Cardinals-Dodgers a classic heavyweight matchup
Clashing in NLCS, storied franchises each boast clutch lineups, deep rotations
Look, there's no delicate way to say this, so I'll just come right out and say it:
I'm bummed the Pittsburgh Pirates did not advance to the National League Championship Series.
And unless you're reading this in your St. Louis Cardinals pajamas or while feasting on some toasted ravioli or sipping on a Schlafly, I'll go out on a limb and guess you're probably a little bummed, too.
It's nothing personal against the Cardinals; it's just that sports fans are always suckers for a feel-good story, and the Pirates made us feel good. Right up until they got Wacha'd and Wainwritten right out of October.
But listen, Cards fans, I can't speak for all of us who jumped on the Bucco bandwagon, but I can assure you that I'll get over it. Because if the Bucs couldn't go all the way, then Cardinals-Dodgers is one heck of a consolation prize.
Two storied franchises, two flawless uniforms, two clubs with clutch lineups and deep rotations. In Busch Stadium and Dodger Stadium, we've got two of the game's more electric atmospheres. In Carlos Beltran and Hanley Ramirez, we've got arguably the most accomplished hitter in postseason history against unarguably the hottest hitter of October 2013. And in Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright, we've got a pair of aces with two of two of the most beautiful, confounding curveballs on the continent
The Dodgers, infused with overwhelming ownership energy and cash flow, have risen from the ashes of the Frank McCourt era and into the L.A. limelight. They've got starpower and showmanship, and they're here to make a splash (quite literally, in one instance).
The Cardinals, empowered by a devastatingly deep farm system that allows them to lose an Albert Pujols and keep on keeping on, have a championship culture borne out of eight NLCS appearances, three World Series appearances and two rings since 2000, and they're here to uphold a tradition.
So, who has the edge?
Well, the Dodgers, for starters. And I mean that quite literally. Kershaw's short-rest success in Game 4 of the NL Division Series bought the Dodgers the ability to bring back Zack Greinke on six days' rest for Game 1. And Kershaw will be ready on regular rest for Game 2. If there's a way to negate the home-field advantage the Cards' 97-win season earned them, throwing the guy who had an adjusted ERA 35 percent better than league average in Game 1 and the guy who was 94 percent better than league average in Game 2 is one way to do it.
The Cardinals, as of this writing, hadn't announced their NLCS rotation, but the best guess is Joe Kelly in Game 1, Michael Wacha in Game 2 and Wainwright in Game 3. Having to burn Wainwright in the clincher against the Pirates was obviously costly for the Cards, though it does present the late-series advantage of having him available on regular rest for Game 7, should it reach that point (and hey, let's hope it does).
But as underrated as Kelly may be (the guy might have saved St. Louis' season with the way he pitched midseason as the rotation was enduring injury-related instability) and as confounding as Wacha's changeup was in a nearly flawless performance against the Pirates in a must-win, you've still got to give the starting edge to the Dodgers in the tone-setting first two games. And not just on the might of reputation.
The Cardinals' greatest offensive strength, after all, has been their unconscionable clout in the clutch. Their .330 team batting average with runners in scoring position was, according to STATS LLC, the highest in the game since at least 1974, the first year of reliable RISP stats.
Greinke and Kershaw, however, were two of the best in the game this season at squelching rallies. Opponents hit just .202 off Greinke with RISP (seventh-best mark in the game among qualifying pitchers) and just .180 off Kershaw (third best).
Maybe the non-predictive nature of RISP stats applies to pitchers as much as it does to hitters, but those numbers would certainly illustrate the depth and quality of repertoire for the Dodgers' co-aces.
The good news for St. Louis is that Wainwright vs. Hyun-Jin Ryu -- if that is, indeed, the matchup -- in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium is a clear edge. The rookie Ryu looked jittery in his first taste of the postseason stage, whereas Wainwright's unflappability was obvious in his complete Game 5 gem.
Beyond that, well, who knows? For Game 4, the Cards will have their choice of Lance Lynn, roughed up by the Buccos, or Shelby Miller, shelved after showing signs of wearing down in September. The Dodgers went out of their way to leapfrog Ricky Nolasco in the NLDS against the Braves after his September struggles, but unless they're going to reinvent the regulars of pitcher rest, they're going to have to give him the ball in the LCS round.
As far as the offenses are concerned, take your pick. The Dodgers looked all but unstoppable against Atlanta, not just in the way Hanley hit (1.618 OPS), but the way Carl Crawford (1.303), Juan Uribe (1.188) and Yasiel Puig (1.029) augmented his awesome output.
The Cardinals did not display that level of firepower, but Beltran continues to build on his impeccable postseason credentials, and Matt Adams, whose Game 5 homer put the Bucs to bed, has been a worthy replacement for the injured Allen Craig. The concern for the Cards, especially with Craig out, is their susceptibility to left-handed starters, which Kershaw and, possibly, Ryu could capitalize on.
Both bullpens come with questions, with the Dodgers having to reassess their left-handed setup given Paco Rodriguez's recent struggles and the Cardinals relying on a 23-year-old kid in the closer role, in Trevor Rosenthal. But these questions are not glaring ones. Neither bullpen is a weakness.
This will be the fourth postseason meeting of these two clubs since 1985, the first since the Dodgers swept the Cardinals in the '09 NLDS.
My gut says the Dodgers take advantage of their rested rotation and win this one, too. But my mind knows too well the tenacity of these Cards teams when they're on the postseason stage.
I'll go with the gut: Dodgers in six, with Kershaw in the clincher. Maybe this isn't the series those of us swept up in the Pirates story wanted to see. But it's going to be a good one.