March 31, 2011

San Diego Padres (0-0) at St. Louis Cardinals

Albert Pujols begins what could be his final season in St. Louis when the Cardinals kick off their 2011 campaign against the San Diego Padres this afternoon at Busch Stadium.

Pujols, who is eligible to become a free agent at season's end, cut off negotiations with the Cardinals shortly after the start of spring training, with the two sides reportedly still far apart on a long term contract.

The three time NL MVP led the league with 42 home runs and 118 RBI last season, but his .312 average was a personal low in 10 MLB seasons and his .414 on-base percentage was his lowest since 2002. St. Louis may need Pujols even more so if they intend on getting back to the postseason, as the Cardinals will be without staff ace Adam Wainwright for the entire season. Wainwright suffered an elbow injury shortly after the start of spring training and underwent Tommy John surgery that will cost him the year.

The Pujols contract situation and the Wainwright injury come on the heels of a largely disappointing 2010 campaign for St. Louis, which finished the year five games back of the National League Central champion Cincinnati Reds.

With Wainwright sidelined, more will be asked of 35-year-old right-hander Chris Carpenter, who will take the ball this afternoon in his sixth Opening Day assignment. The 2005 NL Cy Young winner, Carpenter put together another solid year in 2010, going 16-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 35 starts and leading the team with 235 innings.

"Every time you get to pitch Opening Day, it is exciting," Carpenter said. "I don't care if you're 22 or 40. To do what we do and start the season, the excitement of starting the season and the excitement that comes to this ballclub and that stadium and the city when baseball season starts, it's an exciting thing. I'm looking forward to it, and it's going to be a lot of fun."

San Diego, meanwhile, heads into 2011 following a surprising year last season that saw them in the mix for a playoff spot right up until the final day. However, not much is expected this year following a winter that saw the Padres deal slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the Boston Red Sox.

"This deal is for the long term health of our franchise," Padres GM Jed Hoyer said in a statement at the time of the trade. "We only had Adrian for one more season, and once we knew it was for one more season we acted to get the best group of players back." Gonzalez isn't the only player missing from last year's 90-win club, as half the roster is gone. So the Padres are in a rebuild mode once again, though they still boast one of the better pitching staffs in the league.

Twenty-three-year-old Mat Latos was a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate last season after going 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA. He was on pace to make today's Opening Day start, but a shoulder injury forced him to go on the disabled list.

Instead it will be right hander Tim Stauffer, the second longest-tenured player in the Padres' organization. Stauffer appeared in 32 games for the Padres last season and was 6-5 with a 1.85 ERA.

St. Louis was 4-3 against the Padres last season.

This is the first time the Cardinals and Padres will meet on Opening Day.

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