For the most part the Cardinals worked as labeled Thursday afternoon. Chris Carpenter was great; Colby Rasmus, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman proved more than enough protection for any lineup; the middle infield was sketchy at best. Which shows how important it is to the Cardinals' game plan that Albert Pujols does not ground into three double plays and leave five runners on base.
The Cardinals even showed off—conspicuously, really—the new acquisitions and roles. Allen Craig and Jon Jay moved around quietly like stagehands behind Berkman; David Freese floated around the infield on his new ankles; Tallet, Batista and Augenstein appeared, and in unfortunately important places. I was fine with Batista's appearance in the bullpen when I assumed that Tony La Russa had given him the Wonderbrad role, but a pen with Batista and Augenstein but not Salas is completely senseless, even when Mitchell Boggs isn't nursing a back injury.
(When he is, you've got Miguel Batista pitching a tied-up eighth inning. What's frustrating about Batista, I think, is that he is a crafty veteran in the Tony La Russa firmament only because he's so old. In terms of the actual substance of his pitching—good fastball, awful command, intermittently sneaky off-speed stuff—he's more or less Todd Wellemeyer at 40. Which is less exciting to the home viewer than it is to La Russa, who appreciates... well, there has to be something.)
But for me the sensationally bland promise of Batista's 30-pitch 14-strike innings and Ryan Theriot's hustly skill-set is more than balanced out by the other things this team has to offer.
Just seeing a third baseman playing at third base was strangely heartening, but I appreciate it even more because we'll finally get the chance to see just how much Freese's ankles hurt him; I loved watching Lance Berkman come up and just take pitches after Holliday, and I even loved this bench, which, clear of the midseason veteran cruft that will no doubt accumulate by June, is flexible and surpassingly easy to root for.
What I liked most, though, was watching Rasmus. It's a new season and I haven't had many chances to watch baseball, so I'm perfectly willing to assume I'm imagining most of this, but he just looked better yesterday than he did in 2010, on offense and defense. I don't need an MVP season from Rasmus for 2011 to be a success, although I'd certainly take it; I just want him to be good enough often enough that, come August, it's the only ongoing narrative attached to him.
As for the matter of Albert Pujols and his debut, I just want to be able to enjoy his season, however it turns out, without every bit of public talk getting sifted through like tea leaves. So far we're 0-1 on that front: The P-D got enough out of him to put together this depressing number, which, thanks to its author, is too self-aware to play psychic-friends with the quotes.
They're not Albert Pujols at his most personable—
Pujols did not wonder about the reception he'd receive.
"I don't think about that," he said after the game. "I flipped the page and play the game. It's about playing baseball right now, not about thinking what I said a month ago or what the fans are saying. It's about playing baseball."
But reading them in my best Albert Pujols impression, instead of a flat newspaper affect, made them feel more than familiar enough for me to not toss them into an x-file about post-contract torpor. He's a surly guy, sometimes; he hates to lose, and he hates to play badly, and he doesn't appear to like talking about things that aren't related to the action on the field. Yesterday he had to do all three things.
It's important to put things in perspective: as far as depressed, surly commentary goes, he remained at his tetchiest well below a replacement-level gamethread user.