October 9, 2002
St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Francisco Giants
With the Twins in the ALCS and these two teams in the NLCS, there are some eerie similarities between today and 1987. As then, the Cardinals are handicapped by an injury to a key hitter, Jack Clark then and Scott Rolen now. Then as now, the Cardinals are hoping one of their best starters is good for the series after missing a significant portion of the season to injury (John Tudor back then, Woody Williams for Games Two and Six). Just as they did in 1987, the Giants have a strong lineup, although as good as Will Clark was that year, he was no Barry Bonds, and Robby Thompson was no Jeff Kent. The Giants lost that series in seven games, as the Cardinals lit up Atlee Hammaker in the second inning of the final game, and Danny Cox rolled through a complete game shutout to push the Redbirds into their doom at the hands of the Twins. So what will this rematch feature? We'll start off with one prediction: the Giants will not be shut out in any game of this series.
Losing Scott Rolen to a shoulder injury handicaps the Cardinals' lineup a lot. Miguel Cairo heads the brigade of light-hitting utilitymen Tony LaRussa loves to carry so that he can pretend that he's not short-handed when he carries eight (!) relievers in the post-season. There's also talk of playing Pujols at third, with Eli Marrero manning LF. That would help the offense, but it also keeps Marrero from supplanting Mike Matheny behind the plate. Granted, the Cards won't literally give up two more runs a game than they would with Rolen (sorry, Larry Bowa), but we could very well see a few Kent and Aurilia smashes go through for questionable hits.
The bottom of the order already looked Mathenyriffic, with the banjo-hitting catcher and Tino Martinez trying in vain to impersonate actual offensive threats. Tino played poorly even by Tino standards against the Snakes, going 0 for 11 with a pair of walks while his teammates put up 20 runs in three games. MLB.com lists Marrero as the team's third catcher. LaRussa would sooner scale the Arch in nothing but Aquaman underoos than give up Matheny's glovework behind the plate, even if the offensive gap between the two players is the same as Marrero to Bobby Abreu.
That leaves the big boys at the top to get the job done. Though in only his second big-league season, you figure the bright lights of the LCS won't bother Pujols, given he's 38 years old and used to the limelight after playing for the Philippines as a ringer in the Little League World Series. The Cards face three righties in Schmidt, Hernandez and Ortiz, a big plus for Vina (280/329/359 this year vs. RH, 238/345/266 vs. LH) and especially Edmonds (329/443/592 vs. RH, 262/357/477 vs. LH).
There is perhaps nothing more despicable than continuing to mull over Barry Bonds' postseason hitting stats, as if they're supposed to say something about him as a player. Anything can happen in a short series, and frequently does. Is there anybody you'd rather have at the plate? Not on the basis of what he does year-in and year-out. As we've pointed out before, he's the offensive fulcrum around which the Giants' offense operates. The Giants have a nice setup in that they don't have any weak hitters in their lineup, but Bonds is the sun and the others revolve around him.
Fortunately for the Giants, the supporting players are coming off of doing a pretty good job of supporting. Kenny Lofton had a great series against the Braves, Rich Aurilia got rid of some of his postseason monkeys by bopping a couple of times himself, and J.T. Snow demonstrated that anything can happen in a short series. And those Jeff Kent and Benito Santiago characters do some good things. The basic point is that the Giants not only have the best hitter in the game, they've got a strong top-to-bottom lineup that won't cough up easy innings the same way that the bottom of the Cardinals' lineup accepts as a routine day at the office.
(Ed. note: The Cards opted to keep Scott Rolen on the roster, eyeing a possible Game 3 return despite Rolen's sprained shoulder. They also officially activated Woody Williams to be the Game 2 starter. As a result of these moves, Wilson Delgado won't be added, and Luther Hackman gets removed.)
Yikes. Looking at the Cardinals' options, this assumes Rolen gets left off the LCS roster, which was a near lock at press time. Delgado slides into Cairo's role as backup infielder to handle any non-1B switches. Perez could make for a nice upgrade over Martinez against lefty Kirk Rueter, but given that La Russa started Tino against the Unit, we won't see Perez against Rueter either. Marrero can hit, run and catch the ball reasonably well. He'd figure to be first in line for LF if Pujols bumps out Cairo at 3B. Robinson could theoretically sneak in a start instead, if La Russa spots Pujols at 3B with a righty on the mound. More likely, Robinson, will play the Herb Washington role, or at least Herm Winningham role. DiFelice is a completely viable alternative to Matheny, which at least allows LaRussa to use Robinson to pinch-run for Matheny should Matheny actually ever reach base.
As ugly as all that looks, and as much as we complain about ridiculously large bullpens, what are the Cardinals' alternatives? Ivan Cruz can hit some--he might actually make a case for taking away some of Tino's time. He's also not eligible for post-season. Walt Jocketty basically blew it as far as his postseason roster, failing to slip an extra bat or two onto the 40-man before it was too late, and even outrighting Mike Coolbaugh and William Ortega late in August. Not that Coolbaugh or Ortega are world-beaters, but they and Cruz are all better options than a third catcher or So Taguchi or a twelfth pitcher for a series that includes two off-days. As a result, LaRussa doesn't even have the bodies to do too much fiddling with his pinch-hitting assignments.
The Giants have weapons, but Dusty invariably seems to forego using them. Shawon Dunston should be the last man off the bench, but Baker seems committed to actually using him. Tom Goodwin will draw pinch-hitting assignments at the start of an inning but mostly he'll appear as a pinch-runner. Tsuyoshi Shinjo is nothing more than a weak platoon alternative for Kenny Lofton, but it would be an upset to see Shinjo starting against Chuck Finley in Game Three. What seems especially strange is Baker's determination to avoid using Damon Minor, assuming that he's on the postseason roster at all. He's easily the best power source on the Giants' bench, but his struggles as a pinch-hitter seem to have made him the forgotten man on Dusty's bench.
Last round, Gary Huckabay outlined the Diamondbacks' seemingly huge edge in starting pitching. While Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling are no longer around, you'd figure the Cards to still be outgunned in this series.
Or maybe not. Matt Morris isn't quite the Matt Morris of 2001, but he's still a playoff-worthy ace, better than any Giant starter. Assuming he's recovered from a strained oblique, Woody Williams has pitched well when healthy this year, though he may be rusty by the time he takes the mound for Game Two. The Cards are praying he checks his tateriffic ways of old at the door, lest Bonds hit a ball clear to Oakland. If he's not able to pitch, the plan appears to be to run with Jason Simontacchi, which isn't bad news, both because of his worthwhile contributions during the season, and because of the other seven bodies LaRussa is keeping in his overstuffed pen.
The bottom of the rotation isn't too shabby either. Chuck Finley made the Snakes turn white in his Game Two, spinning a scoreless gem with 7 Ks. He's followed Will Clark and Williams, becoming the latest Cardinal late-season pickup to benefit from the mojo of Busch Stadium's next-door neighbor. Andy Benes skated on thin ice in Game Three, but gave the Cards a chance to win. This comes on the heels of his playing Rasputin in the second half of the season, fending off retirement rumors to enjoy a nifty second half.
This all assumes LaRussa doesn't do something really shrewd and creative, like actually make good use of a nine-man pen in support of a three-man rotation in a seven-game series, but if he's down 2-0 in extra innings in Game Three, anything could happen.
The Giants, by contrast, are much more straightforward, if slightly out of turn because the had to play the full five games to beat the Braves. Russ Ortiz won't get to start until Game Three, but he will be fully rested. Ortiz did not pitch against the Cardinals this year, and you usually expect first contacts to go the pitcher's way, but he hasn't done well against them over the last few seasons, so perhaps it's just as well. Kirk Rueter isn't the worst guy to lead off against the Cardinals, since he's had good success against them over the years, and he helps take Jim Edmonds and Tino Martinez down a couple of pegs. Jason Schmidt has had problems against left-handed hitting most of his career, so that should encourage Dusty Baker to go to the pen at the first sign of trouble in Game Two, especially if there are men aboard and the top of the Cardinals' lineup is coming around. As for Livan Hernandez, let's not get carried away and anoint him the next El Duque just yet. The Cardinals haven't had problems hitting him this year or in years past, and have belted ten home runs in the 51 innings he's pitched against them over the last four years. Considering he'll be matched up with Andy Benes if he draws Game Four, that's starting to look like a game where managerial decisions and the bullpens will play critical roles.
Yet another pair of playoff teams with deep bullpens, although the Cards gain a fair-sized edge over an admittedly strong Giants pen here. Crudale was lights out all year, with a brisk strikeout rate, good control, and he did a nifty job of keeping the ball in the park. Isringhausen put up great numbers, though he'll still make Cards fans sweat when he can't spot his curve. Veres had a nice year and makes a fairly sound backup closer, whatever that means. White allowed just four homers in 62.2 innings, no mean feat toiling most of the year in Colorado-nabbing him in-season was one of Jocketty's worthwhile in-season moves (along with getting Rolen and Finley). On the other side of the ledger, you've got the decision to acquire Jeff Fassero, but he does give LaRussa a B-lefty to make him think back wistfully on his Joe Klink days. Steve Kline was unhittable in September, tossing 15.1 scoreless innings while permitting only a dozen baserunners, turning a pedestrian Kline season into a more typically solid one.
The Giants' pen is about as straightforward as it gets. Robb Nen will get saves if the team creates save opportunities. Unfortunately, he also got relatively hittable in the second half, and Baker is unlikely to project him forward into the eighth inning. Fortunately, Felix Rodriguez got back on track in the second half, and the Giants have some solid middle men in Jay Witasick, Tim Worrell, Manny Aybar and Scott Eyre. On a pair of postseason rosters with bizarre selections, there is perhaps none stranger than Aaron Fultz.
Again, losing Rolen hurts the Cardinals. Beyond Cairo's second baseman's arm playing at third, it's tough to complain much about the regulars. Vina and Renteria form a sound keystone combo. Matheny is the rare light-hitting catcher who actually is good defensively, instead of merely being perceived as such. We all know Edmonds likes to make them fancy-like catches to get on SportsCenter, but he's still an asset with the leather. Tino doesn't quite measure up to Snow, but he's not Steve Balboni either.
The Giants feature good gloves on the corners, a working double-play combo up the middle. Benito Santiago still does a good job of limiting the opponent's running game, although there are times when he's not as nimble behind the plate as you would like. Kenny Lofton isn't the great defender he used to be, and indeed all of the Giants' outfielders aren't as spry as they once were, but all three of them can cover ground effectively enough, although none of them flash great arms.
Overall, the two teams sat in a near dead heat according to BP's Defensive Efficiency Report, with the Cards nipping the Giants for third spot in the NL (the Braves, a playoff team, finished second, the Dodgers, a near-playoff team, head the list).
Smart alecks like the BP crew could sit and nitpick over managers' moves all night during post-season - actually, we do. But the practice of managing by the Book is nearly universal. Dusty Baker uses his 10th-best pitcher in a huge 6th inning situation Monday because bringing in Nen (or virtually anyone else) that early apparently gives him the willies. La Russa wouldn't dream of sitting Matheny, no matter how huge an offensive sieve he may be, on the off chance Marrero bobbles a foul tip and makes his manager look bad somewhere down the road. Orthodoxy reigns, and never more so than in the post-season.
Actually, our biggest beef may lie with both managers' roster construction. Tom Goodwin or Shawon Dunston (pick your poison) instead of Damon Minor? Twelve Cardinal pitchers and a bench full of guys who won't make you forget Mike Mordecai? Is that the best these guys could do?
Tactically, it's hard to spot a significant advantage in either dugout. With the game on the line, La Russa might call for a continuance, while Dusty will smile and make sure not to piss off Bonds. Hey, they got this far, right?
JK: Giants in seven. I expect a big series out of at least one of Renteria and Drew, and continued success for Morris and Finley. But the loss of Rolen and the question marks surrounding Benes and Williams are too much to overcome. The Cards still do Darryl Kile proud, extending a superior team to the limit.
CK: I know it would be easy to pick the Cardinals out of sheer contrarian instinct, but this is a situation where I happen to disagree with one of my colleagues out of conviction. As weak as the bottom of the order is, the Cardinals' starting pitching is stronger, and not just on paper. You could argue that that's only because they spent so much time on the trainer's table or moping or getting re-injured in LaRussa's various crazed attempts to rush them back from the DL, but at the end of the day, if everyone's healthy right now, and hasn't had to pitch too much this summer, then I'd consider the Cardinals tanned, ready, and rested. But I don't think the Giants' rotation matches up well with the Cardinals' lineup. Unlike the exercise in pitching around Barry Bonds, the comparatively diffuse distribution of talent in the Cardinals' lineup gives Edmonds and Drew and Pujols and Vina and even El Tino opportunities to shine. I usually like to forge a consensus as a matter of habit, but I simply don't agree. Cardinals in six.
Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus.