The Baseball Notebook

May 2, 2010 7:10 PM

The St. Louis Roadmap

The first four weeks of the season have been defined by two signature sweeps, one in each league. The American League version came when Tampa Bay went to Fenway and took the Red Sox four straight a couple weeks ago. It marked the rise of the Rays to first place in the AL East, and while New York is right on their heels, both teams are quickly establishing command of the playoff race. The key National League sweep came in the early part of this week. St. Louis hosted Atlanta and took them four in a row. The Cardinals have opened up a nice early lead in the Central, while Atlanta’s high hopes have been saved only by the Phillies’ injury problems and the Mets’ recent surge being preceded by a bad couple weeks to open the year. It’s the latter sweep that we’ll focus on here, since it provided a template for how Tony LaRussa’s team can reach the World Series this year.

In previous posts on the Cardinals, I’ve cited the key concern is that they are too star-heavy—Pujols & Holliday in the lineup, Wainwright & Carpenter in the rotation and a big dropoff after that. In these four games, we saw a complete team effort of a team winning in a variety of ways with a variety of people. Let’s go game-by-game…

Monday was a 4-3 win with the tiebreaking run coming in the bottom of the eighth. Now the main hero was the old reliable, in Mr. Pujols. He had three hits, including a double that set him up to score the winning run. But on the mound, Kyle Lohse matched Tim Hudson in giving a 6 IP/3 ER effort. Colby Rasmus had two hits, including a home run off Hudson to start the seventh that tied the game up. Finally, Ryan Franklin beat Takashi Saito in a battle of the bullpens.

Tuesday was another one tight one-run game, ending at 5-4. The Cards got the winning run here in the seventh. Again, we can point to a star in Chris Carpenter going six strong innings, before the pen coughed up a couple runs. But the offensive heroes were someone LaRussa needs to find his stroke. Ryan Ludwick doubled and homered and was the key reason the Cards hit Derek Lowe for a four-run sixth inning.

Wednesday is when the routs started coming. This time the Cardinals did it early, chasing Kenshin Kawakami by the fifth inning and scoring all six of their runs in that span. It ended 6-0. Jeff Garcia threw seven scoreless innings. Skip Schumaker had two hits in the leadoff spot, with Rasmus and rookie third baseman also having two more. None of the standard stars were anywhere to be found.

Finally on Thursday, the sweep ended with a 10-4 game. Adam Wainwright was solid, but not spectacular at 6 IP/3ER. Pujols took the day off. Freese got it started right away with a three-run homer in the first. Rasmus had another two-hit day, as did Yadier Molina.

Take note of not only the unsung players making big offensive contributions, but of a notable absence. Matt Holliday was not a factor in any of these games, yet the Cardinals won them all. St. Louis pitching was superb throughout. Atlanta had only four extra base hits the entire series. All doubles and it was exactly one per game. You keep a team in the ballpark going station-to-station like that, and you become very tough to beat. Only Melky Cabrera got any kind of offensive consistency going and he won’t beat you alone. The Cardinal staff kept Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Troy Glaus or any of the muscle in the Braves’ lineup from making an impact.

Now that’s just a four-game sample and we can certainly make any team in baseball look great if you focus on their highpoints. But in this four-day period, St. Louis fans saw what their roadmap to the World Series looks like. They’ve got as good a driver as there is in the business in Tony LaRussa. The journey might not even be a quarter of the way over, but it looks like it’s going to be a fun summer to be on the Mississippi River.

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