Burwell: Cards' readiness is big question

2011-08-09T00:10:00Z 2011-10-15T22:25:09Z Burwell: Cards' readiness is big questionBY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist stltoday.com

I know that it's early August and the typical St. Louis summer weather only recently has downgraded slightly from blast-furnace miserable to simmering discomfort. But sometimes the calendar and the thermostat tell lies.

I know this because when the throngs of Cardinal faithful begin streaming into Busch Stadium tonight to witness the latest round of the delightfully contentious Cardinals-Brewers skirmish, they will be walking through the gates expecting to feel a decided autumn chill in the air.

Never mind what the calendar says. Who isn't anticipating the competitive juices to be flowing throughout this three-game series as if these were the final days of a late-September, do-or-die pennant push? Or a Strikeforce cage match?

This is not like those cup-stacking beer bashes that the totally uneventful Cards-Cubs series have disintegrated into.

Cards vs. Brewers is what a genuine baseball rivalry ought to feel like. Provocative, contentious, but most of all competitively significant.

With three games separating first-place Milwaukee from the second-place Cards — and with both teams coming to town on their own four-game winning streaks and perhaps carrying some lingering hostility on their shoulders — this series feels like something worth watching from the moment the two managers congregate at home plate to swap lineup cards.

"It's going to be a good series," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke told reporters in Houston on Sunday. "They're going to be ready for us, that's for sure."

Well, actually, that's the big question, isn't it?

Are the Cardinals going to be ready for Milwaukee, or will manager Tony La Russa's wildly unpredictable team come into this series and for some maddening reason fall flat at the most inopportune time?

The Cardinals are smart enough to know that they won't necessarily win the NL Central in this series. But if I were writing a sequel to Three Nights in August, these are the ones I'd pick because over the course of these three most critical nights, the Cards could darned sure kick the division away if they allow the Brewers to roll out of here with a series sweep.

That's the sort of competitive tension that a good La Russa team usually laps up like mother's milk.

But we still don't know if this is one of those good La Russa teams just yet.

It feels like things are starting to come together. It feels like that four-game sweep in Florida was the power surge we've been waiting for all season as this injury-plagued team hung in there while waiting for all hands to get healthy at the same time.

So now we see what can happen offensively with a full complement of offensive weapons at La Russa's disposal.

We know they can hit. We also know things have finally settled down out in the bullpen. But now we have no idea what to expect from a starting rotation that can't eat up innings.

For most of the season, watching this team has been so frustrating because it keeps springing leaks all over the place. An injury here, a breakdown there, all the sorts of things that have prevented a sustained burst of consistency.

Now would be the time to see the bulldog competitive will-to-win attitude rise up everywhere and sustain itself.

But will they be ready?

If this team does have a special competitive pulse as La Russa has doggedly insisted all season long, this would sure be a fine time to let it show.

Once again, the Cardinals are being painted as the villains in the black hats in another contentious division rivalry.

A year ago, it was a snarling grudge with the Cincinnati Reds that broke out in lots of sniping, trash talk, bad blood and brawling on the infield. This year, it is the Brewers who are the adversaries and are being treated as victims of some grudge that Brewers fans are convinced was conjured up in the vivid and belligerent mind of La Russa.

They are wrong, of course.

La Russa's mind isn't particularly belligerent. It is rooted in Old Testament baseball, where sins against the old-school code are handled in primeval ways. The La Russa way has produced a long line of haters and bitter rivals. But his Cardinals do not seem to mind how long the line. Instead, they wear it like a badge of honor, quite frankly.

"There seems to be a running theme here," outfielder Lance Berkman told Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold after the conflict in Milwaukee last week. "Because it's Cardinals-Brewers, Cardinals-Reds, Cardinals-Astros, Cardinals-Cubs. The Cardinals seem to be the common thread in all of these things. I think that kind of emotion and energy is helpful."

That helpful emotion is the reason in these little competitive NL Central dances that the Cardinals always are on the dance floor while their partner keeps changing.

They don't hate you if you stink.

The Cardinals are the guys everyone is always trying to beat. That means there is some consistency around here, a championship heritage that permeates the brick house on Broadway. Look up at the pennants fluttering out there above the giant scoreboard in center field. Look at the division titles, National League pennants and World Series championship flags that are painted along the outfield walls and on the roof tops of the home and visitors dugouts.

But after a run where they won six of seven division titles from 2000 through 2006, in three of the past four seasons the Cardinals were not the last team standing on the dance floor. If they want to change that trend this season, this three-game set with the Brewers carries a lot of weight.

They have to know that the stakes are higher for them than for the Brewers.

Let the Brewers come in here and sweep and Milwaukee doesn't just leave here with a six-game lead, it leaves with a feeling of swelling invincibility. The Brewers already have won 11 of their last 12 games, and a series sweep would mean they could strut out of here having lost just one game in almost three weeks.

That's the kind of roll the Cardinals can't afford to give them, because that's the sort of roll that could allow the Brewers to run away from their last division foe still clinging desperately to their heels.

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Bryan Burwell

Bryan Burwell covers a wide spectrum of sports as a columnist for the Post-Dispatch.

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