Thursday, October 2, 2014

Series Preview: NLDS (Cardinals vs. Dodgers)

The Cardinals/Dodgers series at a glance.

For the third time in six years, the Cardinals face the Dodgers in the playoffs, this time in the divisional round. Both St. Louis and Los Angeles won their respective divisions, leaving each side out of the foolishness that is the Wild Card Game. Last season, the two teams met in the NLCS with the Cardinals defeating the Dodgers in six games.

2014 Season Series: Dodgers won 4-3
The Cardinals dropped three games in LA, salvaging a lone win in a four game series. Back in St. Louis, the Cards took two of three from the boys in blue. The two series were played within a few weeks of each other. I don't think there's a lot to take away from these games aside from the fact that Clayton Kershaw was his dominant self and not the occasionally mortal pitcher that the Cardinals have seen over the years.

Starting Pitching: Adam Wainwright / Lance Lynn / John Lackey / Shelby Miller vs. Clayton Kershaw / Zack Greinke / TBD
Starting pitching has been key for both of these ballclubs. After suffering an early season injury in Japan, Kershaw has put together a historically great season. Wainwright, meanwhile, was in lockstep with Kershaw until he labored through a second half swoon that coincided with Yadier Molina's absence from the lineup due to injury. Wainwright rebounded to win all five of his starts in September and was a late scratch for a chance at six when the Reds eliminated the Pirates from division title hopes prior to what would have been his final regular season start. Lance Lynn has quiet put together the most consistently great season of his young career, while trade deadline acquisition John Lackey has struggled to find that consistency in a Cardinals uniform. Shelby Miller was put in a timeout corner for the playoffs last year, but after struggling with his control for much of this season he's been in a really nice groove of late. On the Dodgers side, Zack Geinke continues to be one of the best #2 starters in the game. LA is counting on the return of Hyun-Jin Ryu in time to take the mound in Game 3, while Dan Haren has been serviceable this season and could take one of the starts. Health (or lack thereof) could swing this in either direction, but for now it's too close to call. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Bullpen: Trevor Rosenthal vs. Kenley Jansen
Jansen has continued to be one of the game's most reliable closers, though his numbers are off just a half a tick from where he was last season. There's not a lot to complain about there. Trevor Rosenthal was second in the league in saves (next to Craig Kimbrel) in his first year as full-time closer, but he invited baserunners in nearly every outing. Jansen is joined by J.P. Howell, Pedro Baez, Brandon League and Brian Wilson. Wilson and Howell have plenty of deep playoff experience and League is a former closer, while Baez is in his first season. For the Redbirds, first time All-Star Pat Neshek leads the best of the rest, along with Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez. The Cardinals will also carry two or three lefties, with Sam Freeman, Randy Choate and prospect Marco Gonzales in the mix. The St. Louis bullpen has been adventurous at times this year (never a good thing when you're talking about relief). ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Catcher: Yadier Molina vs. A.J. Ellis
Yadi had a down year offensively, by his standards, mostly due to a significant thumb injury that he suffered during the second half of the season. On the other hand, Molina is perhaps the game's best signal caller and has one of the best arms, while A.J. Ellis has been one of the worst backstops in all aspects of the game. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

First Base: Matt Adams vs. Adrian Gonzalez
Gonzalez has been a mind-bogglingly consistent run producer and power source that can sometimes be taken for granted. Adams has light tower power and hit for a high average this year, but still hasn't shown much of an ability to hit lefties, He's no guarantee to start every game of this series because of this. Unfortunately for St. Louis, they traded away their other first base option in Allen Craig, who was having a punchless season of his own. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Second Base: Kolten Wong vs. Dee Gordon
Gordon finally established himself as a major leaguer this season as he took over as the full-time second baseman. His 64 steals led all of MLB. He doesn't even have warning track power and his OBP won't thrill anyone, but once he does get on he's an immediate threat. Wong possesses a ton of speed and talent, but it doesn't seem like he always knows what to do with it. He's shown flashes of every tool known in the game and his improvement as a major leaguer has been noteworthy, but he's not quite there yet. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Third Base: Matt Carpenter vs. Juan Uribe
Carpenter hasn't quite replicated his record setting All-Star season of 2013, but he's adjusted to his return to the hot corner well enough. He continues to be a table setter if not the fastest guy around and had a career high 95 walks this season. Uribe put together his second consecutive solid season and presents himself a solid example of a third baseman. Neither of these guys quite fit the mold of what you would have expected a 3B to be even 5 or 10 years ago, but they're doing alright for themselves. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Shortstop: Jhonny Peralta vs. Hanley Ramirez
At 32, Peralta put together a season that fell in line with his career numbers as a first time Cardinal. It just so happens that those numbers were some of the best the storied club has ever seen at its traditionally offensively-challenged position. Ramirez fell off significantly from his huge (though injury shortened) 2013 season, but he's still been productive. ADVANTAGE: PUSH

Right Field: Randal Grichuk / Oscar Taveras vs. Matt Kemp
The Allen Craig/Joe Kelly for John Lackey trade was, in part, supposed to free up an everyday spot in the lineup for uber-prospect Taveras to seize. This hasn't exactly happened. Fellow rookie Grichuk, acquired in the David Freese/Peter Bourjos deal, has had some success against lefties and will likely get starts against Kershaw and Ryu. Taveras has had to settle with making an impression unlike Yasiel Puig, who exploded on to the scene the moment he put on a Dodger uniform. Kemp is still not the All-World player he was in 2011, but he's returned to the level of a power bat that you want to be worried about. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Center Field: Jon Jay vs. Yasiel Puig
Puig didn't exactly build on his stellar rookie season, but he's remained an extremely deadly threat both in the field and at the plate. Jon Jay was replaced as starting center fielder and once again responded by hitting for a high average and playing well enough to keep himself in the lineup for the bulk of the season. His defense seemed to rebound to an acceptable level after struggling mightily in 2013. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Left Field: Matt Holliday vs. Carl Crawford
Heading into the All-Star Break, Holliday had 6 HRs on the season and an OPS of just .762. People were worried? Holliday finished at his usual 20 HR, 90 RBI, .800+ OPS level when all was said and done. His age dictates that he's in decline, but there was no scarier hitter in the Cardinals lineup heading down the stretch. Crawford managed a .300 average this season and stole more bases than he had since he left Tampa Bay, though his output was half of one of his average seasons with the Rays. ADVANTAGE: CARDINALS

Bench: Daniel Descalso / Peter Bourjos / Pete Kozma vs. Andre Ethier / Justin Turner / Scott Van Slyke
Ethier aside, the Dodgers bench has some serious firepower. The bearded Turner and Van Slyke the Younger have put up monstrous numbers in more than small sample sizes. Meanwhile, the Cardinals trot out the experienced but punchless Descalso and Kozma. Kozma was heroic in the 2012 playoffs but spent nearly the entire season in AAA. Bourjos could be in line to get a start and will be the first considered as a defensive replacement as he can run circles around the entire Cardinals outfield. St. Louis also has a backup catching decision to make, as they'll need to decide if they want to carry longtime backup Tony Cruz or Molina-stand-in A.J. Pierzynski. ADVANTAGE: DODGERS

Manager: Mike Matheny vs. Don Mattingly
Matheny has heaps of playoff experience for a guy in just his third year on the job, but his mismanagement of the bullpen this season and suspect late game decision making have left many scratching their heads. It's hard to argue with a first year NLCS appearance followed by a World Series appearance, however, but if he can't top it the scrutiny is going to increase. Mattingly nearly found himself out of a job last season but now finds himself in the playoffs for the second straight year. Though nearly anyone could look good with Kershaw, Greinke, a few bats and the Dodgers obscene payroll, Mattingly is starting to earn some respect.

Prediction: DODGERS IN 4

The Cardinals advanced to the World Series after dispatching with the Dodgers in last year's NLCS. Let's hope that the series ends with Yadi hugging someone.

Game 1 game time is 3:30 PDT at Dodger Stadium with national coverage on Fox Sports 1. Go Cards!