Friday, October 11, 2013

Series Preview: NLCS

The Cardinals/Dodgers NLCS series at a glance.

Having survived a 5-game series with Pittsburgh where both teams won on the road, the Cardinals now face off against the Los Angeles Dodgers in a best-of-7. This will be the 8th NLCS appearance for St. Louis since the great Y2K scare. The last time these teams met was in the divisional round in 2009, where Matt Holliday dropped a key fly ball that some Cardinal fans never got over. It's hard to spot an underdog here, with a big payroll team playing the biggest payroll team (Dodgers) of all-time. The nation seems to be experiencing Cardinal fatigue, so despite their obvious economic advantage, Los Angeles should have a healthy edge in fan support (for whatever that's worth.)

2013 Season Series: Dodgers won 4-3
Los Angeles had the edge in the 7 game season series, due largely to winning 3 out of 4 at Busch in August. Back in May, with manager Don Mattingly tidying up his resume, the Cards took 2 out of 3 in Chavez Ravine in what seems like a lifetime ago. None of this likely means much of anything.

Starting Pitching: Joe Kelly / Michael Wacha / Adam Wainwright / TBD vs. Zack Greinke / Clayton Kershaw / Hyun-Jin Ryu / Ricky Nolasco
Neither staff ace is available for Game 1, but the Dodgers have a worthy stand-in Greinke. Kelly is slated to start Game 1 for the Cards. Wacha has only allowed a single hit in each of his last two starts while Wainwright would have been a shoo-in for the NLDS MVP were such a thing to exist. The rest of the rotation seems pretty iffy, and Lance Lynn couldn't have inspired much confidence in his manager with his shaky outing last round. Kershaw has actually had his share of troubles, relatively speaking, against the Cardinals. Ryu and Nolasco are both pretty solid, though Nolasco has never pitched in the postseason before (all that time in Miami) and Ryu lasted just 3 innings in his start last round. This one is close. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Bullpen: Trevor Rosenthal vs. Kenley Jansen
Jansen has been automatic since taking over the closer role in 2012, though he has a relatively low number of saves for a winning team. The Dodgers offensive explosions have a tendency to take save opportunities off the table. Jansen is joined by Brian Wilson, who has only thrown 16 2/3 innings in the majors since returning from Tommy John surgery, plus Chris Withrow, J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez. Rosenthal is bolstered by Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist. Martinez emerged as Mike Matheny's go-to 8th inning option in the divisional series, while the rest of the pen will be used as situational relievers depending on matchups and runners on base. Both teams are very solid here. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Catcher: Yadier Molina vs. A.J. Ellis
Ellis seems to be the Dodgers catcher by default. At 32, the organizational soldier is coming off only his second full season as a starter. Molina is one of the game's best and has loads of playoff experience. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

First Base: Matt Adams vs. Adrian Gonzalez
Since taking over for Allen Craig, Adams has been locked in and should be pitched around at all costs by anyone throwing right-handed. Gonzalez seems to be in decline, but he's every bit as dangerous as the relatively green Adams and still managed to plate 100 batters this season. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Second Base: Matt Carpenter vs. Mark Ellis
Ellis is a competent second baseman, and not quite a black hole at the plate at a position where there are black holes in abundance. Carpenter had a fantastic season, but he went 1-for-19 in the NLDS. He did lead the team in most champagne-saturated hair. When right, he is one of the smartest and most patient hitters in the game. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Third Base: David Freese vs. Juan Uribe
Both starting third basemen had Big Playoff Moments in the divsional round. Freese reminded everyone of 2011 with his game-changing blast in the deciding game versus Pittsburgh while Uribe bailed out short rest starter Kershaw in the Dodgers clinching win. Freese had a career worst season in 2013, but his success in the postseason can't be understated or overlooked. Pressed into more regular duty due to injuries, Uribe had his best season since 2010. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Shortstop: Pete Kozma vs. Hanley Ramirez
Kozma seems to have wrested control of the starting shortstop position from Daniel Descalso, where he had much success in his limited 2012 run. Descalso has been relegated to late game defensive replacement duties at a position he rarely plays (3B), which frustrates me to no end. If Kozma finds the magic elven ghost wizard pixie dust (this is a real thing) again that he ingested late last summer, he might be almost as good as his opposite in Dodger blue. Ramirez had a career high in OPS in an injury-shortened season where he apparently rediscovered his All-Star form that he left in one of the empty seats in Miami. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Right Field: Carlos Beltran vs. Yasiel Puig
Puig drew national buzz for the scorching hot start to his career, and remains a powerful weapon at the plate and in the field. He went 8-for-18 in the NLDS series against the Braves. Beltran has some of the best playoff numbers of any active player in the game, though he probably couldn't beat Puig in a race from right field to the plate if he was spotted 7 seconds. This is a close one. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Center Field: Jon Jay vs. Skip Schumaker
Jay plays a passable outfield and gets on base enough to keep his job, but he was buried in the batting order for a reason. He's best fit to be a really solid 4th outfielder for someone, but the Cardinals have a lot of sluggers who can't play center field. Somebody has to. Schumaker may be the answer to a trivia question about this series someday, or worse, a punchline. The former Cardinal 4th outfielder was converted to a second baseman out of sheer desperation, but it wasn't a plan for the long haul. Schumaker is in this lineup now because of his connections to hitting coach Mark McGwire and because he kneecapped Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. He's got a pretty good arm. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Left Field: Matt Holliday vs. Carl Crawford
Crawford's last All-Star year must seem like a century ago, but it was actually 2010. He endured a miserable stint in Boston and has been a bit of a forgotten man in the corner of the Dodgers outfield. Once the premiere base thief in the game, he's stolen just 39 bases since leaving Tampa Bay after that last All-Star hurrah. Holliday is the engine that keeps the Cardinals offense moving, though he sputters a bit in the field. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Bench: Allen Craig? vs. Andre Ethier?
Craig has a serious Lisfranc injury that seriously is going to keep him out of the playoffs, no matter how far the Cardinals can progress. That hasn't stopped speculation that the team might succumb to using him as a pinch hitter, though it seems doubtful at this point. It's more of an indictment of the Cardinals bench as it stands right now than it is an indication of what Craig might be able to offer. Most of the current bench options (Daniel Descalso, Kolten Wong, Adron Chambers, Shane Robinson, Tony Cruz) are automatic outs which might force Mike Matheny to get creative. Ethier has a much better chance of providing some punch off the bench, and he will be in the starting lineup the second someone explains to Don Mattingly that Schumaker is not the same guy as David Eckstein, the lucky charm he bought from some peddler than claimed to have a couple World Series rings under his belt. Los Angeles also has Michael Young and Andy Van Slyke's son, plus a pinch-running option in failed prospect Dee Gordon. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Manager: Mike Matheny vs. Don Mattingly
Matheny has been here before, leading the Cards to the NLCS before blowing it spectacularly against the Giants last season. Mattingly has been here before in that he was the manager of Dodgers a few days ago when they beat the Braves in his first playoff series. As a player, Matheny left the Cardinals for San Francisco a couple of years before they finally won their first title under Tony La Russa, while Mattingly retired the year before the Yankees won their first title since the '70s. Considering that Mattingly was nearly out of a job before the Dodgers pulled a 180 on their season... ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Prediction: CARDINALS in 7

There probably won't be a forfeited game in this series. Whatever happened to Craig Kilborn?

Game 1 game time is 7:00 CDT at Busch Stadium with national coverage on TBS. Go Cards!

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