No outcome would shock me in the National League Division Series. The events of the regular season's final three weeks have made the forecast a bit murky, and it wouldn't surprise me if any one of the four teams got on a roll and advanced to the World Series.
Before looking at five key questions on the Cardinals-Diamondbacks series, here's a quick scouting report on each team:
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The defending world champions have overcome so many injuries this year, but now they must deal with the losses of offensive leader Luis Gonzalez, multipurpose catalyst Craig Counsell and pitcher Brian Anderson, who could start or relieve. It's still tough to pick against Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, but somewhere along the way, a ball figures to find Erubiel Durazo in right field at an inopportune time.
The Diamondbacks are vulnerable to left-handed pitching (with key left-handed batters Tony Womack, Steve Finley, Mark Grace and Durazo). They just don't have a lot of right-handed answers, so Greg Colbrunn will need to deliver some key hits against the southpaws. The verdict is still out on closer Byung-Hyun Kim. The D-Backs have been so resilient all year long, but this will be their stiffest test.
The Cardinals finished on an unbelievable roll (21-4 run in last 25 games) and they're second to Oakland with the best winning percentage after the All-Star break the past three years. They were my preseason pick to face the Yankees in the World Series, and they might still do it despite the death of starter Darryl Kile plus injuries to pitchers Woody Williams and Garrett Stephenson. The Cards have the best lineup in the National League (or, arguably, in all of baseball). They have five potential Gold Glovers: 3B Scott Rolen, SS Edgar Renteria, 2B Fernando Vina, CF Jim Edmonds and C Mike Matheny (and 1B Tino Martinez is solid).
The key will be their pitching. Matt Morris is an ace, and Chuck Finley and Andy Benes have revived their careers.
The three pitching keys will be: how much they can get out of Woody Williams with his assorted aches and pains; how well Finley and Benes pitch; and how well closer Jason Isringhausen's shoulder holds up to the rigors of three potential postseason series.
Here are five key questions for this series:
1. How effective can Arizona's offense be minus Luis Gonzalez and Craig Counsell?
The injured Gonzalez is Arizona's most consistent and dangerous hitter, while Counsell is a great situational hitter. When Counsell was injured, he was one of the top five NL hitters with runners in scoring position. Even when Counsell made outs, he advanced runners. Gonzalez didn't have the kind of amazing year he had in 2001, but he was still the bat in Arizona's lineup that opposing managers feared most.
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2. How effective will Diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim be?
Memories of his failures at Yankee Stadium in last year's World Series might be the least of Kim's problems. After a strong start, he's simply been inconsistent this season. In April, he seemed to overcome the stigma of those home runs he gave up in Games 4 and 5 last year. But since then, when I've seen him pitch, he hasn't been dependable.
3.Can Matt Morris beat Randy Johnson once?
The tentative pitching matchups have Morris and Johnson squaring off twice, in Games 1 and 4. I don't think the Cardinals can spot Johnson two wins and expect to take the series. To advance to the NLCS, St. Louis must find a way to win one of those games.
4. What's the condition of Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen?
Isringhausen has had an iffy shoulder this season, and he was shut down twice in the past month (but he's back pitching now). Given the pressure-packed rigors of the postseason, there's no margin for error. Since many playoff games are close, you need the services of your closer often -- and you wonder how long he'll hold up.
5. Can St. Louis exploit Erubiel Durazo defensively in right field?
Arizona manager Bob Brenly has decided to play Durazo, a natural first baseman, in place of the injured Gonzalez. Brenly really has no choice -- he needs Durazo's bat in the lineup. When you lose a hitter of Gonzalez's caliber, you need to pick up the offensive slack somewhere. If the D-Backs have a lead late, Brenly likely will use Quinton McCracken or Felix Jose as a defensive replacement.
Over the course of a season, a defensive weakness or liability will be exposed. In a short series, you never know. Durazo might not have a challenging play in the entire series -- or he may have five or six. If the latter happens, expect the Cards to benefit.
Prediction: Cardinals in five.
Dave Campbell, who was an infielder for eight seasons in the major leagues (1967-74), is an analyst for Baseball Tonight and ESPN Radio.