The San Francisco Giants head to St. Louis Monday night to start a four-game series against the best team in Major League Baseball, in what could be a preview of the 2012 National League Championship Series.
How can the team with the ninth best record be the best team in the game? Well, the Cardinals lead all of baseball with a run differential of +110, having outscored their opponents 538 to 428 this season.
St. Louis has been hampered by tough luck in close games this year, as they are just 12-18 in one-run games so far. The main culprit for their struggles in close games has been the bullpen, which ranks just 24th with a 4.14 ERA.
Cardinals starters have been outstanding this season, however. Their 3.56 starter's ERA is fourth in baseball, directly behind the third-place Giants.
With ace pitcher Chris Carpenter on the shelf for the season and number two starter Jaime Garcia missing most of the season as well, the Cardinals have relied on Lance Lynn (3.40 ERA, 9.0 K/9), Kyle Lohse (2.79 ERA, 17 quality starts), Adam Wainwright (4.03 ERA, 8.46 K/9), Jake Westbrook (3.79 ERA) and rookie Joe Kelly (3.14 ERA, 70 percent quality start percentage).
Where the Cardinals really stand out is on the offensive side of the ball. They lead the National League in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage and OPS.
Watching them on Sunday Night Baseball against the Brewers was a scary experience, even from the comfort of the couch. Take a look at the lineup the Cardinals ran out there, with their batting average, on-base and slugging percentages in parenthesis:
- 2B Schumaker (.317/.396/.433)
- 1B Craig (.295/.359/.551)
- LF Holliday (.324/.406/.554)
- RF Beltran (.286/.357/.537)
- 3B Freese (.311/.378/.497)
- C Molina (.316/.364/.508)
- CF Jay (.284/.364/.383)
- SS Descalso (.250/.332/.360)
That murderer's row doesn't even include the recently injured Lance Berkman (.267/.389/.467) or the outstanding bench player Matt Carpenter (.291/.369/.477).
The Cardinals trail the Reds by seven games in the National League Central, and they trail the Pirates by 2.5 games in the Wild Card race. If they can get the bullpen straightened out, don't be surprised if they once again storm back into contention and repeat as World Series Champions.
After all, last season at this time the Cardinals were even further out of the race, with a run differential about half as good as what they have now. In September, they stormed back from a nine-game deficit to overtake Atlanta in the Wild Card race on the final day of the season, then went on to upset the Phillies in the Division Series, and the Rangers in the Fall Classic.
If the Giants are going to win the pennant this season, the road may ultimately go through the defending champions, despite their misleading record. This is a report card series for the Giants in which they can measure themselves against the most talented squad in the business.