Senior Writer

Cards' grit thus far may not answer questions to come


Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday and now the big one: Albert Pujols on the St. Louis shelf, leaving the baseball picture looking through the Arch even muddier than the mighty Mississippi below it.

As if there's not enough drama, pain and angst in this Cardinals hardball season, and as if there weren't already enough questions surrounding Pujols' future, now comes a left wrist fracture, four-to-six weeks on ice and the biggest challenge yet for Tony La Russa's gritty club.

This was not the Monday news the Cardinals wanted to wake up to.

But it is the kind of news they've been waking up to all season.

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That the Cardinals are tied for first place in the NL Central with Wainwright out, eight players on the disabled list and with Chris Carpenter having produced just one victory is crazy.

There were people who wrote off the entire Cardinals season when they lost starting right-hander Wainwright this spring.

Then Holliday had an emergency appendectomy on April 1 and missed seven games, then landed on the disabled list with a quadriceps strain last month while he was leading the NL with a .342 batting average.

The list of fallen Cardinals goes on, from third baseman David Freese (broken hand) to backup catcher Gerald Laird (broken finger), but we'll skip all those gory details. There are so many that, eventually, your eyes glaze over like when one of Grandpa's stories moves onto, "Then, my drive on the 14th hole ...."

What's important now is that the Cardinals are stuck without their middle-of-the-order rock just when Pujols was finally turning around his season.

During the slowest start of his career, Pujols went a career-high 105 at-bats without a homer from April 24-May 23. It was like watching Bruce Springsteen on stage singing with a dead microphone. On May 4, Pujols was hitting .233. By May 29, his slugging percentage had dipped to .395. There was no sound, no power ... nothing.

Everyone knew it would be only a matter of time until Pujols flexed, which is what makes the timing of this fractured wrist so miserable for the Cardinals.

Since May 31, Pujols' 14 extra-base hits are among the NL leaders, as are his eight homers in June. He pummeled homers in four consecutive games earlier this month, including back-to-back walkoff shots on June 4 and 5.

Though still 50 points below his career average, Pujols has pushed his batting average up to a season-high .279. At .500, his slugging percentage is the highest it's been since the second day of the season.

It is this, combined with Lance Berkman's sensational bounce-back season, Holliday's spurts and sturdy pitching (hello Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Kyle McClellan), that has pushed the Cardinals so far forward that they're tied with Milwaukee for first in the NL Central despite losing seven in a row last week.

Now this.

Pujols has been on the disabled list just twice in his career, and the Cardinals are not accustomed to playing without him. Since 2006, Tony La Russa has only written 23 lineups that did not include Pujols' name.

The bizarre thing is, this season started with visions of the Cardinals without Pujols, only not quite so soon. Entering the final year of his contract before free agency this winter, Pujols set an extension deadline of the day he reported to spring training.

When that didn't happen, Pujols spent 30 minutes talking with the media that February day about an uncertain future, vowing that would be the last time he spoke of his personal situation.

He's kept that promise, even following a much-celebrated pre-game hug with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry at Wrigley Field in May that fueled all kinds of Pujols-as-a-future-Cub speculation.

As La Russa told me in May, "He's very conscious that he doesn't want to distract from what we're trying to do. And that's a very honorable thing to do."

Measured against this, the Cardinals undoubtedly would take those distractions in a heartbeat.

At best, Pujols will be back, sometime between July 20 and Aug. 1.

But beyond that, there are questions that right now cannot be answered.

Wrist injuries can punish hitters long after they're again playable, especially someone with the quick wrists and bat speed of Pujols. Baltimore's Derrek Lee had his 2010 season ruined by one that still isn't right, and a bad wrist wrecked Vernon Wells' 2009 in Toronto.

Once Pujols returns, can he again this summer be the same hitter he's been for the past month, or will he be hobbled?

And at 31 (his listed age), what of his impending contract negotiations? Teams will consider his age and the fact that by today's post-Steroid Era standards, he probably doesn't have more than two or three more years left in his prime. And that's with two good wrists.

That the Cardinals are tied for first place today is a credit to their resiliency, pluck and to Pujols' turnaround. Lance Berkman is a great insurance policy to plug into first, and the NL Central is still winnable even with Pujols out temporarily.

But until he is back and swinging hard, there will be some very unsettling questions as background noise.


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