Baseball's champion Cards to play standpat hand 'better and smarter'

By , Sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Success has tended to be so fleeting in baseball's free agent era that even winning teams seldom dare to stand pat, but that's basically what the St. Louis Cardinals are doing this year.

''I hope we play the same and the end result is the same, too,'' laughed manager Whitey Herzog when asked how he felt heading into the 1983 campaign with essentially the same cast that defeated Milwaukee in the World Series last October. But don't get the idea that he or anyone else in this year's spring training camp is taking anything for granted.

''I don't think we have that type of personnel,'' said Ozzie Smith, the acrobatic shortstop whose arrival last season proved to be a steadying influence both on and off the field. ''We realize we're on the spot now as champions, and that we'll have to work harder than last year if we want to repeat.''

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That's a baseball truism anytime, of course, but perhaps even more so than usual in the multitalented and well-balanced National League East, which most observers consider baseball's strongest division by far at this time. In the last four years, four different teams have won the championship of this division , and three of them - the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies, and last year's Cardinals - went on to win the pennant and the World Series as well.

Herzog, true to the managers' unwritten code, won't single out any one club as the main threat to his team's chances of repeating, but it's a good guess that he has to be concerned about the Phillies. They are, after all, the team that has won the title more than any other in recent years; they're also the one that battled St. Louis for top honors most of last season; and in contrast to the Cardinals, they have gone heavily into the trade and free agent markets looking for help.

So the Cardinals may indeed have to be quite a bit better than they were last season - and that's exactly what they expect to be even if the names are the same.

''We're basically a pretty young team that still has a lot to learn,'' Herzog said as he sat in the dugout watching his defending champions go through their paces. ''Even though we came out on top last year, we didn't always play as intelligently as we could. I expect us to get better - and smarter.''

The hallmark of these Cardinals - as it always is with Herzog-managed clubs - is speed, hustle, and aggressive play. Such a style puts pressure on the opposition, of course, but it also demands that those employing it keep their wits about them and hold the mistakes down to an acceptable minimum - which Herzog feels his charges didn't always do last year.

''Physical mistakes are part of the game, but the mental ones - after a while you expect to correct those,'' Whitey said. ''I never yell at anybody for being aggressive as such, but I talk to 'em sometimes if they don't use judgment and common sense.''

As for the personnel, when you look over the lineup it isn't hard to see why the front office apparently felt it didn't need any major changes.

Catcher Darrell Porter may no longer hit with the same authority he did in his big years at Kansas City, but Herzog knows this is only part of the equation , and that Porter has other, more important attributes at this key position. He's sound defensively, he has leadership qualities and a winning attitude, and he is the type of player who rises to the occasion, as he demonstrated by earning MVP honors in the playoffs and Series last year.

Former batting champion Keith Hernandez may look like the only big offensive threat in the infield if you just go by statistics, but Tommy Herr, Smith, and Ken Oberkfell are all quick, pesky hitters who can be tough to deal with - especially on artificial turf - and defensively the unit ranks with the very best. Furthermore, ''super sub'' Mike Ramsey adds another dimension via his ability to fill in effectively around the infield.

In the outfield, Herzog's only problem is how to fit four starting-type players (veterans Lonnie Smith and George Hendrick plus last year's rookie standouts Willie McGee and David Green) into three spots - and this still leaves another outstanding backup man in Dane Iorg, who showed his ability by batting . 529 as a World Series designated hitter.

The starting pitching, suspect in terms of depth at this time last year, has developed into a very strong staff with veterans Joaquin Andujar and Bob Forsch supported by last year's fast-blooming rookie duo of John Stuper and Dave LaPoint. And the bullpen headed by Bruce Sutter is one of the best.

That takes care of the main cast from last October's triumph, though replacements do have to be found for 12-game winner Steve Mura and backup catcher and pinch-hitter Gene Tenace.

Free agent acquisition Jamie Quirk, a versatile utility man who played for Herzog in Kansas City in the 1970s, is expected to help fill the latter vacancy, while the usual assortment of holdovers and newcomers is battling for the role of the fifth starter.

All in all, it's obvious that this is a team that figures to be right up there again all season. Or as Herzog put it: ''If the players perform as they did last year, and if nobody gets hurt too badly, and if the manager doesn't mess up too many games, we've got as good a chance as anyone.''

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