Cardinals Defy Odds; Put Together Wildly Successful Opening Month

Just how incredible was the Cardinals’ first month of the season? What if someone had told you during spring training that after losing staff ace, Adam Wainwright, to a season-ending elbow injury, the Cardinals wouldn’t get a single win from their other ace, Chris Carpenter, for the entire month of April? What if they told you perennial MVP candidate Albert Pujols would only hit .245? What if they said the bullpen would blow not one, not two, but six late inning leads, all resulting in losses.

I doubt you’d guess April ended with the Redbirds holding a 2-game cushion atop the NL Central standings.

I mean what haven’t the Cardinals dealt with in this young season? Cleanup hitter misses a week due to freak injury? Check. Matt Holliday missed 7 games thanks to an emergency appendectomy after opening day. Team-wide hitting slump? You bet. The Cardinals managed to score more than 3 runs in a game just once in their first 8 games of the season, the only exception being an 11-inning loss to the Giants when the team managed to scratch out four runs.

And yet here we are, talking about the Cardinals’ wildly successful first month of the 2011 baseball season. You can’t really call it anything else. Yes, there were missed opportunities (ahem, Ryan Franklin) but for this team to be alone in 1st place without a single win from Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter is nothing short of amazing. So how’d they do it? Well, in late March, we broke down what it would take for the Cardinals to have a successful first month. So let’s take a look back at how they hit those benchmarks.

April Breakdown:

Total Games: 27 (16-11 record) (*note: one game played in March)

Home: 12 (6-6)

Road: 15 (10-5)

Vs. teams with winning records in 2010: 11 (6-5)

Vs. teams with losing records in 2010: 16 (10-6)

Vs. teams in the NL Central: 9 (5-4)

Key Series:

April 8-10 @ San Francisco

What we said going in: Anytime you play the defending champions is a good measuring stick for your ball club, especially when you play in their home park. The Cardinals went 3-3 against the Giants last season, with each team winning 2 out of 3 at their own park. Stealing 2 of 3 in San Francisco early in the season would be a huge lift for this team.

The Result: The Cardinals could’ve easily swept this series. They had the lead with 1 out to go in the bottom of the 9th in all three games. Unfortunately, Ryan Franklin couldn’t close the deal in either of his two chances, but the Cardinals were able to slug their way to a 6-1 win in the series finale. Moving forward, it’s hard not to like the Cardinals’ chances when these teams meet up at Busch.

April 22-24 vs Cincinnati

What we said going in: You remember the Reds, don’t you? Brandon Phillips’ and his trash talking, and Johnny Cueto ending Jason Larue’s career in that nasty brawl in Cincinnati. Yeah, those Reds. The team that employs former Cardinals Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, Miguel Cairo, and Walt Jocketty. They’re managed by former Cubs manager, Dusty Baker. It’s the team that took the 2010 Central Division Title away from the Cardinals. And come late April, it’ll be time for some long overdue payback.

The Result: Take that, Cincy! Another series the Cardinals could’ve easily swept, but again the bullpen got in the way. Trevor Miller blew his first save of the season before Ryan Franklin came in and reopened the flood gates, allowing the decisive 2 runs to score in a 5-3 loss. The Reds, by the way, do not seem to be quite the team they were last year…and the Scott Rolen injury could be a killer for them.

Key To a Hot Start:

What we said: The Cardinals finished last season 86-76, good for 2nd in the NL Central and 5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds. A big reason St. Louis came up short in the standings last year was its lackluster play against teams with losing records, especially late last season. Dating back to late August, the team has a record of 7-18 against teams with losing records. So while it would be nice to steal 2 out of 3 from the Giants, Padres, Reds, and Braves, the teams needs to make sure and beat up on the Pirates, Diamondbacks, Nationals, and Astros.

The Result: The team passed the test: 10-6 vs. teams with losing records in 2010, 6-5 vs. three playoff teams from last season plus the 90-win Padres.

At the end of April:

What we said: If the Cardinals have 15+ wins, they’re performing beyond expectations. Even with a potentially “soft” early schedule, the team has 15 of its 27 games on the road. Without Adam Wainwright, 15 or more wins would have people talking up Tony La Russa as an early “Manager of the Year” candidate.

What we’re saying now: Manager of the year? Why not. Though Tony La Russa took a long, long time to switch closers, at least he finally cut the cord with his veteran closer and is allowing the team’s budding bullpen stars to shine.

Major Contributors:

Obviously when Albert Pujols’ bat goes south and the ace of your rotation fails to produce a win, a lot of other players had to step up. Insert Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. They hit the ball like crazy this month. They’re 1st and 3rd respectively in the majors in batting average (.408 and .393), and they’re doing the heavy-lifting, too, combining for 11 HRs and 38 RBIs.

Kyle Lohse is off to an unbelievable start. Tied for the league lead in wins, the 4-1 right-hander has a stunning ERA of just 1.64 with 24 strikeouts and a 0.73 WHIP. Comeback player of the year, anyone?

Also stepping up big time is Kyle McClellan. Let’s face it, he’s the guy who’s technically supposed to be “replacing” Adam Wainwright in the rotation: no small burden. Yet all he’s done is win games. McClellan has a 3.23 ERA and 17 strikeouts to go with his flawless 4-0 record.

Then there’s the lights-out youngsters in the bullpen. I wrote about Eduardo Sanchez and Fernando Salas last week, so I won’t bore you with the repetition, but they along with Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte have the Cardinals boasting perhaps the most dominant young bullpen in the league. Of those 4, the “worst” ERA you’ll find is Boggs’ 1.98. In 43.2 innings, the four young guns have allowed fewer earned runs combined (8) than Ryan Franklin has himself (9) in just 8 innings of work.

And just to be sure I don’t slight anyone, a big shout-out to David Freese, Ryan Theriot, Jaime Garcia, Miguel Batista, and Yadier Molina. A lot of players have contributed to the team’s early success.

The Cardinals are simply defying the odds at the one-month mark of the season. Their 16-11 record would be 21-6 had the team been able to hold each of its 9th inning leads. Imagine the damage they could do if Albert Pujols starts to turn it on offensively.

It’s a scary thought for the rest of the league.

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