Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 03, 2005
What Went Wrong in the Playoffs (NL Edition)
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

No one remembers the losers. In the past, we used our What Went Wrong feature to provide coverage to teams that failed to make the playoffs. Here's a look at previous editions:

Indians, A's, Giants
Nats, Marlins, Phillies
Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, Twins

Now, with the baseball season over, all the talk is focused on the champion White Sox and off-the-field job openings. Suddenly, the teams that were so close have been discarded for the hotter issues. So while some outlets spend time worrying about the Dodgers GM opening or Mets offseason concerns, we thought now would be a good time to talk about the teams that barely missed.

Today, we have interviewed bloggers from each of the four National League playoff representatives. We will deal with the American League tomorrow, and the multi-part series will conclude with a What Went Right version on the World Champion Chicago White Sox.

We begin with the last National League team standing, the Houston Astros. There is no doubt had the Astros caught a few breaks -- and balls found the right holes -- they would be atop the baseball universe. This team had such an impressive run after some early struggles, and their great playoff play should not be forgotten because of their World Series sweep. In to talk about the Astros' season is Darrell Pittman from His answers:

1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

Inability to drive in runs with men in scoring position. For example, in the four World Series games, the Astros stranded 35 baserunners, 22 of whom were in scoring position.

2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

All the off-season moves hinge on whether Roger Clemens comes back for '06. He made $18M in '05. Owner Drayton McLane has set the 2006 payroll limit at $85M, a large portion of which goes for Clemens, Bagwell, Berkman, and Biggio. Other players are going FA or are arbitration-eligible. If Clemens retires, it frees up a huge chunk of change for GM Tim Purpura to play with. The scuttlebutt in Houston is that Clemens will come back after the All-Star break to make a run for the pennant while healthy, and to play with his son Koby in September. He would thus take a reduced salary.

The Astros need to get at least one bona fide hitter (perhaps two) to protect Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg, preferably a left-handed or switch-hitting outfielder. Even if Clemens returns, we need a decent #5 starting pitcher. Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio just don't cut it.

3) Who would you label the regular season team MVP and LVP?

MVP: Morgan Ensberg had a breakout year (.283/36/101), postseason hampered by HBP hand injury in September.

LVP: Much as I hate to say it, Jeff Bagwell -- understandably poor production after return from shoulder surgery.

4) Season Highlight:

When the Astros won NLCS Game 6 to advance to their first-ever World Series.

5) Season Lowlight:

Being 15-30 on May 28. The Houston Chronicle published an article on June 1 showing a gravestone with "Astros 2005 Season" on it.

* * * * *

From April to September, the NL Central belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals. Their players made it obvious that nothing would be acceptable besides a World Series victory. However, in the end, the Cardinals were done by one of their own -- division rivals that they had spent a season dominating. In to discuss the season that was in St. Louis is Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos fame. His thoughts to the What Went Wrong questions:

1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

The old farts in the outfield. By October, 38-year-old Larry Walker was in tatters -- herniated disk in his neck, bad knee, and unspecified other complaints -- and not even a late-season cortisone injection (his fourth of 2005) could hold him together. He went 3 for 28 in the postseason. Another OF geezer, Jimmy Edmonds (35), had a sore right shoulder that wouldn't heal and couldn't turn on a fastball; his only two meaningful hits in the postseason both went to the opposite field, one of them on a hit-and-run. The killing blow came when the Cards' third Methuselean outfielder, 37-year-old Reggie Sanders, wiped out on the warning track in NLCS Game 2; he got only 1 hit in 12 at-bats after that while striking out 7 times, and his inability to bring home the tying run from third with nobody out in the 9th inning of Game 4 was very costly.

It's only fair to point out that Houston's excellent pitchers had a lot to do with shutting down the Cardinal bats. But I am not willing to give them all the credit. Clemens was beatable, as both the Braves and White Sox showed. So was Brandon Backe, whom the Cards dented for just 2 hits in Game 4, their only respite from the Big Three. With the offense unable to provide much margin for error, the rest of the Cardinals' game wilted. They made 5 errors in the series while turning just 3 double plays, the reverse of their regular-season proportions. The bullpen was unmasked as inadequate. Worst of all, the team's composure got called into question during Game 4 of the NLCS, when their frustration over Phil Cuzzi's amorphous strike zone led to two late-inning ejections.

2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

The Cardinals need to get some youth into the lineup, even if only in a part-time capacity. The organization possesses no everyday talent at the higher minor-league levels, but it has some surplus pitchers who are already in the majors or close to being there. Jason Marquis, Brad Thompson, and Adam Wainwright are all young and have upside, and I'd like to see the Cardinals convert some or all of them into either a) a position player who's still in his 20s and has some growing room (Austin Kearns comes to mind), or b) position-player prospects who are no more than a year away from the majors. Jocketty isn't offering blue-chippers and won't get blue-chippers back, but it's a numbers game - he might get lucky. At the very least he might land one or more useful platoon players, or an everyday guy who can deliver league-average performance at bargain rates.

With the window of opportunity open now, however, the Cards may not be able to resist the temptation to pay full retail for off-the-rack-veterans and try to take another run at a title in 2006. Jocketty loves Brian Giles (35 years old next season) and will surely try to sign him as a replacement for the retired Larry Walker. He may also bring back affordable free agents Mark Grudzielanek (35) at second and Sanders in left. St. Louis might be able to get away with that approach for one more year, and might even be able to combine it with a pitching-for-prospects swap as described above. But if the Cardinals don't get younger soon they're going to wind up where the Giants are.

3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

Regular season: MVP Pujols, LVP . . . . sadly Ray King. I say "sadly" because he spent most of the summer watching his father die slowly of cancer; it affected his pitching, and by the end of the year La Russa had no confidence in him (nor did King merit any). After failing to get called into a single postseason game, King angrily requested a trade. He really wasn't that bad in 2005, but standards are high on a 100-win team and Ray came up short.

Postseason: MVP Pujols again, although you could make a case for Reggie Sanders, who drove in 12 runs in St. Louis's first four playoff games, all of them wins; once he stopped hitting, the offense was never the same and the team went 1-4. The postseason LVP goes to Edmonds, whose failures came in many forms. His lax pursuit of a ball in the gap early in Game 2 enabled Chris Burke to stretch a double into a triple, setting up Houston's first run. In the same game Edmonds twice stranded the tying and lead runs on base (5th and 7th innings). In the 8th inning of Game 4 he stupidly took arbiter Cuzzi's bait -- an egregiously bad called strike on what was clearly ball 4 -- and got himself ejected at a critical point in a critical game. And in Game 6 his 6th-inning error enabled the Astros to score an important insurance run.

4) Season Highlight:

Without question the most exhilarating moment was Pujols' season-extending homer off Brad Lidge in Game 5; sadly, the high was ephemeral. In a broader sense, Chris Carpenter's emergence as a Cy Young candidate was very satisfying, and it was a kick to see the team keep winning -- as if from sheer force of habit -- no matter how many everyday starters went on the DL. Scrubs like Abe Nunez and John Rodriguez got a chance to make real contributions, and they came through; fun to see.

But for me, the highlight was getting familiar with David Eckstein. After the signing, Cardinal fans were told we'd love his hustle and dedication and all that other bullshit, and I was fully prepared to reject the guy along with the l'il-scrapper storyline. I gradually learned from watching him play that he wasn't just some souped-up version of Rex Hudler, using "hustle" cynically to grandstand and create a reputation (and a market) for himself. This guy could actually play, and the vaunted "hustle" was really a misnomer for intelligence and composure. In late July he executed a walkoff squeeze to beat the Cubs; about a week later he hit a walkoff grand slam to beat the Braves. A real winner; a champ.

5) Season Lowlight:

The Cubs owned the Cardinals this year, which is always painful. But the aforementioned Game 4 of the NLCS was absolutely brutal. The umpiring was maddening enough, ditto the Cardinals' mystifying impotence (for the second straight year) against the nondescript Backe and their failure to execute simple plays -- a muffed bunt in the 7th inning set up Houston's winning run. But despite of all that, and despite the two ejections, the Cardinals still managed to nudge their win expectancy over 50 percent in the top of the 9th inning -- 1st and 3d with nobody out, down a run, against a suddenly hittable Lidge. We would learn just how hittable the following night, and during the World Series -- but here, in a game they had to have, they couldn't get the ball out of the infield. The game-ending double play on John Mabry's slow roller to second pretty much summed up Cardinals in that series: a quarter-step slow.

* * * * *

The Astros also eliminated the Atlanta Braves from the playoffs. Like the Cardinals, this season was the same story for Braves fans, who watched a dominant regular season precede a postseason belly-flop. We have to respect the Braves for overcoming the odds to win yet another division championship, but the first-round defeat in the postseason has an all too familiar ring to it. Here to share his pain is Mac Thomason from Braves Journal. His responses:

1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

The easy answer is probably what was the problem all season long, "the bullpen". But that's only a part truth; the bullpen lost only one game in the Division Series and that in seventeen innings. Certainly, the Braves would have extended the series to five games had they gotten a decent relief performance out of Farnsworth in Game Four, and poor relief in the other two games (when the bullpen came in with small deficits and let the Astros blow it open) was a big problem. But that was only part of it.

I would say that the real Achilles heel was that the Braves weren't able to score many runs except via the longball, especially later in the season. The real reason they lost Game Four is that they couldn't get a run in without a homer despite numerous chances in extra innings.

2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

For the bullpen, I'd like them to get a couple of non-closer, "good reliever" types and hope one of them takes over the main job and the other the eighth innings. Hope that Joey Devine and Blaine Boyer are healthy. Don't overpay for Billy Wagner, tempting as he might be.

As for the other, replace Adam LaRoche with a real first baseman, or move Chipper to first and get Andy Marte into the lineup every day. Resign Furcal, one of the few players on the team who can produce runs without a homer.

3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

Andruw Jones is the easy pick for MVP, though a lot of sabermetrical types are a little down on him. Second place Marcus Giles, third probably Furcal. Arguably, though, the one man that the Braves could least have afforded to lose was John Smoltz, who kept the staff afloat in the first half when the 2-4 starters all went down.

LVP is also easy, the inimitable Danny Kolb, though Adam LaRoche had what would be an LVP season most years.

4) Season Highlight:

For me, Andruw Jones' walkoff walk against the Natspos in the tenth inning, July 16. The Braves took over first place for good that day, starting a three-game sweep of the Natspos, who never looked like a contending team again.

Alternatively for those who think that a walk is a silly highlight, Andruw breaking Aaron's and Mathews' team single-season home run record.

5) Season Lowlight:

Brad Ausmus, two out in the ninth inning, Game Four or Chris Burke, 18th inning, same game.

* * * * *

Last, and certainly least, we are left with the San Diego Padres. After a very lackluster regular season resulting in a win in baseball's worst division, the Padres' season ended just as we expected: a sweep. It's unfair to say the Padres were a bad ballclub, though they certainly weren't the caliber of the other three NL playoff teams. Longtime blogger Geoff Young, of the great Ducksnorts blog, shares his thoughts on the Friars:

1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

In the postseason? Not playing as well as the Cardinals, I suppose. Basically, it was the same problem that plagued the Padres throughout the regular season: inability to execute with any kind of consistency. Specifically they didn't hit in the clutch, they didn't play good defense, and they didn't run the bases very well.

The Padres were actually competitive in every game of the NLDS. It's just exceedingly difficult to beat good teams when you spot them eight runs. Obviously Jake Peavy's broken rib didn't help matters.

During the regular season, in addition to the above, injuries were a big problem. But the same could be said of any NL West team. Beyond that, there were too many games in months other than May.

2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

First, we need to figure out who our GM is. We think it is Kevin Towers, but with two pretty high-profile vacancies, and Towers already having interviewed with the Diamondbacks, anything is possible.

I think the Padres already have addressed a couple of things by moving Phil Nevin and not renewing the contract of first base coach Davey Lopes. Getting a legitimate center fielder and first baseman, along with some guys who can make throws from the outfield, would be a good start. I'd like to see youngsters such as Ben Johnson and Xavier Nady (and maybe even Freddy Guzman and Josh Barfield) get a shot at regular playing time.

If the Padres can find takers for any of Brian Lawrence, Chan Ho Park, or Woody Williams, that would help. There's some pretty good (not great) young talent in the organization, and I'd like to see some of those kids get a chance to show what they can do. But with veterans clogging up the rotation, spots will be limited.

3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

MVP: Three-way tie among Brian Giles, Jake Peavy, and Scott Linebrink. Giles very quietly put together a tremendous season, while Peavy is one of the best young pitchers in the game. As for Linebrink, nobody outside of San Diego knows who he is, but among pitchers who have worked 150 or more innings over the past two seasons, only Mariano Rivera has a lower ERA. Linebrink is lights out, and I have no doubt that he could close for most teams in either league.

LVP: With all due respect to Darrell May and Tim Redding, this has to be Nevin. He tried, but there just wasn't anything left in the tank.

4) Season Highlight:

September 17: The Padres are down 5-0 at home with two out in the ninth. They score a run, and then the Nationals bring in Chad Cordero, who walks a guy before giving up a game-tying grand slam to Khalil Greene. Ramon Hernandez ends it in the 12th with a three-run homer. Unreal.

Okay, so I guess sometimes they hit in the clutch.

5) Season Lowlight:

The Redding start in St. Louis May 8, when the Cardinals scored 11 runs in the first inning, was pretty brutal. Any of a number of baserunning blunders throughout the year; Mark Sweeney getting picked off third base in Houston immediately leaps to mind.

But if I had to pick just one, I'd say it was learning that Peavy pitched Game 1 of the NLDS with a broken rib. The Padres had a legitimate chance against the Cardinals. Peavy hurting himself during the division championship victory celebration was a killer. Maybe his being healthy wouldn't have made a difference in the end, but it's hard not to think "what if..."

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Thanks very much to our guests for their fantastic answers today. Please support them by checking their sites often, as they are the best the blogosphere has to offer. And also check back tomorrow, as we will touch on the Red Sox, Yankees, and Angels, before ultimately analyzing the White Sox championship run.


I just wanted to make one correction: It was on May 24 (not May 28) when the Astros were 15-30. By May 28, they were a red hot 17-31. :)

This is a joke, right?

The Padres were actually competitive in every game of the NLDS. It's just exceedingly difficult to beat good teams when you spot them eight runs.


The Padres got lots of hits in the LDS against the Cardinals especially against the St. Louis pen, but they seemed to be the least aggressive team on the basepaths ever. One base at a time. They needed four singles to score a run it seemed.

The Padres outhit and out-homered the Cards in the NLDS.

No joke, Rob. As Z points out, the Padres outhit the Cards in the series. In fact, the Pads had the highest post-season batting average of all the teams that made the playoffs. They just fell behind early in each game of the NLDS, and against a team as good as the Cardinals, it's real hard to play catch-up.