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IT'S THREE hours before game time on an afternoon in late May, and the visitors' clubhouse at Busch Stadium resembles a frat-house basement. Rap music thumps loudly on speakers. Magazines and empty soda bottles are strewn across a coffee table. Washington Nationals players, immersed in card games, howl. � Across the park, by contrast, the home locker room has the feel of a university library. A handful of St. Louis Cardinals shuffles across the carpet to their lockers, while a half-dozen others watch video of that night's opposing pitcher on a pair of TVs hanging from the ceiling. First baseman Albert Pujols sits upright on a chair, his eyes hungry for information,his fingers resting on the video controls so he can fast-forward and rewind at will. Ten minutes pass. No one utters a word.
"The moment you step into this clubhouse you feel the intense focus and businesslike approach of this team," says Cardinals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, an 11-year veteran who's in his first season with St. Louis. "Everyone just wants to come in, work hard and keep winning games. There's not too much fuss going on."
It is with this aura of quiet confidence that the National League's best team has soldiered on after an inglorious World Series flameout. A season after winning the NL Central by 13 games, the Cardinals are again running away with the division: After sweeping the Devil Rays last weekend at Tropicana Field, they were 44--24 and had a 9 1/2-game cushion. Meanwhile, their two biggest division rivals were struggling. The Chicago Cubs hovered around .500, and their locker room resembled a medical tent: Aces Mark Prior (fractured right elbow) and Kerry Wood (right shoulder strain) and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra (strained groin) have missed long stretches. The Houston Astros ranked last in the majors in runs and were 15 1/2 games behind the Cards. "That division race is over," says one National League general manager. "I can see them winning it by 18, 20 games."
The burning question in St. Louis, then, isn't whether this team is playoff-bound but whether it's merely a clone of last year's club, a regular-season juggernaut that ran out of steam in October. After cruising to a major-league-best 105--57 record, the Cardinals were pushed to seven games by the Astros in the League Championship Series, then embarrassed by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. One St. Louis newspaper writer called the Series sweep "as thorough a domination as ever seen in the 100 editions of the event."
"This is a new year and a different team," says Cardinals reliever Ray King. "That was the theme from Day One of spring training, when [manager] Tony La Russa stood in front of us and said we're not here to match or top anything that was done last year. We've got new faces, a lot of new hunger."
In fact, though the 2005 team might not win as many games as last year's club, it's better equipped to give St. Louis its first world championship since 1982. The downfall of the 2004 team was a rotation that, despite having four 15-game winners, wasn't dominant. The rotation's mediocrity was exposed in the postseason, when it had a 5.24 ERA and averaged 5 1/3 innings per start. This year, while the high-powered offense is on pace to lead the league in runs for the second straight season, the starting pitchers are a worthy complement to that attack.
Righthander Matt Morris (8--0, 3.16), who after off-season surgery is no longer throwing with shoulder pain, and righty Jason Marquis (8--4, 3.59) have been superb, but it's righthander Chris Carpenter and southpaw Mark Mulder, neither of whom pitched for St. Louis last fall, who could make these Cardinals more formidable come October. Both have the stuff to dominate a postseason series. Last week Carpenter (9--4, 3.17) used a barrage of four-seam, mid-90s fastballs and parabolic curves to strike out 10 in a complete-game one-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays. Three days later Mulder (8--4, 4.27) opened his full tool kit of pitches--low-90s fastball, looping curve, collapsing slider and a changeup--to beat the Devil Rays, allowing three runs in seven innings. "They have the best rotation we've seen, top to bottom," says Milwaukee Brewers manager Ned Yost. "Picking up Mulder just made them stronger."
Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty's top priority last winter was to add an elite arm to his starting staff, and he did that when he acquired Mulder in a December trade with the Oakland A's. Though Jocketty also pursued A's righthander Tim Hudson, his main target was Mulder. "I wanted to add a lefthander to a rotation of righties, and Mulder was signed for two years, while Hudson could have become a free agent after this season," says Jocketty. "It's always important to keep making changes to a team to keep things fresh, and I think Mulder's addition energized things around here."
Mulder first heard of the trade while playing golf in Arizona with teammates Eric Chavez and Jermaine Dye. Chavez's cellphone rang, and on the other line was his agent, Dave Stewart, who'd caught wind of the deal. When Mulder heard the news he called Hudson. "He was as shocked as you could be, and disappointed," says Hudson, who'd been dealt to the Atlanta Braves two days earlier. Mulder's departure from the organization that had made him a first-round pick in 1998 capped a tumultuous season for him. After a stellar 12--2 start, he had run up a 6.62 ERA in his final 12 outings as the A's faded from playoff contention. "It was one of the most frustrating periods of my career," says Mulder, 27. "I really had no idea what was going on. Looking back, I think I was just fatigued, and that screwed up my mechanics."
Mulder is still battling inconsistency--after a 7--1 start he struggled with his command and went 0--3 with a 6.75 ERA in his next three outings before winning last Friday--but St. Louis coaches believe he has fixed the problem that caused him to falter so badly last season. "He's got a better [delivery] now, which has allowed him to repeat pitches better," says pitching coach Dave Duncan, who worked with Mulder on his mechanics in the spring. "His front foot was landing in different places, and his hips were collapsing. He almost had a two-part delivery. Now he has a smoother motion that gives him more movement on his pitches, particularly his breaking ball. When he's got that going, he's tough to beat."