If you were to grab a couple of teams out of a hat and pit them against each other in a winner-take-all final game to blowout the season, you probably could not have done better than last night's game. As it turns out, however, there is more baseball to be played today. In fact, some of that baseball will be played in a league that scoffs at the notion that certain players on the team are not required to bat.
Yes, the Cardinals are back in the playoffs for the first time since Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina celebrated sweet success on the pitcher's mound in St. Louis nearly three years ago. I have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet and challenged fellow blogger Night Owl to a friendly wager involving autographs of pitchers from our respective team's rotations. I am now going to attempt to write up a preview and make predictions, something I used to love doing when I was very young but proved to be rather incompetent at.
In the style of daily newspaper coverage and those Athlon sports magazine (I was more of a fan of Bill Mazeroski's, personally) - here we go.
Cardinals: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Joel Pineiro, John Smoltz/Kyle Lohse
The Cards have dueling Cy Young candidates at the top of the rotation and at the top of their games. Pineiro has come back down to earth a bit since his amazing four month run of walking nearly no one and keeping the ball in the park. The Cards have their best slated to go in the road games, while the bullpen will probably be relied upon more at home, which certainly seems intriguing. St. Louis is undecided about who would go in Game 4, which likely depends on if and how Smoltz and Lohse are used in the bullpen in the previous games.
Dodgers: Randy Wolf, Clayton Kershaw, Vicente Padilla, Chad Billingsley
The Dodgers have had rotation issues all season long, the latest being Hiroki Kuroda's injury which will keep him out of the NLDS. Billingsley has quickly gone from All-Star to Question Mark, while Kershaw is the Talented Young Lefty and Padilla is the Reclamation Project. Somehow, Wolf has inexplicably emerged as the de facto ace.
Cardinals: Ryan Franklin, Kyle McClellan, Jason Motte, Trever Miller, Dennys Reyes, Blake Hawksworth, Mitchell Boggs, Lohse/Smoltz
Franklin has had a remarkable season as the closer, but suddenly became very shaky towards the end of the season as the saves became less important. The Cardinals have two solid lefties in Miller and Reyes, but neither are likely to be counted upon to face anyone from the opposite side of the plate. La Russa has not announced the full roster at this time, so the inclusion of Hawksworth and Boggs seem to follow simple logic as both have proven to be effective righties down the stretch - especially Hawksworth. However, their relative youth could be a detriment in the eyes of the skipper as both Todd Wellemeyer and Brad Thompson are also candidates. The former has had a horrendous season and the latter has been remarkable only in his ability to accrue major league service time.
Dodgers: Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Hong-Chih Kuo, Ronald Belisario, Ramon Troncoso, Jon Garland, Jeff Weaver
Broxton is a huge guy and has all of the physical tools that you would expect a power pitcher, or in his case a closer, to possess. This is in contrast to Franklin, who has gotten outs all season out of location (location, location) and not much more. Sherrill had success as a closer after getting dealt to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard/Adam Jones trade. Kuo, Belisario and Troncoso have all had good season. Heck, so did Jeff Weaver. Jon Garland provides insurance in a bullpen that just doesn't seem to have many weaknesses.
Cardinals: Yadier Molina
Yadier Molina has the most feared arm in the game, evidenced by the fact that the Cards have allowed by far and away the fewest number of stolen base attempts. He has also picked off, at last count, 35 base runners in his young career, nearly twice as many as any other player during that time span. He has gone from a liability at the plate to one of the toughest outs in the lineup and can spray the ball into the opposite field at will.
Dodgers: Russell Martin
Russell Martin is no slouch, either, but he has gone into serious decline at the plate to the point where he was below league average this season.
Cardinals: Albert Pujols
Pujols went into a bit of a late season slide, which by his standards means his level of play dropped from incredible to merely extremely good. His focus this season from the get-go has been on the postseason and never on the stats, so it doesn't come as a surprise that he didn't go on a home run binge to go for his first 50-HR season. His hike in errors this season has been a bit alarming, but overall his range and playmaking ability ranks up there with the best of them.
Dodgers: James Loney
Loney provides solid play at first , but it seems like he became the first of the current wave of young Dodgers to become expendable in the eyes of the fanbase. I can't say his numbers are intimidating.
Cardinals: Skip Schumaker/Julio Lugo
Schumaker was the great lab experiment that never quite exploded all over the class this season. He eventually settled into more of a platoon role when Lugo was acquired late in the season. Both are probably no better or worse than average in the field, can run a little bit, and hit the ball somewhere where fielders aren't.
Dodgers: Ronnie Belliard
Belliard's acquisition wasn't really surprising, but the fact that he's usurped Orlando Hudson's starting role is. He's hit extremely well for the Dodgers, so there's no reason not to keep him in the lineup, but Belliard is no Chase Utley - or even Orlando Hudson.
Cardinals: Mark DeRosa
DeRosa was brought in to patch up the many leaks in the Cardinals machine this season, then almost immediately injured his wrist. By the time he was back in the lineup for good, the Cards had already picked up Lugo and Matt Holliday and DeRosa's utility belt usefulness was eschewed in favor of a regular third base job. As a utility player, DeRosa is great, but as an everyday third baseman you could certainly do a lot better.
Dodgers: Casey Blake
Casey Blake has had a pretty good season from what I can tell. He isn't exactly a slugger, but he gets the job done.
Cardinals: Brendan Ryan
If you stumbled over here accidentally or are just not familiar with the Cardinals, then Brendan Ryan is probably the best shortstop you've never heard of. He covers a great deal of range and does not embarrass himself at the plate. Respect the Stache.
Dodgers: Rafael Furcal
Furcal has had quite a down year. Somewhere a Braves executive is probably sleeping easy at night.
Cardinals: Ryan Ludwick
Ryan Ludwick didn't quite follow up his breakout season with a matching encore, but he did manage to drive in nearly 100 runs while fighting through injuries and prolonged slumps. He's usually adequate in the field.
Dodgers: Andre Ethier
Ethier has added clutchiness to his repertoire, not to mention 30+ HRs and 100+ RBI.
Cardinals: Colby Rasmus
Colby Rasmus is still climbing up the learning curve, but he has already shown a lot of range and speed in center field. It will be interesting to see how he is used in the playoffs, as La Russa loves to toss Rick Ankiel into the equation. Ankiel, incidentally, will be making his first playoff appearance since the ill-fated 2000 season.
Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Matt Kemp seems to do everything well and is cementing himself as a centerpiece in the Dodgers lineup.
Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Holliday is well on his way to silencing critics that suggested that he couldn't hit outside of Coors Field. He can.
Dodgers: Manny Ramirez
Ramirez continues to drive in runs and be a productive bat since his return from pregnancy or whatever it was that happened to him.
Cardinals: Jason LaRue, Lugo/Schumaker, Joe Thurston, Troy Glaus, Rick Ankiel
LaRue seems to have finally adjusted to his role of backup catcher after having an extremely unproductive season in 2008. Thurston was useful in April but since then has seemingly found new and unusual ways to sabotage games in almost every meaningful appearance that he's made. Glaus is one year removed from a 99 RBI season in which he inexplicably became a Gold Glove-caliber defender, but ended up being shelved due to injury for nearly the entire season and is currently a huge question mark.
Dodgers: Brad Ausmus, Juan Castro, Jim Thome, Orlando Hudson, Mark Loretta, Juan Pierre
I'm not entirely sure how Ausmus still has a roster spot with anyone, but he has actually managed to post his best OPS season since 2000. Thome is apparently going to be called upon to make a Kirk Gibson World Series-style appearance at some point. Hudson and Pierre are extremely useful players to have on your bench, even though certain Dodgers fans could probably do without the latter. Mark Loretta is only useful in that he can play multiple positions and that he's racked up some experience points.
Cardinals: Tony La Russa
La Russa has appeared in 5 World Series and won 2. His style is abrasive and contradictory to what would seem to be basic human logic at times, but it's tough to argue with results. The fact remains that his teams nearly always win, even when they really shouldn't.
Dodgers: Joe Torre
Torre has led teams to 6 World Series appearances and 4 titles. His teams were fairly unremarkable until he was hired by the Yankees and is now trying to prove himself in the superior league.
Prediction: Cardinals in 4
Sure, my prediction might not mesh with my position by position breakdown which ever so slightly favors the Dodgers. The Cardinals have done very well against the Dodgers in recent years, including in the playoffs. I think Carpenter and Wainwright will be very hard for the Dodgers to overcome and am generally feeling pretty confident about this series. No matter what the outcome, hopefully it will be a fun one to watch.