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Posted: Tuesday October 5, 2004 9:13PM; Updated: Tuesday October 5, 2004 10:58PM
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8 3
Odalis Perez entered the game with a 9.64 ERA in four career starts against St. Louis.
AP

By Daniel G. Habib, SI.com

Turning Point
In big, bold strokes before a blood-red crowd of 52,127 and a national television audience, the heart of baseball's best lineup announced itself as a dominant playoff force. With two out and the bases empty in the bottom of the third and St. Louis ahead 1-0, Larry Walker (home run), Albert Pujols (single), Scott Rolen (walk), Edgar Renteria (two-run double) and Jim Edmonds (two-run home run) whipped the life out of Los Angeles starter Odalis Perez, transforming a tense game into a drowsy bludgeoning in the space of 10 pitches.

Walker, 1-for-16 lifetime against Perez, sat on a first-pitch fastball, off the outside corner, and drove it into the Cardinals' bullpen; it was the only pitch Perez said he felt good about. Pujols also hit a first-pitch fastball, and Perez appeared discomposed when he walked Rolen on five pitches. Two more mistake fastballs, both on the meaty part of the plate, accounted for the rest of the damage.

"If you have good enough stuff, make good pitches and locate, it doesn't matter what kind of lineup you're facing," Perez said. "But if you make mistakes, you're going to get hurt."

From the Bench
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa juggled his playoff rotation during the season's final weeks, slotting righthander Woody Williams in the opener, and the move was perfect. Williams followed the St. Louis starting pitcher's template: keep the game close through six quality innings and let the bats make the difference.

Williams fought his control early on, throwing 25 pitches in the first inning and 60 through the first three, but, said catcher Mike Matheny, "I could tell he was locked in down in the zone. When he's missing down low, that's a good sign. He was missing low and off the corners, and he adjusted to that. Work the ball low, that was the game plan."

Staked to a 6-0 lead, Williams grew braver and attacked the strike zone -- from the fourth on, he threw 41 of 56 pitches for strikes, and his curve ball became an effective, any-count pitch, especially against lefthanders.

Clubhouse Confidential
Was Perez tipping his pitches in the third? L.A. pitching coach Jim Colborn floated the suggestion, saying Perez unravelled so quickly, he'd need game tape to be sure. But neither Perez nor any of the Cardinals hitters confirmed the suspicion. ... It was Walker's first playoff game since '95, when his Rockies went out in four games of the NLDS. ... Rolen, who missed two weeks down the stretch with a calf strain, didn't look 100 percent when a Jayson Werth double squealed under his backhanded glove in the fifth, but he looked vintage in the eighth, charging a Steve Finley grounder and making a strong throw on the run.

Bottom Line
This was a textbook win for St. Louis: effective starting pitching, sledgehammer offense (the Cardinals' five home runs were tied for the most in a playoff game by an N.L. team) and a bullpen lockdown. If the Cardinals are to win their first title since '82, this is the formula they'll follow more often than not. Additionally, an off day Wednesday means the entire staff will be rested, fresh and available for Game 2. ... For L.A., which has made a habit of comeback wins -- an MLB-high 53 this season, including last Saturday's implausible seven-run ninth to clinch the N.L. West -- playing behind isn't a viable strategy against an offense this accomplished. The fact that the Dodgers' best starter, indeed, their only starter with a sub-4.00 ERA, got a summary punch in the gut doesn't bode well.

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