"You don't have to dominate baseball games as a pitcher by throwing 100 miles an hour and striking everybody out," says Carpenter, the de facto stopper with a 3.46 ERA. " Greg Maddux has dominated for years by throwing 89, 90 to spots and getting ground balls. There are a lot of ways to dominate: I can give my team seven innings, keep my pitch count low, get quick outs and keep things moving, get my offense back to the plate." This is St. Louis's template, and it explains why the staff had the fewest pitches per inning (15.74) in the league. The staff also led the league in ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio (1.51 to 1).
In other words this is a capable if unspectacular group of pitchers who lean heavily on their defense and keep games close enough for their vastly superior hitters to put them away. That would constitute a plausible playoff model were each starter performing at his peak. Instead, doubts loiter around several. Carpenter, 29, who has undergone two arthroscopic shoulder surgeries in the past 24 months, left a Sept. 18 outing against the Arizona Diamondbacks with soreness and weakness in his right biceps, an injury later diagnosed as a strain. He missed his next start, and precautionary exams indicated nerve irritation, leaving the team unsure of his ability to start in the Division Series. As of Sunday he had no timetable for a return. "It's prepare for the worst, hope for the best," La Russa says.
Morris, whose 1.13 ERA in five career Division Series starts gives him the staff's most accomplished postseason r�sum� (and makes him La Russa's likely choice to start Game 1), has yo-yoed through the season, dominant in one start and average the next, with intermittent stiffness and fatigue in his right shoulder. When the shoulder starts to lock up--preventing him from getting full arm extension--he struggles with his mechanics and his curve is transformed from a power breaking ball to a slower, gentler tumbler. "It's good-bad, good-bad," he says of his pitching. This will be the first time in his seven-year career that Morris will finish with an ERA over 4.00 (it was 4.55 at week's end), and only the Philadelphia Phillies' Eric Milton, who pitches in a hitter's park, had allowed more homers (40) than Morris's 33.
Besides a rotation that doesn't intimidate hitters and includes three question marks--Marquis allowed just two earned runs in seven innings against the Rockies on Sunday but had a 6.35 ERA in his previous three starts--the Cardinals have also suffered late injuries to several key players in what had been a relatively healthy season. Through Sunday, Rolen, the infield anchor and cleanup hitter, had missed 15 games with a strained upper left calf; he fouled a ball off his shin on Sept. 10 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, causing him to alter his gait running the bases and strain the muscle. He took batting and infield practice last weekend but still couldn't push off the leg. Pujols was fighting plantar fasciitis in his left heel, which won't heal before season's end. He takes daily treatment and anti-inflammatories but, like Morris, can't predict when the discomfort will flare up.
Lefty reliever Steve Kline has been on the disabled list since Aug. 28, initially with a groin pull and now with a tear in the flexor tendon of his left index finger, a chronic condition that could decommission him for the postseason as well. Without Kline, La Russa, who relishes a deep, flexible bullpen with multiple one-batter options, would have only Ray King as a proven lefty; it would require a leap of faith to use lefties Rick Ankiel, Carmen Cali or Randy Flores (161/3 major league innings among them this season) in a high-pressure spot. Such gambles are not standard for the Cardinals, who usually project a businesslike, soberly professional image, a reflection of their manager's caution and skepticism. "Once in a while, clubs lose an edge in the postseason," La Russa says, when asked to speculate on his team's possible weaknesses. "This game'll slap you if you start figuring you've got it locked up. All you've got to do is get a little complacent."
But on Sept. 20, after a 7--4 victory over Milwaukee clinched the NL Central title, La Russa cut himself and his charges loose, romping around the visitors' clubhouse at Miller Park soaked in champagne and beer. When King gave him an impromptu ice bath from a plastic wastebasket, La Russa, easily 75 pounds lighter than King, chased the reliever around the clubhouse, leaping on top of him and riding him piggyback, fists pumping in the air. (Said King afterward, "I told him he'd been riding me all year, so why stop now?")
It was a refreshing moment of mirth, much like the scene an hour later when a half-dozen players clambered to the upper deck and took turns on Bernie Brewer's home run slide in leftfield, a reminder that one of victory's greatest spoils is, as Walker put it, "getting to act like a complete idiot for a minute, and getting away with it." The next day dawned as grim as gravedigging. October and its pitfalls loomed.
HOW POTENT IS the Cardinals' meat of the order? According to average MLVr (runs generated by a player per game relative to the league average) St. Louis's number 2 through 5 hitters-- Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds--are the fourth-most productive quartet in history. Marginal Lineup Value, a measure of offensive production created by Baseball Prospectus, is the total number of runs a player adds beyond the number produced by an average major league hitter; MLVr is a rate-based stat, adjusted for park and league, that measures MLV per game. (For example, if Batter A has a .352 MLVr, that means that replacing an average batter with Batter A would raise a team's scoring from 4.500 runs per game to 4.852.) One of the remarkable things about the Cardinals' fab four is how close they are in production to one another: The difference between their highest average MLVr ( Edmonds's .531) and their lowest (Walker's .411) is .120--the eighth smallest among the alltime top 200 foursomes.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]