Restructured Cardinals more than home run attack

Astute deals send St. Louis flying high

May 02, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- The meteor shower began without the big guy, which was just fine with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire. He was getting tired of being a one-man band anyway.

McGwire missed Opening Day and a big chunk of April with a sore lower back, but -- for once -- he wasn't terribly missed. The new and improved Cardinals lineup has launched baseballs into the bleachers at a rate heretofore unseen even in the "juiced ball" era, the club's 55 homers shattering the major-league record for the first month of the season.

Big Mac has hit his share, but he finally has a supporting cast that can share the load.

"I've always enjoyed that," McGwire said. "I've played on some powerful teams. It's just unfortunate that the last few years, everything has been individualized."

Not this year.

"There have been games when he hit a home run and wasn't even mentioned because somebody else hit a bigger one," said manager Tony La Russa. "He's enjoying that. He's very comfortable."

This isn't a story about Mark McGwire and that's just the way he would want it. There is finally something else to write about in St. Louis -- a team that has streaked to the top of the National League Central standings and seems to be built to stay there.

General manager Walt Jocketty spent the winter plugging the holes in a club that hasn't been a serious contender since before McGwire was acquired from the Oakland Athletics midway through the 1997 season.

He rebuilt the pitching staff with the acquisition of three veteran starters. He acquired leadoff man Fernando Vina. The makeover carried right into spring training, when Jocketty pulled off the deal that put premier center fielder Jim Edmonds at the heart of an already potent lineup.

"We had a tough year last year," La Russa said. "There were about eight or nine things we felt we needed to do. I think Walt did six or seven of them. I can't remember anything like that since the off-season of 1987-88, when [A's general manager] Sandy [Alderson] made six or seven moves and they were all huge guys for us."

No coincidence there. The guy working under Alderson back then was Jocketty, the consummate assistant GM who would eventually move into the primary baseball operations role in St. Louis. But his tenure in St. Louis had been unspectacular until he embarked on this dramatic reconstruction project.

So far, every new element has contributed to the Cardinals' winning chemistry. Vina has been the offensive catalyst. The three new veteran starters -- Darryl Kile, Pat Hentgen and Andy Benes -- have winning records. Edmonds has been one of the best all-around hitters in the league. Combine that with the fantastic early-season performance of rookie pitcher Rick Ankiel and the Cardinals clearly are the most improved team in baseball.

"We've just got a lot of guys who know how to play the game," said veteran outfielder Eric Davis, "... but we need to play this way throughout the season or nobody's going to remember what we did in the first month."

Good point, but what a first month it was. The Cardinals finished the month hitting .301 as a team. They broke the April home run record -- previously held by the 1997 Cleveland Indians (49) -- with nearly a week left in the month. And they did it without McGwire getting off to a monster start.

"We haven't really thought about it," Davis said. "I don't think anybody's hot. It's just that we're all on the same team. I don't think any hitter will tell you he's hot right now."

McGwire and Edmonds have eight home runs apiece. Third baseman Fernando Tatis has six. Edgar Renteria has five. There are eight other hitters with at least three. There isn't even a team from the designated hitter league within range of their season total.

More than home runs

The Cardinals' April offensive extends beyond their gaudy home run total. The club also has been piling up doubles and triples at such a rate that every member of Sunday's starting lineup except Kile finished the month with a .463 slugging percentage or better.

Simply amazing.

"I don't know how to explain that," La Russa said. "I don't even try. The main thing is a balance of good hitters throughout the lineup. We've got a nice blend of speed and power. In a 2-1 game, we've got as good a chance to steal a run as anybody."

Nice to know if the Cardinals ever play in a 2-1 game. So far, they have not played in a game in which there were fewer than seven runs scored. They have scored fewer than three runs twice in 25 games. They have lived by the home run through the first four weeks of the season, but they are anything but a one-dimensional team.

Friday night, they defeated the struggling Philadelphia Phillies, 7-4, with an offensive attack that featured three sacrifice flies and a clutch game-turning double by McGwire. The game broke a string of 18 games with at least one home run, but -- in a sense -- that was a positive thing.

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