ST. LOUIS — Not long ago, the Cardinals seemed to be a team that had wandered way off course.
Scott Spiezio sought treatment for possible substance abuse last week, the third in a series of incidents making front page news. Reliever Josh Hancock was driving drunk on the last day of April when he died in an accident. Manager Tony La Russa was arrested for drunk driving in spring training.
Somehow, all of that heartache hasn’t been quite enough to finish off the defending World Series champions. Thanks to a very ordinary NL Central, the Cardinals, five games below .500, are just 5½ games out of first place and a dangerous squad heading into a seven-game trip starting Tuesday against the Brewers and Cubs, the teams they’re chasing.
“I know there’s been a lot of hard hits in the organization all year long, up and down, this whole season,” Albert Pujols said. “You look at our record and it’s not the best.
“But we’re still in the mix.”
The Cardinals’ 55-60 record is not that far off the not-so-lofty standard they set last year, when they finished 83-79, nearly blew a seven-game lead with two weeks to go, and then turned it on in October to win their first title in 24 years. Opponents remember their dominant postseason as much as they remember the team’s troubles on and off the field this season.
“Any lineup that’s got Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds and those guys, they’re still a deadly force,” Dodgers center fielder Juan Pierre said. “They back-doored their way in last year, and if they get some momentum they can definitely make a push.
“This thing with Scott Spiezio, it’ll just make them stronger and pull them together even more.”
Thus far, the Cardinals have hit the jackpot with Spiezio’s replacement. Rick Ankiel, a one-time phenom left-handed pitcher who flamed out due to wildness and injury, resurfaced as a power-hitting right fielder last week and has three home runs, six RBIs and a .375 average.
La Russa said Ankiel’s three-run homer in his debut on Thursday compared favorably to Adam Wainwright nailing down the final out in the World Series last fall against the Tigers’ Brandon Inge.
“Next to striking out Inge, that’s the happiest I’ve been in this uniform,” La Russa said. “It’s great for the team, it’s great for him.”
Ankiel’s arrival helped spur the team to a 5-2 homestand that quickly quieted down the hubbub over Spiezio’s departure. The biggest question is whether they can maintain that momentum or whether they’ll continue to tease a loyal fan base that has allowed them to sell out every game since new Busch Stadium opened last year.
Late last month, the Cardinals took three of four from the Brewers, then undid all of that hard work by going 1-5 at lower-tier Pittsburgh and Washington.
“You ask yourself, ‘Did this just happen?’ ” Pujols said.
All of it has happened, and more. Minus ace pitcher Chris Carpenter, who ended the season with more surgeries (two) than starts (one), a rotation that lost Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver to free agency and Mark Mulder to rotator cuff surgery, has been heavily reliant on former relief pitchers.
The Cardinals have been at the bottom of the NL in ERA most of the year, and two starters, Kip Wells and Anthony Reyes, are a combined 7-24. Mulder, initially believed to be ready in May, now is hoping to pitch in September.
The no-names the Cardinals are stuck with allowed six runs in the last six games of their just-completed 5-2 homestand.
Most of this month, La Russa has resorted to a gimmick lineup he used in 1998 to aid Mark McGwire during his then-record 70-homer season, batting the pitcher eighth and a singles hitter ninth as a second leadoff man. His theory: a struggling lineup has a better chance after the first time through the order.
“But if the team was doing better,” La Russa said, “you don’t mess around.”
La Russa has often said the Cardinals very easily could be 15 games out of first place, playing out the string.