After surviving and advancing, the only two teams still standing from the National League are set to do battle in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, which kicks off Friday night at Busch Stadium.
If the regular season was any indication, the NLCS promises to be a highly competitive bunch of ballgames. While the Cardinals finished with the league's best record at 97-65, the Dodgers went 4-3 against St. Louis during the regular season, including three wins at Busch Stadium in August. Of course, October baseball is a different animal than August baseball, and the Cardinals know all about October baseball. This is St. Louis' third consecutive trip to the NLCS, and sixth appearance in the last nine years. The Dodgers, on the other hand, have reached this plateau only twice in the last 24 years, losing both times.
At a glance, the experience factor clearly favors the Cardinals. But let's take a closer look at this matchup to see which team really has the best chance to reach the Fall Classic:
When teams get this deep into the postseason, the games become primarily about pitching. Luckily, for the Dodgers, they were able to wrap up their series with the Atlanta Braves in four games instead of the five games it took the Cardinals to get past the Pittsburgh Pirates. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis' undisputed ace, started that extra game and now will not be able to pitch until Game 3 at Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers were able to set their rotation so that Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw will start the first two games in St. Louis. Although Greinke took the loss in his start last Friday against the Braves, he pitched well -- allowing only two runs on four hits in six innings. Greinke has also had success against the Cardinals this season, allowing two runs in six innings on August 5 in St. Louis.
The best pitcher on the planet, Clayton Kershaw, will go in Game 2 after compiling a 0.69 earned run average over 13 innings of work against Atlanta. How dominant he'll be after pitching on short rest last series remains to be seen, especially since his strikeout-to-walk ratio against the Cardinals is nothing to write home about at 28:22. The Dodgers will then be hoping for better results from rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu, who despite struggling in his first postseason start last weekend, insists the problems were mental and not physical. Rounding out the Los Angeles rotation will be Ricky Nolasco. The veteran righty was skipped over in favor of Kershaw last series but will likely be called upon against the Cardinals.
With Wainwright unavailable for Game 1, the Cardinals will turn to Joe Kelly in the opener. Kelly was 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA during the regular season, including a victory over the Dodgers in August. The righty allowed two runs in five innings against Pittsburgh last series. The Game 2 starter will be rookie sensation Michael Wacha. Although he has never faced Los Angeles, the Dodgers surely noticed how the 22-year-old took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Pirates in an elimination game earlier this week. If the Cardinals can earn a split at home, they'll have the advantage of Wainwright in the pivotal Game 3 followed by either Lance Lynn or Shelby Miller -- both of whom own sub-4.00 ERAs.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen continued his underrated dominance, striking out seven of the nine Braves he faced in the NLDS, including the final three in the clincher. However, the middle relief corps was a bit shaky, as guys like Paco Rodriguez and Ronald Belisario suffered some hiccups that ultimately didn't come back to bite the Dodgers. Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell, who each have World Series experience, did not seem phased by the bright lights and were effective in their appearances.
The Cardinals turn to a group of youngsters when the game gets late. Rookies Seth Manness, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist make up the St. Louis bullpen, which is anchored by newly appointed closer Trevor Rosenthal (also a rookie). Aside from a rocky outing in Game 3 against the Pirates, the bullpen was solid in the first round, but the relievers' overall lack of experience could loom large with the stakes being raised in the NLCS.
After watching Hanley Ramirez spray balls down the lines, in the gaps and over the wall against the Braves, it was clear that the Dodgers' shortstop was not overwhelmed by his first taste of postseason baseball. He hit .500 with six extra-base hits and six runs batted in during the four games.
Ramirez's buddy on the left side of the infield, Juan Uribe, hit .375 in the first round while gobbling up everything at third base. On the right side of the infield, Mark Ellis had only four hits against Atlanta and made a critical error in Game 4 but was ultimately bailed out by Uribe's late-game heroics. Adrian Gonzalez also had some defensive miscues in the NLDS but made up for it with a .333 average and four runs knocked in.
The Cardinals have been missing one of their most potent offensive weapons in first baseman Allen Craig since early September with an injured foot, and he is not expected to return for the NLCS. Power-hitting Matt Adams has done a commendable job filling in for Craig and hit .316 in the NLDS. Second baseman and leadoff batter Matt Carpenter is the engine of the Cardinals' lineup, but the NL leader in hits and runs during the regular season went hitless in his final 18 at-bats against the Pirates.
The postseason isn't exactly the best time to fall into a slump, especially with Greinke and Kershaw looming. But if there's someone in the Cardinals' infield who knows how to turn it up for the playoffs, it's third baseman David Freese. St. Louis' version of Mr. October has been up to his old tricks, as his home run against Pittsburgh in Game 5 gave the Cardinals a lead they would not relinquish. Both Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso share time at shortstop. While both have more range and better defensive instincts than their counterpart on the Dodgers, neither of them is nearly as handy with the bat.
As for the catchers, the Cardinals' Yadier Molina is widely regarded as the best in the game -- both from an offensive and defensive standpoint. However, Dodgers backstop A.J. Ellis has compiled a better batting average in the postseason so far. It's also noteworthy to mention that Molina was out with an injury when the Dodgers took three of four from the Cardinals in St. Louis during the regular season.
One of the biggest surprises for the Dodgers this October has been the power surge by left fielder Carl Crawford. After hitting only six home runs during the regular season and only one since May, he smashed three against the Braves, including two in one game. The powerful Yasiel Puig didn't hit one over the fence in the first round but still had a major impact on the series, hitting .471 over the four games while wreaking havoc on the basepaths. The Dodgers are hopeful that Andre Ethier can return to the starting lineup after being limited to pinch-hitting duties in the NLDS. His replacement in the first round, Skip Schumaker, had only three hits but also knocked in two runs during the series.
The Cardinals' outfield already has a major advantage because it features Carlos Beltran, one of the greatest postseason hitters ever. The St. Louis right fielder boasts the highest playoff OPS in baseball history among players with at least 100 postseason plate appearances. He also owns the highest playoff slugging percentage of all time, ahead of guys named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In left field is the always-dangerous Matt Holliday, who hit .300 in the NLDS to match his .300 regular season average. Talk about consistency. Then there's John Jay in center field. While not as scary with the bat, Jay's elite speed and instincts make him a human vacuum cleaner on defense.
The inability of the Cardinals to use Adam Wainwright to counter Zack Greinke or Clayton Kershaw is a major hurdle for manager Mike Matheny. Although the St. Louis skipper puts a lot of trust in his younger players, asking guys like Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha to tame the potent Dodger offense while matching up with the best one-two punch in baseball is a tall order -- even at home.
If the Cardinals can split at Busch Stadium, deploying Wainwright for the potential swing game against an erratic Hyun-Jin Ryu would be an advantage, but only if they can beat either Greinke or Kershaw first. It's also unclear how young hurlers like Lance Lynn or Shelby Miller will react to pitching on the road in what promises to be a boisterous Dodger Stadium. Even if the Cardinals can find a way to cool off Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig and bring the series back to St. Louis, Kershaw will be waiting for them in Game 6.
Prediction: Dodgers in six
Nick Ostiller was born and raised in Los Angeles and currently lives in Santa Clara. He is the editor-in-chief at The Santa Clara and contributes content for Sidelines. He has also worked for Outlook Newspapers and KNBC. Follow him on Twitter @nicko229.
- Sports & Recreation
- Los Angeles Dodgers
- Adam Wainwright
- Clayton Kershaw