The road to the pennant goes through St. Louis again.
The San Francisco Giants won 94 games this season compared to the 88 games won by the St. Louis Cardinals. The Giants clinched the NL West early, while the Cardinals had to play a one-game playoff just to get into the divisional round. So, the Giants should be clear favorites in the NLCS, right?
Well, not exactly. The Cardinals really underachieved during the regular season given their talent level. They finished fifth in wins despite having the second-best run differential (+117). They just took down the 98-win Washington Nationals in five games, showing just how good they really are.
The Cardinals finished first in the NL in on-base percentage, second in runs scored and batting average, third in OPS and fourth in slugging percentage and walks.
They were sixth in the league with a 3.71 ERA. Their starters finished third with a 3.62 ERA despite missing ace pitcher Chris Carpenter for all but three starts and number two starter Jaime Garcia for nearly half of the season.
The Giants vaunted starting rotation, which made all but two starts this season, actually finished with a slightly worse ERA at 3.68 despite playing in a pitcher-friendly park.
Offensively, the Giants don't have the same firepower up and down the lineup as the Cardinals do. They finished third in the NL in batting average, fourth in on-base percentage, sixth in runs, eighth in slugging, seventh in OPS and last in home runs.
On paper, the Cardinals have the more talented overall roster. However, the Giants have the advantage in four key areas which combine to make them the prohibitive favorites to advance to the World Series.
The Giants and Cardinals split the season series at three games apiece, but the Giants outscored the Cardinals 30-22 over those six games.
The head-to-head matchup was virtually even this year, with the gap in run differential coming from the 15-0 beating the Giants administered in St. Louis on August 8. Yet that game happened, so we can't discount the potential significance of it.
The Giants certainly match up much better with the Cardinals than the Nationals, who beat them five out of six times while outscoring them 45-24.
Part of the reason the Giants have to like this matchup better is because of the right-hand dominance of the Cardinals lineup. Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, David Freese and Peter Kozma will have their hands full with right-handed starters Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong. Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals only switch-hitter, hit lefties slightly better than righties this year.
Even though the Cardinals outscored their opponents by 48 more runs than the Giants, they finished with six fewer wins.
The reason for that was the Giants went 30-20 in one-run games, while the Cardinals went just 21-26. In the NLDS, the Cardinals pounded Washington 32-16, but they lost both one-run games to force the series to a deciding Game 5.
In the postseason, the close games are often the deciding factor. The Giants were outscored 22-18 by the Reds in the NLDS, but they won a 2-1 and a 6-4 game to advance
The difference in records in tight games comes down largely to the managers and the bullpens.
Bruce Bochy has been a big-league manager since 1995, while Mike Matheny is in his inaugural season managing the Cardinals. This is Bochy's third trip to the NLCS, and the first for Matheny.
Bochy pushed all the right buttons in guiding the Giants to the World Series two years ago. His wizardry was on full display in the NLDS when he continued to put his players in the best position to succeed. Over the final three games of the series with the Giants facing elimination, he made thirteen pitching changes to help the bullpen deliver 14.1 innings of two-run baseball.
From what I've seen of Matheny, he bunts too often with his position players, despite having a deep lineup. In Game 1 of the NLDS, he had Daniel Descalso bunt in the eighth inning with a man on first and no one out and the eight and nine spots in the lineup due up. Decalso got the bunt down, but the Cardinals didn't score.
He was also outfoxed in that game by Nationals manager Davey Johnson in the top of the eighth. With two outs, Johnson sent up left-handed pinch-hitter Chad Tracy to face right-handed set-up man Mitchell Boggs. When Matheny countered with lefty Mark Rzepczynski, Johnson pinch-hit for Tracy with the right-handed Tyler Moore, who delivered the game-winning single.
Matheny could have countered with his closer, Jason Motte, to get the final four outs. Or, he could have left Boggs in the game to face Tracy in the first place. Boggs held lefties to a .656 OPS this season, while Rzepczynski allowed a .781 OPS to righties. The Rzepczynski versus Moore matchup was the worst possible outcome for St. Louis there, but Matheny allowed it to come to fruition.
The Cardinals have struggled in one-run games all season partially because their rookie manager is not yet a great tactician. The Giants have had tremendous success in close games because Bochy has emerged as one of the best bullpen managers in the game.
The Cardinals bullpen got better in the second half after they acquired Edward Mujica from the Miami Marlins to help in the middle innings. Mujica delivered a 1.03 ERA in 29 games after the trade.
Still, the Cardinals bullpen finished with a 3.90 ERA compared to 3.56 for the Giants,
The Giants led the National League with an 80 percent save conversion rate, while the Cardinals were 10th at 66 percent.
The Mujica (1.03 ERA), Boggs (2.21) and Motte (2.75) triumvirate at the end of the game has been quite good, and rookie Trevor Rosenthal (2.78) has come on strong as well.
However, the Giants boast more overall depth with Sergio Romo (1.79 ERA), George Kontos (2.47), Javier Lopez (2.50), Jose Mijares (2.55), Jeremy Affeldt (2.70) and Santiago Casilla (2.84). The Giants have three effective lefties, giving Bochy the ability to deploy the platoon advantage in crucial situations.
In the end, these are two evenly matched teams, though the Cardinals arguably have the more talented roster. Yet because of the Giants ability to win close games due to their deeper bullpen and more experienced manager, not to mention the home field advantage, they should be the favorites to win the NLCS in seven games.