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STL@FLA: Carpenter goes six innings in quality start

The sting of second place lingered for both the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres all winter, after September swoons sabotaged their seasons.

Now, as a new season dawns, new questions have arisen for each team.

The Cardinals lost their ace, Adam Wainwright, to Tommy John surgery after he suffered an elbow injury early in Spring Training camp. And the Padres parted ways with their fiercest hitter, Adrian Gonzalez, in a trade with the Red Sox.

So is there enough here for the Cards to reclaim the National League Central and for the Padres to challenge the defending-champion Giants in the West?

"The answers to the questions," said Cards manager Tony La Russa, "really start seriously on Thursday."

It starts at 4:15 p.m. ET, to be exact. That's when the Cards and Padres will meet at Busch Stadium for Opening Day 2011.

Neither club will see the season begin exactly as envisioned.

Wainwright's injury forced the Cards to realign their rotation, though they had the benefit of having 2005 NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter -- who went 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA last season -- on-hand to take over as the No. 1.

Carpenter had his own slight injury scare this spring, when he missed time in the Grapefruit League with hamstring soreness. But he's recovered in time to take the ball on Opening Day.

"I feel fabulous. I really do," Carpenter said earlier this week. "I haven't felt this good in years. I feel strong."

And the Cards still feel strong about their chances, Wainwright or no Wainwright.

This is, of course, Albert Pujols' walk year, which only adds to the importance of getting off to a strong start in what could be a particularly deep and difficult Central.

Some might view Pujols' unresolved contract situation as a potential distraction to the Cards, but, to this point, the club has been all business. With Pujols and Matt Holliday paired in the middle of the order, veteran Lance Berkman added to the mix and Colby Rasmus a breakout candidate, the lineup could be dangerous. And while the rotation undoubtedly would have been stronger with Wainwright on board, the core of Carpenter, Jaime Garcia (13-8, 2.70 ERA in his rookie 2010) and veteran Jake Westbrook can't be ignored.

"You look at the faces around here and the experience that you have," Pujols said, "and I think you have a pretty good idea [of how good this team can be]."

Look at the faces in the Padres' dugout, and you won't see much that looks familiar from the end of 2010.

In fact, more than half the roster that finished the season with 90 wins, just one win shy of a division title, is gone. Gonzalez, David Eckstein, Jerry Hairston Jr., Yorvit Torrealba and Chris Young have all moved on. Cameron Maybin, Brad Hawpe, Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, Jorge Cantu and Aaron Harang have all come aboard.

In the long term, the Padres are hoping that while their lineup lost a quarter of its run production in the trade of Gonzalez, the new additions can make this a more balanced unit, from top to bottom.

One big key will be the performance of Ryan Ludwick, who was acquired from the Cardinals at the Trade Deadline in a three-team deal that brought Westbrook to St. Louis from Cleveland. While Westbrook proved a valuable addition, Ludwick was something of a disappointment, batting just .211 in 59 games with the Padres. Another key will be Maybin, a former top prospect who didn't live up to his potential with the Tigers or Marlins but has a fresh start in San Diego.

"We don't necessarily need someone to step up and be Adrian Gonzalez," Ludwick said. "But we need some people to step up with that offensive production."

A more short-term concern rests in the rotation, where star-in-waiting Mat Latos' shoulder trouble will prevent him from making this Opening Day start. Instead, that assignment goes to right-hander Tim Stauffer.

Stauffer, the fourth overall pick in the 2003 Draft, has his own share of past injury trouble, having missed all of 2008 and half of '09 after right shoulder surgery. Last year, he pitched out of the Padres' bullpen before a hip problem set in, costing him two months of action. He returned and eventually joined the Padres' rotation, where he was a pleasant surprise down the stretch.

Now, he's the Opening Day pitcher.

"This is as good as I've felt physically ... since going into pro ball," Stauffer said. "I think I have learned a lot of things mentally about the game. Control emotions, take it very seriously and do the work in between to be successful."

The work of Spring Training is over, and, as La Russa said, it's time for both these teams to start getting real answers to the questions hounding them and to redeem themselves after the disappointment of last season's home stretch.

"I've completely forgotten about last year," Padres closer Heath Bell said. "I haven't heard anyone talk about last year, either. We've got a lot of energy this year."

And they're ready to put it to use.

Padres: Arizona unkind to top two starters
Spring Training stats don't count, and that's a good thing for two principal members of the Padres' rotation. Both Latos and Clayton Richard won 14 games last year, but they didn't have that form in Arizona. Latos, who said his shoulder injury was a late development in camp, went 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA in four starts, giving up 10 runs on 16 hits with nine walks and five strikeouts in 10 innings. Richard was 1-3 with a 9.56 ERA in four outings, surrendering 19 runs (17 earned) on 29 hits with five walks and eight strikeouts in 16 innings.

The Padres are hoping Latos has a quick recovery, and the above numbers are nothing more than a desert mirage.

Stauffer, on the other hand, had a solid spring camp (2-0, 3.68 ERA in five outings) and hopes to pick up where he left off in a memorable outing against the Giants on the last weekend of the 2010 season.

Cardinals: Camp starts with hiccups, ends with hope
No team had more drama early in Spring Training camp than the Cards, who first dealt with the Pujols contract saga and then had the frustration of the Wainwright injury to contend with. Those were two major developments, but neither distracted the Cards from getting valuable work in.

"What do you control?" La Russa said. "You control the program and, as close as you try to influence it, players control the effort and the concentration. And you play the games, and that's the same, right? I think the guys have done a good job effort-wise, concentration-wise."

Worth noting
This is the first time the Cardinals and Padres will meet on Opening Day. ... Former All-Star center fielder Jim Edmonds, whose attempt to make the Cardinals' roster this spring was thwarted by an Achilles injury, will throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the game. Edmonds hit 393 homers and drove in 1,199 runs during his 17-year career, while winning eight Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger. ... Stauffer is the second-longest-tenured player in the Padres' organization, trailing only right-hander Ernesto Frieri.

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