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NLCS preview: Cardinals should beat Giants in rare matchup


This is the first time in the history of the League Championship Series that the last two World Series champions have met to battle for either league's pennant. In fact, it's the last time the last two World Series champions have met this late in the season since the Milwaukee Braves and New York Yankees faced off in the 1958 World Series. This is also the third meeting between these two teams in the NLCS. The Cardinals beat the Giants in seven games in 1987, and San Francisco returned serve by taking the 2002 NLCS in five games. On both occasions, the victor lost the World Series in seven games.

Player To Watch: Carlos Beltran

Beltran is a borderline Hall of Famer and a former San Francisco Giant. He's also one of the greatest postseason hitters of all-time. The Cardinals' leading hitter in the Division Series against the Nationals, Beltran now boasts a career .375/.488/.817 line with 13 home runs in 129 postseason plate appearances and is the all-time postseason leader in slugging percentage and OPS (1.305) among hitters with 40 or more postseason plate appearances.

What's more, his combined career line in 56 career plate appearances against San Francisco's four intended starting pitchers in this series is .413/.518/.870. Small sample caveats apply in both cases, but the similarity of those two lines, including an on-base percentage roughly 100 points above the batting average and an isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) around 450 (!) is striking. If there's one hitter in the Cardinals' potent lineup the Giants need to identify as the man they can't let beat them, it's the one who was playing rightfield for them last September, Carlos Beltran.

Key Matchup: Madison Bumgarner vs. the Cardinals' right-handed bats

The Cardinals' typical lineup sends up four straight righthanded batters from the third through sixth spots in the order: Matt Holliday, Alan Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese. Plus, the switch-hitter who hits in the two-hole, Beltran, hit .276/.329/.538 against lefties this season with nine home runs in 161 plate appearances. As a result, St. Louis feasted on lefthanded starting pitching this season, hitting .287/.358/.478 as a team against them and scoring an average of 5.6 runs off every lefthanded starter they saw. That's yet another good reason for the Giants to put righty Tim Lincecum in place of lefty Barry Zito in their NLCS rotation. However, they already have 23-year-old lefty Madison Bumgarner locked in as their Game 1 starter in this series. That means that the Cardinals will get to face Bumgarner twice in the first five games of the series.

The good news for the Giants is that the four righties mentioned above have combined to hit just .243/.256/.378 against Bumgarner in 39 career plate appearances. The bad news is that Bumgarner has not been pitching well of late, going 2-5 with a 6.15 ERA in his last eight starts, including a Game 2 loss to the Reds in the Division Series in which he failed to survive the fifth inning. If Bumgarner can't keep the heart of the Cardinals order at bay in his two starts, St. Louis could need just two wins from Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in the other five games to take the series.

Stat To Know: Power Outage

The Giants hit fewer home runs than any other team in the major leagues in 2012, going deep just 103 times in 162 games. Meanwhile, only three teams allowed fewer home runs than the Cardinals, who gave up just 134 taters. That doesn't mean the Giants won't go deep in this series. They hit five bombs in the Division Series, after all, and Buster Posey has three home runs in his last seven games. However, four of the Giants' Division Series homers came at homer-happy Great American Ball Park.

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What it does mean isthat Cardinals pitchers can feel confident challenging the Giants hitters in big spots, with the lone exception of Posey, the only man on San Francisco's NLCS roster to slug higher than .450 this season.

Roster Snapshot: Rotating Rotations

Both the Giants and Cardinals are expected to make changes to their starting rotation for this series. St. Louis has already done so, announcing Lance Lynn as their Game 1 starter in place of Jaime Garcia, who was dropped from the NLDS roster due to an apparent shoulder injury and thus made ineligible for this series. San Francisco, meanwhile, is expected to announce Tim Lincecum as its Game 4 starter, pushing Barry Zito out of the rotation and possibly off the roster altogether.

Lynn, who worked exclusively in relief in the Division Series, will be pitching on just two days' rest after his epic 13-pitch battle with Jayson Werth on Thursday, which resulted in Werth's walk-off home run. However, those were the only pitches Lynn has thrown since throwing 50 pitches across three innings in Game 2. If you count that at-bat as his between-starts bullpen sesion, he'll be on five days' rest from Game 2. Lynn made 29 starts and six relief appearances during the regular season and went 4-0 with a 2.19 ERA after returning to the rotation in mid-September.

The ace of the 2010 world champions, Lincecum capped a miserable regular season (10-15, 5.18 ERA) by allowing 12 runs (11 earned) in 10 innings over his final two starts and was pushed to the bullpen for the Division Series. However, he pitched himself back into favor by allowing just one run on three hits in 6 1/3 relief innings against the Reds, striking out eight without allowing a home run or a walk, and picking up the win in Game 4 after Zito failed to pitch out of the third inning. Lincecum did not face the Cardinals during the regular season.

X-factor: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

The Nationals' Drew Storen threw five pitches with two strikes, two outs and a 7-5 lead in Game 5 of the Division Series against the Cardinals, but none of them resulted in the final strike or out. The Cardinals dug themselves out of an identical hole in Game 6 of last year's World Series, twice getting down to their final strike before staging their comeback, with third baseman David Freese being one of the batters to avoid that last strike in both series. That sort of thing doesn't happen very often. In fact, the only other team ever to come from behind to win a World Series after being one strike away from losing it was the 1986 Mets (ironically managed by Nats skipper Davey Johnson).

It would be a mistake to treat St. Louis' coincidental Houdini acts as a repeatable skill. Still, it does speak to just how dangerous its lineup can be. In a postseason dominated by pitching (just look at the batting lines of the two victorious American League teams in my ALCS preview), the Cardinals, who were second in the National League with 4.72 runs scored per game during the regular season, hit .265/.378/.458 as a team in the Division Series and averaged 6.5 runs per game, that after scoring six runs in the wild-card game against Atlanta.

St. Louis may have needed a miraculous and unprecedented comeback to beat the Nationals (no team had ever come back from a deficit of more than four runs in a double-elimination game, but the Cardinals crawled out of an early 6-0 hole), but they outscored the Nationals 32-16 in the series as a whole.

Prediction: Cardinals in five

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