NLCS Preview: Giants Vs. Cardinals
The two back-to-back World Series champions will each be forced to adapt their rotations after exhausting most of their arms in their respective Game 5's. They split their regular season series 3-3, and even if the first six games follow suit, only one comeback kid can move on to the final round.
How They Got Here:
Fueled by their misfit reputation and “Fear the Beard” mantra, the Giants topped the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2010 postseason with a combination of timely hitting, consistent pitching and a particularly nasty bullpen. They shut down the then-hot Rangers in only five games, a feat that almost no one had foreseen.
Only a year later, the Rangers found themselves facing the Cardinals, who had just proven themselves against the Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers. Power performances from Albert Pujols and David Freese, in addition to some determined play in Game 6 to overcome two two-run deficits, gave the Cards their championship.
During the regular season, the Cards and Giants faced each other six times and split the series with three wins apiece. Sound even? The Giants scored 15 runs on the road at Busch Stadium. Seven of those runs came against starter Joe Kelly, who will be available as a reliever in the bullpen.
But major, major changes have been made since then.
Both teams are missing key players from past years' championship teams. Albert Pujols, who cranked three homers last year in the Series, signed with the Angels and Lance Berkman won’t be playing due to injury. However, they’ve compensated by adding Adam Wainwright back to the roster and signed former Giant slugger Carlos Beltran.
The Giants are missing, most noticeably, a bearded closer that hurls fireballs: the indescribable Brian Wilson. Despite Wilso's absence, the Giants added Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence to their lineup. The two have undoubtedly been clutch, but the development of farm-grown Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey has made all the difference.
The Giants will, as usual, be relying on their pitching to carry the burden of their anemic offense. The staff knows how to play playoff ball; for pitchers, being supported by two runs is the norm while anything more is extra padding and anything less just means they have to work a little more meticulously. And Bruce Bochy keeps proving his genius puppetry with the bullpen.
The Cardinals are an overall more well-rounded team—something the Giants could be if their offense could produce more pop and fewer ground balls. The Cards rank third of the five NL teams in average during the postseason, but lead the Giants (ranked last) by a full .059 points. That’s not to mention, either, that they’ve produced the most runs—20 more than the Giants have managed. And their pitchers do have All-Star and Cy Young-nominee credentials.
Three Storylines to Watch:
After running through their rotations and much of their bullpens to secure Game 5 victories, both the Giants and Cardinals are going to have to make some adjustments. Lefty Madison Bumgarner will start for the Giants against Lance Lynn of the Cardinals, which pits Ryan Vogelsong against Chris Carpenter, Matt Cain against Kyle Lohse and either Tim Lincecum or Barry Zito against Adam Wainwright for the Giants and Cards, respectively.
The advantage here goes to the Giants. Ace Matt Cain will be pitching on full rest and could even make an appearance in a potential Game 7 (and at this point, both teams showed they have what it takes to fight to the end for that last at-bat). That’s not to mention that Tim Lincecum’s perfectly timed rebound makes him an asset as a starter or as a reliever that can go deep. But it’s basically just as a precaution that Bochy hasn’t named Lincecum as the fourth starter yet.
Two of the best catchers will be in the squat in this series and both of them are in contention for the NL MVP title: Buster Posey and Yadier Molina. Posey made headlines with his grand slam in the ultimate game against the Reds (his second home run of the postseason) and while Molina is batting a mere .095, he’s drawn five walks.
The two catchers also command respect for their presence behind the plate: their ability to catch some of the league’s toughest pitchers and their powerful arms that have picked off more than a few runners.
The Giants have won all of their games on the road this postseason and even clinched all of their games in 2010 on the road. Regardless, entering enemy territory with two games against them and managing to win three straight was inconceivable...but the Giants did it. The Cards distributed their wins and losses at home more evenly, but stepped up in the nation’s capital to crush the Nationals to punch their ticket to the CS.
In essence, both teams aren’t afraid to play away from their home parks, so home-field advantage doesn’t mean much. Then again, maybe it does. Maybe playing on the road will be a strategy this series.
Giants vs. Cardinals: Who's Going to Win?
Ultimately, the Giants in six. Why? They’ve accomplished more this postseason with less. They scored a run without getting any hits, they did what no team has ever done in winning three straight after being down 0-2 in an NLDS matchup and that’s not even mentioning the fact that they won all three games on the road. They don’t have the same consistent offense that the Cards do, but they have pitching that can back up whatever meager runs the offense can produce.
Moreover, they like being the underdog. They like having their backs up against the wall. And Giants fans hate that they love it. The Cards will be tough to top, but this series seems to be about who wants it more and who is going to fight harder for it. Have you heard Hunter Pence’s pump-up speech?
Game 1: Sunday, October 14, 5:00 p.m. PT, AT&T Park
Game 2: Monday, October 15, 5:00 p.m. PT, AT&T Park
Game 3: Wednesday, October 17, 1:00 p.m. PT, Busch Stadium
Game 4: Thursday, October 18, 5:00 p.m. PT, Busch Stadium
Game 5: Friday, October 19, 5:00 p.m. PT, Busch Stadium(*)
Game 6: Sunday, October 21, 1:30 p.m. PT, AT&T Park(*)
Game 7: Monday, October 22, 5:00 p.m. PT, AT&T Park(*)