Cardinals-Mets: Position analysis

Cardinals-Mets: Position analysis

 CATCHER EDGE: METS
Paul Lo Duca is reputed as a winner, and he finally won, defeating his old team, the Dodgers, in the first round. Here's the chance for a grinder who handles a bat well and handles a pitching staff even better.

Yadier Molina has settled in as the heir apparent to Mike Matheny in St. Louis. Molina, the younger brother of Bengie and Jose, clearly has continued Matheny's defensive legacy, but he's already proven to be a better offensive player. He's backed up by Gary Bennett.

 FIRST BASE EDGE: CARDINALS
Carlos Delgado had been preparing for this for 1,710 games, more than any other active player without a postseason bow. Now he's had one and he's enjoying every minute of it, getting hits in each of his first four at-bats in the Mets' Game 1 victory against the Dodgers. His reputation is built on 162-game consistency. Now we'll see what happens as he keeps adding postseason games.

No contest here. Pitch to Albert Pujols in a key situation, and you will get burned. He's probably the best player in the NL right now and is a seasoned playoff performer. Ask Brad Lidge. The guy who has been removed at times this year as Astros closer is still waiting for the Pujols shot that won last year's Game 5 of the NLCS to come down.

 SECOND BASE EDGE: EVEN
Jose Valentin is the guy who finally ran Kaz Matsui out of Flushing. Had he done little else, he would be revered, but Mets fans have also appreciated his hard-nosed play and clutch hits.

It has been Russian roulette at this position since the Cards were swept by Boston in the 2004 World Series. This year, it's Ronnie Belliard, who came over in a midseason deal with the Indians. He's a .240 hitter and made some terrific plays for the Cards in their first-round win over the Padres.

 THIRD BASE EDGE: METS
The Golden Boy. David Wright is the unchallenged symbol of the Mets' rise back into New York relevance. Infield-corner power, vastly improved defense, humility and personality -- all that's missing on the rack is October success.

Scott Rolen is one of the premier third basemen in the game and has rebounded well from last year's shoulder surgery. Because of it, he missed the 2005 postseason. But Rolen has been playing with a sore left shoulder again this October, relegating him at times to the bench, with Scott Spiezio getting the start.

 SHORTSTOP EDGE: METS
His first full season had been impressive. His across-the-board improvement in Year 2 has been stunning. As Jose Reyes has settled into his role as the Mets' sparkplug, he has unleashed all of his tools. He doesn't get big-stage fright, delivering the game-tying single in Saturday's Game 3 NLDS clincher.

It's been an injury-plagued season for little David Eckstein, who recently returned from a pulled side muscle only to go down with a sore hamstring. He's fragile and may not make it deep into the postseason. He was replaced by Aaron Miles, who performed well enough.

 LEFT FIELD EDGE: EVEN
Cliff Floyd has chased the light as long as has Delgado: 14 seasons, 1,415 games -- two lousy postseason hitless at-bats, in the 1997 World Series. But he came out of Game 3 of the NLDS after re-injuring a problematic left Achilles tendon. His status for the NLCS is up in the air. Endy Chavez could see increased playing time vs. the Redbirds.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa flip-flopped rookie Chris Duncan and veteran Preston Wilson in the NLDS. Duncan had defensive problems and Wilson was a spark in the Cardinals' Game 2 victory at San Diego. If pressed, La Russa has also used Spiezio and John Rodriguez out there in a pinch.

 CENTER FIELD EDGE: METS
Carlos Beltran made a nice bounce-back from his booed 2005 Mets debut, but he still hasn't justified the big contract. This week, he can. The 2004 postseason (.435, eight homers and 14 RBIs in 12 games) is his yard stick -- and what people expect to see. His performance against the Cards two years ago in the NLCS is what got him the big deal.

It's hard to downplay Jim Edmonds, but he's had a rocky last month after smacking his head on the center-field fence and suffering through post-concussion syndrome. Yet he came back much sooner than expected, and the gamer he is will certainly be a force. Wilson is in the mix here if Edmonds can't go. So is Juan Encarnacion.

 RIGHT FIELD EDGE: METS
Along with Lo Duca, Shawn Green had to be pretty happy about defeating the Dodgers. His old team traded him to Arizona after the 2004 season, and on Aug. 22, the Diamondbacks flipped him to the Mets with Floyd on the disabled list. As age has slowed his bat, Green has forsaken some of his power by more often looking to slap balls the other way.

It's Encarnacion's first season with the Cardinals, and he's made the most of it. He has been one of the Cardinals' most durable players, playing in 153 regular-season games and all the NLDS games. He was a member of the 2003 Marlins team that was resurrected by Jack McKeon midseason and went on to defeat the Yankees in the World Series.

 BULLPEN EDGE: METS
Having Billy Wagner at the end of their bullpen made Mets manager Willie Randolph and his pitching coach, Rick Peterson, bulletproof. They assigned roles, compensated for injuries and could do no wrong. A day after valuable Duaner Sanchez went out with injuries suffered in a taxi accident, Minaya gave them Roberto Hernandez and, later, turned to Guillermo Mota. With Chad Bradford, Pedro Feliciano and Aaron Heilman also in front of Wagner, the Mets were 78-4 with a sixth-inning lead through their NLDS clincher.

With closer Jason Isringhausen out for the season after hip surgery, it's been a real mess and was one of the big reasons why the Cardinals lost seven games in a row near the end to make the NL Central race interesting. La Russa has been forced to go with Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper as his closers, with nominal success. Randy Flores is this year's Ray King in the situational left-hander's role.

 BENCH EDGE: EVEN
Starting with Julio Franco, Mr. Methuselah, this is a supporting cast that perfectly meshes with the high-profile headliners in New York. Ricky Ledee, picked up in early August after being waived by the Dodgers, might be activated for the NLCS if Floyd cannot go. Ledee would join Michael Tucker as the extra outfielders, with Chavez likely becoming the starter in left.

La Russa flip-flops pitchers and positions and substitutes with the best of them. He always has a pack of role players to go to. So Taguchi, Rodriguez, Miles, Wilson and Bennett are the big ones this season, depending on how many of his regulars are healthy. With Edmonds and Eckstein being hurt, La Russa's had to plug starting holes with bench players.

 MANAGER EDGE: CARDINALS
All those failed managerial interviews were worth it for Randolph, who got the job, and did the job, in the only city that matters to him. His quiet, patient leadership is ideal in a place where everyone else tends to get uptight. Randolph inspires confidence in his players, who feed off his faith in them.

La Russa is the resident genius with 22 seasons worth of big-league managerial experience. Can you believe it? But his lone winner was the 1989 A's, who salvaged the World Series after the last great Bay Area earthquake and swept the Giants. Come to think of it, his teams are 5-12 in World Series games. But this year has been one of his better jobs keeping these Cardinals competitive despite all the injuries.

 INTANGIBLES EDGE: METS
The arrival of an event that has been inevitable for months comes with intense pressure for the Mets, not to mention the letdown losses of Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez from the playoff rotation. They now own baseball in New York with the Yankees being booted out of the postseason for the third consecutive year without reaching the World Series.

The Cardinals may not be the same team as two years ago, when they went to the World Series, but they still boast the best position player (Pujols) and best starting pitcher (Chris Carpenter) in the NL. An injured Carpenter didn't pitch two years ago when the Cards were swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. It proved to be a big loss.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.