Badly leaking oil, the Cardinal playoff bus limps into Houston for a three-game set.
It is almost infamous now. Sweep the Reds, take a one game lead. Drop five of 8 at home. Take to the road, against two of the worst teams in the NL, drop 4 of 6. Turn that one game lead into a 4 game deficit in the division, and a two game deficit in the Wild Card race, with 34 games to go. If the Cardinals have any hope of making the post-season they must turn it around now.
St Louis – 69-58, 2nd place NL Central, 4 games behind Cincinnati. The one thing St Louis has going for it right now is it’s only 3 games back of Cincinnati on the loss side. Well, that and Albert Pujols.
Houston – 58-70, 4th place NL Central, 15 games behind Cincinnati. Houston also sits 13 back of the Philadelphia Phillies for the wild card, meaning they are playing out the string. Houston is 22-17 since the All-Star Break; St Louis is only a half-game better.
Probable Pitching Match-ups
30 August – Jake Westbrook (1-2, 2.57 xFIP) vs JA Happ (3-2, 4.90 xFIP). All statistics for these two are since they were traded to their current teams. Happ has never personally beaten the Cardinals, but his teams are 1-2 when he starts against them. JA has faced St Louis since becoming an Astro, back on 4 August; he did not get out of the second inning, allowing 7 runs. The Cardinals as a team have a .991 OPS when facing Happ, albeit it in only 41 plate appearances. Some of the more gaudy numbers belong to Albert Pujols (1.768; 4-7, 2B, HR), Matt Holliday (1.500; 3-4), and Skip Schumaker (1.167; 1-3, 2B).
Jake Westbrook has really pitched well since moving to St Louis – .640 OPS against, .295 BABIP, 31 K in 31 innings. Whatever reasons one may believe on why the Cardinals have slumped so badly in August, Westbrook should not be one of them. He went six innings on August 2 against the Astros, allowed only 2 runs, and did not figure in the decision. Westbrook has held the current crop of Astros in check (.738 OPS in 64 PA). Carlos Lee has far and away the most success off him (1.035 OPS; 13-32, 3 2B, HR).
31 August – Chris Carpenter (14-4, 3.81 xFIP) vs Wandy Rodriguez (10-12, 3.76 xFIP). Ace #1A for St Louis against the undisputed ace of the Astros. Rodriguez may be more famous in Cardinal circles for his ability to hold Pujols in check, but he is a legitimate ace, and since the All-Star Break he’s pitched like one. He has been nasty since 19 July (1.82 ERA, .602 OPS, .286 BABIP, 56 K in 54 IP). Take away the 5 ER he allowed in that 19 July start and he’s been Gibson-like in the second half. Yet the Astros have lost half of his starts since the Break. The Cardinals have faced Rodriguez three times in 2010, beating him on 12 Apr and 11 July, losing to him on 12 May.
Current Cardinals have put up a .631 OPS against him in 230 PA. Leading the way is Matt Holliday (1.126; 8-26, 2B, 3B, 3 HR). Randy Winn is the only other Cardinal with an OPS over .800, and that’s because he is 2 for 4 against Wandy.
Carpenter is 7-4 career against Houston. He’s 1-1 this season, beating the Astros on 13 May and losing to them on 4 August. Houston has logged a .539 OPS when he pitches (126 PA). He and Wandy Rodriguez have faced each other only once, back in 2009 at Busch. Carpenter got the win, Rodriguez a no decision.
1 September – Jeff Suppan (1-4, 5.14 xFIP) vs Nelson Figueroa (1-1, 3.89 xFIP). Again, these statistics are since each pitcher joined his current team. Figueroa was claimed via waivers from Philadelphia on 21 July. He’s pitched pretty OK since joining the Astros, joining their rotation on 17 August after Houston sent Wesley Wright back to AAA. Figueroa features a fastball, slider, and curveball. His fastball is his best pitch, with his curve and slider being slightly below average.
Figueroa has not started a game against St Louis since 2004, when he was a Pirate. He has pitched twice out of the Astro bullpen against St Louis, getting credited with the win on 2 August. Pedro Feliz is 5 for 9 with a double off him, and represents the most success by a Cardinal against Figueroa.
Jeff Suppan makes his triumphant return to the rotation, starting his first game since 31 July, after dealing with an extended DL stint. He has not had much career success against Houston (3-8 overall), and lost his lone Cardinal start against them on 10 July. Multiple Astros have teed off on him (.952 OPS in 167 PA), led by Geoff Blum (1.474 OPS: 15-28, 4 2B, 2 HR) and Hunter Pence (1.274 OPS; 5-15, 2B, 2 HR). This might be a long afternoon.
After I submitted my last 3 Cardinal previews the Cardinal rotation has changed. Let us hope this series will not make me 4 for 4. On paper, and based on recent performance, the Cardinals have the advantage on Friday, Saturday is a wash and slightly favors the Astros, and Sunday should definitely favor Houston. If the past 2 weeks have shown us anything, however, what ought to happen is not necessarily what does happen.
The Cardinals badly need this series. I would expect LaRussa to pull out all the stops as he attempts to win it.