It took every last ounce of talent to close the gap and get into the playoffs so if either star was traded away we would be looking at a different league championship series. The Cardinals have been unbeatable since the season began and were destined to be in the NLCS. Could the better team actually be the one that was a phone call away from being dismantled at the trading deadline?
The obvious edge that St. Louis would have is the offense. They scored the most runs of any team in the National League, 53 more than the Astros, and on paper are one of the best hitting lineups ever. Perhaps the best pure hitter in the game in Albert Pujols is surrounded by perennial All-Stars in Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker, and Edgar Renteria. When the teams went head-to-head, however, the Astros got the best of the cards this season.
Houston has a statistical advantage in head-to-head in average (.270 to .261), OBP (.332 to 328), SLG (.427 to .399), total XBH (59 to 45), and most importantly runs (92 to 78). The Cards have the edge in homers (20 to 18) and stolen bases (14 to 7). It is possible that the Cards just didn't play at their best during their match ups with Houston. But in reality, the reason the Astros have the edge in the series is the reason why they put up better numbers- starting pitching.
St. Louis is set to use Woody Williams, Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, and Jason Marquis in the series. The four have combined for an ERA of 4.19. The Astros are preparing to use Brandon Backe, Peter Munro, Roy Oswalt, and Roger Clemens who have combined for an ERA of 3.67. Oswalt and Clemens both have posted an ERA better than any St. Louis starter. The four ‘Stros hurlers have combined for an ERA under 2.40 when facing the Cards this season showing hard evidence that the Astros' excellent starting pitching more than counter-balances the deadly offense of St. Louis.
The pitching edge that St. Louis has is overall bullpen strength. Houston has the slight edge in the ninth inning when Brad Lidge takes over but when the ‘pen is utilized in any other inning, the Cards have the advantage. Their bullpen ERA of 3.01 was the best in the NL this season and more than a run better than Houston's 4.10 bullpen ERA. Considering the importance of each area, the overall talent is almost a wash and in a seven-game series, anything can happen.
The series all comes down to one important factor- Houston is on fire.
The Astros are 36-10 since August 15 and they have been playing every day like it is a win or go home situation. At one point they won 12 straight and 15 of 16 games.
St. Louis is 30-17 since the same point, but endured five losses in six games to the Astros. Thanks to their insurmountable lead in the NL Central, they have been on cruise control for two months but history does not bode well for teams in this situation. In 2001 the Seattle Mariners won a record 116 games but were wiped out in the ALCS by the Yankees. Once that extra gear is down-shifted, it is usually very difficult to get back to full form. Contrarily, the Astros' have been stuck in overdrive for two months.
If this series was being played at any time in the season up to mid-August, there would be no doubt that the Cardinals are the heavy favorite. But when considering that all talent factors are a virtual wash, the hot hand will win and no one is hotter than the Astros.
Expect a high-scoring series but the Astros come out on top in six games.
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