10/15/2004 10:41 PM ET
Will NLCS power surge continue?
Series shifts to homer-friendly Minute Maid Park
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
|Jeff Suppan waits his turn in the batting cage during a team workout at Minute Maid Park on Friday. (David J. Phillip/AP)
HOUSTON -- After watching the Cardinals and Astros combine for 11 home runs, 27 runs and 41 hits in the first two games of the National League Championship Series, one only can wonder what might be in store when the best-of-seven series moves to Minute Maid Park for Game 3 at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
After all, there is a perception that it is a slugger's paradise. The place where Miguel Tejada set the Home Run Derby record at the All-Star break. The 315-foot sign and that short porch down the left-field line. Home of the Killer B's and long balls, where home runs constantly and literally fly out of the building.
Well, not so fast. For one thing, the 187 homers hit there in the 2004 regular season ranked only in a tie for 10th in the Majors with Bank One Ballpark in Arizona. Chicagoans saw the most, with U.S. Cellular Field ranking first (277) and Wrigley Field second (233).
For another thing, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt -- likely among the top candidates for the NL Cy Young Award -- will start the next two games. Jeff Suppan historically yields a lot of homers, but he is coming off a sensational NL Division Series-clinching performance in Los Angeles. He'll be followed by Jason Marquis in Game 4.
Clemens, for one, knows that there is a special challenge for pitchers, no matter what. He watched what just happened in St. Louis like everyone else, and he surrendered a homer in his last St. Louis meeting to Scott Rolen, who went deep twice Thursday. So far, there is a tradition in this series that Carlos Beltran homers in the first inning and Albert Pujols slugs one for a difference-maker. Who knows what will happen here.
"They can do it all," said Clemens, who reduced his home run allowance from 24 with the Yankees in 2003 to 15 this season. "I mean, they have guys that can set the table. Larry Walker is really not a table-setter, because he can hit the ball out of the ballpark and do so many things. He's not your [typical] National League No. 2 hitter, what you would see. He's more an American League two hitter that I'm used to seeing.
"It's the type of lineup that, you know, there's six guys -- at least six guys -- in the lineup that can hurt you with the long ball if you make a mistake. Obviously, every hitter in the lineup can take you out of the ballpark -- take you out of this ballpark, anyway. It's conducive for that. ... You'll have to make pitches throughout that lineup, and that's the bottom line.
"They're powerful, [but] not to say that our guys aren't. I really enjoy seeing the front of our lineup and middle of our lineup coming up, too, because something can happen. And they can do some damage, also."
Suppan expressed the same concern about the explosive Houston offense.
Minute Maid Park has a reputation as a hitter's dream, but it ranked only tied for 10th in the Majors for home runs during this regular season, with 187 (96 by the Astros). Below, the top 10 homer havens in 2004.|
||U.S. Cellular Field
||Citizens Bank Park
||Great American Ball Park
||New York (AL)
||Minute Maid Park
||Bank One Ballpark
"Staying out of the big inning is huge," he said. "They have a great lineup, they're professional hitters. ... As far as a pitcher going against them, I'm going to stay with my same game plan as far as keeping the ball down, working counts and changing speeds. Obviously, staying down is important."
Maybe the perception of Minute Maid as a home-run paradise is a bit overblown, but as Clemens said, it still has been conducive to hitters in general. Take away that titillating left-field target, and it is spacious enough to allow extra-base hits galore. The power alley is 362 feet away in left, and then it reaches back to 435 feet beyond "Tal's Hill" (named for Tal Smith, the Astros' president of baseball operations) in center. The right-field power alley checks in at 373 feet, and it's just 326 feet down the line in right.
Astros manager Phil Garner has seen plenty of offense from both clubs so far in this series, and he certainly hopes there will be plenty more from his own.
"There's no question in my mind that hitting can go through cycles," Garner said. "You can see what happens to a great hitter like Scott Rolen. He doesn't get a hit in the Division Series, and now he's come up with three big hits in this series. I think what you see are the ebbs and flows of the game. You're going to see our offense kick in, you're going to see what we can do a little tomorrow."
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said the pressure is clearly on pitchers at Minute Maid Park.
"I just think if we play it 100 times, you've got the same two lineups that are going to feast on pitching that's not sharp," he said. "If pitching is sharp, that's the first key to winning the game for either side."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.