The Cardinals finished off the Pirates last night in game 5 of the NLDS, thanks in large part to the strong pitching of Adam Wainwright. Now, as their reward, they get to face the Dodgers in the NLCS.
After sputtering along to a 47-47 record in the first half of the season, the Dodgers turned it on in the second half, going 45-23 to win the NL West by 11 games. They dispatched the Atlanta Braves in their NLDS in 4 games and should be well rested for tomorrow's first game.
The Cardinals had their ups-and-downs during the season, but won the games that mattered while winning the Central by 3 games. They then proceeded to eliminate the pesky Pirates in a 5-game NLDS.
Here's how I see these two teams matching up.
Catcher: Yadier Molina vs. A.J. Ellis
Do we really even need to discuss this? Ellis, while a decent catcher, hit only .238/.318/.364 on the season. Molina hit .319/.359/.477 and is considered a MVP candidate.
First Base: Matt Adams vs Adrian Gonzalez
Although Allen Craig is hoping to play in the NLCS, its seems unlikely at this point, leaving the Cardinals with Adams. Although Adams is no slouch (.839 OPS, 131 OPS+), Gonzalez (.801 OPS, 126 OPS+) has been around longer as is considered a much better defender.
Second Base: Matt Carpenter vs Mark Ellis
Carpenter (.873 OPS, 143 OPS+) is another MVP candidate for the Cardinals, while Ellis (.674 OPS, 92 OPS+), like his catching namesake, is solid, but unspectacular.
Shortstop: Pete Kozma/Daniel Descalso vs Hanley Ramirez
While Kozma may be the better defender vs Ramirez, the combo of Kozma and Descalso cannot match Ramirez' offensive firepower.
Third Base: David Freese vs Juan Uribe
This is a tough call. Freese (.721 OPS) had a down year and was nearly replaced in the lineup by Kolten Wong. Uribe had a bit of a resurgence, but still only managed a .769 OPS. However, since Uribe showed a little more power than Freese, I have to give him the edge.
Left Field: Matt Holliday vs Carl Crawford
Holliday may be getting older, but its not showing in his offense. His .879 OPS and 144 OPS+ led the Cardinals. Crawford battled injuries this year and managed only a .736 OPS and 108 OPS+.
Center Field: John Jay vs Andre Ethier
It was a down year for Jay, who posted the lowest OPS (.721) and OPS+ (102) of his career. Ethier is coming back from an injury, but is expected to be ready for game one. His 122 OPS+ is right in line with his career average (123).
Right Field: Carlos Beltran vs Yasiel Puig
This is the opposite situation to first base, where you have an upstart rookie in Puig, who put up solid numbers vs a veteran in Beltran who has more experience and has put up huge numbers in October.
The Cardinals will likely go with Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn as their 4 starters for the series. Kelly (1-0, 3.24 ERA vs the Dodgers) will get the start in game 1. Lynn, who is 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA against the Dodgers this year, will likely get the start in game 4. Wacha (no record) is slated to get the start in game 2 in St. Louis. That would set up Wainwright to pitch game 3 and game 7, if necessary.
Wainwright has proven to be a big game pitcher, Wacha is showing that he thrives in pressure situations and Kelly has been pretty consistent all year. The X factor is Lynn. If he's "on", the Cardinals staff can match up with any team. If not, they're in trouble.
The Dodgers will trot out a foursome of Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-jin Ryu. Greinke (1-0, 2.84 ERA vs the Cards in 2013) gets the nod in game one, with Kershaw (0-2, 4.15 ERA) set for game 2. Its unclear who will pitch games 3 and 4, but both Nolasco (2-0, 0.75 ERA) and Ryu (1-0, 0.00 ERA) have fared well against the Cardinals.
The good news for Cardinal fans is that they likely won't have to face Kershaw, the likely Cy Young winner, more than twice. The bad news is that he is the one pitcher of the four that they have fared the best against.
With questions surrounding Lynn for the Cardinals, its hard for them to match up well against the Dodgers loaded staff.
Trevor Rosenthal has been successful in all 4 save attempts since taking over for the worn out Edward Mujica. However, Mujica's uncertainty has forced Mike Matheny to shift bullpen roles late in the season, pushing rookies Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist into setup roles, along with double-play specialist Seth Maness.
The Dodgers feature their own flamethrower in Kenley Jansen, who replace Brandon League as closer in June. Rookie Chris Withrow has filled a setup role, along with lefties Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell.
Overall, the Cardinals have a slightly better bullpen ERA than the Dodgers (3.45 vs 3.49), but neither one distinguishes themselves from the other.
Injuries to stars Allen Craig and Matt Kemp, have forced others into more prominent roles, leaving each bench somewhat depleted. The Dodgers bench features former Cardinal Skip Schumaker (.655 OPS) and utility guy Nick Punto (.655 OPS), while the Cardinals counter with Shane Robinson (.664 OPS) and Descalso (.656 OPS).
Neither bench should see much action nor have much impact on the outcome of the series.
This is the Dodgers first postseason appearance since 2009, while the Cardinals are appearing in their 3rd straight postseason.
Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly, is in just his third season at the helm and this is his first postseason experience. Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny is in his second season and second postseason.
Finally, the Cardinals have home field advantage, where they are 54-27.
This projects to be another close series, as the 5-5-2 breakdown above shows. The Cardinals need their bats to wake up after hitting just .209 in the NLDS, while the Dodgers hit .333, and it all starts with Matt Carpenter. Carpenter had just 1 hit in 19 at bats in the NLDS. If he gets in going in the NLCS, the Cardinals have a chance. If not, the series will be over quickly.
With that said and being the homer that I am, I have to go with my heart on this one.
PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN 7