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2014 National League Championship Series Preview
St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Francisco Giants

by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
October 11, 2014

The San Francisco Giants knocked off the Washington Nationals in four games in their NLDS matchup, and the St. Louis Cardinals similarly toppled the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now the two teams meet in the National League Championship Series for the second time in three years, and fourth time since 1987. For the Cardinals, it will be their fourth consecutive trip to the NLCS, while the Giants are attempting to win the World Series for the third time in the past five seasons. No matter which team wins, it will be the fifth consecutive season in which one of these two teams has represented the Senior Circuit on baseball’s ultimate stage.

From Jeffrey “Hac-Man” Leonard and his One-Flap Down home run trot to Jose Oquendo’s improbable series winning 3-run homer; from Will Clark to Ozzie Smith; Kenny Lofton to Mike Matheny; Barry Zito to Adam Wainwright; and Matt Holliday to Marco Scutaro; these two clubs have a rich history of facing each other in the postseason. You can be sure that this series will be intense and hard fought.

Here’s a positional breakdown of the two teams.

Catcher:

San Francisco – Buster Posey – .311/.364/.490, 143 OPS+, 22 HR, 89 RBI, 30% CS, -4 DRS

St. Louis – Yadier Molina – .282/.333/.386, 101 OPS +, 7 HR, 38 RBI, 48% CS, 8 DRS

Molina is the best defensive catcher in the game, but he suffered a torn ligament in his thumb that kept him sidelined for 7 weeks, and he struggled through his worst offensive season since 2010.  Molina batted just .200 in the Division series against LA, while Posey followed up another MVP-quality season by batting .391 against the Nationals and Pirates.

Advantage: Posey

First Base:

San Francisco – Brandon Belt – .243/.306/.449, 114 OPS+, 12 HR, 27 RBI, 3 DRS, 6.2 UZR/150

St. Louis – Matt Adams – .288/.321/.457, 115 OPS+, 15 HR, 68 RBI, 8 DRS, 3.1 URZ/150

Adams delivered the biggest hit of the postseason thus far for St. Louis, belting a 3-run homer off of Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 of the NLDS, while Belt’s drive deep into the late Washington night in the 18th inning of Game 2 helped put the Nationals squarely behind the 8-ball in that series.

Advantage: Adams

Second Base:

San Francisco – Joe Panik – .305/.343/.368, 104 OPS+, 1 HR, 18 RBI, -1 DRS, 0.6 UZR/150

St. Louis – Kolten Wong – .249/.292/.388, 89 OPS+, 12 HR, 42 RBI, 9 DRSM 4.2 UZR/150

Panik had one of the biggest at bats of the Giants series against Washington when he drew a two-out walk against Jordan Zimmermann in the 9th inning and ended up scoring the tying run in what would become an 18-inning marathon. He’s a rookie that plays like a 10-year veteran. Wong had just 2 hits in 11 at bats versus the Dodgers, but none bigger than his 2-run homer in the 7th inning of the pivotal Game 3. The Giants will need to be wary not only of his sneaky pop, but also his speed (20/24 SB).

Advantage: Panik

Third Base:

San Francisco – Pablo Sandoval – .279/.324/.415, 111 OPS+, 16 HR, 73 RBI, 4 DRS, 3.3 UZR/150

St. Louis – Matt Carpenter – .272/.375/.375, 111 OPS+, 8 HR, 59 RBI, -2 DRS, -0.7 UZR/150

Carpenter had a down year after moving from the keystone to the hot corner, but came up big in the NLDS, going 6-for-16 with 3 home runs and 7 RBI. St. Louis will need him to keep his bat hot against the Giants. Sandoval was just 4-for-19 against the Nationals, but his two-out double in the 9th inning of Game 2 brought Panik home with the tying run in that marathon. He’s also just one of four players to ever hit three home runs in a single World Series game (Babe Ruth, 1926 & 1928, Reggie Jackson, 1977, Albert Pujols, 2011), doing so against Justin Verlander and the Tigers in 2012.

Advantage: Sandoval

Shortstop:

San Francisco – Brandon Crawford – .246/.324/.389, 104 OPS+, 10 HR, 69 RBI, 8 DRS, 0.1 UZR/150

St. Louis – Jhonny Peralta – .263/.336/.443, 116 OPS+, 21 HR, 75 RBI, 17 DRS, 12.7 UZR/150

Despite being suspended in 2013 for his involvement with the Biogenesis scandal, Peralta was signed by the Cardinals to a 4-year, $53 million contact this past off-season, and responded with a fantastic campaign, both at the plate and in the field. Crawford has had a strong postseason run so far, clubbing a grand slam against the Pirates and going 5-for-17 (.294) against Washington.

Advantage: Peralta

Left Field:

San Francisco – Travis Ishikawa – .252/.311/.393, 100 OPS+, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 1 DRS, 0.0 UZR/150

St. Louis – Matt Holliday – .272/.370/.441, 126 OPS+, 20 HR, 90 RBI, 0 DRS, -1.7 UZR/150

One big key in this series could be the health and potential impact of San Francisco left fielder, Michael Morse. The Giants have been forced to play Ishikawa out of position due to the oblique injury suffered by Morse in September and the season-ending back injury to Angel Pagan. Morse missed the Wild Card playoff versus Pittsburgh and the NLDS against Washington, but he returns to the roster for the NLCS and his potent bat could be a difference maker in this series. Giants fans, of course, won’t soon forget Holliday’s takeout slide on Scutaro in Game 2 of the 2012 NLCS.

Advantage: Holliday

Centerfield:

San Francisco – Gregor Blanco – .260/.333/.374, 103 OPS+, 5 HR, 38 RBI, -7 DRS, -4.3 UZR/150

St. Louis – Jon Jay – .303/.372/.378, 111 OPS+, 3 HR, 46 RBI, 5 DRS, 12.8 UZR/150

Jay went 5-for-11 (.455) in the series versus Los Angeles, while Blanco is just 2-for-22 (.091) in the postseason subbing for Pagan at the top of their lineup. The Giants will need Blanco to start reaching base if they are to continue their trend of even year World Series Championships.

Advantage: Jay

Right Field:

San Francisco – Hunter Pence – .277/.332/.445, 121 OPS+, 20 HR, 74 RBI, -2 DRS, 2.2 UZR/150

St. Louis – Randal Grichuk – .245/.278/.400, 87 OPS+, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 1 DRS, 13.4 UZR/150

Although Grichuk got the start in all four games against the Dodgers, and even homered against Kershaw in Game 1, Oscar Taveras could see time in right field as well for St. Louis in this series. Grichuk was just 3-for-16 (.188) in the NLDS, while Pence showed signs of breaking out of his late season slump by going 5-for-18 (.278) against the Nationals. Pence has become the spiritual heart and soul of the Giants since being acquired from Philadelphia in 2012.

Advantage: Pence

Rotation:

San Francisco – Bumgarner, Peavy, Hudson, Vogelsong

St. Louis – Wainwright, Lynn, Lackey, Miller

During the regular season, St. Louis’ starters ranked sixth in MLB in ERA at 3.44, while the Giants starters collectively ranked 16th, at 3.74. But in the postseason, San Francisco starters have compiled a stellar 1.04 ERA while the Cardinals starters have posted a 4.30 mark. Pitching, undoubtedly, will be a key to this series. The 25-year old Bumgarner has already solidified himself as the Giants’ ace and a big game pitcher.  He’ll face off against 20-game winner Wainwright in Game 1 of the series. Wainwright has struggled in the postseason, losing his last 3 decisions and posting a 5.40 ERA over his last 4 postseason starts. Peavy versus Lynn, Hudson versus Lackey, and Vogelsong versus Miller round out the pitching matchups.

Advantage: Even

Bullpen:

San Francisco – Casilla (Cl), Romo, Lopez, Affeldt, Petit, Machi, Strickland, Lincecum

St. Louis – Rosenthal (Cl), Martinez, Neshek, Maness, Choate, Wacha

The San Francisco bullpen ranked fifth in MLB in ERA in 2014 at 3.01, while the Cardinals pen was just 17th at 3.62. In the postseason, the Giants pen collectively has allowed just 1.86 runs per 9 innings pitched, while the St. Louis bullpen has an ERA of 3.00.

Advantage: San Francisco

Bench:

San Francisco – Arias, Susac, Duffy, Morse, Perez

St. Louis – Bourjos, Taveras, Descalso, Cruz, Kozma, Pierzynski

Morse’s return to the Giants roster undoubtedly deepens the Giants bench, while the Cardinals have added A.J. Pierzynski to their bench for the series.

Advantage: St. Louis

Managers:

San Francisco – Bruce Bochy

St. Louis – Mike Matheny

Despite Matheny having taken the Cardinals to the NLCS in all three years of his tenure as manager, Bochy is among the best in the business. His steady leadership and deft handling of the bullpen have the Giants primed to win a third World Championship in five seasons.

Advantage: San Francisco

The Final Word

This series is likely to be an epic battle between two of the National League’s most storied franchises. As it always does in October, it will come down to who plays the cleanest game; who makes the fewest mistakes. Both teams are highly experienced and just one mistake could be enough to separate the two teams.

Prediction:

San Francisco Giants over St. Louis Cardinals, four games to two


Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at richard@baseballevolution.com.

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