t1_albertpujols.jpg

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m very happy and somewhat surprised by the Cardinals so far this season.

Sure, we’re towards the top of the standings, but that’s not why I’m happy necessarily. We’ve had great pitching thus far, and though that gives me a nervous thrill, that’s not even why I’m happy. Our hitting looks functional and our defense looks vastly improved, but even those things aren’t really why I’m so happy with the redbirds.

I’m happy because they are once again fun to watch.

Last season was brutal. Chris Carpenter, our ace, hit the DL after one game. Josh Hancock, a serviceable reliever, got killed in a car wreck. Rolen, Eckstein and Edmonds were on the field as much as their aging bodies allowed, but it’s not all that exciting to see a third of your bating order pop up to second base 70% of the time. There just wasn’t much good baseball being played and the team never captured my imagination. All of that vibe is gone now. I’m actually looking forward to the rest of the season, no matter what our record ends up being.

I like studying up about on base percentages and slugging percentages and ERAs and all that, and I believe in statistics as pretty good indicators about what you’re going to get from a player. Still, I also think there’s a lot to be said for competition and enthusiasm. If you have a team full of high paid veterans, those boys are pretty sure they’re going to be playing every day whether they deserve it or not. I hate to mention Detroit here, but you know what I mean. No one’s pushing them to make them better or possibly take their job.

On the other hand, almost every player on the Cardinals is fighting not only to get in the starting line up, but just to stay up with the big ball club. We’ve got five outfielders playing their collective asses off just so they can keep their job. I’m sure it’s probably stressful for them, but I’m also sure they’re as focused on the game as they’ve ever been. Schumaker, Ankiel, Duncan, Barton, and Ludwick aren’t exactly household names, but with LaRussa mixing and matching them against different pitchers, they all have a chance to succeed.

The same thing is true for most of the pitching staff. Wainwright seems to be a pretty solid pitcher, so he’ll probably have a job all summer, but after that, nothing is written in stone. Lohse looks pretty solid, almost great so far, but he still knows fellas like Mulder, Pineiro, and Clement are coming back from injuries soon, so he needs to keep it up or he may find himself in the bullpen. Looper, Thompson, Wellemeyer, and Reyes all seem to be basically fighting to continue having some sort of baseball careers in St. Louis. That sort of thing just makes guys play harder, smarter, and better.

We’ve got more speed than we’ve had for a couple of years also. It’s not necessarily base stealing speed, but its base running speed and outfield speed. A fast guy is a little bit faster when he has to hustle, and so far this year, that’s what we’re seeing, a quick team that plays a hard nine innings and hustles it’s ass off. We throw to the right bases, hit the ball the other way to advance a base runner, take pitches so the opposing pitcher has to work hard, and play solid defense. It’s all a bunch of little things, but if you do them right, you usually end up with the bigger number on the scoreboard at the end of the day.

Playing Milwaukee about nine times in the next two weeks should be a good indicator as to whether hustle and hard work will be enough for us to compete in the division. I hope I still think they’re a “fun” team after that.