There seems to be little that separates the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers, who will meet in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series for the first time in 28 years.
The Cardinals have a robust hitting attack that led the NL in runs with 783. The Dodgers' foundation is pitching. They ranked second in the league in ERA (3.25) and have two of the best starters in baseball in Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.
Following is a breakdown of the teams as they prepare for Game 1 of the series at 7:37 p.m. Friday:
Greinke (15-4, 2.63 ERA) and Kershaw (16-9, 1.83 ERA) will be available to start twice if the series goes seven games. Then there's Hyun-jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00 ERA), solid in his own right. The Cardinals' No. 1 starter, Adam Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA), will pitch Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 7. So that's four possible starts for Greinke and Kershaw against two for Wainwright. The Cardinals, therefore, must hope that less-proven commodities Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69 ERA) and rookie Michael Wacha (4-1, 2.78 ERA) continue to pitch as they did in the NL Division Series against Pittsburgh.
Rookie Trevor Rosenthal (2-4, 2.63 ERA, three saves) has supplanted Edward Mujica as the Cardinals' closer and has proved up to the task. Rosenthal had 108 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings. The Dodgers also have a power closer in Kenley Jansen (4-3, 1.88 ERA, 28 saves), who had 111 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings. Jansen opened the season as a setup man for Brandon League, but posted 24 saves from June 23 until the end of the season. Mujica, John Axford, Randy Choate and rookies Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Carlos Martinez, along with Lance Lynn or Shelby Miller, round out the Cardinals' pen. The Dodgers have two quality left-handers in J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez and aren't bad from the right side, either, with Ronald Belesario and former San Francisco closer Brian Wilson.
Even without first baseman Allen Craig, the Cardinals' lineup is deep and dangerous. Left fielder Matt Holliday (.300, 22 home runs, 94 RBIs), right fielder Carlos Beltran (.296-24-84), second baseman Matt Carpenter (.318-11-78), catcher Yadier Molina (.319-12-80), third baseman David Freese (.262-9-60) and first baseman Matt Adams (.284-17-51) are tough to beat. Los Angeles' top three hitters are rookie right fielder Yasiel Puig (.319-19-42), shortstop Hanley Ramirez (.345-20-57), first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.293-22-100), left fielder Carl Crawford (.283-6-31, 15 stolen bases) and center fielder Andre Ethier (.272-12-52), who might be reduced to a pinch-hitter because of an ankle injury. No other regular batted above .278.
Molina is a game-changer behind the plate, instilling confidence in pitchers and deterring the opponent's running game with his strong and accurate arm. Jon Jay is a plus defender in center and shortstop Pete Kozma, despite his regular-season hitting woes, never floundered in the field. Gonzalez, Crawford and second baseman Mark Ellis are reliable fielders. Puig, despite being overzealous at times, has perhaps the best arm in the major leagues. The Cardinals catch what they get to, committing an NL-low 75 errors. Los Angeles was charged with 109, ranking 14th in the NL.
With Adams as a starter, the Cardinals' reserves don't provide much off the bench. Adron Chambers, Shane Robinson, Tony Cruz, Daniel Descalso and Kolten Wong will be available. The Dodgers have veterans Michael Young, former Cardinals Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto, Tim Federowicz, Scott Van Slyke and Dee Gordon.
Mike Matheny has the Cardinals in the NLCS for the second consecutive year. Players enjoy his even temper and everyday consistency. Don Mattingly has overseen the Dodgers' remarkable turnaround and has let his core players run the clubhouse while depending on them to keep the raw Puig on the same page.
Players, coaches and mangers around baseball have recognized the Cardinals' ability to replace their losses and overcome injuries better than other teams. Winning is expected in St. Louis, and players take it personal when their goals are not realized. The Cardinals are 8-1 in postseason elimination games in the last three years, a testament to their ability to battle until the end. The Dodgers, of course, have similar capabilities. But it's hard to top the Cardinals in this category.
David Wilhelm's pick: Another tight series. Cardinals in seven.
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.