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The American League and most of the Northeast might
have to get used to not
getting a Yankees-Red Sox rematch in its Championship
Series, but over here
in the senior circuit, we all get to revisit last
October’s NLCS clash. In
the visitor’s corner, we have an Astros team living
large on the greatness
of a half-dozen ballplayers, and while there’s no
Carlos
Beltran
highlight reel running every other
inning, it’s also a team
that doesn’t have to ask Peter Munro
to start two games in
the series. Still over in the heavy favorite category,
we have another deep
and talented Cardinals team hoping to achieve what no
Cardinals squad has
done since Rollie Fingers got hurt in
1982. Is this the
year the Cardinals can dispel memories of 1985, 1987,
the extra heaping dose
of humiliation of 1996, or 2004? While both ALDS
featured interesting (if
perhaps overdrawn) mismatches between teams that had
either strong pitcher
or strong hitting, the NLCS might outdo all other
series for its matchup
between a strong Cardinals lineup and the best trio of
starting pitchers on
any single team in the game today.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Houston Astros

CF-R Willy Taveras
(.291/.325/.341/.241/11.9)
2B-R Craig Biggio
(.264/.325/.468/.271/37.2)
3B-R Morgan Ensberg
(.283/.388/.557/.311/61.5)
LF-B Lance Berkman
(.293/.411/.524/.317/55.1)
RF-R Jason Lane
(.267/.316/.499/.273/28.3)
1B-L Mike Lamb
(.236/.284/.419/.239/2.2)
C-R Brad Ausmus
(.258/.351/.331/.247/11.8)
SS-R Adam Everett
(.248/.290/.364/.231/8.3)

St. Louis Cardinals

SS-R David Eckstein
(.294/.363/.395/.268/39.4)
CF-L Jim Edmonds
(.263/.385/.533/.307/51.1)
1B-R Albert Pujols
(.330/.430/.609/.344/100.3)
RF-L Larry Walker
(.289/.384/.502/.302/27.4)
LF-R Reggie Sanders
(.271/.340/.546/.298/27.4)
2B-R Mark Grudzielanek
(.294/.334/.407/.257/23.1)
3B-B Abraham Nunez
(.285/.343/.361/.249/9.1)
C-R Yadier Molina
(.252/.295/.358/.227/4.4)

The Astros’ lineup is not a group blessed with balance,
but they do have
discrete strengths. Obviously, as Ensberg and Berkman
go, so go the Astros,
and they did combine to hit nine of their 60 home runs
on the season against
the Cardinals. If the Cardinals keep them
under control, that
would particularly put Lane and Lamb on the spot. Both
finished the season
strongly, Lamb in particular, by hitting .319/.392/.609
in the final month.
If nothing else, it was enough to summon up memories
of last season, and get
Lamb into the lineup to stay. In-game, there are
obvious tactical dilemmas.
Sure, Taveras will slap at everything, and if the
Astros really take leave
of their senses, he’ll try to run if he makes it
aboard. Yadier Molina threw
out 64% of opposing base-stealers, so you can guess how
that’s going to turn
out.

The larger issue is in the later innings. This is a
lineup with the sorts of
weaknesses that Tony La Russa is used to picking away
at with his bullpen.
Although Berkman’s relative weakness against
left-handed pitching is common
wisdom (.294/.416/.429 against southpaws, as opposed
to his thumperiffic
.292/.409/.558 against right-handers), he’s still
going to do some damage.
It isn’t Berkman that’s the problem, though. With Lane
and Lamb behind him,
the middle of the Astros’ order is extremely
vulnerable to a quality lefty.
Lane was bass-ackwards this year, hitting
.280/.322/.521 against
right-handers, while Lamb would either melt or need to
be pinch-hit for, and
the Astros bench isn’t pretty. (Against Mulder, you
can probably expect hero
of the moment Chris Burke to play left, and Berkman to
move to first base
while Lamb gets shelved.)

Manager Phil Garner may overcompensate for his
lineup’s overall lack of
firepower with some running at the top of the order,
and getting cute with
one-run strategies with the tail end of the lineup,
something that Ausmus
has afforded him with by finally putting up a decent
OBP for the first time
in his second Astros incarnation. However, if Garner
gets too cute with
Ausmus, Everett, and the pitcher’s slot, that will
just make life easier for
the Cardinals’ starting pitchers.

Although not armed with the same murder’s row they
could boast with a
healthy Scott Rolen at the hot corner, the Cards still
do have one of the
National League’s better lineups now that Walker and
Sanders have come back
from injuries. They get men on base at the top of the
order, they get power
in its heart, and the bottom does a decent job of
getting balls in play to
convert all the front-end fireworks into additional
runs. Walker may be
benched in the games Andy Pettitte starts, but Walker
can hit lefties a
little, and Pettitte isn’t Randy
Johnson
-in-his-prime
invincible against them, so La Russa might stick with
the famous guy instead
of bringing in So Taguchi. These Cards don’t run like
Cardinals teams of
old, nabbing only 83 steals all year, but it really
doesn’t matter. Brad
Ausmus will keep baserunning out of the equation, so
the Cardinals’ lineup
will be that much more reliant on big innings rather
than manufacturing
runs.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

Houston Astros

PH-R Jeff Bagwell
(.250/.358/.380/.268/3.3)
OF-L Orlando Palmeiro
(.284/.341/.431/.268/10.0)
INF-B Jose Vizcaino
(.246/.299/.33/.226/0.3)
UT-R Eric Bruntlett
(.220/.292/.413/.247/2.7)
OF/2B-R Chris Burke
(.248/.309/.368/.238/-0.6)
OF-L Luke Scott
(.188/.270/.288/.194/-4.5)
C-R Raul Chavez
(.172/.210/.263/.152/-6.6)

St. Louis Cardinals

OF-R So Taguchi
(.288/.322/.412/.258/15.5)
OF-L John Rodriguez
(.295/.382/.436/.290/11.1)
OF/1B-L John Mabry
(.240/.295/.407/.242/1.8)
UT-R Hector Luna
(.285/.344/.409/.271/7.1)
1B-R John Gall (.270/.282/.514
/.265/2.0)
C-R Einar Diaz
(.208/.248/.277/.176/-5.5)

Despite the presence of future Hall of Famer Bagwell,
Palmeiro is the best
bench weapon that Houston has. However, he’s also
easily erased with a lefty
reliever: against right-handed pitching, he hit
.302/.347/.467, but versus
lefties, .136/.296/.136. The challenge for Garner is
using Palmeiro at a
time when LaRussa won’t negate his bat by responding
with Ray King or Randy
Flores, because his options against lefties aren’t
quite so tantalizing. A
rusty Bagwell? But the Astros may not be as weak as
they appear to be at
first glance, since they’re relying upon a lot of
young hitters who didn’t
fare as well as expected while breaking in or finally
sticking in the
majors. Although Burke and Bruntlett aren’t really
‘Killer B’s’ in keeping
with the franchise’s history, Burke’s a young player
capable of hitting
better than he did this season, and perhaps adding to
the fame he already
has for ending the 18-inning marathon on Sunday. They
can hope that
Bruntlett’s .295/.377/.425 in 61 at-bats against
lefties is representative.
Similarly, Scott hit for considerable power in the
minors this season (31
homeruns at Triple-A Round Rock) after washing out in
April, so he might
surprise the Cardinals in the right situation.

In contrast to so much uncertainty, La Russa can call
on a diverse and
talented group of veteran reserves kept sharp by
frequent use. In the middle
and late innings, he’s going to need the depth he has
here to help achieve a
key platoon advantage, and Mabry in particular has
experience and success in
a pinch-hitting role, slugging .471 as a pinch-hitter
this year. Luna might
get brought in to pinch-run, but basically, this is
the sort of quality that
should give the Cards an advantage in any extra-inning
game. Rodriguez seems
to be reserved for emergencies, but he is the obvious
choice to get into the
lineup if a starter breaks down, or to get the DH
at-bats should the
Cardinals advance. Having three usable outfielders on
the bench allows La
Russa to both pinch-hit aggressively and still
have someone to spot
for Walker or Sanders if either need to come out;
there’s no understating
how much of an advantage that affords La Russa,
especially when he’s equally
aggressive about using his bullpen, and thus
potentially more likely to want
to pull the occasional double-switch.

If there’s a ‘Signs of the Apocalypse’ note to be
struck, it’s if both teams
ever have to use their backup catchers. You might be
able to find two less
dangerous hitters on a big league bench, but suffice
to say that neither
team is going to be very aggressive about getting
their starting backstops
out of the lineup.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

Houston Astros

LHP Andy Pettitte (222.1, 2.39,
8.6)
RHP Roy Oswalt (241.2, 2.94, 7.7)
RHP Roger Clemens (211.1, 1.87,
9.4)
RHP Brandon Backe (149.1, 4.76, 2.7)

St. Louis Cardinals

RHP Chris Carpenter (241.2, 2.83,
8.6)
LHP Mark Mulder (205.0, 3.64,
4.9)
RHP Matt Morris (192.2, 4.11,
3.0)
RHP Jason Marquis (207.0, 4.13, 4.3)
or RHP Jeff Suppan (194.1, 3.57, 4.3)

Not this year. This year, the Astros don’t have to
hope to get by with a
non-embarrassing outing or two from Backe or Munro,
this year they’ll get to
take a clean shot at the Cardinals as far as their
starting pitching is
concerned. If the series is to be won by Houston, it
will almost certainly
be achieved here, on the strength of the best trio of
starting pitchers on a
single team in baseball, and
three of the best five starters in the game
.
However, none of the
Astros’ big three logged multiple wins against the
Cardinals this season, or
was particularly dominant against them. Still, that
may not matter. All
three are very different kinds of pitchers, Clemens
relying on power and a
splitter, Oswalt on power and a curve he can change
speeds with, and
Pettitte with one of the best cut fastballs in the
game. Pettitte has been
especially hot down the stretch, winning 11 games in
the second half while
logging fifteen quality starts (three runs or less
allowed in six innings or
more) in sixteen starts. (The one “non-quality” start
was a game in which he
was pulled in the sixth having allowed only two runs.)
Oswalt’s been
hittable, particularly in the second half, but he’s
also not likely to come
apart at the seams, while the Rocket should be ready
for a Game Three start.
What we won’t see is another eight shutout innings in
the NLCS from Backe to
match last October’s surprise effort against the
Cards, but if the front
three do their jobs, the Astros shouldn’t need them.

However, if the Astros are putting their best foot
forward this time around,
so too is St. Louis, as they get to
rely upon staff ace and
retread par excellence Chris Carpenter.
Carpenter missed the tail
end of last season and the postseason, but having him
at the front of the
rotation gives the Cardinals one of the only starting
pitchers in baseball who
matches up well with the Astros’ big three. It’s
particularly helpful that
he seems to have Houston’s number this year, going 4-0
in five starts
against them. Beyond Carpenter, the Cardinals’
rotation is less a tribute to
the individual greatness of any of the other four
horsemen, more a testament
to their combined talent and durability. They reflect
the continuing
effectiveness that La Russa and pitching coach Dave
Duncan have had in
building up and succeeding with veteran rotations,
both here and with the
A’s rotation of the late ’80s that really relied on
Dave
Stewart
while enjoying good seasons from
Mike
Moore
and Bob Welch. As a
prescription for the
in-season success, you can’t do much better. This is a
group that gives you
quality starts more often than not, and when your
lineup puts runs on the
board, you win more than the other guys over 162
games.

The tough decision here is whether or not they should
turn to Jeff Suppan,
or instead start Marquis in the third, fourth, or any
game in the series.
Morris really ought to bumped behind Suppan on the
basis of performance, but
he’s the homegrown ex-ace, so I doubt that he won’t
start Game Three. But
who do you pick between Suppan and Marquis? Marquis
was 4-0 in five starts
against the Astros during the year, and even hit
six-for-twelve and slugged
over .900 against them. Although research generally
supports the conclusion
that a pitcher loses an advantage the more he faces an
opponent, especially
if you accept Morris as an automatic choice in Game
Three, La Russa has a
tough call as far as whether or not he should rely on
the regular season
success, or if he’ll let Marquis’ past flakiness lead
him to start Suppan.
If any one of the three starters behind Carpenter and
Mulder falters in his
start, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the guy who
didn’t start is on tap
for Game Seven if he doesn’t have to pitch in relief
beforehand.

Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)

Houston Astros

RHP Brad Lidge (70.2, 2.29, 4.7)
RHP Dan Wheeler (73.1, 2.21, 3.4)
RHP Chad Qualls (79.2, 3.28, 1.9)
RHP Russ Springer (59.0, 4.73,
0.8)
LHP Mike Gallo (20.1, 2.66, 0.1)
LHP Wandy Rodriguez (128.2, 5.53, 0.6
SNLVAR)

St. Louis Cardinals

RHP Jason Isringhausen (59.0, 2.14,
3.6)
RHP Julian Tavarez (65.2, 3.43,
2.0)
RHP Brad Thompson (55.0, 2.95,
1.6)
RHP Cal Eldred (37.0, 2.19, 0.8)
LHP Randy Flores (41.2, 3.46,
0.7)
LHP Ray King (40.0, 3.38, -1.1)

The Cardinals can boast a pretty good pen, and usually
do, but this isn’t
quite as good a unit as it’s made out to be,
especially with Al
Reyes
out with a bum elbow. Generally,
this is a pen that
reflects its manager’s micro-managing tendencies. Izzy
gets reserved for
save situations, and everyone else dances to the beat
set by La Russa in his
careful attention to situational advantages. Whoever
gets dropped from the
rotation for the series will serve as the team’s long
reliever.

It may not get its praises sung as often as the
Cardinals’ pen, but the
Astros have a better group than they’re usually given
credit for, and more
of an honest-to-goodness collection of talent.
Although Lidge hasn’t been
the overpowering pitcher he was last season, he
finished strong, and with
Wheeler and Qualls ahead of him, the Astros are
generally in good shape if
they have a lead after seven. Wheeler lost last
season’s pronounced platoon
split, making him that much more effective despite a
relatively pedestrian
assortment, and Qualls and Springer have had their
moments. If there’s a
pitcher here particularly on the spot, I think it’s
Gallo. He isn’t an effective situational lefty, and unless
he comes up with
something else, he’s not going to be useful against
Larry Walker and Jim
Edmonds. If Garner chases situational advantages, it
could cost the Astros
the series, but over the season, he’s generally been
willing to rely on
Wheeler and Qualls to set up Lidge, and avoid
over-managing.

Defense

In terms of Defensive Efficiency, both of these teams are

pretty strong units. Both
feature catchers who can deter if not simply throttle
the running game. Both
feature outstanding defensive center fielders, with
Edmonds apparently
losing nothing to age, while Taveras may have an
opportunity to shine on national television. It should be interesting to see
if Taveras beats out a
few infield hits against a group of Cardinals
infielders not known for their
strong arms, particularly Eckstein and Grudzielanek,
but that may be the
only potential weakness of note about the Redbirds’
defense. By comparison,
it’s clear that Biggio isn’t a very good second
baseman these days, and that
Berkman doesn’t move around as well in left as you
might wish; either
factor could come into play, but the Astros try to
compensate with
defense-oriented starters like Taveras in center and
Everett at short.

Managers

The fun factoid of this series? The Cardinals led
baseball in suicide
squeeze plays (defined as sacrifices or bunt hits with
a man on third and
less than two outs) with 14, and the Astros were
second with eight. We’ve
touched on most of each manager’s idiosyncrasies in
the other sections, but
despite broad similarities (a willingness to rely on
veterans, and go for
the occasional tactical gimmick), it makes for an
interesting contrast
nevertheless. La Russa has the bench and pen to
entertain himself late into
the ballgame, while Garner does not, and will need to
be much more careful
about who he uses, when, and for what particular
purpose.

Prediction

The Cardinals dominated the season series, winning 11
of 16, but that’s not
really a good measure of the matchup that we have on
our hands now. The
Astros’ Berkman and the Cardinals’ Rolen were
simultaneously active in only
one of these two teams’ six regular season matchups,
and the Cardinals’
depth in their rotation doesn’t shine as much in a
short series in the way
that simply great starting pitching usually does.
Busch is a bit of a
pitcher’s park, while Non-Carbonated Fruit Beverage
Ballpark To Be Named
Later in Houston has its infamous short porch in left
just begging to make
Pujols the Series MVP or almost anybody the hero for a
day. Both teams
feature the power hitting to rely upon in either park,
which might produce a
surprise slugfest (Game Four, anyone?). The Cardinals
dodged a lot of
bullets and enjoyed the benefit of a lot of stranded
baserunners in the
series against the Padres, not to mention facing a
team that had to call on
Pedro Astacio to start a postseason
game. It would be
asking too much more to expect them to enjoy similar
good fortune against an
Astros rotation that will keep the scores low, and
against an Astros lineup
that should have its moments against the
non-Carpenters in the rotation,
particularly in their home park. In an upset, I’m
going with the Astros
in seven
.

James Click contributed to this article with his incomparable
database wizardry.