Talkin’ Baseball: NLCS

You’ve already seen how spot-on our resident baseball experts were in Game 1 of the ALCS — John remarkably predicted two rain delays lasting approximately 45 and 60 minutes, both occurring in the bottom of the fifth (he was half-a-frame off) — so you should be psyched to see them back at it for the NLCS — a battle of Central Division rivals who last met in the playoffs in the 1982 World Series. That’s right, it’s the first-ever rematch of a World Series in a non-World Series round of the postseason. History!

TIM: Alright, so I think I’m finally over the Mets loss in the 2006 NLCS to talk about…wait, the Cardinals are back in it? Didn’t they miss the playoffs by like 15 games?

JOHN: It certainly seemed heading for that a few months ago. But, hey, look on the bright side: They managed to make the playoffs thanks to a collapse by your hated Atlanta Braves!

I must confess that all of that happened while I was busy watching the Red Sox blow it, so I was totally unprepared for St. Louis knocking off the Phillies. I figured that the Cardinals, like the Rays, were lucky to make it to the playoffs and would be swiftly eliminated.

Still, it seems like the NLDS was more about the Phillies’ weaknesses getting exposed than it was about the Cardinals proving how much they deserved to be here. The Phillies really can’t hit, and St. Louis exposed that. But the Brewers are a much better offensive team. They have two legitimate MVP candidates in Ryan Braun and future-former-Brewer Prince Fielder. Their rotation isn’t as intimidating as the one the Cardinals just beat, but it compares favorably to St. Louis. Even the bullpen seems reliable, despite John Axford’s blown save in Game 5.

Maybe I’m biased, since Milwaukee is the only team left in the postseason that I actually picked to MAKE the postseason, but I’m still not sold on St. Louis. Am I underestimating the Cardinals?

TIM: Well, I’d say you can’t underestimate a team that has a Nick Punto/Ryan Theriot platoon at second base. But then again, the worst Cardinals teams seem to be the ones that do the best in the postseason.

There are obvious reasons why the Braves’ collapse wasn’t as intriguing as Boston’s in the AL. First is that Atlanta wasn’t some anointed favorite. Second, though, is that there wasn’t a clear narrative. In the AL, it was the big bad Red Sox choking it away to the underdog, likable Rays. On the other side, it was the most perennially successful team over the last two decades in the NL choking it away to the second most perennially successful team over the last two decades in the NL. Third, Joe Maddon > Tony LaRussa.

But even more so than usual in the Pujols Era, this is a top-heavy St. Louis team. They have Pujols, the rejuvenated Lance Berkman, and the recovering Matt Holliday in the middle of the order, and seemingly no one else (does David “Mr.” Freese count?). We talked earlier this year about Pujols, and I thought he was headed for a relatively mediocre season. What’s more impressive then: what Pujols has done to get his numbers close to where they usually are after an awful start, or Berkman’s bounceback campaign?

JOHN: Man, is there a more obvious inequality than “Joe Maddon>Tony La Russa”?

Anyway, as someone who watched Lance Berkman flail around in the Bronx last year, when he seemed unworthy of even being a back-up first baseman/pinch-hitter, I have to say that his resurgence is far more surprising than anything Albert Pujols did this year. Honestly, is anyone even surprised by Pujols at this point? If you had told me in April that Pujols would still end up with 40 home runs, I’d have said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.” If anything, I’m disappointed he couldn’t get to .300 and 100 RBI.

It’s interesting that you call the Cardinals “top-heavy,” since they rely so much on Berkman/Pujols/Holliday. I mean, after Milwaukee’s own trio of Braun/Fielder/Weeks, they have Yuniesky Betancourt, Jonathan Lucroy, and Jerry Hairston. I just assume that all NL lineups are built like that, with a few boppers surrounded by guys who couldn’t make it in the AL. I mean, it always seems like half of St. Louis’ hitters are only in the lineup so La Russa can eventually use them in a double-switch.

Which brings me to the first of my two questions: 1) What’s the over/under on the number of pitchers La Russa uses in this series? 2) How psyched are you by this Zack Greinke/Chris Carpenter feud?

TIM: I suppose pretty much every team except the Yankees and Rangers has a lineup like that. The Brewers certainly have a huge dropoff from Rickie Weeks hitting fifth to Jerry Hairston sixth — even if Hairston had a nice NLDS — but Milwaukee has a solid top two, unlike St. Louis (Furcal and Schumaker). I think it was actually Maddon who, talking about the Rangers lineup in the ALDS, said something like, “I always judge an opponent’s lineup by the quality of the seventh-place hitter.” He meant it as a compliment to Napoli hitting seventh for Texas, which didn’t make sense because Napoli was hitting sixth, but you get the point.*

*The point: Joe Maddon is awesome!

It’s funny you bring up Betancourt; in the ninth inning of Milwaukee’s Game 5 win, I thought to myself, Willie Bloomquist might be starting at short in the NLCS! And then I realized that was the better alternative! Willie Bloomquist! At least he was an injury replacement.

Nice observation on LaRussa by the way. Part of me thinks he’s upset the Cards traded for Furcal because he wanted to bring in Daniel Descalso as much as possible. And so then he just started bringing him in to replace Freese. Another of his late-inning replacements (Adron Chambers, who comes in for Berkman in right*) is actually the Rams’ slot receiver.

*Can you believe Matt Holliday is the better of their corner outfielders?

To answer your questions, Tony LaRussa will use 48 pitchers in this series. If Greinke and Carpenter were pitching against one another, that feud would be more entertaining. We both know any legit feud in this series will be started by Nyjer Morgan, who on Friday dropped the most predictable F-bomb on national TV ever.

While mentioning Carpenter, can we briefly discuss the upset of the Phillies again? I’m shocked by it, frankly. Did not see Carpenter delivering one of the greatest deciding-game performances in the history of the postseason (by Game Score, it’s tied with Morris for the second-best ever, behind Koufax in the ’65 World Series).

JOHN: I feel like Nyjer Morgan would be so much more interesting as a player if he were like 25% better. He’s just not good enough to be polarizing…

To be honest, I didn’t even watch most of Game 5, so I didn’t really see the “dominance” first-hand. When I finally did put the game on, and saw how few guys he put on base, I remembered, “Oh yeah, Chris Carpenter is pretty good.” People had talked about the matchup with him and Halladay as a potential pitchers’ duel, but it seemed a little flattering to Carpenter to compare him to Halladay. And then, of course, he outpitches him. With that said, even Bill James, who invented Game Score, doesn’t take Game Score all that seriously. There’s no way Carpenter’s performance compares with Morris or Koufax.

I think the Phillies loss proved the old baseball adage: “Starting pitching doesn’t matter in the playoffs.” Or, at least, starting pitching evens out in the playoffs. This is two years in a row now that the Phillies lineup has been stymied by a rotation that outperformed their own stellar staff–over half the runs the Phillies scored in the NLDS came in Game 1. If the 1990s Atlanta Braves taught us anything, it’s that even a historically great rotation doesn’t guarantee postseason success.

Here’s a question that you are unusually qualified to answer: Should the Brewers having K-Rod in the 8th make them more confident or less confident? Mets fans were desperate to get rid of him this year, but he does seem to make Milwaukee’s bullpen formidable…

TIM: If you’re implying Chris Capuano didn’t pitch the best game of 2011, I’m gonna go Nyjer Morgan on you.

As for Rodriguez, Mets fans wanted to get rid of him to make sure his option didn’t vest and the team didn’t get stuck paying him $17 million next season. It wasn’t like they were all pumped for Jason Isringhausen and Bobby Parnell and Manny Acosta closing games. Although Rodriguez hasn’t been a great pitcher since 2006, he’s still an above-average eighth-inning guy — and a big improvement over Kameron Loe, who was pitching the eighth for the Brewers before the deal. (Furthermore, the “disaster” that was K-Rod’s tenure with the Mets — and maybe I’m putting words in critics’ mouths, but that seems to be how it’s been characterized — wasn’t so much about his performance on the field. He was pretty good for them. He lost the fan base — deservedly — when he attacked his girlfriend’s father at Citi Field.)*

*The placement of “deservedly” is very critical to that sentence.

To go back to the starting pitching issue — I’ll do most anything to avoid talking about the actual mechanics of this series — do you think that’s a problem? You know I’ve long argued that the postseason should reward the same style of play that works in the regular season (which is why I’m so much against off-days in the playoffs. If anything, I’d like teams to have to use all FIVE starters in the postseason). Is it wrong that far and away the best iteration of this Phillies team was knocked out by an inferior squad in the postseason? Or is it another anomaly of the Division Series?

Second, and I don’t expect you to get this reference but I have to make it, how big a series is this for the Iorg family?*

*Garth Iorg is a coach with Milwaukee. His brother, Dane, occupies a strange place in Cardinals history. He was huge as the DH in the ’82 World Series against Milwaukee (the DH was used in all seven games that year), but later he had the game-winning hit in the infamous Game 6 of the ’85 World Series for the Royals against St. Louis.

JOHN: Well, I’m not as much of a diehard believer that the postseason should mirror the regular season as you are — I certainly don’t want to see fifth starters in the postseason — I am kind of annoyed every time a superior team is knocked off in the Division Series. After all, I’ve been on the “expand the Division Series to seven games” bandwagon for years.

At the same time, I don’t buy the idea that the Phillies loss this year was so unjust. That team simply wasn’t as good as it appeared. The starting pitching was great, but the lineup couldn’t scratch out runs when it needed to. That’s not something you should be able to say about “the best iteration” of a team like the Phillies. They deserved to lose.

Now, since you seem loath to talk about the specifics of this NLCS, let me quickly break it down: The Brewers are great at home, so this might be a situation where homefield advantage actually plays a role in a baseball series. If the Cardinals can steal one of the early games in Milwaukee, then they have a decent shot at making the World Series. Otherwise, I don’t see the series being close. Who ya got?

TIM: Although these teams split their 18 meetings this season (they played each other more than any other NL Central team), St. Louis did take six of the last seven meetings, including a sweep at Miller Park in bridging into September. It was the only time the Brewers were swept at home all season.

That said, I think the home-field is a bigger deal for Milwaukee than pretty much any other team in the playoffs — even Texas. The Brewers hit better at home, as you’d expect, but they also pitch better at home. The fly in that ointment is the guy who might be the most important Brewer in this series: Shaun Marcum. Marcum’s home ERA is more than double his road ERA (2.21 on the road…impressive), and I imagine he’s lined up to start Games 2 and 6 — both at Miller Park. If he pitches the way he’s capable (i.e. not the glove-tossing way he pitched in a road start in the NLDS at Arizona), I think that gives the Brewers the pitching edge in five of the seven games.

My slightly less specific predictions for this series:

Garcia and Greinke are good but not great in Game 1, and Corey Hart delivers the game-winning hit for Milwaukee in like the sixth in a 5-3 win.

Marcum pitches decently in Game 2, which is enough to best Jackson, 8-5.

Carpenter and Gallardo lock horns in a nice pitchers’ duel at the new Busch, won by the real CC, 3-2.

Lohse and Wolf combine for fewer innings than Carpenter the night before, and the Brewers win a wild 12-10 Game 4. Ryan Braun drives in six runs.

Greinke gets toasted in Game 5, as the St. Louis fans shower him with boos — but don’t torment him in the mean-spirited way New York, Boston, or Philadelphia fans would. Cards stay alive, 9-1.

With Carpenter looming in Game 7, Marcum pitches decently again, lifting the Brew Crew — a nickname I hate by the way — to a 6-2 win in Game 6 to clinch their first-ever NL pennant.

Jonathan Lucroy is named NLCS MVP. No one understands why.

JOHN: I like the idea of a surprise NLCS MVP. It’d be like when that Al Green guy got the Democratic nomination in South Carolina….

Other than that, my predictions are similar to yours. Will I make my predictions in haiku again? I don’t think so, but I will keep it brief:

Milwaukee and St. Louis split Games 1 and 2, with Marcum getting knocked around by Pujols, Berkman, and a surprisingly great game by Ryan Theriot.

Yovani Gallardo outpitches Carpenter in Game 3, tilting the series back towards the Brewers.

Lohse and Wolf each leave early, but the Brewers win a battle of the bullpens, putting St. Louis on the verge of elimination.

Zack Greinke can’t close out the series, and St. Louis overcomes several inscrutable decisions by La Russa, who of course gets credit for the win thanks to his “unconventional” brilliance.

Marcum redeems himself in Game 6, but he gets pulled in the middle of the sixth. K-Rod and Axford combine to pitch 3 1/3 VERY tense innings to close out the win.

Jonathan Lucroy is named NLCS MVP, but everyone understands why: He went 7-17 w/ 2 HRs.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] S: Man, can you believe Jonathan Lucroy didn’t win NLCS MVP?! And can you believe someone almost as unlikely–David Freese–DID? You know, I usually […]

    Reply

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