Cardinals showing there is life after Albert
CINCINNATI -- The snarky and short-sighted among us will say, "Albert who?" Because that's just how good these St. Louis Cardinals have looked without Albert Pujols early on.
Obviously, though, it won't always be this way. There will almost assuredly be a night when the Cards will be shut down by some soft-tossing lefty and Pujols, a world away on the West Coast, will hit a titanic blast that harkens back to his St. Louis heyday.
Hey, it's bound to happen over the course of 162 games. And over the course of 162 times 10, it will probably happen quite a few times.
But if the Cardinals wanted to make some sort of statement in this nascent stage of the 2012 season -- in this immediate aftermath of their improbable World Series run -- that life without Pujols does, indeed, go on, well, I'm already willing to say they've made it here in the opening week.
The statement looks a little something like this: solo shot by Matt Holliday; a Lance Berkman walk drawn on an oh-so-close payoff pitch; a David Freese two-run blast; and then, finally, Yadier Molina pummeling a first-pitch four-seamer from Homer Bailey.
Three first-inning homers, four first-inning runs at Great American Ball Park -- all with two out -- and enough damage done to pave the way to a remarkably easy 7-1 victory over a Reds team counted by some as the National League Central favorite.
And while the sample size is, indeed, tiny -- and Great American is a haven for homers -- this was no outlier. This opening outburst was already the second three-homer inning for a Cards team that had none all of last year. As a team, the Cards' nine homers are the most of anybody in the early going. But, more to the point, they're batting .317 as a team -- with 20 extra-base hits and 20 walks.
"I really hope they're peaking now," Brewers starter Randy Wolf said over the weekend, "because they look really good."
Hate to break this to Wolf, but this probably ain't the peak.
This, after all, is a deep, balanced and veteran lineup that -- thanks to the newly acquired Carlos Beltran and a full season from Freese -- could actually wind up more productive than the one that prominently featured Pujols a year ago.
"Hopefully, this week is showing the good things to come," Freese said. "We see it as a small sample. We're not jumping the gun. But you look at the middle of the lineup -- Beltran, Matt and Lance -- and everybody that complements them, and that's a scary lineup."
Freese represents, possibly, the Cards' greatest upside of all, and he's on an opening tear (.417 average, 1.083 OPS) that makes his October glory look like no flash in the pan. He's finally healthy after many setbacks with his fragile feet, and he's shown a better approach at the plate than he displayed in a sluggish spring.
"I think he's just trusting himself a little more," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's not as jumpy. He left the zone a lot in the spring, trying to do too much. Now, he's seeing the ball well. That's what it comes down to. When guys are going good, they're seeing the ball well and trusting their hands. Not a lot of ugly swings."
And there's nothing ugly about that team home-run total, either, though the Cards know they're on an unsustainable pace in that department.
"The good thing is, these guys are just going up putting up good swings," Matheny said. "They're not trying to hit home runs. That's something Mark [McGwire] has preached as long as he's had this job [as hitting coach]. He truly believed that. Most people won't buy it when they watched him in '98, but it's a thought philosophy of a swing path more so than trying to launch the ball in the air. Because when you do that, popups happen. I think we're doing a good job of just putting up good at-bats altogether. Those tough at-bats are going to pay off in the long run."
McGwire's goal is to have a club that wears out the opposing pitcher, pitch by pitch. Beltran is the perfect addition to that attack, given that he's averaged a highly respectable 3.86 pitches per plate appearance over the last decade.
It's a mentality that's being passed around from the vets to the younger faces in the Cardinals' clubhouse.
"Concentration, confidence and focus," Freese said. "When you're around these veterans long enough, you realize that's what separates you."
If the Cardinals keep playing like this -- averaging 6.2 runs per game with their starters posting a sub-2.00 ERA -- they'll separate themselves in the Central in a hurry. Again, though, that pace can't be sustained over the long haul.
What is sustainable, however, is the quality of at-bats, the relentlessness of the attack of a veteran-laden lineup.
There was a great deal of curiosity as to what this Cardinals club would look like without one veteran, in particular. And the early results -- while not enough to make you say "Albert who?" -- are enough to make you think the Cards will be just fine, thank you.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.