La Russa tries power of positive thinking with sagging team

Wednesday, September 27th 2006, 12:35 pm
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Tony La Russa has always been a sore loser, quick to lash out at the slightest provocation during post-game news conferences.

He's been taking a decidedly different, positive-thinking tack during the St. Louis Cardinals' late-season swoon that is threatening to join the pantheon of baseball's most spectacular collapses. St. Louis lost its seventh straight game on Tuesday night, its once-imposing NL Central division lead shaved to a mere 1 1-2 games, but instead of bile, La Russa kept his cool.

The message to a team that bears little resemblance to the 100-win powerhouses of the previous two seasons from their manager is one of patience: There's still time to pull out of the nosedive and avoid a place in history alongside the likes of the 1964 Phillies and 1978 Red Sox. It's still in your hands.

``We have a chance to play in October,'' La Russa said after ace pitcher Chris Carpenter failed to hold a three-run lead in a 7-5 loss to the San Diego Padres. ``Take the alternative where you're out of the race.

``That's what you look at, and we're not out of the race.''

Not long ago, there was no race. The Cardinals, seeking their third straight division title, had a seemingly insurmountable seven-game lead with 13 to play.

A 1-6 trip that ended with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Astros changed that in a hurry. Two more losses at home, where they've been dominant, coupled with seven straight victories by suddenly surging Houston, shaved five games off the lead in five days and brought them to a win-or-else crossroads.

A makeup of a rain-out game against the Giants earlier this month plus a one-game playoff against the Astros in Houston, should the division end in the tie, were once longshot contingencies but now loom.

``We're just finding ways to lose,'' Jim Edmonds said. ``We've just got to keep fighting. We've still got a lot of time.''

La Russa's calm also may reflect a realization that the Cardinals, given season-long injury woes combined with payroll issues that created holes in the rotation, outfield and second base much of the season, might deserve their unimpressive 80-76 record.

Mark Mulder, a 16-game winner last year, won six with an ERA above 7 before undergoing shoulder surgery last month. Closer Jason Isringhausen is also out following hip surgery earlier this month. Edmonds went a month between starts due to post-concussion syndrome before returning to the lineup on Tuesday. MVP candidate Albert Pujols and leadoff hitter David Eckstein both missed significant time with pulled side muscles.

Jeff Weaver is the second reclamation project the Cardinals have used as their fifth starter, after Sidney Ponson was released. An assortment of players got shots in left field before the midseason emergence of rookie Chris Duncan, and there was no regular at second base until Ronnie Belliard was acquired near the trade deadline.

Those trials prepared La Russa to lower his expectations.

Lately, he's had to exhibit patience with his ace. Carpenter, who coughed up a 5-2 lead on Tuesday, has lost twice during the slump while allowing 12 runs in 14 innings, but instead of criticism from his manager there was only praise for trying to put the team on his shoulders.

``He's just trying too hard at those key times, and he gets out of his rhythm a little bit and he's making mistakes,'' La Russa said. ``That's the kind of mistakes you respect because a guy cares and he's trying to do more than he has to.''

Carpenter, not surprisingly, would hear none of that.

``If I start thinking about what type of game it is, that's when you get away from what makes you successful, and that's concentrating on making pitches,'' Carpenter said. ``Unfortunately, I let it get away.''

The optimistic view of the slide is at least the Cardinals have been competitive, with four one-run losses. That was not the case in the team's two earlier eight-game losing streaks, neither of which knocked them out of first place.

Their first eight-game skid in June had four losses in which the Cardinals gave up 10 runs, including consecutive blowouts of 20-6 and 13-5 to the White Sox. The Phillies outscored them 24-9 in consecutive July games in the second slump.

A well-timed hit here, a crucial pitch there, and the Cardinals might have already had their champagne celebration as NL Central champions for the third straight year, resting up for the postseason.

``The club knows how close we are to winning these games,'' La Russa said. ``There's worse ways to lose. The no-chance losses, they're the ones that you don't feel any optimism about.''

For now, the attitude is the celebration has just been delayed a bit.

Edmonds provided a spark with five RBIs the last two games, including a three-run pinch homer on Monday. After missing all that time, he doesn't want to miss the playoffs, too.

``It's not really a thought I'm worried about,'' Edmonds said. ``We didn't win today, so we've got to come out and try to win tomorrow.''