Peavy up to the task in NLDS opener

Peavy up to the task in NLDS opener

ST. LOUIS -- While the Padres suffered through their ups and downs but held on for dear life atop the National League West, there was a caveat attached, the kind of "if" that gave them hope for October:

If the Padres did in fact reach the postseason, they'd have a chance to win a short series against anyone with Jake Peavy pitching Game 1 -- and a strong rotation and bullpen backing him up.

Of course, it turns out that the caveat has a caveat attached to it as well.

Now that the Padres and Peavy have arrived in the NL Division Series, there is the little matter of facing 21-game winner Chris Carpenter, who will do battle with the Padres' ace in Tuesday's opener at Busch Stadium.

So it's not as though Peavy's mere presence on the mound will put the Padres in position to win Game 1. Not with Carpenter sharing that mound.

But when it comes down to it, Peavy's gifted right arm is the Padres' best chance in this series. It's the biggest swing factor.

He dominates, they have a chance. He doesn't, they probably don't.

This is a meeting of playoff teams that took decidedly different routes to October but are both here with spotless postseason records heading into the Division Series. There is virtually no empirical way to establish the Padres as a favorite, considering they won just 82 games in the regular season -- the least of a division winner, ever -- and the Cardinals won 100.

It's a team game. No one player is bigger than the team, or the game. We've heard it all before.

But Peavy's start Tuesday carries a lot of weight, that much is indisputable.

This isn't the kind of stuff you normally want to heap upon a youngster. But Peavy's up to the task. He's not your normal 24-year-old pitcher, bearing a cool confidence and a fiery mound presence that gives the Padres a cornerstone starter for years to come.

"This kid's makeup is off the charts, so we're excited to have Jake all ready to go," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said Monday.

The Padres don't just want a brilliant start from Peavy on Tuesday -- they expect one. And Peavy wholeheartedly accepts that challenge in his own homespun Alabama way.

"I think the bottom line is the boys know that however [Game 1] shakes out, I'm going to empty the tank for the 24 guys sitting in that clubhouse now and the six or seven coaches," he said Monday. "They are going to get everything I've got within me [Tuesday]."

That's a lot. We're talking about one of the premier young pitchers in the game, a pitcher who made his Major League debut with a six-inning gem against the Yankees in 2002 and outdueled boyhood hero Roger Clemens earlier this season.

So, all things considered, are the Cardinals and Carpenter ripe for the picking? Well, that might be a bit strong, but the numbers and the general feeling seem to send off that scent.

Carpenter had a 5.73 ERA in six September starts and the Cardinals cruised into the postseason having clinched two weeks earlier -- much like the year before, when they didn't seem to mind too much. They're without star third baseman Scott Rolen and just lost 64-appearance reliever Al Reyes to an elbow injury.

But this team is too talented -- Carpenter included -- and proved too deep this year to think it's at a disadvantage against anyone.

"We lost four regulars, three of them were boppers -- Rolen, [Reggie] Sanders and [Larry] Walker," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Monday. "Guys took their place and did a terrific job with the bats and we were pitching well. We don't have Scott, but we have Larry back and we have Reggie back."

True, they might be wound a little tighter and a little less awe-inspiring heading into the 2005 postseason than they were heading into last year's October dance, which they took all the way to the World Series.

But the Cardinals are still the Cardinals, and it'll take more than just a gem by Peavy to change that fact.

That said, a great start by Peavy would be, well, a great start for the Padres.

So the caveat remains intact: If Peavy pitches a gem, the Padres have a chance in Game 1 -- and the series.

It's a big if, but an if is all you need in a short series like this one.

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.