A DEEP TEAM RISES TO TOP : Despite Injuries, Cardinals Are Flying High and Leading NL East

Times Staff Writer

You look for the St. Louis Cardinals on the endangered species list and find them leading the National League East instead.

How do they do it?

How do they overcome the fact that they haven't been able to start their regular lineup since June 23 of last year, or that they've had nine players on the disabled list through the first three months of the 1987 season, or that at one debilitating point they had seven players on that list, or that they've used seven different right fielders alone?

But there's more to it. How do the Cardinals overcome the feeling that the hops brewing in owner August Busch's vats have thrown the planets out of whack?

Bizarre? It isn't only the injuries, it's the how and the when.

--Catalytic leadoff hitter Vince Coleman was lost for the final three games of the 1985 playoff when his left leg was injured by the mechanical tarp at Busch Stadium.

--Pitcher Danny Cox missed 11 starts when he sprained his ankle on the eve of the 1986 season jumping off a Florida seawall.

--Pitcher John Tudor will be out until August with a broken leg suffered April 19 when he was leveled by New York Met catcher Barry Lyons barreling into the Cards' dugout.

--Shortstop Ozzie Smith missed a week in April after injuring himself sliding into . . . first base.

--Catcher Tony Pena, obtained from the Pittsburgh Pirates in an April Fools' Day trade, went on the 21-day disabled list with a broken left thumb incurred in the third game of the season when hit by a pitch.

--Second baseman Tom Herr, only four days later, tore a groin muscle running out a single. Replacement Jose Oquendo promptly strained a muscle in his rib cage.

There's more, of course, but the trend should be clear. Only third baseman Terry Pendleton has failed to miss a game this season because of injury. Only the arch has managed to remain standing.

"We were already two pitchers short to start the season," Manager Whitey Herzog said, alluding to relief pitchers Jeff Lahti, who has been out since early in the 1986 season with a rotator cuff problem that has probably ended his career, and Ken Dayley, who recently returned after being sidelined since last July 1 with an elbow injury.

"Then we lose the catcher we had just acquired," Herzog said, referring to Pena, "our No. 1 starter (Tudor), our No. 1 second baseman (Herr) and our No. 2 second baseman (Oquendo).

"It's been the strangest thing I've ever seen. They come out of spring training in great shape, then the season starts and they're pulling muscles right and left. I know other teams have injuries, but how many go a year without their regular lineup?"

Which prompts the original question:

How have the wounded Cardinals, who finished 28 1/2 games behind the Mets last year, produced their best start since 1967, opening a 6 1/2-game lead in the East?

How has an offense that was last in the league in virtually every category last year resurfaced as a multi-faceted weapon that leads the league in almost all of those same categories, reviving memories of 1985 when the Cardinals won 101 games and came within a disputed call by umpire Don Denkinger of winning the World Series?

How?

There are several answers.

1--The Cardinals are 6-3 against the Mets and clearly not intimidated.

"As I've said many times, the Mets have a good team, but not what I would call a dominating team," Herzog said. "I don't think you can have a dominating team with Howard Johnson and Rafael Santana on the left side of the infield.

"Last year, they never had a serious injury until Gary Carter went out in August. They would have won the division anyway because of the way all of the other teams were hurt, but they wouldn't have won the pennant if it hadn't been for Fred Brocklander."

Brocklander is the National League umpire who was working first base in Game 5 of the playoffs and made a controversial call against the Houston Astros on a double play that ended the second inning and cost the Astros a run in a game they lost, 2-1. A win in that game would have given the Astros, rather than the Mets, a 3-2 series lead and assured them, at least, of a seventh game with Mike Scott pitching. The Mets closed it out in six games.

The assertion that Brocklander's decision enhanced the aura of Mets' dominance may be stretching some, but Herzog's overall view of the Mets is shared by his players.

Said first baseman Jack Clark: "I think they're a good team, not a great team. If they win it this year it will be more legitimate because nobody really threatened them last year, but I don't see the Mets dominating like Cincinnati and Oakland did in the '70s. I just don't think they're that strong."

Said relief pitcher Todd Worrell: "I never felt the Mets were going to win it again. There's no dynasties now. There's too much balance. All things equal, I expected a dogfight in this division, but I think we have the better team in more ways. We can score more runs without a hit than any team in baseball. I think that over a 162-game schedule, we play the game the way it should be played."

Added Herzog, thinking about the Chicago Cubs in 1985 and his Cardinals in 1986 and maybe the Mets this year: "I'm never concerned with the other club because this has proved to be a funny division. Over the last few years, the favorite hardly ever wins it."

2--Refusing to alibi, the Cardinals seem conditioned to the injuries.

"You can't make a scene about it," Herzog said. "You can't cry about it or the players start feeling sorry for themselves. I may have one or two more Buds than I normally would, but we've generally proved that we can live with the injuries. We won a World Series in '82 when we brought up Willie McGee to replace David Green, who had been injured, and we won (a pennant) in '85 when people said we couldn't because of the loss of Bruce Sutter. We only had the best bullpen in the game without him."

Said Ozzie Smith: "You haven't heard a lot of crying because one of the strengths of this club is that we don't worry about what we don't have, we make the most of what we do have. Whitey is probably the best there is at using the talent and getting the most out of people. We may not have the greatest talent in the world, but everyone knows their role and can reach back for that something extra."

3--While the Dodger farm system was unable to respond to the injury wave of last season, the Cardinals continue to come up with replacements.

"This is probably the most self-sufficient organization in baseball," Worrell said. "Joe Magrane comes up to help hold things together until Tudor comes back. Steve Lake and Tom Pagnozzi do a good job filling in for Pena."

And infielder Rod Booker, initially recalled to replace Oquendo when he was hurt replacing Herr, is batting .344. Oquendo, healthy again and having played every position except pitcher and catcher, is hitting .319. Curt Ford, replacing an injured Tito Landrum (given his release Saturday) who was replacing the injured rookie starter Jim Lindeman in right, is batting .331. Lake, the reserve catcher, is batting .270.

Veterans Pat Perry and Rick Horton have joined with Worrell (17 saves) to help fill the 30-save vacuum created by the injuries to Lahti and Dayley.

Herzog likes to say, "Thank God" for Perry and Horton. Now he adds: "Thank God for all those other guys, too.'

4--The Cardinal offense, designed primarily for the spaciousness and synthetic surface of Busch Stadium and built around speed and ping hitters, may be even more productive than in '85.

"I don't think there's any question about it," Clark said, citing the acquisition of Pena, a .286 career hitter, and the offensive growth of Coleman, hitting .299, and defensive wizard Smith, hitting .295.

While heading for a sixth straight season of 200 or more stolen bases, the Cardinals are averaging almost six runs per game and lead both leagues in big innings (three or more runs).

They are even hitting home runs. Last year, in failing to beat Ruth or Maris, the Cardinals were last in the majors with 58. Now they have a respectable total of 49, including 24 by Clark, who did not play after June 24 last year when he tore ligaments in his right hand sliding into third base.

The Cardinals are hitting home runs with such comparative frequency that when Pendleton hit his fifth last week, equaling his career high for homers in a season, he was expelled from the Punch and Judy Club because he was becoming too expensive for the other members: Smith, Pena, Lake, Coleman, Ford and Oquendo. Each time one of the lightweights hits a homer, the others have to pay him $25 apiece.

The consistent production makes last year's ineptitude even more mystifying. The Cardinals averaged only 3.7 runs per game as Coleman went from .267 in '85 to .232, Herr from .302 to .252, Clark from .281 to .237 and Willie McGee, who was the league's Most Valuable Player in '85 with a .353 average and 82 RBIs, to .256 and 48.

McGee, like Clark, missed most of the second half with knee injuries that were corrected by surgery. Now, batting behind Clark, he is hitting .293 with 58 RBIs.

"We buried ourselves with a lack of hitting last year, and I still don't understand it because they're all proven hitters," Herzog said.

"The strange thing was that we had our regular lineup until Clark and McGee got hurt but it was if they were all sick. I mean, it was as if they all had sick bats. Then we lose Jack and Willie. The guys you wanted to get hurt didn't get hurt."

Maybe even stranger than the falloff in offense was the fact that the Cardinals, despite the loss of Clark and McGee and the continuing lack of punch, amazed Herzog by playing at better than a .500 pace after the All-Star break, restoring a measure of momentum and confidence for 1987.

Though Clark and McGee are obviously healthy again, Herzog believes that Coleman remains the key, the generator. This is his sixth pro season and he may be making progress in his struggle to increase contact and reduce strikeouts.

Coleman has 61 strikeouts and 87 hits in 297 at-bats. That's still too many, but Coleman compensates with an on-base percentage of .380, in addition to his .299 average and 52 stolen bases.

Said a cautious Herzog: "The jury is still out on Vince. Last year at this time he was hitting in the .290s, then went 0 for 37. I will say this: He's taking more pitches, getting his walks and not acting like Babe Ruth up there. He spent a lot of time last winter strengthening his hands and seems to have better bat control. I really don't care about his strikeouts if his on-base percentage is good, which it is now."

Herzog paused, then said: "The offense has been very consistent. It's what I would expect from a team that has five everyday players who have been on the All-Star team. I can't say that we can't win it as we now are, but I do think we have to pitch better. Our ERA (4.20) is too high for a big ballpark like ours. If we pitch to our capability, we're a very good team, as good as any."

The Cardinals rotation includes rookie Magrane (5-1), sophomore Greg Mathews (5-5), veterans Cox (8-3) and Bob Forsch (7-3) and the recycled Lee Tunnell (3-2), signed as a free agent after his spring release by Pittsburgh. Mathews is back after being optioned to Louisville in early May while Magrane is back after recently spending 15 days on the disabled list with a sore elbow.

The current rotation totaled 37 major league wins last year, which is why Herzog still bristles about the loss of Tudor, his ace, on a play that saw Lyons crash into the dugout in pursuit of a pop up that landed four rows deep in the seats.

"It must be great to be a Met, but not one of them, as far as I know, can fly," Herzog said.

He paused, then added: "At least John is ahead of schedule. I'm hopeful he can still make 8 to 10 starts."

There are no guarantees, of course. No one knows that better than Herzog. The injuries have merely strengthened this conviction: The manager has to keep his feet on the ground no matter how high the Cardinals fly.

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