Last time the Padres saw them, the Cardinals were happy to salvage the third game of the season-opening set between the clubs. In the series' other two games, the Cardinals blundered often and the Padres played mostly clean baseball. The Padres also exploited Cardinals pitcher Jake Westbrook, whose accuracy and stuff were both below average in the second game.
Look at the Cardinals now. They lead the National League Central entering tonight's series opener at Petco Park. This, despite not having Adam Wainwright, one of the best starting pitchers in the majors, who had reconstructive elbow surgery early in spring training. Further, Albert Pujols has gone a month without hitting a home run, ace Chris Carpenter has only one victory, the bullpen has 10 blown saves and only one 1-2-3 save and third baseman David Freese has missed a month because of a broken hand.
How are the Cardinals overcoming their troubles?
For answers, I talked to baseball writer Rick Hummel, who has written about the Cardinals for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 1973. All of the P-D's baseball coverage, by the way, is well worth the clicks.
* Starting pitchers Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia and converted reliever Kyle McClellan have more than offset the loss of Wainwright. "The amazing thing is that Carpenter has one win out of 10 games and they won only two of the games he has pitched," Rick said. "And Carpenter will win some games because his arm is fine. It's not like he's goosing it up there. The arm is fine."
* "Lance Berkman was a terrific sign for them," Rick said. "I don't know how long this is going to last. But it's lasted two months."
* Matt Holliday, who may sit out this series because of a thigh strain, is the goods. He, Berkman, Yadier Molina and Colby Rasmus have made the offense less reliant on Pujols. "When Pujols is hitting, Pujols and Holliday are still the most formidable one-two punch in the league," Rick says.
* The Cardinals' best players are obsessed with winning the day's game. "I didn't realize Holliday was such a hardnosed player," Rick says appreciatively of the former quarterback, who had a football scholarship to Oklahoma State. As a group, Pujols, Holliday, Molina and Berkman are all "hardnosed" players who are "winners," which permeates the team's culture.
* Even when Pujols isn't hitting for power, "he's still such a good player otherwise," Rick says, citing his baserunning, defense and leadership.
* Several young relievers have offset the struggles of Ryan Franklin, who lost his closer job. (Franklin gave up the tying home run to Cameron Maybin on Opening Day.) But at some point, the bullpen may need help. "They would surely take a run at Heath Bell if he is available," Rick says.
* The Cardinals are the NL Central's best team. "If Carpenter can jazz it up here, they can pull away because the Reds look like they're pretty flawed," Rick says.