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Love 'em or hate 'em, is there a manager-pitching coach combo in Major League Baseball half as good as Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan? What they have done in St. Louis this year with a pitching staff of has-beens and never-weres absolutely defies belief. And every time you think, OK, now they'll finally start to fade away, they do something like come back from a crushing Friday loss (20-2) to knock off the previously scorching Phillies twice over the weekend.

I'm running out of superlatives for the Cubs at this point and the boys in blue even supplied lovely, if redundant, storylines over the weekend with former Blue Jays Reed Johnson and Ted Lilly coming back to haunt their old team in successive games.

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  • The Cub Factor
  • But so far this year the Cardinals are an even better story. With the second win over Philadelphia, they moved to 13 games over .500. Heading into this week they have the second-best record (42-29) in the National League.

    And the Redbirds have done so despite a pitching staff that was as shaky as an earthquake going into the season and which has suffered through several big-time aftershocks.

    The Cardinals are paying former aces Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder big bucks this year (a combined $17.5 million) but they haven't pitched an inning and may not the rest of the way. Carpenter's rehab suffered a setback recently as he experienced yet more soreness in his elbow.

    And Mulder (local guy alert - he graduated from south suburban prep athletic hotbed Thornwood) had some success in a recent rehab start and the Cards are starting to feel like he might be able to come back around the All-Star break. But he's had two shoulder surgeries since he last pitched effectively and just a week ago he was feeling discomfort in that same shoulder and thinking he might not make it back this year at all.

    The most impressive part of the LaRussa-Duncan stewardship of this staff is the way they seamlessly converted Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper from the bullpen to the rotation. All superstar reliever Wainwright (6-3 in 2008 with a 3.14 ERA, 62 strikeouts) did was close out the Cardinals' World Series title in 2006, but he started starting in 2007 and hasn't looked back. One small problem, though, he went on the disabled list about a week ago.

    But that was no problem because longtime reliever (also until 2007) Looper (8-5, 4.34) stepped right in and threw a complete game shutout his last time out. He did it the same night Ryan Dempster was throwing the Cubs' first complete game (but allowing two runs) in a year, knocking off an injury-weakened Atlanta Brave lineup.

    Another stellar St. Louis starter has been Kyle Lohse, who potentially cost himself more than $10 million in the off-season by refusing to re-sign with the Phillies. Philadelphia eventually withdrew its multi-year offer and it turned out no one was willing to sign Lohse to more than a one-year deal. But now it looks like everything will turn out alright for the veteran starter. At the end of last week his numbers were eight wins against only two losses and an ERA of 3.77.

    Did we mention by the way that the Cardinals survived a complete meltdown by closer Jason Isringhausen in the first month? Isringhausen has also been on the DL, but his trip there was good news for Cardinals fans. He blew six saves and lost five games while compiling a 8.00 ERA in the first six weeks of the season. Oh, and Albert Pujols suffered a scary calf injury (but should be out only two or three weeks) and went on the DL right before the Phillies series. But the Cards, led by guys like Skip Shumaker and Ryan Ludwick, just keep on winning.

    All of this is why the Cubs have the best record in the majors but still haven't pulled away (they led by 3.5 games heading into Monday) from their real rivals to the south.

    In a slightly related note, wasn't it just like baseball to have Philadelphia score a score of runs Friday, then manage only two in a tough 3-2 loss the next night against the Cardinals? Then a half-dozen tallies weren't enough as St. Louis prevailed 7-6 Sunday.

    ***

    It was a splendid smorgasbord of sports on Sunday, was it not? Starting with the Cubs at noon and the White Sox shortly thereafter (although they were particularly tough to watch over the weekend weren't they? They've had some crap games this summer but Saturday's loss had to be the worst yet and Sunday's game certainly didn't qualify as a delight). And yet there they still sit, a comfy 4.5 games in front of the Twins heading into this week.

    There were four different soccer games on the telly in the mid-afternoon (the Fire versus Dallas, a couple Euro 2008 preliminary pool contests and . . . ) capped off by Team USA crushing the hated Barbados Barbies 8-0 in their World Cup qualifying debut. U.S.A! U.S.A!

    Then it was time to take in a little golf. Nice putt, Tiger - and congratulations on your tie at the U.S. Open. I think it's nice the USGA has taken a cue from various youth sports leagues and decided it doesn't care if the tournament's final day ends with a couple competitors sharing the top spot. That sort of good sportsmanship teaches our kids some important lessons.

    What's that? There's an 18-hole playoff Monday? Then I guess I'll have to take this item in a slightly different direction: if organizers were trying to come up with the most anti-climactic way to wrap up a tournament, they could hardly do better than the U.S. Open model.

    And then we wrapped it up with the Celtics and Lakers from Los Angeles in the evening. The Celtics lost, necessitating a Game 6 in Boston on Tuesday. The good news is that we get another game's worth of at least occasional Jeff Van Gundy putdowns. The announcer's best work on Sunday took aim at noted Laker flopper Sasha Vujacic: "If you get thrown to the court by (comically old and skinny) Sam Cassell, you better get yourself a new weight program." It was funny at the time, I swear.

    ***

    P.S. I forgot to mention Todd Wellemeyer! LaRussa and Duncan have taken the at-best mediocre former Cub middle reliever off the scrap heap and turned him into a stud starter(7-2, 3.67 ERA). Ridiculous!

    -

    Jim Coffman appears in this space every Monday with the best sports wrap-up in the city. You can write to him personally! Please include a real name if you would like your comments to be considered for publication.

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