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Cards' run exceeded expectations

Cards' run exceeded expectations

ST. LOUIS -- The cavalry never arrived, but the Cardinals have never given up the fight.

A team widely predicted to finish as an also-ran surged into contention early and has stayed in the hunt to the end. Although the Cards' grip on a playoff spot slipped away in July, and the margin has gradually grown, few outside the home clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium even saw this much in the '08 Redbirds back in Spring Training.

It's hard to remember Spring Training now. But at the time, most forecasters had St. Louis as a second-division team, out of its depth in comparison to the better clubs in the National League. It's now true that the Cardinals may yet finish in the second division, but that's a function of a remarkably resurgent National League Central, not a losing season.

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As is so often the case, some elements of the team that looked like questions in Florida have turned out to be strengths, while some evident strong points have not held up as such. But the sum of all the units has been a pretty good ballclub, even if it turns out that October is quiet at Busch Stadium.

Thanks to injuries and uncertainties, the Cardinals rotation looked like a major question back in the spring. Mark Mulder was expected back in May or June, followed by Chris Carpenter in July or August, while Matt Clement's health and availability were unclear.

General manager John Mozeliak addressed the uncertainty in Spring Training, though, giving the club a boost by signing free agent Kyle Lohse to a one-year deal. Lohse instantly improved the depth and quality of the starting five, a unit that has turned out to exceed expectations by quite a bit.

And that's despite the fact that neither Carpenter nor Mulder provided what was hoped. Carpenter returned from Tommy John elbow-ligament replacement surgery in July but made only four starts and a relief appearance before shoulder troubles ended his season. Mulder didn't last an inning before his recurring shoulder injury forced him back on the shelf.

Even ace pro tempore Adam Wainwright missed more than two months with a finger injury. Yet names like Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper provided solid stability for a rotation that ranks sixth in the league in ERA.

"They've consistently given us a chance to win as a group," manager Tony La Russa said earlier this year. "They're doing all the things to get themselves ready, and when they go out there, they compete. High class."

The ongoing story of the season, meanwhile, has been at the other end of the pitching staff. The bullpen was arguably the greatest strength of the 2007 team, and the unit returned virtually intact. But the group has been in flux for most of the year, and until recently, the ninth inning has often been a mishmash.

The Cards are 12th in the league in bullpen ERA, tied for first in relief losses and all alone for the most blown saves.

And that's despite a fine start to the year. Jason Isringhausen came out of the gates firing, starting the season with six scoreless outings and eight saves in his first nine chances. But he quickly slumped, and by mid-May, he was on the disabled list. Officially, he was listed with a hand laceration, but the hope was that Isringhausen would rehab his confidence as well as his pitching hand.

It never really took.

Ryan Franklin pitched well in the ninth while Isringhausen was gone, but when the former closer returned, the situation got ugly. Franklin struggled. Isringhausen was briefly reinstated but again didn't get the job done. Finally, rookie Chris Perez was recalled from the Minors, and he has helped stabilize the back of the 'pen.

In between April and Perez's ascension in August, though, a lot of opportunities were lost.

"Regardless of how you look at it, it's a frustrating situation when you think of how we've lost a lot of these games late in the game," Mozeliak said the day before Perez was recalled. "A lot of them come to mind. It's unfortunate."

Even through all that, though, the Cards hung in. Ryan Ludwick has enjoyed a dizzying breakout season that likely will garner him some MVP votes. Albert Pujols has put up, by some measures, his best campaign and may be the MVP favorite. Troy Glaus, Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker and Rick Ankiel all provided significant contributions to an offense that is much improved over '07.

Thanks largely to the rotation, the Cardinals stormed through May with an 18-11 record and a share of first place. They stayed within a game or two of the lead for most of May, spending two last days with a share of first place in late May.

With no long winning or losing streaks, the Redbirds churned along, staying several games above .500 and atop the NL Wild Card race all the way through the All-Star break. The defining moments of the season, however, likely came in late July.

St. Louis, leading the NL Wild Card at that time, hosted the Brewers for four big games. And the Cards dropped all four -- three of them after leading by at least two runs, three of them in Milwaukee's final at-bat.

The Cards briefly moved back ahead of the Brewers with a strong road trip in late July -- this was an excellent road team for nearly the entire season -- but fell back into third place on Aug. 2 and haven't been in playoff position since.

So if this is how it ends, it will be a disappointing finish in a town accustomed to October baseball. But the '08 Cardinals have already exceeded many expectations, and the season isn't over yet.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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