Friday, April 20, 2012

First-Place Cardinals Defy Conventional Wisdom

The 2012 season is barely two weeks old, and the Cardinals continue to find themselves perched atop the NL Central with a record of 9-4; that's not surprising, based on the team's impressive overall performance in both hitting and pitching.  How they got there; that's the big surprise.

Indeed, the Cardinals' early success in 2012 seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but as we discovered in 2011, that's nothing new for these high-flying World Champion Redbirds.

First of all, St Louis was not supposed to maintain their status as an elite MLB team when free agent superstar Albert Pujols abandoned his eleven-year Cardinal legacy in favor of the bigger payday Angels owner Arte Moreno offered.  After all, when a team loses the face of its franchise - particularly of the magnitude of King Albert - they're not expected to easily recover from that loss.  The signing of free agent Carlos Beltran was considered to be a step in the right direction, at best; not the solution.

Meanwhile, Tony LaRussa's surprising retirement, along with pitching coach Dave Duncan's indefinite leave of absence to tend to his ailing wife, was considered to be another insurmountable obstacle for the team to overcome; especially with an "inexperienced" manager - Mike Matheny - taking over the helm.

As the Cardinals were getting the kinks out during Spring Training, the ace of the pitching staff  - Chris Carpenter - experienced a reoccurring shoulder problem which will keep him out of commission for an indefinite period of time.  Forced into the starting rotation was the promising right-handed hurler, Lance Lynn, who displayed remarkable postseason poise coming out of TRL's bullpen, which the Cardinals hoped would translate into becoming a successful starter for Mike Matheny; at least until Carp's return to health.

With an aging core of veterans who have had a history of health issues, it wasn't long before one of those aging veterans - Lance Berkman - came up lame in the fifth game of the season, with a slightly torn right calf muscle.  After missing the next five games, Berkman's return to the starting lineup was short-lived; a re-aggravated calf muscle while chasing after a foul pop fly now has him on the 15-day disabled list.

Yet, through all the preceding turmoil, as of April 19, the post-Albert Pujols-Redbirds have compiled MLB's second highest team batting average (.293) and slugging percentage (.496) - trailing only the Texas Rangers - to go along with a third best on base percentage (.354) - trailing only Texas and the New York Yankees.  Their home run total (19) and run production (73) is also third best in all of baseball.  What makes all this seem even more remarkable  is the slow start from perennial-slugger Matt Holliday, whose current batting average is barely above the Mendoza Line (.203) - although he has contributed three home runs and seven RBIs to the cause.

What shouldn't have surprised anybody was the immediate impact David Freese provided in the heart of the Cardinals lineup; his first at bat of the new season drove in two runs, and he now has 13 RBIs to lead the team; although he's missed a handful of games with a sore finger, causing obvious concern about his durability for a full season.

Still, for the rest of this potent St Louis lineup, the beat goes on; the sweet swing of Carlos Beltran has already produced five home runs; twice, in a span of three days, the Redbirds slammed three home runs in the same inning; proving there is plenty of power up and down that lineup, despite the absence of Albert Pujols from that lineup, who has yet to connect for his first regular season home run while dressed up like an Angel (He did have seven long balls during Spring Training, however).

Perhaps even more startling than the Cardinals' power surge is how well the Cardinals pitching staff - minus the disabled-Chris Carpenter - has performed in the early going; surviving not only the loss of Carpenter, but the ineffectiveness of Adam Wainwright (0-3 - 9.88 ERA), who is still trying to regain the form that made him a twenty-game winner in 2010, before undergoing Tommy John surgery in early 2011.

Aside from Waino, the only other pitcher to sustain a loss this season has been Mark Rzepczynski (0-1 - 3.00 ERA).  The rest of the staff has been perfect; absolutely perfect, in accounting for the team's nine wins thus far in 2012.  In fact, their pitching line resembles something out of the Dead Ball Era, or 1968's Year of the Pitcher:

                             W-L            ERA       OPP BA      WHIP
Jake Westbrook      2-0             0.64         .146             0.86
Kyle Lohse             2-0             0.89         .149             0.59
Lance Lynn            2-0             1.50         .146             0.75
Jaime Garcia           2-0             3.06         .338            1.64
Jason Motte            1-0             1.80         .176            0.60

Of course, Adam Wainwright will soon start getting his share of wins, while some of these guys may even lose a few games along the way.  However, based on what we've seen in the early going, the quality of the Cardinals' starting rotation is excellent; it's for real.  Assuming a healthy and effective Chris Carpenter joins in on the fun, the Cardinals appear to be a championship-caliber team ready to defend their title.

It's apparent this team, from top to bottom, is loaded with talent.  Above all else, this team has displayed remarkable character and resiliency; a trait that became evident during last year's remarkable postseason run, and appears even stronger in 2012.

It's no wonder so many rabid fans of the Redbirds believe this team has what it takes to win back-to-back World Series Championships, with the familiar rallying cry:  "12 in '12!"  Why not?

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