ST. LOUIS -- Midwestern baseball was back in something resembling its normal alignment Thursday. The St. Louis Cardinals were looking up, and the Chicago Cubs were looking for comfort.
The Cardinals played the kind of game, in a 4-0 victory over the Cubs, which reminded you why they won 105 games in the 2004 regular season.
Chris Carpenter was terrific, producing a complete-game shutout. The Cardinals had the usual superior defensive plays, particularly by Scott Rolen at third and Albert Pujols at first. For the first seven innings, they did not whack the ball all over Busch Stadium as is their custom. But it is instructive to note that they are 9-5, even though their offense has been hitting on roughly every other cylinder.
You caught a glimpse of how things can be with the Cardinals' attack in a three-run eighth that transformed this contest. Home run by Larry Walker. Double by Pujols. Home run by Rolen. None of the three had been hitting up to expected levels this season, but of course, in the next minute after you notice that, they all hit, and the Cardinals once again have runs in bunches.
"We haven't really been swinging the bats well this year, but we're playing winning baseball," Rolen said. "So you tip your cap to the pitchers. They're turning out those quality starts, and that was really the key to what we did last year."
On the Cardinals' recently completed 5-0 road trip, the starting pitchers won all five decisions and had a cumulative 1.22 ERA. They have produced seven consecutive "quality starts," although most of these starts have been much better than that six-innings, three-earned-runs-or-less statistic describes.
"You're going to need all that," said manager Tony La Russa, "because in this division you're going to face good pitching. You've got to have it, night in and night out."
The Cardinals appear to have that again, even in the afternoon. At this moment, there is no reason to look at this team with anything other than optimism and appreciation.
The Cubs, on the other hand, had to digest another piece of very bad medical news, even worse than their usual run of bad medical news. Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra's left groin injury turned out to be a muscle torn away from the bone.
This is an injury that could require surgery. No matter how it is treated, Garciaparra's absence will be measured as a matter of months, not of weeks. For the Cubs, who had counted on Garciaparra to compensate for at least some of the run production lost through the departures of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, the news was deeply dismaying.
Second baseman Todd Walker is already on the disabled list with a knee injury. After an epidemic of injuries last season, the Cubs might reasonably have expected the law of averages to bring them a nice, long bout of good health. But no, apparently not.
Manager Dusty Baker is not singing the blues over this latest development, although he might be forgiven if he did. Instead, Baker on Thursday was pointing out the usefulness of the Cubs' middle infield replacements, Neifi Perez and Jerry Hairston, as well as the possibilities of young infielder Ronny Cedeno, just called up from Triple-A, where he was hitting .348.
Nomar Garciaparra / SS
Weight: 190 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"You deal with it," Baker said of the bad news on Garciaparra. "I learned a long time ago, don't think about 'there's no way it can happen again.' I remember in 1995, we didn't have a good team in San Francisco, finished last. At the start of 1996, I said to my Dad, 'Couldn't get any worse than last year.' He told me, 'Don't say that.'"
The upshot, Baker recalled with a rueful chuckle, was that it did get worse, the Giants losing 97 games in 1996. Now, for the sake of keeping his team on a positive path, the manager can't be seen in a "woe is us" mode. He has to be the opposite, the man in charge of patching this thing together.
"I don't allow self-pity," Baker said. "I don't like that. You just got to figure out a way."
The Cubs don't figure to disappear entirely, even with their starting middle infield on the DL. If their starting pitching holds up -- and that concept has its own health concerns -- the Cubs should remain competitive in any company.
It is just that in this neighborhood, the NL Central, the Cardinals are the standard against which everybody else is now measured. They remain a tough act to follow, or to defeat, for that matter.
The rivalry between these two teams remains healthy, even if all the Cubs are not. This game drew a crowd of 46,119, and it sounded as though every middle school in Missouri was having a field trip to the ballpark. Ah, this age-old rivalry, reaching out to yet another generation.
These two teams have now played 2,060 times. And the truth is, the Cubs lead, 1,045-1,015. That could be of some consolation to Cubs fans, although Garciaparra being able to walk without pain would have been much more welcome news.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.