Cards overcome long odds to contend
La Russa's philosophy keeps team fighting despite injuries
ST. LOUIS -- For perseverance in the face of adversity, no team in the 2008 season has surpassed the St. Louis Cardinals.
This is not quite the same as winning a pennant, but there ought to be some credit due for hanging tough despite a series of debilitating injuries to crucial personnel. The fact that with less than three weeks left in the regular season the Cardinals are still in the postseason chase is a tribute to their persistence and determination.
"The Cardinals are still alive," Cubs manager Lou Piniella remarked, with considerable accuracy, although without much joy.
After a truly uplifting victory over the Cubs on Tuesday night, the Cardinals suffered a setback on Wednesday night, losing, 4-3. Even then, they came back with a ninth-inning rally, but the loss dropped them 4 1/2 games behind Milwaukee in the National League Wild Card chase.
With both Philadelphia and Houston also one-half game ahead of St. Louis in the Wild Card standings, the Cardinals' chances don't appear all that encouraging. But this team has exceeded all the general expectations so far. Dismissing the 2008 Cardinals has been a frequent mistake, but it has still been a complete mistake.
The list of injuries suffered by the Cardinals is seriously long, and even for the objective observer, basically depressing. They hoped to get starters Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter back midseason. Mulder made one start. Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner, made three. The Cardinals are still hoping to get some mileage out of Carpenter in a relief role, but so far his recovery has limited him to one relief appearance.
The emerging star of the rotation, Adam Wainwright, has been limited to 17 starts. The longtime closer, Jason Isringhausen, was ineffective, then out. Tyler Johnson, who could have been the team's primary left-handed reliever, has been out since Spring Training.
With all of these injuries, it comes as no surprise that the St. Louis bullpen has had its difficulties, with 30 blown saves. But the position players have not been immune, either. Chris Duncan has been out since July. Joe Mather went out earlier this month. Rick Ankiel was out with an abdominal strain that is still troubling him. Now Troy Glaus has a shoulder strain. The list could go on and on, but the point has been made and remade.
On another team, this kind of injury epidemic would lead to chaos, not to mention fifth place. Regardless of where this team finishes in the standings, its season-long willpower makes it an admirable group. Why has the club been able to maintain a workmanlike approach in the face of injuries?
"Because we have really good guts," said manager Tony La Russa. "We really have, guts, character, whatever you want to call it. We have outstanding character, the guys have been very tough.
"It's also about being committed to taking our best shot. And nothing interferes with that. If you're disappointed you control that. You're disappointed, you're discouraged and that's part of it. You just decide not to give into that stuff."
It is also about the manager's approach. La Russa's brilliant managerial career has had high points too numerous and obvious to require retelling. But it may be that he does some of his best work in circumstances such as these. The stress is on working with the people who are on hand, rather than whining about who isn't available. The focus is on the task at hand and what needs to be done individually and collectively to achieve victory.
It sounds simple, and many managers speak in the same general terms. But with La Russa's teams, the talk is translated into action. His teams actually play that way. And this season, this team has responded to adversity that way.
"If you watch situations and circumstances, clubs survive injuries," La Russa said. "Look at Tampa Bay. They lost people, but they're hanging in there. The guys who are playing, if they play with effort and they execute, you will be competitive. That's what you try to do: make sure the effort is there, and then we try to execute as best we can."
When it is suggested to La Russa that coping successfully with adversity has been a hallmark of his clubs, he shows a small smile and says:
"I hope you can still say that three weeks from now. The reason I say that is, it's not automatic. You have to keep doing it."
In this game, there is no substitute for reaching the postseason. Right now, for the Cardinals, the odds are long and time is short. But the very fact that they are still in the discussion, after everything that has occurred, is a tribute to their persistence.
In a traditional sense, this may not end as a triumphant season for St. Louis. But there has been something accomplished here in an intangible sense, with the effort, the perseverance, regardless of difficulties. This could still be something to build on for future, and with any sort of good fortune, healthier Cardinals teams.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.