Apart from the obvious--as Los Angeles Dodgers rightfielder Milton Bradley puts it, "They don't call them the best team in baseball for nothing"--did we learn anything new about the St. Louis Cardinals as they cruised into the National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros? ¬∂ Well, in its four-game Division Series romp St. Louis answered the most common criticism of its 105--57 regular season--that it possessed competent but not overwhelming starting pitching--with something of a shrug. Other than righthander Jeff Suppan's stifling seven-inning, two-run performance in Sunday night's clincher at Chavez Ravine, the Cardinals' starters ranged from ordinary to substandard. They had a combined 4.24 ERA, striking out a meek 3.5 per nine innings and allowing 2.3 home runs per nine. These numbers are based on a small sample size, true, but the latter two would have ranked last in the majors this season. Yet, as has been the case all year, it didn't much matter.
"When you have an offense like theirs--one that scores six, seven, eight runs a game--you don't need a dominant pitching staff," Dodgers lefthander Odalis Perez said after Game 4, a 6-2 St. Louis win that closely resembled its 8-3 victories in Games 1 and 2. "You can give up three or more runs and still have a chance."
It also helped that the Cardinals' relievers, who quietly amassed an NL-best 3.01 ERA and 57 saves in the regular season, announced themselves as a postseason force, working 11 2/3 innings and allowing only one run. Though the Cards' bullpen lacks a filthy closer like the Houston Astros' Brad Lidge, it's much deeper than the Astros', particularly with a pair of lefthanders in Ray King and Steve Kline, who is sufficiently recovered from a tear in the flexor tendon of his left index finger to throw strikes with velocity. As a bonus, righthander Dan Haren, the Triple A Pacific Coast League strikeout leader as a starter for Memphis, has emerged as a valuable long man--thanks to his hard splitter--since his July 25 promotion.
In contrast to Houston's Phil Garner--who trusts only righthanders Dan Miceli and Chad Qualls, regards the middle innings as a soft underbelly and will tap Lidge as early as is defensible--Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will yank his starters whenever necessary, and do so with confidence. He'll wave in a variety of relievers until he can get the ball to closer Jason Isringhausen, who isn't likely to work more than four outs.
Offensively, with the exception of a Game 3 interval in which Dodgers righthander Jose Lima shut them down 4-0, the Cardinals continue to mash the ball, no one more spectacularly than Albert Pujols. The 24-year-old first baseman bookended the series with home runs: in the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, a solo shot to straightaway center off a well-spotted slider low and away; and in the top of the fourth of Game 4, a three-run rainbow to left that put St. Louis up for good. Pujols confirms daily that, aside from Barry Bonds, he's the most complete hitter in baseball. Furthermore, his defense has improved to the degree that he handles difficult throws with ease and even makes the occasional dazzling play, such as his dive to smother Dodgers second baseman Alex Cora's hard smash in the hole on Sunday, a tough play for a righthanded first baseman.
Pujols's single-minded pursuit of excellence is becoming legend. (It is also the reason the Cardinals signed him to a seven-year, $100 million contract during the off-season, money he proclaimed to have "borrowed from God.") Last month La Russa recalled that in spring training Pujols, who had played some first base but had spent most of his previous two seasons in leftfield, took extra infield practice most days to prepare for playing first full time.
Not all is well in St. Louis, however. Third baseman Scott Rolen remained rusty from the left calf and knee injuries that cost him 16 games down the stretch. Though he fielded his position well, Rolen was 3 for 18 in the regular season's last week and 0 for 12 against the Dodgers, an ugly blight in the cleanup hole. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds, despite a two-run blast in Game 1, was 4 for 15 with nine strikeouts in the Division Series after finishing the season on a 3for35 slide. That the Cardinals scored a total of 22 runs in their three wins over L.A. while Rolen and Edmonds went a combined 2 for 19 tells you all you need to know about their offensive muscle.
The plucky Astros, who finished off the Braves 12-3 on Monday night in Game 5 of their Division Series, buried 42 years' worth of frustration by winning the franchise's first playoff series. All week Houston had confronted the specter of history--Atlanta had eliminated the Astros from the postseason in 1997, '99 and 2001--but catcher Brad Ausmus, like his mates, dismissed that lamentable legacy. "History is in the past, for the most part," he said with a smile after Game 3.
It was a coming-of-age year for the Astros, who struck more boldly in the off-season than any other NL team by signing free-agent starters Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and then traded for prize centerfielder Carlos Beltran in June. Still, Houston had to swap managers (Garner replaced Jimy Williams on July 14) and pull off a frenetic 36-10 finish to clinch the wild card on the season's final day.
In the process a city fell in love with its team. Thanks largely to Clemens, the prodigal son returned, the Astros ushered close to 3.1 million fans through the turnstiles at Minute Maid Park this summer, a franchise record, and club chairman and CEO Drayton McLane gushed last Saturday, "I've never seen fans in Houston more exhilarated. Even when we were below .500, I had other owners asking me, 'How do you keep the fans coming?' They've just continued to support us. We can outdraw anything in Texas--except high school football."
In Beltran, Houston has a five-tool answer to Pujols: a gifted hitter--he went 10 for 22 against the Braves with four home runs, including two in the clincher--who's also the most agile defensive centerfielder in the majors. On Sunday he tracked a J.D. Drew drive up the incline of Tal's Hill in dead center at Minute Maid and backhanded the ball before crashing into the wall, a play whose difficulty was belied by Beltran's grace.
Against St. Louis the Astros face another uphill climb, mainly because Clemens has been showing signs of wear and tear. In light of season-ending injuries to Pettitte and righthander Wade Miller--and the resultant drop-off to the current No. 3 and No. 4 starters, righthanders Brandon Backe and Pete Munro--Clemens's postseason starts, along with those of 20-game-winning righthander Roy Oswalt, have become must wins. In two nondescript outings against Atlanta, the Rocket had a 3.00 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 12 innings not with his usual bravado but by nibbling (he walked eight) and throwing a disproportionate amount of off-speed stuff, much of it not his best. "He threw me the first hanging split ever," said Chipper Jones, who had faced Clemens 14 times entering Game 4, in which the 42-year-old righthander worked a gritty five innings on three days' rest. "There was evidence he wasn't sharp--it gave everybody confidence that he wasn't invincible."
Because Garner made the debatable decision to use Clemens and Oswalt on short rest in the Division Series, he was left with Backe and Munro, who had a combined 4.81 ERA this season, as the likely starters for Games 1 and 2 against St. Louis. Like Clemens, Oswalt ran out of gas in the fifth inning of the Division Series clincher and couldn't make the Braves swing and miss at his slow curve; three days' rest won't be a viable strategy against the Cardinals.
St. Louis is thus a prohibitive favorite to reach its first World Series since 1987. After his team had lost the Division Series, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy could only shake his head, describing the Cardinals as "a very stressful lineup to pitch against." And Perez, who had a 14.40 ERA to show for his two starts, conceded even more: "Whoever they play in the World Series is going to have a very hard time." ‚ñ†
SI's Final Forecast
Senior writer Tom Verducci predicts a Red October
Red Sox over Yankees in seven games
Led by the battle-tested Curt Schilling, Boston has the deeper pitching staff needed to withstand the war of attrition between two relentless offenses.
Cardinals over Astros in six games
Houston's already thin pitching was overtaxed by the Braves in the Division Series, leaving the Astros vulnerable to the potent St. Louis lineup.
Red Sox over Cardinals in seven games
Boston has the hottest team and the best starting pitching. The only reason not to pick the Red Sox is 86 years of history. This is the year the Curse is lifted.
WHAT THE SCOUTS SAY
THE RUNDOWN The Cardinals' rotation is made up of No. 3 and No. 4 starters who all lack a knockout pitch. Matt Morris's stuff has become ordinary. He's a tremendous competitor, but his breaking ball is not as crisp as it used to be and his command isn't as good either.... There's not a dominant arm in the bullpen, and Jason Isringhausenis not a championship-caliber closer.... The lineup is a lethal combination of patience and power. Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds are all 40-homer guys who also wear out a pitcher and take what he gives them.... Tony Womack can change a game. He'll steal a base even when everyone in the park knows he's going to do it.... Defensively this club won't give you a fourth out, and Pujols's improvement at first base this season makes them that much better.... Mike Matheny is the best defensive catcher I've seen in a long time. His knowledge of hitters and his ability to block balls and keep borderline pitches in the strike zone is outstanding. FOCAL POINT Trading for Walker in August was huge. Last September in Colorado he was out of shape, but that's not the case now. He's rededicated himself to staying fit and is 20 to 25 pounds lighter. As a result he has recaptured his swing and he's faster in the outfield. HOW TO BEAT THE ASTROS The St. Louis starters will have to have pinpoint control and pray that their hitters put a lot of runs on the board. The Cardinals have to get to the Astros' starters early, because you don't want to face closer Brad Lidge. They have to make Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt work; if they do, St. Louis has a shot to wear down Houston's bullpen.
WHAT THE SCOUTS SAY
THE RUNDOWN Roger Clemens has helped Roy Oswalt become a complete pitcher. Oswalt's fastball has a second gear, and his curve is nasty.... It was Christmas in June when the Astros got Carlos Beltran. In that hitters' ballpark, Houston had a screaming need for a true centerfielder.... Craig Biggioabandoned his leg kick, and he's closer to being the selective hitter he used to be.... Jeff Bagwell has the monkey off his back after hitting his first two playoff home runs against Atlanta. He's a bona fide No. 3 hitter who walks and is a threat to homer, but his swing has lost some of its thunder because of his shoulder injury.... Jeff Kent is still a steady performer, though he can be beaten with fastballs that never used to get by him.... Morgan Ensberg has too many holes in his rigid swing. In that lineup Mike Lamb is a better option at third base.... Phil Garner has made a tremendous difference as manager the last three months; the Astros are more aggressive on the base paths and playing together again. FOCAL POINT Trading Octavio Dotel for Beltran allowed the Astros to elevateBrad Lidge, who has established himself as a premier closer. His slider is usually unhittable: Sometimes it looks like a slider, sometimes it resembles a hard curve, and sometimes it looks like a split-finger. HOW TO BEAT THE CARDINALS The Astros have to get at least seven innings from Clemens and Oswalt to keep their bullpen from wearing down. The heart of St. Louis's order is devastating, but Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen will chase fastballs up in the zone. When Edgar Renteria falls behind in the count he'll panic and swing at breaking balls off the plate.
Photograph by David E. Klutho
The Rocket showed signs of fatigue against Atlanta, walking eight in 12 innings and relying on off-speed pitches.
With two home runs and five RBIs in the Division Series, Pujols showed why he's St. Louis's biggest bat.
FIVE COLOR PHOTOS
DAVID E. KLUTHO