Originally created 10/03/00

St. Louis ready for playoffs



ST. LOUIS -- Talk about painting a town red.

America's heartland is draped in crimson. Or is it ruby? Cherry?

Just call it Cardinals red, and leave it at that.

The fountain in Kiener Plaza, in the heart of downtown, is splashing red water. The official pep rally to kick off the postseason starts at 8:30 this morning. The pregame music begins at 10 in Busch Stadium's Plaza of Champions.

You get the picture.

"When we made the playoffs in '96, this town was bonkers," ex-Cardinal and current Braves right fielder Brian Jordan said. "They've got great fans here, and they're going to be excited."

When tickets for the Division Series went on sale two weeks ago, they were snapped up in eight hours. Who's more popular here, Super Bowl champion Rams quarterback Kurt Warner or Cardinals 20-game winner Darryl Kile?

Don't bet against Kile and the Cardinals.

"I believe the fans give us an edge because of the adrenaline that it provides our club," Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said. "It does not guarantee you anything, but it gives you an edge."

Already, LaRussa is playing mind games. He waited until near the end of Monday's press conference to announce that Kile, the scheduled Game 1 starter, will instead work Game 2. LaRussa's Game 1 starter? Rick Ankiel, a 21-year-old rookie without an inning of postseason experience under his belt. The left-hander was saddled with a no-decision and his first major league loss in a pair of starts against the Braves last year but didn't face them this season.

The Braves will counter with 19-game winner Greg Maddux, who is 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA in seven Division Series games.

"I don't know if (experience) is an advantage or not," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "I have seen young guys come up, not have any experience in these things and do extremely well."

This is the first postseason series since 1991 the Braves haven't held home field advantage. That's not particularly troubling to a team that finished tied with the third-most road wins in the major leagues this season, but how they arrived in that unfamiliar position is alarming.

All-Star third baseman Chipper Jones, whose ninth-inning error Sunday opened the door to a painful 10-5 season-ending loss to the Rockies, says the Braves seem to turn themselves on and off like a water faucet, depending on the opponent and series. Tom Glavine, who led the majors with 21 wins, agrees.

"You look around at other teams in the postseason, and no one is better than us," he said. "But I don't think we're heads and shoulders above everyone else, either. I feel good about this team, but I can't tell what it's going to do."

The Cardinals and Braves share more than identical 95-67 records. Each team had more success in the other's stadium than in their home environs this season. After losing two of three to the Braves at Busch in early August, the Cardinals won three of four in a late-August series in Atlanta.

The Braves hit better than the Cardinals this season (.271-.270) but scored 77 fewer runs. Atlanta's pitchers compiled a better earned run average than their St. Louis counterparts (4.06-4.38) but had fewer strikeouts. The Cardinals posted a better fielding percentage (.981-.979), committed 18 fewer errors and turned 10 more double plays.

"The Cardinals have a little bit of everything," said Maddux, who didn't face the Cardinals this season. "They have speed, power, some hit-and-run guys, they can do a little bit of everything. They are a very balanced, very experienced lineup."

In appraising these two teams, it's almost as important to look at who's not playing as who is. First baseman Mark McGwire has not been in the lineup since early July because of patella tendinitis in his right knee. Then, catcher Mike Matheny was lost for the postseason last week when he cut his right fingers with a knife he received as a birthday present, an enormous blow to a Cardinals staff dependent on his game-calling and arm.

"It was a big blow to us because he controls the pitching staff," Cardinals left fielder Ray Lankford said.

Said Kile, "What Mike did, you really can't measure. The way he went about his business and his strength of character. That's why 24 guys went to visit him in the hospital the other night."

Carlos Hernandez, who has been bothered by a sore back, will catch Ankiel. Will Clark, who hit 12 home runs, five against the Braves after arriving in a July trade with the Orioles, has replaced McGwire at first base.

That leaves Big Mac as a looming presence on the bench.

"He is a guy that will be sitting there ready to break up a game any time," Cox said.

If that happens, this city may never recover.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.