A never-say-die attitude.
The Cardinals appear to be in the midst of yet another miraculous run, reminiscent of how they won the World Series last season. Last night, they completed the largest comeback in a do-or-die postseason game in MLB history, erasing an early 6-0 deficit versus the young Nationals despite being down to their final strike in the ninth inning five times.
In reaching their seventh NLCS in the last 12 years, they continue to show that they are not just about stats, although they did have the fifth-most runs scored and eighth-best overall ERA in the regular season. The biggest threat they pose is their ability to come through when the season is on the line.
What makes this series so enticing is that the Giants are built the same way.
After everything they have gone through this season—from Melky Cabrera's suspension, to Tim Lincecum's first-half disappearing act, to losing the first two games of the NLDS at home in embarrassing fashion, to winning three straight games on the road against Cincinnati—the Giants have been incredible.
Their roster remains full of players from the 2010 World Series championship team, giving this series the look of an instant classic.
Ahead of Sunday's Game 1 in San Francisco's AT&T Park, here's a look at each team's lineup, pitching staff and intangibles that will determine who advances to the World Series.
Projected Starting Lineup
1. Angel Pagan, CF
2. Marco Scutaro, 2B
3. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
4. Buster Posey, C
5. Hunter Pence, RF
6. Brandon Belt, 1B
7. Gregor Blanco, LF
8. Brandon Crawford, SS
9. Starting Pitcher
C: Hector Sanchez
INF: Ryan Theriot, Aubrey Huff, Joaquin Arias
OF: Xavier Nady
The Giants scored the 12th-most runs in the majors during the regular season and seemed to find their groove in the final three games of the NLDS in Cincinnati. Having said that, the bottom half of their lineup is very weak.
Pence, Belt, Blanco and Crawford hit just .189 in 58 at-bats in the NLDS, and it is not as though they were great hitters in the regular season either. Crawford hit .248, Blanco hit .244, Pence hit .219 after his trade to San Francisco, and Belt finished with just seven home runs.
One thing the NLDS did show is that having NL MVP Buster Posey in the middle of the lineup can cover up your weaknesses. The Giants catcher led the team in batting average, home runs, runs batted in and on-base and slugging percentage. And after hitting an incredible .385 with a .646 slugging percentage in the second half, he came up huge again with the decisive grand slam in Game 5 vs. the Reds.
With Posey, Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan, the lineup has some talent, but these players will need to show a lot more consistency. Pagan, Scutaro and Sandoval had an awful first three games of the NLDS, going 4-for-37 (.108) with no runs scored until a 6-for-11 explosion in Game 4.
If the Giants want to advance to the World Series, they will need to maintain that latter type of production.
St. Louis Cardinals Projected Lineup
1. Jon Jay, CF
2. Carlos Beltran, RF
3. Matt Holliday, LF
4. Allen Craig, 1B
5. Yadier Molina, C
6. David Freese, 3B
7. Daniel Descalso, 3B
8. Pete Kozma, SS
9. Starting Pitcher
C: Tony Cruz
INF: Skip Schumaker, Matt Carpenter
OF: Shane Robinson, Adron Chambers
If Friday night's dramatic comeback didn't tell you enough about this team and, in particular, this lineup, I'm not sure what more I can say other than check the highlights. The middle five in their order, from Beltran to Freese, is the best in baseball. But Descalso and Kozma have shown that the lineup from top to bottom has the depth of an AL squad, as they came up with the two biggest hits of the series.
Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and David Freese are as consistent as they come, and Allen Craig may not be as well-known, but after two more weeks of playoff baseball, he will establish himself as a household name.
San Francisco Giants Projected Rotation and Bullpen
1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Ryan Vogelsong
3. Matt Cain
4. Tim Lincecum
Closer: Sergio Romo/Javier Lopez
Set-up men: Santiago Casilla, Jose Mijares, Jeremy Affeldt (if available)
Long relief: Barry Zito, George Kontos, Guillermo Mota
Heading into the NLCS vs. the Cardinals, the Giants announced that Madison Bumgarner would start Game 1 and Ryan Vogelsong would get the nod in Game 2. When CSN Bay Area's Andrew Baggarly asked Bruce Bochy about Tim Lincecum's chances of starting, here is a part of his response:
Oh, I think you have to. He stepped up and did a terrific job. He had a great look about him and…he really came through for us. When you’re on this stage you’re hoping somebody steps up and Timmy has that ability. He did tonight.
The Giants staff had a great regular season, finishing with the seventh-best ERA in baseball. But even with Lincecum's apparent revitalization, many questions remain.
Can Bumgarner rebound after giving up four or more earned runs in six of his past eight starts? Will Lincecum's bullpen success transfer into the starting role or will he remain in the 'pen? Can Vogelsong repeat his 5 IP, 1 ER performance from the NLDS moving forward?
Matt Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner all have the postseason pedigree to carry the Giants into the World Series. They earned all of San Francisco's wins in the 2010 World Series against the Rangers, and they can take a lot of pressure off the bullpen if they erase their 2012 NLDS struggles and pitch deeper into games.
Cardinals Projected Rotation
1. Lance Lynn
2. Chris Carpenter
3. Kyle Lohse
4. Adam Wainwright
Closer: Jason Motte
Set-up man: Mitchell Boggs
RHP: Edward Mujica, Trevor Rosenthal, Fernando Salas
LHP: Marc Rzepczynski
Long Relief: Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly
Much like the Giants rotation and bullpen, the Cardinals staff is loaded with postseason experience. Chris Carpenter has a 10-2 postseason record with a 2.86 ERA and is one of the best big-game pitchers of our era.
Kyle Lohse had one of the most underrated pitching seasons in 2012, finishing with 16 wins, 143 K's against just 38 BBs and a league-best .843 winning percentage.
The problem for the Cardinals lies in the depth of their starting rotation. Adam Wainwright struggled in both of his postseason starts and could be tiring out, just one year removed from Tommy John surgery. With Jaime Garcia already removed from the NLCS roster due to lingering shoulder issues, the Cards are going to move Lance Lynn from the bullpen into the rotation to start Game 1.
After a dominant first half, Lynn's second-half ERA jumped up by a full run, so it will be interesting to see if he can recover his first-half form.
Scutaro’s line with the Giants in the regular season was .362/.385/.473, including 88 hits in 61 games. Even more impressive, though, are his stats that don't make it to the box score. He tied for first on the team with six sacrifice flies since the All-Star break and struck out in only 5.2 percent of his plate appearances (as compared to Posey's 18 percent since the break)—not to mention his 3.74 pitches per plate appearance.
In addition to Scutaro's inspiring performance, Bruce Bochy's squad is full of playoff veterans who all have experience playing in big games.
Perhaps the Giants' most important intangible quantity is their ability to come back from seemingly insurmountable odds.
After losing their two home games to the Reds in the NLDS, they were essentially left for dead. The Reds had not lost three games in a row all season. But here we are, and the Giants are hosting the Cardinals Sunday night in the NLCS.
The Giants lost their best hitter and then-MVP candidate Melky Cabrera to a 50-game PED suspension. At this point, you would not even realize he was ever a part of this team. Their in-state rival Los Angeles Dodgers did everything they could to win the division, but the Giants shrugged them off with relative ease.
It has been a tumultuous year with countless obstacles that could have ended the Giants' season. Their ability to overcome the odds has carried them time and time again.
It would be foolish to ever count them out.
I'm not sure how much more can be said for a team that simply knows how to win.
No matter the score, no matter the situation, no matter who is up at the plate, the Cardinals find a way to get it done.
Whether it was Tony La Russa's calm demeanor last season, or Mike Matheny's stoic display in Friday night's comeback, or the previously unheralded Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma, this team keeps its head down, keeps its motors running and grinds out wins.
Descalso is a 25-year-old middle infielder who is a .245 hitter with five career home runs in more than 800 at-bats in his major league career. He's hitting .292 with two homers and a .591 slugging percentage in this year's playoffs.
Kozma has all of 104 regular-season plate appearances, yet shows the moxie of a 10-year veteran. He's just one more player the Cardinals bring through their system who steps up when they lose one of their key players, as what happened when Rafael Furcal was lost for the season with an elbow injury.
One would think losing three Hall of Famers in Albert Pujols, Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan would bring this team down a notch. One would think falling behind 6-0 in an elimination game on the road against a young team with a raucous crowd looking for its first playoff win in a century would bring this team down.
All it does is increase the work ethic and drive for a team with a common goal: winning.
Game 1 shapes up to be a matchup of two teams on a roll.
The Cardinals are coming off their dramatic win in Washington feeling great about themselves, while the Giants will be welcomed home to a fanbase that was hugging its ushers goodbye when it thought the season was over. It should be a great atmosphere.
While I do not believe Madison Bumgarner will be able to turn around his second-half struggles, I think San Francisco's bats ride their Cincinnati momentum in a high-scoring Game 1 to take the series opener.
Prediction: Giants, 7-5
The Giants announced that Ryan Vogelsong will start Game 2. His likely opponent will be Chris Carpenter, whose postseason accolades I already talked about.
Despite being on the road, this is a matchup that greatly favors the Cardinals, and I think they steal home-field advantage with a decisive win to even up the series.
Prediction: Cardinals, 8-2
Being the baseball city that it is, St. Louis will be going bonkers to celebrate the return of their defending champion Cards.
With Kyle Lohse likely taking the hill, they will have their most consistent pitcher from the regular season on the bump, as he went 8-1 with a 2.33 ERA at home this year. However, the problem for the Cardinals lies with who the Giants are projected to start in Game 3.
Despite his ERA being a full run-and-a-half higher on the road this season than at home (3.56 vs. 2.03), Matt Cain's postseason experience and ability to handle the big-time moment is something you can take to the bank.
In a matchup that should be the best pitcher's duel of the entire series, I see the Giants opening their postseason 4-0 on the road to take a 2-1 series lead after three games.
Prediction: Giants, 3-2
I believe Bruce Bochy and the Giants are using Ryan Vogelsong in Game 2 of this series to save Tim Lincecum for something bigger: a potential matchup with Adam Wainwright, on the road, in a pivotal Game 4.
Not only is Vogelsong's ERA a run lower at home vs. on the road (2.86 vs. 3.87), but pitching at home in front of your fans is an advantage the inexperienced Vogelsong could use, whereas Lincecum has the experience to succeed regardless of where he starts.
With a 3.83 second-half ERA and dominant performances out of the bullpen in the NLDS, it appears "The Freak" has found his change-up once again and provides the Giants with the best chance of pulling out another road win in St. Louis.
This was the toughest game for me to call, but I think the Cardinals' "magic" will prevail as Adam Wainwright hurls a gem and St. Louis evens up the series.
Prediction: Cardinals, 3-1
The early return of Chris Carpenter.
After a shaky performance in Game 1, I think the Cardinals will skip Lance Lynn's turn in the rotation and stick with their big three to finish out the series. At this point in the year, there is no time to waste, even if the guy you are replacing happens to have won 18 games this season.
Bumgarner lost his two starts vs. the Cardinals in the regular season—giving up seven runs in 13.1 innings—and his season comes to a close as Carlos Beltran and crew tee off against the young lefty.
Prediction: Cardinals, 6-3
After losing his first two postseason starts against the Nationals and the Giants, Kyle Lohse comes out in Game 6 with something to prove.
The 34-year-old right-hander is rusty early, but he stays in the game long enough for the Cardinals to earn the win, as the Cards have another wild offensive game and advance to the World Series.
Much like Chris Carpenter in Game 5, Matt Cain comes back early for the Giants in Game 6. But after a brief pitcher's duel, the Cardinals' bats wake up just in time and sneak out of San Francisco with a pennant in their hands.
Prediction: Cardinals, 3-2