The National League Championship Series begins Sunday afternoon (4 ET, TBS) as Milwaukee hosts St. Louis. The Notebook takes a brief look at the Division Series gone by and previews the LCS.
DIVISION SERIES WRAPS
Milwaukee over Arizona (3-2): Ryan Braun came up big in his second appearance in the postseason, hitting .500 for the series, with his best games being the opening two wins that gave the Brewers an early hold they would badly need when they went to Phoenix. Braun outperformed fellow stud outfield Justin Upton. While the Diamondback rightfielder hit a solo home run in Game 5, he was mostly quiet through the series. Arizona’s supporting cast played well, especially Paul Goldschmidt, but Arizona is like all four other eliminated teams in that they needed production from the star to advance.
St. Louis over Philadelphia (3-2): I don’t think I’ve been this truly stunned by a playoff result since the Tigers beat the Yankees back in 2006. It’s true that a short series is unforgiving, but it’s still surreal that a pitcher with the postseason resume of Cliff Lee would cough up a 4-0 lead like he did in Game 2. That failing let the Cards back in the series, gave them a chance to split at home and then put all the pressure on the Phils for Game 5. The Philly bats fell dead silent, with Ryan Howard being the prime culprit. It’s going to be a long offseason for this 102-win club that was such a heavy favorite to win it all. All the money they paid out for Lee really didn’t get them anything, as the Phils had enough to make the playoffs without him. And for Howard, this isn’t the first time he hasn’t been able to deliver in October.
Let’s break down Milwaukee & St. Louis by their ability to generate baserunners, their power production, the starting rotation and the bullpen.
GETTING ON BASE: Both teams power hitters, whom we’ll discuss in the next section, are good at getting on base. St. Louis has some problems after that. Rafael Furcal’s is inconsistent, and while Yadier Molina is a decent hitter for a catcher, that’s about the most you can say. John Jay is pretty good, but overall, the Cards need a strong series from Ryan Theriot, who hit well against the Phillies and will join Nick Punto (defensive whiz, offensive liability) in playing second base now that Skip Schumaker is out. Milwaukee’s Rickie Weeks is a dynamic offensive threat and Nyjer Morgan was having a great year even before he became a household name with a walkoff hit in Game 5 against Arizona and a colorful postgame interview. Milwaukee’s problems is that their liabilities—Yuniesky Betancourt, Jonathan Lucroy and Casey McGahee can test depths no one in St. Louis is likely to reach.
POWER: There’s some serious muscle in these lineups and a matchup between these two teams reminds me of the Red Sox-Yankee wars of 2003-05. Braun and Prince Fielder are both MVP candidates and bring the heavy lumber for Milwaukee. St. Louis counters with Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday, who’s back and healthy. Secondary power thrusts come from Cory Hart for Milwaukee and David Freese for St. Louis. Weeks can show some pop as well.
STARTING PITCHING: The way this series shapes up gives an early edge to St. Louis. While Chris Carpenter won’t be available until Game 3 on Wednesday, the same goes for Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo, who dominated Arizona in both his starts. The Brewers have Zack Greinke to throw Game 1, but the back-end starters Shawn Marcum and Randy Wolf are a real problem, especially Marcum right now. St. Louis has a solid starter in Jamie Garcia to match up with Greinke in the opener, and then presumably Kyle Lohse goes on Monday (Game 2 starters are not yet announced, per MLB.com). So while Carpenter is getting the headlines for his dazzling win over the Phils on Friday night, it’s the Brewers who are really dependent on getting their top two of Greinke and Gallardo to the mound four times. Unless this series goes seven, that’s probably not happening.
BULLPEN: A decisive edge to Milwaukee here, even allowing that closer John Axford’s blowing the Game 5 save raises some concerns about how he’ll handle other pressure outings in this series. And even allowing that it was the St. Louis bullpen who almost singlehandedly won the second game of the Phils’ series. Milwaukee’s Axford-Francisco Rodriguez combo is the best 8th-9th inning combo left in the postseason, while LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito and Kameron Loe offer plenty of options for getting to the end game. St. Louis closer Jason Motte has settled in, but there’s a lot of patchwork ahead of him. No one’s better than Tony LaRussa at doing that, but the Brewers are the ones with the settled pen.
PREDICTION: Both teams had magical Game 5 wins, but it’s Milwaukee who missed the chance to close their Division Series earlier and they pay for it here, due to the starting pitching dynamics outlined above. I really have no confidence the Brewers can win with Wolf or Marcum on the mound and that’s four times in six games. The offenses are fairly even, but even here the Cardinal lineup is a little deeper and their hitters more experienced at this level of play. The Notebook’s been saying all year that the Brewers are a top-heavy team, reliant on their stars to a greater degree than most contenders. St. Louis can match, if not exceed, the offensive muscle and the pitching schedule takes away Milwaukee star power on the mound. A bullpen edge can’t overcome all that, and St. Louis wins the pennant in six.