Apart from the obvious--as Los Angeles Dodgers rightfielder Milton Bradley puts it, "They don't call them the best team in baseball for nothing"--did we learn anything new about the St. Louis Cardinals as they cruised into the National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros? � Well, in its four-game Division Series romp St. Louis answered the most common criticism of its 105--57 regular season--that it possessed competent but not overwhelming starting pitching--with something of a shrug. Other than righthander Jeff Suppan's stifling seven-inning, two-run performance in Sunday night's clincher at Chavez Ravine, the Cardinals' starters ranged from ordinary to substandard. They had a combined 4.24 ERA, striking out a meek 3.5 per nine innings and allowing 2.3 home runs per nine. These numbers are based on a small sample size, true, but the latter two would have ranked last in the majors this season. Yet, as has been the case all year, it didn't much matter.
"When you have an offense like theirs--one that scores six, seven, eight runs a game--you don't need a dominant pitching staff," Dodgers lefthander Odalis Perez said after Game 4, a 6-2 St. Louis win that closely resembled its 8-3 victories in Games 1 and 2. "You can give up three or more runs and still have a chance."
It also helped that the Cardinals' relievers, who quietly amassed an NL-best 3.01 ERA and 57 saves in the regular season, announced themselves as a postseason force, working 11 2/3 innings and allowing only one run. Though the Cards' bullpen lacks a filthy closer like the Houston Astros' Brad Lidge, it's much deeper than the Astros', particularly with a pair of lefthanders in Ray King and Steve Kline, who is sufficiently recovered from a tear in the flexor tendon of his left index finger to throw strikes with velocity. As a bonus, righthander Dan Haren, the Triple A Pacific Coast League strikeout leader as a starter for Memphis, has emerged as a valuable long man--thanks to his hard splitter--since his July 25 promotion.
In contrast to Houston's Phil Garner--who trusts only righthanders Dan Miceli and Chad Qualls, regards the middle innings as a soft underbelly and will tap Lidge as early as is defensible-- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will yank his starters whenever necessary, and do so with confidence. He'll wave in a variety of relievers until he can get the ball to closer Jason Isringhausen, who isn't likely to work more than four outs.
Offensively, with the exception of a Game 3 interval in which Dodgers righthander Jose Lima shut them down 4-0, the Cardinals continue to mash the ball, no one more spectacularly than Albert Pujols. The 24-year-old first baseman bookended the series with home runs: in the bottom of the first inning of Game 1, a solo shot to straightaway center off a well-spotted slider low and away; and in the top of the fourth of Game 4, a three-run rainbow to left that put St. Louis up for good. Pujols confirms daily that, aside from Barry Bonds, he's the most complete hitter in baseball. Furthermore, his defense has improved to the degree that he handles difficult throws with ease and even makes the occasional dazzling play, such as his dive to smother Dodgers second baseman Alex Cora's hard smash in the hole on Sunday, a tough play for a righthanded first baseman.
Pujols's single-minded pursuit of excellence is becoming legend. (It is also the reason the Cardinals signed him to a seven-year, $100 million contract during the off-season, money he proclaimed to have "borrowed from God.") Last month La Russa recalled that in spring training Pujols, who had played some first base but had spent most of his previous two seasons in leftfield, took extra infield practice most days to prepare for playing first full time.
Not all is well in St. Louis, however. Third baseman Scott Rolen remained rusty from the left calf and knee injuries that cost him 16 games down the stretch. Though he fielded his position well, Rolen was 3 for 18 in the regular season's last week and 0 for 12 against the Dodgers, an ugly blight in the cleanup hole. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds, despite a two-run blast in Game 1, was 4 for 15 with nine strikeouts in the Division Series after finishing the season on a 3for35 slide. That the Cardinals scored a total of 22 runs in their three wins over L.A. while Rolen and Edmonds went a combined 2 for 19 tells you all you need to know about their offensive muscle.
The plucky Astros, who finished off the Braves 12-3 on Monday night in Game 5 of their Division Series, buried 42 years' worth of frustration by winning the franchise's first playoff series. All week Houston had confronted the specter of history-- Atlanta had eliminated the Astros from the postseason in 1997, '99 and 2001--but catcher Brad Ausmus, like his mates, dismissed that lamentable legacy. "History is in the past, for the most part," he said with a smile after Game 3.
It was a coming-of-age year for the Astros, who struck more boldly in the off-season than any other NL team by signing free-agent starters Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and then traded for prize centerfielder Carlos Beltran in June. Still, Houston had to swap managers (Garner replaced Jimy Williams on July 14) and pull off a frenetic 36-10 finish to clinch the wild card on the season's final day.
In the process a city fell in love with its team. Thanks largely to Clemens, the prodigal son returned, the Astros ushered close to 3.1 million fans through the turnstiles at Minute Maid Park this summer, a franchise record, and club chairman and CEO Drayton McLane gushed last Saturday, "I've never seen fans in Houston more exhilarated. Even when we were below .500, I had other owners asking me, 'How do you keep the fans coming?' They've just continued to support us. We can outdraw anything in Texas--except high school football."