2005 NLDS: Breaking down the series

Much like in the American League, the National League Division Series sees three out of four teams returning to the October field. The perennial division winners/playoff chokers Atlanta Braves will once again play host to the Wild Card-winning Houston Astros. The Major League-best St. Louis Cardinals will play the San Diego Padres, the worst division leaders in baseball history.

It’s a good year in the National League for pitching. So how will these teams fare offensively?

St. Louis Cardinals (100-62) vs. San Diego Padres (82-80)

Season Series: Padres won 4 out of 7

The San Diego Padres were downright awful this year. They finished the year 82-80 and now own the distinction of being the worst team to win a division title. They were outscored by 42 runs and had the seventh best record in the National League. In fact, the Washington Nationals, while finishing at .500, allowed fewer runs and had a smaller run differential than the Padres.

Yet, for all of their struggles, the Padres have the young stud Jake Peavy and could, if they got lucky, pull out an upset. But it was not to be as Peavy was battered today in Game 1. After the game, he announced that he had broken his ribs while celebrating the Padres’ division title and would be unavailable for the rest of the playoffs. Was it really that jubilant of a celebration? The Padres won because no other GM in the NL West could put together a .500 team. And they lost their lone ace to a celebration. So much for the Cinderella story of the postseason.

With Peavy out, this series belongs to the Cardinals. While Tony LaRussa showed today what happens when you don’t just let one pitcher throw the 9th in an 8-2 game, it’s barely cause for concern. The Cardinals were second in the NL in runs scored and second in fewest runs allowed. There’s no need to highlight any keys to this series. It’s hardly a contest. Sorry, Padres fans.

Key Stat: With his home run today, Jim Edmonds has now launched 11 long balls in 37 postseason games.

Prediction: Cardinals in 3.

Atlanta Braves (90-72) vs. Houston Astros (89-73)

Season Series: Braves won 5 out of 6

When last the Braves faced the Astros, the boys from Houston were 11-19. The loss of Carlos Beltran loomed large, and it seemed as though 2004’s Astros, who were just a few innings away from the World Series, were a fluke. The Braves swept the Astros in a four-game series at Turner Field. Two and a half weeks later, the Astros hit rock bottom. They were 15 games under .500 at 16-31.

Since that day in late May, the Astros went 73-42. Led by one of the best pitching trifectas in the history of baseball and an age-defying 43-year-old pitching to an ERA under 2.00, the Astros proved that you don’t need an offense to win. They scored just 687 runs, good for 11th in the NL. Their team OBP of .322 tied them with the Pirates, Nationals and Mets for 13th in the NL and 22nd over all.

The Braves, meanwhile, were fourth in runs scored, eighth in OBP, and third in slugging in the National League. Leo Mazzone turned Jorge Sosa into a bona fide starter, and Atlanta edged the Phillies by two games. The stage is set for a rematch of the 2004 NLDS. Will the outcome be any different?

Keys to the Series:

1. While it has become a cliché, game one may truly be the most important game of this series as Roger Clemens faces John Smoltz in what many would call an Instant Classic before the first pitch is delivered. While Smoltz and Clemens both have stellar season numbers, the two aces both faced some tough times down the stretch. In September, Clemens pitched just 20 innings with an ERA of 5.40. More noticeable though were Clemens’ poor peripherals. In those 20 innings, he struck out just 13 and walked 10. On the season, he walked just 62 and struck out 185 in 211.1 innings. Smoltz, meanwhile, ran into a similar rough stretch and has been battling a sore shoulder. If the Braves can’t beat Clemens, then they will be facing Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt down 1-0. If the Astros can’t beat Smoltz, they will once again leave their ace out to dry.

2. Last year, the Astros in the playoffs did not have Andy Pettitte. This year, they have Andy Pettitte better than he’s ever been. Pettitte, a darkhorse NL Cy Young candidate, was 17-9 with a career-best 2.39 ERA. He threw 222.1 innings and struck out 171 while surrendering just 188 hits. In his other life on the Yankees, Pettitte in 30 postseason starts went 13-8 with a 4.05 ERA. He developed, rather incorrectly, a reputation as a big-game pitcher. If the Astros are to win with their limited offense, they’ll need Pettitte to stymie the Braves just as he did for 8 innings in game 5 of the 1996 World Series.

3. After an explosive debut, Jeff Francoeur faded badly down the stretch. In September, .247/.287/.452 with 21 strike outs. Andruw Jones underwent a similar dry spell. While blasting 8 home runs in September, he hit just .208/.294/.500. If the Braves are to succeed against the Astros’ stingy rotation and top-flight bullpen led by Brad Lidge, they will need their dragging offense to step up in October. Otherwise, it may be an early exit once again for Atlanta.

4. If this series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Astros have a decisive advantage. Led by closer Lidge, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls, the ‘Stros’ bullpen put up a 3.66 ERA while striking out 8.39 per 9 innings. The Braves, meanwhile, couldn’t find anyone to close until Kyle Farnsworth showed up. Their bullpen ERA was 4.66 and their K/9 IP was just 6.83. The Astros have killer pitching; the Braves sneaked into the playoffs without a clear answer in the bullpen.

Key Stat: With Clemens on the mound, the Astros were shut out nine times, including four 1-0 games. Clemens’ ERA in those nine starts was just 1.11.

Prediction: With superior pitching and a few timely hits from Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman, the Astros will move on to the NLCS in 4 games leaving the Braves to ponder yet another unsuccessful October.

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