The St. Louis Cardinals stand just one win against the San Francisco Giants away from their second straight trip to the World Series, and Friday should be the night first-year coach Mike Matheny's team punches its ticket to the Fall Classic.
Despite losing Albert Pujols in free agency, the Cardinals have managed to adequately replace the two-time World Series champion and could be in position to capture a title just a year after losing their franchise icon.
While Carlos Beltran has provided his typically dominant postseason bat, it has been the Cardinals pitching staff that has kept the San Francisco Giants on the ropes in the National League Championship Series.
If St. Louis hopes to end this series after just five games, most of the pressure falls on starter Lance Lynn.
After going 18-7 with a 3.79 ERA during the regular season, the second-year righty has struggled in the postseason, allowing seven earned runs in 7.1 innings pitched.
Lynn drew the start in the NLCS opener but made it through just 3.2 innings after surrendering four earned runs on five hits and two walks.
The 25-year-old is typically a good strikeout pitcher, but he's had trouble keeping the ball in the park in the playoffs, allowing three long bombs in just 7.1 innings.
Due to the strength of his bullpen, Matheny doesn't need Lynn to work deep into the game. As long as he provides five solid innings, St. Louis should be in good position to close out the game, if they have a lead.
Putting runs on the board has been anything but a problem for the Cardinals throughout their playoff run.
Beltran has continued to put up historic postseason numbers, which has made up for Matt Holliday's NLCS struggles.
Impressively, St. Louis put up eight runs in Game 4 without Beltran in the lineup.
Every starting position player got at least one hit in the 8-3 win, including two-RBI nights by Holliday, Jon Jay and Yadier Molina.
With Beltran back in the lineup, there is potential for an offensive explosion at Busch Stadium on Friday night.
That job might be a bit easier considering the Giants' elimination-game starter is the annually disappointing Barry Zito.
Somehow, $126 million just doesn't get you what it used to.
The former Cy Young winner's underwhelming career in San Francisco is well-documented, so expectations are low heading into tonight's matchup.
Zito once owned one of the nastiest curveballs in the game, but it's been six years since he posted an ERA under 4.03.
In his one postseason appearance thus far, he yielded two runs on four hits and four walks in just 2.2 innings.
The Cardinals have to be licking their chops seeing Zito on the mound, and Beltran and Co. should have no trouble motoring their way to a showdown against the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
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