Cards hoping for second half surge

Tuesday, July 10, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:44 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

ST. LOUIS — After the St. Louis Cardinals took three of four from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the middle of last week, pitcher Adam Wainwright sensed a revival.

The defending World Series champions, he predicted, were going to be a team to watch in the second half. The All-Star break would only delay the momentum.

“This is a big turning point for us, I feel like,” Wainwright said. “We’re starting to get on a roll.”

Or not. The Cardinals wrapped up the first half by losing two of three to the Giants, who won only their second road series of the year.

The first half of the season has been a maddening mix of injuries and inconsistencies for a team that has anticipated a surge several times only to quickly stumble back into the pack. The team has also had to deal with the death of pitcher Josh Hancock, who died in a drunk-driving crash in April.

Ace Chris Carpenter has been out since opening day with an elbow injury that required surgery to remove bone spurs, and Jim Edmonds, David Eckstein, Juan Encarnacion, Yadier Molina and Tyler Johnson have all missed extended time.

The Cardinals fell 10 games behind NL Central-leading Milwaukee on May 21 and remain on the distant periphery at the break, 7 1-2 games out of first place.

“This is not the world championship team,” said Scott Rolen.

One sign of the tough times: A fan suggested on manager Tony La Russa’s weekly call-in show that slumping second baseman Adam Kennedy might benefit from taking the rest of the year off, and La Russa saw merit.

“If you take a month off, how do you do that?” La Russa said after the show. “If a guy says ‘OK, I don’t need money for a month?’ But I think it’s interesting, very creative.”

The struggles of Kennedy and Kip Wells, the team’s two free agent acquisitions, haven’t helped. Kennedy is hitting .210 and in a virtual platoon with Aaron Miles at second base. Wells, who leads the majors with 11 losses to go with a 5.92 ERA, spent a few weeks in the bullpen before getting another shot in the rotation.

Yet there’s plenty of optimism heading into a 10-game trip that begins in Philadelphia on Friday to start the second half. Carpenter is expected back soon, a huge boost for a makeshift rotation that at times has featured four former career relievers. Eckstein could return from a mid-back injury for the start of the trip. Given a midseason break to mend from back and leg woes related to offseason surgery that hampered his conditioning, Edmonds figures to be patrolling center field by the end of the month.

At its peak, the nucleus of this roster produced two World Series appearances in a three-year span from 2004-06 and the franchise’s first title in 24 years last fall. That championship run came after an 83-win season with a second half that somewhat mirrors the first half of this year.

The only consistent area has been a bullpen led by Jason Isringhausen, who has 17 saves in 19 chances and a 1.53 ERA, and nearly spotless setup man Ryan Franklin. Franklin has been so impressive he earned a two-year contract extension last week.

The offense has been spotty, power numbers for Pujols and Rolen are way down, and the team’s 4.71 ERA is third-worst in the NL after being at the bottom most of the first half. Pujols has not homered in 74 at-bats over 22 games, both career-long droughts. Rolen, supposedly finally past shoulder surgery that led to friction with La Russa last fall, has only four home runs after belting 22 last year.

La Russa takes solace in the fact it could have been worse, noting the Cardinals easily could be buried 15 or 20 games below .500 instead of only five.

“Every time we got hit with something, these guys have hung in there,” La Russa said. “We’ve got enough wins that somehow, some way, we’ve got a chance.”

Another positive is the emergence of unknowns like Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan, plus a reasonably successful group of neophyte starters that includes Braden Looper, Brad Thompson and Todd Wellemeyer.

“I can think back to 20 lineups we’ve written that had a lot of weirdness to it, and at the end of the day we were shaking hands,” La Russa said. “I really respect the heart of this club and that counts for a lot.”

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