Closing on knockout, Cardinals take a hit

Though sitting pretty vs. Arizona, club faces rough road with Rolen out

Baseball

October 05, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - The St. Louis Cardinals have a chance to wrap up a berth in the National League Championship Series tonight, and yet they are left to wonder if they lost more than the Arizona Diamondbacks on the way to a two-game lead in the Division Series.

The medical update on injured third baseman Scott Rolen yesterday allowed for hope that he might be able to return in time for the World Series if the Cardinals can close out the first round and survive the NLCS, but the prospects for getting that far have been greatly diminished by the "moderate" shoulder sprain he suffered in Game 2 Thursday at Bank One Ballpark.

The CAT scan that Rolen underwent yesterday apparently confirmed the initial diagnosis and ruled out more extensive damage to his left shoulder, but he is expected to be sidelined at least 10 days, which would preclude a significant role in the NLCS. His absence seriously erodes the clear offensive advantage that the Cardinals held over the other three National League playoff entrants coming into October.

"It's really important to [look at] both sides of what we're facing," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "On one hand, you know, you don't want to try and fool anybody and say he's not an important player and he won't be missed because that really disrespects him and he's an outstanding player.

"On the other hand, the team has to really believe that's part of the game ... and it's an opportunity for somebody to step up." The Cardinals hold a commanding lead in the best-of-five playoff, but they have not closed it out yet.

The Diamondbacks appear to be in a hopeless situation, but if Game 3 starter Miguel Batista finds a way to quiet the rest of the St. Louis offensive attack tonight, Arizona will again have Cy Young candidates Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in a position to salvage the series.

It has happened before, most recently last October when the Yankees rallied from a two-game deficit to defeat the Oakland Athletics.

"We're not stupid," said Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly. "We understand what we're up against, but we also understand that there's nothing you can do more than go out there and give your best effort, continue to play the game the right way, try to take advantage if they happen to make a mistake, and try to eliminate our mistakes.

"That's the way we've played baseball for two years around here, and we'll do it again tomorrow."

Trouble is, the Diamondbacks already were playing at a disadvantage. They lost top run-producer Luis Gonzalez to a shoulder injury last week and already were without 2001 postseason hero Craig Counsell.

Their chances of advancing far into the postseason seemed to rest on the early success of their two top starters, so a miracle comeback in this series probably would stretch their pitching too thin for the next round.

Brenly would have to open the NLCS with the back end of his rotation and likely would have Johnson and Schilling for just two of the first six games of the second round.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, need to get this series over with to maximize their chances of advancing beyond the NLCS. If reclaimed starter Andy Benes can get them through Game 3, La Russa would be able to open the second round at the front of his rotation, though the likely unavailability of regular No. 3 starter Woody Williams (back soreness) could be another significant negative factor in the longer playoff series ahead.

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