2004 NLCS Preview: Cardinals vs. Astros

The best team in the National League will meet the hottest team in baseball when the Cards take on the Astros in the LCS.



NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Houston Astros

Game 1: Woody Williams (1-0, 3.00 ERA, 2K) vs. Brandon Backe (1-0, 3.00 ERA, 5 K
Game 2: Matt Morris (0-1, 5.14 ERA, 5 K) vs. Pete Munro (N/A)

Game 3: Roger Clemens (1-0, 3.00 ERA, 12 K) vs. Jeff Suppan (1-0, 2.57 ERA, 2 K)
Game 4: Roy Oswalt (1-0, 2.38 ERA, 8 K) vs. Jason Marquis (0-0, 8.10 ERA, 0 K)
Game 5: Brandon Backe vs. Woody Williams

Game 6: Matt Morris vs. Pete Munro

Game 7: Jeff Suppan vs. Roger Clemens


OFFENSE: At first glance one might see a pretty significant advantage for the Cardinals offensively but a little deeper examination shows otherwise. For every Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen there is a Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman. For each Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker the Cards throw at the Astros, they get a Jeff Bagwell and a Jeff Kent thrown right back at them. In fact, you can make a case that while St. Louis has the better trio in Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds, Houston has the better lineup from top to bottom.

Both teams hit the long ball quite a bit and both have some speed at the top of the order to compliment the power in the middle. As long as the bats on both sides are hitting the cover off the ball, the operative action that could make the difference is situational hitting. The series could come down which team makes the right kind of outs.

The Cards are balanced with two right-handed power hitters and two left-handed power hitters. Lead off man Tony Womack is the only major stolen base threat, though Edgar Renteria can swipe a bag now and then and is often used in hit and run situations.

Houston was primarily a right-handed lineup until early this summer when they dealt Richard Hidalgo to the Mets and acquired switch-hitting center fielder Carlos Beltran. Beltran combines with fellow switch hitter Lance Berkman to break up the righty-dominated batting order of Biggio, Bagwell and Kent.

The Difference Makers: Craig Biggio, Reggie Sanders
Should Biggio continue to set up the Astros lineup by getting on base early and providing the middle of the order someone to drive in, it could be a long series for Cardinal pitching. Biggio has also driven in key runs this postseason and still has power that pitchers need to be careful with.

Sanders is the forgotten man in the Cards lineup but had another solid season and will still hit the tar out of a poorly placed fastball. Usually hitting in the sixth or seventh spot in the order, Sanders often strolls to the plate with someone on base. Not making a mistake to Sanders will be key to the Astros starters staying in the game.

ADVANTAGE: Even


STARTING ROTATION:
With Clemens and Oswalt slated to start three games, and on full rest, the Astros have the advantage here- on paper. Clemens and Oswalt combined to go 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in 23.1 innings in the LDS. Even on short rest, the two were able to hold off the Braves through five innings before getting into trouble.

With Brandon Backe and Pete Munro going in the first two games, the series opner becomes vital to Houston. Nobody wants to go down 2-0 in any series and unless Backe can pull out game 1, the pressure will be on Munro to step up in game 2. Should the Astros win game 1, Munro will be allowed to relax without the added stress of needing to pitch his team out of a hole.

The Cardinals seem to have four No. 3 starters in their rotation so the order in which they go doesn't seem to matter much. The series is set up to have Suppan facing Clemens twice, and that doesn't bode well for St. Louis. The key match up for the cards is game four when Jason Marquis takes the hill against Roy Oswalt. If they are able to beat Oswalt in his only start, they'd only have to beat Munro and Backe three times to win the series, regardless of what happens against Clemens.

St. Louis must get a strong start from Woody Williams to save the bullpen for later in the series and to make sure they have a full pen heading into game two where they could be looking to take a commanding 2-0 lead.

The Difference Makers- Brandon Backe, Matt Morris
With Backe going twice in this series, he takes on the role of the ace. If Backe wins one of his starts, the ‘Stros are in good shape with their big two going three times. The key start for Backe is fo course game 1 where a win for Houston changes the entire outlook of the series for both teams.

Morris is slated to face Munro twice and in no circumstance can Morris be out pitched. St. Louis needs both of those games to avoid giving the series advantage to Houston right off the bat on game 2.

ADVANTAGE: Even


BULLPEN:
Neither club has the best bullpen but both are blessed with excellent closers. Houston's Brad Lidge and St. Louis stopper Jason Isringhausen were two of the top five closers in the National League this season and the more they get the ball with the lead, the better for their respective teams.

Houston will have trouble playing the match up game, without the veteran left-hander to pitch to Walker or Edmonds late in the game, and without the reliable set up man to pick up the slack in the seventh and eighth inning. Brad Lidge will become a three-inning closer at some point in this series, and Backe will likely be the main set up man after game five.

St. Louis has one simple advantage here. Steve Kline and Ray King are both quality left-handers that can turn around Beltran and Berkman to their least dangerous sides of the plate. This could be key, especially versus Berkman who loses a lot of power from the right side.

The Difference Makers- Dan Miceli, Jason Isringhausen
If Miceli can give the Astros a few strong innings in key situations it allows Lidge to work with better rest and forces St. Louis to get the lead before the seventh inning.

Isringhausen must not blow a lead late. If the cards hand him a one-run advantage and the Astros come back to win the game, the Cards slight advantage in bullpen depth is thrown right out the window and onto Michigan avenue where Mike Ditka's mack truck driving school is sure to run right over- with all 18 wheels.

ADVANTAGE: Slight Edge- Cards


DEFENSE:
This is the only area where one team has a decided advantage over the other. St. Louis has been one of the best defensive teams in the majors for the past three seasons and have the hardware to prove it. Defensive wizards Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker, Edgar Renteria, Scott Rolen and Mike Matheny have combined for 14 National League Gold Gloves. The Astros have a grand total of two. Catcher Brad Ausmus won the NL Gold Glove in both 2002 and 2003.

Neither team is mistake prone and while the Cards have the better defense, Houston has a solid outfield defense that covers as much ground as the Cards trio.

The catching match-up is very close, as both are solid defenders with a lot of experience. No clear edge here but Ausmus seems to be healthier than Matheny and that could make the difference, if there is one.

The Difference Makers- Tony Womack, Carlos Beltran
Womack is key to the Cardinal defense and his ability to make every routine play and turn two regularly is huge for their pitching staff.

Beltran's arrival allowed Biggio to move to left, where he is a better-than-average defender with a plus arm, rather than an average defender with an average arm. It also pushed Berkman to right field where his solid arm and decent speed give the club more range in a spacious outfield.

ADVANTAGE: Cardinals



MANAGERS:
Similar to the AL managerial match ups, LaRussa has all the experience advantages you can imagine but that hasn't helped him in the past. Garner's plan should be to simply make LaRussa think as much as possible and to not make a glaring error with the pitching staff

ADVANTAGE: Slight Edge- Cardinals


InsidethePark.com Prediction: Astros in seven
With a rested Clemens and Oswalt the Astros could win three games after game two to take this in six or seven. I'll go seven, where Clemens matches up against Jeff Suppan.


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