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in arms' way

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good pitching usually beats good hitting; that's the clich?. it's also a fact of the postseason. and it's the hurdle the cardinals have to overcome if they're going to advance past the astros.

that axiom explains st louis' postseason defeats to weaker-hitting teams in 1985, 1987, and 2000; it also explains their 1982 victory over harvey's wallbangers (thank you, joaquin). and the principle has held up so far in the 2005 postseason -- or didn't you notice that the two highest-scoring offenses in the majors (the yankees and red sox) lost to the al's 2nd- and 3d-best pitching staffs (the chixos and angels)?

good pitching usually beats good hitting; there's no getting around it. and the astros have very, very good pitching. their rotation starters are better than the cardinals', and their bullpen is significantly better.

so the cardinals are hosed then? well, yeah if the astros' pitchers take control of the series. preventing that is the cardinals' task, and it won't be easy. let's consider some data:

the astros outscored their opponents 693-609, a +84 run-scoring differential -- less than half the cardinals' +171 mark (805 runs for, 634 against). they only outhomered their opponents 161-155, while stl did so 170-153; neither advantage is particularly impressive. the astros and cards ranked 1-2 or 2-1 in nearly every pitching category: era, runs allowed, fewest walks, whip, obp allowed. houston committed the league's 2d-fewest errors and were 1st in defensive efficiency (the cardinals were 2d). they won't be giving away runs for free like the padres did.

but then, they won't be hitting like the padres either.

san diego was actually a pretty good hitting team whose home ballpark dragged their numbers below average; the astros, conversely, are a hopeless offensive team whose home ballpark raises their numbers to below average. in road games, the astros rank 15th in the nl in runs, avg, hr, obp, and slugging. at home they at least slug the ball, thanks to minute maid's short porches, but they still suck at getting on base. only three of the astros' eight regulars have obps above the nl average of .327; seven of the cardinals' eight regulars surpass that standard. houston's 1-2 hitters, craig biggio and willy taveras, both have .325 obps; if the cardinal pitchers can keep them off base, houston probably won't score many runs.

indeed, during the regular season the astros notched just 53 runs in 16 games against st louis, an avg of 3.3 runs per game. biggio had a .269 obp, taveras .319; the pair scored a combined 9 runs. the astros' power hitters did inflict some damage against the cardinals -- ensberg had 5 dingers, berkman 4. as a team they socked 14 hr off the staff, a decent total but still fewer than the 18 bombs st louis launched against astro pitchers. hold on, though: 10 of the cards' 18 taters came against pitchers who either aren't on houston's postseason roster or will be used in mop-up duty only (zeke astacio, wandy rodriguez, chad harville, et al). the astros

likewise, the cardinals' relatively healthy scoring total -- 73 runs in 16 games, a 4.6-run-a-game average -- is inflated by drubbings of 2d-line pitchers who won't see much action (if any) in the nlcs. of the 73 runs, nearly half (34) were charged to wandy rodriguez, brian duckworth, and brandon backe. against the astros' big three (clemens pettitte oswalt) and late-inning relief corps (lidge wheeler qualls) the cardinals batted .222 with a .264 obp and .342 slugging avg. per 9 innings, they scored 2.76 runs -- total, not earned -- off those fellows, who will probably throw about 85 percent of the innings in this series.

of course, the reverse point can also be made: the cardinals played a lot of their season with gaping holes in the lineup, holes now filled with larry walker and reggie sanders and mark grudzielanek and yadi molina. at full strength, they might put up slightly better numbers against the 'stro studs. if they can muster, say, 3.5 runs a game instead of 2.76 -- and if the bullpen holds up, a big if -- they will probably win the series.

and that's basically what this boils down to -- how many times can the cards push 3 or 4 runs across and make it stand up? during the regular season they went 24-16 (.600) when scoring 3 or 4 runs; they also weren't bad when scoring just 2 runs (6-8), making them a .556 team (30-24) when they muster between 2 and 4 runs. and the astros? here's a table:

when scoring 2 runs 3 runs 4 runs 2-4 runs record in sho
STL 6-8 (.429) 9-5 (.643) 15-11 (.577) 30-24 (.556) 15-6 (.714)
HOU 8-17 (.320) 12-10 (.545) 13-7 (.650) 33-34 (.493) 11-17 (.393)

hold the astros to 3 or below and you probably win; but that 4th run can be a killer. let's parse this some more (and scare ourselves further) along the following lines. you may recall that the astros got off to a terrible start and were 15 games under .500 a quarter of the way through the schedule; their season didn't really begin until lance berkman returned to form, right around the 1st of june. from that date forward -- the last four months of the year -- the astros went 70-41, a .630 winning percentage (and three games better than the cards at 67-44 / .603). taking just that segment of the season, let's re-run our table from above:

when scoring 2 runs 3 runs 4 runs 2-4 runs
STL 5-5 (.500) 6-3 (.667) 11-9 (.550) 22-17 (.564)
HOU 6-12 (.333) 10-4 (.714) 9-3 (.750) 25-19 (.568)

since june 1, it has been that 3d astro run that beats you. that's how tight the cardinals' margin for error is in this series.

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so how do the cards win this thing? ryan probably said it best over at the birdwatch: "It comes down to the performance of the moment." in other words, set the numbers aside and play the damn games, see which side can impose its will on the other. and the cardinals' will to win has been tremendous this year . . . but then so has the astros'; they refused to give up despite a 15-30 start and the loss of longtime star jeff bagwell. they're as hungry as the cardinals, and just as eager to erase the memory of coming up short last autumn. they do have the pitching, but ultimately it is all they have; one bad start from clemens or oswalt could literally sink them.

if that's true, then maybe st louis' margin for error isn't so thin after all. the cardinals would seem to have more ways to win games than the astros: for all we know, st louis's starters will outpitch the astros', as they did in that series coming out of the all-star break. any of the cards' top 5 hitters (including eckstein) would seem capable of having a .475 series and winning a game or two singlehandedly; only berkman and ensberg seem viable threats to do same on the other side (biggio might be a dark horse). the cards can win games with defense, with small-ball, with power, with pitching; they've been amazingly adaptable this year, finding ways to win under nearly every conceivable set of circumstances. as the padres found out in games 1 and 2 last week, st louis doesn't have to outpitch/outhit to come out on top.

before the san diego series, i said the cardinals needed to do two things: avoid gopher balls and turn double plays. my formula here is even simpler: just keep the damn ball in the park. i'd put the over/under at about 9.5 -- astros go yard more times than that in the series, they're odds-on faves; fewer than that, and it's the cardinals' pennant to lose. my prediction? well, let's put it this way: with money riding on the outcome, i might play the percentages and call it one way. but for the love of the game and my team?

i'll take the cardinals. in 6.

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brian gunn breaks down the nlcs by the numbers, by the matchups, and by the karma at the hardball times . . . rob at the birdwatch puts it at 60-40 cardinals via number-crunching, but more like 50-50 via dead reckoning . . . . danup has an eye cocked for joe magrane, a reliable pitching machine, and the alien that temporarily inhabited abe nunez's body . . . . nilly's got a smashed-out passenger window and most of a post lost to cybergnomes . . . redbird reasoning is back after a long absence with previews of the pitching, the hitting, and the closers . . . . belly to walker: next time, take it in the ass . . . ryan struggles to find the words, then says: ah screw it, cardinals in six, seven, whatever . . . . cardsrul is thinking about that time he got nailed right in the gut by a line drive. . . . . fungoes runs an nlcs VORP breakdown, concludes: "VORP, schmorp" . . . . i reckon the baseball analysts will have a preview posted by the time you read this . . . .

finally, josh at Crawfish Boxes has compiled a handy-dandy pundit tote board. head over there to see who picked whom . . . .