In the tiny hours of morning, the lives of 24-year-old Angels rookie Nick Adenhart and three companions were taken by a drunk driver, an event that brought up a turmoil of memories for Cardinal fans. It wasn’t too many Aprils ago that the Cardinals lost Josh Hancock to a similar act of stupidity – only in his case, the actions were his own, and he was lucky enough to not take anyone else with him.
There is no judgment in mourning, though, and the Angels will play out the rest of their season with “34” stitched white on black patches to commemorate their loss, just as the Cardinals wore “32.”
Fortunately for us, there is still plenty of baseball to be played on fresh green grass, more than 4,000 games that will reveal this season’s story to us. And the games of this first week give us the satisfying familiarity of unpredictable events.
In an example close to home, the 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 spots in the lineup of our esteemed Mr. La Russa have been overabundant with surprise. I think we knew coming into this season that our team had a funny mix of variables, with five starting outfielders shoehorned into three spots and a suddenly available second-base gig. We knew as well that our manager would make choices that would invite second-guessing, as he always does. But in this early start, the master has outdone himself.
Consider: Khalil Greene, a .230 hitter with all of 27 extra base hits last season, our opening day “protection” for Pujols in the cleanup spot.
Consider: an abandonment, and then a brief flirtation again, and then finally an abandonment of the pitcher-hitting-eighth maneuver. Perhaps for good this time?
Consider: In six and five starts, respectively, offensive enigmas Greene and Ankiel have each hit in four different places in the lineup.
These oddities on the starting card can be partially rationalized by an unusual lefty-righty run of opposing pitchers. Each game has started with the pitcher on the opposite side of the rubber as the game before. Which is another way of saying that this season all boils down to:
“It’s the Pitching, Stupid.”
Go ahead and gnash your teeth. I did it. We all did it, watching with our hair in our hands as all-but-anointed savior of the ninth inning Jason Motte delivered batting cage pitches – straight as an arrow, right to the heart of the Pirates’ bats. One badly blown save, another near miss before being saved himself by the ever-ready Kyle McClellan. For a Cardinal nation used to flagellating itself over the uncertainty of the Jason Isringhausen era, this opening day gaffe qualified as a capital-C Crisis.
Just last week, Chris Perez’s balky shoulder gave us a clever excuse to put him on simmer in favor of this fireballing combination of Crash Davis and Nuke Laloosh. Now the prayer beads are in hand, wishing a speedy and healthy return upon Perez, as it seems that Motte only knows how to be Motte in the earlier innings.
Combine the detonations in the ninth inning with shaky introductions by Wainwright and Colonel Wellemeyer against a seemingly undermanned Pirates offense, and the signs appeared to predict a season of fiery discontent for a Cardinal nation already angry with numerous factors beyond their control – be it the shrinking economy, the team’s shrinking payroll, or the team’s stagnancy in the free agent waters as it rephrases “rebuilding” as “responsibility.”
But then Chris Carpenter took the mound and does what the Chris Carpenter we remember can do: put the team on his back and carry us from the brink. While the 2-1 win only salvaged a split and a .500 record to open, his seven innings of 1-run, 1-hit ball threw cool water on the burning coals. After his example, the bullpen simply took the bats out of the mighty Pirates’ hands like it was business as usual.
The team gels behind Carpenter, as they have always done, and subsequently laid waste to the Astros with three sterling pitching performances.
Joel Pineiro: 6 IP, 2 ER in a 5-3 win
Adam Wainwright: 5 IP, 0 ER in an 11-2 laugher over Roy Oswalt
Kyle Lohse: 9 IP, 0 ER, helped by several theatrical plays in the outfield.
Sunday’s win in particular illustrated the hidden strength of this Cardinals team: athletic young defenders all over the diamond. And the fact that we’re hitting a little doesn’t hurt either.
Birds with the Bat
Oh, Albert Pujols. He can’t help but outperform our already lofty expectations. He knows he has to be our rock, the only solid thing in this team’s sea of unpredictability. And so he opens the season with three homers, a double, and five of the ordinary man’s hits sprinkled in because he is nothing if not democratic. A year ago at this time, our worries were focused squarely on his slightly unhinged elbow. He took those worries and slowly, patiently wore them away with his daily excellence. The kind they give awards for.
The whole team seems to be following his cue – the Cardinals currently sit atop the majors in batting average (a keen .300). Even better suited to the discerning eye of our first baseman, only one team in our league, the Phillies, can better our team ratio of bases on balls (29) to strikeouts (37).
So a week passes, with more drama than could seem to be contained by only seven acts, and we find the Cardinals in first place. And a look about shows us any number of teams going through their own struggles through the loamy soil of Spring.
Around the League
Pegged by many as the most-improved team in the NL West, the Giants have got only 8 total innings in two starts from Tim Lincecum. Their young Cy Young ceded 7 runs on 14 hits, while his new mentor Randy Johnson suffered the ignominy of being taken yard by his opposing number, Yovani Gallardo. The grizzled 45-year-old faces a common parenting trap: “do as I say, not as I do.”
Two lonely teams were winless on the season before Sunday’s games, but could be no further apart in pedigree: no one expects anything from the woeful Washington Nationals, while the entire AL Central feared the resurgence of the Cleveland Indians. And while this year’s Nats look an awful lot like last year’s Nats – no pitching, indifferent defense, and an ugly collection of bats – this year’s Indians are looking a lot like last year’s Detroit Tigers. Opening week appears to reveal a team of talents that has some crisis of confidence at its core.
The AL East is upside down for now, as it was last year at this time. But we should no more predict doom for that division’s financial giants than we should predict the government to get any of our money back from the giants of Wall Street.
One division that looks upside down now might stay that way for a while yet, though – the NL East is being flat-out dominated by the brash, bashing Marlins and the quietly reloaded Braves. Both teams are hitting at a ferocious clip, and each has taken down a titan of their division. Learn the names “Josh Johnson” and “Jordan Schafer” now, and you’ll feel smarter when the rest of the league discovers them.
Finally, the Cubs are not far from the division lead that many expect them to take and hold until playoff tickets get printed, but they are not without a couple of pain points. Derrek Lee and newcomer Milton Bradley are off to painfully slow starts at the bat, with a mere three hits between ‘em while occupying high-rent properties in the heart of the lineup. And their closer-in-name Kevin Gregg looks awful Isringhausen-y, giving up a game-losing grand slam Sunday night only to have fill-in outfielder Reed Johnson bring it back over the wall for a win. But while they don’t award saves to outfielders, they will probably be awarding them to Carlos Marmol before too very long.
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