NLDS: Padres at Cardinals: The Tables are Turned (Finally)

For two games this week, the Cardinals roundly outplayed the Padres. This was on top of 3 similar playoff games last year. The Cards jumped off to early leads, and then out-pitched and out-fielded the Padres from there. And amidst all of the heroics from the pitching staff this past week, Albert Pujols‘ dominance stood out above everything. Time after time, he came up in key situations, and time after time he delivered towards Cardinals victories.

Even in Game 3, he came up in key, game-tying spots. But, for one day at least, Chris Young and the Padres bullpen shut him down.

Young dominated the Cardinals Saturday. His stuff doesn’t look impressive, but after painting the corners throughout an at-bat, his four-seam fastball emerging from his deceptively high release point overpowers hitters, even when it comes at just 88-90mph (as it did Saturday).

The Padres started the game with a single and a defense-aided double (Chris Duncan misplayed Todd Walker‘s ordinary drive into two bases). Threatening to take their first lead of the series, the heart of the Padres’ order couldn’t come through: two groundouts and a pickoff later, the inning was over, with the threat wasted. It looked like a devastating blow to the Padres, and killed the first momentum San Diego had built all series.

Unfortunately for the Padres faithful, this represented the norm throughout the game. San Diego mounted one scoring opportunity after another: 19 Padres reached base (via 10 hits, eight walks and and one error)—yet the Padres continued their ridiculous ineptitude driving runners home, going 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position Saturday (on top of an 0-for-10 showing through the first two games).

The Padres mounted a 3-0 lead via the latter half of their order, stringing together an Adrian Gonzalez single, a Mike Cameron walk, a Russ Branyan “double” (Branyan advanced to third on the throw—to third. Go figure), and a Geoff Blum sac fly.

Aside from that mini-outburst, the Padres wasted one scoring opportunity after another. Jeff Suppan and his successors didn’t look impressive, but repeatedly worked out of jams to keep the game close. Though the Padres led for much of the game, their lead seemed both vulnerable and an underachievement.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Cards seemed to put San Diego right where they wanted them: though down three runs, a David Eckstein single and Chris Duncan walk brought Pujols to the plate—as the tying run—against a laboring Young. Young took advantage of a fluke foul ball (Pujols checked his swing on a ball well inside, but clipped it foul) and a questionable strike call to put Pujols in a tough count, then blew him away with his signature 90 mph four-seamer.

Only then did San Diego really take the upper hand. Despite leading for much of the game, the Padres couldn’t really wrest control of the game until they retired Pujols in that key situation. But that at-bat was just representative of the job the Padres pitchers did all game, shutting down the core of the Cardinals lineup (hitters two through six: Duncan, Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Juan Encarnacion) to the tune of 0-for-17 (with eight strikeouts!).

Shortly after Young retired Pujols in that key at-bat, Padres manager Bruce Bochy turned the game over to his vaunted bullpen. Young struck out 9 in 6.2 shutout innings, and Alan Embree, Scott Linebrink and Trevor Hoffman took it from there. Linebrink stumbled momentarily, allowing a homer from the punchless So Taguchi after going up 0-2 on him. And despite bringing the middle of the order up again, the Cards couldn’t garner much of a threat against the Padres bullpen.

More than anything, this game punched holes in the myth of “momentum” in a short baseball series. Time after time, the Padres mounted a rally and threatened to take the game over. Yet they couldn’t convert the momentum into runs; and with the crowd fired up after the Cards turned away the Padres, their offense couldn’t do anything either. If the momentum shifts back and forth every couple batters, is it really worth anything? Major League Baseball players are incredible athletes, and they are intensely locked in each at-bat and each pitch during the playoffs. Any of them can turn around “momentum” on one pitch or one swing (or one defensive play, for that matter).

Back to the series at hand: with a 2-1 lead in games, St. Louis still sits in the driver’s seat. Manager Tony La Russa didn’t hesitate to announce ace Chris Carpenter as Sunday’s Game 4 starter (on his normal 4 days of rest). Bochy equivocated before announcing veteran Woody Williams as his Game 4 starter. Though staff ace Jake Peavy (the Game 1 starter) is available on full rest, I assume Bochy recognizes he needs to win two games, and is thus no worse off scheduling Peavy for Game 5. It comes down to matchups, and apparently Bochy is more confident with Williams starting the road game in St. Louis (where Williams experienced much success, both in the regular season and post-season). Peavy is one of the most excitable players in baseball, and apparently Bochy wants him pitching game 5 rather than 4.

Either way, this is looking like a real series for the first time since early Thursday. San Diego was thrilled to start a playoff series at home for the first time in their history, and return the favors St. Louis paid them in 1996 and 2005. Given that, losing two at home was devastating; but the Padres have consistently hit better on the road, and maybe what they needed this series was a road trip. If they can win one more road game, they’ll force a decisive Game 5 at home Monday.

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