Is a Pennant in the Cards?
When June 1 arrived with the Cardinals atop the National League East, it marked the first time since the close of the 1989 season that the Pirates were not in first place at the end of a month. That 13-month streak—second longest in history to the Yankees' 18-month stretch from April 1926 to September '28—was remarkable. Almost as remarkable is that St. Louis, which led Pittsburgh by half a game at week's end, was the team that ended the Bucs' run.
The Cardinals, considered to be mild contenders entering this season, could have collapsed under the avalanche of injuries they've suffered. Eleven St. Louis players have spent time on the disabled list. In addition, the Cards" starting rotation has been disappointing; third baseman Todd Zeile, one of St. Louis's few power sources, hadn't homered in 42 games through Sunday; and Pedro Guerrero, normally a big run producer, had 11 RBIs. Yet the Cardinals had the best record in the East.
There are many reasons for their success, none more important than manager Joe Torre's deft juggling of his bench and loaded bullpen. But the Cardinals didn't start to soar until rightfielder Felix Jose came off the disabled list on April 29. Jose missed St. Louis's first 20 games due to a strained right hamstring, and without him the Cards went 10-10, while scoring only 66 runs. In Jose's first 20 games back in the lineup, he drove in 23 runs to take over the team lead in that department as the Cardinals went 13-7 and scored 96 runs. Through Sunday he was hitting .351.
Besides being one of the game's most underrated players, the 27-year-old Jose has something of an identity problem. He has been called Jose Felix, Junior Felix (the name of an Angel outfielder), even Felix Fermin (the name of an Indians infielder) by the media during the last three years. "I think I called him Jose Felix once," says Torre, who was a broadcaster for California when Jose played for Oak-and from 1988 to '90. "Those names mesh together a bit. But now that he's an every-day player, there's no excuse for it."
Jose is a much better player than the one Oakland traded to St. Louis for Willie McGee on Aug. 30, 1990. "I'm more patient at the plate now," says Jose, who demonstrated a quick but undisciplined bat while he was with the A's.
The games Jose missed early in the season turned into something of a plus for St. Louis. They gave Cardinals outfielder Brian Jordan, who also plays strong safety for the Atlanta Falcons, a chance to prove he's a major leaguer, which he did with 16 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs before going on the disabled list on May 23 with a hamstring injury. Likewise, Luis Alicea filled in for the injured Jose Oquendo, who was out with a dislocated right shoulder, and had a load of timely hits in May.
"We've done pretty well with the players we've had," says Torre. "Competition is keen. Everybody knows they're fighting for their spots. It's like going into a burning building. You find out you're capable of doing more than you thought you could as far as strength goes. If you want something in that building very badly, you're able to pick it up."
Pitcher Bob Tewksbury has been almost Herculean in picking up for injured starters Joe Magrane and Bryn Smith. He had gone 6-1 with the National League's best ERA (1.78) through Sunday. Tewksbury, who had walked only six batters in 76 innings, credits much of his success to not falling behind in the count. "This is nothing against hitters, but they get themselves out," says Tewksbury. "If you throw it down the middle, they'll probably pop it up."
That may sound like hubris, but Tewksbury and the Cards believe they are not flukes. June 1 is the latest the Cards have been in first place since 1987, when they last won the National League pennant. Can they win it this year? "We have a chance," says Zeile. "There's not a doubt in anybody's mind."