"I don't want to gross anybody out," Tony La Russa confessed, "but I stained my shorts there." His St. Louis Cardinals had just outlasted the Milwaukee Brewers 3--2 on a warm, cloudless late-September night at Miller Park for the 99th win of their remarkable season, clinching the best record in the National League, but La Russa, St. Louis's dour, superstitious manager, hadn't yet shaken the jitters. Catastrophe--insofar as catastrophe can befall the best team in baseball--had been narrowly averted in the bottom of the second inning when Brewers rightfielder Brady Clark cued a curveball off his shoe tops straight back at Cardinals starter Woody Williams, who was lucky to knock down the line drive with his glove, only inches from his face. ¬∂ Immediately before the game La Russa had learned that his ace, righthander Chris Carpenter, was suffering from nerve irritation in his throwing arm, which along with a previously diagnosed strained right biceps had put his postseason availability in jeopardy. To lose Williams 11/2 hours later would have been not only a fluky stroke of bad luck but also another blemish on a starting rotation that represents the biggest obstacle to St. Louis's first World Series championship since 1982. No, despite their 103--52 record at week's end and a fearsome lineup, these Cardinals do not expect to stomp through the playoffs like the Budweiser Clydesdales.
"There's no reason why we can't lose three games and be out of the playoffs immediately," says rightfielder Larry Walker, whose only previous postseason trip was a four-and-out with the Colorado Rockies in 1995. "There are a lot of expectations on us, but we need to let that just be talk. We can't put ourselves in the World Series when there are two teams to go through [first]."
The Cardinals' offense alone makes them a most formidable foe, however. At week's end St. Louis led the league in batting (.278), slugging percentage (.462) and runs per game (5.3), and ranked second in home runs (210) and total bases (2,455) and third in on-base percentage (.345). Each of its 3-4-5 hitters--first baseman Albert Pujols, third baseman Scott Rolen, centerfielder Jim Edmonds--had at least a .311 average, 33 home runs and 111 RBIs. In a universe sans Barry Bonds, each would have a persuasive argument for MVP. "No doubt about it, they've got the strongest lineup in baseball," says San Diego Padres manager Bruce Bochy. "They're a very explosive team, power throughout the lineup, no weaknesses."
Former Seattle Mariners general manager Pat Gillick, the architect of championship clubs in Toronto in 1992 and '93, calls the Cardinals "the best team out there. They have all these hitters, Edmonds and Rolen and Pujols and [shortstop] Edgar Renteria, and they all play great defense too. And they've added Walker, he's another one in the same mold. It's something very rare."
Walker, who in 38 games with St. Louis through Sunday was slugging .568 and had hit 10 home runs, came from Colorado on Aug. 7 in a trade for Class A righthander Jason Burch and two players to be named; the Rockies, desperate to pare payroll, agreed to absorb roughly half of the $17.5 million owed Walker through the end of next season. The swap added the final ingredient to the meat of the Cardinals' order, a latter-day Murderers' Row that ranks with the 1927 New York Yankees model (chart, below). It also burnished G.M. Walt Jocketty's impeccable summertime trade record: Since '97 he has plucked Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Williams, Edmonds and Rolen for assorted warm bodies, the best of which was second baseman Adam Kennedy, a career .278 hitter.
Batting Walker second, as La Russa has done since the trade, has manifold advantages. It leaves the 3-4-5 hitters in place; it slides Renteria (.290, 10 homers, 71 RBIs) from the 2 hole to the 6, an RBI position he prefers; and it allows Walker to create top-of-the-order havoc behind speedy leadoff man Tony Womack. "Let's say Womack's on first," La Russa says. "Larry's a lefthanded pull hitter, and if they're holding Womack, a ground ball in the hole [means] first and third. And if [the pitcher gets] distracted with the speed on first, Larry can light [him] up." Hitting second also conforms to Walker's patient approach--in his first 157 plate appearances with the Cardinals he walked 21 times and had a .401 on-base percentage. "I'm very open to the base on balls, to getting hit by a pitch, whatever it takes to get on," he says. "That's the job of the number 2 hitter."
St. Louis, the most enthusiastic baseball town in the country, immediately swooned over Walker, who spent the prime of his career playing in front of thinning crowds in cavernous Coors Field. (Attendance has declined for eight seasons running.) "As a visitor you always appreciated coming to St. Louis, just for the fact that the fans know the game, and they all wear red," Walker says. "You get into a game here."
And Redbird Nation remains ever passionate: The Cardinals will draw more than three million fans for the sixth time in seven seasons, and 90,000 tickets for the Division and Championship Series sold out within hours on Sept. 22. But whether the Bud-gulping, red-clad masses will witness a coronation in October is far from a certainty. For all the titters it elicited, Oakland A's G.M. Billy Beane's offhand remark in last year's best seller Moneyball that baseball's postseason is a crapshoot struck at the heart of the matter. As the number of playoff teams has swelled, the chances of the strongest regular-season team's running the table have dwindled. Since the inaugural Division Series, in 1995, only one out of the nine teams with the best regular-season record--the '98 Yankees--has won the World Series, an 11% success rate, compared with seven out of 25 (28%) during the LCS-only playoff era, from '69 through '93, and 34 out of 65 (54%) before '69.
The Cardinals are mashers who get by with a serviceable but inexperienced rotation, much like the 2001 Mariners, who lost in the ALCS. "The rotation is their weak link," Brewers assistant G.M. Gord Ash says. "It's better than a lot of people thought it would be at the beginning of the year, but it doesn't figure to match up to some other staffs in a short series. Carpenter and Jason Marquis have never pitched in big games like that before."
Carpenter (15--5), Marquis (15--6), Williams (11--7), Matt Morris (15--9) and Jeff Suppan (16--8, who will be the odd man out of the playoff rotation, should Carpenter get healthy) are all righthanders without overwhelming fastballs or breaking balls. They subsist by locating their pitches precisely, by hammering the strike zone and minimizing walks, by keeping their pitch counts low and by relying on the five Gold Glove winners around them (Edmonds, Renteria, Rolen, Walker and catcher Mike Matheny). Carpenter, who can graze 95 mph, and Marquis, whose four-seamer hits 93, throw the hardest, which is to say softer than a good dozen starters on other possible playoff teams. St. Louis's rotation allows an unusual amount of contact for a playoff staff; at week's end it ranked seventh in the NL in hits allowed per nine innings (8.98) and 10th in home runs (1.20). Nor do the Cardinals pitchers miss many bats (6.35 strikeouts per nine innings, 12th in the league).
"You don't have to dominate baseball games as a pitcher by throwing 100 miles an hour and striking everybody out," says Carpenter, the de facto stopper with a 3.46 ERA. "Greg Maddux has dominated for years by throwing 89, 90 to spots and getting ground balls. There are a lot of ways to dominate: I can give my team seven innings, keep my pitch count low, get quick outs and keep things moving, get my offense back to the plate." This is St. Louis's template, and it explains why the staff had the fewest pitches per inning (15.74) in the league. The staff also led the league in ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio (1.51 to 1).
In other words this is a capable if unspectacular group of pitchers who lean heavily on their defense and keep games close enough for their vastly superior hitters to put them away. That would constitute a plausible playoff model were each starter performing at his peak. Instead, doubts loiter around several. Carpenter, 29, who has undergone two arthroscopic shoulder surgeries in the past 24 months, left a Sept. 18 outing against the Arizona Diamondbacks with soreness and weakness in his right biceps, an injury later diagnosed as a strain. He missed his next start, and precautionary exams indicated nerve irritation, leaving the team unsure of his ability to start in the Division Series. As of Sunday he had no timetable for a return. "It's prepare for the worst, hope for the best," La Russa says.
Morris, whose 1.13 ERA in five career Division Series starts gives him the staff's most accomplished postseason résumé (and makes him La Russa's likely choice to start Game 1), has yo-yoed through the season, dominant in one start and average the next, with intermittent stiffness and fatigue in his right shoulder. When the shoulder starts to lock up--preventing him from getting full arm extension--he struggles with his mechanics and his curve is transformed from a power breaking ball to a slower, gentler tumbler. "It's good-bad, good-bad," he says of his pitching. This will be the first time in his seven-year career that Morris will finish with an ERA over 4.00 (it was 4.55 at week's end), and only the Philadelphia Phillies' Eric Milton, who pitches in a hitter's park, had allowed more homers (40) than Morris's 33.
Besides a rotation that doesn't intimidate hitters and includes three question marks--Marquis allowed just two earned runs in seven innings against the Rockies on Sunday but had a 6.35 ERA in his previous three starts--the Cardinals have also suffered late injuries to several key players in what had been a relatively healthy season. Through Sunday, Rolen, the infield anchor and cleanup hitter, had missed 15 games with a strained upper left calf; he fouled a ball off his shin on Sept. 10 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, causing him to alter his gait running the bases and strain the muscle. He took batting and infield practice last weekend but still couldn't push off the leg. Pujols was fighting plantar fasciitis in his left heel, which won't heal before season's end. He takes daily treatment and anti-inflammatories but, like Morris, can't predict when the discomfort will flare up.
Lefty reliever Steve Kline has been on the disabled list since Aug. 28, initially with a groin pull and now with a tear in the flexor tendon of his left index finger, a chronic condition that could decommission him for the postseason as well. Without Kline, La Russa, who relishes a deep, flexible bullpen with multiple one-batter options, would have only Ray King as a proven lefty; it would require a leap of faith to use lefties Rick Ankiel, Carmen Cali or Randy Flores (161/3 major league innings among them this season) in a high-pressure spot. Such gambles are not standard for the Cardinals, who usually project a businesslike, soberly professional image, a reflection of their manager's caution and skepticism. "Once in a while, clubs lose an edge in the postseason," La Russa says, when asked to speculate on his team's possible weaknesses. "This game'll slap you if you start figuring you've got it locked up. All you've got to do is get a little complacent."
But on Sept. 20, after a 7--4 victory over Milwaukee clinched the NL Central title, La Russa cut himself and his charges loose, romping around the visitors' clubhouse at Miller Park soaked in champagne and beer. When King gave him an impromptu ice bath from a plastic wastebasket, La Russa, easily 75 pounds lighter than King, chased the reliever around the clubhouse, leaping on top of him and riding him piggyback, fists pumping in the air. (Said King afterward, "I told him he'd been riding me all year, so why stop now?")
It was a refreshing moment of mirth, much like the scene an hour later when a half-dozen players clambered to the upper deck and took turns on Bernie Brewer's home run slide in leftfield, a reminder that one of victory's greatest spoils is, as Walker put it, "getting to act like a complete idiot for a minute, and getting away with it." The next day dawned as grim as gravedigging. October and its pitfalls loomed.
HOW POTENT IS the Cardinals' meat of the order? According to average MLVr (runs generated by a player per game relative to the league average) St. Louis's number 2 through 5 hitters--Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds--are the fourth-most productive quartet in history. Marginal Lineup Value, a measure of offensive production created by Baseball Prospectus, is the total number of runs a player adds beyond the number produced by an average major league hitter; MLVr is a rate-based stat, adjusted for park and league, that measures MLV per game. (For example, if Batter A has a .352 MLVr, that means that replacing an average batter with Batter A would raise a team's scoring from 4.500 runs per game to 4.852.) One of the remarkable things about the Cardinals' fab four is how close they are in production to one another: The difference between their highest average MLVr (Edmonds's .531) and their lowest (Walker's .411) is .120--the eighth smallest among the alltime top 200 foursomes.
Earle Combs, Babe Ruth,
Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel
Earle Combs, Babe Ruth,
Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey
Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig
Bill Dickey, George Selkirk
Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson,
Kiki Cuyler, Riggs Stephenson
Larry Walker, Albert Pujols,
Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds
*Through Sunday (Walker's stats based on 38 games with the Rockies and 38 with the Cardinals) Compiled by Baseball Prospectus
" Once in a while, clubs LOSE AN EDGE in the postseason," La Russa says. "This game'll slap you if you start figuring you've got it locked up."