ST. LOUIS — In all of his years as manager, Tony La Russa cannot remember ever playing the final month of the season without a day off. He and the St. Louis Cardinals are about to find out what it’s like.
Due to rainouts that have been rescheduled, filling two open dates on the original schedule, the Cardinals will finish the season with 35 games in 34 days and no breaks. Monday was the final day of rest, although no one seemed to mind the upcoming grind, given that the defending World Series champions have something to play for.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity,” La Russa said before the Cardinals, once 10 1/2 games out of first place and now only two games back, begin their ultra stretch run with a three-game series at Houston Tuesday night. “There’ll be nothing except your normal family life but baseball, and we know what we’re going to do every day: Go to the ballpark and see how many wins we can put together.”
The Cardinals are peaking entering the first stretch of the marathon, coming off a 4-2 homestand and one game away from .500, which they haven’t reached since early April when they were 6-6. They’ve won 12 of the last 16 at home, playing more like champions than the bumbling, troubled bunch of the early season.
So who needs a day off?
“We get paid to play every day and guys like to play every day,” center fielder Jim Edmonds said. “If you let it be a big deal, it’ll be a big deal. We’re not worried about it.”
Fatigue is unlikely to be a major concern because after four more games the Cardinals can expand their roster. La Russa has never been a big fan of crowding the clubhouse with prospects in September, but this, he concedes, is a special case.
La Russa said the team could add as many as six pitchers for the final month, a list that includes not just prospects but also Mark Mulder and Mike Maroth from rehab assignments and Brad Thompson from a brief demotion to the minors. Mulder is due to join the team after a fourth rehab start on Friday and could be part of a six-man rotation led by emerging ace Adam Wainwright that La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are considering.
There’ll be backup position players, too, to help keep players fresh.
“You have to understand this is going to be a different kind of September,” La Russa said. “So you have to think differently.”
Closer Jason Isringhausen, who saved all four wins during the homestand to reach 200 for his career, doesn’t believe the bullpen will have it toughest. There’ll be reinforcements for the relievers, too.
“Say we’re down a few runs and we need somebody to suck up some innings, it’ll be somebody that’s hopefully a September callup,” Isringhausen said.
In the outfield, La Russa has more viable options than in recent memory, especially after the early August callup of Rick Ankiel. He’s among a grab-bag of Jim Edmonds, Juan Encarnacion, Chris Duncan, Ryan Ludwick and So Taguchi sharing playing time.
The biggest question mark might be MVP candidate Albert Pujols, who homered in five straight games last week while nursing a hamstring injury that had him hobbling around the bases. To avoid a blowout, Pujols is under orders not to run at full speed until the situation improves.
“Obviously, you need to be careful because you want to take care of your body,” Pujols said. “But I get paid to play. This is not a moment for me to sit down.”
During the just-completed homestand, the Cardinals proved once again that they’re nothing if not resilient. Though the bottom line is an impressive 4-2 record, the Cardinals committed a season-high four errors in consecutive losses at the end of a series against Florida and the start of their weekend series against Atlanta.
Seven-time Gold Glove third baseman Scott Rolen had a particularly horrid week in the field, committing four errors in a three-game span.
“That’s the way it is,” Edmonds said. “This game is pretty wild at times, and the best thing for us is to just not really worry about each day after it passes.”