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Thursday, Oct. 9, 2003 02:20 pm

Blue Birds

Cards lick their wounds as the hated Cubs advance

Cardinals reliever Jason Isringhausen has seen the future: "There’s going to be a lot of changes."

From the left field bleachers to the press box, from to the clubhouse to the front office, the refrain is repeated as if rehearsed: The Cardinals didn't make the playoffs this year because of nagging injuries and ineffective pitching.

If only there had been fewer injuries and if only one or two of those off-season pitching acquisitions had paid off, the St. Louis franchise would have made the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. Of course, if fans only would hit five numbers on the Illinois Little Lotto, they'd be able to afford personal seat licenses at the team's planned new stadium.

Compounding the agony for Cards diehards: The hated Cubs took the division title for the first time in 14 years. For weeks now, St. Louis sportswriters and fans have obsessing about what went wrong for their beloved birds this season - and there even have been calls, including a small advertising campaign by fans, seeking manager Tony La Russa's head.

The team's problems are no mystery, though the fixes are less certain.

Of all the injuries to plague the Cards, the one that's cited most often was the lame arm that waylaid reliever Jason Isringhausen early in the season. The Brighton, Ill., native's bum luck became an omen, as the starting pitching staff later weighed with a less-than-effective performance. Off the pitching mound, no one much criticizes the Cardinal starting eight, and why would they? The team finished third in the Central Division not because of, but in spite of, Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria and Scott Rolen's 100-RBI performances. And those field players who might be critiqued -- J.D. Drew, Jim Edmonds and Fernando Vina -- all were injured at various points, to varying degrees.

Lee Janey of Maplewood, Mo., a season ticket holder and the kind of fan who paints his face red and white for home openers and final regular-season games, knows why the Cardinals didn't make the cut. Standing in line for a beer, sporting a Pujols shirt and Dale Earnhardt pants, Janey sums up the season. "Pitching. Starting pitching was the problem and we lost our closer," says Janey, referring to Isringhausen. "The 26 games we lost by one run, that made the difference."

Most painful to Janey and legions of other red-clad fans was that the beginning of the end started on Aug. 24 in Wrigley Field. "What changed the whole perspective was the Chicago series," Janey says. "We went up there for five games and we lost four out of five."

The Cardinals entered that Cub series in first place; they left Chi-town out of first and fading. The next weekend the Cardinals continued their downward slide, dropping three games in Houston, keeping the Astros in first place.

That September collapse led some to suspect the team's competitive fire, a view not shared by Bing Devine, the general manager who assembled the World Champion '64 Cardinals. "Some teams give you the feeling that they play harder than others, or that they enjoy it more, but I would never say this team wasn't trying," Devine says. "After all, it's their livelihood. They may not work out as well as a team, but individually they all want to do the best job they can."

Like virtually everybody else with an opinion, Devine knows what the team needs. "The pitching has been the biggest problem," Devine says. "They have to do something about pitching, no question."

Red Schoendienst, manager of the Cardinals' '67 World Championship team, agrees that not having a reliable closer early in the year "hurt us tremendously." Schoendienst says the team's hitters "scored enough runs" but that the relief pitching early and the starting pitching throughout wasn't consistent. And the field players had their own problems.

"So many guys were hurt," Schoendienst says. "The only ones who kept playing were Pujols, Renteria and Rolen. That's about it."

In 2002, much was written and spoken about the Cardinals' overcoming adversity to reach the play-offs and get to the National League Championship Series [D.J. Wilson, "Wait 'til next year," Illinois Times, Oct. 17, 2002]. The death of longtime Cards broadcaster Jack Buck and the unexpected death of pitcher Darryl Kile shook up the team, but somehow the players pulled together and almost made it to the World Series.

Cards broadcaster Mike Shannon says he felt the 2002 season still lingered over the clubhouse. "That really took a lot out of this team," he says. "There's no doubt about that."

Shannon may be correct, but in a fundamental way, not an intangible way. What the Cardinals really miss is not Darryl Kile, the team leader and mentor, but Darryl Kile, the team's No. 2 starter. On most teams, Morris would be the top starting pitcher and Woody Williams, an overachieving journeyman pitcher, would be the No. 3 starter. With Kile's death, Williams moved up in the pecking order and the team signed Brent Tomko in the off-season, slating him in the No. 3 slot. At best, Tomko could be a good team's fourth or fifth starter, not the third best.

Now that the season is over, the surgeon general is general manager Walt Jocketty. He drew some heat for not getting pitching help during the season. Some suspect the team's owners wouldn't pay for new pitching talent. Jocketty disagrees.

"Money wasn't a factor in this at all. People thought we should have made deals earlier but there just weren't deals to be made earlier for us," says Jocketty. "The deals we did make we tried to make in July especially with Milwaukee but they weren't yet prepared to trade [Mike] DeJean. It wasn't going to happen until August."

Jocketty insists he's not using injuries as an excuse, but they were a "big factor" in the Cardinals ending their play at the end of the regular season.

"Injuries were the biggest factor that affected us. Izzy was gone a lot longer than we anticipated early in the year. He was out two months. Morris missed six or seven starts; [Eli] Marrero was out most of the year. Those are key guys."

"Yet we still had an opportunity in September to win this thing but we had a tough couple of weeks. It's a small percentage," says Jocketty referring to the three-game difference between first and third place over a 162-game season. "It's frustrating. It'll be hard to think about over the winter."

But think about it they will, and act accordingly. Trades will be made, new acquisitions attempted. Conventional speculation, in which Jocketty won't indulge in publicly, has the Cardinals unloading one or two of the threesome of Tino Martinez, J.D. Drew and Jim Edmonds for a starting pitcher. It's a given that Fernando Vina, who played out his contract, won't be back.

A new lead-off hitter is sought, but Vina's departure won't bring any new pitching help unless some of the money that would have been spent on Vina goes to a new pitcher. The same goes for Martinez who might be shipped elsewhere, with the Cardinals paying most of his salary just so another team could pick up some of his tab and St. Louis can use that savings to sign a pitcher.

After the last home game, Tomko said he doesn't "want to break the bank" and would like to stay in St. Louis. Even though he was a disappointment early in the season, he had eight second-half-of-the-season wins. He could stay on if the price is right.

Jocketty and the team's owners have decisions to make. There are 16 players who are either free agents or have "club options" for next year, which means the club must decide whether to offer a contract extension.

One thing that Jocketty claims won't affect his decision making is the new stadium. Once it's built, he foresees it helping the ownership's bottom line and that could translate into help on the field.

"It won't affect what we do next year," says Jocketty. "If you project out beyond '05, if we're in a new stadium in '06, it certainly changes the economies of what we're able to do."

Bill DeWitt, one of the primary owners of the team, says he's "optimistic" that financing for the new stadium will come together this month. His team has made the playoffs four times in the eight years he's been an owner and made it to the National League Championship three times in that span.

"We've just haven't gotten over the top," DeWitt says about not making it to the World Series. "We've got the kind of club once we get into the playoffs we can be successful."

This year, DeWitt says, the team wasn't that far off the pace.

"We lost a lot of games we figured to win. We led the league in blown saves. Those games are hard to make up," DeWitt says. "Even though we were a game ahead with three weeks to go, we had a tough schedule down the stretch."

Isringhausen remains the closer for this team, and as he dressed after the last home game of the season, he was upbeat about his next season and uncertain about what the team would look like. For a 31-year-old who has endured five major operations, not to mention a bout with tuberculosis while in the Major Leagues, he's looking forward to an off-season with a reasonably healthy arm.

"The arm feels good," says Isringhausen, a graduate of Southwestern High School in Piasa. "It'll be good to rest this winter and not have to rehab all winter like usual. Last year I had to stay here [in St. Louis] and rehab at the stadium all off season."

Isringhausen expects changes in the clubhouse, but he knows his role. "There's going to be a lot of changes. We'll see what kind of a team we've got," Isringhausen says. "I'm not the ownership or the people in charge. We'll just see what happens."

And wait 'til next year.

Also from D. J. Wilson

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