Pitching is always supposed to be the thing that counts most in a playoff or World Series, and generally this is one clich'e baseball can take to the bank. The San Francisco Giants, who today begin a best-of-seven playoff series with the St. Louis Cardinals, are known to be armed and dangerous, with the lowest earned-run average of any team in the National League this season.
The Giants are managed by Roger Craig, a ``pitcher's manager'' who understands the breed, having been a big-league moundsman himself.
Roger is also the leading exponent of the split-fingered fastball, a pitch that, when properly thrown, is capable of bringing up oil when it drops. Most hitters would be better off swinging at it with a 3-iron than a bat.
Knowing all this, you might wonder why the Cardinals would even bother to show up. But St. Louis has some advantages of its own, starting with a big edge in postseason experience. Several of the key players on this team were members of the 1982 world champions, and even more were on the '85 club that won the National League pennant. Meanwhile, no San Francisco team has even reached the playoffs since 1971, so the only Giants with postseason experience are the handful who acquired it with other teams.
Furthermore, St. Louis plays the kind of game that can test any defense. Vince Coleman (whose 109 stolen bases led the majors by a wide margin), Willie McGee, and Ozzie Smith head up a running game that is second to none. With this sort of speed, the Cardinals have all sorts of options - the steal, the bunt, the hit-and-run, etc. They also stretch a lot of hits, as shown by the fact that Coleman and McGee are among the league leaders in triples, and Smith is up there in doubles.
St. Louis also has Whitey Herzog, who demonstrated his managerial skill this season by leading his team to the top despite more than the usual quota of difficulties. For weeks Whitey had to juggle his staff to overcome the loss of his best pitcher, John Tudor. Then Jack Clark, his only legitimate home run hitter and No. 1 RBI man, went out with an ankle injury just when the Cardinals needed him most for the September stretch drive.
Meanwhile what looked to be a super trade - veteran catcher Tony Pena from Pittsburgh for three promising young players - has so far delievered only 50 cents on the dollar. While Pena's catching ability would help any pitching staff, this lifetime .286 batter has hit far below that figure.
One reason the Cardinals were able to overcome all these problems was an ability to win on the road; indeed, no team in the entire league could match St. Louis in this statistic, which is always a good yardstick for measuring a team's character.
It's true that except for Clark (who is expected to see only pinch-hitting duty in the early games), the Cardinals seem to think the home run is the baseball equivalent of the Edsel. But they have shown over and over again that there are other ways to score runs - sometimes even without the benefit of a hit. An example of this latter trait came in a late-season doubleheader sweep of the tough Montreal Expos (1-0 and 3-0), when three sacrifice flies and a fielder's choice drove in all the runs.
Obviously, for a team like this it is essential to make the most of scoring opportunities when they arise.
``For us to win the playoffs,'' coach Red Schoendienst told me, ``we can't waste our hits by getting them with two out and nobody on. We have to hit consistently when we've got runners in scoring positions, which is tough over a 162-game schedule when you've got some leeway, but absolutely essential in a short series.''
For the Giants, 1987 has been the opportunity of a lifetime. Almost nobody picked them to win their division. Four pitchers who have made a vast difference (Rick Reuschel, Don Robinson, Dave Dravecky, and Craig Lefferts) weren't even with the team at the start of the season.
``Coming out of spring training, I felt we were a ball club that would improve a lot,'' Craig said. ``But if anybody had told me that just two years after we lost 100 games we would be division champions, I wouldn't have believed them.''
Asked to pinpoint the major strength of the 1987 Giants, Roger replied: ``All year long we've had great team chemistry. We're a no-star team, but we fit together. Whenever one of our regulars has been injured, the guy who took his place has played as well or almost as well.
``We've used 17 different infielders this season and gotten away with it,'' he added. ``We won 18 games in August and another 20 in September, and we played well on the road. By clinching our division a week early, I've been able to rest some of my regulars for the playoffs.''
Al Downing, a former 20-game-winning pitcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers and now a broadcaster, thinks the three middle games in this series, scheduled for San Francisco's Candlestick Park, should be extremely interesting.
``Unless you have pitched in Candlestick, where the temperature can be 70 degrees when you're taking batting practice and 55 or even 50 just a half-hour later, you can't imagine the adjustments a pitcher has to make,'' he said. Because of the wind, he added, ``you are forced to shorten the length of your windup and you become a different pitcher.''
As for picking a winner, Downing said: ``My feeling about the playoffs, is that you always go with the team that has the most experienced pitchers, and in this case that would be the Giants. I'm not saying the Cardinals can't win, only that their job to me looks tougher.''
National League Playoffs
San Francisco vs. St. Louis
(Times are Eastern Daylight) Tues., Oct. 6 at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 7 at St. Louis, 3:07 p.m. Fri., Oct. 9 at San Fran., 8:25 p.m. Sat., Oct. 10 at San Fran., 8:25 p.m.
(if necessary) Sun., Oct. 11 at San Fran., 4:35 p.m. Tues., Oct. 13 at St. Louis, 8:25 p.m. Wed., Oct. 14 at St. Louis, 8:25 p.m.