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9/12/2007 12:33:00 PM

NL Central: Cardinals Crash

By Cliff Corcoran

A week ago the Cardinals were the feel-good story of the year, having climbed to within a game of first place in the Central, due in part to the storybook comeback of Rick Ankiel. Things have taken an ugly turn, however, as the New York Daily News published allegations on Friday that Rick Ankiel had received a year's worth of human growth hormone shipments from an Orlando-based pharmacy in 2004. That story received even more play after this site reported just hours later that Toronto Blue Jays' third baseman Troy Glaus had received steroid shipments from the same pharmacy around the same time, and the San Francisco Chronicle's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams tied it all together in a front page story on Saturday.

The Cardinals haven't won a game since the Ankiel allegations broke, getting swept by the Diamondbacks, dropping a crucial make-up game to the Cubs at Wrigley, and losing the opener in Cincinnati last night. Ankiel, who hit two more home runs and drove in seven on Thursday night, has just a single and five strikeouts in his 14 at-bats since. With the Brewers feasting on the bottom three teams in the division (winning eight of their last 11), the Cardinals are suddenly four games behind once again and, given the strength of their remaining schedule (a four-game showdown with the Cubs this weekend followed by three against the Phillies, with three in Milwaukee and a make-up at Shea in the final week), that may be too many.

Adding injury to insult, right fielder Chris Duncan, who hasn't hit a lick since July (.167/.274/.245 since July 27 to be exact), may be done for the season with a hernia (curiously, the same may be true of his brother Shelley on the Yankees).

With the Cardinals fading, the story in the Central once again has become the Brewers, who have first place to themselves once again thanks to Luke Scott's game-winning triple against the Cubs in the 11th inning of last night's matchup in Houston (which broke a five-game losing streak for Cecil Cooper's team). The big story in Milwaukee has been the return of Ben Sheets. The Brewers have won two of Sheets' three starts since Big Ben has returned from the DL, but Sheets has been shaky in the last two, walking six Astros in his penultimate turn and allowing five runs in six innings to the Reds on Sunday. The good news is that Sheets has allowed just 17 hits in his 18 innings since coming off the DL and has struck out 11 in his last 12 frames.

Joining Sheets in the Milwaukee rotation is 23-year-old righty Carlos Villanueva, who returned to the big-league roster as a September call-up. Villanueva was a hard-luck loser when the Crew got shutout by Tony Armas Jr. and company on Monday, but, after a solid showing in six starts last year, has excelled in his three starts for the Brewers this year (two since being recalled and a spot start in mid-June): 16 IP, 15 H, 4 R, 2 HR, 7 BB, 14 K, 2.25 ERA.

On the other side of the ball, Bill Hall, who has hit just .218/.261/.416 since Aug. 1, has been riding pine against right-handers since Aug 26, starting just one game against a righty pitcher since then. Gabe Gross has taken Hall's place in the order against righties, slotting into right field and pushing Cory Hart to center. Gross has hit .255/.342/.482 against righties this year versus Hall's .245/.305/.412 against his own kind. In the nine starts he has made in Hall's place, Gross has hit .266/.405/.400, but Hall is just 4 for 18 since being demoted into the platoon.

Elsewhere in the division, the Pirates and Reds are making the most of the expanded rosters. The Reds are starting first-base prospect Joey Votto and have put Phil Dumatrait into the rotation. Votto, who made his major league debut by striking out as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of a loss to the Mets on September 4, has gone 7 for 13 since with a pair of homers. Expect him to open next season as the Reds starting gatekeeper. The lefty Dumatrait, however, is making a strong argument that he should not be in the rotation next year. That was Dumatrait who gave up three straight homers to start Sunday's game against the Brewers and got the hook after the next two batters singled.

In Pittsburgh, Brian Bullington, who was the top pick in the 2002 draft but missed all of 2006 following labrum surgery, was the last man to lose to the Cardinals on Thursday, but faired much better in a hard-luck loss to the Brewers yesterday. The Pirates are also starting a pair of call-ups in the outfield with Nyjer Morgan in center and Steven Pearce in right, but Morgan is 26 and not hitting. Pearce, however, hit .320/.366/.557 with Triple-A Indianapolis and is acquitting himself nicely at the plate thus far.

Finally, keep an eye on the rotations in St. Louis and Chicago. The Cubs, who are in the midst of playing 24 games in 23 days with a double header in St. Louis on Saturday, will start Steve Trachsel on three-days rest on Thursday despite his getting bombed by the lowly Pirates in his last outing (though the fact that he only threw 47 pitches in that game is actually part of the reason for the decision). Sean Marshall will then return to the rotation for the doubleheader on Saturday, giving him an opportunity to reclaim his starting job from the newly imported Trachsel.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, are in the middle of playing 35 games in 34 days and not only have that doubleheader against the Cubs on Saturday, but have no remaining off days this season (the Cubs have two left). Tony La Russa has used seven different starters over the last seven days (including today's starter Anthony Reyes) with Mike Mulder and Mark Maroth coming off the DL and Brad Thompson being called up all since rosters expanded. Maroth got just five outs on Thursday and is back in the pen. Mulder has been awful in two starts including yesterday's loss. Thompson only lasted two innings himself on Sunday. La Russa has said that now that he has an 18-man pitching staff he's willing to use a committee of relievers in place of a fifth starter if Reyes, Kip Wells, and Thompson don't pitch well enough to go deep into games. That assumes a starting four of Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro, and the struggling Mulder. Like I said, things have gotten ugly in St. Louis.

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posted by SI.com | View comments |  

Comments:

Posted: September 12, 2007 3:57 PM   by Anonymous
Mike Mulder and Mark Maroth?
Being a die hard Cards fan...I was suprised last year, but reality has set back in. We have an agin team who broke down from the beginning of the season. Wilson,Duncan,Edmonds,Rolen,Yadi,Kennedy (like it mattered), Eckstein...and even Albert has been plagued by injuries. Heck, we lost our ACE on day 1!!!! Our pitching has not been a suprise - What? Did we EXPECT to win with Looper as a starter? HE was a pleasant suprise, but the rest of it was not, although I had higher hopes for Anthony Reyes.

We need to hit the reset button and get some young talent on our field. If it takes 20 years to win another championship, so be it. I am patient...and I understand the lack of commitment by management to spend big bucks on talent, unlike some in STL. I think that in order to pay for a new stadium and ensure fans are attending games regardless of winning percentage - it is imperative that #5 is hitting third in the Card's lineup until he retires...and that is going to take a good portion of revenue.

I will concede that 2007 is over for STL.
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