They've got the best bullpen in the league, and they win 90 percent of the time if they have a lead late in games. But the problem is getting that lead. The offense can be anemic. The Padres were 12th in the National League in team batting average, 14th in runs scored and 12th in home runs. At the trade deadline, general manager Kevin Towers was out looking for a bat at a reasonable price, and he wound up with Todd Walker and Russell Branyan. The Yankees got Bobby Abreu. Enough said.
1. Any Padres pitcher against Albert Pujols. And here's hoping that manager Bruce Bochy doesn't pitch to him again with the game on the line. Lesson learned?
2. Trevor Hoffman vs. the Cards in the ninth. He didn't get there last year. The Padres didn't win a game.
Shortstop Geoff Blum. Hoisted into a starting role because of Khalil Greene's finger injury, the switch-hitting Blum has played a major role in keeping the infield together down the stretch. Recall that it was Blum, traded by the Padres to the White Sox in the middle of the 2005 season, who hit the Game 3, 14th-inning homer at Houston's Minute Maid Park that helped break up the longest game in World Series history. It was the Blumer's first World Series at-bat. You've got to love that.
Reasons the Cardinals will win:
1. All of that postseason experience. The core of the team -- Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen -- has been kept together and is still mighty dangerous. This team has been to the NLCS three times in the last four years. The Cards have also been there five times under manager Tony La Russa, but they have only one NL pennant to show for it -- 2004.
2. Pujols is a monster. He probably would've hit 60 homers this season had he not missed a month before the All-Star break with a pulled side muscle. Because Edmonds and Rolen hit behind him, it's awfully difficult at times to walk Pujols in a "pick your poison" scenario. But he has become so dangerous, it's high time to give him the Barry Bonds treatment.
3. Chris Carpenter is widely considered the best starting pitcher in the NL. He'll have his work cut out for him this time. With the absence of Mark Mulder -- out for the season after left shoulder surgery -- the pitching rotation is pretty thin. Carpenter could give enough of a lift if he wins twice in a best-of-five series. It will be more problematic in a best-of-seven.
Achilles' heel: No question, it's the bullpen. With closer Jason Isringhausen out for the season after hip surgery, it's been a real mess. In his absence, La Russa has been forced to go with Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper as his closers, enjoying nominal success. Randy Flores is this year's Ray King in the left-hander's role. But it's all shaky, at best.
1. Carpenter vs. Jake Peavy in a rematch of last year's Game 1. This time, it will be in San Diego rather than St. Louis. This time, perhaps Peavy will allow fewer than eight runs.
2. Cardinals lineup vs. Scott Linebrink and Cla Meredith. They've got to get to these setup guys late in games before having to face Hoffman.
La Russa needs one of his other starters to step up, and it might as well be Jeff Suppan. The right-hander was large two years ago in Game 4 of the NLDS against Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium in the pivotal game of a series that the Cards won in four. He pitched seven innings that night, allowing two runs and two hits. Let's see him do it again.
Padres in five.