Cardinals in contention despite troubles |

Cardinals in contention despite troubles

R.B. Fallstrom
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Tom Gannam/APSt. Louis Cardinals' Ryan Ludwick celebrates with teammates Albert Pujols and David Eckstein after hitting a three-run home run in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sunday.

ST. LOUIIS ” Not long ago, this seemed to be a lost year for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Manager Tony La Russa was arrested for drunken driving in spring training. Reliever Josh Hancock was driving drunk when he was killed in April. Scott Spiezio sought treatment for possible substance abuse last week.

Their pitching staff torn apart by free agency and injuries and their lineup all banged up, the Cardinals quickly fell into last place in the NL Central and hardly looked like a team that won the World Series.

But somehow, they wouldn’t go away.

Thanks to a very ordinary division, a spark from pitcher-turned-hitter Rick Ankiel and a quirky batting order, St. Louis remains in playoff contention.

Despite being 55-60, the Cardinals are only 5 1/2 games out of first place going into a seven-game trip starting Tuesday against Milwaukee and Chicago, the teams they’re chasing. And they’ve become dangerous, with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and David Eckstein playing together.

“I know there’s been a lot of hard hits in the organization all year long, up and down, this whole season,” slugger Albert Pujols said. “You look at our record and it’s not the best. But we’re still in the mix.”

The Cardinals’ record is not that far off the not-so-lofty standard they set last year, when they finished 83-79, nearly blew a seven-game lead in the final two weeks and then won their first title in 24 years.

“Any lineup that’s got Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds and those guys, they’re still a deadly force,” Dodgers center fielder Juan Pierre said. “They backdoored their way in last year, and if they get some momentum they can definitely make a push.

“This thing with Scott Spiezio, it’ll just make them stronger and pull them together even more.”

Ankiel has done a fine job filling in for Spiezio.

Ankiel, the phenom lefty who flamed out due to wildness and injury, resurfaced as a power-hitting right fielder last week. He’s already hit three home runs, and is batting .375 with six RBIs.

Boosted by Ankiel, the Cardinals went 5-2 on their recent homestand. The big question is whether they’ll maintain that momentum or continue to tease a loyal fan base that has allowed them to sell out every game since new Busch Stadium opened last year.

Late last month, the Cardinals took three of four from the Brewers, then undid all of that hard work by going 1-5 at Pittsburgh and Washington.

“You ask yourself, ‘Did this just happen?”‘ Pujols said.

All of it has happened, and more. Minus ace pitcher Chris Carpenter, who ended the season with more surgeries (two) than starts (one), a rotation that lost Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver to free agency and Mark Mulder to rotator cuff surgery, has been heavily reliant on former relief pitchers.

The Cardinals have been at the bottom of the NL in ERA most of the year, and two starters, Kip Wells and Anthony Reyes, are a combined 7-24. Mulder, initially believed to be ready in May, now is hoping to pitch in September.

The no-names the Cardinals are stuck with allowed six runs in the last six games of their latest homestand.

Most of this month, La Russa has resorted to a gimmick lineup he used in 1998 to aid Mark McGwire during his then-record 70-homer season, batting the pitcher eighth and a singles hitter ninth as a second leadoff man. His theory: a struggling lineup has a better chance after the first time through the order.

“But if the team was doing better,” La Russa said, “you don’t mess around.”

The lone addition to the everyday lineup, second baseman Adam Kennedy, has been a bust, and now he’s on the 15-day disabled list with torn knee cartilage.

Outfielders Juan Encarnacion and Edmonds had slow starts following offseason operations, World Series MVP Eckstein missed time with a pulled side muscle and Rolen’s power is way down while he deals with recurring shoulder issues.

La Russa has often said the Cardinals very easily could be 15 games out of first place, playing out the string. There’s fresh controversy now for the manager with Encarnacion, the odd man out during Ankiel’s dramatic debut, carping about playing time.

“We’re battling right now and you’ve got to deal with that stuff,” reliever Tyler Johnson said. “It’s part of life. There’s no reason to dwell on yesterday or the day before or the day before.”

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