By Joe Strauss/St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)
PHILADELPHIA — A common baseball adage asserts that the postseason is little more than a crapshoot, a first-team-to-11-wins scramble that defies analysis.
The game’s best record hasn’t emerged as World Series champions since 1995. The team that finishes strongest should have an advantage, but any Cardinals fan who can remember five years ago knows better.
So Friday afternoon Cardinals manager Tony La Russa strode onto the postseason stage to make October’s first gamble. As expected, La Russa named Kyle Lohse to start today’s series opener against the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies. The surprise arrives Sunday when La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan will ask Chris Carpenter to appear for the first time in his career on three days’ rest after leading the National League in innings and pitches thrown.
Listed as huge underdogs to a 102-win team that they defeated in six of nine games this season, the Cardinals offer the dangerous look of a wild card that won 23 of its last 32 games to secure a postseason berth on the schedule’s final day.
“We’re going to be tough to play against. But so are they. We’re even,” said La Russa, who reaches the ninth postseason as Cardinals manager. The club is 20-8 in its previous eight division series under him.
Partly because of the Phillies’ dominant starting pitching, partly because of lingering uncertainty over left fielder Matt Holliday and shortstop Rafael Furcal’s status, Las Vegas has installed the Cardinals as massive 5-to-2 underdogs for the series.
However, after what they’ve endured to reach this point, the Cardinals barely shrugged at the perception. Carpenter remembers an 83-win team winning the 2006 World Series after a 100-win team failed to escape the NLCS in 2005.
“I think anything can happen,” Carpenter said. “I don’t think there’s a favorite anywhere.”
“I definitely think we’re entering a peak time for this club,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “We’re still not 100 percent healthy the way that you’d want it to be, but I still think the way this club feels and is performing leaves with you some level of confidence, to be sure.”
Carpenter, who opened the season in a 1-7 funk, won the Cardinals’ clincher with a two-hit shutout against the overmatched Houston Astros. Carpenter threw 109 pitches, walked one and worked from the stretch against only four hitters in a wipeout 8-0 win. Of course, allowing Carpenter to throw a complete game in Wednesday’s blowout raises another question that La Russa considers incidental because of the potential windfall.
“A lot depended on Wednesday, and he had a really good game,” said La Russa, who conferred with Duncan that afternoon and on the return flight to St. Louis. Both approached Carpenter on Thursday. “He felt strong at the end. We wanted to wait to see how he felt (Thursday), and wanted to see how he feels today.”
Carpenter readily accepted the assignment, which would allow him to start a possible Game 5 on regular rest.
“If I didn’t feel I could do it and didn’t feel I would recover in time I would say no, because that wouldn’t put the team in the position I’d want to leave them in,” said Carpenter, who has not thrown a bullpen session between starts for almost two months.
Carpenter (11-9) constructed a 10-2 record and 2.73 ERA in his last 19 starts. Over an entire season, that ERA would have ranked fifth in the league. Two of those with a lower season ERA — Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee — will serve as the Phillies’ Game 1 and 2 starters.
Duncan said the decision is “based on the fact that Carp is feeling great and coming off an outing in which he pretty much controlled the game. It wasn’t a very stressful game. He held it together very well.”
The Cardinals will formally submit their 25-man roster to the commissioner’s office this morning. Barring an eleventh-hour change, they will use 14 position players and 11 pitchers, including the entire rotation. La Russa said Jaime Garcia would start Game 3 in St. Louis with Edwin Jackson tentatively scheduled to start Game 4. Jackson and Jake Westbrook will be available for long relief duty on Saturday and Sunday.
La Russa and Mozeliak devoted much of Friday’s workout to scrutinizing Holliday and Furcal, both of whom failed to appear in the team’s final two wins in Houston. Both were listed as questionable before the workout, but Furcal’s left hamstring and Holliday’s right hand passed muster. Furcal left the park believing he would be in today’s lineup. Holliday rejected a cortisone injection Thursday because it would almost certainly have made him unavailable for this series. He conceded Friday that he could be used in a reserve role for a game or two before migrating to the starting lineup.
“I have to be 100 percent. This is real baseball,” Furcal said. “This is why everybody plays so hard the whole season.”
Holliday did not take practice on the field, instead confining his activity to an indoor cage. He emerged to meet briefly with Mozeliak and later offered cautious optimism to reporters.
“I believe I’m in a position where I can contribute,” Holliday said. “To what extent, we’ll find out. I’d like to play. But if I’m not out there right away, I feel like I can offer a good at-bat somewhere during the game.”
Lohse (14-8) almost became a secondary figure within Friday’s pitching swirl. The ex-Phillie takes the ball tonight after leading the Cardinals’ rotation in wins and ERA. Lohse also worked four quality starts while constructing a 1.37 ERA in 26i;?1/3 September innings. He stands 6-1 the last two months despite dealing with an erratic stretch attributable to a finger injury. Just as important, the Cardinals have won eight of his last 10 outings, including a Sept. 9 takedown of Halladay at Citizens Bank Park.
“I know runs are going to be at a premium in this series, and I’m not putting any more pressure on myself in this game than I have in my last four or five, or the whole season for that matter,” Lohse said. “It’s a ballgame.”
The Carpenter gambit is characteristic for La Russa at a time of year that right fielder Lance Berkman compares to a Disneyland ride.
A Cardinals team that surged from 10B½ games off the wild-card lead Aug. 25 might have less to lose than the five-time NL East champions, who won 102 games despite a late eight-game skid.
“The image I have is of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” said Berkman in a metaphor both farcical and apt. “You’re running downhill in a runaway-type deal and things are falling off, pots and pans are coming out the back and you’re trying to scoop people up along the way and throw ‘em on there. That’s how we’ve gotten where we are. You don’t replace guys like Matt Holliday and Raffy. But at the same time they’re not going to put the game off until we get healthy. The thing’s going to go off whether we’re ready or not. You do the best you can. You scratch and fight and see where you end up.”