“The Padres,” Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa was saying by phone Tuesday, “are a very talented bunch.”
He added: “They’re just as capable as anyone else” of winning the four-tier World Series tournament.
No longer an October threat to the Pads, the baseball lifer, 75, provided a scouting report on San Diego’s opponent in the best-of-3 series that begins Wednesday in East Village.
“The Cardinals are a tough bunch,” he said, “because they had to go through far more to get there than anybody else.”
Now an Angels adviser, La Russa retired from managing nearly a decade ago, finishing with three World Series titles, six pennants, 12 playoff berths and enough victories to place third all time behind leader Connie Mack and John McGraw.
Along the way, his Cardinals program — talented, edgy, adaptive and attentive to details — gave a few Padres clubs a hard time in October.
St. Louis knocked San Diego out in 1996, 2005 and 2006.
The Padres always seemed to be swimming against a red tide.
The Cardinals scored first in all nine victories. In the 10 games, they trailed for only four innings.
The randomness of baseball will hand out favors, and La Russa, recalling the opener of the ’06 series, noted the red-seamed gift that fell to his squad during a scoreless duel between aces Chris Carpenter and Jake Peavy.
“The first game was decided because of a really difficult popup — a lot of catchers would have had problems with it, and Piazza just couldn’t pull it in,” he said.
“Albert, the next pitch — out of the park for a two-run homer. If he catches the popup…”
When Mike Piazza, looking into a bright San Diego sky, couldn’t snag the ball that snaked downward inches from the backstop netting, the home run by Albert Pujols — who someday will join Piazza and La Russa in the Hall of Fame — sent the Cardinals to a low-stress victory.
Coaching, said La Russa, played a big role in his team taking a 2-0 lead back to St. Louis a day later.
This coach was a San Diegan: Dave Duncan, a Crawford High alum and longtime La Russa aide who had an undeniably rare track record of coaxing improvement out of veteran pitchers.
Jeff Weaver had pitched to a bloated ERA with the Angels that season, lowering his price when Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty scavenged him from Anaheim and sent him to Duncan.
Weaver’s fastball to lefties was fat, but the tall righty survived the likes of Adrian Gonzalez and Brian Giles that afternoon.
“Jeff Weaver has a 2-hitter after five innings because of the great pitching coach who was born and raised in San Diego,” said La Russa. “Dave Duncan had given him a weapon to get through those lefties one time. And that was his curve ball from him.”
The chess match in playoff baseball demands more urgency than summer baseball does.
La Russa, who understood this better than many of his peers, assembled a conga line behind Weaver to bring home the victory, a shutout. “We went through three rookie relievers (and lefty specialist Randy Flores) to get 12 outs. You can’t win like that often, but you can in one game,” he said.
For a team to go far, the better talent probably has to show up.
Carpenter, for example, outpitched Peavy in both Game 1 victories at Petco Park and then Woody Williams to wrap up the ’06 series in St. Louis, a day after Chris Young led the Padres to their only playoff victory in these past 21 years.
Ken Caminiti, the Padres’ top player in ’96, resembled the unanimous MVP that he was that year by hitting three home runs, but got little help from his teammates, though Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson — who opined the Pads were too antsy — got on base at a .429 clip in the three games.
La Russa noted the ’06 Cardinals had won only 83 games, yet went on to win the World Series.
Conversely, four of his teams that won 100 games in the regular season — two apiece with the Cardinals and Athletics — saw someone else raise the World Series trophy.
So the games aren’t half as predictable as the weather in San Diego.
“There’s one really good answer to (explain) those three series with the Padres,” said La Russa, “and that is the reality of how unpredictable the playoffs are in October. That’s what makes this one of the most fascinating Octobers because you’ve got eight different series starting with best-of-3s.”
Here’s a baseball opinion worth perhaps a small cup of coffee: For the first time, the Padres are a clear favorite going into a playoff series against the Cardinals. Their win rate for the two-month season was 100 points higher. Their scoring differential, second to only the Dodgers, was better by 84 runs. Simply, they have more good hitters.
Still, beware the Cardinals. Finishing 30-28 — their third winning season in three years under Mike Shildt — they overcame the stress of having to play 11 doubleheaders this year due to being shut down for 16 days in a row by a COVID-19 outbreak.
Throw in the health setbacks of Padres pitchers Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger, and the outlook, if favorable, is still as muddy as the old river that flows near the St. Louis Arch.