New look Cards clicking as they come home

ST. LOUIS (AP) — So far, the St. Louis Cardinals are doing just fine without Albert Pujols. And they don’t seem to miss Tony La Russa, either.

The World Series champions are off to a nice start heading into today’s home opener against the Chicago Cubs. During their impressive 5-2 start on the road under new manager Mike Matheny, the Cardinals have gotten plenty of clutch hitting and pitching.

They take it personally, too, when it’s mentioned there are no big names anymore.

“What do you mean?” pitcher Adam Wainwright said with mock seriousness. “We don’t have Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman? Lance Berkman is a Hall of Famer potentially, Matt Holliday should have won the MVP in ’07 and he’s a batting champion.”

Checking one website’s top 10 power rankings prior to the season, the 6-7 right-hander took note the Cardinals weren’t on the list.

“It’s hilarious. It doesn’t matter who was on our team before and who wasn’t, we’re never favored and that’s fine,” Wainwright said. “We seem to embrace that.”

Wainwright won 39 games in 2009-10 before missing last year with reconstructive elbow surgery. He leads a rotation that’s been strong early without injured co-ace and postseason stud Chris Carpenter.

“What don’t we have in names?” Wainwright said. “Maybe we don’t have overhyped players.”

That could have been a knock at Pujols, perceived nationally as the player who made the team tick with all others relegated to second banana status.

“You can’t replace a guy like Albert, 40 home runs in the middle of the lineup, the consistency,” said Berkman, who’s getting used to first base with Pujols gone. “But we’re not chopped liver. There’s really no soft spot in the lineup, there’s no breaks, and that leads to mistakes and that leads to big innings.”

The Cardinals lead the National League with a .301 average and their 12 home runs, 37 runs and .371 on-base percentage were the best in baseball through Wednesday’s games. David Freese and Rafael Furcal are hitting above .400, Kyle Lohse is 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA and Jake Westbrook didn’t allow an earned run in his first outing.

Wainwright will be pitching at home for the first time since Sept. 19, 2010, and working his second home opener. He started the season opener in 2009.

“I know when I arrive four hours before the game they’re going to be out there tailgating, cooking hamburgers and having cold pops,” Wainwright said. “This whole town is excited about what we did last year and what we’re going to do this year.”

Berkman could miss the weekend with a left calf strain he said was much improved from a day earlier. Matheny said Matt Carpenter and Daniel Descalso would fill in at first base.

This will be the third opener for the Cardinals, after spoiling the first game at Marlins Park and then knocking off the Reds. Although the Marlins opener had a wow factor with women dressed as show girls and Muhammad Ali participating in the first pitch, Cardinals players believe nothing touches the St. Louis experience.

Players get a parade lap around the warning track on the backs of flatbed trucks before being delivered at home plate, and the team’s six living Hall of Famers participate.

It’s anticipated La Russa, who retired after 16 seasons and two World Series titles in St. Louis, and former pitching coach Dave Duncan will participate in the ceremonial first pitch. The team’s last four championship trophies will be displayed, along with representatives from each of the teams from 1967, 1982, 2006 and 2011.

For the first two games, the uniforms will feature gold letters and numbers.

“The fans are genuinely excited and you can feel it as a player,” Berkman said. “The history, the tradition, the Hall of Famers, that’s what separates a Cardinal home opener from the rest of the league.”

As for the Cubs, well, they get to watch.

“You give everybody the respect they deserve,” new manager Dale Sveum said. “They’re the best in the world right now. They’re the best team in baseball. You’re going to be out there, you’re going to have to watch it, but you want other people out there watching you do it someday, too.”

The Cubs batted just .221 while losing five of their first six games at home in their worst start since they were 0-14 to begin 1997. They struck out 12 times Wednesday, before knocking out Brewers ace Zack Greinke in the fourth inning Thursday.

Marlon Byrd enters the series in an 0-for-19 slump.

“It’s so early in the year, we just have to keep our head up,” catcher Geovany Soto said. “There are a lot of games left, we just need to get in a good rhythm and keep playing ball.”

The Cubs have led in all but one of the games and lost a pair of 2-1 decisions.

“A lot of close games. That’s a good thing,” pitcher Ryan Dempster said.

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