Playoff Preview: Cardinals – Astros

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
St. Louis         105     57     .648     854     657    101-61
Houston            92     70     .568     803     698     92-70
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
St. Louis          5.28     .278     .344     .460     319     214     548     1085
Houston            4.96     .267     .342     .436     294     187     590      999
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
St. Louis          4.06     .251     .308     .402     280     169     438     1029
Houston            4.31     .258     .328     .417     283     174     525     1282

All you need to do is look at those numbers above to see that St. Louis is the better team in this series. The Cardinals scored 51 more runs than the Astros and allowed 41 fewer, winning 13 more games. Houston’s lineup isn’t as strong, their bullpen isn’t as deep, and their rotation, top to bottom, can’t compete. The one area in which Houston would seem to have the advantage in is top-line starting pitching, because with Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, the Astros have the two best starting pitchers in the series. However, even that strength is in some question now.

In scratching and clawing their way to a 3-to-2 opening-round win over Atlanta, Houston had to lean heavily on both Clemens and Oswalt, who started four of the five games and combined to pitch exactly 50% of the team’s total innings in the series. Because the series with the Braves went the distance and because the Astros chose to use just three starters, Clemens and Oswalt are now likely out of action for at least the first two games of the National League Championship Series. That means, at most, they could start four of the seven total games in the NLCS, and even that would mean more short-rest starts.

Plus, the fact is that neither Clemens or Oswalt pitched all that well against the Braves. They combined to allow eight runs in 23.1 innings pitched, giving up 27 hits while walking 12. Clemens struggled with his control in Game 1 of the series, walking six batters in seven innings, and then lasted just five innings in Game 4. Meanwhile, Oswalt managed to escape his Game 2 start allowing just one run, despite giving up eight hits, and then also lasted just five innings in his second start, leaving Game 5 having thrown 111 pitches with Houston clinging to a 3-2 lead.

While Houston is going to have to count on Pete Munro and Brandon Backe, who combined to go 8-9 with a 4.79 ERA in 28 regular-season starts, in games Games 1 and 2, the Cardinals will simply trot out one of their four healthy starters, a group of Matt Morris, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis that barely misses a beat despite being without perhaps their best pitcher, Chris Carpenter.

The bullpens are also about as different as could possibly be. The Cardinals’ relievers are an extremely deep and versatile group, from closer Jason Isringhausen down to Steve Kline and Ray King from the left side and Julian Tavarez, Cal Eldred and Kiko Calero from the right side. Even Dan Haren stepped up and had a big relief appearance against the Dodgers in the first round. During the regular season, St. Louis’ relievers ranked first in all of baseball with a 3.01 combined ERA.

On the other hand, the Astros’ bullpen, which ranked 10th in the NL in ERA and consists of Brad Lidge and a bunch of no-names, appears to be working completely on smoke and mirrors at this point. Lidge was used in three of Houston’s first-round games for 4.1 innings, and a total of seven relievers appeared at least once. Chad Qualls — whom I’ve heard at least two people refer to as “someone named Chad Qualls” already this postseason — pitched in four of the five games, Dan Miceli, Mike Gallo and Lidge each pitched in three, and Russ Springer, who has thrown a total of 31 innings in the major leagues over the past three years, appeared twice.

The Astros’ offense is really clicking right now, having scored 36 runs in five games against Atlanta, and they ranked tied for fifth in the NL with 803 runs on the year. A lineup that starts with Craig Biggio, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent is a scary one, but it won’t impress the Cardinals much. St. Louis led the NL in runs scored with 855, beat up on the fourth-ranked Los Angeles pitching staff for 22 runs in four opening-round games, and have a heart of the order that goes Larry WalkerAlbert PujolsScott RolenJim EdmondsEdgar Renteria and is as good as any in baseball history.

Houston is a very good team and they are playing very well right now, but unfortunately they are running up against a team that is just clearly better in nearly every facet of the game. If the Astros can somehow manage to make it past the Cardinals and get into the World Series with a pitching staff that includes Backe and Munro as starters and Springer, Miceli, Gallo, Qualls, Dan Wheeler and Chad Harville as key relievers, it would be one of the more amazing things I’ve seen in the postseason. Which is, of course, why it won’t happen; pitching staffs held together by duct tape just don’t beat teams like the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game series.

Cardinals in five.

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