The Cardinals are on pace to finish with baseball's best record for the second straight year, but they enter the home stretch not with the strut of a lounging division leader but with the limp of a club hit hard by injuries. The latest blow came on Sunday when All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen, who had played in only 56 games because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder, announced that he would have season-ending surgery as early as this week.
"Fifty percent of our lineup has missed a significant amount of time," St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty said last Saturday, citing lengthy stints on the disabled list by Rolen, outfielders Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders and catcher Yadier Molina.
Indeed, despite the injuries the Cardinals (78-46 at week's end) have cruised in the otherwise lackluster National League Central and held a 12-game lead over the Astros. Manager Tony La Russa had used 105 lineups in the team's first 124 games, but St. Louis has been rescued by a trio of hot-hitting and overachieving reserves who were pressed into regular duty: outfielders So Taguchi (a .352 average from July 17) and John Mabry (.275 average since June 1) and third baseman Abraham Nu�ez (.322 average and 32 runs scored since May).
Though productive, La Russa's patchwork lineup is a far cry from last year's offensive juggernaut, which led the league in runs scored (5.3), hitting (.278) and slugging percentage (.460). "The offense was so scary [last season] with how they could terrorize you with that lineup," says one NL executive. "But without Rolen and with questions about how Walker and Sanders are going to hold up, they do seem like they'd be more vulnerable [in the playoffs]."
Jocketty thinks that Walker, who returned to the lineup last week after a monthlong absence because of a herniated disk in his neck, and Sanders, who suffered a broken right fibula on July 15 and is expected back in early September, can be "near 100 percent" by the end of the regular season. But Jocketty admits that the 38-year-old Walker's durability is of particular concern.
As the G.M. in St. Louis since October 1994, Jocketty has an impressive record of mid- and late-season acquisitions, including Mark McGwire ('97), Will Clark (2000), Rolen ('02) and, in a deal with the Rockies last August, Walker. But this season the market is flooded with buyers seeking to bolster their chances of making the postseason. Thus Jocketty, despite his desire to add a top hitter, expects the Aug. 31 deadline for postseason eligibility to pass without making a deal. "We've got guys coming off the disabled list who are better than anyone out there right now who we can add," he says.
The Cardinals take comfort in a rotation that's superior to the one they possessed last October, when they were ingloriously swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. Righthander Chris Carpenter (17-4, 2.29 ERA at week's end) and lefty Mark Mulder (14-6, 3.87 ERA) are a pair of aces that slugging St. Louis didn't have in the 2004 postseason. (Carpenter was out with a right biceps strain; Mulder was acquired from the A's in the off-season.) "We like our pitching a lot," says Jocketty. "Now we need to get our every-day players healthy--and keep them healthy."