Hall of Famer and philosophical laureate Yogi Berra may have said it best, “in baseball, you don’t know nothing.” Contradictions aside, it may be plausible to assert that baseball is a game founded on the principle of unpredictability. Nothing is envisaged or definitive in nature, except perhaps for the ever-popular element of surprise.
As we approached the postseason this year, that element of surprise was found to be alive and well, taking a strong embodiment in the form of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Perennial struggles have defined baseball in Pittsburgh for much of the past two decades, a bleak stretch that covered 20 consecutive losing seasons.
That trend was halted by a rejuvenated campaign this season, as the Bucs turned in an impressive 94-win campaign that rendered them postseason worthy for the first time since 1992.
As for the Atlanta Braves, arguably one of the more consistently strong teams throughout the league this season, the postseason would serve as proving grounds for the NL East Champions. Coming into the postseason, Atlanta was coming off of a mediocre showing in the month of September, a 27-game stretch that saw the Braves post a 13-14 record.
Nevertheless, with their season-long consistency and MLB-best home record (56-25), they managed to fall back on a 10-game cushion over Washington in the divisional standings.
Much like a batter that whiffs at a devastating, sweeping curve on the outside corner, the Pirates and Braves find themselves staring blankly in the batter’s box, having just struck out and thwarted from moving forward in October.
Pittsburgh gave a good fight, but was no match for the Cardinals’ pitching staff, let alone offensive depth. For the Braves, a strong season was deemed futile in four games against the Dodgers, who outplayed Atlanta in almost all facets of the game.
The unpredictability of the game has now given us an NLCS matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, the first time both teams have squared off for a World Series berth since 1985, which saw the Cardinals advance only to be defeated in seven games by the Kansas City Royals.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers came out of the gate strong against Kris Medlen in Game 1 of their NLDS against the Braves, pegging him for five runs over four innings. Staff ace Clayton Kershaw put on a clinic, holding the Atlanta offense to just one run over seven innings while fanning a season high 12 batters en route to a 6-1 victory at Turner Field.
Zack Greinke would turn in a solid outing for the Dodgers in Game 2, but Mike Minor would hold the Los Angeles offense to just one run, as the Dodgers would fall just short by a score of 4-3.
The tide would quickly change as both teams traveled to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4. The Dodgers offense exploded for a 13-run effort, led by a pair of homers by Carl Crawford and Juan Uribe, as well as three-hit performances by Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig. Los Angeles would cruise to a 13-6 victory and a 2-1 series lead, looking to close the gate on the Braves and advance to their first NLCS in four seasons.
Kershaw received the starting nod in Game 4 where he would turn in six strong innings, but a pair of unearned runs and a strong performance by Atlanta starter Freddy Garcia would eventually lead to a 3-2 advantage for the Braves heading into the bottom half of the eighth inning. With Puig on second and no outs, Uribe would take David Carpenter deep to left for a go-ahead two-run blast, giving the Dodgers the outright 4-3 lead. Kenley Jansen would enter the top of the ninth and strike out the side, cementing the victory and the NLDS for the Dodgers, who will attempt to capture their first NLCS since 1988 when they would go on to beat the Braves in the World Series.
Despite the fact that the Dodgers arguably have the best one-two starting punch in baseball with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, Los Angeles is lacking depth in their rotation. After Kershaw and Greinke comes Hyun-Jin Ryu, who despite having a successful rookie campaign was roughed up in his start against the Braves in the NLDS.
Ryu surrendered four runs on six hits over just three innings of work, all of which would culminate in a 13-6 loss for the Dodgers.
Ricky Nolasco, who has been solid for the Dodgers since coming from Miami earlier this season, was scratched from starting Game 4 of the NLDS in favor of Kershaw, who would start on just three days’ rest.
Mattingly may have been compelled to make the decision due to the poor play displayed by Nolasco in the final weeks of the season, as he posted a 14.25 ERA in his final three starts.
The move appeared to pay off for Los Angeles, as Kershaw turned in a good outing to clinch the series. The downfall is that Greinke will be given the starting nod in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, which will relegate Kershaw to Game 2. While that may not be reason to fret, what appears to be the dilemma is the state of the rotation going forward in a seven-game series.
Los Angeles was able to make due with three starters in the NLDS, but will have to either start Nolasco and/or Edinson Volquez to sustain a potential World Series run. The workload cannot be placed upon just three starters and with the way that Kershaw and Greinke are pitching, risking those arms due to apprehensive strategy may prove costly not only in the short term, but also in the long term.
In terms of bullpen depth, the Dodgers are amongst the best in baseball. Jansen has become one of the better closers in the game (although it can be argued that he is often overlooked and underrated) and has provided the Dodgers with the most consistent shutdown closing abilities since the days of Eric Gagne. To put his value in perspective, Jansen faced nine Atlanta batters in the NLDS, seven of which he struck out.
Brian Wilson has served as a solid setup option, turning in lockdown appearances since returning from Tommy John surgery in August. J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez also give Los Angeles the southpaw depth that will be key in matchups against key offensive pieces on the Cardinals such as Matt Carpenter.
The Dodgers were hitting machines in their NLDS matchup against the Braves, batting a collective .333 that included Hanley Ramirez’s .500 and Yasiel Puig’s .471 respective batting averages.
It may be hard to argue that any other pair of players have been as dominating at the plate as have Ramirez and Puig in the postseason. Since Los Angeles’ midseason resurgence, Ramirez has been one of, if not the best hitter in baseball, while Puig has grown into a more effective hitter at the top of the lineup.
Uribe has surged to the forefront of the conversation with his recent heroics in Game 4, offering a dangerous, seasoned bat in the middle of the lineup along with Adrian Gonzalez, who is always one swing of the bat away from potentially opening up a game.
One of advantages that Los Angeles has over St. Louis is their bench options. Andre Ethier is likely to return in some capacity for the NLCS, whether that is as a starter (wherein Skip Schumaker, one of the weaker hitters in the lineup, would be replaced by Ethier) or a useful pinch hitter.
If coming off of the bench, Ethier will add clout to an already solid bench that includes the likes of Scott Van Slyke and Michael Young, who provides a veteran bat and the ability to work the corner infield spots, as well as second if needed.
In addition, Dee Gordon can provide exceptional speed on the base paths if a pinch runner is needed and the pitching staff can brandish a solid bat in the nine spot as well, as the pitching staff combined to lead the league in AVG (.176), OBP (.233), and SLG (.227). The Dodgers have tools across the board, all of which may come in handy against a crafty Cardinals squad that will fight against any obstacle to win the game.
The Dodgers’ lineup is unremitting at the moment, rivaling that of the Cardinals every step of the way. With the likes of Kershaw and Greinke at the helm of the rotation, look for the offense to keep up to par and fire on all cylinders with each passing inning.
St. Louis Cardinals
As for the Cardinals, their NLDS matchup against the Pirates was not as much of a smooth sailing, as the series was pushed to five games. Although Pittsburgh was able to garner a pair of wins, St. Louis certainly displayed their superiority in their three victories.
The Cardinals finished the regular season having posted an impressive 19-8 record in the month of September and entered the postseason having won six straight games. They maintained that momentum going into Game 1 as the St. Louis offense ripped A.J. Burnett for seven runs, led by a three-run shot by Carlos Beltran.
Most impressive was perhaps the pitching performance by Adam Wainwright, who baffled the Pittsburgh offense with his fastball and curve, surrendering just one run over seven strong innings en route to the 9-1 victory for the Redbirds.
St. Louis would struggle in Game 2 as the offense was held at bay by Pittsburgh’s rookie flamethrower, Gerrit Cole. While Cole held the Cardinals to just one run on two hits over six innings, Lance Lynn was not so lucky. Lynn surrendered five of the seven runs scored by Pittsburgh in the contest, an eventual 7-1 victory for the Bucs at Busch Stadium.
Pittsburgh would take the 2-1 series lead with a 5-3 victory in Game 3 at PNC Park. With the score tied 3-3 heading into the bottom of the eighth, the Pirates rallied to score two in the frame to grab the lead and eventual victory.
On the brink of elimination, the Cardinals would buckle down and place their faith in the arm of rookie starter Michael Wacha. Wacha would not disappoint as he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning before surrendering a solo shot to Pedro Alvarez. Wacha’s heroics and Matt Holliday’s two-run shot in the sixth would be just enough as the Cardinals grabbed the 2-1 victory and forced a Game 5.
Much like Game 1, the Pittsburgh offense appeared to unmatched against the talents of Wainwright. The Cardinals ace turned in yet another dazzling performance, this time a one-run complete-game shutout. Wainwright was in control from the get-go, locating his pitches across the plate and baffling batters with an almost unhittable curveball. His heroics would help the Cardinals cruise to a 6-1 victory, propelling them into the NLCS for the third straight season.
The Cardinals sit in a similar boat as the Dodgers in terms of questions surrounding the nature of their starting rotation. Wacha and Wainwright will start Games 2 and 3 respectively, after having started the last two games, both of which were performances to be remembered.
The intriguing part is that of the starter for Game 1 on Friday evening, which has been announced as being Joe Kelly.
Kelly was given the starting nod in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Pittsburgh, but was rather mediocre at best. The young right-hander surrendered three runs (one unearned) on five hits, while walking four across 5 1/3 innings en route to a 5-3 loss in Pittsburgh.
Despite the outing, Kelly may be the best option for the start as Lynn was less than impressive against the Pirates in Game 2 and Shelby Miller has yet to make a postseason appearance, perhaps due in part to the workload placed upon him this season.
Nonetheless, Kelly was stout for the Cardinals down the stretch, posting a 9-2 record and 2.09 over the final two months of the regular season. His bread and butter is his great sinker offering, which has translated into plenty of ground ball outs. The Cardinals will certainly be hoping that Kelly can harness the ability and tempo that should stave off a hot-hitting Los Angeles offense and provide relief for St. Louis’ lineup.
Next to Kershaw, Wainwright may be the best pitcher remaining in the postseason. St. Louis has their go-to guy who will take control of the game, work his way efficiently inning-to-inning, and baffle offenses with nasty pitch offerings. Wainwright, along with Wacha, will provide stability on a rather uncertain rotation. With that being said, Kelly and Lynn must bring their best stuff to the table if the Cardinals want to sustain a chance at reaching the World Series.
After a horrendous month of September, Edward Mujica was replaced by rookie reliever Trevor Rosenthal as the squad’s closer for the postseason. Rosenthal has been stout this season as a setup man and has been solid thus far in two closing appearances against the Pirates in the NLDS. Much like the state of their rotation, a rather uncertain air defines the St. Louis bullpen going forward.
Carlos Martinez has been utilized in the setup slot in three appearances this postseason, but has been inconsistent, much like his first year in the big leagues this season. Martinez was groomed in the minors as a starter, a role in which he flourished earlier this season at Triple-A Memphis, but he has had a difficult time harnessing the unhittable stuff that made him the top pitching prospect in the Cardinals’ organization.
Along with Martinez are specialty relievers Seth Maness, as right-hander who can be utilized to induce ground ball outs, and a pair of southpaws, Randy Choat and Kevin Siegrist, who will be key in matchups against the middle of the order for Los Angeles.
The Cardinals boast one of the better offensive attacks in the game, a lineup that consists of both veterans and newcomers that have convened to create something special. St. Louis led the league with 783 runs scored, 77 more than any other team around the league, a testament to the skill and depth of their respective lineup.
The dynamic between veteran and newcomer is perhaps best represented through the Cardinals’ two best players, veteran backstop Yadier Molina and newcomer second baseman Matt Carpenter.
While much of the attention in St. Louis has been afforded to Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter has been just as, if not more valuable to the Cardinals’ lineup this season (depending on who you ask).
The role of the unsung hero has been reserved for Carpenter in a season that has seen the Cardinals stave off tough competition from an offense-heavy Cincinnati Reds and a resurgent Pittsburgh Pirates. Carpenter has filled a gaping void at second that had been open since the days of Fernando Vina, while also cementing his name amongst the best leadoff hitters in the game (another previous void in St. Louis).
Carpenter has been the epitome of consistency this season, attacking both left and right-handed pitching, avoiding a definitive slump, and providing a solid glove at second.
To say that Molina is the top defensive catcher in either league is a vast understatement. Despite injuries to Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, and Kyle Lohse this season, Molina has dealt with a starting rotation and bullpen that is both young and inexperienced, helping mold one of the better, yet motley pitching staffs in the league.
Despite nagging injuries to his knee and wrist, Molina has continued to play on through. To put in perspective the value of Molina to St. Louis, one need only to look at the Cardinals’ record in the 14 games that he missed on the DL in early-August. The Cardinals went 6-8 in his absence and in the 24 games that he has missed over the course of the season, St. Louis posted an 11-13 record.
St. Louis has the postseason experience and the offensive spirit that should allow them to stave off a tough showing from the talented exploits of the Los Angeles rotation, namely Kershaw and Greinke. One thing is for sure about this St. Louis offense, it will not give up and that is for certain.