Delay could change NLCS dynamic
East champs feeling good; Central champs holding it together
NEW YORK -- The fanfare builds anew for a delayed National League Championship Series, which kicks off Thursday night with the Mets' Tom Glavine facing the Cardinals' Jeff Weaver in Game 2.Game 2? How can an NLCS begin with Game 2? That's a trick question, and the answer is: When Game 1 is postponed by rain, which was the wet fate of Wednesday night's scheduled series opener. The Game 2 designation, of course, is a mere technicality for the benefit of ticket-holders, whose Game 1 tickets will be honored when the game is made up on Friday, an intended travel day. All it means for the teams is a delayed start to their pursuit of the NL pennant and the right to date the Oakland-Detroit winner in the 2006 World Series. But the postponement did shift the dynamics of this series. For one, it challenges the teams to kick it in gear after an unusually long layoff. The Mets have not experienced game conditions since finishing off the Dodgers in the Division Series on Saturday. This means they will take the field Thursday night after four idle days. The Cardinals last played on Sunday, when they eliminated San Diego in their Division Series. The loss of Friday's travel day also means the first five games of this NLCS will proceed uninterrupted. "Playing five in a row actually is a better test," reasoned Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "because that's kind of what you do throughout the season." While both managers decided to stick with their original pitching plans, the losing side in Thursday's game will now have the option of adjusting its rotation to guard against falling into an 0-2 hole. Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, initially slated to pitch Game 3 in St. Louis, will now go for La Russa in Game 2 on his regular four days of rest. Similarly, Mets manager Willie Randolph could turn to veteran Steve Trachsel in Friday's game, skipping over rookie right-hander John Maine. Before the announcement of the postponement Wednesday, an afternoon at the park did provide a window into the teams' plans when certain dinged players' status was clarified. Most significantly, Cliff Floyd not only was kept on the Mets' active roster but, tender Achilles tendon notwithstanding, was in their lineup. New York did slightly adjust its 25-man roster, adding infielder Anderson Hernandez at the expense of a 12th pitcher (Royce Ring). And the lineup announced by La Russa included all the usual suspects -- third baseman Scott Rolen, fighting through a fatigued left shoulder, batting fifth and center fielder Jim Edmonds (post-concussion syndrome) batting sixth. Even a day later, the Mets co-op of Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and pals takes a considerable perceived edge into this confrontation with the Albert Pujols Cardinals. In fact, the regular-season 13 1/2-game spread between the 97-win Mets and the 83-win Cardinals is the widest in an NLCS since 1975, when the Reds had a 15 1/2-game edge on a Pirates team they swept. However, the ease of their Division Series triumphs brought them to common ground. The Mets sweep into the NLCS with a seven-game winning streak after taking out the Dodgers, while the Cards recovered convincingly from a season-ending slide to oust San Diego in four. Championship Series experience is on the side of a St. Louis team that is on the scene for the third straight year, and for the fifth time in seven. The players gathered together as the 2006 Mets have had some LCS experience, little of it good: Glavine went 5-4 in Championship Series with the Braves, but teammates who've been there are 0-5.
However, the recent Division Series proved these Mets are not doomed to repeating their personal history. In their prior cumulative playoff exposure, Mets players had been 17-34 in all postseason series.Postseason stripes aside, the teams share a lot more in common, foremost a shared goal: A return to the World Series. And don't even bring up that stuff about this NLCS being waged merely to choose the Series loser, given the documented strength of the American League. "Yeah, the AL has been better in Interleague, if you want to go there," Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca said defiantly, "but now it's all washed out, so we need to go out and play." The Cardinals need more than just Edmonds' and Rolen's names in the lineup. They need their bats, to protect Pujols in the St. Louis batting order. The Pujols Factor has dominated talk for two days at Shea Stadium. Do you challenge, or run away from, the man who drove in 42 more runs and hit 27 more homers than any teammate? "To me, he's the best player in the game," Floyd said. "I don't think you'd want to allow the best player in the game to beat you. I don't feel like you pitch to him and let him burn you." "That's why the key is having Edmonds and Rolen around him," said St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein. "You wouldn't really want to put runners on if those guys are driving them in."
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Edmonds missed more than a month after a typical mid-August meeting with a wall left him with post-concussion problems. From Aug. 11 to the end of the regular season, he had only one home run and five RBIs -- while striking out 19 times in 29 at-bats, a clear indication he still wasn't seeing the ball. He stirred to life in the Division Series, going 4-for-13 with two RBIs against the Padres.Rolen has been of little help to Pujols. Since busting loose for seven RBIs in a 14-4 win over the Giants on Sept. 15, Rolen has driven in only six runs -- and that includes the Division Series, in which he didn't have any while going 1-for-11 before sitting out Game 4. According to their sparkplug shortstop, the Division Series put the hop back into the Cards' strut. "We understand how things work," Eckstein said. "The whole point is to get into the postseason, and then it's a dead sprint where anyone can get hot. We have a very confident club and we knew once we got healthy, we'd be fine." The Mets are ready to start work on their second century. The Division Series sweep of Los Angeles set their 2006 victory total at 100. "That celebration lasted about a day or so," said Wright. "We were glad to beat the Dodgers, but didn't waste any time focusing on the Cards." "This is a small step," said New York closer Billy Wagner. "We're excited, but we know we have to get ready again. We know there's a lot we want to accomplish." If these Mets truly want to make their indelible mark, they may find motivation in the chance to still have an undefeated postseason. Last October, the White Sox became the second team to make an 11-1 march to a World Series championship, matching the 1999 Yankees. But no one has ever run the table. St. Louis is the first postseason team ever to survive three losing streaks of seven-plus games -- the last of which did not end until Sept. 26, by which time the Cards were on the brink of blowing their seven-game lead over Houston with 13 games to go. "That's 23 under in the three streaks," said La Russa, doing the math, "and we still had a winning record. That tells us that when we've been good, we've been really good. "When we've struggled, we did it right: We kept playing, no one pointed any fingers." Nothing impacted the Cardinals' late-season wobble as much as Jason Isringhausen's surrender to arthritis in his left hip. From the day of the closer's valiant last attempt to pitch with the pain -- on Sept. 6 -- the Cardinals went 9-14. And there was a direct correlation between the two. La Russa's bullpen was chewed up and spit out in those four weeks. But the work of the same taxed relievers keyed their triumph over the Padres. Randy Flores, Tyler Johnson and, principally, Adam Wainwright have removed the dread from the seventh inning and beyond.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.