La Russa’s card tricks keep St. Louis afloat

ST. LOUIS – It was the middle finger, of course, as though the baseball gods were pulling some kind of a joke at the expense of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Here you go, boys. Let’s see you handle this one.

Oh, that was only the beginning, the pop on starter Adam Wainwright’s right bird that sent him to the disabled list. Next to come up lame was Albert Pujols, only the National League’s best hitter, with a strained left calf that put him on the DL for at least three weeks. Then pitcher Todd Wellemeyer getting battered around after missing a start with elbow pain, the two perhaps intertwined. Followed by former Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter complaining of pain in his own elbow on the way back from Tommy John surgery.

And still, here they are, the Cardinals, the little team that could, sporting the NL’s second-best record halfway through June with a makeshift lineup and thrown-together rotation. No longer can it be passed off as an illusion. The Cardinals – when healthy – are legitimately a good team, enjoyable to watch, easy to root for, the antithesis of what pundits, yours truly included, figured they’d be.

Then again, that caveat – when healthy – is imperative, because their NL Central rivals, the Chicago Cubs, are playing like the best team in baseball. The Cardinals, at 41-29 after a 3-2 victory Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies, face their toughest days ahead without Pujols, their rock, Wainwright, their ace, and perhaps Wellemeyer, their panned gold.

“Lately it’s gotten a little unfair,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “You lose Albert, you lose Wainwright, (Joel) Piñeiro was missing. All that stuff gets to be a little unfair.

“If it gets excessive, it kind of pisses you off.”

La Russa is a lot of things. A whiner isn’t one of them. He has taken a team of two stars, a few veterans and a cache of retreads and fringe prospects and turned them into a team intent on winning. His ability to so marry the group to one cause ranks among his best managing jobs yet in a career now in its 30th season.

“There’s a lot of fight in us,” said outfielder Ryan Ludwick, one of the retreads who might have played himself onto the All-Star team with a virtuoso performance as a 29-year-old. “I don’t see a whole lot of guys worried about what’s going on.”

Ludwick glanced around the clubhouse.

“Like, Skip Schumaker,” Ludwick said, referring to the 28-year-old playing his first full major-league season. “Watching him, I knew he was a good player, and it was a matter of time for him to play every day. He’s a .300 hitter. You’ve got Rick Ankiel. Guy’s a good player. He’s only going to get better. And I got hurt at 23 and fell through the cracks, but I always felt like I could play.”

On Ludwick went, covering half of the Cardinals roster – literally, he trotted out a dozen names – before stopping himself. Let the record speak for the team instead of the team for the record.

“We just have to stay afloat,” Ludwick said. “You lose Albert and Waino, and, yeah, you get really upset, but I don’t think our season’s over. If you look at it that way, you’re done.”

Admit defeat? Now that isn’t La Russa’s style. For more than two months, the NL Central and others around baseball have been waiting for the other spike to drop, and it hasn’t. The Cardinals have played three-card monte with their rotation, somehow cobbling it together out of eight starters, three of whom have been on the disabled list, with Wellemeyer perhaps making a fourth.

Two more are scheduled to be activated, though Cardinals brass realize that counting on a healthy Mark Mulder and Matt Clement is like believing the cable guy’s going to show up when he says so. Yes, it would be nice to slot either in the rotation and replace rookie Mitchell Boggs, who replaced Mike Parisi, who looked like an ant versus a shoe.

La Russa knows better than to count on anyone, Pujols – his iron man with a like threshold for pain – included.

“Every day you look at who’s available,” La Russa said. “You compete with what you have. It’s counterproductive to say, ‘Boy, we don’t have, we don’t have.’ We’ve got plenty here to compete and have a chance to win. It’s who’s playing, not who’s missing. That’s how you survive.”

The Cardinals would make Gloria Gaynor proud. It’s not just the Ludwicks and Wellemeyers, the ones in whom new general manager John Mozeliak had such faith. It’s the Cardinals’ remarkable ability to cover the field, Ankiel and Pujols and Cesar Izturis and, yes, even Troy Glaus making a nifty number of plays out of their zone. And it’s pitching coach Dave Duncan, Leo Mazzone without the self-promotion, molding a suspect staff into a strength.

One of the starters, Kyle Lohse, pitched eight great innings Saturday. He missed most of spring training angling for a big-money contract and settled for one year at $4.25 million. Now, having bought into Duncan and the Cardinals, he’s primed for that extension.

“We’ve shown the whole time we can scrap out wins like we did today,” Lohse said.

And that’s the right word: scrap. The Cardinals are not the most talented team and they’re not the prettiest and they’re not the most athletic or fastest or smartest or even best. They’ve just won, and they’d like to keep doing so, injuries be damned.

“We’re trying to stay alive,” La Russa said.

Later on, La Russa stared at the wooden podium in front of him, curled up his fist and rapped it twice. He turned it toward his face and gave an additional pair of knocks. He knows that the Cardinals’ success isn’t due to luck. But he doesn’t want to take any chances.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Jun 14, 2008