It’s fitting that the St. Louis Cardinals will finish the current decade of baseball in the postseason. With six division titles, seven playoff appearances, two National League pennants, and a world championship since 2000, the Cardinals’ case for mythical “team of the decade” is already solid. Should they win the 2009 World Series, the decade would match the franchise’s glorious run of the 1960s (two championships, three pennants) and be second only to the 1940s (three world championships, four pennants). Add to the mix the favorites for MVP (Albert Pujols) and the Cy Young Award (Adam Wainwright) and you have a climactic conclusion for ten years of rather fine baseball.
But the fact is, St. Louis will be underdogs as the playoffs open this week. (The Cardinals will play Game 1 Wednesday in Los Angeles.) The defending champion Philadelphia Phillies have the best lineup, top to bottom, not wearing pinstripes. The Dodgers were wire-to-wire winners of the National League West and feature a balance of young hitting and pitching, not to mention a guy pretty familiar with championship flags in the dugout (manager Joe Torre). As for the wild-card Colorado Rockies, they merely went 74-42 since Jim Tracy took over managerial duties from Clint Hurdle. The Cardinals’ record against the three other NL playoff teams: 7-12 (with five of those wins coming against the Dodgers).
The concern for Cardinal Nation is that the team peaked too soon. Following the acquisition of Matt Holliday on July 24th, St. Louis went on a 32-11 run that buried the favored Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. But over the season’s last three weeks, the Cards were a pedestrian 7-14. Even Pujols has gone 21 games without homering. A reflection of a team on cruise control heading toward the postseason, or a sign of potential leaks in the ship?
As superior as Pujols is and as valuable as Holliday’s bat has proven to be since the big trade with Oakland, there are three names that will determine how far the 2009 Cardinals go this month: Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Ryan Franklin.
No team survives the first round (a best-of-five series), much less three rounds of playoffs without at least two horses on the mound. Wainwright (19 wins, 2.63 ERA, 212 strikeouts) and Carpenter (17, 2.24, 144) give St. Louis a one-two starting punch the equal of any possible NL opponent. The games these two start will be especially critical, though, as the Cards’ third starter — Joel Pineiro — has stumbled of late, losing four of his last five decisions (and looking especially vulnerable last week in Cincinnati). As for Franklin, he had one of the finest seasons by a closer in Cardinal history (38 saves, 1.92 ERA), but was roughed up in September. (I sat in Busch Stadium and watched him cough up a game to the Atlanta Braves on September 12th.) Franklin’s not a conventional closer, with a single overpowering pitch. If he’s not hitting spots — outside the middle of the strike zone — the Cardinals’ postseason will be a short one.
• No previous Cardinal playoff team has been as Memphis-centric as the 2009 bunch. Five of the eight starting position players — Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker, Brendan Ryan, Colby Rasmus, and Ryan Ludwick — spent significant time as Redbirds at AutoZone Park. (A sixth — Pujols — was the Redbirds’ playoff hero in 2000.) Among those five, only Molina played for the 2006 world champs.
• Parity, thy name is National League. Since 1998 (a span of 11 seasons, not including the current one), 10 different teams have represented the Senior Circuit in the World Series. Only the Cardinals have reached the Fall Classic twice over this period. For an 11th team in 12 years, the Dodgers would have to win this year’s pennant.