Cardinals Set To Persevere
The St. Louis Cardinals sit in a tie for first place in the Central division with the Milwaukee Brewers, but things have turned for the worst — Albert Pujols, the team’s best player, suffered an injury substantial enough to place him on the Disabled List.
Pujols, the former N.L. Most Valuable Player Award winner, had gotten off to his worst start ever during his time in the majors. The 31-year-old All-Star struggled to get around on a good fastball, couldn’t identify the strike zone and did not put fear into opponents. In fact, the player with 425 home runs in his career did not hit one in over two weeks of playing time.
Then, suddenly, things began to change. Pujols began to swing the bat to his previous levels, blasting pitches all over the field and deep into the stands. Through the team’s first 46 games, Pujols had only batted .266 and blasted seven home runs.
In the 29 games since, he has blasted 10 more home runs, good enough for first on the team with 17 on the season — numbers that are on par for an average Pujols season. However, once things began to click, it was taken away in a snap.
During one scary moment, an easy play could have been completely devastating. A routine ground ball was thrown to first, but offline, making Pujols reach in towards the runner. The runner slammed into Pujols arm, instantly hurting his wrist.
Players careers have ended on the very same play, but the Cardinals may have dodged a bullet with a relatively minor injury, yet it is one that may linger throughout the season, hurting the production of Pujols.
Yet another injury for a Cardinals player this season is nothing new. They suffered a huge blow before the season even began when Adam Wainwright, ace 1A, blew out his elbow and required Tommy John surgery, shelving him for the season and possibly part of next.
Matt Holliday, who was integral in giving Pujols the protection he never had in a Cardinals lineup last season, also went on the DL for an extended time, but has only recently been activated. Holliday will help supply some of the power-hitting that is absent without Pujols in the lineup.
With all the injuries that have cropped up during the 2011 campaign, it is an accomplishment that on June 23, the Cardinals are still in the thick of things in the Central. The Brewers, a team full of young talent, could have easily ran away with the division.
A team that can score runs with the best of them and has a pitching staff that could make even the San Francisco Giants blush is still in a tie with the Cards. The Cincinnati Reds, another team that is very young and athletic has underperformed, aiding the Cardinals in their run to regain the division crown.
The Reds are third in the majors in runs scored and has a pitching staff capable of dominating lineups, but have struggled through the first half of the season. The question for the Cards is now this: How do they continue to persevere and stay afloat while Pujols is on the mend?
The answer is surprisingly simple — continue what they have been doing throughout this season. Sure the Cardinals do lose a power threat in Pujols, but they still have one in a rejuvenated Lance Berkman who has blasted 17 thus far, the same as King Albert.
Tony La Russa is the quintessential N.L. manager, mixing and matching with his relief corps, playing small-ball by bunting and executing hit-and-runs, something that has disappeared from the Cardinals game over the past few seasons.
With the absence of Pujols, La Russa could go back to his roots, show to the team and its’ fan base that he still has the managerial know-how to sail this ship in the right direction. In a little more than two weeks, La Russa’s managing will either be hailed or condemned, either finality hold the Cards season in the balance.
Ryan Lazo is a Contributing Writer to I-70 baseball covering the St. Louis Cardinals. He also covers the A.L. East for BaseballDigest.com. He can be reached at RMLazo13@gmail.com, followed on Twitter @RMLazo13 and read his blog Artificially Enhanced.