For Cardinals, Stretch Drive Relies on Four Players

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The stretch drive begins tonight.

The Dodgers are in town tonight, and with them comes the stretch run of 2008.

The Cardinals aren't quite in the home stretch, that sprint to the finish that always makes for such compelling drama, just yet. But make no mistake, this is the beginning of the end. The non-waiver trade deadline is passed, meaning that at least the major deals are done. There won't be any more big trades; what you see is mostly what you get from here on out. The season is more than two-thirds finished. We know this team pretty well by now.

So, with a little over a quarter of the season left, whatever chance the Cardinals have is firmly in the hands of the team already here. The players we've seen succeed and fail all year long are the ones who will decide what ultimately becomes of this 2008 team.

There are three players on this team who will make the biggest difference in the squad's fortunes the rest of the way. It's crunch time, and these are the guys that will hold the key to the Cardinals' season:

Jason Isringhausen If you want to point to a single reason why the Cardinals find themselves in the position that they do, you don't really have to look any further than the Cards' bullpen.

They lead the major leagues in blown saves, with the total number now at 26. Every one of those doesn't represent a loss, of course, but the Cardinals with even an average relief corps this year could easily have another seven to ten wins at this point, along with the division lead. Manager Tony La Russa can bark about the offense all he wants, but the fact is, the Cards' bullpen this year has allowed lead after lead after lead to get away.

The problems began early this year. Coming into the season, the Cards' bullpen was supposed to be the only real strong point of the team. Obviously, that has turned out not to be the case.

After a resurrection in 2007, the Cardinals' picked up Jason Isringhausen's $8 million option for 2008, expecting that he would continue his mastery of the ninth inning, and continue to put the memories of his 2006 death march behind firmly in the rear view mirror. Instead, Izzy blew five saves in a little more than two weeks and endured renewed questions about the health of his bionic body -- he relinquished the closer role in early May.

Ryan Franklin was made the closer and somewhat stopped the bleeding at first, but still proved all too hittable to close out games. The whole bullpen became unsettled; relievers were constantly being shuffled in and out of roles, creating a miasma of blown saves and heartbreaking losses.

Izzy is back now in his customary ninth-inning role. He's endured a trip to the disabled list, a crisis of confidence, and a long, tough road back. This may be his last hurrah as a Cardinal, and he largely holds the fate of the team in his hands.

It's very simple: If Izzy can close out games, the Cards will win. If he can't, then the whole thing is just going to slip away.

Rick Ankiel They call him The Natural. He swats home runs, makes diving catches, and throws out baserunners like few other players you'll ever see. And for better or for worse, a lot of this team's fate is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of the Cardinals' prodigal son.

When Ankiel came up to the big leagues last year, right around this time, he arrived like a thunderbolt, hitting over .350 for his first three weeks and clobbering the ball over the wall with remarkable regularity.

Then, of course, came the Story. The New York Daily News released a story that implicated Ankiel for buying human growth hormone (HGH), from a pharmacy in Florida during his 2004 rehab from elbow surgery. Rick dealt with it as well as can be expected, but the following weeks saw him go into a nosedive. He hit well under .200 following the release of the Daily News piece, and he finished the season on a low note.

This season, Ankiel has proven himself not to be a flash in the pan. He has continued to hit for tremendous power, he's played Gold Glove caliber defense in center field, and he's even managed to add a semblance of plate discipline to his game. Rick Ankiel has been one of the Cardinals' best players in 2008.

He's currently dealing with an abdominal strain, of course, and how well he comes back from that is anybody's guess. But if the Cards are going to have any hope of making a run as they round into the home stretch, they're going to need Ankiel firing on all cylinders. He gives them a left handed bat with power in the middle of the lineup they otherwise lack, and his defense in center field can be a difference maker on any given play.

We saw what happened last year, when Ankiel collapsed in September. Let's hope this year we see better days for the Natural. The Cards are going to need it.

Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright Alright, I know, I said three players. I just couldn't help myself, though.

We saw Carpenter make his first start in more than a year this past week against Atlanta. You really couldn't have asked for much more out of him, as he went four innings, giving up only one run against the Braves. Beyond the numbers, though, there was simply the feeling, watching him on the mound, sweating and glaring in at hitters, that the Cardinals had just gotten a whole lot better. Carp was back.

Wainwright, the de facto ace of the club this season, has been on the shelf for more than a month with a tendon problem in his throwing hand. He looks to be heading back fairly soon, but how effective he'll be after missing so much time is anybody's guess.

The rotation has been a big part of the Cardinals' success this season. Guys like Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer have turned in the best performances of their careers, propping up a pitching staff sorely lacking in firepower. Those performances can only go so far, though, no matter how admirable. The Cards need their big guns back, and soon.

If Carpenter and Wainwright can both come back and pitch like, well, themselves, then this rotation compares with any other in the division, the National League, possibly in all of baseball. Even the Diamondbacks, with Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, or the Angels, with their John Lackey-led staff, would be hard-pressed to put a better group on the mound.

We've waited all year for Carp to come back, and we've held our collective breath to see what would happen with Wainwright. The season may very well come down to what answers we get from our aces.

The rotation is a very different animal with both of them pitching effectively at the top of it. In fact, we've never really even seen what it looks like with the two of them both taking the ball every fifth day. I, for one, am looking forward to finally seeing the Cardinal rotation whole again.

- Aaron Schafer

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