What Cardinals Must Do to Avoid Second Straight NLCS Collapse

Jason Martinez@@mlbdepthchartsContributor IOctober 17, 2013

With a 3-2 lead in the NLCS, the St. Louis Cardinals will have two home games to try to finish off the Los Angeles Dodgers and advance to the World Series. They'll also have their two best pitchers, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright, going in Games 6 and 7, respectively.

So why does it feel like they're the one on the ropes? 

Maybe it's because the Dodger bats are heating up and Cardinals hitters have struggled throughout the playoffs.

Maybe it's because they'll have to beat one of the better pitchers in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, to avoid a Game 7. Maybe it's because Game 7 doesn't get much easier. Hyun-Jin Ryu, who pitched three-hit ball over seven shutout innings in the Dodgers' Game 3 win, would oppose Wainwright. 

Maybe it's because the Cardinals just aren't very good against left-handed pitchers, let alone two of the best in the game. They posted a .672 OPS against lefties during the regular season, ranking 26th in MLB, and have only been able to muster up three runs, two of which were earned, in 19 innings against Kershaw, Ryu and Pirates lefty Francisco Liriano in the playoffs. 

Maybe it's because they lost three straight games to the Giants in last year's NLCS after jumping out to a 3-1 lead. History does have a tendency of repeating itself. 

Of course, this can be viewed from a whole different "glass is half full" perspective. 

Wacha, a 22-year-old rookie who had made just nine big league starts coming into the playoffs, has been nearly un-hittable over his last regular season outing and two playoff starts. In 22.2 innings pitched over those three starts, the 6-foot-6 right-hander has allowed just one earned run (solo HR by Pedro Alvarez of the Pirates), seven hits and five walks while striking out 26 hitters.

Dodgers hitters couldn't figure Wacha out in Game 2 when they had just four singles and a double against him through 6.2 scoreless innings.

If he can keep up his late-season dominance, the Cards will have a chance to beat Kershaw once again. In the Cardinals' Game 2 victory in which those two pitchers faced off, the lone run scored on a sacrifice fly by Jon Jay after David Freese had doubled and advanced to third on a passed ball. 

A Game 7 with Wainwright on the mound should also give St. Louis plenty of confidence. The 32-year-old, who has allowed just four earned runs and 17 hits with one walk and 20 strikeouts in 23 innings this postseason, would be making his eighth career playoff start. Only one those, an NLDS loss to the Nationals in 2012, wasn't good. 

The 26-year-old Ryu, on the other hand, would probably be pitching in the biggest game of his baseball career. In his first playoff start versus the Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS, which would have been the biggest start of his career up until that point, he was knocked out after allowing four earned runs and six hits in three innings.

His offense bailed him out, however, by scoring 13 runs. That won't happen against Wainwright and the Cardinals' bullpen.

If the Cards can score three runs in either game, they'll be very tough to beat. 

Normally, that wouldn't be a tough task for Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and company. But considering the tough match-ups and the team's atrocious hitting with runners in scoring position (9-for-46) before going 5-for-10 in Wednesday's loss, it could be a challenge. 

On the bright side, the team's biggest threat to Kershaw and Ryu is heating up. Holliday, after struggling through the first eight playoff games with six hits in 32 at-bats, is five for his last eight with two doubles, a homer and three runs batted in. 

October 16, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday (7) hits a single in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Championship Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The key to scoring runs, however, will be production behind him in the order. At this point, the Dodgers might not have any reason to pitch to Holliday (pictured) and might not give him a chance to beat them. It will be up to Yadier Molina, Freese, Matt Adams, Jay and Pete Kozma to come up in the clutch.

Of that group, Freese, who won both the NLCS and World Series MVP awards in 2011, doubled against Kershaw in Game 2 and singled against Ryu in Game 3. Molina and Adams each had singles against Ryu.

At least one of them will very likely have a chance to be the hero in St. Louis this weekend by coming up with the key hit that could end the amazing season of the Dodgers and get the Cards back to the World Series.


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