Texas bats will be Cards' final test

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 18, 2011

I am so tempted to pick the Cardinals. By the end of this column, I just might.

The Cardinals have home-field advantage — no small thing, considering the way the Rangers hit in Texas.

They’ve got the superior manager — Tony La Russa, at the peak of his considerable powers.

And they’ve got a lineup that matches up well against the Rangers’ three left-handed starters — never mind the Cardinals’ 20-20 record in games started by lefties during the regular season.

The one thing I’m struggling with, the thing I can’t figure out, is how the Cardinals are going to stop the Rangers from scoring.

The Tigers couldn’t do it with their stable of impressive right-handed starters; the Rangers averaged 6.5 runs per game in the ALCS, nearly five per game before their 15-run eruption in the Game 6 clincher.

Which Cardinals starter, other than perhaps righty Chris Carpenter, possesses enough stuff and moxie to hold the Rangers down?

Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan is a master of preparation, “the best ever at designing a plan for getting opposing hitters out,” in the opinion of one scout.

But Duncan could not coax quality starts out of righties Edwin Jackson and Kyle Lohse and lefty Jaime Garcia against the Brewers, an opponent the Cardinals knew well. The Rangers are deeper offensively than the Brew Crew — and every other team in the NL, for that matter.

I expect this series to play out much like each league championship series did, with the bullpens assuming more prominent roles than the rotations. And I expect the Cardinals to score plenty; they ranked sixth in the majors in OPS against left-handers during the regular season, even though their record against lefty starters would seem to indicate otherwise.

Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and the rest of the Cardinals’ right-handed hitters are experienced. They will not cower before Rangers pseudo-ace C.J. Wilson. They also will not chase pitches out of the strike zone if Matt Harrison and especially Derek Holland turn erratic.

Harrison averaged only 2.76 walks per nine innings in the regular season, but in his two most recent postseason starts, against the Rays and Tigers, threw nearly 100 pitches in five. Holland, who had food poisoning during the ALCS, is not exactly trustworthy even when healthy.

These are hard throwers, not crafty lefties in the Wolf mold. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are good fastball hitters, and selective enough to run up opponents’ pitch counts. Simply put, it is not a good matchup for Texas.

Yes, switch-hitter Lance Berkman is better against righties, but it’s not as if his .803 OPS against lefties is awful. Allen Craig, a bonafide lefty masher, likely will enter the lineup at DH when the series moves to Texas — and Holland and Harrison are likely to start Games 3 and 4, or vice versa.

The race to grab early leads — and unleash the best of both bullpens — could be fascinating. The Cardinals’ 'pen, on the surface, does not appear quite as talented as the Rangers’. But the Cardinals’ top five relievers — right-handers Lance Lynn, Octavio Dotel, Fernando Salas and Jason Motte, plus lefty Marc Rzepcyznski — all are pitching with confidence, and pitching their best at the same time.

La Russa, then, could be at his mad-scientist best, much as he was in the NLCS, not that he liked his starting pitchers repeatedly getting knocked out early. In fact, an increased number of pitching decisions, combined with an increased use of pinch-hitters and double switches when NL rules are in effect, would seem to play right to La Russa’s strengths.

Rangers manager Ron Washington, mind you, deployed his bullpen to great effect in the ALCS. He also beat three of the game’s best tactical managers — the Angels’ Mike Scioscia, Rays’ Joe Maddon and Tigers’ Jim Leyland — to reach this point. But Washington can be unorthodox — see his intentional walk of Miguel Cabrera with none on in Game 4 of the ALCS. One false move on this stage, and La Russa will trap him.

I can see the Cardinals winning, I really can. But I keep coming back to that vision of the Rangers’ lineup in the third inning of Game 6 in the ALCS, that endless parade of offensive talent, from Ian Kinsler to Josh Hamilton to Michael Young, from Adrian Beltre to Mike Napoli to Nelson Cruz. Maybe I’ve been hypnotized, but I just can’t see the Cardinals slowing that group down.

Rangers in 7.

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