Ten Reasons Why the Astros Won the NLCS

Revisiting an earlier prediction and how it came to pass – for Houston, not St. Louis.

As the St. Louis Cardinals fell to the Houston Astros in six games in the National League Championship Series, disappointment was high across the Cardinal Nation. As it turned out, Albert Pujols' dramatic home run in the ninth inning Monday night only delayed the inevitable result by 48 hours, with the only consolation that it allowed the final game to be held in front of the Cardinal faithful at Busch Stadium.

Taking a look at the ten potentially deciding factors based on regular season play that I called out before the series, most all came to pass. However, they ended up being in Houston's favor, not St. Louis'.

Here they are:

1) Houston's starting pitching was dominant. The only one of the Astros' "Big Three" of Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens who had somewhat struggled against the Cardinals in the regular season was Oswalt, and he excelled in the NLCS. Results of play from April through September truly seemed to be immaterial.

Oswalt was 1-2 with a 5.21 ERA against the ‘Birds prior to October, yet fanned 12 in 14 NLCS innings, with two wins, a 1.29 ERA and a well-deserved series Most Valuable Player award. On the other hand, while Andy Pettitte had a sharp 1.35 ERA against the Cards in the regular season, he lost his only decision in two LCS starts and posted a 5.11 ERA in the process.

To me, the crucial player of the series was Astros' number four starter, Brandon Backe, who registered a 10.32 ERA in two starts against St. Louis this season. Backe was coming off a bad NLDS against the Braves, where his ERA was 8.44. Yet, Backe answered the bell with an impressive showing in the LCS Game Four, backed by the Astros' pen. I believe that was the defining point of the series.

2) Cardinals starting pitching was not a strength. During the regular season, Chris Carpenter won four games against Houston. He was the only Cards starter to win in the LCS and pitched well enough to secure a victory in his second start, as well. However, he had very little help.

Mark Mulder put up a 2.48 regular-season ERA against Houston and while his 3.09 LCS mark appears to be solid, the fact is that Mulder could not contain the Astros in Game Six with the entire season on the line.

Despite Matt Morris coming off an effective win against San Diego in the LDS, he showed little in his Game Three loss and while Jeff Suppan gave five solid innings in Game Four, Jason Marquis was not the dominant pitcher the Cardinals needed in long relief.

3) Astros bullpen was not vulnerable. Who would ever have believed coming into this series that Astros' closer Brad Lidge would end up being 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA? Despite the Cardinals' getting to him in Games Four and Five, the fact remains that Lidge saved the first three Houston victories in the LCS.

Again, the difference-maker was not the star. The pivotal player in the bullpen in this series was Chad Qualls. All he did was strike out four Cardinal hitters in 4-2/3 innings of hitless relief work. Qualls' mates, Dan Wheeler (2-2/3), Russ Springer (one) and Ezequiel Astacio (one), also totaled 4-2/3 frames of scoreless ball. All told, that is over one complete game's worth of scoreless pitching. Impressive.

4) Long balls held no advantage. As many of us expected, this series was more about pitching than hitting and more about small ball than home runs. Yet, the Astros had a 5-3 advantage in home runs over the six games.

That delta was made up entirely at Minute Maid, as the Astros homered in each of their three home games, while St. Louis' only shot was Pujols' game-winner on Monday. Even then, Lamb's homer in Game Three and Lane's jack in Game Four each occurred in the fourth inning, leaving plenty of time for the Cardinals to recover.

5) Astros' table setters did and the Cardinals' didn't. Veteran Craig Biggio and speedy rookie Willy Taveras at the top of the Astros line-up had been ineffective against the Cardinals all season, but delivered when it mattered. In the LCS, Taveras hit .357 with an on-base percentage of .400. Biggio's corresponding numbers were .333 and .385, respectively.

In the other dugout, Cardinals' sparkplug David Eckstein was somewhat neutralized. Eckstein hit just .200 in the LCS, but raised his OBP to .346 by drawing three walks and getting hit by pitches twice. Number two hitter Jim Edmonds led both teams with five walks, but hit just .211 with one double and no RBI.

6) Speed doesn't equate to steals. As expected, stolen bases were not really a factor in the series, as the Cardinals swiped three of four and the Astros were successful just once in two tries.

However, the Astros demonstrated their speed in other ways, by cranking out seven doubles and two triples. The Cards had just six doubles.

7) Few runners to drive in, but Houston got more of them home. In some part due to the fact that the Astros' first two hitters were on base with some regularity, the Astros as a team were able to outscore the Cardinals 22 to 16 over the six games.

The Astros really spread their RBIs around. Lance Berkman, Biggio, Chris Burke and Jason Lane all had three runs batted in. Other than Albert Pujols with six, no Cardinal had more than two.

From a team perspective, over the series, the Astros stranded more runners than the Cards at 46 to 39. However, neither team hit well with runners in scoring position. St. Louis' hitters were just 8-for-41 (.195), but that looks great when compared to Houston's .129 mark (4-for-31).

8) Double plays didn't matter. While the Cardinals turned a team-record 196 double plays during the regular season and seven more in three games against San Diego in the LDS, they weren't a factor in the LCS.

Over the series, the Astros actually had four double plays while the Cards had three and the Redbirds went the final three games without registering a single twin killing. Interestingly enough, neither team had a single double play in either Game Five or Six.

As a result, Cardinals fans are left with John Mabry's game-ending double play to seal that pivotal Game Four as the final twin killing of the 2005 LCS.

9) Cardinals' hitting stopped and the Astros' picked up. In the NLDS against San Diego, five Cardinals regulars hit .333 or better, while the Astros had but two hitters coming out of their DS win against the Braves hitting that well. The tables turned in the LCS.

As a team, the Cards managed just a .209 average against the Houston hurlers, while the Astros hitters batted .278. In addition to Eckstein and Edmonds' struggles noted above, Mark Grudzielanek hit .227, Reggie Sanders .167 and Larry Walker limped in with a .158 mark. The Cards' pitchers were a combined 0-for-11 at the plate.

On the Houston side, four regulars hit over .300. In addition to Biggio and Taveras, light-hitting, bottom-of-the-lineup guys Brad Ausmus (.318) and Adam Everett (.304) had several important hits. Even the Astros' pitchers were a credible 2-for-9 (.222) with a walk.

10) Home field advantage neutralized. The Cardinals could not cash in. Losing Game Two at Busch Stadium put them at a significant disadvantage. The Astros narrowly missed clinching at Minute Maid Park in Game Five, but were still able to prevail. That was not surprising, given they had to win only one of the last three games to end it.

So, there it is. The Astros excelled in almost every one of these ten factors for which I thought coming in that the Cardinals would have an advantage.

Congratulations to the Houston Astros on becoming the 2005 National League Champions. The numbers affirm they earned it on the field of play.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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