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Original Issue

The Cards Are Coming Up Aces

With speed, defense, pitching and a reshuffled deck, surprising St. Louis is holding the upper hand in the race for the NL East

As the last few Cardinals left their Busch Stadium locker room late last Thursday evening after a 6-0 thrashing of San Diego, centerfielder Willie McGee was bearing the fruits of victory—three plump if misshapen tomatoes given to him in modest appreciation by coach-gardener Dave Ricketts—mercurial pitcher Joaquin Andujar was heading out into his final night as a National League All-Star, and the exotic dancer who'd taken off all but her G-string for a bachelor party in the bleachers during a 7-3 win over the Giants the night before was still somewhere at large. Life with the Cardinals this season is, at the very least, entertaining. "Every day it's fun coming out to the ball park here," said first baseman Jack Clark. "The fans, the manager, the winning—you just have to like it."

The Cards were living it up last week by running wild over the Giants and the Padres, winning six of seven games, rattling the history books and maintaining a 2½-game lead over the Mets in the National League East. On Thursday night alone the Redbirds stole eight bases—they're on a pace to steal 332, close to the big league record of 347 held by the 1911 Giants—and forced two Padre throwing errors with their speed and base-running aggressiveness. San Diego had come into the Cardinals series with a major-league-low 49 errors in 84 games but made five in that first game and a total of nine in the series. "They ought to put different numbers on these guys, take them down to the greyhound track in St. Petersburg and let 'em run," said San Diego third baseman Kurt Bevacqua. "You could bet your money on them and at least eat a comfortable dinner."

The numbers the Cardinals have been putting up are extraordinary: McGee (.340) and second baseman Tommy Herr (.334) may become the first National League teammates since Willie Mays and Don Mueller of the '54 New York Giants to finish 1-2 in batting. The Cardinals' team average of .267 is 14 points higher than the next-best NL team. Andujar (15-4) is two victories behind Denny McLain's 31-game-winning pace of 1968. And Danny Cox (11-4) and John Tudor (10-7) are on pace to win 20 games. Overall, the Cardinal staff has the lowest earned run average in the majors: 3.01. Leftfielder Vince Coleman, with 63 stolen bases and 64 runs scored—both league highs—is on target to set a major league record of 132 steals and become the first rookie to lead the NL in runs since Richie Allen in 1964. McGee, Coleman's roommate and role model, is headed for 20 triples, the highest NL total in 28 years. Herr, one of five Cardinals chosen to the All-Star team, is second to Dale Murphy with 68 runs batted in and could become the first second baseman to finish atop that category since Rogers Hornsby in 1925—assuming, of course, that Clark (63 RBIs) doesn't overtake him. Clark, acquired from the Giants in one of two highly profitable off-season trades by St. Louis, is headed for 30-plus home runs, the most by a Card since Allen's 34 in 1970.

What the gaudy stats and the team's 52-32 record are proving is the value of tailoring a team to its home stadium, in the Cardinals' case a spacious park with an artifical surface. "Everybody calls this an AstroTurf team, but that's not the idea," says manager Whitey Herzog. "This is a big-ball-park team." Herzog claims he finally has the "ideal" team for Busch Stadium, one better suited for it than even his 1982 world championship squad.

But the Cardinals are AstroTurf-tough, too: Using their speed, bunts and chop-down swings, they've legged out innumerable infield hits. With past and present Gold Gloves McGee, Andujar and shortstop Ozzie Smith up the middle, the steady Herr at second base and young Tom Nieto, a defensive stalwart, behind the plate, the Cards can clean the carpet with the best of them. Herr insists teammate Andy Van Slyke is "the best rightfielder in the league." No wonder the Cards are 32-13 at home.

Still, St. Louis ranks as one of baseball's surprise successes of 1985. Few picked the Cardinals to finish higher than fourth in their division, and after two subpar seasons Herzog was said to have one foot in the managerial grave and the other on a wet patch of AstroTurf. After the loss of star reliever Bruce Sutter to Atlanta via free agency in the off-season, even Herzog himself joked about the possibility he would be "bass fishing" by midseason. To the contrary, the St. Louis management last Saturday awarded Herzog a new three-year contract.

Six relievers have combined to fill the void left by Sutter—the Cards are 43-2 in games they've led after six innings—and starters Andujar, Tudor and Cox have turned in 22 complete games, a league high. Tudor, who was rescued from Pittsburgh in a trade for George Hendrick, has nine straight wins and has become the Cardinals' most effective lefthanded starter since Steve Carlton.

Cox, a strapping 6'4" 230-pounder with a devastating straight changeup, has become a stopper in only his second full big league season. He and fourth starter Kurt Kepshire, a pair of bachelors who tend to get to sleep around sunrise, have been dubbed the Possum Brothers by trainer Gene Gieselmann. "He says we run by night and sleep by day," says Cox. On Saturday night, Cox picked up his 11th victory with relief help from Jeff Lahti as the Cards beat the Padres 7-3 to drop them from first place in the NL West. Clark and Herr drove in two runs apiece, and Coleman stole his 63rd base. Neither Cox nor Kepshire has shown any ill effects from his nocturnal habits. In the sunshine on Sunday Kepshire improved his record to 7-6 by beating the Padres 2-1 as Lahti picked up his ninth save. Tito Landrum drove home Coleman with the winning run.

Among stealthy creatures, none deserves more credit for the Cardinals' lofty status than leadoff man Coleman. The Man of Steal, called up from Louisville on April 17, has reached base in the first inning 35 times, scored on 25 of those occasions and bedeviled opposing defenses. Rival fielders have made at least eight errors because of Coleman's speed. "Vince not only distracts the pitchers and forces them to throw more fastballs," says Herr, "but he gets the infielders jockeying around out there, which opens up holes. It's hard to overestimate his value to us." One person who has underestimated his value is Padre manager Dick Williams, who left Coleman off the All-Star team.

The Cards' only failings in recent weeks have been their inability to come from behind (they're 3-27 in games in which they trailed after six innings) and their base-running lapses. In the 7-3 game with the Giants, for example. Smith was thrown out trying to go from first to third on a wild pitch, and Clark was gunned down attempting to stretch a single into a double. However, such is the calm that prevails under Herzog that after Smith and Nieto both made costly running blunders in Friday's 2-0 loss to the Padres, the 53-year-old manager sat at his desk and chuckled about the gaffes. "He who hesitates is lost," he said, puffing on a cigar. "Someone said that.... I think it must have been Ben Franklin when he was thinking about those bleeping lightning rods."

Herzog's team is generally subdued off the field. Other clubs might play for beers in batting practice games, but the Cards play for lemonade and apple juice. Boring perhaps, but they are bleeping lightning rods once the ball's in play. McGee, 26, perhaps faster even than Coleman, has 36 steals so far. Built like a whippet, he's bounding toward stardom as one of the best minor-leaguers the Yankees ever gave away. For what it's worth, his father, Hurdice McGee, a Pentecostal church deacon in Hercules, Calif., anoints and blesses Willie's hands and feet before each season.

Herr, 29, another unappreciated contributor (the most recognition he had gotten before his All-Star selection was in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll of female office workers in which he won the Best Buns category), has swiped 17 bases despite two surgically repaired knees and has thrived hitting third between McGee and Clark. He is fast becoming this year's Ryne Sandberg. And Clark, who had been loudly unhappy in cold and windy Candlestick Park, has not only matured into a leader but has also hit almost half (17) of the Cardinals' 42 homers. "I'm more at peace with myself," he says. "I'm more spiritually content."

When it comes to lightning, of course, Andujar is a bolt out of the blue. He likes to pitch worked up and frequently musters a remarkable verbal belligerence to that end. On Friday evening he came out for batting practice seething over Williams's failure to name him immediately as the starting pitcher for the All-Star Game. After describing Williams as a "bleep-bleep, bleeping bleep-faced bleeper," Andujar announced that he would spend the All-Star break at home.

"Williams said that [San Diego's] La-Marr Hoyt was the Cy Young winner in the American League, that he knows the hitters there," stormed Andujar. "That's bleep. No good pitchers in that league. I'm the most winning pitcher in the National League, 15-3, 2.39 ERA, second in complete games. Why doesn't Williams just take LaMarr Hoyt and have him pitch the whole All-Star Game?"

Andujar went out and lost a tight 2-0 decision to Hoyt, but remained adamant in his boycott plans. One of his goals now is to become the first Dominican Cy Young winner. "I'll probably have to win 20 by the All-Star Game next year just to make the team," he said.

One year, the Cardinals know, can make a huge difference. "Last season the attitude was, 'What can we possibly do to win?' " says Cox. "This year, though, it's like we know we're going to win. Every day there's a new hero." And plenty of entertainment.



Nieto couldn't find the handle as Padre Terry Kennedy scored, but the Cards won the game.



Coleman may not hit with much power, but he can turn ordinary infield chops into extra-base hits.



Andujar has already won 15 games for the Cardinals, but he threw the whole league for a loop by spurning his All-Star Game invitation.



Van Slyke swiftly completes his rounds by sliding safely into third and then home.



Herr and Clark prove a deadly combo in the field, too: They run down Padre Kevin McReynolds between second and first.