Cardinals Stumble Into Tricky Padres

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The New York Sun

The National League’s playoff slate features a rematch of one of last season’s Divisional Series matchups. But where last year’s Padres were the league’s postseason punchline with their division-winning 82–80 record, this year’s Cardinals are the definition of a team that backed its way into October, winning only 83 games and limping in with a 25–33 stretch record during the season’s final two months.

The key word is limping, because the Cardinals were positively gutted by injuries this season, but that record was just enough, fending off the Astros’ late-season bid and allowing Tony La Russa’s club to survive a seven-game losing streak during September. Meanwhile, this year’s Padres fought off a season-long challenge from the Dodgers, winning their division again on the strength of their head-to-head play. With 88 wins and a relatively settled roster, the tables have turned, and San Diego should be the favorite.

La Russa has spent the late summer months keeping his lineup cards in pencil, because after star sluggers Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen, it’s been hard to know who else he could rely on. Normally the offense’s third big wheel, center fielder Jim Edmonds is still dealing with the aftereffects of a concussion suffered running into an outfield wall in June, and, at the very least, Edmonds will have to be platooned.

The club has also been without leadoff mighty mite David Eckstein, as he tries to bounce back from a hamstring injury. In response, La Russa has been exceptionally creative, mixing and matching to get the best possible lineup on a day-to-day basis. Especially in the outfield, La Russa has proven flexible, where he really only has Juan Encarnacion starting regularly; during Edmonds’s extended absence, he’s alternated waiver-bait veteran Preston Wilson with rookie slugger Chris Duncan, possible Comeback Player of the Year Scott Spiezio (.272 AVG/.366 OBP/.496 SLG after a dismal pair of years in Seattle), and slick-fielding Japanese import So Taguchi.

Unfortunately, the smoke and mirrors act may only go so far. There’s no certainty that any of the club’s walking wounded will be effective. Worse yet, after a torrid Pujols-like August (.361/.438/.747), Duncan cooled off to hit .212/.302/.471 in September, creating concerns that the league has caught up to him.This isn’t a lineup with any extras — little speed and a few too many slack bats — so a lot will depend on what sort of power Pujols, Rolen, and Duncan produce.

The Padres have injury concerns of their own, mostly surrounding whether or not shortstop Khalil Greene is ready to swing a bat after tearing a ligament in one of his fingers; he can run the bases and play short well enough, but Sunday’s start left him with an ofer and a pair of strikeouts. Without Greene, the left side of the infield is relatively leaky — Geoff Blum isn’t a great shortstop, and neither Russell Branyan nor Todd Walker conjure up memories of Graig Nettles at third.

Beyond that roster calculus, Bochy’s got an effective and underrated lineup. Make an allowance for the fact that they play in pitcher-friendly PETCO Park, and the Pads are actually among the middle of the pack in team offense, ranking 14th out of 30 in Equivalent Average, a metric that compensates for park factors and league differences. With Dave Roberts, Mike Cameron, and rookie Josh Barfield, Bochy has a running game that blends opportunity and efficiency (seventh and third overall in steals and stolen-base percentage). But the Padres are also more patient, and without PETCO to take into account, probably have more power spread out across their lineup than the Cards have concentrated in their star talent.

As for the pitching, this series is similar to the A’s-Twins series in that it’s a matchup of one rotation that features one genuinely great starter against the league’s best (and most durable) rotation. The problem is that there’s real concern that Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter was used up down the stretch, having gotten roughed up in three of his last five starts. La Russa had to push Carpenter for more innings in his last few outings to rest a Cards pen that has to throw a lot of innings behind their other starting pitchers.

However, St. Louis dodged a bullet by not having to use Carpenter on Sunday, meaning that he’ll start Game One with some extra rest. Jeff Suppan has been outstanding in the second half, posting a 2.39 ERA and a 6–2 record with 10 quality starts in 15; if he can keep it up, the Cards won’t be at the same disadvantage as you might think at first glance. They also need Carpenter and Suppan to go deep into games, because the world’s most nondescript collection of relievers is proving poor compensation for the loss of closer Jason Isringhausen to potentially career-ending hip surgery.

The Padres’ pen has gotten all sorts of attention this summer, for good reason, as Trevor Hoffman established a new saves record, while setup man Scott Linebrink earned all sorts of credit, and sidearmer Cla Meredith wowed people with a 34-inning scoreless streak. You can expect Meredith and Linebrink to pitch from the sixth inning on in any tight game. One thing to watch for: Although Bochy is easily the most aggressive manager in the postseason when it comes to calling for an intentional pass, it’s mostly been with his starting pitchers.With his pen, he’s been much more inclined to go after hitters once he’s secured the matchups he wants.

Affording Bochy the luxury of the initiative in the bullpen has been a rotation as underrated as the lineup. Between hard-throwing Jake Peavy and towering Chris Young, the Pads have two of the best, relative unknown starting pitchers in the game.The tough decision is the one that puts Clay Hensley in the pen so that veterans Jumbo Wells and Woody Williams can start the third and fourth games of the series. Hensley’s been better than either (posting a 3.56 ERA as a starter), but Wells still carries a hefty reputation as a money pitcher, and Williams is being given an opportunity to avenge last season’s loss in the NLDS. If Wells and Williams both struggle while Hensley watches, you can bet that’s a move that will be second-guessed.

The New York Sun

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