NLDS Playoff Rotation Taking Shape

Brian Walton looks at how the Cardinals starting pitching lines up for the first round of the playoffs and considers its potential impact on the second.

Tony La Russa's and Dave Duncan's plans for the St. Louis Cardinals' pitching rotation for the next week have been disclosed. As a result, the playoff rotation has also been strongly implied, though not yet formally announced. While there are no surprises, the schedule itself may present some very important post-season options.

La Russa disclosed that lefty Mark Mulder will be again passed over in the rotation this coming week, with his next start scheduled on Saturday the 24th in Milwaukee. There was no discussion of his neck soreness, so it seems this is all about rest and rotation alignment.

In addition, Jeff Suppan will switch places with Jason Marquis and go on Tuesday in Cincinnati, with Marquis sliding to Wednesday. That positions Suppan to follow Mulder, starting next Sunday against the Brewers.

The other relevant announcements were a reaffirmation that #1 starter Chris Carpenter will continue to pitch every fifth day, whether there are any off days in between or not and a statement that neither rookie, Anthony Reyes nor Adam Wainwright, will be given any starts the rest of the way.

Putting all this information together with the playoff schedule, which has been set, enables one to forecast the first-round playoff rotation. As a side note, in either scenario, the Cardinals will have home field advantage in the National League Division Series, meaning Games 1, 2 and 5 (if necessary) will be held at Busch Stadium.

So, looking ahead, as a result of this tweaking, Carpenter, Mulder and Suppan are lined up to start the first three games of the NLDS, which for the Cardinals, will begin on either October 4 or October 5, depending on their opponent.

As a result, Carpenter will take the mound for Game 1 with either one or two days extra rest. This is based on him staying on his regular turn, with his final regular-season start on Wednesday the 28th.

That is the end of what seems fairly certain based on the remarks from La Russa. However, there are several likely scenarios which follow. That is what we'll explore here.

If Playing the NL West Winner

If the Houston Astros can maintain their slim lead in the NL Wild Card chase, then the Cardinals will play the division winner with the worst record in the NLDS. That will be the NL West champion – currently the San Diego Padres, who have a 5.5 game lead over the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. Although it is a low-odds scenario that either the Giants or Dodgers will catch the Padres, even if they do, this scenario is unchanged. So, for purposes of simplicity, I will refer to San Diego as the divisional winner.

If the Cards end up playing San Diego, there will be two days off during that five-game NLDS. As a result, if Game 4 at San Diego is needed, Carpenter could start on his regular every-fifth day routine. This might be appealing to La Russa to use his best pitcher in trying to end the series in four, buying an extra day of rest in the process.

However, it could also mean taking a major risk if the Cardinals don't win Game 4. If Game 5 is required, La Russa would then be faced with a decision, that unless successful, could be second-guessed for years to come.

On a winner-take-all NLDS Game 5 on Monday, October 10 at Busch Stadium, would La Russa send out Mulder on three days rest or turn over the most important game of the season (to that point) to either Matt Morris or Jason Marquis?

In this scenario, neither Morris nor Marquis would have started a game for ten days previously or perhaps even longer. Would that make them sharper and more effective on the mound or pose an even greater risk than their second-half inconsistency has already demonstrated?

With this uncertainty increasing the urgency, the conclusion has to be to hope for an NLDS win over the NL West champ in three or four games.

Of course, the safer alternative may be for La Russa to put Marquis or Morris in as the Game 4 starter and slide Carpenter out one extra day, holding him for Game 5, if needed. If Game 4 would end the series, then Carp could be held three days more to start the NLCS Game 1.

If Playing Philadelphia or Florida

Whether the Philadelphia Phillies, Florida Marlins or any non-Houston team wins the NL Wild Card, the Cardinals will face that team in the NLDS as a result of their best-in-the-league regular season record.

In this scenario, the NLDS will start a day later than in the San Diego case (October 5 instead of October 4). As a result, there is only one day off in this version of the NLDS schedule. That is extremely important.

Assuming that Carpenter, Mulder and Suppan will start the first three games no matter what, the question arises to who would be the Game 4 starter, if needed. Unless Carpenter were to be asked to pitch on three days rest, then the Morris vs. Marquis decision would come into play for Game 4.

However, unlike in one of the San Diego scenarios, there is a security blanket. If a Game 5 is needed, then Carpenter would be ready to go on his regular rest.

But, even that has an associated downside risk. While it is not the intent of this article to look ahead all the way to the National League Championship Series, if Carp starts Game 5 of the NLDS, he would not be ready until Game 3 of the NLCS, which will be held on the road. (That would also line Carp up to start the NLCS Game 7 on regular rest, if needed.)

In conclusion

Which of these NLDS scenarios do you favor?

1) Facing a team with a weaker regular-season record, the NL West winner, knowing that if there is a Game 5, it could have to be trusted either to Mulder on short rest or a potentially-rusty Morris or Marquis.


2) Facing a hot Wild Card team (and we all know how successful Wild Cards have been in winning the World Series in recent years), knowing that if a Game 5 is required, a rested Chris Carpenter will be ready to go at home, but potentially paying for it later with him unavailable until later in the NLCS.

It's not as if we actually have a choice, but we can have a preference, can't we?

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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