PHOENIX (AP) — There are two lockers in the visitors’ clubhouse at Arizona’s Chase Field — bigger than all the others — that are usually reserved for veteran stars who have earned a little extra room to spread out.
The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the few teams with too many options.
The jumbo digs were eventually assigned to Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, and who could really argue? They’re two veteran superstars in their 40s nearing the end of Hall of Fame-caliber careers.
But the guys stuck in the smaller lockers next to the rookies and journeymen are almost as impressive: There’s 40-year-old Adam Wainwright, a right-handed pitcher with 193 career wins and three All-Star appearances. Across the room was 34-year-old Paul Goldschmidt, one of the game’s best first basemen who is a seven-time All-Star and in the midst of an MVP-caliber campaign.
Right next to him was Nolan Arenado, the 31-year-old third baseman with seven All-Star appearances and nine Gold Gloves.
It’s a wealth of veteran expertise that’s not lost on first-year manager Oliver Marmol, who at 36 is younger than many of the veterans.
“One thing this organization has done really well is pass on the history of what winning really looks like,” Marmol said. “This is what the work looks like in order to win. Those guys — there’s not a stronger group.”
And here’s the most important part: The quintet of veteran stars isn’t just in the clubhouse for show. They’re producing at a high level, which has pushed the Cardinals to the top of the NL Central.
They had a five-game lead over the Brewers going into Monday’s games.
Pujols is enjoying a renaissance at 42 years old. He’s batting over .450 in August and has eight homers and 18 RBIs over the past month. The three-time MVP is making a run at 700 career homers, sitting at 693 with 41 games left in the regular season, which he says will be his last.
He’s treated as baseball royalty even at opposing parks. The crowd at Chase Field gave Pujols a standing ovation before his first at-bat in all three games of the most recent weekend series. And he was cheered at Wrigley Field when he took Drew Smyly deep in the seventh inning Monday night, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 victory over the Cubs.
The slugger isn’t consumed with the attention. He crushed two homers as part of a 4-for-4 day on Saturday, but didn’t raise any fuss when Marmol elected to take him out of the game and use rookie Nolan Gorman — who is two decades younger — as a pinch hitter.
Nobody looked happier than Pujols when Gorman singled.
“This isn’t about one guy, it’s about 26 guys on the roster,” Pujols said. “I think when you have a great group of guys, it’s easy to come in and enjoy what you do. … We’re playing great baseball.”
Wainwright turns 41 later this month and has been rock solid in the middle of the rotation with a 9-8 record and 3.11 ERA. The 40-year-old Molina isn’t producing at the rate he’s accustomed to, but still has his moments, like a three-hit game against the Diamondbacks on Friday.
Then there’s Goldschmidt and Arenado, who are in the prime of their careers. Goldschmidt is putting together perhaps his finest season — the soft-spoken first baseman leads the majors with a .337 batting average, while adding 34 doubles, 31 homers and 100 RBIs.
Arenado has been nearly as good, batting .299 with 25 homers and 81 RBIs.
Their consistency has allowed St. Louis to climb the NL Central standings. Monday’s win over the Cubs moved them to 16-3 in August. Goldschmidt said it isn’t easy, even if this group of Cardinals sometimes makes it look like it.
“The hardest part is sometimes you just show up, and you’re off, so you’re trying to figure what gives you the best chance of success,” Goldschmidt said. “That’s probably my number one goal — trying to be consistent. We play this game every day, it’s hard, there’s ups and downs.”
As good as Goldschmidt is, even he turns into a fan watching Pujols.
“What he’s doing is superhuman,” Goldschmidt said. “That guy is amazing.”
The feeling is mutual. Pujols was raving about a defensive play from Saturday’s game, when Arenado fielded a high chopper with his bare hand and fired a low throw to first that Goldschmidt was able to dig out of the dirt.
Game respects game. And the Cardinals have a lot of it.
“Those guys are unbelievable. That’s why they’re both Gold Glovers,” Pujols said. “All those plays that you see, those are things that I see (Arenado) practicing. It’s crazy. Who practices plays like that? But he does, because it might happen in the game. … Pretty amazing, from both of them.”
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