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NL still runs through St. Louis



Special to ESPN.com

March 5

JUPITER, Fla. -- Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio know October frustrations all too well, yet they were one game from the World Series.

"It was hard to lose," Bagwell said, "but they beat us, we didn't lose."

"The Cardinals," Biggio said, "just did what they did all season. They were good, and they beat us."

Mark Mulder
Mark Mulder says he's smoothed out his mechanical yipes.

The Cardinals' season ended with the sweep by the Red Sox, but to that point they were by far the best team in the National League. They won 105 games. They outscored their opponents by nearly 200 runs. They beat the Dodgers and Astros in seven of 11 games to make the series without their best starter, Chris Carpenter.

Will they win 112 games again? Probably not. But they believe they are better than they were last season. "We have a chance to be pretty special," Tony La Russa said.

"We may be really good. As good as last year, if not better," Albert Pujols said.

There has been considerable focus on what the Cardinals lost: Edgar Renteria, arguably the best shortstop in the National League; Mike Matheny, master of pitchers, and if there's a Hall of Fame for teammates, Matheny's in; and Tony Womack.

OK, Womack at 34 had his best year getting on base with a .349 OBP, but it was 30 points above his career norm. His replacement, Mark Grudzielanek, had a .366 OBP in 2003, and .347 while hurt in 2004. He has become one of the best second baseman in the league turning the double play with a superior arm to Womack and says he's "improving every year by watching how it should be turned." Grudzielanek will hit sixth or seventh behind the big guns because he's a contact-situational hitter. "He'll get 65 to 85 RBI," La Russa said.

David Eckstein is not Renteria at shortstop and all they want from their catcher is to be part of the pitching staff. Not only are the Cardinals convinced that Yadier Molina is perfect here, but so do the pitchers. "We will lose nothing," said one pitcher, "and I'm president of the Mike Matheny Fan Club."

The Cardinals have prided themselves on having Pujols, Rolen and Renteria as examples of star players who are character stars. But the Big Two remain.

Rick Ankiel
Ankiel

Matt Morris
Morris

Then take what they've added plus Larry Walker for an entire season and Jason Isringhausen healthy from the start. Then, with Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, Rick Ankiel and Anthony Reyes behind them, they have three starting pitchers at the top of the rotation that they did not have against Boston: Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Matt Morris. "It's like we have a new staff," Morris said. And the 2004 staff was second in the league in ERA after Atlanta.

Carpenter is recovered from his forearm strain, and beginning the season more confident than he did beginning his 15-5 comeback. Morris finally had his shoulder cleaned out. "I'm free and loose for the first time in two years," he said. "I feel completely different. I can come back."

Then there's Mulder. He went from a 12-2, 3.21 ERA before the All-Star break to 5-6, 6.13. "One day I noticed that I was landing in a different place on every pitch," the former 20-game winner said. "Then for the first time in my life, I started thinking about my mechanics. I'd be winding up, thinking 'my hands should be here, my leg should be there,' and I was a mess. I was never hurt. But I was tired.

"Some of it was worrying that I had to throw a complete game every time, but I had started throwing in December because of my hip injury (the previous August) and I hit a wall," Mulder said. "When you get tired, your mechanics get out of whack, and when that happens, you think too much. But I'm fine now."

The National League will help Mulder, who routinely gets to the eighth inning under 90 pitches when right. "Our plan was to try to sign a free agent pitcher because we did not want to trade Danny Haren," La Russa said. "But we couldn't get a free agent and when there's a chance to get a Mark Mulder, you can't hesitate."

Any National League team with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Walker is a contender. But now add Mulder, 81-42 at the age of 27. Then get a healthy Morris, 81-52 at 30 and a former 22-game winner with the heart of Jack Morris. And Carpenter.

Barring major injuries, this Cardinal team is better than the one that beat Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the NLCS, and the team that the Cubs and everyone else in the Central Division have to be measured against.

Derek Lowe
Derek Lowe threw three scoreless innings in his Dodger debut.
News and notes
  • Sandy Koufax stopped by Dodgertown on Wednesday. Up sauntered Derek Lowe. "Thanks for my new number," said Lowe, laughing, as he's been changed from his 32 in Boston to 23. "You can have 32," said Koufax, "I don't care." Lowe deferred to the great Koufax, then pointed to his shoes. "They all have 32 on them, I've got to use shoe polish and cover them up," Lowe said. "I could be run out of town." Koufax replied, "don't change anything. Really. You can wear 32."

  • Lowe's teammate in Boston, Mike Myers, says he has an off day and is flying in to Boston for the ring ceremony at Fenway Park. "I'm really excited about being there. I will never forget that parade. People holding up pictures of their dead parents and grandparents and yelling, 'thank you.' I had tears in my eyes. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience." Informed about Myers' decision, Lowe said, "I have the day off, and I want to be there so badly I may fly in from L.A. for the ceremony and fly back. To be there when those rings are handed out would be unbelievable."

  • There is no clause in Clemens' contract about being traded to the Yankees if the Astros are out of it at the end of July. But there is a tacit agreement, although Houston would have to be way, way out of it. Would Clemens go to Boston? Maybe, but less likely. When the Yankees were hedging on signing him a year ago in the fall, Randy and Alan Hendricks called the Red Sox, but were stalled, claiming there were "issues." That sticks with Clemens, although he remembers the ovations he got in 2003.

  • The Mets are very pleased with the work of Jose Reyes and Kazuo Matsui thus far. "It's early, and I want to watch a lot of games," said Willie Randolph, "but Matsui has showed me great hands, very quick feet which should enable him to make the double play and a lot of agility. I'm impressed. I understand there probably was a big transition coming from the turf in Japan to grass here. Reyes has a world of talent. That arm. Whoosh. He's going to make mistakes, but that's all right." Reyes had five walks in 220 at-bats and an on-base percentage of .271, but hitting coach Rick Down sees progress in his discipline. "In his first game he got to 3-and-1 and swung at ball four," Down said. "But the thing to me is that he got to 3-and-1. He'll learn. He's got more plate discipline than Alfonso Soriano, and he's a pretty darned good hitter."

  • The Astros keep pestering the Mets about Mike Cameron, but it is looking less and less likely that New York will move Cameron because they have to get a strong corner bat in return, and right now there may not be any on the market." One possibility for Houston is Terrmel Sledge, as Washington is looking for a bopper and will move Sledge and/or Endy Chavez. Right now, if Craig Biggio moves back to second base, as he would like to do, then until Lance Berkman comes back, the 'Stros outfielders are Jason Lane, Willy Taveras (who has temporarily given up switch-hitting), possibly Chris Burke and Orlando Palmeiro.

  • Houston has four bubble pitchers out of options: Tim Redding, Carlos Hernandez, Peter Munro and Brandon Duckworth. … Oh yes. On Friday, the first four Houston pitchers were Clemens, 42, John Franco, 44, Dave Burba, 38 and youngster Russ Springer, 36.

  • One watch of Cardinal rookie Anthony Reyes and it's easy to see how he punched out 140 in 111 innings in the Florida State and Southern Leagues. Wow. The veteran pitchers claim he could be a tremendous hitter. "He has a swing like Albert Pujols," Mulder said. Strong words.

  • Paul Lo Duca says "Alex Cora is the smartest player I've ever known."

    Greg Maddux
    Maddux

  • Part of Greg Maddux's legacy is the respect of his teammates, present and former. "I've never known of a star pitcher who offered more of himself to young players," said Paul Bako, now with the Dodgers. "Except for when he pitched and the day he'd have to be up inside charting, he was always one of the first players on the bench and stayed there the whole time. How many star pitchers do that?" Said Grudzielanek: "He's one of the greatest teammates I've ever known. His knowledge is incredible, but he treats everyone the same. I'm glad to have had the chance to have played with him." And Matt Clement said, "he spent so much time with me, allowing me to pick his brain, that he helped my career as much as anyone I've ever played with."

  • Jose Valentin does not think third base will be a problem. "I played there a lot with the White Sox, so there's no transition." Incidentally, both Puerto Rican League player-owners, Valentin and Carlos Baerga, fired their managers after losing seasons.

  • It's fun to listen to Jim Leyland go on and on about how Jack Wilson is a "great shortstop and player," comparing him favorably to Derek Jeter.

  • Angels minor league outfielder Rich Giannotti, signed last June out of the University of Miami, spotted Pete Rose in an airport and decided to try to talk to him about switch-hitting. "He jumped up out of his seat and started demonstrating his swing and talking hitting," Giannotti said. "He was incredible. Forty minutes later, I almost missed my flight. The funniest thing is that he thought my name was 'Giamatti' and kept telling me what a great guy Bart was and that he bears no grudges against him."

  • Good news with the Nationals: Tony Armas and John Patterson are both throwing well. Patterson said this is the best the ball has come out of his hand since before he got hurt in the Arizona organization. "John really started to throw well last season when he hurt his groin," catcher Brian Schneider said. "He can be very good for us."

  • Tony La Russa has put his World Series Game 4 lineup card and his in-game notes card from that game for auction on MLB.com through March 14, and already has a $77,000 bid for the lineup card. It is to benefit La Russa's remarkable Animal Rescue Foundation.

  • To not read Will Carroll's spring Team Health Reports and his in-season Under The Knife is to miss perhaps the best column in the business.

  • La Russa says "one of my favorite thing is to watch infielders take groundballs. It tells you a lot about them." And who is his favorite of all time? "No question," La Russa said, "it's Alan Trammell. He did everything perfectly. He could and would hit anywhere in the order because all he cared about was winning. How he's not in the Hall of Fame is a mystery." Because nowadays too many people voice -- and in some cases scream -- opinions without seeing players or knowing that they are human. There are numbers players, and there are winning players, and Trammell, who should have been the MVP in 1987, was simply the winning player.





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