In each of the last two seasons, a National League team skidded its way into a division title, praying that an early lead could stand up despite a ravage of injuries and a team-wide slump, barely eeking their way in with a historically poor record for a division winner. These two franchises faced off in the first round of last year’s playoffs (with the Cardinals sending home the Padres decisively). As the story repeats itself, they meet again, with the roles nearly reversed.
Just a couple months ago, the Cards appeared to be, as usual, a serious contender for the NL Pennant. All season long, they had compiled a record clearly above the National League’s riff-raff, and held a 7-game division lead as late as September 19. The lead was large enough that, when MLB went through it’s annual ritual of flipping coins to determine sites for potential playoff games to settle regular season ties, MLB found the notion of a tie in the NL Central so remote that it didn’t even bother with the effort of some coin-tosses. They eventually found themselves correcting that oversight, as the Astros pulled to within striking distance, and were alive until Sunday afternoon—the final scheduled day of the regular season.
OK, so we get it, the Cards limped in, with a record just 1.5 games better than last year’s much-derided San Diego club. Are they as overmatched as 2005’s Padres were in last year’s division series? Let’s break it down, Dr. Jack Ramsey-style.
The Rotation and Defense
In a situation somewhat similar to the Twins-A’s series in the American League, the Cardinals have the best pitcher in the series in Chris Carpenter (3.09 ERA, 221.1 IP), but very little depth behind him, with Jeff Suppan (4.12 ERA, 190 IP) slated to start Game 2, followed by Jeff Weaver (5.18 ERA, 83.1 IP) or Anthony Reyes (5.06 ERA, 85.1 IP) in Game 3. The Padres counter with Jake Peavy (4.09 ERA, 202.1 IP), who’s having a down year, followed by breakout second-year starter Chris Young (3.46 ERA, 179.1 IP) and veterans Woody Williams (3.65 ERA, 145.1 IP) and David Wells (3.49 ERA, 21.1 IP).
Peavy is having a much worse season than Carpenter, but is not posting drastically different peripheral stats compared to his last two seasons, when he posted ERAs under 3. Despite the higher ERA, Peavy is still capable of dominating on any given night, and posted ERAs of 2.87 and 2.43 in August and September, respectively, after a horrible start to the season (World Baseball Classic conspiracy theorists, start your engines!). Carpenter has been steady all season, but is coming off a loss to the Padres in his final start, in which he gave up six runs in seven innings. You can’t draw firm conclusions based on one game, but based on Peavy’s hot finish, call this one a tossup, which is bad news for the Cardinals, since each of the rest of the matchups is a clear win for the Padres.
Defensively, the Cardinals feature Gold Glove-caliber defenders in Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, but with Edmonds banged up, the Cardinals look shakier up the middle. Meanwhile, the Padres also feature strong defenders all over the field, including Khalil Greene at shortstop and Mike Cameron in center field. However, they also have the worst defensive player in the series in Mike Piazza—luckily for them, the Cardinals are ill-equipped to take advantage, having swiped only 59 bags all season against 32 caught stealing as a team.
One thing to look for will be how the teams set up their rotations. Because of the quirks of the schedule, Game 1 starters could start on Game 4 on regular rest, but Game 2 starters would have to start on short rest to make Game 5 starts. Expect both managers to throw out their aces in a potential Game 4. If it gets to a Game 5, the starting pitching would swing even farther toward the Padres, with the Cardinals having to potentially start Suppan, their only other serviceable starter, on short rest or, going with either Reyes or Weaver, while the Padres could counter with a rejuvenated David Wells.
(Somehow, despite the scheduling shenanigens, the teams are on track to play Game 4 in St. Louis, then fly back and play a day game in San Diego the very next day if necessary. And neither team is scheduled to play a single game during prime time, with 1 p.m., 10 a.m., and 12 p.m. starts. MLB Baseball! I live for this!)
Big edge: Padres
Similar to the pitching battle, this series will match up a stars and scrubs Cardinals unit against a deep Padres lineup that lacks a dominant hitter. Over the course of the season, the Cardinals have scored 50 more runs than the Padres (781 to 731). Park effects narrow the gap, but St. Louis will take the field with the emerging Chris Duncan (.952 OPS, 310 PA) and two other hitters who are better than the best Padres hitter in Pujols (1.102 OPS, . 627 PA) and Rolen (.887 OPS, 577 PA). On the other hand, the Padres only have one hitter, Mark Bellhorn (.629 OPS, 285 PA), who is arguably worse than the half of the Cardinals lineup that has included So Toguchi (.686 OPS, 448 PA), David Eckstein (.694 OPS, 531 PA), Aaron Miles (.672 OPS, 464 PA) and Molina (.595 OPS, 433 PA).
Jim Edmonds’ (.822 OPS, 403 PA) health could be the difference between these two teams on offense in a short series. Edmonds has been battling post-concussion syndrome and a sore foot while playing only six games in September, in which he hit a paltry .200/.200/.400 with eight strikeouts in 15 plate appearances. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa intends to start Edmonds—and why wouldn’t he when the alternative is So Toguchi, which is kind of like going from San Diego beer (Stone IPA, Karl Strauss Red Trolley) to lSt. Louis beer (Budweiser).
With closer Jason Isringhausen out, the Cardinals have four decent options coming out of the pen in Adam Wainwright (3.12 ERA, 75 IP), Braden Looper (3.56 ERA, 73.1 IP), Brad Thompson (3.34 ERA, 56.2 IP) and Josh Hancock (4.09 ERA, 77 IP), but are missing that shutdown, capital “C,” Closer to bring into a tight situation. Meanwhile, the Padres pen seems full of those types, and is the best bullpen left in the National League side of the bracket. Trevor Hoffman (46 saves, 2.14 ERA, 63 IP) is the household name among the bunch, but all seven Padres relievers, including breakout rookie Cla Meredith (1.07 ERA, 50.2 IP) and veteran setup man Scott Linebrink (3.57 ERA, 75.2 IP), have ERAs under 4, and expect them to shut down games in the late innings, which will be important given that the Padres are counting on Williams and Wells.
Big edge: Padres
Going into the series, I would say that the Cardinals best chance at winning the series would be for Chris Carpenter to dominate his starts against Jake Peavy, and then hope that Albert Pujols can help steal of the other games. But given Peavy’s under the radar second resurgence, I can’t see Carpenter taking both Game 1 and Game 4 against him. The Padres’ huge advantages in the rotation and the pen trump the Cardinals’ advantage on offense in Games 2 and 3, so expect the Padres to take the series in 4.
References & Resources
Big thanks to Vinay Kumar for an assist on the introduction, Rotoworld for injury news and ESPN.com’s sortable stats.