When Woody Williams walks across the perfectly manicured grass to the impeccably sculpted mound on what is sure to be an idyllic Saturday night along the Pacific Coast, the circumstances could hardly be more different than in his last postseason start. On that Saturday night last October, there was a chill in the New England air, and a cold mist wafted through Fenway Park. Williams wore the jersey of the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he will face Saturday night. And the Boston Red Sox lit him up for seven runs. He did not escape the third inning.
"Bottom line is: You have to do your job no matter what the situation," Williams said Friday. "And I wasn't able to get that done."
Saturday, if Williams doesn't get his job done, the San Diego Padres' season will likely be over. It is for just this sort of situation that the Padres signed Williams as a free agent last December, hoping he would stabilize a young rotation, believing his experience in the postseason would matter. That he faces his former team is "a coincidence," said St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa. But it matters.
"It makes it a lot more personal," La Russa said. "I mean, whoever you're facing, you know professionally what's at stake. But when you face a guy who's been such a great teammate, we have experienced so much together, it makes it a lot more personal."
The heavily favored, 100-win Cardinals have a 2-0 lead headed into Saturday's Game 3, the first playoff game here since 1998, the first at the Padres' new stadium, Petco Park, which has cavernous power alleys that make it, distinctly, a pitcher's park. It is one of the reasons the Padres elected to start Williams here, rather than in St. Louis in Game 2, for his ERA in sunny San Diego this year was 3.72, his ERA on the road a miserable 6.38.
But if the Padres have any shred of confidence remaining after the Cardinals thoroughly dominated the first two games, they say it is because of Williams. Forget that he went 9-12 on the year. Forget that start from last October, when the Red Sox swept Williams and St. Louis. Forget that he is 39, that he is hardly a marquee guy, but rather signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with a club option for 2006, a bargain considering what pitchers were getting last winter.
"I think his experience is going to be unbelievable tomorrow," Padres second baseman Mark Loretta said. "He doesn't have any fear, and he doesn't take his time. He dictates the pace. As an infielder, that helps so much. Having him go tomorrow, I think he could turn this thing."
Though Williams tried to play down the emotions he might have facing such a familiar lineup, there is little escaping his connection to St. Louis. After a midseason trade from San Diego sent him to the Cardinals in 2001, he was a mainstay through 2004, going 45-22 with a 3.53 ERA, winning 18 games in 2003, winning fans in the very clubhouse he will oppose tomorrow.
"We know what to expect from Woody," St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols said. "I love Woody. I still talk to Woody. But when I go out there to face him, I won't be thinking of any of that."
Williams, though, will have to be concentrating on the St. Louis hitters, who haven't exactly mashed the Padres thus far, but have been far more efficient. In the first two games, the Padres have stranded 19 runners, the Cardinals just 12. The Padres have no runs in the first six innings, the Cardinals 12. If the Padres are to have any hope, Williams must hold St. Louis down.
"He knows our lineup," said Matt Morris, the opposing starter. "He's got a nice advantage."
Morris and Williams are close friends. Each has battled arm problems during his career, and even this year. Morris (14-10, 4.11 ERA) spent part of April on the disabled list after offseason shoulder surgery, and after a blazing 9-1 start to the season, he struggled with his location for several months.
And because the sun shines here year-round, and it seems so far from that frigid feeling Williams left behind in Boston last October, there may be another reason for him to be optimistic. Take that World Series debacle away, and Williams is 3-0 with a 3.24 ERA in the postseason. Morris is just 1-5 in his postseason career, and it is he who lost Game 2 to the Red Sox. Saturday, they'll face each other, the Padres' season in the balance.
"He's going to go out there and compete," Morris said. "I've seen it in playoff situations. I've seen it during the course of the year. My job is to go out there and compete right with him."