Saturday, October 13, 2012

2012 NLCS preview

By Rick Morris
What do you get for two teams celebrating the 10th anniversary of their matchup in the NLCS … or the 25th anniversary?  Another meeting, apparently, as two of the National League’s most historically successful ballclubs meet up in the LCS’s first-ever clash of defending world champions.
Both teams were fairly surprising winners in the past two years, San Francisco for winning with an imbalance of great pitching and barely-adequate hitting (always referred to as “timely hitting” by announcers seeking to emphasize the positive) and St. Louis for being impossible to put away during their run that started on the now-legendary last night of the ’11 regular season and continued through being down to their last strike against Texas in Game 6 of the World Series.  Amazingly, both teams are back here maintaining the character of their unlikely runs, as the Giants remain offensively-challenged and the Cardinals had to survive the wild-card playoff on the road at Atlanta and were down 6-0 and down to their last strike in the 9th inning of NLDS Game 5 at Washington.
Of the two sets of circumstances, the Cards’ one seems less daunting, as there is no reason to believe that they will continue to have their backs so far against the wall – plus, they have the huge psychological advantage of knowing that their core of players has proved utterly impossible to destroy over the past two Octobers.  For the Giants, relying so disproportionately on pitching is impossible to recommend (even if it did somehow work out two years ago), even while they boast the most dominant starter in this series in Matt Cain.  Kyle Lohse has, improbably, pitched like a true ace for St. Louis, but he hurls to much more contact than Cain.
Beyond that, there are many pitchers with successful histories that could serve as an “X-factor” for their respective clubs.  Barry Zito has had a surprising resurgence to decent levels in 2012 just as Tim Lincecum fell off a cliff – albeit with a decent close to the season and a pretty good long-relief run against the Reds in the NLDS.  Adam Wainwright’s return from injury this year was up-and-down (decidedly down in Game 5 against the Nats), while Chris Carpenter missed most of the season due to the need for abdominal surgery, but had flashes of his vintage self since his return.
Each team has ghosts looming over them in this series.  Brian Wilson blew out his arm early in the season, but the back end of the San Fran pen responded well collectively, as did the Yankees crew when they lost Mariano Rivera.  Befitting a team whose trademark has become surviving the seemingly-impossible, the Cards have persevered through more losses than that in defense of their title.  Tony LaRussa made the choice seized by too few in sports and retired on top.  Albert Pujols made the once-unthinkable journey out of town to SoCal and his initial successor at first base, Lance Berkman, has been hurt for most of this year.  Also, and this is less of a surprise given his recent injury history, Rafael Furcal is hurt again.
In a throwback to clashes like the 1976 World Series with Johnny Bench and Thurman Munson, both squads feature MVP candidates behind the plate, as Yadier “Career Year” Molina and (the likely MVP winner) Buster Posey demonstrated how to balance the classic catcher skills with top-flight offensive production.  Beyond that, only Hunter Pence and the Kung Fu Panda – each of whom is down from a typical year for them – keynote a weak San Francisco hitting “attack.”  Conversely, St. Louis boasts a year-in, year-out All-Star producer in Matt Holliday, a resurgent Carlos Beltran, a quickly-establishing young star in Allen Craig and David Freese, who used his great October of 2011 as a springboard to legitimacy as a very good third baseman.  They’re not without holes, but when one of the supposed ones, Daniel Descalso, is evoking memories of Postseason Mark Lemke, well, then, the Cardinal “magic” seems sufficient to bondo over those deficiencies.
If starting pitching seems like a tossup given the aforementioned questions about who will bring what, then the bullpen edge has to go to St. Louis.  FDH baseball analyst Nate Noy pegged Jason Motte as possibly the second-best closer in baseball right now behind Craig Kimbrel, and it’s hard to argue with that, nor to quibble with his setup crew.  The loss of LaRussa, who skippered this team to the 2006 and 2011 crowns, would be thought quite detrimental to the cause of maintaining the team’s postseason momentum this year had they not continued performing exactly the same way under first-year skipper Mike Matheny (the fact that Matheny provided veteran leadership as a player in this very clubhouse for years is no doubt essential to this continuity).  Nonetheless, Bruce Bochy is a proven postseason wizard who boasts a 1998 pennant with San Diego in addition to the autumn triumph of two years ago.  His machinations, and the likelihood of multiple well-pitched games by both teams, will keep this series close.  But after witnessing the inhuman efforts of St. Louis in both the fall of 2011 and 2012, it’s almost irresponsible to pick against a team that always finds a way to prevail. St. Louis in 7 (NOTE: playoff picks thus far are 2-4 and St. Louis over Detroit over 6 is the World Series pick).

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