MLB Playoffs: NLCS Preview

San Francisco Giants vs St. Louis Cardinals

The NLCS is, in essence, a clash of the titans, as the last four NL championships are represented in these two franchises.  The Cardinals have now reached the NLCS for the fourth straight year, becoming the first team to do that since the Yankees from 1998-2001.  The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, and they are once again hot in the postseason in an even year.

Rotation:  The Giants have won a pair of rings based on the strength of their pitching, and this year is similar, yet different, to those two championship teams.  Madison Bumgarner has stepped up to become an ace, along with the rebirth of veterans Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy, and the unusual postseason brilliance of Ryan Vogelsong (1st pitcher in history to allow one run or less in the first five postseason starts of his career, despite a 4.00 regular season ERA).  And that’s with Matt Cain out with injury and Tim Lincecum in the bullpen after a loss of Cy Young form.  The Cardinals are also very pitching-based, led by ace Adam Wainwright, and his supporting cast of Lance Lynn, midseason acquisition John Lackey, and young gun Shelby Miller, and should have a slight edge in each of the head to head matchups with their Giants counterparts.
Advantage: Cardinals, but not by much

Bullpen:  The Cardinals bullpen is very young, with fireballers Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez set to pitch the late innings, and 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha available in long relief.  The most experienced player in the Cardinals pen is Pat Neshek, who with a 1.87 ERA had a career year at age 33.  The Giants bullpen is also full of power pitchers, but has more experience, and has been there before when it comes to closing out wins in the postseason, led by Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Jean Machi.  Neither bullpen should be a hindrance for their team.
Advantage: Giants, but not by much

Lineup:  While they aren’t the strengths of their respective teams, both lineups in this series are solid.  The Giants are led by former MVP Buster Posey, postseason clutch performer Pablo Sandoval, and the unorthodox Hunter Pence, and while they didn’t hit tremendously well in the NLDS win over Washington, they got enough hits at the right time.  The Cardinals seemed to be even better in the clutch, particularly in the 7th inning of games in their series win over the Dodgers.  Matt Carpenter had a down year after being an MVP candidate a year ago, but is hot in the postseason, as is Matt Adams, whose homer off of Clayton Kershaw propelled the Cardinals to the clinching win.  Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta are the anchors of the stellar unit.
Advantage: Cardinals

Bench:  The Cardinals have a solid bench unit, which includes catcher AJ Pierzynski, infielders Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, and outfielders Peter Bourjos and Oscar Taveras.  This is one area where there is a big difference from one team to the other, as the Giants can’t compete with St. Louis in this regard.  The broadcasting crew for the Giants NLDS against the Nationals said they do not have a “traditional NL bench”, as it is full of players good for defensive replacements or pinch-running appearances, and not necessarily for pinch-hitting.
Advantage: Cardinals

Defense:  These two teams both rank in the top five in the NL in fielding percentage, with the Cardinals ranking third and the Giants ranking fifth.  While the Cardinals rank higher, the Giants have an excellent set of defensive players, and may rank slightly better than the Cardinals in the so-called “eye test”.  It’s very difficult to give either side the edge in this category.
Advantage: Even

Manager:  Since taking over in St. Louis after the retirement of Hall of Famer Tony La Russa, Mike Matheny has done an outstanding job, taking his team to Game 7 of the NLCS against these Giants in 2012, and to the World Series last year.  However, Bruce Bochy has never lost a postseason series as Giants manager, and has won two World Series with the team.  He simply knows how to get the most out of his players at the right time of year, leading to that level of success.
Advantage: Giants

Home field/crowd:  The Giants have an excellent home field advantage when playing at home by the bay at AT&T Park.  The Cardinals fans are also known for being very loud, but also very respectful, and very knowledgeable of the game.  The Cardinals have four of the seven games in the series at home, which could make the difference in the series.
Advantage: Cardinals

This is the fifth NLCS meeting between these two teams, with the Giants winning the last three, including a seven-game series win in 2012 after trailing the series 3-1.  They, in fact, haven’t lost the NLCS to anyone since 1987.  That will change, although the teams are even enough that the series should go the distance.  The Cardinals have the edge in four of my criteria, with the Giants having the edge in two and one category even.

The Cardinals will win the series, 4 games to 3.

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