St. Louis Cardinals flourish without Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols

6:48 AM, Apr 17, 2012   |    comments
Jaime Garcia (54) delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox at Roger Dean Stadium.
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By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY

ST. LOUIS - The St. Louis Cardinals aren't into bragging. But they can't hide their smirk.

The Mount Rushmore of the franchise - first baseman Albert Pujols, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan- might be gone, but the Cardinals again are making the critics look silly in a hurry.

Shouldn't we have learned our lesson last season? The Cardinals were written off in spring training when Adam Wainwright's elbow disintegrated, again in September when they were 8½ games out with 21 left to play and, of course, when they were twice down to their final strike in Game 6 of the World Series.

Look who's back again, wearing their latest World Series rings and sitting in first place today with a 7-3 record in the National League Central.

"To be honest, we don't care what people say," said All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, wearing his two World Series rings on his left hand. "We know we've got a real good team, no matter what people think."

The reason Pujols is no longer a Cardinal might be debated for the rest of his career. He wanted to stay. The Cardinals wanted him back. He still lives in the St. Louis area, but he's now wearing a Los Angeles Angels uniform.

Instead, the Cardinals signed six-time All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran. They picked up veteran relievers J.C. Romero and Scott Linebrink. They brought back shortstop Rafael Furcal.

And they are led by a rookie manager, Mike Matheny, who is drawing rave reviews in the clubhouse.

"People make a big deal out of not having coached or managed," Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman said. "You can throw experience out the window. You cannot make a good manager. You can take a guy with no people skills, no leadership ability, let him manage in the minor leagues for 20 years, and he'll never be ready to manage at the major league level. And you can take a guy that has all of the intangibles, put him in the big leagues, and he can be a Hall of Fame manager

"To me, he's absolutely perfect for this team."

If there were concerns about whether the Cardinals would be in disarray without La Russa, who retired, or that the lineup would decay without Pujols, they have vanished.

"When you walked into spring training, you wanted to kind of get a feel what it was going to be like," said World Series MVP David Freese, who is hitting .406 with 11 RBI. "You knew it was going to be different without the presence of Albert and Tony not being there. It was kind of weird. It felt comfortable right away. And right now, we're having a blast."

The Cardinals lead the league in hitting, with eight players driving in or scoring four or more runs. Co-aces Chris Carpenter and Wainwright (11.42 ERA) have not won a game, with Carpenter out indefinitely with nerve damage in his right shoulder.

But under pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who has taken over while Duncan cares for his wife in her recovery from brain surgery, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook have combined to go 4-0 with a 0.99 ERA. And Lance Lynn has gone 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA.

"The one real positive is that the contributions are coming from so many different places," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said.

If it's not Matt Carpenter filling in for Berkman (day-to-day, calf strain) and going 4-for-4 with five RBI one day, it's outfielder Jon Jay hitting two homers and driving in at least a run in his last three games.

And then there's Beltran.

"He's as complete a baseball player as I've ever played with," Berkman said.



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