Cards can count on pitching, but not hitting
Carpenter and Wainwright are about the most formidable one-two combination you can throw at an opponent in 2009. This season the Nos. 1 and 1A went back-to-back in the rotation on 18 occasions. And only once—June 25-26 against the Mets in New York—did the Cardinals lose the two consecutive games started by Carpenter and Wainwright. With that kind of win probability, you have to like the Cardinals’ chances of coming out of LA with at least a split. And that would leave the Cardinals in solid shape as they travel home for Games 3 and 4 this weekend.
And it wasn’t just the big fellas, Carpenter and Wainwright, who suppressed the LA offense; the Dodgers managed only one run against Joel Pineiro in his eight-inning start against them earlier this season. And Pineiro is set to start Game 3. Most baseball pundits give the Cardinals a distinct advantage over the Dodgers in the starting-pitching comparison.
On the surface it’s a pretty simple formula: use Carpenter and Wainwright as hammers, and take control of the NL Division Series.
But here’s what you should wonder about, and worry about:
Will the Cardinals hit?
Are they going to be swinging bats or violins?
The Cardinals can spin it as they choose, but this hyped lineup hasn’t hit with as much authority as anticipated. Not for a while, and not for as much consistency as hoped for. When general manager John Mozeliak completed his maneuvers on July 24 by acquiring Matt Holliday to go with the previous acquisitions, Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo, the Cardinals were supposed to become an offensive force. And it hasn’t happened.
Sure, the offensive improved. The Cardinals averaged 4.4 runs and batted .254 before July 24; they averaged 4.7 runs and batted .275 after July 24. But there were too many slumps, too many strikeouts, too many days where the Cardinals were vulnerable to even the most mediocre of pitchers.
On paper, the St. Louis lineup often looks imposing. But the hitting statistics and productivity have not matched up to the names on the sheet.
Manager Tony La Russa is unwavering.
“I think we’re going to be a dangerous club to play against,” he said.
The Cardinals scored three runs or fewer in 30 of 64 games since trading for Holliday. From Aug. 1 to the end of the regular season, they were shut out five times, scored one run four times, and were contained to two runs six times.
And in losing 14 of their final 21 games, the Cardinals received only three homers in 218 at-bats from middle-lineup sluggers Albert Pujols, Holliday and Ryan Ludwick.
That must change.
“I was somewhat surprised that it has been a little up and down,” Mozeliak said. “But you also look at the talent that you can put up there, and it gives you some level of comfort, knowing that if you were wearing the other team’s hats and were looking at who you were facing, you’d have to realize there’s some concern there. Some threats. We have to really click and get hot.”
The Cardinals went 5-2 against the Dodgers this season—with all games being played after Holliday’s arrival.
—even though they batted only .218. But a lot of the offense occurred during the Cardinals’ 10-0 wipeout of the Dodgers on July 28 at Busch Stadium. In the other six meetings, the Cardinals generated only 21 runs. The Cardinals won the season series because their starting pitchers dominated. And yes, that can happen again. But is it fair, or reasonable, to expect Cardinals’ starters to pitch to near perfection every time out just to win this series?
And then there are the lefthanders, Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw, who will oppose the Cardinals in Games 1 and 2. The Cardinals batted .223 against lefthanders before the Holliday trade, and .250 after he came aboard. But the Cardinals are still among the majors’ weakest-hitting teams against lefthanded pitching. Since Holliday joined the lineup, the Cardinals rank 24th in batting average, 20th in on-base percentage (.324) and 27th in slugging (.373) against lefties.
It’s a puzzling weakness that needs to be solved over the first 48 hours of this series. There’s a lot at stake here. The Cardinals traded premium prospects to land DeRosa and Holliday, and both could bolt as free agents after the postseason. Will the Cardinals ultimately waste the potential magnitude of those trades?