Cards sweep away D'backs, 6-3

Defending champs ousted

St. Louis heads to NLCS

October 06, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - The St. Louis Cardinals have met every challenge during a sometimes torturous and sometimes tragic 2002 season, so why should anyone be surprised that they dismissed the defending world champion Arizona Diamondbacks from the playoffs last night? The Diamondbacks were last year's team. The Cardinals appear to be destiny's child.

No matter what goes wrong, they seem to make it right. Their regular-season travails have been well-documented - from the sudden death of popular pitching ace Darryl Kile to the loss of legendary broadcaster Jack Buck to a series of on-field setbacks.

The loss of third baseman Scott Rolen to a severe shoulder sprain Thursday presented still another obstacle, but the Cardinals marched on last night, scoring a 6-3 victory over the Diamondbacks at Busch Stadium to sweep the best-of-five National League Division Series.

Next stop: The NL Championship Series.

Their opponent has not been determined. The Atlanta Braves can wrap up the other NL Division Series today with a victory over the San Francisco Giants, but the Cardinals are one giant step away from their first World Series since 1987.

"It was very important to win today," said Cardinals leadoff hitter Fernando Vina, who set the table throughout the series with nine hits in 15 at-bats (.600). "We didn't want to face Randy [Johnson] and Curt [Schilling] again.

"Everyone wanted to finish it out tonight and get on to the next task at hand."

Game 3 wasn't particularly dramatic, but Rolen replacement Miguel Cairo delivered two run-scoring hits and the Cardinals pitched the game with a five-man committee that started with Andy Benes and finished with closer Jason Isringhausen recording a relatively stress-free save.

Benes didn't get through the fifth inning and yet was one of the big heroes of the night, both on the mound and at the plate. Benes drove in a key run with a suicide squeeze and grinded out a 92-pitch performance that was just good enough to build a bridge to the Cardinals' solid bullpen.

"He has been pitching so well," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, "but he wasn't quite in sync. He walked a couple guys [in the fifth] and that's something he doesn't do, but he got us to two outs in the fifth inning. He did a good job for us."

For so many reasons, Benes wasn't supposed to be on the mound for Game 3. He nearly retired earlier this season when it appeared that his comeback from a knee injury had gone sour, but he returned from a long hiatus to re-establish himself as a solid starting pitcher.

Even so, he wasn't scheduled to be the Game 3 starter until persistent back soreness forced right-hander Woody Williams out of the postseason rotation.

It all worked out for the best somehow, though Benes lasted only 4 2/3 innings and Williams' condition figures to be an issue again during the NLCS.

Benes allowed just two hits, but both were long home runs and La Russa was taking no chances with the opportunity to eliminate the Diamondbacks before they could recycle Johnson and Schilling.

"It felt like, that's the way we had to do it," La Russa said. "Everybody was talking about Randy and Curt the next two days, and you know they would have been a handful."

The defending world champions never really showed up. They were blown out of the opener, 12-2, and scored just one run in Game 2 at Bank One Ballpark.

They barely resembled the team that scored a magical seven-game victory to unseat the New York Yankees last October.

The loss of three key hitters from last year's team - Danny Batista, Craig Counsell and Luis Gonzalez - left them with little offensive depth.

"One of our strengths last year and throughout the regular season this year was our depth and our ability to go to the bench and play matchups," said Arizona manager Bob Brenly.

"This year, because of injuries to some extremely key people, we just did not have that same kind of depth, and that was coupled with the fact that weren't playing our best ball at the end of the season and the Cardinals were playing the best ball in major-league baseball."

Clearly, the Cardinals' lineup had a different air about it in the absence of Rolen, who will be lost at least through the NLCS.

There appeared to be a much greater emphasis on manufacturing runs last night, though the Cardinals still have power threats J.D. Drew, Jim Edmonds, Pujols and Tino Martinez.

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