McNeal: Sizing up the Cardinals' potential playoff opponents
ST. LOUIS -- If the Cardinals play in October like they have in September, it will not matter who they face in the NL Division Series. The Cardinals own the NL's best record (17-8), highest-scoring offense (5.1 runs per game) and fourth-best ERA (2.84) this month.
Another reason it doesn't matter much who they will face: Not a great deal separates their three potential first-round opponents (The Cardinals can't face the Braves until the NLCS). All three are formidable, all have issues and none have stormed through September like the Cardinals, who wrapped up home-field advantage for the Division Series as well as the NL Central title with their 7-0 victory over the Cubs Friday night.
That said, if the season were over today, the Cardinals would meet the Dodgers in the best-of-five Division Series that will start Thursday at Busch Stadium (expect a night start). If the Cardinals finish with a better record than the Braves, St. Louis will play the Wild Card winner in the first round.
Based on these subjective rankings, the Dodgers are the team the Cardinals should least want to face. Sizing up the trio of potential opponents:
Season series: Dodgers won 4-3. They put on as impressive show as any visitor when they came into Busch in early August and won three out of four.
Down the stretch: 11-13. The Dodgers won eight more in a row after they left St. Louis and enjoyed a six-game winning streak from Aug. 28-Sept. 3. But with the division all but wrapped up for the past month, the Dodgers have gone ho-hum.
Rather not face: Carl Crawford, believe it or not, did more damage against the Cardinals than any of the Dodgers. He hit .481/.533/.630 and scored six runs in the seven games.
No big deal: Cy Young shoo-in Clayton Kershaw has gone 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his past three starts against the Cardinals, including L.A.'s lone loss when the Dodgers played at Busch in August.
Bottom line: Even though the Cardinals have had success against Kershaw, any team with Zack Greinke and him at the top of the rotation is a dangerous team. Home-field advantage might not matter much, either. The Dodgers have won 46 games at home, 45 on the road.
Season series: Pirates won 10-9, though the Cardinals rallied by claiming seven of the past 10 meetings.
Down the stretch: 13-12 in September. Following a 14-14 August, the Pirates essentially have been a .500 team for the past two months. And get this: Going into Friday night, their team ERA was 3.81 and they were scoring an average of 3.81 runs during that stretch.
Rather not face: Left-hander Francisco Liriano is 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in three starts against St. Louis. But because Liriano is scheduled to start Tuesday's Wild Card game against the Reds, he would be limited to one start in the Division Series.
No big deal: MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen has been limited to .246/.329/.377 against the Cardinals, though his all-round play stood out when the Pirates took four of five in Pittsburgh in late July series.
Bottom line: The Pirates' once majors-leading bullpen has wobbled down the stretch, too. Though much has been made of the additions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, they have hit .283 and .271, respectively, while combining for two homers. Still, having Liriano for only one start is reason No. 1 the Cardinals own a decisive advantage over Pittsburgh.
Season series: Cardinals won 11-8, but the Reds took three of four in early September at Cincinnati.
Down the stretch: In a 14-10 series, they have taken series from the Cardinals, Pirates and the Dodgers. But they also have lost series to the lowly Mets, Brewers and Cubs.
Rather not face: Closer Aroldis Chapman has been at his best this season against St. Louis, going three-for-three in save chances while giving up two hits and no runs while striking out 10 in seven innings.
No big deal: Todd Frazier hit just .169 against the Cardinals, and he was even less productive than that until going 8 for 16 in their most recent series. Before that, Frazier had gone 3 for 49 this season against St. Louis.
Bottom line: Recent returns by Johnny Cueto and Sean Marshall have bolstered the Reds' pitching staff and make them an even greater threat than they were in early September. Their 2.82 ERA in September is tied for second-best in the N.L. If Brandon Phillips could get hot -- he's hitting .196 in September hot, the Reds would be scary.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.