Their record at 100 games played was 58-42 and continuing their pace to that point for the remainder of the season would have not only given them the National League Central Division, but also provided them home-field advantage for the NL Division Series.
Instead, that 16 games over .500 mark would prove to be the high-water mark of the 2006 Cardinals' season. The squad eventually settled at just five games over .500 at 83-78, posting the poorest record of the eight post-season competitors.
That deterioration had to really grate on manager Tony La Russa. I say that because when times are good, La Russa repeats over and over his mantra of getting ten games over .500, then 15 games over, etc. Instead, he witnessed his squad backslide for most of the second-half of the season.
As a result, the Cardinals begin the playoffs with no home field advantage in any round. They take on the San Diego Padres, champions of the Western Division, winners of 88 games, in the best-of-five National League Division Series starting Tuesday.
Games One and Two will be held in San Diego's Petco Park on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, with play heading to St. Louis for Games Three and Four (if required) on Saturday and Sunday. The final game will be back in San Diego next Monday, if needed.
Game One – Chris Carpenter vs. Jake Peavy
A pair of aces to start the series. As this game goes, so will go the NLDS. I think it is that important. The slight nod goes to Carpenter.
Carpenter has a career edge, with a 2-2 record with a 3.86 ERA against San Diego. However, we all remember his last outing, a loss to these Padres last Tuesday at home, when the defending Cy Young Award winner allowed six runs in seven innings.
Peavy was battered by the Redbirds earlier this season, yielding six runs in just five innings in a May 28 slugfest at Petco, a game which his team eventually won over Mark Mulder, 10-8. Over his career, Peavy has a 1-2 record and a 4.11 ERA when facing St. Louis.
Game Two – Jeff Weaver vs. David Wells
The 43-year-old bad-kneed Wells is nearing the end of a long career. What better way to go out than to earn a big post-season win in front of his hometown fans in San Diego?
Say what you want about Wells' escapades off the field, but he has proven to be tough in important games for years. He is 8-8 with a 3.15 ERA in 26 post-season appearances.
Having returned to the Padres in a late-season trade with the Red Sox, Wells has not faced the Cardinals this season. However, over his career, in five starts, he is 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA against St. Louis.
And, remember that record was established against Cardinals teams who could handle lefties far better than the 2006 version of the Redbirds, who lug a season-long substandard 19-24 won-loss record against portsiders.
While Wells has been bothered by chronic gout and ankle problems, he pitched the playoff-clinching win for the Padres on Saturday, going six shutout innings. Wells never beats himself, as is it rare for him to walk more than one hitter per game.
No matter who the Cardinals are throwing against him, Wells should be a tough match-up. His Thursday opponent is scheduled to be Jeff Weaver.
As a Cardinal, Weaver has posted a 5-4 record, but his ERA of 5.18 is nothing to brag about. On a good day, he can be counted upon to go five or six innings, allowing two or three runs. No matter what, the Cardinals' bullpen will be a factor in Game Two.
In his favor, two of Weaver's problems may be minimized a bit in Game Two. 22 of his 34 home runs allowed this season have been hit by lefthanders. The spaciousness of Petco may keep a few more of Weaver's potential gopher balls in the park and the Padres are not as strong from the left side as some other clubs.
Weaver has yet to face the Padres this season, but over his career, he has a 3-4 record in nine starts with a 3.63 ERA. Just remember, the Jeff Weaver of 2006 is not the Jeff Weaver of previous years, making any start a gamble. Expect a quick hook if things start to go sour.
Game Three – Chris Young vs. Jeff Suppan
Normally, one would think the Cards are heavy favorites here, but the numbers say otherwise. Earlier reports had this match-up in San Diego for Game Two, but certainly for St. Louis, having Suppan pitch at home is a much better decision. This game is a toss-up, in my book, as is the series itself.
Young, the Padres' impressive 6'-10" second-year starter, is winless against the Cards this season, but tossed seven one-run innings in his first career shot at St. Louis.
It is the right-hander's first post-season action, so his reaction to the additional pressure is yet to be determined. But, Young has been especially impressive on the road in the regular season, going 6-0 with a 2.41 ERA.
Despite being one of Major League Baseball's hottest pitchers in the second half of 2006, Suppan has been slapped around by San Diego. Having pitched once home and away against them this season, Soup has been burned for a 10.24 ERA.
Suppan hasn't been all that much better over his career against the Padres. In seven starts, he went 3-2, but is dragging a 6.56 ERA.
Overall, Suppan is 7-2 with a 3.18 ERA at home this season, over two runs better than his road mark, so something has to give.
I see Carpenter and the Cardinals taking a close Game One, with Wells and the Padres winning Game Two, leaving Game Three as the chance of enabling St. Louis to close out the series at home this coming weekend or perhaps spin toward defeat.
Looking ahead, the Game Four match-ups have not been formalized. Carpenter looks to be in. So, it could be a rematch of Game One or the Padres might instead offer up former Cardinal Woody Williams back at Busch on Sunday.
For Game Five, with Anthony Reyes off the NLDS roster, bringing back Weaver on short rest or (gasp!) Jason Marquis would seem to be the other Cardinals alternative. Choose your poison - or better yet, finish it before then.
Upcoming action – starters tentative (times CDT)
Game Matchup Day Date Time TV
NLDS Game 1 STL (Carpenter: 15-8, 3.09) @ SD (Peavy: 11-14, 4.09) Tue Oct. 3 3:05 ESPN
NLDS Game 2 STL (Weaver: 8-14, 5.76) @ SD Wells (3-5, 4.42) Thu Oct. 5 3:05 ESPN
NLDS Game 3 SD (Young: 11-5, 3.46) @ STL (Suppan: 12-7, 4.12) Sat Oct. 7 3:35 FOX
NLDS Game 4* SD @ STL (Carpenter) Sun Oct. 8 TBA TBA
NLDS Game 5* STL @ SD Mon Oct. 9 3 OR 7 FOX
* if necessary
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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