St. Louis vs. Los Angeles  

10/04/2004

By Chuck Dieringer

St. Louis Cardinals (105-57) 

The National League’s top-seeded St. Louis Cardinals face the storied franchise of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cardinals finished with the best record in baseball at 105-57, four games better than the Yankees and nine games better than the next best National League team, the Atlanta Braves.

After only a 12-11 start through the first month of the season and a respectable 15-12 May, they exploded in June with a 19-9 month and have not looked back since. July was even better at 20-5 and in August (21-7) it just kept going. In that three month stretch, the Cardinals dominated baseball with a 60-21 record. That’s .741 ball over a half-season’s worth of games!  

The Cardinals boast a lineup that led the league in runs scored featuring the three-headed monster of Albert Pujols (.331-46-123), Jim Edmonds (.301-42-111), and Scott Rolen (.314-34-124). But their offensive threat goes beyond those three. Tony Womack added a .307 average with 26 stolen bases in 31 attempts. Edgar Renteria chipped in with 17 stolen bases and Reggie Sanders went 20-20 for the 4th time in his career with 22 homers and 21 stolen bases. And have we forgotten Larry Walker?

The Cardinals enter the playoffs leading the other three NL playoff teams in practically every meaningful offensive statistic. Runs, homeruns, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, it doesn’t matter. The Cardinals bring in more offensive credentials than any others.

The pitching staff will draw most of the attention from naysayers. Woody Williams will throw the playoffs’ first pitch tomorrow afternoon. His 11 wins and 4.18 ERA are less than freightening. Matt Morris will start Game 2 on Thursday. Morris has had a career worst season with a 4.72 ERA.

The team’s better regular-season starting pitchers are also their least experienced in crunchtime which causes quite a quandry. Who would LaRussa rather have to turn to in the playoffs? Inexperience or struggling veterans? He obviously chose the veteran route. Jason Marquis (15-7, 3.71), Chris Carpenter (15-5, 3.46) amd Jeff Suppan (16-9, 4.16) may yet play important roles in the success of the team, but LaRussa is giving the veterans the first go.

LaRussa also knows that he’s putting the ball in the hands of his bullpen, too. Williams averaged only 6 innings per start and Morris 6 1/3. Fortunately for the Cardinals, they get the extra off-day between Games 1 and 2 and then another off day before Game 3. The bullpen will have plenty of time to stay fresh.

So how is the bullpen? It has been the best in the National League. Jason Isringhausen has been closing the door with 47 saves in 54 chances and a 2.87 ERA. Steve Kline (1.79 ERA in 50 innings), Julian Tavarez (2.38 in 64) and Ray King (2.61 in 62) each set up for him. LaRussa will trust in his bullpen to get it done.

Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)

The Dodgers provide a much different story than the Cardinals. They are coming off a miserable season offensively which they scored fewer runs than even the Detroit Tigers. New General Manager Paul DePodesta was able to piece together a lineup that hit over 200 homeruns (203) and stole over 100 bases (102). They still ranked in the bottom half of the NL in runs and average, but it is still an improvement. About 200 runs improved.

The Dodgers got off to a 14-8 start in the season’s first month but was unimpressive the next two months and sat only three games over .500 at the end of June. Their division title was basically won in July when they got hot going from 3.5 games behind the division lead to 2.5 games ahead with a 21-7 month. Nearly blowing it with a mediocre September, they were able to hang on and make their summer hot streak worthwhile.

The Dodgers offense was no longer led by Shawn Green, as in years past, but Adrian Beltre. After years of youthful mistakes, Beltre (.334-48-121) was finally able to put his potential into production and had an MVP-caliber season. Green chipped in with 28 homeruns and the mid-season acquisition of Steve Finley added a much-needed extra punch. Cesar Izturis stole 25 bases and Milton Bradley added 19 to offer legitimate threats on the basepaths. Dave Roberts lead them all with 33, even in limited duty.

The Dodgers pitching staff is not as overwhelming as it has been in recent years. Odalis Perez (7-6, 3.25) will face Williams in Game 1. The resurgance of Jose Lima (13-5, 4.07) was an unexpected source of quality starts. It would not have been expected that Lima would be a Game 2 starter, but we’ll all know then that it’s Lima-time! Jeff Weaver (13-13, 4.01) and Kaz Ishii (13-8, 4.71) round out the prospective starters. They’ve been good enough to get into the playoffs, but it won’t be good enough to stall the menacing Cardinals.

The bullpen is a strength with arguably the game’s best closer, Eric Gagne (2.19 ERA with 45 saves in 47 chances). Wilson Alvarez (4.03 ERA in 120 innings) and Elmer Dessens (4.46 in 105) will provide middle relief while Giovanni Carrara (2.18 in 53) and hard-throwing Duaner Sanchez (3.38 in 80) will setup for Gagne.

Outcome

Both teams parallel each other in a couple ways. They both have a strong bullpen. These games could be decided in the first six or seven innings. They also have capable starting pitching though lacking a true ace.

However, the Cardinals lineup is far more dangerous and will do more damage against the Dodgers pitchers than the Dodgers will do against the Cardinals pitchers. The Cardinals bullpen is likely to shut the door with the lead the lineup provides in the early innings.

The Dodgers will find ways to stay competitive, but the Cardinals will simply be too strong to handle. Even if L.A. wins Game 1, which they may do with Perez on the mound, the Cardinals will win the series in four games.