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Position analysis: Cards vs. Astros
10/12/2004 3:25 AM ET
Mike Matheny is a Gold Glove catcher yet he's still a relative unknown outside of St. Louis. He sparkled in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers, hitting .286 with a homer and five RBIs. Primary backup Yadier Molina follows a similar pattern with exceptional defense, but didn't play against Los Angeles. Houston's Brad Ausmus catches most games, but Raul Chavez usually starts when Roy Oswalt pitches. Ausmus, a two-time Gold Glover, has slipped slightly from his peak seasons in 2000-01 but is still a valuable veteran.

Albert Pujols put up huge offensive numbers again in 2004, joining Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio with 500-plus RBIs in his first four seasons. The fact that he's only 24 years old just makes it all the more amazing. He put the stamp on his increasing excellence by wrecking the Dodgers, batting .333 with a pair of homers and five RBIs, including a three-run shot on Sunday that iced the series. Jeff Bagwell, at 36, isn't what he used to be. He had a down year offensively, but responded well in the playoffs by batting .318 with two homers and five RBIs.

Tony Womack was a big part of the Cardinals' run to the postseason, but the Cards' leadoff hitter had a dreadful first round, hitting .158 (3-for-19) with only one stolen base and two runs scored. That's a big drop off from the 91 runs he scored during the season. Jeff Kent is a former NL Most Valuable Player and still puts a chill in opposing pitchers. The all-time leading home run hitter at second base, he struggled against the Braves, hitting only .227 and failing to hit a homer. But just as a threat, he has the edge.

Scott Rolen had a left calf strain that kept him out of action for 2 1/2 weeks in September and has yet to shake off the ill effects of the injury, going 0-for-12 against the Dodgers. Even so, Houston uses a tag-team tandem of lefty-hitting Mike Lamb and the right-handed hitting Morgan Ensberg to man the hot corner. Lamb's claim to fame is that he was unseated this past Spring Training when the Yankees obtained Alex Rodriguez. Ensberg is no Rolen, who still led the Cards with 124 RBIs this season, despite the injury.

Edgar Renteria is one of the game's top shortstops and had a monster first round against the Dodgers, pacing the Cardinals with his .455 batting average. A two-time defending Gold Glove and Silver Slugger recipient, Renteria is proving that he is a winner. Houston's best defensive player is Adam Everett, but he was just activated from a wrist injury and didn't make the first-round playoff roster. Veteran Jose Vizcaino has filled in admirably and has ample postseason experience, but he's a distinct drop-off defensively from Everett.

Reggie Sanders filled a gaping hole in left field when he moved there after the Larry Walker trade in August. The veteran has played on seven teams in the last seven seasons, including World Series champs Arizona in 2001 and NL champions San Francisco in 2002. He hit .260 with 22 homers and 67 RBIs this year with the Cards and carried that right into the playoffs with a .286 batting average in the first round. Craig Biggio has been one of the better leadoff men in the league this year, though the former second baseman and catcher is still adjusting to left field. Biggio ripped 47 doubles and a team-high 178 hits. He hit .400 against the Braves with a homer and four RBIs.

Jim Edmonds took his game to a new level with the Cardinals this season, but he struggled in the first round against L.A., hitting just .267 with a homer and four RBIs to go with nine strikeouts against the Dodgers' pitching staff that logged a 5.82 ERA. Houston's five-tool talent Carlos Beltran had a great regular season after the June trade that brought him in from Kansas City, but the potential free agent rose another level in the first round, demolishing the Braves with four homers, nine RBIs and a .455 batting average.

The Cards added Larry Walker in August to their potent lineup and he has already made the most of his second career playoff appearance. Walker picked up where Edmonds didn't, hitting .333 with two homers and three RBIs, with both homers coming in Game 1 to set the tone for the series. Houston counters with Lance Berkman, who got off to a slow start before finishing strong this season. Berkman hit .409 in the first round with a double, homer and three RBIs.

A veteran unit that combined to win the Major League relief ERA title, the Cardinals' bullpen is managed by Tony La Russa, the king of situational pitching. Jason Isringhausen has a well-earned reputation as a heart-stopper, but he remains one of the game's top closers. Lefties Ray King and Steve Kline were big factors against the Dodgers' left-handed power, not allowing a base runner in 3 2/3 innings. Houston's bullpen has been a concern all season and continued that trend in their series against the Braves, as Atlanta rallied for two wins late. Give Brad Lidge the edge as closer because what he lacks in experience, he more than makes up for with power.

While John Mabry has put together another solid season as a reserve, the Cardinals don't need a ton of depth with the strength of their everyday lineup. There are some veteran options to choose from in late innings, but nothing that has opponents quaking with fear. La Russa won't do much pinch-hitting anyway unless it's for the pitcher. Houston platoons at third base and uses Jason Lane as a late-inning replacement in left field for Biggio. Orlando Palmeiro was among the top pinch-hitters in the league and was a member of the 2002 World Champion Anaheim Angels.

La Russa is in the playoffs for the 10th time with his third different team, having led the White Sox, A's and Cardinals to the postseason. He is trying to get the Redbirds back to the World Series for the first time since 1987 in his fourth attempt. He has tasted the champagne, winning his lone championship in 1989 with Oakland. Houston's Phil Garner is trying to emulate Jack McKeon, who won the World Series last year with the Marlins. Both were hired at midseason. Both turned around seemingly moribund teams to win the Wild Card. Garner was second-guessed during the NLDS, but he has brought the Astros where no manager has taken them before -- a playoff series win.

The Cardinals' strengths are power, Gold Glove defense, pitchers who can step up and Pujols. They have a definite winning attitude after a 105-victory season and three more in the playoffs. Their biggest intangible might be the rich baseball history of St. Louis with its rabid support for the Redbirds, who have only won it all once (1982) since 1967. The Astros are on a roll, however. They had won 19 straight at home until losing Game 4 on Sunday. They haven't been to the World Series in their 42-year history. The Mets, who joined the NL in the same year (1962), have won two World Series in four trips to the Fall Classic. This could be Houston's year.

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