Seemingly, these two teams should have a lot in common – both have struggled with long stretches of frustration this season to emerge with the potential to repeat as division champions. But the contrast between their makeup couldn't be starker. San Diego appears to be peaking at the right time, while St. Louis struggles for any semblance of consistency.
This contrast goes right down to the root of the team's very construction. The Cardinals' house has been precariously balanced on two stout pillars, Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols – any weakness in their individual play sends shudders throughout the entire organization. Other strong points in our team's foundations were once held by Jim Edmonds, Jason Isringhausen, and Scott Rolen; of the three, only Rolen is still able to carry his weight. By comparison, the Padres are built out of different material – many solid but unspectacular players contribute to a team that has few weaknesses, but also has no single bedrock to rest on in hard times. However, if they get just enough hits over eight good innings, the Padres have the luxury of turning the game over to their MVP and their lone All Star representative this year, Trevor Hoffman. A team that is built like this must have a good closer to count on, and the Padres have the National League's best: Hoffman has saved 43 games in 50 chances, and just took over the major league career saves record from Lee Smith with his 497th on Sunday.
If the dominos fall the right way, this matchup between the house of Cards and the house of "Pahds" could be repeated in the first round of the playoffs, giving added luster, or added baggage, to this three game series. Every game down the stretch is crucial for the Padres to preserve their playoff berth, while the Cardinals desperately want to whip themselves into playoff-ready shape. At the very least, they want to be able to defend the home turf, as road wins have become increasingly scarce as this season has gone on: the Cards have managed only seven wins in their last 27 road games, across all of August and September.
They don't have lefties, do they?
As most of the free world knows, the Cardinals simply can't beat left-handed pitching. It's nice to have at least one thing in common with the NL-leading Mets, who share the same problem.
Last week, needing only one win to clinch the East, the Mets were handled like little-leaguers by Pittsburgh's southpaw trio of Duke, Gorzelanny, and Maholm. This was no mortal blow for the Mets, who clinched the very next night – but as prohibitive favorites to represent the NL in the World Series, they will have to face some mighty left-handers from the AL, whether it be the Yankees' Randy Johnson, the Twins' Johan Santana, the Tigers' Kenny Rogers, or Oakland's Barry Zito – all winners of 16 games or better this year.
With this in mind, and with the postseason suddenly in reach as of late August, the Padres made a late deal to acquire big left-handed David Wells from the Red Sox to mix up the rotation, which had been composed entirely of skinny young right-handers. (Well, okay, Woody Williams isn't young, but he feels younger and more alive by comparison to the 43-year-old master of the postgame buffet table.) The Padres gave up a to-be-named prospect (who has apparently been named George Kottaras) for the rental, and it's a transaction that could show promising returns in this series' first game, as Wells has a career ERA of 2.08 against the Cards, and a 10-4 record overall in the postseason.
Depending on the matchup, Wells would likely pitch the third game of a playoff series for San Diego, following Jake Peavy, the team's ace, and Chris Young, who has had a phenomenal season in his San Diego debut. While Peavy has suffered more than his usual amount of home runs this season, his 10-14 record also reflects a bit of bad luck, as well as the fine line that San Diego's pitchers must walk. Memo to Jason Marquis' agent: this is not a team that often gives a lot of run support to pick up a struggling teammate on the mound.
Leading the Padres' offensive charge is unheralded first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, with 24 home runs, 79 RBI, and an OPS (a combination of on-base percentage and slugging percentage) of .861. These kind of numbers are on the back end of the first baseman's bell curve, with Pujols and Ryan Howard setting the standard with matching OPS of 1.093 through this point in the season, and RBI numbers that are nearly double Gonzalez's production.
However, in this offense, while no one Padre hitter has hit 30 homers, six of them are in double figures; no one Padre has 100 RBI, but six of them have driven in more than 50. It's a balanced attack that can string together hits, and except for the pitchers' spot in the lineup, has few easy outs. Manager Bruce Bochy can put a live bat in every spot in the batting order – all of the Padres' starters have an OPS of .750 or better. While the Cardinals have offensive liabilities at catcher and second base, the Padres have a promising rookie second baseman in Josh Barfield (hitting .287 with 13 HR and 19 SB), and a catcher platoon manned by Mike Piazza and Josh Bard that have combined for 30 HR and 101 RBI, behind only the Reds in the NL for production from that position. And of their hitters, only Brian Giles (13 HR and a slugging percentage of .397 on the year) can be said to be underperforming. For the most part, these players are hitting on all cylinders, but like these weird hybrid station wagons that are suddenly everywhere, their engines are built for efficiency, not power.
Cardinals fans are all-too aware of our magic number. Five games. Five games that we have to win, or that the Astros have to lose, before we can exhale. Seems like it's been at five games for a little while now, hasn't it? For a season that has seen the birds fend off many direct challenges by the Reds, it has not been a comfortable roost at the top of the standings.
For San Diego, that number is six, to eliminate the Dodgers from the West. And for a team that began their stretch run with four consecutive losses to the Giants to drop below .500 in late August, they have to feel fortunate to be in this position now. The Padres look to make only their fifth playoff appearance since they helped bring the era of "divisional play" to baseball in 1969, and their first consecutive playoff appearances ever.
If they do make it into late October, the Padres, like the Cardinals, won't be considered favorites by any means. But as a great Cardinal philosopher once said about this game, "There's one word in baseball that says it all, and that one word is ‘you never know.'"