NLCS preview: Player to watch, key matchup, more for Cardinals-Giants
For the second time in three years, these storied franchises — two teams that have accounted for the past four NL championships (with three World Series titles) — will clash in the NLCS and fight for the right to play the role of the villain in this year's October Classic. Yes, Cardinals-Giants may feel as fresh as another Law and Order spinoff series, with storylines and a cast of characters that feel all too familiar. The mainstays in San Francisco and St. Louis remain the same: Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval on the Giants; Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and Matt Holliday on the Cardinals. Both clubs, though, took unexpected routes to get here.
A year ago, the Cardinals were an offensive juggernaut. With the highest-ever batting average with runners in scoring position, they were either the most clutch hitting team ever or, if you don't believe in that sort of thing, the luckiest. This year, they were a mediocre offensive team that ranked second to last in the majors in home runs — and then their bats awakened in a big way in the NLDS with a power barrage against the Dodgers. For the Giants, there is no Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum in the rotation. Instead, there is perhaps the most underrated ace in the game in Bumgarner, as well as a couple of old dudes who are enjoying a career renaissance and may hold the key to San Francisco having another October parade.
Player To Watch: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals 3B
Until he turned into Stan Musial in the division series, Carpenter was not having a great year. His batting average had dropped by more than 40 points from his .318 mark in his breakout 2013 season, and his OBP, slugging percentage, and home run total dipped as well. Then the calendar flipped to October, and Carpenter exploded. Against the Dodgers, the thrid baseman was responsible for 18 of St. Louis' 57 total bases, seven of the team's 18 RBI and three of the Cardinals' seven home runs.
Carpenter is relentlessly patient hitter: Only one qualified hitter took a swing at the first pitch with less frequency. And yet against L.A., Carpenter homered on the first pitch twice and also doubled. And after hitting just eight home runs total during the season, the lefthanded Carpenter's three home runs in the Divison Series all came against southpaws. Can his freakish power streak continue in the NLCS? Probably not. But even if he's not hitting home runs like he's Reggie Jackson, St. Louis' leading man can be one of the best lineup catalysts out there. If Carpenter stays hot, the Cardinals will be hard to stop.
Key Matchup: Bruce Bochy vs. Mike Matheny
At last, Bochy is getting his due. With two World Series rings already, the Giants' skipper has a shot to become just the ninth manager in history to win three. Bochy's brilliance shines in October, particularly with his bullpen management, where he shows a willingness to turn to his ace reliever in a non-save situation or make a bold move before disaster strikes. In 2012, during the Giants' World Series run, he pulled Barry Zito in the third inning of a game with a lead; that same postseason, he made the bold move of slotting Lincecum in the bullpen.
Meanwhile, Matheny, who's led the Cardinals to three straight postseason appearances, has proven to be a worthy successor to Tony La Russa. But he did not have a great World Series last year, sticking with both Wainwright and Michael Wacha too long in Games 5 and 6 against Boston, and both moves cost him. Will Matheny still have a slow hook with his pitchers? We know that Bochy won't. With two such evenly matched clubs, the series will decided in the late innings in a managerial chess match.
Stat To Know: 4
That's how many home runs that the Cardinals hit on the first pitch in the playoffs. The Cardinals' power surge has been stunning, given that they were second to last in the majors in home runs. Against a pitching-rich Dodgers team, the Cardinals ripped seven homers and scored 13 of their 18 home runs via the long ball; home runs accounted for all their scoring in the last three games of the series. And they did their damage early in counts against the Dodgers' pitchers, with four of their homers coming on the first pitch. Will St. Louis stay aggressive against Giants pitchers?
Roster Snapshot: Giants' rotation
Giants general manager Brian Sabean again worked his magic this year, with two under-the-radar moves that have paid off big in October: the signing of Tim Hudson to a two-year, $23 million deal in November and the Jake Peavy trade in July. Both veterans were big for the Giants during the season (Hudson carried the rotation early in the season; Peavy logged key innings for San Francisco down the stretch), and both righthanders were huge in the division series. In Game 1 against the Nationals, Peavy outpitched Stephen Strasburg, allowing just two hits over 5 2/3 shutout innings. Hudson's start in Game 2 was somewhat forgotten in the aftermath of the 18-inning epic, but the righty was nearly as good as Jordan Zimmermann, allowing just one run over 7 1/3 innings.
On paper, the Cardinals may have the better rotation, but with Wainwright's ability to perform at 100 percent uncertain, the Giants could have the edge, especially if Hudson and Peavy can keep the magic going.
X-Factor: Michael Morse
He has logged just two at bats since Aug. 31 because of an oblique strain, but Morse is back: The Giants added the outfielder to their NLCS roster on Thursday. After such a long layoff, Morse may not be ready to play every day; the Cardinals' rotation is all righthanded, so Travis Ishikawa could remain the starter in leftfield. But even if that's the case, there's no doubt that Morse could be a huge addition off the bench, one of the Giants' weaknesses. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound beast hit .279/.336/.475 with 32 doubles and 16 home runs in 131 games and gives San Francisco a bat that can swing a game — and a series.