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

July 05, 1987|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — 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."

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