A certain energy surrounds hot baseball teams. Players come to the park early. They linger after the game ends. Music thumps in the clubhouse. The players joke around, talk ball, tip the clubbies big, compare fantasy football lineups, play cards. They take batting practice with gusto. They play hard for nine innings and play as if they expect something good to happen. How much any of this has to do with winning is up for debate, but it's like St. Louis Cardinals manager and resident theologian Tony La Russa says, "You don't take anything for granted. You don't mess with the Baseball Gods."
The Baseball Gods have been good to St. Louis this year. The Cardinals came into the season with an ace who had not won a game in two years, a closer who not long ago was a middling starter, a starter who not long ago was a dominant closer, an outfielder at second base, a pitcher in centerfield and one superstar—the game's best player, really—who was coming off elbow surgery last October. They have since added a discarded legend, an unwanted middle infielder and a three-time National League All-Star who suffered a power outage in the American League. Picked to finish anywhere but first in the National League Central, the Cardinals probably will be the first team in baseball to clinch a division title, perhaps as soon as next week.
The reason? For La Russa, it may be the Baseball Gods, but for those of us who prefer more secular explanations, there is always starting pitching, timely hitting and Albert Pujols. On Independence Day the Cardinals and the Brewers were tied for the Central Division lead. On this day, the first Monday in September, as the two teams begin a three-game series in Milwaukee, St. Louis is 14 games ahead of the Brewers. These three days in September will serve as a microcosm for a season's unforeseen success.
Monday, Sept. 7
Dave Duncan likes to break down hitters alone. This is the part of the job that still exhilarates him. The Cardinals just played the Brewers four days earlier, but he is eager to see new video. "You never know when a hitter will make an adjustment or get into a bad habit," he says.
Duncan is the only pitching coach in the big leagues who was not a pitcher himself. Before the 1980 season the Cleveland Indians balked at hiring him as a pitching coach because Duncan had been a big league catcher, a good one too. But then—and this was pretty standard for the Tribe back then—the team's brass realized that it couldn't afford anyone else to coach the pitchers. So Duncan got the job.
He has been doing it for 30 years. He has coached five teams, four Hall of Famers, four Cy Young Award winners, an MVP, a strikeout king, ten 20-game winners and a guy who threw a perfect game. He has also coaxed and inspired a couple dozen men back from injury or a crisis of confidence or oblivion and helped them enjoy the best pitching years of their lives, often by a considerable margin. For this he has become known as something of a guru, a reputation, friends say, he has mixed feelings about. He believes in what he does. But he has a Texan's allergy to nonsense.
"I don't want anything to do with this story," he says at first, and it is only after talking with his pitchers that he relents. He is proud of this pitching staff, especially its ace righthander, Chris Carpenter. "The total package," Duncan says.
They have been through plenty. Carpenter came to St. Louis in 2003 with a torn shoulder labrum and a trail of disappointing seasons. He went 49--50 with a 4.83 ERA in six injury-cursed seasons in Toronto. He missed the entire 2003 season, but in '04 he was healthy and his stuff was electric. "He has dominant pitches to both sides of the plate," Duncan gushes—for a pitching coach, a pitcher who can dominate both sides of the plate is like an actor who can do comedy and tragedy. It means he can get out lefties and righties.
But Carpenter brought something more. He loves game-planning as much as Duncan does, and "he never gets careless," the pitching coach says. Carpenter won 15 games in 2004, the Cy Young in '05 and threw eight shutout innings in the World Series in '06.