It's the heavyweight matchup most predicted we'd see in the NLCS once both teams established their positions in the second half of the season. The NL's perennial contenders, the St. Louis Cardinals, will play host to the perennial contenders of the future, the Los Angeles Dodgers. A trip to the World Series is on the line.
For St. Louis, it's their eighth NLCS appearance since 2000. They're 3-4 in those series, including World Series victories in 2006 and 2011. Not that any of the matters now. The Cardinals have a rookie replacing Allen Craig at first base in Matt Adams. They have six rookies on the pitching staff. It's a different makeup, but much of that old Redbird resilience remains.
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Experience or not, the Dodgers are a team with few flaws. Even with All-Star Matt Kemp out of the lineup and Andre Ethier not 100% healthy, they can beat you several ways. It usually starts with the pitching, and why wouldn't it, with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at the top of their rotation. But the lineup is also relentless, especially now that Carl Crawford is heating up to go along with Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez. Oh, and never forget postseason Hall of Famer Juan Uribe.
Game 1: Friday at 8:37 p.m. ET in St. Louis (All games on TBS)
Game 2: Saturday at 4:07 p.m. ET in St. Louis
Game 3: Monday at 8:07 p.m. ET in Los Angeles
Game 4: Tuesday at 8:07 p.m. ET in Los Angeles
Game 5*: Wednesday at 4:07 p.m. ET in Los Angeles
Game 6*: Friday at 8:37 p.m. ET in St. Louis
Game 7*: Saturday at 8:37 p.m. ET in St. Louis
Game 1: Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA) vs. Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69 ERA)
Game 2: Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA) vs. Michael Wacha (4-1, 2.78 ERA)
Game 3: Adam Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA) vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu (14-8, 3.14 ERA)
Game 4: TBD
Game 5: TBD
Game 6: TBD
Game 7: TBD
The Dodgers led the season series 4-3. Both teams actually fared better on the road. St. Louis took two out of three in Los Angeles in late May, beating Clayton Kershaw in the finale. The Dodgers won three out of four at Busch Stadium from Aug. 5-8, with Kershaw taking the lone loss there.
KEYS FOR THE DODGERS
Win Game 1: The series opener sets up nicely for Los Angeles with Zack Greinke set to go up against Joe Kelly. In fact, the first two games set up well with Adam Wainwright unavailable until Game 3 at Dodger Stadium, but Game 1 is such a mismatch in their favor that it feels like an essential win for them. Also, the longer the Cardinals survive in a series, the more resilient they seem to be. The Dodgers have to grab the early edge.
Be aggressive: This mostly applies to Yasiel Puig, who brought an entirely new dimension to the Dodgers with his aggressive and fearless style of play. That needs to continue in the NLCS, and his teammates need to feed off it. That doesn't necessarily mean they should test Yadier Molina at every turn, but an aggressive style may be what it takes to overcome the Redbirds. The Dodgers are athletic enough to give them fits, and they're the NL team best equipped to wear St. Louis out over a long series.
Clayton Kershaw: Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon McCarthy posted an interesting tweet about Kershaw this week. He noted the effects of his first career start on short rest wouldn't be felt until later in the postseason as the fatigue in his arm built. Of course, it's possible Kershaw won't have any effects at all, but the Dodgers need him at his strongest to get to the World Series.
KEYS FOR THE CARDINALS
Survive at home: The Cardinals won't have Wainwright at their disposal at Busch Stadium, so their work is going to be cut out for them. If they can manage a split of the two games, they would have to be thrilled with that outcome. Typically that's the road team's mentality, but the extended series with Pittsburgh pushes them into a corner and changes their perspective. If they were to lose both, they're a resilient enough team to bounce back, but these Dodgers may be the most talented team they've faced in a recent postseason.
Matt Carpenter: Would you believe Carpenter went hitless over his final 18 at-bats in the NLDS? He finished with an ugly .053 average, but that can't and most certainly won't continue. Carpenter led the NL in hits (199), runs (126) and set a Cardinals franchise record with 55 doubles. He's their offensive engine, and his impact needs to be felt.
The bullpen: Aside from Carlos Martinez's eighth inning hiccup in Game 3, the core of the St. Louis bullpen remained solid against Pittsburgh. They'll need more of the same against a Los Angeles offense that can strike quickly and forcefully. It doesn't have to be complete dominance, but zeroes are essential.
FIVE IMPORTANT NUMBERS
• 28:22 — Clayton Kershaw's strikeout-to-walk ratio against current Cardinals hitters.
• 7 — St. Louis Cardinals wins in elimination games dating back to 2011.
• 1.247 — Carlos Beltran's postseason OPS in 39 career games.
• 1.95 — Zack Greinke's ERA over his last 10 road starts.
• .201 — The Cardinals league-worst pinch-hitting average during the regular season. They were 0 for 4 in the NLDS.
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