SAN FRANCISCO — Hey, would you look at that? It's the past two World Series champions meeting in the NLCS. And both, in their own ways, took surprising routes to get here.
The St. Louis Cardinals didn't finish first in their division. They had to end a long winning streak by Kris Medlen and the Braves in the wild card game. Then they spotted the Washington Nationals six runs in the deciding game of the NLDS before roaring back behind their so-called light-hitting middle infielders. No drama there.
The San Francisco Giants were one false move away from losing to the Reds in the NLDS, but squirmed their way to victory in extra innings in Game 3, then basically blew out Cincinnati for two more games. Where did it come from? Was it the Sorry Looking Broom? Don't ask too many questions, just go with it. That's how both teams roll.
Schedule (all times ET)
Game 1: Sunday, Oct. 14 — at AT&T Park, 8 p.m.
Game 2: Monday, Oct. 15 — at AT&T Park, 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, Oct. 17 — at Busch Stadium, 3:30 p.m.
Game 4: Thursday, Oct. 18 — at Busch Stadium, 7:30 p.m.
Game 5*: Friday, Oct. 19 — at Busch Stadium, 7:30 p.m.
Game 6*: Sunday, Oct.21 — at AT&T Park, 4:30 p.m.+
Game 7*: Monday, Oct. 22 — at AT&T Park, 7:30 p.m.
(* If necessary)
(+ Game 6 moves to 7 p.m. ET if no Game 7 in ALCS )
It's the network and broadcasters everybody loves to complain about. Fox Sports! Tim McCarver and Joe Buck return for their 17th postseason together (can you believe it?) A.J. Pierzynski makes his triumphant return to San Francisco (What? No Brett Tomko?) to help with the pre- and postgame shows (like he did in 2011), and Erin Andrews is taken off college football duty to help in the dugouts with Ken Rosenthal. She probably will not be wearing a bow tie, however.
They split six games, including a four-game set at St. Louis in August. The most notable game was a 15-0 Giants romp Aug. 8, when Marco Scutaro drove in seven runs and Ryan Vogelsong tossed seven three-hit innings.
For the Cardinals, right-hander Lance Lynn starts Game 1, followed by post-surgical wonder Chris Carpenter in Game 2. Kyle Lohse, who has continued to pitch like an ace even after Game 162 of the regular season, is up in Game 3. And then Adam Wainwright in Game 4 with something to prove after his nearly disastrous outing in the clincher against the Nats.
The Giants open with left-hander Madison Bumgarner in Game 1, followed by Vogelsong, who seemed to collect himself against the Reds after a struggle down the stretch of the regular season. Matt Cain would be working on five days of rest for Game 3 (which also sets him up for Game 7 if needed) and either Tim Lincecum or Barry Zito for Game 4. Both of those pitchers will start the series in the bullpen.
The Cardinals roster remains as it did at the end of the NLDS. They had dropped left-hander Jaime Garcia during the Nationals series because of a shoulder injury and replaced him with rookie Shelby Miller. That's part of the status quo.
Right-hander Tim Lincecum wasn't in the Giants' rotation for the first round, but it was easy to figure he would possibly return if San Francisco advanced, based on his performance in relief. He struck out six and allowed one earned run in 4 1/3 in Game 4 and posted two shutout innings in Game 2.
The Giants were said to be considering minor tweaks to their roster right up to the 1 p.m. ET deadline. One addition they won't be making is Melky Cabrera, who was popped for a failed drug test and suspended for 50 games during the regular season. He's eligible to return now, but the Giants won't activate him.
What the Cardinals need to do to win
Fall behind quickly and stay there until their last at-bat: And leave the biggest hits up to Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma. Seriously, this seems to be when the Cardinals do their best work. The Cardinals are kind of like Tiger Woods in their prime, getting the other golfers looking over their shoulders on the last day of a tournament.
Lance Lynn and Matt Holliday contribute: You figure that Adam Wainwright will rebound and give a better performance, and it's foolish to bet against Chris Carpenter. But with Lynn returning to the rotation after some shaky relief appearances against the Nats, the Cardinals would get a major boost if he can get them through Game 1. Holliday drove in four runs against the Nats, but mostly he wasn't effective. Get him going in the middle of the Cards lineup and whoa.
Just be the Cardinals: They have the best team left in the field. The deepest lineup, the best starting pitching, the biggest horseshoe wedged ... Manager Mike Matheny is still new at this, and has shown he's capable of being outmaneuvered (like in Game 1 and Game 3 against the Nationals). So if he plays it straight and doesn't do things like bunt Jon Jay again after Chris Carpenter hits a double, Team Fredbird will be in good shape.
What the Giants need to do to win ...
Re-think their Melky policy: Nah, just kidding. (Probably.) But they'll need to keep their bats awake like they were in Games 4 and 5 against the Reds, when they combined for 14 runs. Hunter Pence, it's OK to get some hits and make rousing speeches. The Giants scored four runs in the first three games of the NLDS and generally looked doomed until this lady showed up with a Sorry Looking Broom that reminded people of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Win at least one at home: The odd thing about the NLDS was how much more comfortable the Giants appeared at Cincinnati's ballpark than they did at their own, where they dropped the first two games. If they get off to a similar start in the NLCS, it's going to take a lot more than dumb brooms and odd managerial decisions (looking at you, Dusty Baker) for them to get back in the game.
Pitch like it's 2010:Lincecum gave great hope that he's back in the groove with his division series performance. But he's not the only question mark. Matt Cain looked vulnerable against the Reds and Madison Bumgarner didn't fool anyone in his start. Small sample sizes, yes. But that's all we got in the playoffs! Got to get it together, boys.
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