The St. Louis Cardinals almost worked through a checklist in their 8-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game 4 of the NLCS. With the win, the Cards take a 3-1 series lead and can clinch the NL pennant on Friday (Oct. 19).
Going into Game 4, St. Louis was in dire need for a few of its slumping stars to break out and make a meaningful contribution in the series. Each of those struggling players turned out to be a factor in the Cardinals win. If that continues, this team should not only defeat the Giants, but it should also make them the World Series favorites.
Adam Wainwright got the start for the Cardinals, coming off an awful performance in Game 5 of their NLDS with the Washington Nationals. He was pummeled for six runs and seven hits (three of them home runs) in just 2.1 innings of work against the Nats.
How Wainwright rebounded from that outing would play a major role in whether or not St. Louis could win a pivotal game in the NLCS. Fortunately for the Cardinals, Wainwright reverted back to the form that made him one of the best pitchers in the NL over the past six years.
Powered by a nearly unhittable curveball, Wainwright allowed only one run and four hits over seven innings. Only after he turned the game over to Fernando Salas did the Giants show some offensive life. By then, however, it was too late to make a difference.
There was one item for the Cards to mark off their checklist. Good start from Wainwright? Check.
Yadier Molina was the Cardinals MVP during the regular season and was a contender for league honors as well. Yet he came into Game 4 batting 3-for-12 (.250) with no extra-base hits or RBI.
But the St. Louis catcher broke out with a 2-for-4 performance that included a run-scoring single off Tim Lincecum and an RBI double against Guillermo Mota. That boosted Molina's average in the NLCS to .313 with a .688 OPS.
A couple of RBI hits from Molina? Check.
During the first three games of the NLCS, Matt Holliday batted .166 (2-for-12). As the Cardinals' No. 3 hitter, who led the team in RBI and finished second in home runs, that was a troubling lack of production.
But Holliday joined the Game 4 hit parade, going 2-for-5 with two RBI. His first-inning single put the first run on the board for St. Louis, scoring Jon Jay. Holliday is still hitting .235 for the series, but if he's busted out of his slump, that will obviously make a major difference for the Cards.
Some run production for Holliday? Check.
One more guy who really needed to get a hit was Allen Craig, who had gone 0-for-9 entering Game 4. Craig drove in a run with a first-inning sacrifice fly to eliminate one zero from his NLCS statistics. Though he made outs in his next two at-bats, the Cards first baseman finally broke his slump with a single to lead off the seventh inning.
Craig is still hitting .083 in the NLCS with a .283 OPS. But as with Holliday and Molina, if Craig can start swinging the bat well again, St. Louis has a lineup that can beat any pitcher it faces.
Slump broken for Craig? Check.
Finally, the Cardinals were surely curious to see how their offense would respond to Carlos Beltran being out of the lineup to rest a sore knee. Beltran was essentially the only productive hitter for St. Louis in the first three games of the NLCS, batting .375 with two doubles, a home run and two RBI. With him sidelined, could the Cards score any runs?
Enter Matt Carpenter, the rookie infielder who hit .294 during the regular season and played all over the infield and outfield. Carpenter got the start at first base in Game 4 and justified manager Mike Matheny's ambition to get him more at-bats in the series by hitting 1-for-3 with two walks and two runs scored.
If the Cardinals advance to the World Series, Matheny will have less of a problem getting Carpenter into the lineup during the three games at Comerica Park. The rookie can either be St. Louis' designated hitter or allow Craig or Beltran to get a rest from the field while still being able to bat.
This batting order could be even better against the Detroit Tigers by being able to put one of its best bats in the starting lineup and not having to bring him off the bench. That should give Detroit's pitchers and coaches cause for concern.
Though the Tigers' starting pitching has been incredible during the postseason, St. Louis will easily be the best lineup that rotation has faced. If Holliday, Molina and Craig have broken out of their slumps while Beltran comes back healthy and Carpenter has a spot to play, the Cardinals will be a great challenge for Detroit.
Wainwright—who pitched three scoreless appearances against the Tigers in the 2006 World Series—looks ready to pair with Kyle Lohse at the top of the Cards rotation. If Chris Carpenter rebounds from his poor start in Game 2 of the NLCS—and there's no reason to think he can't—that's a strong trio for the Tigers lineup to contend with.
The Cardinals still need to beat the Giants in the NLCS, so calling them the World Series favorites is premature. But if St. Louis advances to the Fall Classic, the chances of winning a second consecutive championship look very good.
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