Cardinals' speed vs. Braves' power in NL playoffs
Two teams with storied pasts but a recent history of frustration, the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, return to post-season action this week for the first time in more than a decade. And if ever a sporting event qualified as a ''boxer vs. slugger'' type of matchup, it is the National League playoff series opening today in St. Louis.Skip to next paragraph
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The Cardinals hit only 67 home runs all year - by far the fewest in either major league - while relying on speed, defense, timely hitting, and clutch pitching to win the East Division title. They thus proved conclusively that the long ball is far from the only way to win games in the 1980s - and maybe not even the best way if you play most of your games on Astro Turf and half of them in a spacious park like Busch Stadium.
The Braves took a different tack in their drive to the West Division crown. In pitching they ranked near the bottom, and although they have good speed and defense, they can't match St. Louis in those areas. But you don't have to run fast when you hit the ball out of the park, and Atlanta did this more than any other National League team (145 times) while also scoring more runs than any other club in the senior circuit.
The teams also took very different routes to their titles. While St. Louis spent most of the summer in a close battle for first place before pulling away at the end, Atlanta was on a truly incredible roller-coaster ride all season. The Braves opened with a major league record 13 straight victories and were making a runaway of their race as late as July 30, when their 61-37 record put them nine games ahead of San Diego and 10 1/2 in front of third place Los Angeles. They went into a disastrous slide, however, losing 19 of 21 games, as the Dodgers surged to the lead. But then they turned it around again, playing strongly through September while L.A. faltered, and coming through with five victories in seven road games in the final week to win out on the last day of the regular season.
Now the two square off in a best-of-five series for the NL pennant and a World Series date next week with Milwaukee or California. Wednesday's second game is also in St. Louis, with the series shifting to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday and Games 4 and 5 (as necessary) on Saturday and Sunday.
In the case of the Cardinals, this is the latest in a long line of October appearances for a perennially strong franchise. There were the famous Gashouse Gang teams of Dizzy Dean, Pepper Martin, and Ducky Medwick in the 1920s and '30 s; the Stan Musial-Enos Slaughter-Red Schoendienst powerhouses of the '40s; and the Lou Brock-Curt Flood-Bob Gibson clubs of the '60s. But there had been quite a dry spell since the latter team made its last World Series appearance in 1968, and although the Cardinals have had some contenders in the intervening years, this is the first St. Louis club to reach the playoffs since the start of divisional play in 1969.
The Braves can't compete with that array of champions, but they have quite a bit of history in their own right. In their original Boston home they rose from last place to win the so-called ''Miracle pennant'' of 1914, and returned to prominence again in the 1940s with their NL championship team and its slogan of ''Spahn, Sain, and two days of rain.'' Then after moving to Milwaukee they won two straight pennants in the 1950s, and both there and in Atlanta they provided the backdrop against which Hank Aaron chased and eventually broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. This franchise had also gone a long time between titles, however - the last one coming in 1969 when the Braves won the NL West crown but were ignominiously swept out of the playoffs in three straight games by the New York Mets. And unlike St. Louis, Atlanta hasn't even had a contender for a long time, with a record of eight straight second division finishes prior to this season.
As for this year's teams, the Cardinals will be trying as always to run their foes out of the park - especially in the first two games in St. Louis - while the Braves will be looking for the ''knockout punch'' from an array of sluggers led by MVP candidate Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Chris Chambliss, and Claudell Washington.