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07/12/10 6:35 PM ET

All-Star Game bonding experience for Cards

Pujols charters flight for quintet's journey to Anaheim

ANAHEIM -- Matt Holliday has gone to the All-Star Game before. Three times, to be exact. But he's never done it like this before.

Holliday made his way from Houston to Anaheim on Sunday evening with four teammates, a totally new experience for the slugging outfielder. In each of his three previous trips to the Midsummer Classic, all as a member of the Rockies, Holliday attended with one teammate. Now he's a Cardinal, part of a hefty contingent along with Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Moreover, the trip was arranged by Pujols, who chartered the jet that carried the five Redbirds west on Sunday. It's the largest cadre of Cardinals All-Stars since the reigning National League champions sent six players to Detroit in 2005.

"It was fun," Holliday said on Monday morning. "Albert was gracious enough to [take care of the travel], so we got to come out here together. It was fun -- great flight. We got here at a decent hour. ... It will be cool to be at the field with them, at the workout. It's always nice to see a familiar face."

Two months ago, it might have been difficult to envision Holliday as a 2010 All-Star. On May 21, he had four home runs and was slugging an uninspiring .445. Fan unrest was growing, as Holliday had a total of 16 RBIs in a quarter of a season. Things have changed drastically since then.

In the succeeding 45 games, Holliday has cranked 12 homers, giving him a career-high 16 long balls at the break. He's tallied 35 RBIs in that stretch and slugged .605. He's looked like the hitter he and the Cardinals expected him to be all along. It took him a few weeks to get there, but Holliday's history made it clear that eventually, he would.

But if Holliday's production and that of the Cardinals' offense have been halting at times this year, the top half of the club's starting rotation has not. Co-aces Wainwright and Carpenter have been brilliant, and could easily have been joined by a third All-Star, Jaime Garcia. Wainwright was a strong contender to start the game, though Ubaldo Jimenez received the honor.

A first-time All-Star, Wainwright is having the time of his life.

"It's been awesome already," Wainwright said. "On the plane ride out here we got to all hang out, have some team fellowship. Any time you get a strong group of core guys like that together for a long time, having a great time, it always helps the team whether the rest of the team is there or not. We've been really enjoying this. It's a great experience for all of us together."

Carpenter, like Pujols, was part of that '05 group in Detroit. As a matter of fact, he started the game before going on to win the Cy Young Award. As an All-Star for the third time, what stands out for Carpenter is things like sharing the trip with teammates and seeing Wainwright take it all in for the first time.

Carpenter has hit a bit of a lull in recent starts, expressing frustration with spotty mechanics since he was hit on the right forearm by a line drive on June 28. He's insisted that he's fully healthy, but the results haven't been there. His history, though, makes it clear that even a frustrated, less-than-full-strength Carpenter is an elite pitcher and a deserving All-Star. He's certainly happy to be here, but happier for his teammates.

"It's been fun," he said. "We had a great flight yesterday after the game coming out here. We all enjoy being together, being around each other. You can't not have fun. It's special. I've been here. I know that Matt's been here before. It's special to see Adam be here for the first time, and for Yadi to continue to get the recognition that he gets for what he does behind the plate is great. And then, obviously, we've got the best player in baseball in Albert."

Both Wainwright and Carpenter tip their caps to their catcher. Molina has had a down offensive year but remains an elite defender. It's the second All-Star trip for Molina, and a little less of a blur this time around. Last year, his first trip to the game happened at home. This time around he's getting to breathe a little more, to enjoy things a little more.

He's also thrilled to catch a pitching staff that is overloaded with stars. Four of the five best starting pitchers in baseball this year are on the National League's staff, with Jimenez and Wainwright joined by Josh Johnson and Roy Halladay -- among plenty more.

"I can't wait to get to know them," Molina said. "This is going to be a great experience for me. We've got a great pitching staff -- Carp, Waino, Jimenez, Brian Wilson -- I'm looking forward to this."

And then there's the old salt here. In his 10th Major League season, Pujols is an All-Star for the ninth time. He has been here with this many teammates before. He's been here with smaller contingents, too. He's been as part of a first-place team and while playing for a team fighting for its life.

And he never tires of the experience.

"It's pretty special," he said. "It reminds me of when we made it in '05. We had a lot of guys, being on that flight from San Francisco all the way to Detroit. It was pretty special yesterday, and it was better because we got a win. To be able to spend time not just on the field, but off the field, playing cards and just talking baseball ... it made that three-hour and 15-minute flight real short. Before you know it, we were landing."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.