year.
The bullpen, though, has caused the most aggravation so far. While the starting squad ranks third in the NL in ERA, the bullpen ranks 10 with a 4.98 mark.  Jason Motte started weakly, allowing a blown save on Opening Day to the Pirates and strugging in other outings afterwards.  Motte does seem to have made some modifications and adjustments since he’s been moved out of the ninth, but whether he can take these changes back to the late innings is still unknown.  Trever Miller has been less than expected, though some of that has been his questionable usage by LaRussa, who should know better than to ever use him against right handed batters.  Chris Perez, who started the year in Memphis, has already been recalled and had a good first outing, though allowed some runs in the Chicago series.
All in all, it seems like the Cardinals have to like where they stand, save the loss of Carpenter.  If they can hold their own for the next few weeks or find a credible fill-in for him during his injury, there’s a lot to like about how the rest of the season may unfold.  With the Mets, Cubs, and Braves to finish up the month, we will soon find out exactly what this team is made of.

To read more from Daniel please go to his Cardinals blog at C70 At The Bat.

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