Pitching to or around Bonds, Cardinals face Giant dilemma

San Francisco slugger poses strategy challenge for St. Louis in NLCS

October 09, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - The first game of the National League Championship Series will be played tonight at Busch Stadium, but the mind games have begun.

If you're the St. Louis Cardinals, do you challenge super slugger Barry Bonds and risk a dynamic playoff performance that might cost you a trip to the World Series? Or do you pitch around him to create additional scoring opportunities for the remaining hitters in the San Francisco Giants' lineup ... and leave yourself open to a more balanced offensive attack that might cost you a trip to the Fall Classic? Tough call.

If you're Barry Bonds, do you expand your strike zone to assure that you'll be as big a factor in the NLCS as you were in the dramatic Division Series victory over the Atlanta Braves? Or do you remain the patient, disciplined hitter who set the all-time single-season record for on-base percentage (.582) this year?

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa claimed yesterday that his pitchers will go after Bonds, but he challenged baseball's active home run leader to come out of his comfort zone if he wants to be a big-time postseason player.

"We're going to compete against him," La Russa said, "but at some point, guys like Barry - and Mark McGwire when he was here - have to get involved in the competition. They've got to expand their [strike] zone a little bit."

Bonds doesn't figure to take the bait. He has put up unprecedented offensive numbers with his extremely selective approach at the plate. La Russa would love to goad him into changing it for the playoffs, but Bonds didn't become baseball's most feared hitter by surrendering to the psychological machinations of opposing managers.

No doubt, Bonds could get a few more hits by swinging at a few more pitches, but he almost certainly would pay a price in on-base percentage and batting average. La Russa and the Cardinals would gladly accept that tradeoff. Bonds almost certainly would not, though he had nothing to say on the subject yesterday.

"It's hard to ask a man with that much discipline to expand the zone," said Giants manager Dusty Baker. "The more you do that, the better chance you have of making an out."

Don't look for the Cardinals to give in, either. They aren't going to intentionally walk Bonds every at-bat, but he's going to see a lot of pitching on the outer edges of the strike zone.

"We try to go after him like we would go after [Sammy] Sosa and [Mike Piazza]," La Russa said. "We try to avoid the middle of the plate and make nasty pitches.

"Our job is to win the game. We're not going to see how many times we can throw the ball down the middle of the plate and see how many home runs Barry can hit ... and we're not going to walk him every time. We're going to play the game."

The Braves chose to take an aggressive approach to Bonds, but they paid for it in the Division Series when Bonds hit three home runs, including a bases-empty shot in Game 5 on Monday night that provided the eventual winning run.

Cardinals starter Matt Morris, who will face Giants left-hander Kirk Rueter in Game 1 tonight, made it clear he intends to pitch Bonds carefully.

"In a playoff situation, you don't want to let him beat you," Morris said. "Maybe during the year you feel bad about walking him so many times, but I tell you what: Tomorrow, if he gets up with runners on and I have an opportunity to pitch around him, that's what I'm going to do, because he has earned that respect."

Clearly, Bonds has become baseball's magnificent obsession, but La Russa said yesterday that he has not lost sight of the bigger picture.

"We are not going to make the mistake of ignoring the rest of the Giants' lineup," he said. "They've got a nice club."

The Cardinals enter the series with the status of third baseman Scott Rolen still uncertain. His sprained shoulder has shown marked improvement over the past few days, creating the possibility that he will be kept on the active roster for the series, but he definitely won't play in the early games.

"It's not impossible that we would decide to take a chance," La Russa said.

Utility man Miguel Cairo, who went 4-for-4 with several big hits in the Division Series, will start in Rolen's place tonight. La Russa could choose to move Albert Pujols to third later in the series if Cairo falters or if there is a desire to get outfielder Eli Marrero into the offensive lineup.

The club was more definitive on starting pitcher Woody Williams, who is scheduled to start tomorrow's game against Giants right-hander Jason Schmidt unless his sore back acts up.

NLCS schedule

St. Louis vs. San Francisco(Best of seven; *-if necessary)

TV:Chs. 45, 5

Today:San Francisco (Rueter 14-8) at St. Louis (Morris 17-9), 8:19 p.m.

Tomorrow:at St. L., 8:19 p.m.

Saturday:at S.F., 4:20 p.m.

Sunday:at S.F., 7:50 p.m.

*Monday:at S.F., 8:20 p.m.

*Oct. 16:at St. L., 4:20 p.m.

*Oct. 17:at St. L., 8:20 p.m.

Pitching matchups

Today...........Time/

Starter....Line W-L....ERA

San Francisco...Rueter (L)...8:19...14-9...3.44

at St. Louis Morris (R)...-150...18-9...3.35

Anaheim Ortiz (R)...-110...15-9...3.97

at Minnesota Reed (R)...8:19...15-8...3.87

NOTE: Stats include postseason

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