Baseball Playoffs: Take Two (Part Two)
NLCS Preview: Astros vs. Cardinals
**Second Verse, Same as the First?**
In a nutshell - Team Built for 162 Games vs. Team Built for October
Rich's Take: The Cardinals and Astros just might be the two best teams in baseball. It just so happens that they not only play in the same league but the same division. I believe the winner of the NLCS will be favored to win the World Series so there is a lot at stake here. Both teams are hungry with something to prove.
It's hard to believe but the state of Texas has never hosted a World Series game. Houston took St. Louis to the brink of defeat last year, but the Cardinals earned the right to get swept by Boston by beating Roger Clemens in Game Seven. Interestingly, the stars are aligned in such a way that Clemens just may start the final game once again.
If you go by the numbers, I think you have to like St. Louis. The Astros really aren't better than the Cardinals at anything. The Redbirds hit better, field better, and have the home-field advantage. The Astros? They have one of the top three pitchers of all time, the Killer B's, and perhaps the mojo this year.
The Cardinals won 11 more games than the Astros while playing in the same division. St. Louis beat up on Houston when they played each other, taking 11 of the 16 games. They swept the Padres in the NLDS and have won more regular season and postseason games than any team in baseball the past two years. The Astros, on the other hand, have won only two playoff series out of ten in the franchise's history. But they were victorious last week in perhaps the greatest one of 'em all.
Bryan's Take: Yes, the numbers definitely support a St. Louis sweep. The emotions, however (and we saw what a difference that can make last night), favor the Astros. That's what 18-inning game wins do, they put clubs on emotional highs, and provoke the media to call them a team of destiny.
However, while we are probably going to hear some David v. Goliath references, don't believe them. David isn't going to win because he has heart. This series will be about more than that. And as Rich pointed out, other than emotions, the Cards have everything else.
What little the Astros have in offense, the Cards can match it. Both offenses are predicated around four hitters, but you have to think those four will balance each other out in this series. Or at least that's the Astros goal. Can Biggio, Ensberg, Berkman and Lane balance Walker, Edmonds, Pujols and Sanders? If so, the series becomes about the other four offensive starters, and about the pitching.
This is what Houston wants, not because it's better in those areas, but because those two things are more volatile.
Rich's Outtake: At number one and two in the NL, the team ERAs were almost identical this year. Houston's pitchers had better peripheral stats than St. Louis. The Astros have more star power at the top of their rotation in Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt, but the Cardinals have more depth. To wit, Tony La Russa can turn to Jason Marquis or Jeff Suppan in Game Four. Phil Garner has no choice other than to go with Brandon Backe. Marquis was 4-0 with a 3.22 ERA against the Astros, while Backe had a 10.32 ERA with 21 hits and 7 walks in 11 1/3 IP vs. the Cardinals.
Chris Carpenter also fared well against Houston this year, going 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA. The Cardinals didn't have Carpenter in the postseason last year, while the Astros had both Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent. Seems hard to believe that St. Louis with a healthy Carpenter could lose to Houston team sans Beltran and Kent.
Bryan's Outtake: Other than emotions, Houston has one thing in their favor: the Fab Four. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge. If these four can get in about 50 innings during the series, you have to figure the Astros win. I mean, how much better are they than Carpenter, Mulder, Morris and Isringhausen. Not exactly a murderer's row, there. In fact, the Astros have an ERA edge greater than half a run there.
One area not getting a lot of mention in this series is Yadier Molina. Before the season, I compared Molina to Angels manager Mike Scioscia, and now I think the comparison is as true as ever. This season, Molina has thrown out 64.1% of baserunners. Yes, you read that right, 25 of 39 have been thrown out. In an age where Mike Piazza and Jason Kendall can each catch more than 800 innings behind the plate with rates below 20%, that is astounding. So basically, do not expect Wily Taveras to have a big series.
Rich's Pick: The left side of my brain tells me the Cardinals, while the right side says Astros. The right side wins out. Houston in seven.
Bryan's Pick: In the playoffs, they tell you to throw out the numbers and look at the intangibles. But if Rich is going with the right side, I'll be happy to hedge his bet. We know the Cardinals will win Game Five, and they have four other games at home. I'll go with Cardinals in six.
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