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Cards staff can carry team a long way

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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JUPITER, Fla.

It’s amazing what you see in spring training. I hopped in my rental car Thursday morning, exited the interstate at Donald Ross Road, arrived at the St. Louis Cardinals’ headquarters and discovered, much to my amazement, a group of major league players preparing for the 2011 season.

Shocking. Just last month, so many hardball pundits declared that the Cardinals’ season had been scuttled after 20-game winner Adam Wainwright underwent season-ending surgery.

The National League Central amounted to a two-team race, of which the Cardinals would not be a party.

Or so we were told.

“That’s good,” Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan said. “Let them feel that way.”

There will be no underestimations of St. Louis here. Come September, the Cardinals will be involved in the pennant race. I promise. They always are.

While Zack Greinke was busy trying out for the Milwaukee Bucks, Duncan and manager Tony La Russa went about their annual routine of fashioning a good pitching staff from underrated parts.

Suddenly it’s the Brewers, not the Cardinals, with the acute pitching worries. Greinke will miss Opening Day – and possibly several weeks after that – because of his roundball rib fracture. And there is fresh concern about fellow starter Shaun Marcum, who left Thursday’s start with tightness in his throwing shoulder.

Understand this about Marcum: He is a resilient, highly competitive Midwesterner. He wrestled in high school. He must have been experiencing very real pain in order to leave that game, even if it was in the middle of March. (Also of note: Marcum underwent Tommy John elbow surgery two years ago.)

Much of the optimism surrounding this Milwaukee team had to do with the twin acquisitions of Greinke and Marcum. Now it’s conceivable that neither of them will be ready for the regular season.

The Cardinals? Entering Thursday, they had allowed the second fewest runs in the major leagues this spring. And in Kyle McClellan, they have a four-pitch righty capable of replacing Wainwright.

“I knew the whole time we were going to be fine,” said Jaime Garcia, the lone lefty in a formidable rotation that should include Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse and McClellan. “We’re confident about the group of guys we have. Everybody’s excited.”

McClellan was a starter for part of his minor league career. But he’s been more valuable to La Russa out of the bullpen, where he had a 3.23 ERA in more than 200 innings during the past three years. If his spring showing is any indication, the transition back to the rotation will be smooth.

He certainly has the stuff to start, with a sinker that reaches 93 miles per hour. And his off-speed pitches are so refined that he’s limited lefties to a meager .622 OPS.

Perhaps most importantly, he seems unaffected by the pressure of replacing one of the majors’ best starters in a baseball-crazed town.

“Once I got told I was going to be in the starting group (this spring), I had an expectation for myself that exceeds what any fan, teammate, or coach has,” McClellan said. “I know what I need to do. That’s what I’m working for – not what other people want me to do.”

Since we’re on the subject of outside expectations … and it’s impossible to talk about the Cardinals without mentioning the big guy at first base … just how much of a distraction has Albert Pujols’ contractual status been this spring?

STARTLING ROTATIONS

Fearsome pitchers leave opposing lineups trembling. Which teams boasted the best staffs ever?

“Really, in my opinion, it was the media trying to stir it all up,” McClellan said. “Albert’s contract has nothing to do with me, nothing to do with any of us. It’s his deal. We all go through it in our own situation. His is a little more public than everyone else’s. Ultimately, I’ve never been on the mound and been worried about if Albert Pujols is coming back next year.

“Until that happens, it’s not affecting me. After (he reported to camp), nobody’s said a word about it.”

Instead, pitching has been the focus. As it should be.

The ace Carpenter did become a health concern himself, with a left hamstring injury that has limited him to two starts this spring. But he lasted four innings against the Tigers on Wednesday and reported no issues the following day. He should be ready to go in the season opener.

Meanwhile, Lohse’s progress might be the most encouraging development of all. He barely pitched last year after undergoing surgery to correct a neuromuscular condition in his right forearm. But he’s beginning to remind the Cardinals why they gave him a four-year, $41 million contract extension after the 2008 season. Teammates have been very impressed with his restored repertoire and performance (2-0, 1.38 ERA) this spring.

Observed catcher Gerald Laird: “His stuff is back. He’s locating. There’s bite on every pitch.”

At this point, the more pressing concern might not be McClellan’s performance, but McClellan’s replacement.

McClellan has been the eighth-inning stalwart in front of closer Ryan Franklin, a role that could belong to one (or more) of three hard-throwing right-handers: Jason Motte, 28; Mitchell Boggs, 27; and Fernando Salas, 25. Motte and Salas are coming off seasons in which they averaged about one strikeout per inning in the big leagues.

“Everybody forgets about Salas,” Duncan said of the Huatabampo, Mexico, native who debuted last May 28. “He did a helluva job for us last year, and he’s throwing well again this spring.”

McClellan quipped that he didn’t do “that great of a job that it’s not possible for somebody to step in.” That’s modest of him to say – and quite typical of the Cardinal ethic. La Russa and Duncan always seem to find someone. The Cincinnati Reds might well repeat as division champs, but St. Louis will stay with them, pitch for pitch, from now until October.

Tagged: Brewers, Cardinals, Kyle Lohse, Albert Pujols, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Kyle McClellan, Fernando Salas

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