More than bristly facial hair is sprouting up all across Cardinal Nation – hope is on the rise, with our Redbirds riding high after stealing game 2 to even the series at a game apiece. As the teams move back to Busch Stadium for three games in three days, this series takes a sudden turn in the Cardinals' favor. After falling behind 3-0 in the first inning of game two, last night, it looked as though we would have to win all three of these upcoming home games just to stay alive; now with a three-game sweep, we would find ourselves in the Fall Classic itself.
The Mets ran away and hid with the NL East division lead this season, taking the mantle of "The National League's Best Team" with them as well. It was a title that the Cardinals had held for each of the past two regular seasons, but the Cards put up little challenge in giving it up this year. Subsequently, the Mets went from being cast by baseball pundits as a dark horse team in Spring Training, to an early favorite in June, to becoming a shoe-in to represent the NL in this year's World Series by the All-Star Break. New York coasted through the second half of its schedule with 44 wins in 73 games, and burst into October with three seemingly effortless wins over the Dodgers.
For all that, though, there may be some hidden weaknesses in this Met team. Their starting rotation is obviously suspect, lacking its best pitcher in Pedro Martinez, and having an unknown commodity in rookie John Maine, but this weakness is mitigated by the top-tobottom strength of their bullpen. The less obvious factor that may be weighing on this team a tiny bit, however, is the lack of playoff experience on this roster and in the dugout.
The Mets' dynamic infield tandem of David Wright and Jose Reyes, having spent the entirety of their young careers in New York, are in October's bright lights for the first time. Of the veteran leaders on the bench, however, there are few who have any more postseason at-bats than these two.
First baseman Carlos Delgado has accumulated more than 6,000 at bats, and hit more than 400 home runs, but only now at the age of 34 is he getting his first taste of the postseason. That's what happens when you spend the prime of your career in the shadow of the mighty Yankees and the free-spending Red Sox, as Delgado did as a 12-year veteran of the Toronto Blue Jays. He hasn't shown any signs of being hurt by his lack of experience so far – perhaps he has been watching the games closely on TV in years past, as he is thumping the ball at nearly a .500 pace, with two long home runs yesterday.
Catcher Paul LoDuca is also getting his first playoff time this year, which surprised me to learn. LoDuca is generally considered to be cast in the Mike Matheny mold, a "winner" as defined not by his exploits with the bat, but by who he is, how he plays the game, and how his teammates feel around him. A player usually does not acquire this kind of dugout cred until he has spent several tours of duty in the Fall. LoDuca tore up the Dodgers with five hits in 11 at bats, pacing the Mets lineup from the #2 spot in the order.
While 36-year-old Jose Valentin has been a steadying force at second base – and has allowed the Mets to cut bait with the Kazuo Matsui experiment – he, too, brings just one previous playoff stint into the clubhouse.
In the outfield, the often-hobbled Cliff Floyd had only three plate appearances in the 1997 World Series playoff run with the Marlins, with nary a hit and no other playoff appearances since then. Newly acquired veteran Shawn Green had only 16 playoff at bats under his belt coming into this year, and of the regulars in the lineup, Carlos Beltran's 46 ABs acquired in his scintillating 2004 playoff run make him the senior man. While Beltran is not hitting with his usual postseason panache, with only three hits in 17 trips to the plate, one of those hits was good enough to win Game One of this series.
The Methuselah of the Mets, 47- year-old Julio Franco, has nearly 100 playoff at bats, and may be able to tell his teammates about every one of them. In many ways, he fits the "wise old man" role of the clubhouse, and the rest of the Mets revere him. However, most of these 100 ABs came well after the prime of his career, as his first trip into October didn't come until 1996 with the Cleveland Indians, his 14th season in the majors.
Contrast these types of numbers with the Cardinals' players, all of whom have been battle-tested year after year. They may know that they don't have an awe-inspiring lineup, nor a fearsome rotation, but they do know that they can trust what weapons they have, even down to the tenacious bat of their smallest man, little Davey Eckstein.
Eckstein had a marathon at-bat last night in the eighth inning, with the game newly tied 6-6, in which he fouled off approximately a bag and a half's worth of baseballs (nine, actually) trying not to become the inning's third out, trying to keep the mojo going. It was reminiscent of his amazing at bat against Brad Lidge in 2005's LCS game five, with two out in the ninth and our team down two runs, an at-bat that saw him foul off a cartload of pitches before singling sharply to left to keep the inning alive. Last night, he wasn't so lucky, but he did have the satisfaction of putting the ball in play in making his out. He was determined to get his pound of flesh from the opposing pitcher, who won't soon forget that matchup. The following inning, perhaps inspired, So Taguchi led off with a solo home run off Billy Wagner to give the Cardinals their first lead of the series at 7-6.
It takes extraordinary character to play this game with such perseverance under these circumstances, such as we are witnessing. Eck's 128 playoff at bats coming into this series only add experience to that character, and further whittle away any vestige of fear or doubt that are a player's worst enemy in the clutch.
A Short Series
Our offense looked ill against Tom Glavine's junk in game one of this series, and even the balls hit with authority were snuffed out by wellplaced infielders. The lineup was stuttering, especially with Rolen struggling, and a fine performance by Jeff Weaver was wasted in a tough 2-0 loss. However, with last night's win we now have home field advantage in what amounts to a short 5-game series. The offense is cooking again, thanks to the heroics of pretty much everybody in the lineup, and we have some potentially favorable pitching matchups coming up.
Jeff Suppan starts Game 3, hoping to take advantage of a nice-looking home-road pitching split – his ERA is nearly two full runs better at home than on the road, and he has been allowing less than a hit per inning at Busch III. He goes against the crafty Steve Trachsel, a former Cub who we've put crooked numbers up against, earlier this season. He is a pedestrian 10-9 against us in his career with a 4.50 ERA, which fits his journeyman profile.
Both team's lineups will feel the pressure to produce early in this one. Here's hoping that the Cardinals' playoff experience gives them an edge in handling that pressure.