Monday, August 24, 2009

Friend and Foe

Constable's Note: In advance of the Astros @ Cardinals series, Daniel from C70 at the Bat and I are taking a post on each other's blogs previewing the series from the opposing viewpoint. You can read my thoughts here. Now, Daniel, take it away.

My thanks to James for letting me take a little time over here at Astros County. As most of you know from reading his blog this year, we've tried to do something to mark the times when the Cards and Astros get together, reminisce about old times, and throw the ball around this season. I also want to thank James for being one of the first blogs to commit to our new Baseball Bloggers Alliance, a group that numbers close to 40 now. Be watching for more from that group after the season.

So as the Astros and Cardinals get together for late-season baseball, what do we have? This series is lacking some of the drama and high stakes that has marked their relationship in the past. I think I speak for most of Cardinal Nation when I say that we've always had a lot of respect and admiration for the Astros organization and their players. The rivalry has been intense in the past, but it's always been professional. So while the pennant race isn't over and a sweep by the Astros might change some minds about the season, the gap between the two teams does lessen the drama somewhat.

When last we saw each other, the Cardinals had just lost a shutout to Bud Norris but had won the series anyway. They stood a half-game ahead of the Cubs while the Astros were in third, just 4 1/2 back. It looked like a great pennant race was shaping up.

Being that my focus is fairly myopic on the team in red, I'm not sure exactly what happened to the Astros, but the Cardinals kicked it into another gear. They are 14-4 since that shutout back on August 2. The offense has kicked into gear as they've assimilated Matt Holliday and figured out the best ways to use Julio Lugo. The pitching staff, which had been strong all year, continued to go well and with a number of off days, the Cardinals were able to skip the #5 starter a couple of times. Not having Todd Wellemeyer especially on the bump increased the Cardinals chances five-fold.

Right now, there just aren't a lot of weak spots in the lineup. Tony LaRussa continues to mix and match somewhat, but the lineups have been much more stable after the Holliday trade, with a regular grouping of Albert Pujols, Holliday, Ryan Ludwick, and Mark DeRosa. Usually Yadier Molina, whose bat sometimes gets overlooked due to his defensive prowness, is right after that group. The middle infield of Skip Schumaker, Brendan Ryan and Lugo on occasion have the ability to get on base for the big guys as well as deliver a key hit when necessary.

The schedule doesn't favor the Astros either, as you will see all of the top Cardinal pitchers in this series. Adam Wainwright will go in the opener. Waino has been just spectacular, right at the top of the league in wins and a nice 2.61 ERA. His curveball has been an amazing weapon for him this year, freezing hitters on a regular basis. He currently has a streak of 24 games where he's gone at least six innings, so he's been able to stay in ball games.

The middle game will feature Joel Pineiro, who has taken this whole "keep the ball on the ground" to new heights while fashioning an ERA just a little above 3. The ERA would look even better if you factor out the 7 runs in 5 innings that he allowed to the Mets at the beginning of the month. That kind of hiccup, which was a regular occurrence last year, hasn't happened much at all this year, though the potential always lurks for it. However, he's only allowed over three runs in a game five times this year, and three of those were in May. He won't strike out many, but he won't walk anyone either, which can make for a quick game.

Finally, on Thursday Chris Carpenter takes the hill. You know Carpenter. Take everything I said about Wainwright and add about 10%. If it wasn't for his three weeks on the DL in the early part of the season, he might have overtaken Tim Lincecum in the Cy Young talks. He's 13-3 with a 2.27 ERA and has been, at least to Cardinal fans, a joy to watch on the mound this season. It's made the agony and the waiting for the last two years worthwhile.

I know I'm a hopeless homer, but the rotation shakes out to make it very favorable for the Cards to win the series. However, Houston always plays St. Louis tough, so the predictions and projections are worth about the paper they are printed on. (And since we aren't using paper....) Wandy Rodriguez has been a terror for Cardinal hitters this year, and you never count out Houston in a game Roy Oswalt starts. I know it's going to be a fun series to watch.