Beaten down and left for dead on the side of the road at the end of August, 10.5 games behind, the St. Louis Cardinals clawed their way back into the National League Wild Card race—certainly with the help of the Atlanta Braves’ flailing—and now find themselves headed to Philadelphia to face the team that helped pull them into the playoffs.
But after their exhausting adventure just to reach the postseason, will the Redbirds have anything left as they battle the Phillies and their vaunted starting rotation?
St. Louis made its final surge with little help from Matt Holliday, who injured a tendon in his right hand in mid-September and re-injured it when he tried to play again in the regular season’s next-to-last game. He almost certainly will not be available at the start of the Division Series, and expecting any contribution from him at all in October might be asking too much.
Additionally, Rafael Furcal tweaked his left hamstring on Monday, and he is a question mark for the first round, as well. While Furcal had a difficult time this year with the Dodgers, he had improved his batting average and power after being dealt to St. Louis. However, a run of five errors in six games demonstrated that all was not well with his game.
Here comes the cavalry
Holliday’s powerful bat in the heart of the lineup will be replaced by Allan Craig. Craig has filled in quite admirably of late, banging some crucial home runs for the Cardinals during their September surge. Still, it’s difficult to expect him to fully replace the highest-paid player on the team.
The middle infield will be manned by some combination of Skip Schumaker, Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto. Okay, so that’s not a very intimidating trio, but each player has come through with some surprising hits lately. Maybe they’ll be inspired by the memory of 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein and show the world just what scrappy little infielders are capable of.
The big boys
Albert Pujols just finished a season batting under .300 with fewer than 100 RBI for the first time. (He finished at .299 with 99 RBI. So close, Albert.) He started out the season more slowly than ever, was on the disabled list for two weeks (when everyone said it would be four to six weeks) and had the weight of his pending free agency on his shoulders.
Pujols could earn a sizable portion of his slightly diminished reputation back with a strong October. And with Holliday and Furcal gone, he’s even more crucial to the Cardinals’ hopes for success. The stage is set for Pujols to show he deserves a record-breaking contract. Now all he has to do is step into the spotlight and shine.
Sharing the lineup limelight will be Lance Berkman. He’s already inked for 2012—potentially as Pujols’ replacement—so Berkman is obviously playing for the World Series ring he thus far hasn’t won. His stellar comeback year would be topped off wonderfully with a parade through downtown St. Louis. The Big Puma needs to produce big time for that to happen.
How about the rotation?
Chris Carpenter‘s two-hit, one-walk shutout Wednesday night propelled the Cards into the postseason, but that means he won’t be available until Game Three of the Division Series. That leaves Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia to take the ball in Games One and Two, respectively. Against Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
Well, Lohse did win a recent showdown with Halladay, so there is some hope. And Lee did run out of gas in last year’s World Series. Maybe his tank will be empty earlier this season.
It’s going to be difficult to match up with those two aces on Saturday and Sunday, but there’s a reason they play the games. Anything can happen, as several of this year’s Game 162s so aptly demonstrated Wednesday night. And St. Louis was 6-3 against Philadelphia this season, including a 3-1 record at Citizens Bank Ballpark.
Undoubtedly, the Cardinals are the underdogs against the Phils. They won a dozen fewer games and posted a run differential of only +70 to Philly’s +184. But St. Louis did have the highest-scoring team in the NL while playing home games in a park that favors pitchers.
So maybe the Cardinals can get to Halladay. And maybe they can get to Lee. And maybe—just maybe—they can get to the NLCS.