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Series business

Cards a nice story, but will be overmatched by Tigers

Posted: Friday October 20, 2006 2:04AM; Updated: Friday October 20, 2006 2:49AM
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Jeff Suppan was dominant in Games 3 and 7, but the Cardinals can't match the Tigers' starting rotation.
Jeff Suppan was dominant in Games 3 and 7, but the Cardinals can't match the Tigers' starting rotation.
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NEW YORK -- Go ahead, crown the Tigers. They are more powerful than the Cardinals, better rested and generally better suited for a short series. They rolled through a difficult American League derby and should make the Cardinals go away, quickly and quietly.

Give the Cardinals credit for beating the more talented Mets and making it to the World Series when no one thought they could do it. And credit Tony La Russa for managing the postseason of his life, for coaxing more out of his team than anyone ever figured he could, and for getting them two rounds past their calling.

The Cardinals' 3-1 Game 7 victory on Mets turf Thursday night was impressive indeed. Jeff Suppan and Yadier Molina, two more surprises in the Cardinals' surprise postseason, combined to dispatch the best the National League had to offer.

Understandably, there is talk of a miracle in St. Louis now. But there is talk of destiny in Detroit, too. And no one should blame them for that. The Tigers' regular season was fabulous, their postseason even better. Their path has started to resemble that of the 2005 White Sox.

There isn't any reason to think the AL is ready to abdicate. The NL entry hasn't won a World Series game since 2003, and there isn't any compelling reason to think they will win four games this time. My cardinal rule when the leagues are in a period where one's dominating the other: stick with the superior league.

As for the teams, this looks like a mismatch. The Tigers have the best starting rotation in baseball, and it isn't even close. They have two lights-out relief pitchers, and neither one of them is even their closer. Plus, they have power threats from the top to the very bottom of the lineup. The last three hitters in the Tigers lineup all hit at least 25 home runs. Top to bottom, they can overpower anyone.

The Cardinals are a nice story. No, make that a great story. But the story should be coming close to its conclusion now.

They have maybe the best hitter in baseball in Albert Pujols, one of the five best pitchers in the game in Chris Carpenter and a lot of momentum going for them. They also have a rookie closer, Adam Wainwright, with stuff so good he made the Mets' best and most-clutch player, Carlos Beltran freeze on the NLCS-ending strikeout with the potential winning run on base.

Plus, even La Russa's critics would have to admit they have one of the best managers in the game. La Russa always was nifty with a bullpen. But the work he did with this group -- none of whom was a household name once Jason Isringhausen went down -- has been nothing short of magical.

But here is where the magic ends.

My matchups

Starting pitching: Tigers by a lot.
Relief pitching: Tigers by a lot.
Hitting: Tigers by a lot.
Fielding: Cardinals by a little.
Managing: Cardinals by a little*.

*It's tough to pick against Jim Leyland, but getting the Cardinals here shows La Russa's genius.

The Wainwright stuff

The Cardinals' rookie closer froze both Cliff Floyd and Beltran to kill the Mets' ninth-inning threat and has emerged as a star on the national stage. He's also young enough to believe the Cardinals can keep this going. "Nobody expected this,'' Wainwright said in the celebratory clubhouse. "Everyone starts with a clean slate in the playoffs. And we're still going. One more stop to make. We're confident. We won this series against one of the best teams in baseball.'' ... If the Cardinals do win the Series (and I am not discounting the possibility I may turn out to be wrong -- believe it or not, it's happened before), they will become the team with the worst record to win it all. The 1987 Twins are the worst for now, going 85-77 en route to that title.

Mind games

La Russa and Willie Randolph both managed terrifically throughout the NLCS, employing unconventional strategies for maximum results. However, two moves Randolph made didn't work in the ninth inning Thursday. Hardly anyone will question Randolph for sticking with Heilman for a second inning, the ninth inning, rather than turning to his closer Billy Wagner in a tie game at home since Wagner struggled twice already in the series. However, Heilman allowed the game-winning two-run home run to Molina. "I thought Aaron had a nice eighth inning,'' Randolph said. "He was throwing the ball pretty well. With all the righties coming up, I thought we could get another inning with him and bring in Billy after that.''

Few will probably question Randolph for turning to Floyd with Mets at first and second and none out in the bottom of the ninth since Floyd provided a chance to win it. However, the more usual National League strategy would be to summon someone to bunt such as Chris Woodward or even pitcher Tom Glavine (the active leader in sacrifice bunts) to bunt both Mets into scoring position for the top of the lineup. As it turned out, Jose Reyes lined to center, and after Paul Lo Duca walked, Beltran whiffed.

Overall Randolph did a great job, and his bosses generally loved the work he did this postseason. Look for him to receive a three-year extension for about $1-1.5 million a year. His original contract runs out in 2007, when he is set to make $700,000.


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