Left puzzled: Southpaws baffle Cards

Left puzzled: Southpaws baffle Cards

Backed into a corner
DIG IN and PUSH BACK!

ST. LOUIS -- Those words, written in blue marker, were there for all to see on the whiteboard just inside the door of the Cardinals' clubhouse on Sunday night, following the Mets' 12-5 victory that evened the National League Championship Series at two games apiece. Beneath them, there was room to add this:

ESPECIALLY when facing a left-handed starter.

One of the inexplicable realities of this 2006 Cardinals season is the fact that a team built to terrorize lefty starters is now 23-36 overall against them. Tom Glavine shut them out in Game 1 and is ready to face them again Monday in Game 5 at Busch Stadium. Darren Oliver threw six-plus scoreless innings at them to finish up Game 3, and the Mets are considering starting him if there's a Game 7.

Take away that one big inning against Mets closer Billy Wagner in Game 2, and the Cardinals were 7-for-46 (.152) against lefties in this series entering Game 4. Then they rock starter Oliver Perez for three homers and five earned runs, and he still somehow gets the "W." It has been a common theme this year, and perhaps it should have been a harbinger when their first victory against a left-handed starter did not come until two weeks into the season -- against current Met and then-Reds pitcher Dave Williams.

"I don't think anybody can put their finger on it," said Cardinals second baseman Aaron Miles, who played in 135 games this season and had a pinch-single in the final meaningless inning Sunday night. "I don't know what our batting average is against lefties, or if there's something that spells it out, but it just seems to have been a tough thing this whole year.

"I think we do have a team made to kill lefties. But some of those games, you may have to say we were missing a guy like [David] Eckstein or [Scott] Rolen or [Albert] Pujols. That's a hard question to answer."

There were only two strictly lefty batters in the Cardinals' lineup Sunday: Jim Edmonds in the five-hole and pitcher Anthony Reyes. Scott Spiezio, batting second, is a switch-hitter. A lineup built to pulverize lefties. A lineup that lost again to a lefty -- even one who had a 3-13 regular-season record and mediocre stuff.

"If we could figure that one out, we would try to change it," said Eckstein, who hit one of three homers off Perez. "We heard the same thing coming into the Division Series against [San Diego lefty] David Wells, and we figured out a way to beat him."

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That was Game 2 of the NLDS, and the Cardinals won, 2-0. Really, the only damage they did was in that fourth inning, when Pujols and Edmonds had RBI singles. Wells was otherwise effective against them, yet that was enough on that day because Jeff Weaver was even more effective on the hill for St. Louis.

Throughout this season, it's the crafty command guys like Glavine who have been most nettlesome to the Cardinals and their fans. He was virtually untouchable in the opener of this series, allowing just four hits in seven scoreless innings. Now he's back, and the only question is whether it will be as scheduled -- or whether expected rain (80 percent chance) could mean pushing back Game 5 to Tuesday on the scheduled series travel day. Remember that Glavine is scheduled to start Monday on one fewer day of rest than usual.

Before Sunday's game, Glavine appeared in the media interview room, as is customary for the subsequent game's scheduled starter. He was asked why the Cardinals seem vulnerable to left-handed starters.

"I don't [know], to be honest with you," he said. "Most of the time, you have a situation like we have with our team, where you have a heavily left-handed batting order. They don't, obviously. So I'm not sure what it is. I'm not sure why they have struggled a little bit so far in the series. You can only hope that ... tomorrow night we can take advantage of that if there is something to be taken advantage of."

Many eyes will be on the Glavine-Pujols matchup, after Pujols reportedly said following the opener that Glavine was not as good as the final score indicated.

"I've been asked about it a lot," Glavine said. "A lot of people have joked with me about it. But, I mean, I don't know Albert well enough to know where that came from. And I know that a lot of things that we say as athletes in the heat of the moment, either isn't what we meant to say or doesn't come out the way we meant it.

"You know, I have a ton of respect for Albert. He's a great player. It's a great challenge when I face him individually. If he truly didn't think I pitched well the other night, then I hope I do something tomorrow night to really impress him."

Pujols was 0-for-4 on Sunday. He still has no RBIs in the NLCS. This is the same Pujols who won the 2004 NLCS MVP Award in a series in which Carlos Beltran was superhuman for Houston. Beltran has been all over the scoreboard in this one as a Met. Cards fans are waiting for a big breakout by their superstar.

"We've got to score some runs, and hopefully we can find our bats [Monday] and score some runs early," Pujols said after the game. "[The Mets] have to win four games. We've got a great offense. We'll have some good pitching to show them the rest of the way, and whoever wins two of three goes to the World Series. Hopefully it will be us."

Either way, this series is now assured of going back to Shea later this week. And at the end of it all looms an important and telling decision. Glavine starts Game 5 against the Cards, and then rookie righty John Maine is scheduled to go in Game 6 on Wednesday. Then, depending on what happens, Mets manager Willie Randolph has to decide on a Game 7 starter. They are officially considering Oliver, and it's hard to imagine it not being a lefty.

That's much further ahead than the Cardinals want to look right now. For Cards manager Tony La Russa -- who has expressed some degree of bewilderment this season over the numbers against lefty starters that this lineup is built to assault -- coming up with an answer for Glavine is the only priority.

"Well, you're talking about two experienced lineups, so you know, both lineups are going to be making adjustments, the pitchers are going to adjust to the adjustments," La Russa said. "It will be fascinating to watch. You've got two veteran pitchers and two lineups that have a good idea of what to do at the plate."

Here's what you do if you're a Cardinal in that situation: Dig in and push back.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.