NLCS could be survival of the fittest
Injuries to key players place backups in the spotlight
NEW YORK -- The Mets would not have made it to the National League Championship Series without their star power, but New York also could not have done it without lower-voltage personalities delivering clutch at-bats and innings.The Cardinals' world spins around Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, but St. Louis would not have reached Shea Stadium without the likes of Adam Wainwright, Tyler Johnson, Ronnie Belliard and Jeff Weaver. Discarded by the Angels with a 3-10 record, Weaver alighted in St. Louis in early July, went 5-4 and now finds himself engaging Tom Glavine in Wednesday night's Game 1 after shutting down the Padres in the NLDS -- a turn of events symbolic of the Cardinals' unpredictable season. "I think he is the best player in baseball," Cards manager Tony La Russa said of Pujols, "but if all we had is Albert, we wouldn't be here in October." It's an NLCS made for Darwinian scholars -- survival of the fittest. They like to say it takes 25 players to win a championship, but, over the course of a season, 30 to 40 athletes are involved, many playing small roles that add up to something big. The club that moves on to the World Series will have done so with departed contributors now off playing golf and with unsung performers summoned to replace stars shelved by injuries. "You know what the big guys are going to do," said Mets starter John Maine, transformed from marginal to pivotal in the absence of Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez. "It's the role players, the smaller guys like me and [Endy] Chavez, who have to come in and contribute just a little bit, too." St. Louis got past San Diego without starter Mark Mulder and closer Jason Isringhausen, and with third baseman Scott Rolen in a diminished condition. New York, meanwhile, was putting away the Dodgers without Martinez and Herrnandez and now faces uncertainty with left fielder Cliff Floyd, whose availability will be determined Wednesday.
As Floyd was expressing his annoyance Tuesday morning over a left Achilles injury causing problems above the ankle, Chavez was preparing to step into the void in left field, knowing he can't hit balls as far as Floyd but can do things to help the Mets win games."I hope Cliff gets better," Chavez said. "He's very important for the whole team. I try to be ready and cover him if he needs me to be out there." What makes the well-traveled, 28-year-old Venezuelan confident he can rise to the challenge is not just his .306 regular-season batting average in 133 games. It's the way his manager, Willie Randolph, conveys his confidence in all the Mets' support players. "I feel comfortable with him," Chavez said, "because he really believes in me, the player I can be. He's not trying to make me be someone else. He is confident in my defense, and defense is something you can control more than offense." Randolph's easy manner and intuitive nature has been evident in the work of a superior bullpen, a deep, resourceful bunch that lessens the burden on starters who know they don't have to worry about going deep in a game. "Our bullpen's been unbelievable," Maine said. "We've got guys who can go three, four innings or one batter, depending on the situation. If you figure you can go five solid innings, you should be OK with our bullpen. Six [innings] is a plus." Maine, 25, was 6-5 in 15 regular-season starts, highlighted by a July 21 shutout of the Astros. "I'm confident every time I go out there," said Maine, who stepped in as the NLDS Game 1 starter against the Dodgers and went 4 1/3 innings, giving up one run on six hits and a walk while striking out five. "This time it won't be as much of a shocker. I got a little taste of [playoff baseball], so I won't be overwhelmed." A surprisingly effective bullpen -- surprising given the absence of Isringhausen -- also has brought the Cards to within four victories of a World Series. Wainwright, a 6-foot-7 right-hander acquired from Atlanta before the 2004 season, has handled every role known to pitching, settling in as the emergency closer with an attitude that clearly served him well against the Padres.
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"I've taken the same approach since Spring Training -- I'm treating every hitter like it's my last hitter," Wainwright said. "I have four pitches I'm confident in, and I think that helps."As a starter, you're thinking about setting guys up, how you're going to pitch them later in the game. As a reliever, I'm getting one guy at a time, going after every hitter like he's my last." The Padres didn't know what to expect in the first round from a band of Cardinals relievers -- Wainwright, Johnson, Josh Kinney, Josh Hancock, Brad Thompson -- they'd rarely, if ever, encountered. When it was over, those mostly unfamiliar names had helped end San Diego's season, delivering 13 1/3 innings of scoreless relief. Appearing in all four games, Johnson's wicked slider was especially devastating, accounting for eight outs -- six of those strikeouts -- while yielding two hits and one walk. Padres veteran Todd Walker called Johnson's bender "the best slider I've ever seen from a left-handed pitcher -- by far." This is a weapon the Mets, with their documented vulnerability to southpaws, can expect to see. Another smart lefty, veteran Randy Flores, also is available to La Russa in game-turning situations. Flores credits pitching coach Dave Duncan, a constant source of strength and wisdom, and bullpen coach Marty Mason with keeping all the relievers prepared for any situation. "Your whole focus can be on one or two batters you're going to face," said Flores. "It changes from team to team, the specific things, but there are simple things they pound on -- getting ahead, throwing strikes. "You look at a guy like Wainwright, the tremendous job he's done. He's been a closer for two weeks." Should Rolen's shoulder limit him or take him out of the lineup, Scott Spiezio stands ready to step in -- as he did in Game 4 of the NLDS with a big RBI single against reliever Cla Meredith in a decisive four-run sixth inning. Spiezio, 34, is versatile and adaptable, with a postseason profile that suggests he likes the spotlight. During the Angels' run to the World Series title in 2002, Spiezio batted .327 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 16 playoff games. "You use all your positive experiences in the past to help draw on," Spiezio said. "But you don't rely on anything. It's all different. But having been here before, knowing what it's about, that can't hurt." Looking for parallels to his experience with the Angels, Spiezio zeros in on the Cards' bullpen. It reminds him of the Anaheim group -- Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Brendan Donnelly -- that set up Troy Percival so brilliantly that year. "That's what I told everybody going in," Spiezio said. "We're going to need somebody to step in out of nowhere. We had Rodriguez, Shields and Donnelly in Anaheim, and this year we've had a lot of guys step up -- Kinney, Johnson, Wainwright. "That's [La Russa's] specialty, winning games with a lot of different guys contributing -- keeping guys fresh, putting them in the right situations. It's one of his attributes."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.