The St. Louis Cardinals are a close-knit bunch, and last Friday
many of them whiled away part of the afternoon watching
television on a sofa in the visitors' clubhouse in Atlanta. They
were relaxed, up two games to none in a series they would sweep
with a 7-1 win the next day, and they sat together snug as the
Simpsons on the family couch. On the screen, a make-out session
began to unfold. Thirty-six-year-old first baseman Will Clark
turned a sardonic grin toward 24-year-old outfielder J.D. Drew.
Never mind his age, the snarky Clark makes a good Bart. "Hey,
J.D.," he said, his voice rising into a cackle. "You see that?
That's the first step toward sex right there, you know that?"
Reminding his teammates of what getting to first base can lead to
has been but one of Clark's contributions to the surging
Cardinals. Since being acquired from the Baltimore Orioles on
July 31 to fill the void at first base--and, more dauntingly, at
the plate--that was created by an injury to Mark McGwire, Clark
has emerged as St. Louis's swaggering shaman, a wise head on the
field and a spirited voice in the clubhouse. After batting .345
with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs in 51 regular-season games and then
knocking in four runs against the Braves, he also had baseball
people debating the unthinkable: With Clark batting cleanup and
McGwire serving as the most potent pinch hitter in the
postseason, is the Cardinals' offense stronger now than before
McGwire went on the shelf on July 6 with tendinitis in his right
knee? "You can't say they're better without Mac starting, because
he can hit four home runs in a game," said Atlanta general
manager John Schuerholz after both Clark and McGwire homered in
St. Louis's 10-4 win in last Thursday's Game 2, "but they're not
diminished at all."
Neither is the Cardinals' third-place hitter and MVP candidate,
Jim Edmonds, the former Anaheim Angel who, in the first
postseason series of his career, went 8 for 14 with two home
runs, seven RBIs and six extra-base hits, and played a sterling
centerfield. Ripping hits from foul line to foul line, Edmonds
handled the Braves' gold-standard starters Greg Maddux and Tom
Glavine, as well as Kevin Millwood, as if they were beer
leaguers: He went 7 for 8 with homers off Maddux and Millwood.
Yet not even a hitter of Edmonds's ability can win a playoff
series alone. Consider an Edmonds-Millwood confrontation in the
fifth inning of Game 3. With St. Louis leading 3-1 and Edgar
Renteria on third with two outs, Millwood fell behind 3 and 0.
Instead of walking Edmonds, who had roped a 418-foot homer his
previous time up, Millwood glanced at Clark twirling his bat on
deck and threw three straight sliders over the plate. Edmonds
laid off the first two, then smacked the third off the leftfield
wall for a double. "Teams are growing wary of Clark, and when you
have a hitter like Edmonds getting pitches--look out," said
Cardinals batting coach Mike Easler after that game. "I'm in
Heaven to Easler is having the best one-through-eight batting
order of any team left in the playoffs. In addition to the muscle
in the middle of the order, St. Louis has a line-drive-stroking
leadoff hitter, Fernando Vina, who has more career walks than
strikeouts; a veteran catcher, Carlos Hernandez, with a career
postseason average of .314; and a number 8 hitter, Placido
Polanco, who batted .316 this season. "That lineup," said
Glavine, "hit every mistake we made."
The lineup seemed destined for disarray after McGwire went down.
The Cardinals missed his incomparable power, and as neither
utilityman Craig Paquette nor 38-year-old outfielder Eric Davis
asserted himself in the cleanup spot, Edmonds's production
slipped dramatically. St. Louis scouts reporting from Baltimore
said that Clark, who had struggled with injuries in recent
seasons and was long past his All-Star days with the San
Francisco Giants a decade ago, was rounding into the form that
had enabled him to drive in 102 runs with the Texas Rangers in
'98. St. Louis got him for a minor leaguer. "We knew he was going
to help them," says B.J. Surhoff, Clark's Baltimore teammate, who
was traded to Atlanta in July. "The guy had his stroke back, and
he's a money player."
Clark cashed in with a home run in each of his first four starts
with the Cardinals. That McGwiresque display rejuvenated St.
Louis--it was in an 8-14 funk when Clark arrived but went 37-19
over the rest of the regular season--and assured Clark's
acceptance. Sarcastic, cantankerous and quick to carp in his
chipmunk-pitched Louisiana drawl, Clark struts through the
clubhouse razzing all men equally. He good-naturedly calls
McGwire a "dork" and sits at his locker ordering younger
teammates to fetch him bottles of beer, which they promptly do.
Clark's clubhouse breeziness stands in contrast to his intensity
on the field, a trait he shares with Edmonds. "Those guys take BP
like it's the World Series," says Easler. Before the games
against the Braves, Clark chased observers from the batting cage,
saying, "I've got work to do." His discipline may have helped him
get the biggest hit of the series. Facing Glavine with two on and
one out in the first inning of Game 2 and the Cardinals trailing
2-0, Clark fouled off a low, outside changeup on a full count.
When Glavine came back with another tough change, Clark pulled it
over the rightfield wall. St. Louis led 3-2 and would never again
trail in the series.
Clark had an equally profound effect on Saturday's clinching
game. While playing first base in the fourth, he noticed a change
in the motion of Cardinals righthander Garrett Stephenson, who
has battled tendinitis in his right elbow since September. St.
Louis was leading 3-1 and the Braves weren't threatening, yet
Clark signaled to manager Tony La Russa. When Stephenson let his
arm drop after his next pitch, Clark ran to the mound and said,
"That's it; we don't need heroes." Moments later La Russa called
in eventual winning pitcher Britt Reames. "I hated it, but Will
was right," said Stephenson in the clubhouse after the game, his
pitching elbow heavily wrapped. "I could have hurt the team."
Going into the National League Championship Series, Stephenson
was listed as day-to-day.
Clark and the Cardinals began their post-Division Series
celebration by surrounding Edmonds's stall and shouting, "MVP!
MVP!" while bouncing up and down en masse. Shortly thereafter,
Clark and Edmonds came face-to-face in the champagne rain.
Shoeblack ran down both men's faces as Clark, his bald pate
glistening, wrapped Edmonds in an embrace and whispered into his
ear. Clark would not divulge exactly what he said, though he did
allow that "I told him he was awesome. I told him I couldn't wait
to go get 'em in the next round."
THE SCOUT'S VIEW
SI asked major league scouts who have closely followed the
playoff teams to help prepare these reports on the four
participants in the League Championship Series. The scouts were
promised anonymity in exchange for their candor. Here's what
Fernando Vina 2B
.300, 4 HRs, 31 RBIs
Pesky, hard to strike out, will bunt for hits and steal bases.
Can expand the zone away on him.
Edgar Renteria SS
.278, 16 HRs, 76 RBIs
Might be best shortstop in league. Can struggle with breaking
balls, but make a mistake and he can hit the ball far.
Jim Edmonds CF
.295, 42 HRs, 108 RBIs
Complete player, though strikes out a lot. Need to change
patterns on him. Defense good as it gets.
Will Clark 1B
.319, 21 HRs, 70 RBIs
Leave something soft up in the zone and he'll hurt you. Run
fastball away or backdoor slider or curve.
Ray Lankford LF
.253, 26 HRs, 65 RBIs
Struggled all season against lefties. Good low-ball hitter. Can
throw fastballs by him up in the zone; has trouble with cutters
on his hands.
J.D. Drew RF
.295, 18 HRs, 57 RBIs
Likes ball middle to middle in. Get him out by staying away
early, then coming in if ahead.
Carlos Hernandez C
.256, 3 HRs, 35 RBIs
Shame Cardinals lost Mike Matheny. Hernandez has decent arm but
isn't as mobile. High-ball hitter, struggles with breaking balls.
Placido Polanco 3B
.316, 5 HRs, 39 RBIs
Cardinals comfortable with him at third, short or second. Contact
hitter who stays inside the ball well. Tough to strike out.
Reduced to pinch hitter role, Mark McGwire still looms large.
Can homer every time up; if he doesn't, chances are he'll walk.
OF Eric Davis platoons with Drew. Good low-ball hitter, but
fastball can beat him above the belt. At 38, still runs well,
plays decent defense. IF-OF Shawon Dunston can play just about
anywhere. At 37, still has strong arm. IF Craig Paquette another
versatile guy. Hits best against lefthanded pitchers and
fastball-oriented righthanders, but won't hit breaking ball. 3B
Fernando Tatis kills lefthanded pitching.
Darryl Kile, RHP (20-9, 3.91 ERA) Curveball is devastating and
he throws it for strikes. Locates fastball well; runs it away
from lefthanders, cuts it away from righthanders. Will pitch
deep into game.
Rick Ankiel, LHP (11-7, 3.50 ERA) Tremendous stuff. Fastball
explodes in strike zone. Curve probably as good as Kile's but
not as consistent. Inconsistent with all pitches, but Cardinals
have confidence in him. Best hitting pitcher in league.
Pat Hentgen, RHP (15-12, 4.72 ERA) No longer power pitcher, his
fastball tops out at 91 mph. Relies on command. If he goes five
or six strong innings, manager Tony La Russa will say thanks and
hand game to bullpen.
Garrett Stephenson, RHP (16-9, 4.49 ERA) Won't overpower anyone
but hits his spots with fastball, curve and changeup. Changes
speeds well. If he struggles with command, he's in trouble.
Closer RHP Dave Veres not exactly money in the bank. Out pitch a
nice split-finger, but command inconsistent. Hitters should be
patient. RHP Mike Timlin comfortable at end of game, but you
look at his stuff and wonder why he's not dominating. Plus
fastball and plus slider, but has trouble getting ahead. RHP
Mike James's three-quarter delivery tough on righthanders;
sinking fastball effective against lefties. RHP Matt Morris
still recovering from surgery but has good curve. LHP Jason
Christiansen is the situational lefty. Nasty slider, good
cutter; sometimes struggles to throw strikes.
HOW TO BEAT THEM
Get to starters early. If they last deep into game, La Russa can
match up his bullpen hitter by hitter. Keep Vina and Renteria off
the bases; if they get on, you're forced to pitch to Edmonds and
Clark. Veres is the weakest closer left in the playoffs, so the
game's not over when you start the ninth.