Cardinals Red Hot Start Not Without Caution Signs

Craig BrownCorrespondent IApril 18, 2009

CHICAGO - APRIL 17: Ryan Ludwick #47 of the St. Louis Cardinals runs the bases after hitting a three-run home run in the third inning against the Chicago Cubs on April 17, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Remember watching the great movie Major League, a comical look at the disastrous franchise of the Cleveland Indians?  I picture the Cleveland community mocking their team early in the season, while later changing their tunes as the team challenged for playoff contention down the stretch.

A season of baseball is a marathon, 162 games and more than six months long.  As a Cardinals fan, our recent history would suggest our final fate may not be dictated with our early successes or failures.  You can never be too quick to judge.

You only have to look back to our championship season of 2006 to realize success can be relative.  We caught the proverbial "lighting in a bottle" and peaked at just the right moment.  We've also seen our boys play out of their minds early, only to break down late in the season.

As a lifelong Cardinals fan, my early season expectations have no doubt been tempered by the team's performance during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.  Sure, we overachieved until August last year, but crumbled into obscurity down the stretch.

But this year, I was eagerly anticipating this squad getting on the field.  Sure, there are holes, but unless you have a $200 million payroll, who won't?  I liked the lineup, liked our starting 4-5 pitchers, and generally thought we'd be solid in the sixth through eighth innings out of the bullpen.  What's not to be excited about?

The Cardinals have scorched out to an 8-4 start this season because of timely hitting and solid starting pitching efforts.  There have been early season surprises and disappointments.

Ryan Ludwick is proving himself as more than a one-year phenomenon, Lohse and Wainwright continue to be solid stoppers, and Chris Duncan and Colby Rasmus have surprised me with their overall play.  Skippy has been serviceable at second, and it's great to have his bat and effort in the lineup.  Albert is...well, Albert.

Role players such as Joe Thurston and Brian Barden have impressed as well.  Truly, only one regular, Rick Ankiel, has yet to contribute to the early season success.  Ankiel has already struck out eight times in 33 at bats, and his lumber has looked like Swiss cheese from the seventh inning on. 

Despite the good start, any knowledgeable sports fan could take one look at this team's roster and see the weakness.  Out of our four early season losses, only one, the opening day loss to Pittsburgh, was not given up by our porous late-inning bullpen.  I can't imagine how difficult it must be to struggle for two hours and be in a position to win a game, only to be let down late.  Those losses are demoralizing. 

Chris Carpenter's injury in his second start is an unfortunate reality, but it was a gamble the Cardinals knowingly took.  They also gambled that one of those guys in the bullpen might actually step up and take the closer's role by the horns.

The caution signs are flashing.  The keys to their season were the health of Chris Carpenter, and the effectiveness of our closer(s).  Everything the Cardinals had feared might happen is starting to happen...and we're only 12 games in.  We've got Memphis on speed dial in a desperate attempt to eat up some innings.

I love the heart of this club, and I love the depth and quality of our lineup.  But with these early challenges, I think we're fortunate to be 8-4.  And I truly hope our ride doesn't get as bumpy as I think it might.