What, Me Worry?

Before we welcome the Cardinals and Padres back to Busch Stadium, let us pause for a moment and give thanks to Scott Boras. Because if it were not for the "Super-agent" and his hardball ways, we may not be here today. After all, J.D. Drew, "the next Mickey Mantle," had been drafted and offered a contract by the Philadelphia Phillies...

if not for Boras's intervention, perhaps Drew would have accepted that contract and the last seven years of baseball history may have been written differently.

Boras and Drew rejected that offer and held out the full year, waiting to be plucked by the Cardinals in the following year's draft. We can debate whether Boras' money-grubbing greed was a product of free will, or whether it was somehow predestined, but the undeniable truth is that this decision toppled a domino that started a chain of events that finds us with young Adam Wainwright established as our closer, throwing darts and endearing hearts all over Cardinal Nation.

And in doing so, he and the mighty bat of Albert Pujols made like a super-hero – halting the free-falling Cardinals team in mid-plummet with their dynamic duo of home runs and strikeouts in the clutch. And while Scott Boras can't take credit for Pujols, you can bet your life he wishes he could.

Flashback 10 days ago

When the Padres were here, little more than one week ago, the Cardinals were displaying all the tenacity and liveliness of a beached whale. Something catastrophic had clearly gone wrong to land this club in these circumstances, and whatever it was, it was starting to smell. The chill autumn air poured into the stadium, sending the chirping crickets south and leaving Busch III as silent as a tomb – with 40 thousand fans in it, ready to mourn what they were about to lose.

Despite the bad odor and the growing unease among the Cardinal faithful, it was a tense, closely played series that had all the elements of playoff baseball, if none of the cosmetics. The Padres took the first two games by a single run apiece, extending the Cardinals' swoon to seven games, but at the same time barely withstanding a surge of confidence from the red-clad hitters. The Cardinals' offense had produced four runs or better in five of the seven losses – they just needed some stout pitching, and the bats would do their job.

Finally, that pitching performance came, started by one rookie, Anthony Reyes, and finished by another, Mr. Wainwright. The necessary runs were powered by an eighth-inning home run – an absolute no-doubter that, if it had not hit the third deck of seating, might have traveled all the way to Houston and smashed through the same glass windows that Pujols rattled in last year's NLCS game five. Whether it landed there or not, the people of Houston felt the shot. That home run nudged the Cardinals closer to clinching the division for the first time in a week, and poked a hole in the Astros' playoff dreams.

At the time of that home run, the Padres had a slim 2-1 lead, and had allowed two Cardinals to reach base. Pujols, the greatest threat to National League game security in this land, was ready to strike. Didn't Padres' manager Bruce Bochy see the warning signs? Shouldn't he have walked Pujols in that situation, or at least pitched around him? Remember this was essentially a playoff game for the Padres.

Bochy may remember the threegame NLDS sweep at the hands of these very Cardinals a year ago, during which Pujols reached base nine times in 13 at bats, with runs scored or driven in in each game. But perhaps those memories were overshadowed by those of Reggie Sanders, who batted fifth in that series and drove in 10 runs, benefiting from Pujols' omnipresence on the bases. Perhaps Bochy consulted the code of manly managing, and determined that if his team is going to get beat, it should be by the best player in the game, and not a member of the supporting cast. (This may or may not be the same code that saw Bochy's Padres bunt to break up a perfect game bid by Curt Schilling a few years ago.)

If getting beat by Pujols was Bochy's plan this time around, his team is executing it to perfection. Albert has been the offense so far in this series, driving in and/or scoring five of the seven runs that the Cardinals have scored in the two games of this series. In each at bat, Pujols has been given pitches to hit, and has punished them, to the tune of five hits in eight at bats. Even counting his double play grounder from game 2, he has made more hits than outs.

Advantage: La Russa

Having a 2-0 series lead in the first round of the playoffs is both familiar and comfortable territory for our esteemed manager. In his career managing the Cardinals, the team has won five division series in six chances, sweeping their opponent in four of those October matchups, including the Padres twice – in 2005, and in 1996. Bochy was at the helm for San Diego on both of those occasions, and has to feel a bit like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," in an endless cycle of frustration.

In addition, La Russa's Oakland teams won three of four first-round playoff series, sweeping their opponents twice. Clearly, something clicks in for Tony and his teams at the outset of October baseball.

Of course, all the managerial strategies in the world go up in smoke if your starting pitching can't deliver, and that remains the focal point of the Cardinal hopes this year.

Game three's matchups

Jeff Suppan takes the hill in game three, with a suddenly sterling playoff record under his belt. The Cardinals signed Suppan after the train wreck of the 2003 season to be an "inningseater," a middle-of-the-rotation guy. At the time of the signing, Walt Jocketty used the terms "consistent performer," "takes the ball every fifth day," and "solid 30 starts and 200 innings year in and year out."

Suppan has been all that and more for this team, and stands now as the de facto #2 man in the rotation behind Chris Carpenter. This postseason may be his swan song with the Cardinals – he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season is over, and his 44 wins over the past three years will put him at or near the top of the free agent class in that category, making him perhaps eligible for a handsome payday. Adding another notch or three into his playoff belt will only increase his esteem in the eyes of baseball's GMs.

The Padres will throw perhaps their best pitcher, Chris Young, in Saturday's game. Young is an emerging force in the National League, having arrived in trade from the Texas Rangers – yes, the perpetually pitching- challenged Rangers actually traded away a quality young starter – for a package that included oft-injured flamethrower Adam Eaton, and crafty reliever Akinori Otsuka, who became the Rangers' closer.

Young strikes out nearly three times as many batters as he walks, and gives up less than a hit per inning, making him a very efficient and potentially dangerous foe, one who can breeze through a lineup without taxing his own bullpen early. He gets most of his outs via the fly ball, letting his speedy outfield defense – Mike Cameron and Dave Roberts can flat-out run, and Brian Giles is at least an average defender – do his dirty work. His one failing is the home run ball, with 28 allowed on the season, most on the Padres' staff, but a league behind Jason Marquis's 35 for this season's lead. Moreover, only ten of those came on the road, a surprising stat given Petco Park's pitcher-friendly boundaries.

What to expect

If we can learn anything at all about the character of the Cardinals this season, it is that they defy expectations.

When Pujols was single-handedly dismantling the National League and the Cardinals jumped out to a 34-19 record and a five-game division lead by June 1st, we started to expect a third consecutive romp over a hapless division. And while the division failed to show a lot of "hap," whatever it is that haplessness lacks, the Cards fell painfully back to the pack. And that was before the losing began in earnest.

No division-winning team has ever suffered the kind of losing streaks that the Cardinals have, and yet when the Houston Astros finally put together their patented late-season charge, and when most of the world – including a good many local fans – expected the Cardinals to fold, they refused. Although, not without giving us a good scare along the way.

Now this team, which was expected to be the weakest of the 8 postseason entrants, is a win away from the next round of the playoffs. And the elements that were expected by the pundits to be the weakest – namely all the pitchers not-named- Carpenter – have yet to give up a run.

But baseball is a funny sport, and the round ball and the round bat can produce a lot of unexpected outcomes over the course of 27 outs. Hell, the Dodgers ran into a double play in which both men were tagged out at home! So hold on tight. If you can expect anything at all, it is that anything can and probably will happen.

Contact: horton@stlouisgametime.com


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