The 2013 National League Championship Series begins tonight, with the St. Louis Cardinals hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers in the best-of-seven fight for the NL flag. TheSportsNotebook.com’s MLB coverage breaks this series as we’ve done all others in this postseason, and that’s by comparing each team in the four key component parts–the ability to get on base hit for power, starting pitching and the bullpen.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: St. Louis had a lot of players struggle in what was a pitching-oriented series against Pittsburgh, save for the Cards’ seven-run outburst in the third inning of Game 1 and their late three-run burst to put away Game 5. One of the players who didn’t struggle was Pete Kozma. The shortstop had a .400 OBP in the Division Series, and this is significant because Kozma (or Daniel Descalco) would have been the one spot in the lineup that regular season numbers suggested would be a liability.
Otherwise, the Cards grind out at-bats like an American League team. Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, David Freese and Carlos Beltran are all effective at getting on base. Molina and Holliday were solid against the Pirates, and whatever happens with them in this series it’s going to take superlative pitching to contain everyone. The one big omission for St. Louis is first baseman Allen Craig, who continues to be left off the postseason roster due to his September foot injury.
Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig have been the Dodgers’ two best OBP players through the regular season and were both a big factor in the Division Series win over Atlanta. Los Angeles has their own injury factor with Andre Ethier, who had a .360 OBP in the regular season, but has been shelved for the playoffs. Ethier is day-to-day for the NLCS.
Players the Dodgers need to come through would include Carl Crawford, who was clutch against Atlanta, and Adrian Gonzalez. This is a good lineup when it comes to getting on base, but not as deep as St. Louis.
POWER: The same players who lead the way for St. Louis in filling up the basepaths can also drive the ball for power, with the exception of Kozma. The Cards hit six home runs in the series against the Pirates. Freese did not have a good year, but we know what he’s capable of, and he showed with a Game 5 home run that started the scoring.
Los Angeles’ power numbers aren’t going to look as spiffy because of the park they play in, but both Puig and Ramirez are excellent. Gonzalez’s power has dipped in recent seasons, but like Freese, he’s still a threat and proved it with a big home run in the previous round. Ethier might normally be considered a threat, but even if healthy, you have to wonder if he would be able to drive the ball on his bad ankle. And Crawford hit three home runs in the last two wins over Atlanta, but that’s out of character from the season. I’m ready to assume he’ll stay hot, but not in terms of power.
STARTING PITCHING: Each team has an ace that came up big, in Clayton Kershaw for Los Angeles and Adam Wainwright for St. Louis. I was critical of Dodger manager Don Mattingly’s decision to pitch Kershaw on three days rest in Game 4 against the Braves, in large part because I thought it was worth the risk to see if you could close out Atlanta anyway and then start Kershaw in Game 1. As it is, he’s pushed back to Game 2.
Los Angeles still has a big edge at the top though. Zack Greinke is set to pitch the opener, and St. Louis’ need to go five games to defeat Pittsburgh pushes Wainwright back to Game 3. And the Cards have question marks in the middle of their rotation. Joe Kelly, the Game 1 starter, looked shaky against Pittsburgh. Lance Lynn was a disaster against the Pirates and predictably unpredictable in what you’ll get out of him.
We do know that Michael Wacha can pitch. After coming within one out of a no-hitter in the final week of the regular season, Wacha took a no-no into the eighth inning in a must-win Game 4 at Pittsburgh. He’ll get the ball for the second game against the Dodgers and there’s nothing to suggest that going against Kershaw will scare him.
St. Louis’ pitching decisions after the Kelly-Wacha-Wainwright trio to open the series are undecided, but I’d have no hesitation in pitching rookie Shelby Miller in Game 4. We’ve seen rookies, from Wacha to Oakland’s Sonny Gray, thrive in the postseason. Why mess around with Lynn?
Los Angeles hasn’t announced its Game 3 starter, but I can’t imagine they’d turn their back on Hyun-Jin Ru, simply because of a bad outing against Atlanta in a game his team won anyway. The more pertinent decision for Mattingly comes in Game 4 when he has to decide whether to do the three days’ rest thing or go with Ricky Nolasco.
BULLPEN: Both Mattingly and counterpart Mike Matheny have had their challenges in this area all year, but I feel like the Dodgers are much more in their happy place right now. Kenley Jansen pitched well in the closer’s role down the stretch and against Atlanta. Brian Wilson tossed three shutout innings against the Braves and has serious postseason chops from closing for San Francisco in their 2010 World Series run.
The numbers tell out St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal didn’t give up a run in two innings, but they don’t tell you how uncomfortable he looked against Pittsburgh. What’s more, unlike Jansen, Rosenthal hasn’t been the closer for an extended time, and for all we know, might not even be right now. Matheny could have to try and close a pennant with a mix of Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and John Axford. It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s not exactly making anyone in Los Angeles think that they need to win these games in the first six innings.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: These are the two most storied franchises in the National League and had great pennant races back when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Of a more modern variety, they met in the 1985 NLCS, in what proved to be a series for the edges. The home teams won each of the first four games. Then Ozzie Smith continued that pattern for St. Louis with a walkoff shot to win Game 5, prompting radio voice Jack Buck to say the words “Go crazy folks, go crazy!”, that you hear on video montages and promos for MLB postseason telecasts to this day.
Then in Game 6, the Dodgers led 5-4 in the ninth with two outs, but St. Louis had runners on second and third. Jack Clark came to the plate. He was easily St. Louis’ best power hitter and second-guessers would say he should have been walked. With a righty-righty matchup in his favor, LA skipper let closer Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Clark, and the slugger planted one in the left field bleachers. St. Louis won the pennant.
PREDICTION: St. Louis has the better lineup, and Los Angeles the more reliable bullpen. To me, the key is that I think the gap between the Dodgers’ starting pitching and that of the Cardinals’ is overstated. Kershaw is great, Greinke is very good, but St. Louis isn’t bad. And the way the schedule sets up, Wainwright would pitch a seventh game at home if it comes to that. But I don’t think it will. St. Loo in six.