Now that they get to start fresh against each other on Wednesday or Thursday on TBS, St. Louis appears to have the turn-it-back-on advantage because its late-season woes were primarily offensive, which are more fixable than something like the Dodgers' unsettled pitching rotation.
The Second Season is a different animal, we're always being told, and that's what the Dodgers count on. How many runs can any team reasonably expect to score against Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, who would combine for three starts in a five-game series? Three runs? That was opponents' ceiling in 50 of their 66 starts.
Is there a glass ceiling for the Dodgers, who are 18-44 when scoring fewer than four? Joe Torre's crew tends to play a more aggressive style of ball, with superior team speed. Good luck trying to unnerve someone like Carpenter, or to run roughshod over someone like catcher Yadier Molina.
Yet the Cardinals have an overall smaller margin for error, which makes this Division Series so tantalizing. You know what the Redbirds have to do to win. You never know what the Dodgers could come up with to upstage them.
BY THE NUMBERS
Statistical Rankings (NL)
|Runs||730, 7th ||780, 4th|
|HRs||160, 6th||145, 11th|
|SBs||75, 11th||116, 3rd|
|OBP ||.332, 10th||.346, 1st|
|SLG||.415, 6th||.412, 7th|
|ERA||3.66, 4th||3.41, 1st|
|Start ERA||3.66, 4th||3.58, 2nd|
|Relief ERA ||3.67, 4th||3.14, 1st|
|HR allow ||123, 15th||127, 14th|
|Opp BA ||.319, 3rd||.312, 1st|
|Field% ||.985, 8th||.986, 5th|
|Errors ||96, 7th||83, 13th||
Wins and Losses
AT THE PLATE
It begins and ends with Pujols, who reminds you of a video-game composite or of one of those overgrown kids who mock fellow Little Leaguers. The Cards can't win without him. Know their record when Pujols goes hitless? 15-24. It must be noted, however, that 7-19 of that came before the arrival of Holliday, who completed the Cardinals by becoming Pujols' bodyguard (51 RBIs in his first 58 games as the cleanup hitter, compared to the 64 Ryan Ludwick and Chris Duncan had totaled in 86). Holliday also enabled La Russa to have to manage less: He called for 50 sacrifice bunts before his arrival, only 17 after.
"Efficient" sums up an offense difficult to buttonhole. The Dodgers ranked 12th in NL homers, may not have a .300 hitter in the lineup (Matt Kemp took a .301 average into the final weekend) -- yet scored the third-most runs in the league. Kemp and clutch-king Andre Ethier are their first 100-RBI tandem since 2000 (Gary Sheffield and Shawn Green), which gives the attack focus but also makes it vulnerable to their slumps. The Dodgers scored seven-plus runs in 42 games -- and two or fewer in 43 others, both trends often coming in clusters, definitely something to mind in a short series.
KEY LATE GAME MATCHUP
1. St. Louis' Ryan Franklin vs. Los Angeles' Jim Thome. There is only one reason Thome and his 564 career homers sit on the bench -- to do a Matt Stairs number on someone. Late in a game hanging in the balance, you know this duel will come up, and the series could turn on the outcome. They've seen each other only once, and that doesn't even matter -- Thome worked a walk way back in 2002, when he was in Cleveland and Franklin was in Seattle. Franklin did not allow a home run to a lefty hitter all season.
2. Los Angeles' Jonathan Broxton vs. St. Louis' Matt Holliday.
Any Holliday at-bat will be key, since the Dodgers are resolved to not let Pujols beat them, so it reasons that the late spotlight will fall on their closer. Broxton, a gas-man who strikes out about one of every three batters he faces, has had his way with both, but will intentionally walk Pujols if he comes up at crunch time with a base open, throwing the challenge to Holliday.
Were you expecting Pujols? Joel Pineiro is the stealth arm in the rotation. Carpenter is steady, Wainwright is often spectacular, but this unheralded righty spun 21 quality starts and will not beat himself (no walks in 13 starts). He's the pivot man as the No. 3 starter -- either trying to complete or avoid a sweep, or turn a deadlocked series in the Cards' favor -- and is perfect for the role.
There is no one else in this series who appreciates a "new" season more than does Manny Ramirez. How can a lifelong RBI machine possibly rate as a "secret"? Well, Ramirez has been a non-factor since early May, first obviously because of his absence through a 50-game suspension for MLB drug policy violation, hence because he stopped driving in runs. When the postseason alarm clock goes off, so could Manny, who is an impossible out on a streak.
St. Louis is not a good comeback team (9-55 when trailing into the eighth inning), so it needs for the bullpen's September woes to have been only a temporary glitch. Ryan Franklin took a 1.04 ERA into the final month, and it's been over 7.00 since, while he blew three of four save opportunities (after converting 37 of the first 39). The goatee again needs to be the go-to.
Having to revert to Plan B for a Game 3 starter in the wake of Hiroki Kuroda's unavailability due to a herniated risk is touchy enough, but the pervasive jeopardy is the offense's over-reliance on two chief run producers. If Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier go cold, the Dodgers go stiff. They are 21-40 when neither drives in a run. Of course, this is where the "secret weapon" would come in.
AND THE WINNER IS ...
The Cardinals will win if ... Precedence prevails. Really, that's all they need, given the pitching preeminence they've established. Only once of the 18 times Carpenter and Wainwright have followed each other in the rotation have they dropped both games (June 25-26, to the Mets) and if they get the series back to St. Louis in no worse than a 1-1 tie, the Clydesdales will preen for a wrap party.
The Dodgers will win if ...
Their starters cowboy-up enough to take the games into the late innings, when their relievers and veteran-stocked bench could both give them an edge. Tight games are their milieu (28 one-run wins).