Thursday, October 13, 2005
A rematch of last year’s NLCS, and this one should be just as nail-biting. The Astros are coming off a stunning Game 4 comeback victory and seemingly have all the momentum, but don’t underestimate the momentum a series sweep can give a team like the Cardinals. When you totally dominate an opponent as the Cardinals did, even one as weak as the Padres, it gives your team all kinds of confidence and a feeling of invincibility. When you scratch and claw to defeat an opponent it can bring a lot of wear and tear to your team. As such, the Cards enter this series with a lot of well-rested pitchers and veteran hitters.
These two teams are interesting because of their respective dearth of pitching. The Cardinals and Astros finished one-two in the NL in ERA, and both have starting pitching to die for. The Astros have three Cy Young-caliber starters and the Cardinals have five starters who would be no less than a number two on any other team in the majors. Both teams also have strong bullpens, although the ‘Stros have a distinct advantage because their unhittable closer Brad Lidge has proven himself more durable than Jason Isringhausen, his counterpart on the Cardinals, and thus is more capable of going for more than one inning in any given game. In a series that could be decided by a few runs, this could end up being crucial.
In a short series, though, the Astros have a substantial advantage in their starters because they can throw out an ace-type in six of the seven games, a luxury that few recent playoff teams have ever had. The Cardinals, while full of strong starters, have one guy who can dominate in Chris Carpenter, but the rest certainly aren’t Cy Young contenders. Meanwhile, the Astros’ unholy trinity of Clemens/Petitte/Oswalt is better than any combination of three of the five Cardinals starters, and while Brandon Backe makes for a weak fourth starter against a stronger Cardinal counterpart, the matchups in the other six games are more than enough to make up for this. You figure that Chris Carpenter, the Cards’ ace, is roughly equal to any of the three Astro aces. After him, Mark Mulder, Matt Morris, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Suppan are clearly inferior matchups. Games 1 and 5 will be toss ups from the starting pitching standpoint, but the Astros are in the driver’s seat in Games 2, 3, 6, and 7.
Of course, this might not matter much if Houston hits like it did in the regular season. With two of their best hitters (Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent) leaving in the offseason and the rest of the lineup populated with either aging and/or injured former stars (Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio) or just plain sucky hitters (Willy Taveras, Brad Ausmus) the Astros struggled to score runs, ranking 11th in the NL in scoring despite playing in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the league. Their offensive ineptitude was visibly reflected in the record of Roger Clemens, who had one of the single greatest pitching seasons of all time, yet won only 13 games because the team couldn’t score any runs for him. Their offense showed some resiliency against Atlanta, especially in Game 4, but most of the mashing came against an awful Atlanta bullpen; St. Louis’ pen is one of the best in the league. Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg are legitimately great hitters, but when you realize the Astros’ season may have been saved by incredibly unlikely home runs by Ausmus and Chris Burke, you can start to see the extent of their weak batting order.
Contrast that to the Cardinals’ lineup which, though not the slaughterhouse it was in 2004, managed to finish 3rd in the NL in runs. They have power, patience, and big sticks in the middle of the order, none bigger than potential MVP Albert Pujols. They’re a team fully capable of putting a game away early with a big inning and then letting their pitching do the work, as they did with the Padres. If there’s any lineup up to the task of combating the Astros’ aces, it’s this one.
The Cards are the most balanced team in the major leagues, but sometimes balance isn’t as important in the regular season as it is in the playoffs. Their lineup may be great, but the ‘Stros’ aces would be a formidable challenge for the ’27 Yankees and great pitching like this tends to defeat even the best hitting in the playoffs (see 1963, 1965, 1969, 1988 World Series). Houston’s offense is pretty meek, but they should be able to score enough runs for their aces to make the difference, and they should squeak away in seven games, a nice little bit of revenge after being taken down by St. Louis in last year’s playoffs.
The White Sox are too, because they don't have him either!