ST. LOUIS -- Having taken down Clayton Kershaw twice en route to knocking the Dodgers out of the postseason, the Cardinals are back in the National League Championship Series for a fourth straight year and ninth time since 2000. At stake is a third trip to the World Series in four years and a chance at a third championship title since '06.
The Cardinals and Giants, who have met three times in the NLCS, will open this year's matchup in St. Louis on Saturday, with first pitch scheduled for 7:07 p.m. CT on FOX at Busch Stadium. With the best-of-seven series on the horizon, here is a look at three keys for the Cards as they look to represent the NL in the World Series yet again:
Make home-field advantage count: Because the Giants backed into the playoffs as a Wild Card team, home-field advantage flips to the Cardinals. That could by a critical swing. The Cards won an NL-most 51 games at home during the regular season and are 11-5 at Busch in the postseason under manager Mike Matheny. Including its two NL Division Series victories, St. Louis has won 14 of its last 16 home games.
The need to hold serve at home is even more important because of the troubles the Cardinals have had beating the Giants on the road. They went 1-3 at AT&T Park in the 2012 NLCS and are 3-7 all-time in postseason games at San Francisco. The Cards played below-.500 ball on the road this regular season, too, and lost seven of their final 10 road series. The team averaged slightly more than a half run less on the road, while the ERA (3.42 to 3.64) was also a nudge higher away from Busch.
Continued lefty-on-lefty success: The Giants will employ only one lefty in their NLCS rotation, but he'll be about as tough as they come. Madison Bumgarner, likely to match up with Adam Wainwright in Games 1 and (if necessary) 5, has had a sensational start to the postseason. San Francisco will also have two veteran lefty relievers, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, to contend with late in games.
The Cardinals feasted on left-handed pitching in the NL Division Series, batting .298/.322/.548 against Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, J.P. Howell, and Scott Elbert over four games. Of particular surprise was how well the Cards' left-handed-hitting starting position players (Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, Kolten Wong and Jon Jay) did against these lefties. The four combined to go 14-for-38 with five home runs and 13 RBIs against left-handed pitchers. That was key to them winning the series and could be again.
Ride the rotation depth: Pitching often wins in October, and the Cardinals have a rotation that should stack up against any of the three remaining playoff teams. Obviously it starts with Wainwright, who will get the ball first. The club has leaned on Wainwright all season, though there is at least a hint of concern as to how his arm -- which has logged 508 innings since the start of 2013 -- is holding up. The Cards need Wainwright to be strong and set the tone. A week of rest should help.
After Wainwright allowed six runs in his DS start, the other three members of the rotation (Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Shelby Miller) limited the Dodgers to five over 18 2/3 innings. That helped keep games close enough for the Cardinals to piece together late-inning comebacks. Lynn pitched like an ace all season. Lackey has as long a postseason resume as any active pitcher. And Miller is out to prove he should never be forgotten in October again. For a team that can't expect (even if it does hope) the long ball to carry the load, the Cards need their starting depth to shine.
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.