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Cardinals In: Previewing the St. Louis series

My work schedule has changed - it's now Tuesday through Saturday, and this 'not going to work on Mondays' thing may take some getting used to. I keep feeling guilty about not being in the office, as if I'd called in sick or something. I will have to engage in some serious recreation to flush such thoughts out of my system. Let's start by taking a look at the series against the St. Louis Cardinals, which will be happening at Chase for the next three days.

It doesn't look like an easy set of games, since St. Louis have got off to a good start this season, a 5-2 record leading the Central. It has been a combination of equally good batting - their line so far is .300/.382/.458, for an .840 OPS - and pitching, with a team ERA that sits all the way down at 2.86. Both those figures are good for second in the National League, behind the Braves and Padres respectively. Looking at the offense first, one name inevitably stands out: the man with more hits, home-runs and RBI in the National League since his 2001 debut. The one with a career batting average of .335, a number trailing only Tony Gwynn (.338) in the integrated era of baseball. I speak, of course, of Albert Pujols, who has started this season in the usual fashion, going 9-for-24 with three homers and nine RBI.

However, he isn't leading the Cardinals in OPS so far this year - that honor goes to Joe Thurston, with a line of .500/.533/.786. And right-fielder Ryan Ludwick isn't far behind Pujols either, having gone 7-for-18 with two homers and driven in five runs. The only regular who has gotten off to an exceptionally slow start is Rick 'The Natural' Ankiel, who is 5-for-20 without any extra-base hits and six strikeouts in 20 at-bats. We might also see a former Diamondback, Brian Barden, who got a cup of coffee (12 PAs) with Arizona in 2007. He made it onto the Cardinals 25-man roster in spring training, being rewarded with an Opening Day start at third-base, in place of the injured Troy Glaus, though hasn't started since.

On the pitching side, the Cardinals starters have been brilliant, with an ERA of 2.21.  And it'd have been lower, save for Todd Wellenmeyer's five frame, twelve hit outing, as the other four starters have allowed six earned runs in 40 innings, on only 25 hits. The good news is, we get to face Wellenmeyer in the opener, though going by recent results, he'll probably throw a complete game one-hitter against the Diamondbacks. Speaking of one-hitters brings us to Tuesday's intriguing match-up, which will see the resurrected Chris Carpenter, who one-hit the Pirates last Thursday. Ok: it's the Pirates, but still... That game will also see the first start of Max Scherzer, so I'm taking the 'over' on strikeouts there. Finally, Thurday sees Joel Pineiro facing Jon Garland, with both men having quality starts first time out. More detailed match-up info will follow in the game previews.

Their bullpen thus far has been a little like the girl in the Longfellow poem: "When she was good She was very, very good, But when she was bad she was horrid." St. Louis have four relievers who have yet to allow an earned run, and everyone else is at 5.40 or above. To some extent that's the result of the small number of innings pitched - only one man has more than three - but the back end of the bullpen does seem a potential weakness thus far, if we can get to it. We may also be able to exploit the Cardinals' impatience at the plate: their average appearance there lasts only 3.55 pitches, the lowest number in the league [Arizona is at 3.80, close to the mean figure of 3.84].

One thing worth pointing out from our side: Arizona's poor offense so far has, to some extent, been down to horrendous bad luck. Our batting average in balls in play is a woeful .238; the worst in the league by a massive 26 points, and far, far short of the league average, .296. Mark Reynolds is our only guy with 10 PAs to reach that mark, and everyone else is below .270 - we've basically been hitting the ball right at people, and it can't continue forever. Well, I hope not, anyway: though getting our line-drive percentage up from 18%, to somewhere nearer the league figure (20%) would be helpful there.

Please also pop over and check out Viva El Birdos, for the view from the Cardinals camp.