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October 13, 2004
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Houston Astros
While it lacks the cachet of the American League's götterdammerung, the National League can boast its own divisional grudge match in its Championship Series.
In this case, what it lacks in history-drenched humiliation, it makes up for in a plain old clash between a runaway winner and a second-place team happy we live in the wild-card age. So the best team in the league gets to take on the team that's been hottest down the stretch, with two high-powered lineups that should definitely give us some postseason mayhem in Randomly-Named Corporate Boondoggle Ballpark down in Houston, and two well-regarded managers pulling the high-leverage levers.
LF-R Craig Biggio (.281/.337/.469/.266/30.2)
St. Louis Cardinals
2B-L Tony Womack (.307/.349/.385/.262/33.3)
On a certain level, the tenor of the series might be set by who each team bats second. No nimble-fingered bat control artists here, instead we've got two great hitters getting in their hacks and doing nothing to make a pitcher's life easier by contributing unproductive baserunner-advancing outs. It's baseball as it was intended to be, by the McGraws, McCarthys or Weavers. So other than that half-inning when the bottom of the Astros' lineup bats in turn, you won't have a lot of time to make those runs to the fridge during the game.
It might not be the same as having Rickey Henderson leading off for you in 1990, but this may be the best lineup La Russa has ever had at his disposal. The 2-5 hitters are the main reason, of course, but the middle infield has put runs on the board, and Sanders has chipped in his usual decent slugging. Yes, the Cards have to carry Matheny, but the other guys have that same problem with Ausmus, not to mention Vizcaino. Being able to have a hitter like Renteria, who makes great contact, and Sanders, who can mash, at the bottom of the lineup basically keeps constant pressure on opposing starting pitchers. Since the Astros lack a quality lefty arm in the pen, Walker shouldn't have to worry much; meanwhile Edmonds crushed lefties this year.
The Astros have some issues to address. Craig Biggio isn't useless, but he's not a star player these days, and not particularly dangerous as on-base threats go. Will Morgan Ensberg start against the Cardinals' all-right-handed rotation, or will Mike Lamb get spot-starts? It worked with the Denny Walling-Phil Garner platoon of a different Astros team, but the manager may not remember the arrangement quite as fondly as Walling does. Considering that Woody Williams is the only Cardinals starting pitcher who doesn't have issues with lefty hitters, it would make sense. But doing so will take one more key bat off of the bench to use for Vizcaino, Ausmus, and the pitcher's slot. The Astros will score runs, especially at home, and it does seem like this October is going to put Carlos Beltran onto some breakfast food packaging somewhere, but they have to keep up with the best lineup in the league, without the benefit of facing Peter Munro or Brandon Backe.
3B/1B-L Mike Lamb (.288/.356/.511/.283/21.5)
1B/OF-L John Mabry (.296/.363/.504/.289/18.1)
Both benches have middle infielders and backup catchers who don't hit, and both have low-wattage adequate pinch-leadoff types to bring in for the pitcher's slot at the start of an inning (Palmeiro for the Astros, Cedeno for the Cards). The numbers you can dismiss as a little bit too much on the small sample size portion of the equation, and relative to past performance, belong to the Astros' Bruntlett and the Cardinals' Taguchi. So in terms of bench weapons that might make the other guy consider his options, with the Cardinals, you've really got just Mabry, while Houston can boast both Lamb and Lane. Of course, against a pitching staff run by La Russa, that means either will serve as potential pitching change initiators, bringing in some same-handed counterpart to give St. Louis a late-inning platoon advantage. If Garner tries too hard to reacquire the platoon advantage, he'll run out of useful bench players before La Russa runs out of quality relievers.
The bad news? The Astros' biggest advantage within the series would have been their two top starters, but because of the length of time Houston took to dispatch Atlanta, the rotation's bass-ackwards going into the NLCS. The good news is that if the series reaches Games 6 and 7, the Astros will probably be able to press Oswalt and Clemens into action on three days' rest apiece. Backe had his moment in the Divisional Series, but asking for that again is sort of the $64,000 question where the answer's more likely to come up 'Who was Les Straker?' It makes for a fun what-if, should the Astros get this series to Games Six or Seven. But where Garner could maximize the time he had his three really good pitchers--Clemens, Oswalt, and Lidge--on the mound, he doesn't get that in the early going in this series, and it's going to hurt.
Although they've had plenty of time to cool their heels, the Cards set up their rotation late, weighing their options. They seem to have decided that Marquis' struggles against the Dodgers and in other key moments of his career merited a push down to the fourth spot. It's interesting that Woody Williams draws the top assignment; of the four, he's the one guy who looks like he really struggled against the Astros, but he did produce a quality start against them. His overall ERA of 9.00 against them this season is the product of a particularly nasty September spanking when the Cardinals were cruising while Houston was desperate; it was his lone bad start that month. I'm leery of what might come from having Jeff Suppan pitch in Houston, but La Russa already set things up so that the even more homer-prone Morris doesn't have to start in that bandbox, and Suppan looked great in Game Four against the Dodgers.
Bullpens (ERA, IP, VORP)
RHP Brad Lidge (1.90. 94.2, 39.0)
RHP Jason Isringhausen (2.87, 75.1, 20.7)
Nate Silver hit the nail on the noggin last round, but the Astros' pen really boils down to how often Garner gets to use Lidge, and how soon. Chad Qualls and Danny Miceli can be useful, and Dan Wheeler has his uses as a situational righty, but it's a shallow pen. As noted in the lineups section, nobody in the Cardinals lineup is particularly vulnerable to lefties, so other than an uncertain matchup against Larry Walker now and again, Gallo serves no purpose in this series, not even as a potential threat. Consider him a wasted roster spot on a roster already short a few useful weapons in slots 21-25. That's something of a pity, because what the Astros really need isn't a situational lefty, it's someone to pitch three or four innings in a blowout (loss), sparing Garner the fate of having to call on Lidge or Qualls when the game isn't close. He's going to need them in the games he can win, and if (or when) Munro and Backe struggle, having somebody who could get the game from the third to the seventh would be really handy.
As for the Cardinals, the pen's about as perfectly balanced as you'll find. They have a solid enough closer in Izzy, a pair of quality setup men from both the right and left sides, and a final pair of useful middle relievers. Where King, Kline, and Tavarez have all had decent careers in situational-minded usage patterns, the guy who might be the unrecognized K-Rod monster from here on out could be Calero. He's already teetering between a Seanez-style fragile rap and a Seanez-style ability to dominate when healthy, but odds are that the Astros will get into the Cardinals pen a few times by the sixth, and Calero's the best pitcher to staunch any bleeding.
The Astros have some obvious strengths, some reputed assets, and a few points of weakness. Brad Ausmus and Carlos Beltran have great defensive reputations. Adam Everett has always been considered a plus glove at shortstop, should he start, while Jose Vizcaino is an inferior but still decent replacement. Lance Berkman seems to be more comfortable in right now that Beltran's in center, but Biggio looks veritably Skeets-like at times. Overall it's a decent defense, though not a great one.
The Cardinals have much greater cause for confidence. The outfield features three men who can move around well, and all three have solid arms. Edmonds might not be the human highlight reel he once was, but he's lost nothing to age. Pujols shows a third baseman's instincts and aggressiveness around first, and Rolen is golden at the hot corner. Matheny commands considerable respect for his rep as one of the game's toughest players, and he's a solid receiver and plate blocker. The one weak point would the middle infield, where Womack continues to get by on his best days, while Renteria is reliably mediocre. Both men can play their positions, though, so barring the occasional close play or tough deuce, the Cardinals shouldn't lose any sleep over it.
La Russa has always been at his best with an overpowering offense, a durable rotation, and the leads those two components create allow him to dabble in his pursuit of fractional platoon advantages with his bullpen. He had some of those elements in Chicago with the White Sox, perfected it in Oakland back in his Men At Work glory days, and came close at times with past Cardinal teams. But this season's collection of talent may be La Russa's best overall lineup and best bullpen, if somewhat short of the quality he had with the Dave Stewart-Bob Welch-Mike Moore combo in the A's rotation. He'll have a few moments where he'll get to exploit his pen's depth that will put Garner in a spot, since Garner lacks quality relief help, and his pinch-hitters will only go so far to cover for a weak bottom third of the order. There will be games where La Russa should get Garner to empty his bench long before the eighth or ninth, and the first two games will be particularly good opportunities, considering the pitchers Garner has to start. In running his lineup, now that he has Walker to complete it, you'll see very little in the way of fancy tactics.
After a lengthy fascination with the running game, Garner's become a bit less go-go in his golden years; both teams tend to be conventional, running often with the people who should, and much less often with those who shouldn't. Garner's nobody's dugout wizard, but he did come to Houston with a good rep in the media, and apparently walked into the Astros job with the credibility somebody had to have to deal with a clubhouse infamous for its culture of complaint. It doesn't look like the Astros have to deal with the drama they've had in years (or months) past between their managers and their stars. It isn't the sort of thing you can score, but it's probably nice to not have that sort of background noise as a distraction. Tactically, Garner's not afraid to pull Biggio or Vizcaino off the field, particularly favoring getting Biggio out of the field and the pitcher's slot double-switched up into his place.
Surviving three starts by Brandon Backe and Peter Munro in the first five games of the series is too tall an order in any situation, but against the Cardinal juggernaut, it's Astrocide. St. Louis finally makes it to the last dance on La Russa's watch, in five games. I know, it means we won't get the treat of watching the Rocket launched at either the Yankees or the Red Sox. I think we'll be too busy looking forward to the World Series to shed a crocodile tear for one potential story line's disappearance.