Three keys for Cards to top Dodgers in NLDS

Three keys for Cards to top Dodgers in NLDS

PHOENIX -- As the protective plastic was being torn down in the aftermath of Sunday's National League Central-clinching celebration and the Cardinals prepared to board a flight back to St. Louis, attention turned from another goal down to the next one on the list.

The champs of the Central will meet the NL West-winning Dodgers in the best-of-five NL Division Series that begins Friday (5:30 p.m. CT on FOX Sports 1) at Dodger Stadium. It marks the third time in six seasons that the two teams have met in October. As the Cardinals begin to determine their rotation plans and piece together a 25-man roster, here is an early look at three keys for the Cards to upend the Dodgers and move back into the NL Championship Series for a fourth straight year.

  Date   Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 3   STL 10, LAD 9 video
Gm 2 Oct. 4   LAD 3, STL 2 video
Gm 3 Oct. 6   STL 3, LAD 1 video
Gm 4 Oct. 7   STL 3, LAD 2 video
1. Adam Wainwright
You can make the argument that Wainwright has been the NL's second-best pitcher this season. The only catch is that the pitcher who has been better is the one he matches up against in the series. Clayton Kershaw has already been lined up to start Game 1, and Wainwright was assured of doing the same after being pulled from his scheduled start on Sunday. The two would also take the mound for their respective teams in an if-necessary Game 5.

Wainwright will be plenty rested, as it will have been 11 days since he last pitched. The 20-game winner did not match up against Kershaw in the NLCS last year but did lose his only start to the Dodgers in that series. He allowed two earned runs on six hits over seven innings.

Wainwright enters this postseason a 20-game winner for the second time in his career and ranked among the NL leaders in ERA (2.38), WHIP (1.03), complete games (five) and shutouts (three). Yet Kershaw bettered him in all but the shutout category.

2. Winning on the road
While the Cardinals tied Washington and Pittsburgh with a league-high 51 home wins this season, this is a club that has not performed well on the road. And because the Cards do not own home-field advantage in this series, they're going to have to win at least once at Dodger Stadium if they want to advance.

Of the 10 road series the Cardinals played after the All-Star break, they won only three of them. Among the road series the Cards lost over the second half were those to the Padres, Marlins, Phillies, Reds and Cubs -- all teams with below-.500 records.

During their only season trip to Dodger Stadium, the Cardinals scored four runs while losing three of four games. The team has averaged 3.58 runs per game on the road compared to 4.10 at Busch Stadium. The staff ERA (3.42 to 3.64) is also slightly higher on the road.

3. Backing from the bullpen
The Cardinals' season has, in many ways, been defined by the team's ability to win so many close games. More than half of the club's wins came in games determined by two or fewer runs, with St. Louis going 47-33 in such contests. With the expectation that the Cards will continue to live dangerously in low-scoring games, the presence of shutdown relief will be necessary.

The Cardinals have a formidable four at the back end of their bullpen, with Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez, Pat Neshek and Trevor Rosenthal. As the team's closer, Rosenthal added regular drama by making the ninth inning interesting, though he still finished second in the NL with 45 saves. He's been at his best this season when the Cards have kept him rested, and that is something much more easily done during a postseason schedule. The same goes for Neshek, who made 71 appearances this season.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.