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Monday, October 15, 2012
Unsung players deliver again for Cards

By David Schoenfield

Consider this: From 2002 to 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals appeared in more World Series than the New York Yankees. They won more championships than the Yankees. Over those 10 seasons, the Cardinals appeared in more league championship series than the Yankees.

So, maybe the Cardinals should be considered baseball's Evil Empire?

OK, OK ... the Yankees spent about $1.87 billion on payroll over that decade -- more than twice the Cardinals’ $900 million.

But it is interesting to note that the team taking advantage of the addition of a second wild-card team is one of the National League’s powerhouse franchises.

Two days after their stirring, never-seen-before comeback from a six-run deficit to shock the Nationals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Cardinals hitters picked up right where they left off, pummeling Giants starter Madison Bumgarner for eight hits and six runs in 3.2 innings, taking a 6-0 lead and holding on for a 6-4 victory. The Cardinals are difficult enough to beat when Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are hitting; but when Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma start contributing key hits, they’re pretty much unbeatable.

The two middle infielders, the seventh and eighth hitters in the St. Louis lineup, had the big hits against the Nationals. Leading 2-0 in the fourth against the Giants after David Freese's two-run bomb in the second, those two got things going with one-out doubles. Jon Jay later added an RBI single and Beltran then hit his 14th home run in 29 career postseason games to knock out Bumgarner.

Descalso said they expected Bumgarner to come right after them. "We knew he was going to attack, he has the fastball and that cutter," he said. Indeed, Descalso's double came on an 0-1 fastball; Kozma hit a first-pitch slider. Bumgarner, usually in the 90-92-mph range with his two-seamer, didn't have his good fastball on this night. Descalso hit an 89-mph fastball, Jay singled on an 0-2 89-mph fastball and Beltran saw four sliders in a row, the fourth one deposited in the left-field stands.

Against the Cardinals, if you don't bring your good stuff, forget about it.

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The good news for the Giants is their bullpen was outstanding, delivering 5.1 hitless innings. Tim Lincecum pitched two of those, and has allowed one run in 8.1 innings of relief in the postseason. You have to think he’s now in line to start Game 4 over Barry Zito. The Giants have won the past 12 Zito starts but you can’t run a left-hander out there against this St. Louis lineup. Plus, Zito struggled in his start against Cincinnati and allowed a .468 slugging percentage against right-handers during the regular season. We probably won't see Zito in this series unless in a mop-up role or if he’s needed in extra innings.

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Mike Matheny nearly let the game get away from him with a slow hook on starter Lance Lynn in the fourth inning. Lynn pitched in relief in the Nationals series, appearing three times, including a 50-pitch effort in Game 3 while replacing the injured Jaime Garcia. The 18-game winner returned to the rotation in place of Garcia, three days after he served up the game-losing home run to Jayson Werth in Game 4.

Lynn didn’t allow a hit through the first three innings, but tired in the fourth, in particular unable to get the ball inside to the left-handed batters. With two outs and a runner on, Hunter Pence singled, Brandon Belt dumped a soft single into center, Gregor Blanco lined a triple into the right-center gap and Brandon Crawford lined a hard double down the right-field line. After pinch-hitter Aubrey Huff walked, Matheny finally went to the pen and Joe Kelly got Angel Pagan to ground out to second baseman Descalso, who made a diving stop and flip for the force at second.

The Cardinals have eight relievers, and they’re all good. This series may hinge on how Matheny employs them. Last year, Tony La Russa went with the game plan to yank his starters early and trust his deep arsenal of relievers. If you’re going to carry eight relievers, don’t be shy about using them. Six of them appeared in this game and combined for two hits allowed in 5.1 innings.

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One of those relievers is rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who impressed once again with his upper-90s gas. He’s below Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte in the pecking order, but what a weapon for Matheny to turn to. Baseball America’s No. 11 Cardinals prospect heading into the season, the former 21st-round draft pick from Cowley County Community College in Kansas started in the minor leagues but has pitched out of the pen in his brief stint in the big leagues, which plays up his fastball as he airs it out in these short stints.

Rosenthal is an example of why the Cardinals compete year after year: great draft picks, many unheralded, especially since they never select high in the draft. Descalso was a third-round pick out of UC Davis. Kozma was the 18th overall pick out of an Oklahoma high school in 2007. Lynn was the 39th pick in 2008 out of the University of Mississippi. Boggs, a fifth-rounder out of the University of Georgia. Jay, a second-rounder out of the University of Miami. Kelly, another rookie, was a third-rounder out of UC Riverside. If you notice a trend, you're right: The Cardinals historically love college players, which means less projection required and often quicker paths to the majors.

Mix in a few free agents signings to plug in holes -- Holliday, Beltran, Kyle Lohse -- and you have a winning approach.