Heated Central rivals should put on electric, even NLCS that will go 7
The Brewers and Cardinals don't seem to like each other. That much was clear when benches cleared during a game in early September, an incident triggered by a heated exchange between Milwaukee's Nyjer Morgan and St. Louis' Chris Carpenter. That tension and the familiarity of an intra-division rivalry with 18 games each season add some intangibles to what seems to be a mostly even matchup, tilted slightly to the team from Wisconsin.
The season series between these two clubs was an even 9-9, though the Cardinals did win six of the last seven. What figures to be more important, however, is their play at home. The Brewers have now won 60 games at Miller Park this year -- a major-league-best 57 in the regular season and all three in the NLDS -- with a superlative .714 winning percentage at home. The flip side, of course, is that the Brew Crew don't do well when straying from Milwaukee. After losing two road games in the NLDS, they win at only a .470 clip as the visitor.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, finished the regular season with identical home and road records of 45-36 and then went 2-1 on the road and 1-1 at home in the NLDS, suggesting a comfort playing at the same level everywhere and anywhere.
That the Brewers seem to revel in their home-field advantage means that a Cardinals win (or two) in the first two games of this series could unsettle their favored NL Central rivals.
Whether due to an injury from three weeks ago (finger inflammation for the Cardinals' Holliday) or an injury three months ago (a severe ankle sprain for the Brewers' Rickie Weeks), neither 2011 All-Star batting fifth had the NLDS he expected. Holliday, who had a .912 OPS and 22 homers in 124 games, started only two games and went 2-for-9 with three strikeouts.
Weeks, who had an .818 OPS with 20 homers in 118 games but batted .243 in 14 September games after returning from the disabled list, had a poor series that may or may not be related to the injury or time missed but he went 1-for-18, though the hit was a triple and he struck out only once.
Both players are responsible for supporting a powerful 3-4 combo in their respective lineups. Holliday had batted fourth for the Cardinals for much of the year but recently fell to No. 5 so that Berkman could bat fourth behind Pujols. The Brewers flipped Weeks and Corey Hart in the first and fifth spots in the lineup in mid-July, so that Weeks has the chore of trying to make other teams to pitch to Braun and Fielder. In Game 5 against Arizona, starter Ian Kennedy routinely pitched Fielder out of the zone and -- whether he was anxious from an elimination game or had waning confidence in his No. 5 hitter -- chased several pitches.
The Cardinals' ace is the single best pitcher in this series, fresh off a three-hit complete-game shutout to knock out the Phillies in Friday's Game 5. That means Carpenter won't pitch until Game 3 of the NLCS, but he'd also be in line for Game 7, so he'd still get two starts against the Brewers.
Postseason history is full of starters reaching near invincibility in October -- Josh Beckett, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia are examples from the last five years -- and no pitcher has a better chance to do that than the veteran Carpenter, who is 6-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 11 career postseason starts. He wasn't sharp in his first outing of the NLDS, though that can probably be excused to his starting on short rest, which he won't have to do again. Carpenter is 4-3 against the Brewers with a 4.12 ERA in nine starts over the last three seasons, though that includes two complete-game shutouts, including one this year as part of a 2-2 record with a 3.86 ERA this season.
The Brewers do have the series' next two best starters in Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke, and Gallardo is likely to oppose Carpenter in both his starts. Gallardo turned in a gem of his own in his Game 1 outing -- one run and nine strikeouts in eight innings -- but in his career he is 1-7 against the Cardinals with a 5.66 ERA, including a 1-3 mark with a 5.70 ERA in four starts this season.
The elite of the NL Central share the commonality of high-powered offenses. The Brewers, Cardinals and Reds all were among the league's top five run-scoring teams this season. That didn't play out in 18 season meetings between Milwaukee and St. Louis, when there was an average of only 7.5 combined runs scored each game.
That said, anytime you gather seven All-Star hitters -- Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks for Milwaukee and Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina for St. Louis -- there is always the chance of some in-game fireworks.
Only 10 NL hitters this season had an OPS of .900 or better and five are in this NLCS: Braun (.994), Fielder (.981), Berkman (.959), Holliday (.912) and Pujols (.906). Similarly, seven of the 31 NL players with at least 20 homers are represented: Fielder (38), Pujols (37), Braun (33), Berkman (31), Milwaukee's Corey Hart (26), Holliday (22) and Weeks (20).
One has been terrific for the final three months of the regular season and the other for half that time, but both entered the postseason on high notes, only to have mixed results in the NLDS. The Brewers' bullpen was dominant in Games 1 through 3 but allowed three runs in Game 4 (by converted starter Chris Narveson) and closer John Axford blew a save in Game 5 (though he later picked up the win after the walk-off victory). The Cardinals' bullpen melted down for five runs in 2 2/3 innings in their Game 1 loss but rallied the next day for six critical shutout innings.
Based on their season track records and depth, the late-inning edge goes to the Brewers. Since acquiring Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets, the Brewers' relievers have had a 2.20 ERA and haven't lost a game in which they led after eight innings. But it's not just K-Rod and Axford in the eighth and ninth who matter: Takashi Saito, LaTroy Hawkins and Kameron Loe all have proved they can add to the inning-by-inning bullpen brigade. The one downside is a lack of a situational lefty reliever, but the Cardinals lack a power-hitting lefty bat, so it shouldn't matter too much, though switch-hitting Berkman is worse as a righty hitter.
The Cardinals endured a trying start to the season with incumbent closer Ryan Franklin, handed the job to Fernando Salas, who did well until a few blown opportunities in August, and then gave Jason Motte primary ninth-inning duty. Motte didn't give up an earned run in either July or August, part of a 33-appearance, 26 1/3-inning streak with a 0.00 ERA. And beginning with his first save of the year on Aug. 28, the bullpen's performance has been notably improved, as their save conversion rate has gone from 60 percent to 80 percent and their relievers' ERA from 3.67 to 3.28. St. Louis can't match Milwaukee's bullpen depth but has better lefty options in Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes.