- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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HOUSTON -- Not to imply that the St. Louis Cardinals are a little beat up at the moment ... but they're still debating who to start in left field Sunday -- Lou Brock or Stan Musial.
Not to imply that health is getting to be an issue for this team ... but their trainer, Barry Weinberg, has spent more time being interviewed over the last few days than Karl Rove.
Ah, but there was some good medical news for the Cardinals on Saturday, even in the wake of their 4-3 loss to the Astros in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, a loss that dumped them into an ominous two-games-to-one NLCS hole:
All right, let's see now. Give us a second. We'll think of some good news. OK, here we go:
There was no indication whatsoever that Albert Pujols is coming down with the avian flu. And hey, that's a relief.
Nevertheless, if there are any health officials out there who think they can develop some sort of inoculation for what's ailing this team, the Cardinals would love to hear from them -- preferably in the next 45 minutes.
"We've been doing this all year," said third baseman Abraham Nunez, a guy who used this game to become the latest member of the Cardinals' ever-growing list of limping wounded. "We had 1,000 injuries, and we overcame them. The only difference is, we don't have a lot of time now. We just have a short period. It's not like we have six months to play. But hopefully, we'll overcome these injuries like we overcame all the other ones."
Nunez was the last man out of the trainer's room Saturday. So he missed the scene that unfolded in his clubhouse before he staggered to his locker with a badly bruised left thigh. (More on how that happened in a moment.) But it's too bad he missed all that, because it had to be heard to be believed.
Normally, after a big one-run playoff loss, the media-player Q-and-A revolves around key plays, pivotal pitches, opportunities wasted.
But this clubhouse sounded more like the emergency ward -- with the press hordes not so much doing interviews as making rounds.
Here are some uplifting examples of how those conversations went:
The first patient to make himself available for inquisition was outfielder Reggie Sanders, last seen impaling himself on the warning track in St. Louis on Thursday night.
Two days later, Sanders' neck still hurt. And his back still throbbed. And he was one heck of a candidate to land an Advil commercial gig.
Sanders looked up from his locker and saw he'd been surrounded, even on a day when he didn't play, didn't take batting practice and didn't take fly balls before the game -- even though he was described as being officially "available."
OPENING QUESTION: "How ya feeling, Reggie?
OPENING ANSWER: (Smile.) "Well, uh, OK. If I was feeling good, I would have been out there today. So obviously, I'm not feeling good."
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: "Yesterday, you'd said you thought you would play today. What happened between yesterday and today?"
FOLLOW-UP ANSWER: (Smile.) "Well, yesterday, I did feel pretty good. But I forgot I was on drugs. I got off the drugs last night. Today, I didn't feel so good."
MORAL OF THIS STORY: Never forget you're on drugs -- especially when you're in the midst of being interviewed by every member of the national media corps except Tim Russert.
OK, we now move on to the next patient -- right fielder Larry Walker. Walker did, in fact, play Saturday. In fact, he drove in his first run of the postseason -- with a game-tying sacrifice fly off Roger Clemens. So he has had worse days this month.
But Walker still has had as many acupuncture treatments as hits during these playoffs (one). And the soothing effect of his fourth cortisone shot of the year has now worn off. So he is lurching around as best as he can despite a herniated disc that is about to end his distinguished career once this postseason ends.
Here's a little sampling from his line of questioning:
Asked about his acupuncture, Walker replied: "I'm not sure I believe in that. But I'll try anything at this point."
Asked if he'd about run out of treatments he could try to get himself back to feeling reasonably healthy, Walker couldn't help but laugh and say: "It is what it is. I'm not going to take a magic pill, and all of a sudden I'll be 25 again and feel great. I know that's not going to happen -- unless you've got some invention for me that I should know about."
Nope. Sorry. No magic pills in the house. And what the heck. Even if there were, some Congressman would probably subpoena all of us if we ever handed them out.
But this is the Cardinals' achy, breaky world right now. They're believed to have set a postseason record for use of the word "diagnosis." And they have an outside shot at the all-time mark for the word "prognosis," too.
They've been practicing their We're-Not-Going-To-Quit-Over-Another-Injury speeches since spring training. So they're into a nice rhythm in spitting them out. But these adventures have taken a clear toll on what ought to be the best team in baseball.
One year ago, when they played these very same Astros in the NLCS, the Cardinals rolled out a Game 3 lineup that had racked up 181 homers, 633 RBIs and 87 stolen bases during the season.
But the lineup they started Saturday combined for only 122 homers, 524 RBIs and 55 steals. And you don't need to be a math professor to figure out that's a lot of lost firepower.
They've already lost All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen for the playoffs. So the last thing they needed to see Saturday was another third baseman being helped off the field.
But that's what happened -- when Nunez got mixed up in a two-vehicle pileup in the sixth inning that looked, for a minute there, to be another bizarre chapter in the Cardinals' massive annals of weird October calamities.
Just moments after Houston had taken a 3-2 lead it would never give back, Nunez found a throw heading his way from Walker in right field -- along with an onrushing baserunner, Jason Lane.
"It would have been a bang-bang play," Nunez reported later. "But I thought it had a chance to hit him in the back. I thought it might ricochet away and go somewhere else and score a run. So I wanted to prevent that."
Hey, it seemed like a swell idea at the time. So Nunez tried to move up and field the throw before Lane arrived. Instead, Lane's knee, Nunez's left thigh and the baseball all descended on each other at the same time. And the next thing the Cardinals knew, Nunez was writhing in the dirt as Lane staggered into third base.
"I felt like I got shot or something," Nunez said. "He's a big guy, and he was coming full-speed."
After a long time on the ground, Nunez had to be assisted off the field, looking as if he might have just blown out a knee. But it turned out he'd "only" taken a major whupping in the thigh, just above the knee. And after spending the next hour encased in ice, he was hoping he might be able to play within a couple of days.
But if not, manager Tony La Russa indicated he would probably start John Mabry at third base. Assuming he didn't need Mabry to start in left field. Or right.
"Hey, that's the life of a utility man," Mabry said. "You understand the role, man. Wherever they need you, you try and prepare."
Mabry actually played four positions in one game this year. So if he could just clone himself, he might be able to solve all of this team's problems. But with no cloning scientists available, he'll just play whatever position they tell him.
Asked if there were any position he'd prefer not to play, Mabry replied: "Probably pitcher. I have done it before. But I don't know that I want to do it again."
Fortunately, since it's October, he's probably safe. But at the rate the Cardinals are losing recognizable faces, you never know.
This is a team that practically has made autumn calamities a mandatory postseason tradition -- from Vince Coleman's ill-fated meeting with a tarp machine to Donovan Osborne cutting his pitching hand on a post-clinching champagne bottle, from Rolen getting clobbered on the basepaths by Arizona's Alex Cintron to Mike Matheny slicing himself with a new hunting knife.
But the common thread in all of those mishaps is that the Cardinals didn't win the World Series in any of those years. And now their latest "E.R." script is endangering yet another potentially magical season.
"You can't get caught up in that," said Sanders, who hopes to play Sunday but wasn't promising anything. "You've still got to go out and play. You've still got to go out and compete. That [Houston] team is so good over there, we know that if we don't do that, we'll be done. And that's something this club is not going to allow to happen. Do you get a player to go down and say, 'Oooh, we're out of it?' We don't do that. That's why we're here. You have to be strong."
"This is the way it's been all year, and we won 100 games like that," Walker said. "So I don't think anybody on this club is all that worried. ... The art of it is, have confidence in everyone who has a uniform on. I think we all believe in each other around here, no matter who it is -- at the plate, fielding the ball or running the bases. That's what being a team is all about."
"Things happen for a reason," said Nunez. "This is something we've overcome all year. What this can do is to get us tougher."
If all this is happening for a reason, though, what the heck is the reason? So there's a team America can rally around to feel sorry for now that the Red Sox have finally won?
That's an honor the St. Louis Cardinals never aspired to. And they're not going to start now. So on Sunday, they'll do what they've been doing all year long -- show up, find nine guys to play and see what happens. It is, after all, their only choice.
Now if they can just figure out whether to hit Musial third or fourth in the lineup.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Casualties are taking a toll on the Cardinals, who may be hanging on for dear life in the NLCS.