National League Championship Series Preview: St. Louis-San Francisco

The National League Championship Series starts Sunday night in San Francisco, as the Giants play host to the St. Louis Cardinals. The teams that have won the last two World Series are fresh off winning all-or-nothing Game 5s on the road in the Division Series.

TheSportsNotebook previews the St. Louis-San Francisco NLCS matchup by looking at each team’s ability to get on base and hit for power, along with their starting pitching and bullpen. Finally we round it out with some historical context, the Las Vegas betting angles and a final prediction.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: St. Louis has an American League-style lineup, deep with power hitters who also know how to work counts, draw walks and drive up pitch counts. Normally they’ve gotten good on-base work from centerfielder Jon Jay at the top of the order, although Jay was a non-factor in the Division Series win over Washington.

The Cardinal lineup has become even more dangerous with the unexpected offensive surge of late call-up Pete Kozma—only on the team because of a season-ending injury to starting shortstop Rafael Furcal. There’s no real weak point in this lineup, particularly when it comes to grinding out an at-bat.

San Francisco isn’t that good, but they are better than their all-pitch/no-hit image they’ve carried the last couple years. Angel Pagan is a respectable leadoff hitter, Brandon Belt has done a good job getting on base, Gregor Blanco is effective. Marco Scutaro was excellent in his role at second base after being picked up from Colorado for the stretch drive.

None are outstanding, but all come together around Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval—the run producers who also excel in OBP—to form a pretty good offense.

POWER: St. Louis has shown the muscle all year long and the playoffs have been no different. Allen Craig is on fire right now, as is Carlos Beltran. The Cards got a good Division Series showing from David Freese, and his postseason excellence a year ago isn’t going to be far from anyone’s mind. The list continues with Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and even Matt Carpenter off the bench.

Oh, and the bottom of the order? Normally light-hitting Daniel Descalco slugged .591 against the Nationals, including a huge home run in the Game 5 rally.

Posey is the main for San Francisco and his grand slam was the big blow of Game 5 in Cincinnati—indeed, probably the biggest hit of the playoffs to date. Sandoval also swung the bat well. Hunter Pence has the ability to transform a series with his bat, but at some point the rightfielder brought in from Philly needs to do something besides given motivational speeches (apparently he’s been doing so in the postseason) and start hitting.

STARTING PITCHING: Jaime Garcia would have likely started Game 1 for St. Louis, but the lefthander has been diagnosed with a frayed labrum, and not only is out for the postseason, but may miss all of 2013. The Cardinals are fortunate in that replacement starter Lance Lynn was in the rotation into the second half of the season and actually won 18 games and made the All-Star team. A late summer slump cost him his spot, but as replacements go, that certainly isn’t bad.

Chris Carpenter showed he’s still got it in October when he worked into the sixth inning throwing shutout baseball in Game 3 against Washington. Carpenter gets the ball on Monday night, and then gives way to 16-game winner Kyle Lohse, whose pitched well in two playoff starts. Then it’s Adam Wainwright, who had been coming on in the second half, but was nearly the playoff goat when he got rocked off the mound in the decisive game against Washington.

On balance this is a good playoff rotation, but with question marks surrounding Lynn and him likely to make two important starts, it’s not ideal.

San Francisco’s ace is Matt Cain, who would pitch Games 3 & 7, having been used in the final game of the series against Cincinnati. The opening starters will be Madison Bumgarner, the immensely talented young lefthander who struggled in his one playoff start. On the other end of the spectrum is Ryan Vogelsong, the veteran who came up with a clutch effort in Game 3.

Question mark time for San Francisco is in Game 4. No starter is announced, and although logic says it would be Tim Lincecum, he was so effective in relief that you wonder if Bruce Bochy will use him the same way Texas manager Ron Washington employed Alexi Ogando last October—to work three or so innings at a crack if a starter shows even a hint of trouble.

The other option is Barry Zito, mediocre during the season and shaky in his one playoff outing.  Bochy has good choices here, and he has the security of knowing Cain is ready if this series goes the distance.

BULLPEN: St. Louis has gotten what they needed from their middle relievers, as Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal have pieced together quality work, piecing together six-plus innings of shutout ball. It’s given manager Mike Matheny the depth he often lacked during the regular season—Kelly was in and out of the rotation. Mitchell Boggs looked shaky to start the postseason, although he seems to have settled down in recent outings and Jason Motte is solid at closer, albeit not unhittable.

The addition of Lincecum to the San Francisco bullpen has added an intriguing wild-card to this whole situation and given even more depth to an already stocked group. The Giants built their relief effort around Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, and then work in Jeremy Affeldt, George Kontos and have Javier Lopez is a lefthander to be used in situational spots. Top-to-bottom they are vastly better than St. Louis, but the Cardinals are a little more stable at the back end with Motte being more reliable than the combo of Casilla/Romo.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: These teams have played twice in the National League Championship Series, once in 1987 and the other in 2002. They’ve split the meetings with the Cardinals winning a seven-game battle in the ’87 series in spite of the dominance of San Fran outfielder Jeffrey Leonard who won series MVP in a losing effort. Another dominant Giant outfielder—Barry Bonds—was part of a team that won the ’02 pennant, with catcher Benito Santiago winning NLCS MVP.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: It’s a tight line, with San Francisco going off at (-120), meaning $120 must be bet to win $100, while St. Louis can only be had for even money. So there’s no real value on either side, indicating a lack of consensus in the market. The guess here would be it’s only the Giants’ homefield advantage responsible for them being a slight favorite.

THESPORTSNOTEBOOK PICK: I share the view of the betting market in that I’m conflicted on this series. I would really like to pick St. Louis. I believe in the top-to-bottom quality of their lineup and I like how their relief pitching has looked. But I don’t like the way Wainwright was shelled on Friday night in Washington and I really don’t like the uncertainty surrounding Lynn.

There’s no spot in the San Francisco rotation I’m worried about and their relief pitching is deeper and has a season-long track record of success. It’s pitching that deserves the benefit of the doubt, and the Giants win a six-game series.