Cardinals Fly High in 2004

  9/29/2004

The St. Louis Cardinals were expected to be competitive. Many people anticipated a win total in the mid-80s and a third place finish in the National League Central. However, the Cardinal surpassed those modest expectations and soared to become baseballís winningest team. Itís no surprise that they did it primarily with their bats.

 Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen have led a potent attack that leads the NL in both batting and slugging percentage. St. Louis is second in the NL in homeruns and first in runs scored. Though such a powerful lineup, theyíre still second in the league in stolen bases due to the base path thievery of Tony Womack (25), Reggie Sanders (21) and Edgar Renteria (17). In addition, the Cardinals have the most sacrifice flies in the majors. They can beat you with the long ball. They can beat you with small ball.

Pujols has MVP-caliber numbers, though the award will likely go to Barry Bonds or possibly Adrian Beltre. With 45 doubles and 46 homeruns with five games left to play, it looks like heíll fall just short of 50-50. Put those extra-base totals with a .329 average and you have one the of most dangerous hitters in the league. But Pujols doesnít even have the best slugging percentage on the team. Edmonds is presently .002 higher. Rolen is sixth in the NL in slugging percentage. But heís only third on his own team! Throw Colorado Rockie Todd Helton in the mix and St. Louis has half of the six most proliferate hitters in the NL. And by the way, donít forget they have Larry Walker also.

The Cardinals have won 100+ games this year with a starting rotation that does not possess an ace. Yet the pitching has been solid. In both leagues, only the Atlanta Braves have a slightly lower team ERA than the Cardinals. What about that exalted Chicago Cubs staff with five supposed aces? The team criticized for having zero aces has a better ERA. Explain that.

The best explanation is that all five starters have done what it takes to win. Matt Morris (15-9, 4.55), Jason Marquis (15-6, 3.66), Woody Williams (11-8, 4.18), Chris Carpenter (15-5, 3.46), and Jeff Suppan (16-8, 4.03) have provided enough stability to allow the punishers with the bats to lead the team to so many victories. What about their bullpen? Of the six relief pitchers on the staff expected to make the playoff roster, each with more than 40 innings, only one has an ERA above 3.00.

So, should there be no concerns? Should the Cardinals walk away with the championship trophy with ease? Thatís a whole different story. Because itís a whole different season.

Three of the five starting pitchers are having a career-best year. The other two are having either the worst season in years (Williams) or worst season ever (Morris). The question remains: who will step up and not crack under the bright lights, cameras and pressure of playoff baseball. The pitchers most likely to do so arenít on top of their game and the others will face pressures and situations they never have before.

Itís a lot easier to win a lot of regular season games with a powerful offense. Itís more difficult to win playoff games without stellar pitching. The 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 games and nobody remembers because they didnít finish it off. They didnít even make the World Series.

To be remembered as such a potent team, the Cardinals have to win this October. And whether they win depends on the performance of their pitching. They flew high for six months. The most grueling month is still ahead. If they succeed, then the Cardinals would have truly earned their wings.