Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mets aim to neutralize Cards tandem

When the Mets drew the Dodgers as their first postseason opponent in six years, the popular sense was that they hadn't dodged a bullet -- that the Dodgers were the most dangerous of three possible October opponents, if only because they had played more competitively in winning the National League Wild Card than the Padres and Cardinals did in winning division championships.
Moreover, the Padres' lineup hardly seemed equipped to exploit the Mets' weakened pitching, and the diminished Cardinals had struggled to retain their NL Central lead that once seemed so secure.

Not everyone saw it that way, though. The Cardinals represented an unclear and present danger, more battle-tested and more likely to "go off" than either California entry, for one primary reason: Albert Pujols. There was also a secondary reason: Chris Carpenter.

Neither the Dodgers nor Padres had such weapons at their disposal. And, for that matter, the Mets, with all their firepower and the diminished pitching, didn't either.

Together in a best-of-five series, Pujols and Carpenter were a tandem fortress, standing as tall as the Arch and running as powerfully as the mighty Mississip, and nothing that occurred during the Cardinals' four-game disposal of the Padres did anything to dispel that impression.

David Wright was quite busy dealing with the Dodgers, but he couldn't help but notice that Pujols had gone off. The Mets third baseman puts little stock in coincidence.

"I didn't see much of their Game 4," Wright said Monday. "So I don't know what he did when they won. But I don't think it was by chance that St. Louis won the first two games when Albert was red hot, and that they lost the third one when he was held in check.

"We all know how dangerous he is, what an amazing hitter he is."

Wright described Carpenter as simply "the same pitcher he was last year when he won the Cy Young Award," and knew his personal nemesis had been the pitcher of record in two of the Cardinals' victories.

Any dominant offensive player -- and Pujols is the most dominant in the National League and in the entire 2006 postseason -- poses a greater threat in a best-of-five series than in a best-of-seven, because his skill can affect a greater percentage of the games if he goes off merely twice, as was the case in the Cardinals' sixth NLDS in seven years.

A pitcher of Carpenter's prowess can impact three games in a best-of-seven series. But his pitching seven innings and throwing 104 pitches Sunday eliminated that possibility, as well as the Padres. Carpenter, who started six games and averaged 111 pitches per start in September, won't pitch until Game 3 on Saturday in St. Louis, unless Mother Nature wears red and creates additional days off.

If rain isn't an element, Wright will have two games before he faces the pitcher he finds most challenging, though he has faced Carpenter merely three times. He struck out in all three at-bats against Carpenter on Sept. 8 last year. Wright has struck out three times in a game on 10 occasions in 2 1/2 seasons, but only once did all three come against one pitcher.

No matter the weather, Pujols will be involved every inning. Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa regularly makes personnel changes, but not with his No. 3 hitter/first baseman. Pujols is the clear and ever-present danger.

"A threat to take over a game," Wright calls him, acknowledging that the Cardinal slugger can also take over a series -- best-of-five, best of-of-seven or whatever. The Mets don't want to see the best of Pujols.

The Mets players recall the two-homer -- one was a grand slam -- seven-RBI performance he gave at Shea on Aug. 22. They also remember coming back to win that game on Carlos Beltran's walk-off home run.

Tom Glavine, who is to start Game 1 on Wednesday, agrees with the "shorter-the-series, the-greater-the threat" thinking, as it applies to dominant players. But as he said Monday: "Seven games don't make the Cardinals any less scary. They have enough talent that you expect them to play well every game."

Left unsaid was that the Mets didn't have that expectation of the Dodgers -- even in a best-of-five series. The Cardinals are second only to the Mets in talent in the league, with two-dimensional players such as Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. Rolen's availability is in question because of soreness and fatigue in his surgically-repaired left shoulder.

If he is absent from the lineup or playing compromised, it is a major issue, as Glavine sees it. He regards Rolen in much the same way he regards Pujols.

"If he's right," the veteran said, "he can beat you with his glove or his bat."

Perhaps the Mets won't hit ground balls to third base, but Glavine can't avoid Rolen if he's in the lineup. And as Galvine said, "It's not much joy facing Scott after pitching around Albert."


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