National League Championship Series Preview and Predictions
As a New York Mets fan, I usually find it extremely difficult to watch baseball in the months of September and October. I usually use those months to start loathing my New York Jets as I try and forget about yet another disappointing baseball season for the Mets. This year has gone a little differently as I have been following what has to be the most exciting MLB playoffs I have ever witnessed. This was the first season in Major League Baseball history that all four divisional series went to a decisive game 5. While the American League had some great matchups in it’s own right, I will leave that for my PIC to tell you about. The excitement and quality baseball that came out of the two NLDS series is enough to write about for days. While my predictions for the NLDS was for the St. Louis Cardinals to be facing off with the Cincinnati Reds, I think I am more excited to have the past two World Series Champions throwing down for yet another trip to the big dance. I said from the beginning that in baseball playoffs, there is nothing more important than experience and outside of the New York Yankees, no one in the league has more experience in the post season in the past decade than the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. Here is a breakdown of how I feel the two NLCS teams compare with each other and who I feel will come out on top.
San Francisco Giants – Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, (Tim Lincecum)
The San Francisco Giants starting rotation has been dominant for pretty much the entire season, which helped them win the NL West with ease. Once the playoffs started things looked a little shaky as their Ace and NL Cy Young candidate, Matt Cain, and their usually reliable work horse, Madison Bumgarner, both got lit up by an amazing Reds lineup that seemed to be on the verge of an easy sweep. After masterful starts by both Ryan Vogelsong in game 3 and Barry Zito in game 4, in which Tim Lincecum came in and pitched over 4 innings of beautiful relief ball that gave him the win, the ball was given back to their Ace Matt Cain to redeem himself from his game 1 meltdown. Since Cain started game 5 of the NLDS, the first game of the NLCS will be pitched by Bumgarner followed by a game 2 start for Vogelsong and then back to the start of the rotation with Cain. It doesn’t look like Lincecum will be getting any starts in the post season barring any injuries to other starters, but what he showed as a reliever in game 4 definitely was comforting for the Giants fans.
St. Louis Cardinals – Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn
The Cardinals starting rotation has been plagued with injuries all season long and that trend has seemed to continue during Jamie Garcia’s game 2 start which ended with a season ending injury. The loss of Garcia is bad, but having one of the the biggest surprises from the regular season, Lance Lynn, there to fill the gap is pretty comforting. Lynn will be going from not being in the starting rotation in the NLDS, to becoming the opening game starter in the NLCS. Talk about pressure! Long time Cardinals great, Chris Carpenter, will most likely be the game 2 starter for St. Louis which comes as a huge relief for their freshman coach, Mike Matheny, because Carpenter spent practically the entire regular season on the bench with an injury. Chris had the most dominant start out of all the Cards starters, having pitched shutout ball for 6 innings. Depending on how the first two games pan out, Matheny will have a choice between the most improved pitcher in baseball this season, Kyle Lohse, or their regular season Ace, Adam Wainwright, to take the mound for game 3. While Wainwright looked solid in his game 1 start against the Nats, his game 5 start was so bad that he was removed after only 2 2/3 innings. Regardless of who takes the mound for this team, they all seem to have the goods to pitch a quality game night in and night out.
Starting Pitching Edge: San Francisco Giants
San Francisco Giants – Brandon Belt (1B), Marco Scutaro (2B), Brandon Crawford (SS), Pablo Sandoval (3B), Buster Posey (C)
Outside of Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey, there really isn’t a formidable power bat on the Giants infield. The Giants first baseman, Brandon Belt, had an average sophomore season with the club as he hit .275 and proved that he can put the ball in play on a consistent basis. Belt struggled mightily throughout the entire NLDS and was even benched for game 4 of the series. Second baseman, Marco Scutaro, has been a journeyman in his 10 year career and when he was acquired almost halfway through the 2012 season from the Colorado Rockies, he hit a remarkable .362 for the Giants to close out the regular season. Scutaro, like Belt, had an abysmal NLDS, collecting only 3 hits in his 20 AB’s. While the Giants second year shortstop, Brandon Crawford, is obviously in the lineup for defensive purposes, his bat will be needed at least a little bit. Crawford fills in the Giants 8th spot on their lineup every game and if he can put up a similar OBP (.357) in the NLCS as he did in the NLDS then the Giants could be in good shape. Pablo Sandoval is a great hitter and with men on base he will be pitched around more often than not. Buster Posey is arguably the best catcher in the game and is in the running for the NL MVP.
St. Louis Cardinals – Allen Craig (1B), Daniel Descalso (2B), Pete Kozma (SS), David Freese (3B), Yadier Molina (C)
The St. Louis Cardinals infield are a scrappy bunch that can win games in many different ways. If they need a home run they can hit it and if they just need men on base they seem to be able to do that with ease. At first base, Allen Craig has been a reliable bat all season long with a regular season BA of .307 and he carried that success into the playoffs by hitting a fantastic .348 in the division series against the Nationals. The Cards second baseman, Daniel Descalso, had an average opening playoff series against the Nats by hitting a modest .273, but he is considered the man who won the series for them with a huge home run in game 5 to pull them within 1 run in the eighth inning and then a game tying 2-run single in the ninth. With Rafael Furcal out for the rest of the season with an elbow injury, Pete Kozma has stepped up for the Cards and has played great baseball. Kozma’s .385 OBP in the division series out of the 8th spot in the batting lineup was a huge boost for the Cards. It also helps that Kozma has a comparable defensive ability to his predecessor, Furcal. At third base, David Freese has been here before and he always seems to get on base or get the big hit when the team needs it most. Yadier Molina might be the only catcher in baseball that can challenge Posey for the rights to the best at that position and no one knows his postseason prowess better then us self loathing Mets fans.
Starting Infield Edge: St. Louis Cardinals
San Francisco Giants – Gregor Blanco (LF), Angel Pagan (CF), Hunter Pence (RF)
The Giants outfield would look a hell of a lot different if it wasn’t for Melky Cabrera’s PED use. Gregor Blanco spent most of the 2012 season as the Giants utility outfielder, but once Cabrera was suspended for the rest of the season, Blanco was needed as a regular starter in left field. While his bat was basically useless during the regular season, Blanco seemed to have found a little success in the NLDS with a .375 OBP. Blanco is as sure-handed as they come in the outfield. Angel Pagan is another great defensive outfielder, but as the lead off hitter for the Giants, his role is a lot more important on the offensive end. Pagan really struggled in the NLDS and if he has a similar performance in the Championship series than the Giants will be in big trouble. Hunter Pence was a mid-season acquisition from the Philadelphia Phillies that was thought of as a brilliant move. Unfortunately for Giants fans, Pence has under-performed since he arrived in San Fran and he carried those batting woes all the way through the NLDS. If the Giants want to find success in the NLCS, they are going to need all three of these guys to pick up their hitting a little bit more.
St. Louis Cardinals – Matt Holiday (LF), John Jay (CF), Carlos Beltran (RF)
The entire Cardinals offense depends on how their outfield can perform at the plate because their three outfielders are the first three batters in their lineup. Matt Holiday put up his typical regular season numbers but he really struggled when he entered the NLDS. Holiday only collected 2 extra-base hits out of the 5 games that they played against the Nationals. John Jay is as fast as they come in center field but just like his counterpart, Angel Pagan, Jay is the Cardinals lead off hitter and his bat is as important if not more important to St. Louis’ success. Jay probably had the worst offensive performance out of all the Cardinals players in the NLDS (.222 OBP) and he knows that has to change that to beat the Giants. Is there anyone more clutch in the postseason than Carlos Beltran right now? Beltran carried the Cardinals offensively through the NLDS with a ridiculous .409 BA and a .500 OBP. On top of his amazing postseason bat, he is a stud defensively and he seems to only be getting better with age. While Beltran has clearly found steady footing in the playoffs, he is going to need his other two outfielders to join him if the Cardinals hope to come out of the NLCS victorious.
Starting Outfield Edge: St. Louis Cardinals
San Francisco Giants – Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, George Kontos, Sergio Romo (closer)
The Giants bullpen has had their ups and downs throughout the regular season but they have seemed to find their footing in the playoffs. The emergence of Sergio Romo as a reliable closer has really helped the Giants trust their bullpen in late innings. When it comes down to it, the Giants have a starting rotation that can go deep in almost every game and now that they have found solace with Lincecum coming in for long relief, there is even less pressure on the bullpen. Romo showed a little bit of his flaws towards the end off game 5 against the Cincinnati Reds, but in the end he was able to close out the game for his first ever postseason save.
St. Louis Cardinals – Mitchell Boggs, Marc Rzepczynski, Fernando Salas, Edward Mujica, Jason Motte (closer)
No one is in more familiar territory right now that the Cardinals closer, Jason Motte. Motte was on the mound for the final out of last years NLCS and for the final pitch of the World Series. He is truly in his comfort zone. The Cardinals, like the Giants, have a great starting rotation that takes a lot of pressure off of the bullpen. Outside of their workhorse’s Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski, the Cardinals bullpen is pretty underused. When the ball gets into Jason Motte’s hands, it seems as if the Cardinals always come out with a win. So the solution for the Giants is easy…get and keep the lead.
Relief Pitching Edge: St. Louis Cardinals
I know I picked the St. Louis Cardinals to have the advantage in 3 of the 4 categories I talked about, but this NLCS is not going to be so cut and dry. Even though the St. Louis Cardinals are the defending World Series Champions, the Giants are only two years removed from their last title. I think this series is going to be extremely close and come down to a decisive game 7. Both teams fans will have a lot to cheer about but once that final pitch is thrown I feel that the St. Louis Cardinals will be making a trip back to the big dance.