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Dodgers versus Mets!
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New York Mets: 97-65, 834 RS/731 RA
St. Louis Cardinals: 83-79, 781 RS/762 RA
I'd like to think that we weren't the only ones who were surprised to see a Cardinals team that had a .485 winning percentage since May 1st drub a Padres squad that had a .572 mark over that same span. Anything can happen in a short series, which is part of the reason that the Mets should not be quite the 2:1 favorites over the Redbirds that you see in most of the sportsbooks.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Mets is their offense. From what you hear, you might think that these Mets approached 1,000 runs scored on the season. In reality, their 834 runs scored was only 6th best in baseball (3rd in their own division), and they were just 25 runs away from finishing 11th in the major leagues. Despite the presence of Beltran, Delgado, and Wright in the middle of their lineup, the Mets are not a team that's going to slug you to death. What they specialize in isn't scoring lots of runs; it's scoring more runs than their opponents.
You see, the Mets are 31-16 in one-run games; that's easily the best mark in baseball. A lot of this can be attributed to team speed. Their 146 stolen bases were second in the majors to only the Angels at 148, yet the Metropolitans were caught 22 fewer times. Their 81% success ratio on the bases allows them to manufacture runs in close games and come out on top.
What's to stop the Mets from running away with the NLCS, then? Yadier Molina's the name. Molina's only allowed 37 stolen bases on the year, which is fewer than one every three games that he has started. He's also gunned down 29 potential basestealers, so he's certainly earning his reputation. The Mets are either going to run into a lot more outs on the bases than they're used to or need to step up their play with runners on base. They hit only .259 with men on base during the regular season. If they can't use their speed to get runners to third with less than 2 outs, they're going to have trouble scoring. At least, they will on days when Jeff Weaver isn't pitching.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big Jeff Weaver fan. But left handed hitters have batted .294 against him in his career, and the Mets have a lot more quality lefties to throw at him than the Padres did. The fact that Weaver will pitch games 1 and 5 must be disheartening for Cardinals fans, but Carpenter would pitch twice in a 7-game series anyway. Weaver has been much better on the road this season, though, so pitching games 2 and 6 would still have been preferable.
Easily the most interesting and crucial pitching matchup will take place in game 4. Oliver Perez, the ultimate 1-year pitching wonder, will get the nod for New York. The Mets seem to have repaired some of the damage done to him by Pittsburgh coaches throughout the years; now Oliver is absolutely dominant in about every fifth start and ridiculously terrible in the other four. He'll either be opposed by Jason Marquis or Anthony Reyes. Reyes is one of the best young pitchers in baseball, but LaRussa may be reluctant to use him because of the great Rick Ankiel incident of 2000. Reyes might be able to match Perez whether he has a good start or a bad one. Marquis could certainly match one of the bad ones.
With Molina neutralizing the Mets' running game, close games should come down to the bullpens. The Mets do still have a slight edge here, but rookie Adam Wainwright is better than most people realize, and should be available for multiple inning saves, whereas Billy Wagner will not be. The Redbirds will also have either Marquis or Reyes available for long relief, while the Mets don't have a good innings-eater should one of their starters get knocked out early.
In the end, I think that the Cardinals will triumph, but it's going to take everything they've got.
Prediction: Cardinals in seven