Following their Division Series-clinching Game 4 victories on Tuesday night, the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants are set to square off in the National League Championship Series, just as they did two years ago. (Who didn't see that coming?) These teams have combined to win each of the last four National League pennants and three of the last four World Series,
Their showdown is in that way contrast to the battle of upstart underdogs in the American League Championship Series. Yet, while the Cardinals and Giants have made the NLCS a habit of late, they were both underdogs in their respective Division Series. So, how did they get here? Here's a look at three things that aided the Cardinals' and Giants' advancement to the NLCS and could prove key in that series.
1. Confidence and luck
Some call it "the will to win." That's a lot of malarkey. At this elite level, I don't believe that either team "wants it more" or that certain players "know how to win" while others don't. That said, there does seem to be something intangible playing a role in the continued postseason success of these two clubs.
San Francisco has won the last seven games in which it faced elimination (six in the 2012 postseason plus this year's Wild-Card Game), five of those coming on the road. Since 2010, the Giants have survived eight rounds across three postseasons without being eliminated once despite being the underdog in nearly every case. St. Louis, meanwhile, is 7-2 when facing elimination since 2011, with one of its two losses coming against San Francisco in Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS and the other in Game 6 of last year's World Series. What's more, in two of those victories, the Cardinals were down to their last strike (twice in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, then again in Game 5 of the Division Series against the Nationals the next year) before coming back to win not just the game, but also the series.
That history may have no direct bearing on this year's teams. For St. Louis, the players who wriggled out of those last-strike situations in 2011 and '12 are either gone (Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, David Freese, Carlos Beltran) or riding pine (Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma). Still, those past successes for both teams are in part the result of and the cause of a culture of confidence that is a factor in their current success.
Confidence varies significantly from player to player and team to team, and it can have a direct impact on performance, allowing players to maximize their talent or, in its absence, prevent them from doing so. Confidence impacts how a player performs on the field, erases brief hesitations or moments of doubt that can lead to mental or physical mistakes, and allows a player to execute his actions with conviction and to the full extent of his abilities. In a game measured often not only in inches but also in fractions thereof, confidence can be the difference between a home run and a pop-up, a strike or a ball, a nasty out-pitch or a hanger, a game-changing catch or a costly error.
Neither San Francisco nor St. Louis is perfect in this regard -- the Giants literally threw a game away against the Nationals when Madison Bumgarner, maybe due to an overabundance of confidence, tried to get the lead runner on a bunt attempt and made a throwing error that led to the decisive runs in their only Division Series loss. Nor is confidence the primary reason, or even a major reason, that either team has made it this far. Talent and health will always be the most important attributes in sports. However, it's worth acknowledging that there appears to be something immeasurable playing a peripheral role in the continued success of these two teams: confidence and luck.
The most important bit of confidence displayed by the Cardinals and Giants in the Division Series was that of their managers in their bullpens. The Dodgers lost because Don Mattingly, justifiably, couldn't feel the same way about his relievers and left Clayton Kershaw in long enough to cough up a seventh-inning lead in both of his starts. The Nationals lost in part because Matt Williams may have had too much confidence in his bullpen, pulling Jordan Zimmermann one out away from a shutout victory in Game 2, only to watch his bullpen blow the game. In Game 4, he used rookie Aaron Barrett with the season on the line in the seventh inning. Veteran relief ace Tyler Clippard, the team's "eighth-inning guy," watched idly as Barrett issued a walk and a wild pitch that gave the Giants the decisive run.
San Francisco's Bruce Bochy and St. Louis' Mike Matheny had no such issues. That's not to say that their bullpens didn't struggle. In the Cardinals' case, Trevor Rosenthal saved all three of their Division Series wins, but allowed six baserunners and a run in the process, and often had Carlos Martinez warming up behind him. Sam Freeman and Randy Choate failed to retire any of the three batters they faced in Game 1 and were not heard from again in the series. As for the Giants, fireballing rookie Hunter Strickland picked up the save in Game 2, but gave up three home runs in his other two innings of work.
Still, the bullpens were assets for both teams. The San Francisco 'pen posted a 1.86 ERA and 0.77 WHIP in 19 1/3 innings of work against Washington, and three of the four runs the Giants' relievers allowed came on solo home runs by Bryce Harper. Closer Santiago Casilla allowed just one walk in three hitless innings, with Sergio Romo, re-established as the team's primary set-up man, and lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez combining for another 5 1/3 scoreless frames. That's not to mention fifth starter Yusmeiro Petit's dominant six innings of relief (1 H, 0 R, 7 K) in the marathon Game 2.
The Cardinals' bullpen was a bit shakier (3.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP in 12 innings), but got stronger as the Division Series progressed, not allowing a run after the sixth inning in Games 3 or 4. Set-up man Pat Neshek rebounded from the Matt Kemp home run that cost the Cardinals Game 2 by striking out Kemp to start a dominant 1-2-3 eighth inning in Game 4, and while Rosenthal put two runners on base in each of his save opportunities, he stranded all four runners in Games 3 and 4.
Bullpens have played pivotal roles throughout this postseason and likely will again in the LCS. San Francisco appears to have the edge there, but not decisively.
3. Home Runs
Only the Royals (95) hit fewer home runs than did the Cardinals (105) during the regular season, while the Giants were close to league average with 132. But in the postseason, San Francisco has hit just two homers to St. Louis' seven. That tells us which team is swinging the hotter bats, but what's interesting to note is that home runs have been pivotal for both teams.
Both of the Giants' homers in the playoffs have been game-winners. Brandon Crawford's grand slam in the Wild-Card Game in Pittsburgh broke a scoreless tie and gave Bumgarner all the runs he needed for the win. Brandon Belt's 18th inning solo shot in Game 2 of the Division Series was the decisive blow in that 2-1 contest.
As for the Cardinals, Matt Adams' three-run home run in the seventh inning of Game 4 turned a 2-0 Dodgers lead into a 3-2 Cardinals win, but if you look closer, you'll see that every run the Cardinals scored in Games 2, 3 and 4 of their Division Series against L.A. — and 13 of the 18 runs they scored in the NLDS as a whole — came via the longball.
Randal Grichuk set the tone by hitting a solo shot off Kershaw in the top of the first inning of Game 1. Matt Carpenter, who hit just eight home runs all year, went deep in each of the first three games, and Kolten Wong won Game 3 with a two-run shot in the seventh off southpaw Scott Elbert. Add in Matt Holliday's three-run back-breaker off Pedro Baez after Kershaw's exit in Game 1, which expanded the Cardinals' 7-6 lead to 10-6 in a game they eventually won 10-9, and one can point to home runs as the decisive blows in all three St. Louis wins thus far this postseason.
As their regular-season numbers show, the Giants have the ability to go blow-for-blow with the Cardinals, particularly with Michael Morse reporting that he is fully recovered from his oblique strain and ready to be added to the NLCS roster. Thus far, however, St. Louis has dominated in the air. Its seven home runs lead all 2014 playoff teams, and they have hit those seven homers in just four games.