Can Cardinals Pull Through Season of Sorrow?

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa tries writing out his lineup card, but his eyes wander to the newspaper clippings spread across his desk. The longer he reads, the more he feels the fury building inside.

"You can only swim upstream so long, right?" La Russa says. "You do that long enough, you get fatigued, and you g—damn drown. This whole season has been relentless. It has been a series of body blows. This club keeps getting back up and fighting. Now, we have to do it again."

The defending World Series-champion Cardinals, enduring a season of sorrow, tragedy and heartbreak to become contenders again, must deal with the latest to shake the team.

St. Louis right fielder Rick Ankiel, who energized an organization weary from calamity, was identified last week by the New York Daily News as the latest athlete associated with a Florida pharmacy distributing human growth hormone (HGH).

That story follows a driving while intoxicated charge against La Russa in the spring, the death of reliever Josh Hancock, injuries ending the season of six players and another player leaving the club to deal with substance abuse.

"I've never in my life seen anything like this," Cardinals pitcher Brad Thompson says. "It's something every week. And everything that has happened has been to impact guys on this team. It's crazy.

"They say everything happens for a reason, but we have no idea why this is happening to us."

Yet, refusing to succumb to the season of horrors, the Cardinals entered Monday just three games out of first place in the National League Central. They continue to endure injuries, with MVP hopeful Albert Pujols battling a strained hamstring and catcher Yadier Molina having knee woes. They have just four starting pitchers, using a bullpen by committee Sunday against Arizona and scheduled to do the same this week in Cincinnati.

They're finishing the season with 35 games in 34 days. If there are no postponements, it will be the longest stretch without an off-day to end a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But who's complaining? They're alive and scaring the daylights out of the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, vowing to make this a season they'll forever remember.

"If we ever stopped to feel sorry for ourselves, we'd be 15 games out," says starter Adam Wainwright, 6-3 with a 2.48 earned-run average since the All-Star break, 13-10 overall. "We've been through everything you could possibly go through, and we're still in it. We have tremendous heart in here."

It's hard to fathom this is the same team that opened the season losing 25 of 41 games, sitting 10 games out of first place on May 21 and fearing the worst might be ahead.

"We were in danger of embarrassing ourselves," La Russa says. "We were getting our a—— kicked the first six weeks. The way we were playing, we felt we could end up being 15, 20 games under (.500). We lost some atrocious games. …We had to stay together, and we did. You never saw anybody pointing fingers. …

"Every team in spring training says, 'If we get to September with a chance to win, we'll take it.' Well, we got a chance, and now we want to be greedy. It's going to come down to whether we're good enough, not whether we care enough. That's all you can ask."

Unlucky streak

The Cardinals, a close-knit team with a stellar bullpen, say it's their togetherness and sheer will that have kept them afloat during their tumultuous times.

"When you're coming off a World Series championship," Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty says, "nobody is going to feel sorry for you, but boy has it been rough. I've never seen a year like this."

It started when La Russa, fatigued after a long day, was found asleep at a stoplight in spring training and charged with driving while intoxicated — a case that's still pending. Ace Chris Carpenter pitched on Opening Day and never pitched again, undergoing surgery.

Hancock, one of the Cardinals' most popular players, was killed in April, with an autopsy revealing he was at nearly twice the Missouri legal alcohol limit.

Outfielder Preston Wilson and starting second baseman Adam Kennedy underwent season-ending knee surgeries, in May and August, respectively, joining reliever Josh Kinney, who had elbow surgery in March. Molina broke his wrist in May and missed six weeks. Infielder/outfielder Scott Spiezio left the team in August to undergo outpatient treatment for substance abuse.

All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen announced on Sept. 4 he would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. Hours later, right fielder Juan Encarnacion suffered multiple fractures in his left eye socket and possible severe eye damage that might end his career when a foul ball struck him standing in the on-deck circle.

"It'll be a miracle if he ever plays again," says first baseman Pujols, his closest friend on the team.

Defending Ankiel

La Russa's eyes slowly fill with rage and frustration talking about Ankiel, and the sinews in his neck are stretched taut.

How dare the media suggest Ankiel's comeback story — with nine homers in 26 games since being called up in early August — is now tainted? How can anyone want to destroy this kid after everything he's endured to get his life back?

"I realize that we're a society fixated on controversy, and that it sells papers and generates calls to the talk shows," La Russa says of the HGH story. "But this is wrong. Where is the responsibility? Where is the credibility?

"Wait until all of the facts are in. If it turns out to be something accurate, and if there's guilt, if he screwed up, then slam him. But this is irresponsible. He doesn't deserve this."

Ankiel was last seen on the national stage having a meltdown during the 2000 National League Championship Series, throwing five wild pitches in one inning. He showed up the next spring and still couldn't throw strikes. He went through the next three years battling elbow problems until having "Tommy John" surgery.

He came back in 2005, only to realize his control problems were not cured, and announced his retirement. Jocketty persuaded him not to give up, telling Ankiel that with his hitting prowess, he should try to make it back as an outfielder. Ankiel hit 21 homers with 75 RBI at two minor-league stops, then blew out his knee in the spring of 2006.

Refusing to give up, Ankiel returned this season and starred in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, hitting 32 homers with 89 RBI. He was called up Aug. 9 after Spiezio left the team for drug counseling. Ankiel promptly came to the Cardinals' rescue, batting .330 with a .692 slugging percentage and leading St. Louis to a 17-11 record entering Monday.

"This kid has gone though every bad break in life," says La Russa, aware that Ankiel's father was released last year after being sentenced to six years in federal prison for his role in a Bahamian drug trafficking ring. "He's hanging on for his dear life. He has 'Tommy John' surgery.

"A doctor says, 'Can we prescribe stuff to speed up your recovery and maybe give you one more chance as a pitcher?' Why wouldn't he listen to what the doctor is telling him? This was his last hurrah. You think he was worrying about outfield play? He was gone.

"This kid's problems have been more sensational and more severe than we had," La Russa says. "But he never made excuses. Never tried to blame people. He just toughed it out. I've never seen a player walk through the clubhouse and get the joyful response this young man got. And now people are trying to tear him down? He needs to be admired. He doesn't deserve this."

La Russa, who is contemplating leaving St. Louis after this season for a change of scenery, refuses to dwell on his team's tough season. He knows the Cardinals have come too far to fall out of contention now.

"It's staggering how many hits we've taken this season," La Russa says, "and if we stay in contention the last week of the season, it would be a pretty neat story. But we need to stay in contention."

Says reliever Troy Percival, who returned to baseball after being out nearly two years: "For all this team has gone through, it would be a shame if this team didn't make the playoffs. But you know something? We may finally have something going our way. For the first time all season, we control our own fate."