National League Championship Series Preview

National League Championship Series Preview By Special Guest Columnist, RotoWire.com Staff Writer, Gus Papdopoulos.

Sequel to the Original Nobody Saw

The Cardinals and Astros locked horns in a thrilling seven-game LCS epic last year; unfortunately, with the Red Sox and Yankees making history at the same time over in the American League finals, the Cards-Astros matchup got far less attention than it deserved. While some of last year's big names (Carlos Beltran, Scott Rolen, Jeff Kent) aren't around for this year's sequel, this should still be an enthralling series, especially given the 18-inning march through Thermopylae that the 'Stros endured against Atlanta to get here.

Note: head-to-head batter-versus-pitcher stats include postseason play.

Cardinals vs. Astros

The Cardinals won the season series, 11-5, going 11-3 when they were actually trying to win games (Houston swept a two-game set in the last week of the regular season at Busch, a situation where the Cards were just tuning up for the playoffs; the Astros had gone 0-6 at St. Louis this year before that). In games started by Houston's Big Three, the Cardinals went 7-3.

Here are the probable lineups and starting rotations as of press time:

  Cardinals

  Astros

R

 David Eckstein SS 

R

 Craig Biggio 2B

L

 Jim Edmonds CF 

R

 Willy Taveras CF

R

 Albert Pujols 1B 

R

 Lance Berkman LF-1B

L

 Larry Walker RF 

S

 Morgan Ensberg 3B 

R

 Reggie Sanders LF 

L

 Mike Lamb 1B or
 Orlando Palmeiro LF 

R

 Mark Grudzielanek 2B 

R

 Jason Lane RF 

S

 Abraham Nunez 3B 

R

 Adam Everett SS 

R

 Yadier Molina

R

 Brad Ausmus

For almost all of the games in this LCS, the Cardinals' lineup and batting order will go exactly the way it's listed here. When the left-handed Pettitte starts for Houston, however, expect Molina, and perhaps Nunez, to move up in the order; expect Walker, and perhaps Sanders, to move down. In fact, Walker hit just .217 against lefties this season, so there is an outside chance that Tony LaRussa could give either So Taguchi or John Rodriguez a start against Pettitte in Walker's place (or, maybe not; see the Game One comments below). Both Walker (knee) and Edmonds (shoulder) are mild injury concerns. Conversely, when the left-handed Mulder pitches for St. Louis, Bruntlett (.295 against lefties this year) could get a start over either Lamb (.179 against lefties) or Everett (.221 against lefties). If Palmeiro gets a start, he'd likely drop below Lane in Houston's batting order. If Wandy Rodriguez has to start a game for the Astros due to injuries, Raul Chavez likely would catch.

  Cardinals

  Astros

Game 1

 Chris Carpenter (RH)  Andy Pettitte (LH)

Game 2

 Mark Mulder (LH)  Roy Oswalt (RH)

(off day)

Game 3

 Matt Morris (RH)  Roger Clemens (RH)

Game 4

 Jason Marquis (RH)
 or Jeff Suppan (RH)
 Brandon Backe (RH)

Game 5

 Carpenter  Pettitte

(off day)

 

Game 6

 Mulder  Oswalt

Game 7

 TBD  Clemens

At press time, the only announcement the Cardinals had made about their rotation was that Carpenter would go in the opener. Carpenter left Game One of the LDS after six innings with a cramp in his pitching hand, but no issues have publicly arisen concerning the hand in the last week, so he's probably not an injury concern. Mulder took a liner off his pitching arm in his Game Two start on Thursday; although he stayed in the game, he is a bit of an injury concern at press time. Even though he'd have six days of rest going into Game Two, if Mulder needs a couple more days to get the swelling down in his forearm, he could be slipped to Game Three or Four, and the Cards could draft either Morris, Marquis or Suppan to go in Game Two (Morris would have a full four days' rest after starting the clincher against the Padres on Saturday). The Astros had not made any announcement about their rotation before we went to press, but based on who pitched when against the Braves, it'd be hard to see Phil Garner go any way except the way we've outlined here. Of the Big Three, Pettitte is the only one ready to go on full rest for Game One (presuming the flu bug that caused the 'Stros to send him home on Sunday is out of his system by then). After pitching on Saturday (and not pitching in Sunday's 18-inning game), Oswalt then would have a full four days' rest for Game Two. That would slip Clemens to Game Three, meaning he'd have five days' rest for that game, after throwing 44 pitches in relief on Sunday on just two days' rest. Remember, the Astros were stuck with Backe and Peter Munro as starters for the first two games of the LCS last year, so they'll take their chances with the hand they're dealt here. (Of course, the Cardinals didn't have Carpenter or Mulder in last year's LCS, either.)

The Bullpens (key pitchers):

    Cardinals -- Jason Isringhausen (RH), closer; Julian Tavarez (RH) and Ray King (LH), set-up
    Astros -- Brad Lidge (RH), closer; Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls (both RH), set-up

Isringhausen went 5-of-7 in save chances against Houston this year (four runs, 10 baserunners, six strikeouts in 8.2 innings). Berkman is just 2-for-14 off Izzy lifetime, with five strikeouts; Ensberg is 3-for-8 with a homer. Jeff Bagwell (6-for-18, .333, homer, four walks) is a legitimate pinch-hitting threat late. Isringhausen blew two saves in last year's LCS against Houston, but a lot of that damage was done by Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent (who won Game Five with a walk-off homer). The Cardinals' set-up crew might not inspire a great deal of confidence in this series. Tavarez has had a tough time against the Astros this year (six runs, 11 hits, seven walks in nine innings), while King allowed eight of the 14 Astro batters he faced this year to reach base. (BTW, Berkman is 5-for-15 lifetime off King, with three homers, two coming in last year's LCS.) Since there aren't that many lefties in Houston's lineup, King may not see a lot of action in this series; at least, Redbird Nation hopes that's the case.

Guess who this pitching line belongs to:

IP   H  R  ER  W  K
9.2  7  1  1   1  12

Those are Dan Wheeler's stats against the Cardinals this year in six relief outings; pretty darn good. Now, Pujols has had some career success off Wheeler (6-for-8, five singles, one double); however, the rest of the Cardinals' starting lineup is just 6-for-36 (all singles, with three walks, for a sickly .398 composite OPS) lifetime off him. Wheeler might not be able to pitch in Game One as he recuperates from his three-inning stint against the Braves on Sunday, but expect him to be effective against St. Louis when he does pitch in this series. Lidge, of course, is no slouch against the Cards, either (4-for-4 in save chances this year; no runs, two hits, two walks, four strikeouts in 6.2 innings), and he also owns good career head-to-head numbers against many Redbirds (Pujols, 2-for-11; Edmonds, 1-for-13; Walker, 2-for-11; Sanders, 0-for-7, six strikeouts). Oh, one more point to remember this week; no one on St. Louis' playoff roster has ever homered off Lidge or Wheeler. Qualls can be effective as well (just nine baserunners allowed in 10 innings against St. Louis this season), but the story is Wheeler and Lidge; if the Astros can take a lead into the seventh (a very big "if", given their less-than-fearsome lineup), that's probably all she wrote. The Cardinals' bullpen, while capable, isn't nearly as scary, and would appear more likely to blow a lead late.

Game One -- Carpenter faced the Astros five times this season and was lights-out in his first four outings (4-0, 0.81, 25 strikeouts in 33 innings). He then got cuffed around a bit the last time he faced them, during the last week of the regular season as the 'Stros were fighting for their playoff lives (six runs, nine hits in six innings). Carpenter would do well to pitch around Berkman (4-for-15 lifetime off Carpenter, but three homers and three walks); Biggio (8-for-22, .364) and Lamb (6-for-18, homer, four doubles) are batters to watch as well. Most of the problems Carpenter has had late this season have come against lefty-laden lineups; except for Lamb, the Astros don't have much to offer in that area (Ensberg is 5-for-18 lifetime off him, but that's just four singles and a double). Therefore, if Carpenter is healthy, there's no reason not to expect him to have a decent outing here.

Pettitte didn't get a win in his three starts against St. Louis this year, but that wasn't his fault, as he posted a 1.35 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 20 innings while getting tagged with a loss and two no-decisions. Look for LaRussa to juggle his batting order a bit against the left-handed Pettitte. The regular top three batters in St. Louis' order have all struggled against Pettitte over their careers ...

Eckstein   .188, 6-for-32
Edmonds    .100, 3-for-30
Pujols     .167, 2-for-12 (both singles)

... but batters later in the order have had a bit of success ...

Walker         3-for-7, HR, 2 W
Sanders        5-for-11, 2 HR
Grudzielanek  .368, 9-for-17, HR

Putting Grudzielanek in the second spot in the order wouldn't be a surprise at all. It will be interesting to see what LaRussa puts more stock in, Walker's miniscule career sample size (just nine PA) against Pettitte, or Walker's .217 BA against lefties this season; we'll bet it's the latter. This will certainly be a low-scoring game, but we like Pettitte's chances just a tiny bit better in this game; Houston takes Game One, 3-2, in a game that could really go either way.

Game Two -- Oswalt did not enjoy a lot of success against the Redbirds this year, going just 1-2, 5.21 with a 1.32 WHIP in his three starts. A lot of the current Cardinals have done okay  for themselves off Oswalt in the past:

Eckstein     .444, 4-for-9
Edmonds      .263, 10-for-38, HR (but 15 Ks, too)
Pujols       .386, 17-for-44, 3 D, 2 HR, 4 W
Walker       .360, 9-for-25, HR
Sanders      .267, 4-for-15, HR

If there's a key hitter in St. Louis' lineup in this game, it looks to be Edmonds; if he can get on base, along with Eckstein, then Oswalt will have to pitch to Pujols, which could lead to some instant crooked numbers.

If Mulder (check status) goes in this game, he could look good against this Astros lineup. Mulder went 1-1, 2.79 with a 1.00 WHIP in his four starts against Houston this year. Three of those outings, including both at Busch, were really good (just two runs allowed and 20 baserunners in 26 innings, including a ten-inning shutout win), and the fourth stunk (six runs, eight hits in just three innings). We're guessing the good Mulder would show up here if he's healthy, as only two Astros have career OPS marks greater than .750 off him (Ensberg, 4-for-12, two doubles, homer; Lane, 4-for-13, homer). Mulder pretty much owns the rest of the 'Stros (Biggio, 0-for-14, two walks; Berkman, 1-for-9), and we'd expect him to dominate this matchup. St. Louis, 6-2, to even the series.

Game Three -- Clemens was effective against the Redbirds last season, but not as lights-out as Pettitte; the Rocket went 1-1, 2.62 with a 1.29 WHIP in four starts (24 innings, just 13 strikeouts). Here's how the top and middle of the Cardinals' order has fared lifetime off Clemens:

Eckstein        .185, 5-for-27
Edmonds         .250, 14-for-56, 4 HR
Pujols          .259, 7-for-27, 1 D, 0 HR
Walker          .150, 3-for-20, HR
Sanders          1-for-12, 5 K
Grudzielanek    .318, 7-for-22, 2 D

Those are numbers that should give cautious optimism to Astros fans. Again, as against Oswalt, Edmonds would seem to be the key hitter here; it'd be tough to visualize a sustained rally off the Rocket if he isn't productive. That sore shoulder of Edmonds could be something that decides this series. Check out Grudzielanek's numbers; one strategy for LaRussa to consider here is dropping Eckstein to eighth in the order and putting Grudzielanek in the leadoff spot.

We'd guess Morris would get the start here for St. Louis, not necessarily because he's the most deserving, but because he's The Veteran. Morris split two decisions in his two outings against Houston this year (two runs, 12 baserunners in 11 innings, seven strikeouts). The two batters that will give Morris the most fits are Berkman (.344, 21-for-61 lifetime, three homers) and Lamb (.400, 6-for-15, four homers). If we were Phil Garner, we'd put Lamb and Berkman in the 3-4 spots in the order for this game, dropping Ensberg (.235, 4-for-17, homer) to fifth. There really isn't anyone else in Houston's lineup that has decent career numbers off Morris (Bagwell does, but by the time he'd show up as a pinch-hitter, Morris likely will be out of the game already). Clemens is pitching hurt, and Morris just hasn't shown he can pitch deep into the ball game against Houston (11 innings in two starts this year, 10 innings in two starts in last year's LCS); both could be gone by the sixth inning here. And, if the bullpens have to settle it, as we said earlier, we like Houston's chances. The Astros take Game Three, 4-3, to take a 2-1 lead in the series.

Game Four -- Remember that great game Backe had in Game Five of the LCS last year (no runs, one hit in eight innings)? Don't look for a repeat. Backe was cuffed around earlier in that same LCS (four runs, eight baserunners in four-and-two-thirds in Game One), and he's been absolutely pounded by the Redbirds this year (13 runs, 28 baserunners in just 11.1 innings). We especially like Pujols (4-for-15 lifetime off Backe, four homers, four walks) in the home run pool for this game.

Either Marquis or Suppan will get the start for St. Louis here. Marquis had success against the Astros this season, going 4-0, 3.22 with a 1.21 WHIP in five starts. Suppan did not face the Astros at all this season (pretty amazing, considering the two teams met 16 times and Suppan was never hurt). Berkman has great career numbers off Suppan (.321 lifetime, 9-for-28, two homers), and if Jose Vizcaino starts any game in this series, it'd be against Suppan (.560 lifetime, 14-for-25). Garner could start Vizcaino at third base, moving Ensberg to first and keeping both Lamb (3-for-17 lifetime) and Palmeiro (0-for-17) out of the starting lineup. Either prospective St. Louis starter likely will get touched up a little, but either way, we don't see Backe lasting long at all here: St. Louis wins Game Four, 8-5, to even the series.

You'll note we picked Houston to win the two games that are projected toss-ups in the first four games of this series, with St. Louis winning the two games where they have significant matchup advantages. If any team has a chance to sweep the series, therefore, it's the Cardinals; one extra break their way in both Game One and Game Three will do it. The longer this series goes on, the better Houston's chances are of pulling it out.

The rest of the series -- We like Pettitte's chances of winning Game Five at home, but we don't see Oswalt outpitching Mulder in Game Six any more than we did in Game Two. That takes us to a Game Seven, with Clemens going against either Morris or Marquis; the Rocket has had a great run this season, and could put up one great game in this series ... but it'd be very tough to ask for two. Just like last year, Clemens comes up just a little short in Game Seven at Busch; Cardinals, 6-4, to win the series in seven.

Guys to avoid in your playoff pool -- For the Cardinals, Reggie Sanders (just .215 lifetime, 14-for-65, off the Astros' four starters plus Wheeler and Lidge); for the Astros, Lance Berkman (.194, 7-for-36 off Carpenter, Mulder and Isringhausen).

Guys you've gotta have in your playoff pool -- For the Cardinals, Albert Pujols (.338 lifetime, 24-for-71 off Clemens and Oswalt); for the Astros, Morgan Ensberg (.316, 24-for-76 lifetime off the Cardinals' four starters plus Isringhausen) and Dan Wheeler.

Article first appeared October 12, 2005 at RotoWire.com


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