NLCS preview: Breaking down Cardinals vs. Dodgers

ST. LOUIS — The Los Angeles Dodgers are on the way to becoming the best team money can buy. The Cardinals have built a model franchise through the draft as well as the free-agent market.

But as different as their roads have been, they have reached the same destination: the National League Championship Series. They arrive about as evenly matched on paper as two teams can be. The Cardinals proved to be the NL’s best team in April, May and September; the Dodgers were the best in the months in between.

They share other similarities besides their winning ways. Both clubs are managed by first-time skippers, Don Mattingly of the Dodgers and Mike Matheny of the Cardinals. Both have huge fan bases: The Dodgers finished first in attendance, the Cardinals second. The Dodgers won four of the seven regular-season meetings, with each team winning its series on the road.  

Put it all together and this is a series that, on paper, looks like it will go the full seven games.
1. Starting lineup

With four regulars who hit .300 and a record batting average of .330 with runners in scoring position, the Cardinals led the NL in scoring during the regular season. Their bats, however, went cold against the Pirates, in part because MVP candidate and leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter was held to one hit. Carpenter, however, hit the ball hard twice for outs in their Game 5 victory.

The Dodgers finished in the middle of the pack in NL offense during the regular season but  pummeled the Braves for a .333 average and scored 26 runs in the four-game NLDS victory. Carl Crawford hit three homers and Hanley Ramirez went 8 for 16. Crawford hit .481 against St. Louis in the regular season, while Ramirez was out of both series with an injury.

After finishing 13th in the NL in homers during the regular season, the meat of the Cardinals lineup found its power against the Pirates. Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Yadier Molina and David Freese all homered against Pittsburgh.

THE EDGE: Cardinals

2. Rotation

In Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Dodgers own an edge over Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, but it’s quite slight for two reasons. One, the Cardinals have beaten Kershaw the past three times he has started against them. Second, the 22-year-old rookie Wacha has been pitching as well as anyone in the majors over the past two weeks. Wacha will oppose fellow Texan Kershaw in a Game 2 matchup that should be a treat for pitching fans.

The Cardinals have a deeper rotation, but that doesn’t figure to come into play much in a seven-game series. LA has rookie lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu lined up for Game 3, and he handled the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in August. St. Louis’ Game 1 starter, Joe Kelly, turned in 5 1/3 strong innings in a 5-1 victory that gave the Cardinals their only win in the August series. Whether Lance Lynn or Shelby Miller gets the Game 4 start, either rates an edge over LA’s Ricky Nolasco, who finished the season with three awful starts and was passed over in the NLDS.

THE EDGE: Dodgers, but barely

3. Bullpen

The Cardinals are stocked with hard-throwing rookies such as closer Trevor Rosenthal, lefty Kevin Siegrist and 21-year-old Carlos Martinez. Another rookie, Seth Maness, led NL relievers in inducing double plays.

The Dodgers have received a huge lift from former Giants closer Brian Wilson, who has moved into the setup role in front of closer Kenley Jansen. Wilson has allowed only one run in 21 outings since his Dodgers debut Aug. 22.

Jansen, who relies on a cut fastball he throws 95-plus mph, finished second among NL relievers with 111 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings, one behind Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman. Rosenthal, one of the game’s hardest throwers, finished with 108 in 75 1/3 innings.

THE EDGE: Cardinals

4. Bench

Because of injuries, both clubs lack depth, though the Cardinals are especially short. Shane Robinson is the Cardinals’ best bat off the bench, and he provided just two homers and a .250 average during the regular season. The Dodgers can call on playoff regulars Nick Punto and Michael Young.

THE EDGE: Dodgers

5. Intangibles

Home-field advantage looms large for the Cardinals, who would be at Busch Stadium for the potential Game 7. Experience also is on the side of St. Louis, which includes 17 players from last year’s postseason run.

Mark McGwire, the Cardinals’ hitting coach a year ago, should give the Dodgers an advantage in the intel department. Skip Schumacher and Punto, both members of the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series championship team, also are familiar with many of the St. Louis players.

THE EDGE: Cardinals

Final prediction

Most oddsmakers favor the Dodgers slightly, but home-field advantage and the Cardinals’ success against Kershaw ultimately will make the difference.

THE EDGE: Cardinals in seven

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