ST. LOUIS — All spring, Jason Isringhausen has taken the ball.
That’s the biggest change for the St. Louis Cardinals, much bigger than the additions of Reggie Sanders, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and the question marks surrounding second base, left field and the leadoff slot.
“It’s a normal spring, finally,” Isringhausen said. “Last year was terrible. I didn’t get to do anything. But this year is normal.
“I’m on schedule, just like everybody else.”
From the Cardinals’ standpoint, a healthy closer could be enough to make the team a contender in an NL Central that’s much improved at the top. The Cubs added Greg Maddux to complete a power rotation, while the Astros added Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.
The Cardinals, though, appear to be much more secure in the late innings than either of the division favorites, particularly Houston without Billy Wagner.
Last year, St. Louis blew a major-league high 30 saves, most of them while Isringhausen was sidelined after offseason shoulder surgery that shelved him until mid-June. This year, the Cardinals are looking for the vintage 2002 Isringhausen that dominated with 32 saves in 37 opportunities and didn’t allow a home run.
“He’s feeling great and in good shape,” pitching coach Dave Duncan said. “I think there will be times when we can use him three days in a row.”
Isringhausen expects regular work and no babying. He is fine, he has insisted over and over this spring.
“No big deal,” he said. “I just tell them how I feel and they decide what they want to do. We’ve got enough arms down there to do the job, but I plan on being available every day.”
The bullpen has been overhauled, with right-handers Julian Tavarez and Mike Lincoln, and left-hander Ray King helping holdovers Steve Kline and Cal Eldred take care of holding the lead, and Jason Simontacchi available for long relief. Isringhausen is the key, though.
“The easy answer is last year Izzy was never normal, never 100 percent,” manager Tony La Russa said. “Just from that point alone, it’s better.”
The biggest question heading into the April 5 opener at home against the Brewers is a rotation that pales in comparison with the co-favorites in the Central, based on recent results. The Cardinals’ starting five totaled a paltry 42 victories last season.
The first two starters, Matt Morris and Woody Williams, are proven and combined for 39 victories, but after that there’s uncertainty.
n Chris Carpenter has been impressive most of spring training and was handed a spot in the rotation, but missed most of the last two seasons and has undergone two shoulder operations.
n Jeff Suppan is an innings-eater with five straight 200-plus seasons, but he is 62-75 in his career and his best is 13 victories last year.
n Jason Marquis, once considered a future star for the Braves, was winless at the major league level last year and is seeking to resurrect his career with Duncan after a fallout with Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
Those are the biggest reasons most experts are picking the Cardinals, who have been to the postseason four times in eight seasons under La Russa, to finish third this year. La Russa doesn’t seem to mind the downgraded expectations.
“Compare it to a championship rotation, and I think we have a chance based on what I’ve seen,” La Russa said. “A couple of months into it, we’ll have a better idea.”
Despite the trades of J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero, the Cardinals still have one of the top offenses in the NL, centered around batting champion and two-time MVP runner-up Albert Pujols. He is the NL’s youngest batting champion in 41 seasons and his three-year start (.334 average, 114 home runs, 381 RBIs) is arguably the best in major league history.
A healthy Jim Edmonds, coming off shoulder injury that hampered him the second half of last season, provides a potent bat in the middle of the lineup, and he had 39 home runs and 89 RBIs last year while playing hurt. Scott Rolen and Edgar Renteria both are coming off 100 RBI seasons.
Sanders is playing for his seventh team in seven seasons largely because he is marketable. He hit 31 home runs last year and could bat second to provide early punch.
After a year off, Ray Lankford, 36, showed signs he could still hit and handle at least part-time duty in left field, perhaps sharing the job with Kerry Robinson. Second base is muddled after the recent acquisition of Tony Womack. Bo Hart and Marlon Anderson have had so-so springs, and all three are seeking to succeed the departed Fernando Vina.
The Cardinals’ defense is one of the best in baseball, winning four Gold Gloves last year: Rolen at third, Edmonds in center field, Renteria at short and catcher Mike Matheny.
All of them insist they are indeed contenders coming off their disappointing 88-win season, and that the pressure is not off internally because the team has not made any major upgrades. La Russa reasons that lower fan expectations should at least decrease criticism.
“I don’t think it’s any easier for our club this year because we think we have a chance to win, so we’re putting pressure on ourselves,” La Russa said. “Last year, we did too.
“It’s just if you get off to a bad start, ‘Hey, you’re bad like we thought you were going to be.’”