- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Why St. Louis could win: Jim Edmonds has a sprained shoulder, Larry Walker has had four cortisone injections to relieve pain in his neck and Scott Rolen won't be back until 2006, but the Cardinals clinched the division early enough to rest and get their pitching arranged the way manager Tony La Russa likes it. This is a balanced club with no discernible weakness. The Cardinals lead the National League in team ERA, rank second to Cincinnati in runs scored and are sixth in defense. They have the added incentive of wanting to atone for last year's World Series sweep to Boston. They're simply a better team than the Padres or any other NL postseason club.
Why San Diego could win: Jake Peavy is rested and ready after a shoulder scare, and he's going to face the Cardinals twice if this series goes the distance. Chris Carpenter, conversely, has faded of late. He posted a 5.73 ERA in September, and that dropoff could be the byproduct of a heavy workload. Carpenter's 242 innings pitched this season were 60 more than his total for 2004, and he ranked ninth in the National League with 3,395 pitches thrown.
Late innings: Trevor Hoffman's mid-90s stuff deserted him years ago, but he has no problems getting by on a mid-80s fastball, a great changeup and lots of guile. Hoffman converted 42 of 45 save opportunities this year to fortify his Hall of Fame credentials, and rarely if ever beat himself. He walked only 11 hitters and allowed three home runs in 56 2/3 innings. Jason Isringhausen's biggest problem was going lengthy stretches without a save opportunity, but he managed to stay healthy and productive. He picked up save No. 39 in the Cardinals' season finale. A couple of veteran lefty setup men probably won't be a presence in this series. The Padres' Chris Hammond is out with a groin injury, and the Cardinals' Ray King has been in a prolonged slump that bottomed out with a 7.36 ERA in September. La Russa could turn to Randy Flores when he needs a big out against a lefty.
Style points: St. Louis' staff makes opponents beat the ball into the ground, and then David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek do the rest. Led by their new middle infield combination, the Cardinals led the majors with 196 double plays. Mark Mulder, with his 2.74 groundball-to-flyball ratio, has been a major beneficiary. The Padres brought in center fielder Dave Roberts with the hope that he might provide a more exciting dynamic at the top of the order, and Roberts succeeded to an extent, with 23 stolen bases and a .356 on-base percentage. But he just returned from an injured left quadriceps that's likely to temper his aggressiveness in the postseason.
Head-on: San Diego won four of seven meetings with St. Louis this season, but three of those victories came during the Padres' smoking-hot May surge, when they went 22-6 to take early control of the NL West. Overall, the Cardinals hit .295 as a team and averaged 6.1 runs a game against Padres pitching. Albert Pujols batted .385 with six extra-base hits in 26 at-bats in the season series. Padres outfielder Brian Giles, who will probably rank high on St. Louis' wish list when he files for free agency in November, was a Cardinals nemesis this season, batting .417 with a combined on base-slugging percentage of 1.340.
Writer's block: If Jake Peavy wins the series opener and La Russa suddenly starts radiating tension in the Cardinals clubhouse, who knows? It's tempting to say the Padres are dangerous because absolutely nothing is expected of them, and they're ultra-loose. But Carpenter and Mark Mulder give St. Louis a different look at the top of the rotation this season, and it's hard to see the Padres containing Pujols when it counts.
Prediction: Cardinals in four.