Richard Justice

Cardinals, Giants the standard bearers of excellence

Cardinals, Giants the standard bearers of excellence

The Cardinals and Giants are more alike than they are different, and shouldn't that make this National League Championship Series even more interesting? Unwrap these franchises a layer at a time, and you'll find common threads.

If you want to know how to run a professional sports franchise, here's your blueprint. From building rosters to ballparks, from ownership to management to how to treat the paying customers, the Cardinals and Giants do things right.

Isn't that the bottom line? Between them, they've won the last four NL pennants, and three of the last four World Series. The Cardinals have been to the postseason 11 times in 15 years, the Giants seven times in 18 years.

The Cardinals are in the NLCS for the 13th time, most for any NL franchise. And this is the fourth time the Cardinals and Giants have played one another for the pennant since 1987. To have that kind of success over a long period of time -- as players come and go and the game itself evolves -- says plenty about the people in charge.

  Date Recaps Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 11 SF 3, STL 0 video
Gm 2 Oct. 12 STL 5, SF 4 video
Gm 3 Oct. 14 SF 5, STL 4 video
Gm 4 Oct. 15 SF 6, STL 4 video
Gm 5 Oct. 16 SF 6, STL 3 video

First off, they're wildly popular franchises, both of them. The Cardinals drew 43,711 per game at Busch Stadium this season, the second-highest total in the Major Leagues. The Giants were right behind, at 41,588, the fourth-highest average overall.

When these teams play home games, it's a big deal, an event. There's an electricity in both ballparks and an expectation that something great is about to happen. If a player can't thrive in this environment, he's in the wrong line of work.

When Giants outfielder Hunter Pence was asked why his team seemed so comfortable in these huge, tense postseason games, he said, "We play every home game in front of a bunch of crazy fans. When we get to the postseason, it feels normal."

In Cardinals chairman and managing partner Bill DeWitt Jr. and Giants chief executive officer Larry Baer, these teams are led by men who've constructed model organizations, both in terms of structure and results.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean might be the single most respected baseball executive in the sport. He leads a tight-knit group of men who are the gold standard for evaluating players and putting clubs together.

His counterpart with the Cardinals, John Mozeliak, has won the respect of his peers for his judgment and integrity during seven years on the job. In a city that demands a winning baseball team, he has delivered huge results.

Neither team spends outrageous sums of money. One reason is both have placed a huge focus on player development and on keeping the supply of talent flowing from the Minor Leagues.

With 11 of the top 12 payroll teams gone from the playoffs, the Giants and Cardinals are ranked seventh and 13th overall. Neither cuts corners. Neither is careless with money, either.

Now about those managers. Bruce Bochy of the Giants is the only one of baseball's managers who has already punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame. That's the bottom line for a 20-year career in which he has won 1,618 times in the regular season and the World Series twice.

No manager has a better relationship with his players. No manager runs a pitching staff better. In ways large and small, Bochy is the rock-solid, consistent leader.

Mike Matheny replaced a legend, Tony La Russa, and in three seasons, his club has averaged 92 victories. He has grown comfortable in the job and evolved into one of the most recognizable faces of one of the most successful franchises in the game.

Perhaps the most striking similarities are in the two clubhouses. Both clubs have mentally-tough players who thrive in October baseball. That would be Buster Posey and Pence, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter.

At a time when baseball's top teams are so close in terms of talent, it's this comfort and confidence that might just be huge at this time of the year.

Never mind that these teams do things so differently. Neither team scored a ton of runs during the regular season. The Cardinals, in particular, were offensively challenged. However, the Cardinals rose to the challenge in the NLDS against the Dodgers, scoring 15 of their 18 runs in the seventh inning or later.

The Giants didn't score more than three runs in any of their four games against the Nationals. But with their starting pitchers compiling a 1.40 ERA and their bullpen at 1.86, that was enough.

That's one of the things that makes this NLCS matchup so interesting. Can the Giants continue to control games with their pitching? Can the Cardinals continue to mash home runs (seven versus the Dodgers), which is something they didn't do during the regular season?

It's probably going to be decided by a play here and a play there along the way. It'll come down to small moments that loom large once the series is over. To pick one team or the other would be silly.

One way to evaluate a close series is to examine the bullpens. If this one is decided by the bullpens, the Giants probably will win. On the other hand, nothing has gone as expected in a postseason in which 10 of 16 games have been decided by one run and the winning run has been scored in the seventh inning or later 12 teams.

The Angels had the best record in baseball during the regular season, but they didn't win a postseason game. The Tigers had the last three American League Cy Young Award winners lined up against the Orioles and didn't win once.

And the team some of us thought was the deepest and most complete, Washington, is now also home. Again, it's the Giants and Cardinals playing for the NL pennant. Here's to a great show.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.