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Cards turn to Woody in Game 1
10/04/2004 8:20 PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- Woody Williams' faith in his teammates, and belief that his team would make the postseason, never wavered. He was, however, a little less certain about himself at times.

After a shoulder injury reduced Williams to almost no game action in Spring Training, the right-hander came out of the regular-season gate slowly. On May 5, the 2003 All-Star and 18-game winner was 0-3 with a 6.27 ERA in six starts. Since then, he's gone 11-5 with a 3.51 ERA, drawing the first Game 1 start of his playoff career.

Williams will oppose Odalis Perez as the Cardinals and Dodgers kick off their National League Division Series on Tuesday.

"Honestly, I was down to like two starts before I went home," Williams said of his early struggles. "I wasn't going to kid myself and I wasn't going to make them pay me for not doing my job. It wasn't a good time. But you know what? It makes you appreciate the good times and not take things for granted."

Williams' toughness and team-first attitude make him one of the most popular Cardinals among both fans and teammates. And then there's his success since coming to St. Louis, which is hard to ignore. The Cardinals went 16-3 over his final 19 starts in 2004.

"Woody's gonna fight, fight, fight," said manager Tony La Russa. "When he's really sharp, he gives us a great chance to win. When he's not sharp, he gives us a good chance to win."

In two starts against Los Angeles this year, Williams was sharp once and a little less sharp once.

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He struck out six and didn't walk a batter over seven innings on Sept. 5, allowing two runs in a 6-5 Cardinals win at Busch Stadium. On Sept. 11 at Busch Stadium, he allowed two runs on five hits over 5 2/3 innings as the Cardinals lost, 6-5. The 38-year-old righty didn't receive a decision either time.

"They definitely have a good lineup," he said. "There's no doubt about it. I'm gonna have to bear down all the way through. I've had two starts the last month against them, so I kind of know what they're about. They have a lot of guys on their team that I've faced many times before. So it's gonna be a battle, but it's gonna be a lot of fun too."

Starting all the way back in Spring Training, Williams consistently took exception to the notion that his team's pitching might be substandard. He was convinced that the St. Louis rotation and bullpen would perform plenty well enough.

He was proven right, as the Redbirds finished second in the NL in ERA, one point short of winning the ERA crown. Now he's answering questions about whether that same staff will be up to the task of winning in October.

"The same questions were coming up in Spring Training, and I tried to convince everyone that we were gonna be OK," he said. "We didn't have the names the other teams did, but we were gonna go out there and compete and have a nice year. So it's not a surprise to me the way things turned out."

Now he's eager to find out how this 105-win club measures up in the postseason. He said he doesn't plan to change anything -- even with the responsibility of a Game 1 start in front of him.

"I said all along, I treat my day when they give me the ball like it may be the last," Williams said Monday. "I've done that throughout my career and tomorrow's gonna be no different. I think the guys that don't approach it that way may have a harder time with all the atmosphere and everything else. But to me, it's just another ballgame and I'm gonna be prepared to go out there and do my thing."

His "thing" is not exactly the prototypical thing for a Game 1 starter. Williams is no power pitcher, reaching 90-91 mph on a good day. He relies on locating his cut fastball and his breaking pitches, getting ahead and being at his best when things get difficult.

It's the sort of approach that's not well-suited to being a little off, which he was for much of the first part of the year. Now he's healthy. Ironically, it was because of health concerns about Matt Morris that Williams is slotted into the Game 1 job.

Morris was slated to take the ball Tuesday, given his history of impressive playoff performances. But a rough outing by Morris on Thursday, and a shoulder the younger right-hander has described as "cranky," meant the Redbirds were more confident in Williams than Morris in a potential Game 5 less than a week after Game 1.

So here he is, the man who had doubts as to how much longer he would pitch. Williams carries the hopes of his team and a city starved for a World Series title when the postseason gets under way.

"It's been a strange season," he said. "There's no doubt. The way I felt in Spring Training, the way I felt in the winter at home, I just never knew if my arm was gonna respond the way I needed it to or not. It's a blessing that here I am getting ready to start the first game of the series. It's been a long road, but it's been well worth it."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.