Cardinals all about playing 'a hard nine'

There's a temptation to say that perhaps the run of injuries they've suffered will be a good thing for the St. Louis Cardinals. After all, given how early and decisively they took hold of the National League Central race -- again -- perhaps the time off being given to Scott Rolen, Larry Walker, Reggie Sanders and Yadier Molina will keep the Cardinals from getting stale.

I said there's a temptation to say that. I didn't actually say it because I didn't want Tony La Russa to bite my head off the next time I see him.

Also, it's not true.

With La Russa as the manager, there's not much chance that anyone is going to get careless or stale in the precious weeks leading up to the October games which will define the Cardinals' season in the minds of fans who haven't celebrated World Series success since 1982. La Russa knows how to prepare his team as well as anyone since Branch Rickey, and he's just as demanding of his players as the late Billy Martin was.

The thing is: Unlike Martin, La Russa isn't demanding perfection or even success; he's demanding maximum effort on a daily basis and respect for the game at all times.

That was the message coming from Busch Stadium last Sunday after the Cardinals rallied to beat Atlanta on a ninth-inning grand slam by the anti-McGwire, David Eckstein. This might have been the least likely comeback in the majors this season, given that the hitters who proceeded Eckstein to the plate were Abraham Nunez, So Taguchi, Hector Luna and Scott Seabol.

Had the Cardinals gone quietly in the ninth inning, they still would have led Houston by nine games in the NL Central -- not exactly cause to circle the wagons. Yet Eckstein and all the hitters before him were grinding their guts out in the ninth.

Eckstein later told Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post Dispatch that he was thinking about La Russa's mantra: Play nine innings.

"That's all La Russa talks about -- 'Go out and play a hard nine,' " Eckstein said.

In La Russa's world, this requirement applies just as much when you're trying to protect a 10-game lead as when you're trying to overcome a 10-game deficit -- maybe even more, because in La Russa's book there's nothing more unforgivable than an opportunity squandered.

Long after the Cardinals had won 23 of 30 games from May 26 to June 27 last year, taking a commanding lead over the disappointing Cubs, La Russa kept the hammer down for a team fronted by Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Rolen, all elite hitters.

"You don't do anything different now," La Russa said. "Nothing you do early in the season buys you any guarantees about what happens late in the year. You never get the right to start taking it easy or start looking ahead. When good things happen, you just want them to keep happening, and the way you make them keep happening is by showing up with the same approach, the same effort that you were using in April and May. Anything less is unacceptable."

La Russa pushed his 2004 team to 105 victories. The significance wasn't that it was four more wins than Whitey Herzog's pennant winners had in 1985, but that it allowed the Cardinals to take an edge into the playoffs.

La Russa hasn't had to push his 2005 team as hard psychologically as he did the '04 team. The roster-depleting run of injuries has brought its own challenge.

Miklasz says that "if the Cardinals call up any more players from [Triple-A] Memphis, the Pacific Coast League may extend them an invitation to become the circuit's 17th franchise."

He's got a point. It's hard to believe the Cardinals are on pace to win 102 games given the injuries that have forced Nunez and Taguchi to play more than any of the regulars except Pujols, Edmonds, Mark Grudzielanek and Eckstein.

Since the All-Star break, Molina (left hand fracture), Sanders (right fibula fracture), Walker (neck) and Rolen (continuing problems with his left shoulder) have gone on the disabled list. Yet the Cardinals have continued to win, giving La Russa the luxury to not overextend his pitching staff.

Assuming the Cardinals still hold a comfortable lead over Houston when September arrives, La Russa will give some innings to Triple-A call-ups. His biggest challenge is the handling of ace Chris Carpenter, who missed the playoffs a year ago with a damaged nerve in his right biceps.

Carpenter, who has put himself into Cy Young consideration behind Roger Clemens, is on pace to work 245 innings. That's almost 30 more than his career high, so La Russa will be watching him closely the rest of the way. Bullpen workhorses Ray King and Julian Tavarez could also get a little more rest. Both are already on pace to work less than they did a year ago, when a combined 163 regular-season appearances didn't seem to affect them in the playoffs.

Never one to take anything for granted, La Russa continues to worry about Houston. As good as the Cardinals have been at improvising, La Russa knows the Astros have been a little better since their stumbling start.

After falling to 15-30 on May 24, the Astros have gone 48-22. The Cardinals are 44-27 during that stretch.

When these teams met head-to-head after the All-Star Game, La Russa's Cardinals prevailed. St. Louis swept a three-game series to start the second half and has only five games left against Houston.

But do yourself a favor: Don't ask La Russa about the playoffs until sometime after the Cardinals have celebrated clinching their spot. He's done this too long and too well to take his eye off the ball.

"The most important thing we have," La Russa said after Eckstein's unlikely grand slam, "is the attitude of not backing off."

Along with Atlanta's Bobby Cox, nobody does a better job keeping his team focused than La Russa.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.