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October 2, 2000
Atlanta Braves vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Four years ago, the Cardinals had their hands around the Braves' collective neck and let the series slip away. Don't think that Tony LaRussa has forgotten. Darryl Kile wasn't with St. Louis in 1996, but he has his own motivation for revenge: he gave up just two hits and drove in a run against Greg Maddux in the opener of the 1997 NL Division Series, but his Astros lost the game, 2-1; the Braves went on to sweep the series.
With home-field advantage and a rested rotation ready for the Tomahawk Twentyfive, the Cardinals have everything they could want to exorcise the demons of 1996 and let them move on plague the Braves instead.
Well, everything except Mark McGwire in the starting lineup.
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)
(Ed. Note: For players who played for multiple teams, their EqA only reflects their performance with their current team.)
2B/SS Rafael Furcal (.295/.394/.382/.276)
2B Fernando Vina (.300/.380/.398/.265)
Once you get past Chipper Jones, the Braves' lineup is not really all that impressive. The bottom three spots are just pitiful, and Bobby Cox has essentially no better options off the bench. Reggie Sanders looks to get most of the playing time in left field, as B.J. Surhoff's bum right quad continues to keep him off the field.
The key for Atlanta is Rafael Furcal, who needs to be on base as often as humanly possible for the Joneses. As much as we abhor using phrases like "manufacture runs", is there any other way the Braves are going to produce runs from the bottom of the lineup?
The Cardinals' lineup goes seven deep, and LaRussa hardly keeps to a rigid order: J.D. Drew is as likely to bat leadoff as seventh. St. Louis has OBP threats up and down the lineup, making them a threat to start a rally at any time. But--and this is a bigger but than Jennifer Lopez's--the absence of Mark McGwire forces the Cardinals to lean almost entirely on left-handed hitters.
Because of that, the series may very well come down to the performance of Fernando Tatis, the only right-handed batter in the middle of the Cards' lineup and someone who has been terrible over the last two months. Against Tom Glavine, who is almost exactly as effective against left-handed hitters as he is against right-handed ones, LaRussa might be tempted to start Eric Davis in the outfield, Placido Polanco at second base and possibly even Craig Paquette in left field if he gets a wild hair.
OF B.J. Surhoff (.291/.344/.443/.264*)
PH Mark McGwire (.305/.483/.746/.379)
The Cardinals' advantage on offense is even more pronounced on the bench. The menacing presence of Mark McGwire is going to make any at-bat with the tying run at the plate a potential game-breaking situation. Eli Marrero may start ahead of Carlos Hernandez, given Marrero's tremendous success (9-of-15) throwing out baserunners this year.
No Mike Matheny wisecracks here; he had the best season of his career and threw out nearly 50% of baserunners. Let's face it, though: the guy had a 679 OPS, lower than both of his backups. The loss of Matheny is as likely to help the Cardinals as it is likely to hurt them.
The Braves' bench is just bad; no one on the bench does more than one thing well. Wally Joyner and Bobby Bonilla can walk or hit the occasional double, but their home-run power disappeared years ago. Neither Keith Lockhart nor Walt Weiss have much value as a bench player other than Lockhart's ability to play multiple positions. George Lombard can pinch-run and play defense, while Paul Bako can warm up relievers in the bullpen. It's not a stretch to say that there is really no one the Braves can bring into a game that can foul up any of La Russa's best-laid plans.
Rotations ( Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacment, ERA)
Greg Maddux (6.4, 3.00)
Rick Ankiel (3.6, 3.50)
The Braves' rotation appears to have come down from Mount Sinai, but the Cardinals were being a little opaque with theirs. LaRussa and Duncan were supposedly concerned about whether Rick Ankiel could handle the pressure of a playoff start, but they've made the decision to make him the Game 1 starter. This is a risky but potentially brilliant gamble.
The risk is not really about Ankiel; inning for inning, he was clearly the Cardinals' best starter this year, and thanks to LaRussa's shrewd handling of him, he has a fresh arm for the playoffs. The risk is that the Braves' performance line against left-handed pitching this season is .315/.386/.476, compared to .260/.336/.415 against right-handers. Ankiel isn't your typical left-hander, but then neither is Randy Johnson and the Braves torched him twice. (Ankiel did not face the Braves this year.)
What's fascinating is that the Cardinals actually have the deeper rotation: LaRussa only called on six different starters all season (the above five and Britt Reames), and every single one of them had a SN winning percentage above .500. In the playoffs, though, depth is overrated: the Braves have the best 1-2 combination of any playoff team.
To LaRussa's credit, he is talking about bringing Ankiel and Game Two starter Darryl Kile back for Games 4 and 5. By starting Ankiel over Kile in Game 1, LaRussa takes advantage of two off days in this series to get Ankiel four days' rest, so only Kile would have to go on three days' rest in a potential Game 5. If Cox doesn't call the bet and tries to skate by with Andy Ashby in Game 4, the Braves could be in trouble.
Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA)
John Rocker (2.3, 2.89)
Dave Veres (16.1, 2.85)
Neither team is going to carry more than 11 pitchers, so it's unlikely that Alan Benes will be on the Cardinals' roster, while Bobby Cox has to decide which right-hander to axe: the rookie (Jason Marquis), the rehab case (Kevin McGlinchy) or the savvy veteran who can't actually get guys out (Scott Kamieniecki).
The Cardinals have a collection of solid relievers that lets LaRussa bail his starters out after five innings, but the only left-hander likely to make the roster is Jason Christiansen, and he's hardly the kind of weapon LaRussa likes to have in the late innings. (This is another reason for the Ankiel-to-the-bullpen rumors.) Fortunately or unfortunately, the Braves don't have a dominant left-handed hitter in their lineup that La Russa would want to neutralize anyway.
The Braves, on the other hand, have a left-handed closer, setup man and a capable long man in Terry Mulholland. The Cardinals lineup is dripping with left-handed hitters, and so how aggressively Cox uses his relievers, and whether John Rocker can keep from walking the ballpark, may decide the outcome of a game or two.
Defensively, both teams employ terrific center fielders protecting gimpy-legged left fielders. J.D. Drew has more range than Brian Jordan, but Andruw Jones has more range than anyone, so we'll give a slight edge to the Braves.
Up the middle, the Cardinals enjoy the underrated Edgar Renteria and the fastest pivot man in the major leagues, Fernando Vina. Furcal is still a little raw, and whatever defensive genius Walt Weiss has left is in his positioning, so the Cardinals win big on the infield. Both the Cardinals' hitters (1.17 G/F ratio) and pitchers (1.14 G/F ratio) are flyball oriented, while the Braves hitters (1.38 G/F) and pitchers (1.34 G/F) both keep the ball down. Both teams have pitching staffs that play against their defensive strengths at the same time that both teams' offenses play into their opponent's defense.
For all the flak that we've given Tony LaRussa over the years for his handling of young players, it's easy to forget just how well he handles a veteran team. With one notable exception, this is entirely a veteran team, and as Joe Sheehan pointed out, LaRussa did an outstanding job with Ankiel this season. He doesn't have the left-handed arms in the bullpen that he likes, but against the Braves, he might not need them.
Bobby Cox is the one with the bullpen arms; he's also the one with a history of peculiar and self-destructive managerial decisions in postseason play. If LaRussa has one advantage over Cox, it's that he has a bench stocked with right-handed hitters ready to pounce if Cox tries to get cute with his left-handed relievers. If Cox tries to let Terry Mulholland pitch to Eric Davis (.390/.463/.543 vs. LHP) with men on base in a key situation, it could come back to haunt him.
Aside from the late-inning maneuvering, what will be interesting to observe is whether Cox tries to take advantage of Carlos Hernandez, who threw out only 29% of baserunners this year, in an attempt to compensate for his lack of big bats. It might work if Brian Jordan catches the Cardinals flat-footed or if George Lombard comes in and swipes a key bag. It's more likely to bite them in the ass, though, if Furcal tries to get greedy and runs the Braves out of a rally with one of the Joneses at the plate.
In a five-game series, the only thing we can predict with certainty is that the Cubs won't win. We think.
Both teams went 95-67; the Braves allowed 57 fewer runs than St. Louis, but scored 77 fewer as well. The Braves have played in five Division Series and won them all, never even needing a Game 5 to clinch, but they've never faced a team as good as this year's Cardinals. Game 1 could be crucial: if Greg Maddux beats Ankiel, the Cardinals have to beat the Braves' one left-handed starter in Game 2 or be in a 2-0 hole and going to Atlanta to face Kevin Millwood and Andy Ashby. But if Ankiel pitches the game of his life and the Cardinals pull off the upset, the Braves need to win two of three with Tom Glavine, Millwood and Ashby just to force a Game 5. I'd like to cop out and say that whoever wins Game 1 will win the series, but I can't.
The key to this series may come down to Atlanta's bullpen versus St. Louis's bench, and it just so happens that the Cardinals' bench contains the greatest home-run hitter of our time. I expect LaRussa to outthink Cox in one of the games in this series, and for McGwire to come up in a key situation and hit the ball about 600 feet. So I'll go with St. Louis in five of the best playoff games in the short and unremarkable history of the National League Division Series.
If my track record in predicting playoff series is any indication, that means the Braves will sweep.
Rany Jazayerli can be reached at email@example.com.