NLCS Game 6 preview: Cardinals at Giants
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Series: NLCS Game 6, Cardinals lead 3-2
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Starters: Chris Carpenter (1-1, 1.86 ERA) vs. Ryan Vogelsong (1-0, 1.50 ERA)
By losing Game 5, the Cardinals let the Giants back in this series in a big way. True, the Giants are facing elimination on Sunday night, but the series has moved back to San Francisco and the Giants will have what are currently their two best pitchers, Vogelsong and Matt Cain, starting Game 6 and, if they can stave off elimination for one more day, Game 7, at which point the Cardinals would be facing elimination as well.
The Giants have those two pitching in the right order, as well, as Vogelsong has out-pitched Cain since mid-September, going 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA in his last five starts. If the Giants can win behind Vogelsong in Game 6 as they did in Game 2, when he allowed just one run over seven innings, this series becomes a one-game toss-up on Monday night between two teams that refuse to lose elimination games.
Further bad news for St. Louis: The more Chris Carpenter pitches, the less convincing his comeback becomes. Carpenter’s sterling ERA above doesn’t include the four unearned runs that scored in the fourth inning of Game 2, a game that finished as a lopsided 7-1 Giants win. Yes, all four of those runs scored on errors (one by Carpenter, one by Matt Holliday), but they were also a product of two trends that don’t bode well for Carpenter: an excess of baserunners and a dearth of strikeouts.
Carpenter has made five starts since returning from the surgery that alleviated his thoracic outlet syndrome, and he has struck out more than three men in just one of them, posting a 5.1 K/9 overall, way down from his 7.0 K/9 over his last three healthy seasons. In his two playoff starts, he has just three strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, he has posted a 1.75 WHIP in those two starts and has allowed eight or more baseruners in six or fewer innings in each of his last three starts (1.66 WHIP in those three combined). In his Game 2, Carpenter threw 76 pitches and only got a batter to swing and miss twice. Based on reputation, Carpenter vs. Vogelsong looks like a mismatch in favor of the Cardinals, but based on recent performance, it may be a mismatch in the other direction.
With expectations for Carpenter diminishing, that puts the pressure on the Cardinals lineup and bullpen, the former of which is performing well below expectations due to three of its top four hitters falling into poorly-timed slumps. Leadoff man Jon Jay is just 5-for-20 (.238) in this series with one extra-base hit and no walks, and that performance looks robust compared to what No. 3 and 4 hitters Matt Holliday and Allen Craig, respectively, have been up to. Holliday has four singles and no walks in 21 at-bats (.190), while Craig has just two hits, one a double, and one walk in 16 at-bats (.125).
Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny surely doesn’t want to signal panic while still up 3-2 in the series, but Jay and Holliday haven’t hit much at all this postseason, and it might be time for him to mix things up a little with regard to those two. Jay has now hit .190/.255/.240 in 113 career postseason plate appearances, including a .200/.245/.267 line in 50 PA this postseason. Pete Kozma, meanwhile, has posted a .364 on-base percentage this postseason and a .371 OBP in 126 PA between the regular and postseasons. Some of that is surely the result of hitting in front of the pitcher (he has two intentional walks, one in the postseason), but the gap between Kozma’s ability to reach base and Jay’s might be large enough right now to swap them in the order.
Meanwhile, facing right-handed starters in the next two games, it wouldn’t be completely beyond the pale to sit Holliday, who has hit .190/.244/.214 in 45 plate appearances in this year's postseason. Lefty-swinging Matt Carpenter hit .308/.391/.455 in 235 regular-season PA against right-handed pitching, homered as a mid-game replacement for Carlos Beltran in Game 3 and had a double and two walks in Beltran’s stead in Game 4 (Beltran returned to the lineup in Game 5). -- By Cliff Corcoran