The St. Louis Cardinals sent a message to the rest of the National League over the past couple of weeks. They pitched and pounded their way to the top of the NL Central standings, and they did it largely without superstar slugger Mark McGwire.
McGwire, who has been coping with a sore back, returned to the lineup Thursday night and took part in a lopsided victory over the San Diego Padres, but the Cardinals have proved that they finally are a complete team even when Big Mac is stuck on the sideline.
Newcomer Jim Edmonds has proved that the impact of a league change is vastly overrated, adapting to NL pitching so fast that he is beginning to look like a legitimate MVP candidate. J.D. Drew is beginning to fulfil his tremendous potential. New leadoff man Fernando Vina is flirting with a .400 batting average. The rest of the lineup has been steady and productive.
A glance at the box score from Wednesday night's victory over the Padres reveals only one member of the starting lineup (other than the pitcher) with a batting average below .286.
And this after general manager Walt Jocketty insisted all winter that his top priority was improving the pitching staff.
Of course, he did that, too, acquiring veteran pitchers Pat Hentgen and Darryl Kile and signing free agent Andy Benes. The results: The three entered the weekend with a combined 7-2 record. Factor in a combined 4-1 record for fourth and fifth starters Rick Ankiel and Garrett Stephenson, and it appears that manager Tony La Russa finally has the pitching staff to take the Cardinals deep into the postseason.
The emergence of Ankiel has been a bonus. The 20-year-old left-hander has won two of three decisions and -- get this -- is hitting .556. He went 3-for-3 with a home run Thursday. The kid has Rookie of the Year written all over him. Now, for the obvious question: If the Cardinals look this good without a healthy McGwire in the lineup, just how good will they be when he really gets into the swing of things?
What a scary thought for the rest of the NL Central.
Most teams would be second-guessing themselves for unloading a player like Anaheim Angels second baseman Adam Kennedy, especially after he tied a club record with eight RBIs in Tuesday's 16-10 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Cardinals made that decision during spring training, dealing Kennedy and Kent Bottenfield to the Angels for Edmonds, but have no reason to regret including Kennedy in the deal.
They needed a leadoff man and acquired Vina, who entered the weekend hitting .386 with a .449 on-base percentage. He has been a major component in the surging St. Louis offense. Kennedy has found a home in the Angels' lineup, batting .362 and ranking among the team leaders with 13 RBIs.
He was clearly the offensive catalyst during the four-game series against the Blue Jays, going 8- for-18 with two doubles, a triple and a grand slam. Too bad that the 32 runs scored by the club in the four-game series only led to one victory.
"He's doing everything you could ask a ballplayer to do," said manager Mike Scioscia. "He's gifted with tremendous hand-eye coordination. His swing is not textbook, but he generates tremendous leverage for a guy his size. This guy is driven and has a passion for the game."
The Blue Jays are reeling from a week in which their pitching staff gave up double-digit run totals in five of seven games. They managed to win three of four from the Angels, but that could only be small consolation after a three-game series last weekend in which the Seattle Mariners scored 47.
"Horrendous," general manager Gord Ash said after a 19-7 defeat last Sunday. "I don't think you can sugarcoat 40-what runs over three days."
The pitching meltdown had to put a few dents in the notion that the Blue Jays have one of the most promising young staffs in baseball. The Jays gave up an average of 11 runs over a seven-game span.
"I don't think our scouting and evaluation can be that off," Ash said. "It has nothing to do with [manager] Jim Fregosi and his coaches. "So what if you can throw 97 miles per hour? These guys are blessed with good arms, but what does that mean if you're just going to throw it down the pipe? These guys have not understood the total dynamic of pitching, which also includes location and movement."
Ivan the Great
Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez has won eight consecutive Gold Gloves, but don't be surprised if he ends up winning one at second base before his career is over.
Rodriguez plans to catch two or three more years, but believes that the strain of playing behind the plate every day will begin to pull down his offensive numbers. He hopes to lengthen his career by moving to one of the infield positions, and second base might be the logical place to go.
"He's a good athlete, he has good hands and a good arm," said Rangers infield coach Bucky Dent. "It would be a matter of him learning to play over there. [Craig] Biggio did it. I think he could, too."
Sometimes, it seems as if Rodriguez can do anything he wants to on a baseball field. During batting practice on Wednesday -- just for yucks -- he took two swings left-handed.
Both balls landed well into the outfield bleachers.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn wanted to send a congratulatory message to Cal Ripken last weekend, but found out that it's probably better just to pick up the phone.
The Padres contacted Western Union, only to find out that the legendary telegraph company no longer delivers to Minneapolis. So Padres public relations man Glenn Geffner had Gwynn write out the note longhand and then faxed it to the Orioles' team hotel.
Ripken, of course, doesn't stay in the team hotel, but Geffner figured someone would forward it to him. Just to be safe, he also sent the original to Camden Yards by Federal Express on Monday.