Cards, Astros to reign in NL’s first round

The much-anticipated Red Sox-Yankees season finale fizzling into a dud this weekend didn’t matter. The limelight of the baseball season’s final week was so thick that even Barry Bonds made an appearance.

The Astros needed until the final game of the regular season to stave off an out-of-nowhere Wild Card push from the Phillies. The White Sox rule the American League Central after the Indians’ attempt at a miracle climb up divisional standings sputtered into a final-weekend collapse. The Cardinals and Angels were the only contenders who didn’t have someone breathing down their necks going into season’s final weekend.

But that was just a warmup. The playoffs didn’t even begin until yesterday.

Last year, the Red Sox and Yankees, AL representatives, were the favorites heading into the postseason. Things are different this year. The National League boasts the game’s best team in St. Louis and perhaps the squad with the most lethal pitching staff, the Astros.

God bless the Wild Card. Since its inception in 1995, each year the Wild Card seems to be won by a team that is more well-built for the playoffs than some of the old-fashioned division winners. The Astros are no different this year.

Who wouldn’t favor Houston’s Roger Clemens-Andy Pettite-Roy Oswalt pitching trio over the Braves’ Tim Hudson, John Smoltz and Jorge Sosa? The credentials for Clemens and Pettite need not be evaluated, while Oswalt is the best young pitcher in baseball not nicknamed the D-Train. Consider that Brad Lidge, who converted 42 saves in 46 chances this year, will be closing for the Astros, and Houston could be downright unhittable on any given day.

The Braves, having had a comfortable division lead in the season’s final weeks, were able to set up their postseason rotation to their liking. Still, at age 38, Smoltz’s slider does not have the same bite to it that it once did. Hudson, who sported a 4.39 ERA in September with 15 walks and 43 hits in 42 innings, looked vulnerable down the stretch. Sosa, 13-3 this season, may be a nice rookie pitcher but it would be hard to imagine him out dueling one of Houston’s big three.

Yet, the Astros are not without fault. Their offensive stats, though impressive at first sight, are inflated by the bandbox that is Minute Maid Park, which is evident in Houston’s 36-45 road record this year. Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane, the biggest Minute Maid beneficiaries, might have a hard time producing during their three games at spacious Turner Field.

Runs may be at a premium for both pitching-oriented teams during the series. Whichever pitching staff can throw the most scoreless frames may determine the victor.

Something should be said, too, for the Braves’ plethora of upstart youngsters. If newcomer Jeff Franceour could lead Atlanta to a 14th straight NL East title in the absence of injured veterans Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan, three more wins could look like child’s play.

St. Louis-San Diego: The Cardinals, 100 victories after being swept in last year’s World Series, return to the postseason with a bitter taste in their mouths. St. Louis lost a key cog to last year’s pennant winning team, Scott Rolen, to injury this summer and still won the NL Central by 11 games.

Expect Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and company to shed that just-happy-to-be-here disposition seen last October. This team is here to win the World Series and nothing less, and it’s my belief that they will do so.

Meanwhile, the Padres reek of mediocrity and hail from a less-than-mediocre division. San Diego finished first in the NL West with a paltry 82-80 record, the all time worst finish for a division winner.

The Cardinals have the edge over the Padres in virtually every aspect, except the bullpen, where San Diego’s Trevor Hoffman reigns as a far superior closer than St. Louis’ Jason Isringhausen. If the Padres do get a late game lead, don’t expect it to be relinquished.

The Cardinals’ will be led by the top half of their starting rotation, in Chris Carpenter, the NL’s soon-to-be Cy Young, and secondary ace Mark Mulder, a southpaw who could give the Padres’ lefty-heavy lineup fits. St. Louis will be wary of Carpenter, whose 5.73 ERA in September should make LaRussa nauseous.

A Cardinals series victory, though expected, is not certain. San Diego could potentially sneak up on even the 1927 Murderer’s Row Yankees in a short five-game series with Jake Peavy and Adam Eaton, two genuine studs, as their go-to starting pitchers and Hoffman closing the door in the ninth.

Throw in a blown save from the Cardinals’ less-than-dominant Isringhausen and the series could be anyone’s.

That’s the nature of a short first round series, though. A 162-game season can be thrown away in as little as three games.

Blink, and you might miss it.

First round predictions: Houston in five, St. Louis in four.