With the St. Louis Cardinals defeat of the Pittsburgh Pirates the National League Championship is set and will begin Friday at Busch Stadium in St. Louis with the Cardinals taking on the Los Angeles Dodgers. Down 2-1 in the NLDS the Cardinals won consecutive elimination games behind dominant starting pitching by Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright. The matchup between two of the most storied franchises in all of baseball is the first postseason series between the two clubs since the Dodgers swept the Cardinals in the 2009 NLDS. The two franchises boast seventeen combined World Series titles, with the Cardinals second all-time with eleven.
Here are three things to watch in the NLCS:
Elite Starting Pitching: The Los Angeles Dodgers boast arguably the top 1-2 pitching combination in all of baseball in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. The Dodgers twenty-five year-old lefthander Kershaw is the odds on favorite to earn his second Cy Young Award in four seasons. Greinke, who the Dodgers acquired via free agency this offseason, has long been one of the dominant right-handers in the game and won 15 games this season against only four defeats with an outstanding 2.63 ERA. In the Dodgers 3-1 series victory over the Braves in the NLDS Kershaw had two outstanding starts, striking out 18 batters in just thirteen innings pitched with just one earned run given up. Due to the Dodgers decision to start Kershaw in game four of the Braves series the Dodgers will start Greinke in game one, followed by Kershaw on Saturday.
The Cardinals have their own trio of outstanding starters in veteran ace Adam Wainwright and rookie Michael Wacha. Wainwright closed out the Pittsburgh series with a dominating start in game five. He’s joined in the rotation by Wacha who pitched seven perfect innings in Pittsburgh in game four before giving up a solo home run in the seventh inning. Wacha exited the game with just one hit allowed and one earned run in an incredibly boisterous road environment. The twenty-one year- old was a late call-up who nearly pitched a perfect game during the regular season. The remainder of the Cardinals postseason roster is to be determined, with a choice between Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller.
The Season Series: The Dodgers took five of seven from the Cardinals this season including taking three of four in St. Louis in early August. In the August series the Dodgers received outstanding starting performances from Ricky Nolasco, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke. Ironically the lone Cardinals victory was the one game started by Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw gave up just two earned runs but the Dodgers were unable to provide their starter much run support, ending the Dodgers club record fifteen game road winning streak. In the first game of the series Greinke out-dueled Wainwright in a tight battle.
For the Dodgers to prevail they’ll need Nolasco and Ryu to recapture the form they showed during the late summer Dodgers hot streak. After being acquired by the Dodgers from the Marlins Nolasco was outstanding, but struggled at the end of the season, perhaps due to throwing so many innings this season. Ryu, the Korean rookie, had a strong regular season but struggled in game three of the Braves series. The playoff schedule may allow the Dodgers to go with a three-man rotation, but it’s likely they’ll have to start Nolasco in game four back in Los Angeles. They’ll need the right-hander to recapture the form he showed right after his acquisition.
The Cardinals Lineup: The Cardinals don’t have the superstar they once had in Albert Pujols, but do have one of the deepest and most efficient batting lineups in baseball. The Cardinals are third in baseball in runs scored and on base percentage and fourth in batting average. The Cardinals had five players drive in at least seventy-five runs this season, with four regulars batting over .300. Second Baseman Matt Carpenter led the NL in hits, batting .318. Superstar catcher Yadier Molina hit .319 with 80 runs batted in. Molina is on track for his seventh gold glove. Allen Craig led the National League in batting average with runners in scoring position, hitting .315 with 97 runs batted in. Both Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran hit near .300 with between 22 and 24 home runs and 80 runs batted in. The Cardinals lineup will be a big challenge to the Dodgers pitching staff. One bright spot for the Dodgers is the Cardinals inconsistent offensive showing in the NLDS. After leading the Cardinals all season in batting Carpenter hit just .067 in the NLDS with David Freese, Matt Holliday and John Jay also struggling at the plate.
The biggest key to victory for the Dodgers is getting off to a strong start in St. Louis, just like in Atlanta. If Greinke and Kershaw can be their dominant self the Dodgers have a strong opportunity to reclaim home field advantage upon their return to Los Angeles. The Cardinals are a battle tested club with significant postseason experience. The spotlight won’t be too big for them and the Dodgers will face a hostile environment this weekend in St. Louis. With Wainwright starting game five the Dodgers have the luxury of avoiding the Cardinals ace in St. Louis. Wainwright will likely start game three in Los Angeles. The Cardinals game one and two starters are still to be announced but likely will be either Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller or Lance Lynn in game one and Michael Wacha in game two. Lynn struggled in game two versus the Pirates and Kelly and Miller both have very little postseason experience. The veteran Dodgers club may have an advantage versus the very young Cardinals rotation as the pressure gets ramped up even more in the NLCS.
Prediction: The Dodgers ride Kershaw and Greinke into the World Series, out-dueling the young Cardinals rotation. Dodgers win 4-2.