Tuesday October 6th, 2009

The Cardinals' Tony La Russa and the Dodgers' Joe Torre, baseball's Nos. 3 and 5 all-time winningest managers, have such respect for each other that when their teams played in St. Louis in late July, the two had dinner together. What they talked about is anyone's guess, but even then the prospect of their first postseason tête-à-tête was surely on the table. With 28 combined managerial playoff appearances, it's remarkable that this is the first meeting between La Russa and Torre in the postseason. And now that it's here, don't expect them to dine together again.

Though the Dodgers had the National League's best record and thus enjoy home-field advantage, the Cardinals won the season series, 5-2. All seven of those games were played in the second half of the season -- after the Cardinals traded for Matt Holliday -- and should help project how this otherwise dead heat will turn out.

The teams' nearly identical starting pitching lines (L.A.: 3.58 ERA, 1.25 WHIP; St. Louis: 3.66, 1.28) are deceiving. The Cardinals' starters typically go deeper into games, averaging 6 1/3 innings per start to the Dodgers' 5 2/3 innings, and have eight complete games and one shutout, to the Dodgers' one of each.

There has been no better 1-2 punch in baseball than the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter (17-4, 2.24 ERA) and Adam Wainwright (19-8, 2.63), who should finish, along with the Giants' Tim Lincecum, in the top three of the NL Cy Young voting. "The top two Cardinals pitchers are better than anyone the Dodgers have," one NL scout says. "There's tremendous pressure on them, but they're very good." L.A. is batting .257 with four homers in 140 at-bats off Wainwright (catcher Russell Martin and shortstop Rafael Furcal are hitting .500 and .438, respectively); it's hitting only .216 with four home runs in 218 at-bats off Carpenter (Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome have provided the pop, with two HRs each, so look for Thome as a pinch-hitter).

Add in the surprisingly dependable Joel Piñeiro (15-12, 3.49), and St. Louis should be able to count on four strong starts in a five-game series. Just don't let Piñeiro give Ramirez much to hit -- Manny is 14 for 33 with four homers off his former teammate. (Either John Smoltz or Kyle Lohse would pitch Game 4 to round out the Cardinals' staff of reclamation projects.

The Dodgers, however, are so unsure of their rotation that they've only announced their first two starters, lefties Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw, who have the two most effective fastballs in the majors, which are the second and third best pitches in baseball -- behind Lincecum's changeup -- according to fangraphs.com's runs-above-average metric. (Wolf also has The Force on his side.) The Cards have batted just .221 against the 21-year-old Kershaw, though the stars, Albert Pujols (4 for 7) and Holliday (4 for 10), have fared considerably better. St. Louis has hit .257 against Wolf.

"To me Kershaw is the key to the whole series," the scout says. "If he gets hot, the Dodgers are capable of winning. I don't think he'll do all that well, personally. He's a kid. We'll see what happens on the big stage with him."

After that? Take your pick. Hiroki Kuroda is inactive for the series with a neck injury; Chad Billingsley, is 3-8 with a 5.21 ERA in 19 appearances since winning his ninth game, a performance so bad that his most recent outing was a simulated game at L.A.'s training complex on Monday (the scout thinks that Billingsley, a deep-count guy, has simply "lost his confidence"); Vicente Padilla was designated for assignment by a then-contending Rangers club; and Diamondbacks castoff Jon Garland (11-13, 4.01) is as mediocre as they come.

The top two relieving corps in the NL reside in Los Angeles (3.14 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) and St. Louis (3.55, 1.30). The Dodgers have actually converted fewer save opportunities -- 63 percent, compared to St. Louis' 74 percent -- but the NL scout thinks L.A.'s power arms are better suited for the postseason. "The Dodgers have the better bullpen," he says, "so if they can survive their starters, they'll be better in the late innings."

Neither team has much closing experience at the back of the 'pen, even though both closers were All-Stars this year. Jonathan Broxton, owner of the game's hardest fastball (an average of 97.7 mph), has been dominant in each of his four full seasons, especially this one -- his first as the anointed closer after inheriting the position from the injured Takashi Saito in 2008. Current Cardinals have hit just .118 against him -- 6 for 51 with 21 strikeouts and one extra-base hit -- including 1 for 10 from Pujols and 2 for 14 from Holliday. With George Sherrill, L.A. has a lefty to complement young righty setup men Ramon Troncoso and Ronald Belisario.

Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin, he of the 1.92 ERA, had an ERA as low as 1.05 through August, but yielded seven earned runs in 9 1/3 September innings. He has never pitched in the postseason, not to mention that L.A.'s lineup has hit .304 off him in 125 at-bats. Lefties Dennys Reyes and Trever Miller are solid, but right-handed setup men Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan aren't as good as the Dodgers' pair, giving L.A. a slight edge in overall bullpen.

A star player getting hot in October can tip a series (see Beltran, Carlos in 2004), and both of these lineups feature a future Hall of Famer in the 3-hole. Only the Cardinals' slugger, however, is actually playing like someone who's Cooperstown-bound. Pujols is the game's greatest player, leading the NL in eight categories: on-base percentage (.443), slugging (.658), OPS (obviously -- 1.101), runs (124), total bases (374), extra-base hits (93), home runs (47) and intentional walks (44). And he's second in doubles (45) and third in walks (115) and RBIs (135).

Manny Ramirez, who of course missed 50 games for a drug suspension, is not in the top 10 in any category and enters the playoffs 1 for his last 14, with nine strikeouts. Broadcaster Vin Scully, who of course keeps a daily eye on Ramirez, noted his recent lack of aggression at the plate. The scout has a simple theory: "Manny is a 37-year-old man without the benefit of steroids."

L.A. can overcome a slumping Manny thanks to its lineup full of starters with on-base percentages above the league average, combining young stars (Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney) with serviceable veterans (Casey Blake and Orlando Hudson). The Cardinals have a more traditional heart of the order, with Pujols, Holliday and Ryan Ludwick, but have more free swingers in other spots. St. Louis makes up for a little of that deficit by playing better small ball.

The Dodgers unquestionably had the better offense in the first half of the season, but since Holliday debuted in a Cardinals uniform on July 24, the Redbirds and Dodgers have each scored 302 runs. When it comes to offenses, this matchup is pretty much even.

These are two teams that have been moving in opposite directions. The Dodgers successfully weathered Ramirez's 50-game suspension and on July 22 were 61-34 (.642), the best record in baseball by 3 1/2 games. Since then, however, they've barely been above .500, going just 34-33 down the stretch. Conversely, the Cardinals were only 51-46 on that date but went an NL-best 40-25 (.615) to finish the season, including a torrid 20-6 August.

While the Dodgers acquired top lefty Sherrill, back-end starters Garland and Padilla, to-date unsuccessful pinch-hitter Jim Thome and infielder Ronnie Belliard, the Cardinals have been more successful with their bounty of midseason pickups. Holliday has been a formidable power bat behind Pujols (batting .353 with 13 home runs in 63 games); Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo have made contributions in the infield; and Smoltz has reinvented himself since coming over to the NL from Boston.

The Dodgers are better defensively than the Cardinals by either sabermetrically inclined stat: Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (2.59 to -0.16) and cumulative Ultimate Zone Rating (4.4 to -8.0), the latter signifying that L.A. has saved more than four runs than an average defense this season, while the Cardinals have allowed eight more runs than an average group of fielders. PADE suggests a wider gap in defensive prowess, but either way, L.A. comes out on top.

THE PICK: Cardinals in five.

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