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.

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.

George Hendrick (19 homers, 104 RBIs) and Keith Hernandez (92 RBIs) are the only legitimate St. Louis power hitters. But the Redbirds have one of the game's most exciting players in Lonnie Smith, who hit .307 and led the league with 120 runs scored. And their overall speed, starting with Smith and including Willie McGee, David Green, Ozzie Smith, and just about everybody else, is awesome.

It has to be, too, since the team's scoring formula is to get runners on, move them along via steals, sacrifices, or hit-and-run plays, and eventually get them home one way or another. The speed comes in handy defensively, too, with Ozzie Smith, considered by many to be the game's premier defensive shortstop, anchoring a topflight infield, and with all of the outfielders running down some apparent hits and cutting off others before they reach extra-base territory.

This is the same formula, of course, that Manager-General Manager Whitey Herzog employed so successfully during his years in Kansas City, where he also had a spacious ballpark with artificial turf, and where he led the Royals to three straight American League West titles in 1976-77-78. Since coming to St. Louis in 1980, Herzog has rebuilt the Cardinals to resemble that Royal club. He did it largely via a series of trades that were sometimes controversial, and indeed some of the players he gave up, like Pete Vukovich, Ted Simmons, and Rollie Fingers, have had big years elsewhere. But the ones he obtained have come through, too, and he doesn't have too many second guessers left at this point.

The Braves have different needs in a park sometimes known as ''The Launching Pad'' because of the way home runs fly out of it so regularly - and they have built their team accordingly. Murphy (36 homers, 109 RBIs) has been the biggest gun this year, but perhaps a more important factor right now is whether Horner, who hit 32 homers before sitting out the last couple of weeks with an arm injury , is ready to return at full effectiveness. The rest of the lineup is a blend of power and speed, and the defense is also strong, including sometimes-maligned short-stop Rafael Ramirez, who does make more errors than most of his counterparts, but who also has great range and comes up with a lot of big plays.

One area where the teams are similar is pitching; both have mediocre starting staffs by championship standards, but outstanding bullpens that have saved the day all season. Knuckleballer Phil Niekro, whose 17-4 record included a phenomenal 13-1 mark on the road, who is red-hot now with two straight shutouts and 24 straight scoreless innings, and who has been spectacular all year year against the Cardinals, will pitch the first and (if necessary) the fifth games for Atlanta, but after him the Braves are usually scrambling. St. Louis has two 15-game winners in Joaquin Andujar (who is riding a seven-game winning streak and will open against Niekro) and Bob Forsch, but little else until it's time for the bullpen. Bruce Sutter, with a league-leading 36 saves, is the big man in relief for the Cardinals, while the Braves can hit their opponents with a devastating late-inning 1-2 punch of rookie fireballer Steve Bedrosian and veteran Gene Garber.

As for the managers, it's the first post-season shot for Atlanta's Joe Torre, which can hardly be counted against him, since all four of his previous managerial campaigns were with the hapless New York Mets. Herzog, in fact, is the only one of this year's four playoff managers (including Milwaukee's Harvey Kuenn and California's Gene Mauch) who has even been there before - but then it's hard to tell how much that means either, since his Royals lost all three of those playoffs in the '70s to the New York Yankees.

There's no sense in trying to figure it out, though, since these short playoff series - even more so than the seven-game World Series - tend not to follow predictable patterns but to go to the team that happens to have the right people hot at the right time and/or to get the lion's share of the breaks

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.