Tonight marks the first important milestone of the 2009 baseball season.
I think most Cardinals fans would have been thrilled when pitchers and catchers reported three months ago to hear that the Birds would be tied for first place at the 1/5 mark of the season... Especially since they're tied with the Brewers and not the Cubs.
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But those Brewers are the hottest team in baseball, winning 17 of their last 22, and the Cardinals have suddenly lost three of their last four series. Are the April Cardinals for real... or is the May version what we should expect the rest of the season to look like?
Milwaukee is using the formula now that the Redbirds used in April: They're getting decent and steady -- if not dominant -- starting pitching while the offense is piling on the runs. Meanwhile, St. Louis has seen its offense and its starting pitching go down the tubes with the loss of ace Chris Carpenter and two of the top three offensive players on the team -- Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick -- to injury.
What the Cardinals need to do to turn things around:
First, they need to get their injured players back into the lineup. Joe Thurston and Brian Barden have fallen to earth after hot -- and unrealistic starts. So the Ludwicks, Ankiels and Troy Glauses need to get on the field and do what they are expected to do.
Even before Ankiel and Ludwick got hurt, they struggled to certain degrees and it hurt the offense. Ankiel has been searching for the stroke he had in spring training, and seemed to be making strides in the right direction before his unfortunate meeting with the left centerfield wall a little more than a week ago... Ludwick, on the other hand, was slumping and the time he pulled a hamstring. The result was that Albert Pujols hasn't seen a decent pitch with somone on base for a week or two... Those guys need to come back and get healthy.
Second, the Cardinals need to address the shallow and fragile pitching staff.
Was anyone surprised that Chris Carpenter broke down? Maybe they were surprised by the reason. But that doesn't mean it won't be his shoulder the next time... Kyle Lohse says he is okay. But he hasn't been the same since he messed up his knee on a play at first base a couple of weeks ago. With the big dollar guys scuffling, the middle of the rotation guys haven't been able to pick up the slack with Adam Wainwright and Todd Wellemeyer struggling... And a closer look at the numbers reveals that, despite his fast start, Joel Pineiro has been terrible. Opponents are hitting .315 against him for the season and .358 over his last three starts. With two outs and runners in scoring position, opponents bat .409 (9-for-22) off of the hurler known as Joel Pinata in the bleachers.
The Cardinals need to add depth in the rotation because it is obvious not all of these problems are going to be righted -- and stay righted for the rest of the season. They could also use a right handed power bat either at second base or off of the bench. I still believe the Cardinals have the money -- or dry powder, if you will -- to add a pitcher and/or a bat jettisoned by teams that haven't sold 3 milion tickets in a down economy (Cleveland, Florida, Detroit?)
On the bright side, like I said... Ankiel was just warming up when he got hurt. And Ludwick was bound to come out of his recent slump, so the offense should get better.
Khalil Greene has pretty much been terrible all around. It looked like Brendan Ryan might have been poised to steal his job when he got hurt. But, if Greene doesn't start playing better, the competition at the position looks to improve when Ryan and Glaus get back in the lineup. Barden and Ryan could both find themselves in the mix at short with Khalil and Tyler Green... So there are some internal improvements fans should expect.
After tussles with the Brewers, Cubs and upstart Royals, the Cardinals hit a much softer spot in the schedule with a trip to San Francisco followed by a long homestand against the Reds and Rockies (four games each) and visits to Florida and Cleveland.
So, it may look pretty dark for a while. But things could be much better when the calendar page turns to June.