SERIES: NL Division Series; Game 1.
St. Louis’ top starter isn’t available, two of its three MVP candidates aren’t at their best and none of the Cardinals have played an important game in quite a while.
They still might be the NL favorites to reach the World Series.
After finishing with the best record in the major leagues, the Cardinals open the playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who unlike their opponents were playing meaningful baseball through the final weekend of the regular season.
“I think we worked really hard to keep that edge, but it’s been tough,” said manager Tony La Russa, whose Cardinals clinched the NL Central on Sept. 18. “Guys had to manufacture stuff to get it going.
“Come Tuesday, it’ll be staring us in the face and guys will be excited.”
St. Louis went 82-35 since May 27 to finish with a major league-best 105 victories—one off the franchise record. The Cardinals’ division lead was not challenged in the second half of the season and they ended up 13 games ahead of second-place Houston.
However, they go into this division series without Chris Carpenter, who developed into the ace on what had been considered a suspect starting staff but became one of baseball’s best. Carpenter went 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA and led the team with 152 strikeouts despite missing the season’s final 2 1/2 weeks with nerve damage in his right biceps.
The absence of Carpenter, who could return to the rotation if the Cardinals advance, leaves the Game 1 starting duties to Woody Williams.
“I wish in all regards that I was in the spot they originally put me in, which means everyone is healthy and ready to go,” Williams said.
“Hopefully I’ll go out there and do my thing and keep my team in the game.”
Possibly the best offense in baseball kept St. Louis in plenty of games.
Albert Pujols had another MVP-type season, as did teammates Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. While Pujols closed the season strong, hitting .441 (15-for-34) with 10 extra-base hits and nine RBIs in his last nine games, Rolen and Edmonds did not.
Rolen missed 16 games late in the year with a strained upper left calf and bruised left shin, and he’s gone 3-for-18 (.167) since returning. Edmonds enters this series in a 1-for-29 slump and is homerless in 16 straight games despite tying a career high with 42 this season.
That duo looks to get going against Dodgers Game 1 starter Odalis Perez, who did not waste any time in making a bold prediction about this series.
“If we beat St. Louis, we’re going to win the World Series,” Perez said Sunday. “If we beat them, this is it: Dodgers, champions.”
While the Cardinals won 12 more games and had a much easier time winning their division, the Dodgers had to perform in a playoff-like atmosphere recently as they held off San Francisco for the NL West crown. The highlight came Saturday when Steve Finley’s grand slam capped a seven-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning that allowed Los Angeles to clinch the division with a 7-3 victory over the Giants.
“I think it’s an advantage to play meaningful games to the end,” the Dodgers’ Shawn Green said. “I think we’ll be a lot more relaxed than we’ve been the last week. It’s a new start. The hardest part is just to get there.”
Green did not have a particularly good season and the Dodgers’ offense is not as balanced and deep as St. Louis’ lineup, though it does have an MVP candidate of its own.
Adrian Beltre led the NL with 48 homers while batting .334 with 121 RBIs. This will be his first trip to the playoffs and the Dodgers’ first since 1996.
“You can’t get carried too far by one or two guys. Belly (Beltre) can’t do it by himself,” Dodgers third baseman Robin Ventura said. “We definitely have to score runs around him.”
They’ll try to do that against Williams, whose 11 victories were the fewest of any Cardinals starter. The 38-year-old right-hander allowed just four runs and 10 hits in 12 2-3 innings in two outings against Los Angeles in early September.
The Dodgers scored only six runs in suffering a three-game sweep at St. Louis, then won two of three one-run games the teams played at Los Angeles.
“Do I like our chances? Yes I do. I like our chances a lot,” Williams said. “But if it doesn’t happen, it shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, these guys had this, they had that.’
“Once the season is over, everybody is equal. You’ve got the best teams playing for one goal.”
Game 2 is Thursday before the series moves to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Saturday.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Dodgers - NL West champion. Cardinals - NL Central champion.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Dodgers - SS Cesar Izturis (.288, 4 HRs, 62 RBIs, 25 SBs), LF Jayson Werth (.262, 16, 47), CF Steve Finley (.271, 36, 94), 3B Beltre (.334, 48, 121, 104 runs, 200 hits), 1B Green (.266, 28, 86), RF Milton Bradley (.267, 19, 67, 15 SBs), 2B Alex Cora (.264, 10, 47) or 2B Jose Hernandez (.289, 13, 29), C Brent Mayne (.221, 0, 15) or C David Ross (.170, 5, 15). Cardinals - 2B Tony Womack (.307, 5, 38, 26 SBs), RF Larry Walker (.298, 17, 47 in 258 at-bats with Colorado and St. Louis), 1B Pujols (.331, 46, 123, 51 2Bs, 133 runs), 3B Rolen (.314, 34, 124), CF Edmonds (.301, 42, 111, 38 2Bs), 2B Edgar Renteria (.287, 10, 72, 17 SBs), LF Reggie Sanders (.260, 22, 67, 21 SBs), C Mike Matheny (.247, 5, 50).
DODGERS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Perez (7-6, 3.25 ERA). The left-hander finished 10th in the NL in ERA, but is the only one on that list not to reach double digits in wins as he set a franchise record with 18 no-decisions. He allowed five runs over 20 innings in his last three starts, but went just 1-1 in that span as the Dodgers totaled five runs. Perez, who walked 44 in 196 1-3 innings this season, has not faced the Cardinals this season. He’s 2-1 in four starts against them despite a 9.64 ERA.
CARDINALS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Williams (11-8, 4.18 ERA). Left-handed batters hit .223 against Williams, who went 5-3 with a 3.36 ERA at home. He’s pitched well in two postseason starts for St. Louis, going 1-1 while allowing four runs in 13 innings with two walks and 16 strikeouts. However, his worst outing of 2004 came in his most recent one as he was ripped for eight runs and 10 hits in three innings of last Monday’s 10-3 loss at Houston. Williams is 4-2 with a 2.65 ERA in 12 career starts against Los Angeles.
SEASON SERIES: Cardinals, 4-2.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Dodgers - Beltre went hitless in his final 14 at-bats of the regular season. … SS Cora has one hit in 26 at-bats against Williams, while 3B-1B Ventura has gone 13-for-30 (.433). … RHP Eric Gagne finished with 45 saves, but struggled at times down the stretch. In his last 24 1-3 innings, he gave up 20 hits and 10 earned runs. Cardinals - St. Louis, which missed the playoffs last season, is looking to reach the NL championship series for the third time in five years. … Rolen and Pujols are a combined 12-for-21 (.571) with four homers and 12 RBIs against Perez. … By allowing a run in the ninth inning Sunday, the Cardinals finished second in the NL in ERA at 3.746 to Atlanta’s 3.742.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Dodgers - 44-37 on the road. Cardinals - 53-28 at home.
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