Season-defining injury

LaRussa has a knack for taking injury-depleted teams and turning them into contenders.

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Posted: Sunday, June 26, 2011 12:00 am

On the first day of Life Without Albert, the man whose name is always in the big lights on the St. Louis Cardinals Busch Stadium marquee was trying his best to change the season's rather dramatic story line.

"We're in first place," Albert Pujols told the media horde surrounding him three deep in front of his locker stall long before Tuesday night's game. "The season is not about me. It's about the team."

Well, yes and no. In the great big baseball universe that is known as Cardinal Nation, there is little that goes on within this sphere that does not somehow directly or indirectly relate to the three-time NL Most Valuable Player.

But now more than ever, it's hard for this to not be about Albert, not when he was standing there with a black soft cast/splint wrapped around his broken left wrist and updated medical reports forecast that he could be lost for six to eight weeks instead of the earlier optimism of a four- to six-week absence.

How can this not be about Pujols when within a matter of minutes after speaking to reporters, video of his interview was being flashed breathlessly across the clubhouse's big-screen TV on ESPN with a splashy "Breaking News" sweep?

Until he returns to action, until they take that splint off his wrist and give Pujols the green light to swing a bat in anger again, until he is back in the everyday lineup pounding the ball over fences with regularity, this saga will most certainly continue to be largely about Pujols.

And even though he wisely refuses to talk about it, that won't stop the rest of the baseball world from pondering the larger meaning of his injury as Pujols approaches offseason free agency hoping to cash in on a record-breaking contract.

It is the hottest topic in the game now, with everyone debating what sort of impact that fractured bone will have on Albert's future earnings potential. For the first 48 hours after the injury, I heard dozens of baseball scholars, wise guys, know-it-alls and even a few naive interlopers opine on the subject all across the country. Some believe the injury could have a seismic negative effect on his business dealings. Others more optimistically are just as convinced that it won't matter one iota.

Yet no one can quite nail it down, can they, and you know why?

Because no matter how scholarly, witty, deeply informed or wildly ill-informed we all may think we are, the truth is, everybody's guessing.

Only time will tell whether Pujols will break the bank this winter.

In the meantime, the easier guessing game to indulge in is this more immediate question: How much longer can the Cardinals contend in the NL Central without Pujols and with this rapidly fraying pitching staff continuing to trend in the wrong direction? St. Louis fell out of first place this week.

On Day One of Life Without Albert, the scariest sight of all wasn't seeing Pujols with his hand and a splint wrapped up. It was the agonizing procession of relievers who kept coming out of the right field bullpen in the eighth inning of Tuesday's 10-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Cardinals went into the top of the eighth with a 2-1 lead and five pitchers later they mercifully escaped trailing, 10-2. Sixty-four pitches, nine runs, four walks, five hits, two hit batters are just the broad strokes of the collapse. For all the gory details check the game story and box score. We will only provide the sound effects here.

Doink . . . Thunk . . . Plunk . . . Splat . . . Whack . . . Groan!

It makes no sense to decide after one ugly evening that this is what's in store for the next six weeks, because this disaster had nothing to do with the absence of Pujols in the lineup.

But I think it does let you know right away that in order for the Cardinals to continue to survive the rash of injuries that have hit them since they first arrived in Jupiter, Fla., nearly five months ago, they can't have too many breakdowns like this.

This team has been performing miracles all season long, but lately it has been hard not to notice how much the same arms that kept this team afloat for the first two months have started to sag the last few weeks.

As he sat in his clubhouse office before the game, manager Tony La Russa was reflecting on how well his team has done so far in handling the injuries. His reputation around baseball is that this is just the sort of crisis that he thrives in. You get the idea from listening to the baseball talking heads on TV that La Russa absolutely loves coming to work knowing that he is going to have to juggle knives, dodge bullets and pull a few miracles out of his managerial trick bag every night. La Russa quickly dispelled those rumors.

"Hell no," he said without even looking up.

He said no one in their right mind wants to deal with this much turmoil.

"The goal every year is you have your club set up and you want to see how good they (really) are."

After 33 years, La Russa isn't necessarily excited by the challenge, but he is realistic about it and knows how to deal with it. He could recall only two seasons as a manager where things went practically injury-free and almost on cruise control for 162 games (1988 when his Oakland A's won 104 games and 2000 when the Cards won 95), so he learned quickly to accept the reality that there will be more than a few bumps in the road to ruin a manager's best-laid plans.

"But this (season) is excessive," said the manager as he mentally flipped through the 14 moves the club has already made to the disabled list, and we're still more than a dozen games away from the All-Star break.

La Russa was glad that one of the shortcomings of last year -- a lack of depth -- was solved in the offseason. But much of that depth has been eroded by the never-ending cycle of bumps, bruises, breaks and tears. For 2 1/2 months it has been darned impressive to watch this team continue to find ways to do more than just hang in there. Since April 20, the Cards had been in first place 52 out of a possible 62 days. As of Tuesday, they were still leading the league in batting (.272), hits and on-base percentage (.344), were second in runs scored and third in slugging percentage (.416).

"We've already had 2 1/2 months of this," said La Russa, trying to explain why he is convinced that his team is capable of continuing to plug along while Pujols is gone. But he also says he won't allow the players to assume that just because they've been doing it so well without so many key players that they will simply keep on doing it without Albert, too. And now the pitching continues to erode, it's impossible not to worry about this disturbing downward trend.

And that's why on the first day of Life Without Albert, we quickly discovered why for managers like La Russa, juggling figurative knives and literal bullpen arms is even less fun than it looks.

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