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NLCS preview: Cardinals have just enough to get past Dodgers

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This year's National League Championship Series pits two of the most successful teams of all-time, the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers, against each other in a postseason series with a pennant on the line for just the third time. In 1946, they met in the first tie-breaker series in baseball history; the Cardinals won the first two games and advanced to the World Series. In 1985, they faced off in the National League Championship Series, which St. Louis also won thanks to ninth-inning home runs in Games 5 and 6 by Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark, respectively.

Both franchises have won 18 National League pennants, so the winner of this series will tie the Giants' National League record of 19 World Series appearances. In terms of recent history, however, the Cardinals have been here far more often than the Dodgers, winning the World Series in 2011 and 2006 and the pennant in 2004, while L.A. hasn't been to an NLCS since 2009 or to a World Series since winning it in 1988.

This season, the Dodgers edged the Cardinals in their head-to-head matchups 4-3, but a closer look at those seven games tells a less balanced story. St. Louis took two of three in Los Angeles in May, right around the time that Mattingly's job appeared to be in danger. However, when the two teams matched up again at Busch Stadium in August, the Dodgers won three of four amidst their staggering 53-13 run.

There's no clear favorite in this series, however, which does appear to pit the two best teams in the National League against one another, even if the Braves had a better record than the Dodgers in the weak NL East (the third-pace team in the East had the same record as the last-place team in the NL West).

Player to Watch: Yasiel Puig

Hanley Ramirez has been the Dodgers' best hitter whenever he has been healthy enough to be in the lineup this season, and he was both of those things in the National League Division Series against the Braves, tying a record for that round with six extra-base hits and going 8-for-16 with a team-best six RBIs and 1.063 slugging percentage.

As great as Ramirez has been, however, you can't help but watch Puig, nor should you. Puig went 8-for-17 (.471) in the Division Series and scored five runs, and his madcap baserunning, tremendous range in rightfield, rocket arm and borderline-excessive hustle are nearly guaranteed to result in memorable moments, either positive or negative, in this or any series. His aggressiveness and enthusiasm can sometimes be too much, but the sense that he's always one play away from doing something incredible or incredibly foolish only makes the remarkably talented Puig all the more captivating.

Key Matchup: Michael Wacha vs. Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers' ace and the Best Pitcher in Baseball, started two of the Dodgers' three wins in the NLDS against the Braves and gives L.A. its best chance to win every time he takes the mound. However, his Game 2 (and potential Game 6) matchup with Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha could be problematic for the Dodgers for two reasons. The first is that Los Angeles has never faced Wacha, who made his major league debut on May 30 and appeared in just 15 games during the regular season, and we saw in the Division Series Game 2 starts of the Pirates' Gerrit Cole and the A's Sonny Gray (combined 14 IP, 1 R) just how effective a talented pitching prospect can be against a team that has never seen him before.

The other reason is that Wacha has been even better than Kershaw in his last two starts, both of which saw him take a no-hitter into the eighth inning. In his last four starts against winning teams (the Pirates twice, Reds, and Nationals) Wacha has allowed just one run and seven hits in 29 innings, which works out to a 0.31 ERA and 0.52 WHIP. If Wacha can negate Kershaw, that will put increased pressure on the rest of L.A.'s rotation, which includes a rookie who was lit up in his only Division Series start (Hyun-Jin Ryu) and a middling veteran (Ricky Nolasco) who was skipped over entirely in the NLDS and thus will have gone 15 days since his last appearance when he takes the ball for Game 4.

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Stat to Know: 8-1

That's St. Louis' record in postseason games in which it faced elimination since the start of the 2011 postseason. Five of those games were winner-take-all, and two of those saw the Cardinals get down to their final strike before rallying to win (Game 6 of the 2011 World Series against the Rangers, in which St. Louis battled back from that situation in both the ninth and 10th innings, and Game 5 of the 2012 Division Series against the Nationals). The only team to capitalize on an opportunity to eliminate the Cards in those nine games was the eventual world champion Giants in Game 7 of last year's NLCS, when they jumped all over St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse and put the game away early, winning 9-0.

That success has been largely due to the quality of the team's starting pitching. Leaving out the two games in which they were down to their last strike, the Cardinals' starters in the other six games each completed at least 5 2/3 innings and allowed no more than two runs, compiling a 1.48 ERA and 0.84 WHIP while completing two games and earning the win in all six.

Roster Snapshot:

Andre Ethier hasn't played the field since Sept. 13 due to a sprained left ankle and was thus limited to four pinch-hitting appearances against the Braves (he grounded out twice, walked and struck out). However, Ethier's ankle is making progress and the Dodgers hope to make more use of him in this series.

"We feel pretty good that he's definitely going to be able to do more than he was able to do the last series," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told MLB.com on Wednesday. "We feel like there's going to be a lot more scenarios where Andre is going to be involved."

The best case scenario for L.A. would be having Ethier available to start in centerfield, replacing Skip Schumaker, who went 3-for-13 at the plate in the Division Series. Ethier would be especially valuable as a starter in Game 3 against Adam Wainwright, whom he has touched for a .303/.361/.667 line in 36 career plate appearances. Ethier's lefthanded bat would be a welcome addition to the Dodgers lineup given that the Cardinals have no lefthanded starting pitchers. That could also increase the importance of lefties Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, both of whom hit well in the NLDS, particularly Crawford, who homered three times in the last two games.

X-factor: Dee Gordon vs. Yadier Molina

With starting shortstop Hanley Ramirez locked in at the plate and Nick Punto the first option as a defensive replacement at the position, Dee Gordon will have only one role on the Dodgers' NLCS roster: pinch-runner. More specifically, Gordon, who has 66 steals at a 78 percent success rate in his major league career, is the man Mattingly will put in the game when he needs a stolen base.

That's exactly what happened in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the Division Series against the Braves. With the Dodgers trailing by one run, A.J. Ellis drew a one-out walk. Mattingly pinch-ran with Gordon and gave him the green light. Gordon went on the first pitch but was called out on the play due to a great throw by Gerald Laird and a great catch by Andrelton Simmons, though even the replays were inconclusive. One inning later, Atlanta closed out what would prove to be its only win of the series.

Last September, when the Cardinals and Dodgers were jockeying for the NL's second wild-card spot, the two teams met for a four-game set at Dodger Stadium, and Gordon attempted three steals against Yadier Molina in similar situations (seventh inning or later, Dodgers behind by one or tied). In each case, the outcome of Gordon's attempt corresponded to the result of the game. He was thrown out twice in games the Cardinals went on to win, and he was safe once and came around to score the tying run in the game that L.A. rallied to win. On the first of those three attempts, Molina caught Gordon with what might be the most perfect throw from a catcher to second base that I've ever seen.

Molina threw out 43 percent of attempted basestealers this year and has caught 45 percent in his career. His inevitable confrontation(s) with Gordon in this series will be fun to watch and could have a direct impact on the outcome of at least one game.

Prediction: Cardinals in 7

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