The Jersey, uniform pants, undershirt and warmup jacket of deceased St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile are still in his locker in the home clubhouse at Busch Stadium. His polished red spikes are still there too. The locker is as he left it before his death on June 22, except for some personal effects that were sent home to his widow, Flynn, and three children, and a memorial plaque affixed to the top of it that reads DARRYL KILE, 1968-2002, HUSBAND, FATHER, TEAMMATE AND FRIEND.
Reminders of Kile's passing are never far from the Cardinals, be they his preserved locker, the black circles reading DK 57 sewn on their right uniform sleeves or the 57 written in indelible marker on their caps. Pitcher Matt Morris, for whom Kile was a mentor over the past three seasons, telephones Flynn every week or so. "I wind up sobbing, and then she winds up sobbing," Morris said last Saturday, after the Braves beat him 6-1 in Atlanta, "so I'm not sure how much help I am. But sometimes we all need a shoulder to cry on. I know I do.
"Lately I've been trying to think about all the good stuff, some of the fun times. The thoughts always pop up at weird times. Anytime. Anyplace. During a game. When you go to lunch before a night game and he's not there. When you go to dinner after a day game. Hanging out in the [hotel] room. It's everywhere. There's a missing piece right now, and you can feel it."
Saturday's defeat, too, lingered as yet another reminder of Kile's passing. It wasn't just that Morris, on a day when he brought an electric fastball and a sharp curveball to the mound, had failed to follow his teacher's wisdom when he grooved two first-pitch fastballs to Chipper Jones, who crushed both for two-run home runs. "Meatballs," Morris called the pitches. "DK always told me that the days you feel good physically are the days you have to concentrate the hardest. He said those are the days you have a chance to do something special. I didn't do that." More ominously, the defeat also brought Kile to mind because it underscored how a depleted St. Louis rotation has placed a greater burden on Morris and jeopardized the team's grip on first place in the National League Central, a standing it has maintained since Kile won his final start, on June 18.
With a 2-1 loss on Sunday night the Cardinals fell to 1-5 against Atlanta this season and matched their season-worst losing streak of five games as they tried to stay ahead of the Cincinnati Reds (two games out) and the Houston Astros (three games back). At week's end St. Louis was 19-18 since Kile's death; while the Cards had maintained their lead over the Reds, the Astros, 25-12 over that span, had pulled six games closer.
"This club is so, so special," says manager Tony La Russa. "I really hope that after all they've been through, there's that prize at the end of the year."
To get to October the Cardinals are putting their faith in a favorable schedule and a return to health of pitcher Woody Williams. St. Louis was scheduled to play only 16 of its final 52 games against teams with a winning record through Sunday—with just seven of those games on the road (three in Cincinnati and four in Houston). The Cardinals finish the season with a 10-game home stand. Williams, who is expected to return this month from a strained muscle in his side, is 13-4 in 23 starts for St. Louis since he was acquired from the San Diego Padres last August for outfielder Ray Lankford. In his six big league seasons Williams is 15-8 in September and October. "Woody is huge for us," La Russa says.
La Russa has juggled a National League-high 13 starting pitchers this season, an improvisation so frenetic that through Sunday, only Morris (12-7, 3.44) had thrown more innings for the Cardinals than Kile's 84%. Of the team's six top starters entering the spring, only Morris remained in the rotation last week. Williams, Garrett Stephenson (hamstring surgery) and Rick Ankiel (left elbow tendinitis) were out with injuries, and an ineffective Bud Smith was shipped to the Philadelphia Phillies in the July 29 trade for third baseman Scott Rolen.
Lefthander Chuck Finley, 39, won two of his first three starts after arriving in a July 19 trade with the Cleveland Indians, but the rest of the rotation was suspect, particularly without the reliable Kile, who averaged 15 wins and 226 innings from 1996 through 2001 with Houston, the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis. Gimpy-kneed Andy Benes, 34, who nearly retired in April, was a wobbly stopgap measure, and rookies Travis Smith and Jason Simontacchi struggled. Smith was optioned to Triple A Memphis after 10 starts and a 7.17 ERA. Simontacchi, a former Italian Olympian, slumped badly after a surprising 7-1 start. Including an 11-5 pasting last Friday in Atlanta, he was 0-2 with an 8.22 ERA in five starts since the All-Star break.
Stephenson, like Williams, could return to the rotation by mid-August. Morris has resisted the notion that he must carry the staff in the meantime. "It's been the same question since DK passed away," Morris says. "I'm just trying to go out there and get outs. What does putting more pressure on yourself mean? That you're trying to win? I try to do that anyway."