Best-laid plans don't materialize
Several starters for NLCS aren't supposed to be here
NEW YORK -- Neither the Cardinals nor the Mets are surprised to be included in the National League Championship Series, which opens in Shea Stadium on Wednesday night.In St. Louis, baseball players' social calendars are kept blank in October. The Cardinals had made the postseason party four of the previous six years, and they had no reason to lower their expectations. In Flushing, the Mets had finished two years of rebuilding and more building for a team built to run the Atlanta Braves off the East Division track. So these teams expected to be right here, right now. As for some of their pitchers who will be taking the ball ... well, not even Miss Cleo and Nostradamus, working in concert, could've predicted this. Short postseason series, of course, are famous for creating unlikely heroes, little guys who chokehold fate at the critical end of games. But in this NLCS, some of the unlikeliest candidates for breakthrough heroism are guys who will get the ball at the very beginning. The exciting anticipation of the unknown will be a nightly attraction. What this means is compounded pressure on the two recognized aces, the Mets' Tom Glavine and Chris Carpenter of the Cards. Their teams must build on their efforts, not plan on being able to pitch around them. What it also means is that both managers hope pitching won't be the proverbial 90 percent of these games. Because 50 percent of their rotations are long shots. Don't confuse that with shots to go long. Jeff Weaver leads off for the Cardinals in Game 1. On June 30, he had been cut loose by the Angels in favor of his younger brother. "Things happen for a reason," said Weaver, who at least is still pitching while Jered Weaver has to follow Tom Lasorda's advice to tune in to the postseason. "When you accomplish good things, it's easy to put the bad times behind you." John Maine goes for the Mets in Game 2. He was acquired in a January deal from Baltimore, spent the season's first month in Triple-A and wasn't even in the postseason rotation until Orlando Hernandez ran into a calf injury the day before the Division Series. "This time, it won't be as much of a shock," said Maine, who went 4 1/3 innings in his Game 1 Division Series start against the Dodgers. "I'd never been in an atmosphere like that, and I learned from it, so I won't be so overwhelmed." Anthony Reyes may be Tony La Russa's choice to start Game 4. A 24-year-old right-hander who won five games, Reyes may be the pick because his ERA (5.06) was almost a run lower than that of veteran Jason Marquis (6.02). The Mets will counter in that Game 4 with Oliver Perez, who accompanied Roberto Hernandez from Pittsburgh in a July 31 deal. The left-hander had a 3-13 record, which is significant because Perez will be only the second pitcher ever to start in the postseason after finishing the regular-season with a record 10 games below .500.
The pioneer in this regard, 19-game loser Albie Lopez, was so-so in two postseason starts for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, who won a World Series."Oliver Perez is the kind of kid who has electric stuff," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "At any given time, he can spin up a gem." Reyes is also often described as having "electric" stuff. Heck, there may not even be any need to turn on the New Busch Stadium lights for their Sunday meeting. Perez was also penciled in to start Game 4 of the Division Series, which wasn't required. This time, there will be a Game 4, no matter how hard some of the Mets pray. Cliff Floyd doubtless meant no disrespect when he'd said of the prospects of Perez having to face the Dodgers, "Everybody's hope is that we don't go to Game 4 and we don't have to worry about it." You know what Floyd meant, that Steve Trachsel would be able to close the deal with a Game 3 victory. Still, it didn't come off as a ringing endorsement of Perez. New York general manager Omar Minaya knows that there is even less remorse than crying in baseball. "Did I expect these guys to possibly be key guys in the playoffs?" Minaya posed, referring to Maine and Perez. "That wasn't my hope. But they are. But one thing about them -- they're not afraid to take the ball." And as Randolph said of Perez, "He's the best we have right now. And that's good enough." That can serve as the motto for both managers in a series that must unfold without Pedro Martinez, Mark Mulder and Hernandez. And, in St. Louis' case, closer Jason Isringhausen.
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Isringhausen may not be the one who tilts the Series in the Mets' favor. But his absence does influence the teams' game plans.The Mets want to get to their bullpen as early as reasonably possible. After all, didn't they just manage a Division Series sweep while getting a total of 13 2/3 innings from three starters? "That's all they want to do," St. Louis shortstop David Eckstein noted. "Their setup guys have done a great job, and they've got Billy Wagner waiting at the end." The Cardinals want to avoid going to the bullpen as long as possible. Unless they are convinced the Division Series work of replacement closer Adam Wainwright and crew wasn't a flash. The relievers were nothing short of brilliant against the Padres: 13 1/3 shutout innings, nine hits, six walks and 16 strikeouts. That performance was in amazing contrast to the last month of the regular season. Perhaps the Cards were just dealing with the shock of losing Isringhausen, who had to undergo surgery on an arthritic left hip, and got their heads on straight by the time they got into October. Amazin'? You've got a roster-full of it in the New York dugout, by adopted nickname. You may also get it nightly from the mound, by deed.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.