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Hey, what about those Cardinals?

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 9, 2000


Everyone agrees the White Sox are the surprise team for the first half of 2000. Chicago finished 11 games under .500 last season and is running away with the AL Central.

But what about the Cardinals? St. Louis finished 11 games under .500 last season and is running away with the NL Central.

For various reasons, the Cardinals' story is less compelling than Chicago's. St. Louis has the game's premier star in Mark McGwire and a famous manager in Tony La Russa. The Cardinals were more active in the off-season and their move to the forefront was somewhat predictable.

But that does not make it any less impressive.

Every general manager in baseball sought pitching in the off-season, but Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty actually found some. Between Andy Benes, Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen, Jocketty remade his rotation for a cheap price, which enabled him to deal Kent Bottenfield for Jim Edmonds to solidify the lineup.

"Everybody laughed at me when I said the St. Louis Cardinals were the most improved team in baseball," Reds manager Jack McKeon said earlier this year. "They did it right. They went out and got pitching. ... Power is nice, like what Tampa Bay did, but it always goes back to pitching and that's what St. Louis did."

McKeon should know. His team has been chasing the Cardinals and, in the past two weeks, may have given up hope.

The Reds had seven games in 10 days against the Cardinals. They went in 81/2 games behind. They came out nine games back.

Cincinnati has three more games against St. Louis and there are rumblings that GM Jim Bowden could begin making trades with an eye toward 2001.

The Cardinals reached 17 games over .500 for the first time since 1987 and had a 10-game lead for the first time since 1968.

"What I pay attention to is the plus-17 because that makes ue real close to plus 20," La Russa said. "And that gets you close to having a pretty good year."

COMEBACK KID: Jason Kendall is tired of talking about his comeback from last season's ankle dislocation, but he forced the issue last week. On the one-year anniversary of the injury -- the Fourth of July -- Kendall hit a home run. A day later, he was named to the All-Star team. "It shows all the naysayers, and there were a lot of them out there, which was totally understandable," Kendall said. "It's a gruesome injury when your foot is hanging on by a blood vessel. But there were a lot of people who said "He's not going to be the same player.' I think I've proved I'm the same player."

TO EACH HIS OWN: Frank Thomas, Antonio Alfonseca and Steve Finley were miffed at not being named to the All-Star team. They should talk to Indians left-hander Chuck Finley. He was annoyed because he did make the team. Finley, who refused to talk about his All-Star selection, wanted to return to California and spend time with his family at the break.

THE OMEN: Not to sound discouraging to the also-rans, but five of the six teams that led their division at the 1999 All-Star break went on to win the title. The exception was San Francisco, which had a 21/2-game lead over the Diamondbacks but lost it a week after the break.

OUT OF ORDER: The Indians dropped the slumping Kenny Lofton from leadoff to No. 8 in the batting order last week. It was the first time since May 8, 1992 that he was not the leadoff hitter.

SELF ESTEEM ISSUES: Jeromy Burnitz has been a huge disappointment in Milwaukee, and he is not pretending otherwise. Burnitz could hit 30 home runs, but his batting average has been in the low .200s, and his run production is down. He said his mechanics are messed up, but the bigger problem is dwindling confidence. "For me, the mental part is the same as the talent. If you've got all the talent in the world and continue to make mental mistakes, you're not a good player," Burnitz said. "That's the way I feel."

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Songwriter and baseball memorabilia collector Seth Swirsky tracked down Randy Velarde at a recent game in Anaheim to sign a special ball. The ball has the signatures of all 11 men who have turned an unassisted triple play, with Velarde No. 11. The ball dates to the mid-1900s when another collector began tracking down the players for signatures. Swirsky recently paid $63,000 for the ball.

FINAL WORD: Phillies outfielder Ron Gant's response when asked which knee was hurting: "All of them."

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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