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."
While Mulder, who averaged 18 wins a year in four seasons with Oakland, may have the most impressive credentials on the St. Louis staff, the lanky, 30-year-old Carpenter possesses the most electric stuff. That's saying a lot, considering two years ago he was nearly done with baseball. In September 2002 Carpenter had arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder to repair a torn labrum; he missed the remainder of that season and all of the next. (In July 2003 he had more surgery on the shoulder, to remove scar tissue.) Ten months after the operation he still couldn't wash his hair or pick up his son, Sam, because of the pain. One summer night he had a 3 a.m. conversation with his wife, Alyson, about whether he should quit.
"I had worked my butt off to come back, and things still weren't working," says Carpenter. "I was sick and tired of hurting every day and started to ask myself if it was all worth it. At that point I would have been happy just spending time with my family, but my wife talked me out of it. She knew that years down the road I'd be unhappy away from baseball."
Last year Carpenter returned to the mound and went 15--5 with a 3.46 ERA before bruising a nerve near his right biceps in a start on Sept. 18, an injury that cost him the rest of the season. A New Hampshire native who grew up a Red Sox fan, he watched the 2004 World Series from the dugout. "You could just see that it pained him not to be out there for us," says Morris, "but maybe Chris getting that time was a blessing in disguise. Now we get him stronger and more rested for the entire season."
For the first time in years Carpenter is not holding back as he unleashes a pitch. "Last year I didn't throw in bullpens for most of the year and couldn't work on stuff on the side," he says. "I feel great now. I could dwell on the disappointment of not pitching in the playoffs last year, but if there's anything I've learned over the last few years, it's patience."
While the starting pitchers have been firing on all cylinders, some of the Cardinals' biggest boppers have had substandard early seasons. Last year third baseman Scott Rolen hit .314 with 34 home runs and 124 RBIs, but this season he was batting .257 with five homers when he had arthroscopic surgery on May 13 to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. (He returned to the lineup on Sunday and went 1 for 4 with a run scored.) Rightfielder Larry Walker, 38, a career .314 hitter entering the year, was batting .253 with seven homers through Sunday and talking retirement. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds (.285, 11 home runs) was on pace to put up his worst power numbers since 1998. "Even Albert isn't swinging the bat as well as he should be," says Grudzielanek, despite Pujols's numbers (.332, 17 homers, 56 RBIs). "You get the feeling he really hasn't gotten hot."
Maybe not, but St. Louis is still rolling, and Pujols, who hit a game-winning homer against the Devil Rays last Saturday, is still headed for 40 home runs, 100 RBIs and 100 runs as he chases his fifth straight .300-plus season. With Barry Bonds on the sideline, the 25-year-old Pujols is unquestionably the National League's premier hitter. Surrounding him and the other St. Louis mashers is a new and unexpectedly productive supporting cast. At week's end David Eckstein, who replaced All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria, had scored 39 runs and had a .379 on-base percentage. Grudzielanek, who succeeded Tony Womack at second base, was hitting .305 with 27 RBIs and 35 runs. And since May 2 catcher Yadier Molina, Mike Matheny's replacement, had hit .288 with 17 RBIs.
Molina's offensive contributions have been the most surprising. The baby-faced 22-year-old entered the season with only 135 major league at bats and was widely regarded as a light-hitting defensive specialist. (At week's end he'd nailed 17 base runners, tied for the league lead.) But under the guidance of Pujols, with whom he often studies video before games, Molina has become a potent hitter. After batting .162 in April, Molina was advised by Pujols to crouch lower in his stance so he could stay back on pitches. "Being around Albert and watching him every day has helped me grow," says Molina, whose older brothers, Bengie and Jose, are Los Angeles Angels catchers. "Albert is the best teacher I could ever have."
On Saturday night against Tampa Bay, Molina scored the game-tying run in the fifth inning. Then, in the sixth, he drove in the Cards' last run to seal the 5--2 win, their 16th in 24 games. Afterward St. Louis players conducted hushed interviews in various pockets of the visitors' locker room. There was no yelling, no celebrating, no music blaring. It was just another day in the Cardinals' clubhouse. Another day closer to October.
Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa is stalking the white-haired Tiger on the winningest manager's list
With win number 2,158, notched on Sunday against the Devil Rays, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa moved into fourth place on the alltime major league victory list, behind Connie Mack (3,731), John McGraw (2,763) and Sparky Anderson (2,194). La Russa and Anderson are the only skippers with as many as 800 wins in both the American and the National leagues. La Russa has his eye on another of Anderson's feats: managing a world champion in each league. (Anderson won with the Reds in 1975 and '76 and the Tigers in '84, La Russa with the A's in '89.) Here's how the two men stack up.
CAREER RECORD (PCT.)
7 (first in '70; last in '87)
10 (first in '83; last in '04)
5 ('70, '72, '75, '76, '84)
4 (1988, '89, '90, '04)
WORLD SERIES RINGS
3 ('75, '76, '84)
MANAGER OF THE YEAR AWARDS
'84, '87 (AL)
'83, '88, '92 (AL); '02 (NL)
Photograph by David E. Klutho
Mulder (pitching against the Pirates at Busch Stadium) could be the southpaw starter the Cardinals were missing, and he has the stuff to dominate in the playoffs.
CHUCK SOLOMON (MULDER)
Mulder worked in the spring to fix the hitch in his delivery that caused him to falter in the second half of '04.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (PUJOLS)
Though Pujols is on pace for another 40-100-.300 season, his teammates say he's yet to break out.
G. NEWMAN LOWRANCE/WIREIMAGE.COM
Healthy again after a string of arm woes, Carpenter can fine-tune in the bullpen for the first time in years.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
CHUCK SOLOMON (2)