Wednesday, October 2, 2013

NLDS: Pitching Will Be the Rule of the Day

When you attempt to predict the outcome of both National League Divisional playoff series, about the only simple observation is that all four team possess superior pitching which got them this far. Offensively the Dodgers, Braves, Cardinals and Pirates all have strengths and weaknesses so in the end; you figure the starting staff and relief core that stands the tallest will produce the winner in each of the best of five game match-ups. Dodgers vs. Braves While the boys in blue seemed to take their foot off the accelerator down the stretch finishing just 9-15, orders of manager Don Mattingly, the Dodgers still possess the best starting staff of any team in the post-season according to what took place over the 162 game regular season. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game today. His 1.83 ERA this year was the lowest by any ERA qualifier since Pedro Martinez in 2000 (1.74) and the lowest by an NL pitcher since Greg Maddux (1.63) in 1995. This means if the series goes five games the Braves would have to beat Kershaw most likely at least once, which of course is a daunting task. The Dodgers are able to follow up Kershaw with righty Zack Greinke. Greinke was arguably the Dodgers most consistent starter since recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in April during his first start against the San Diego Padres. He went 7-1 over his last 12 starts, sporting a 1.85 ERA in the second half of the season. Together they are the best 1-2 punch in the game. Even if Atlanta finds a way to split the first two games at Turner Field, the Dodgers then follow with rookie lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.00 ERA) and Ricky Nolasco (3.70 ERA) in games three and four. The Braves top starter Kris Medlen may not be considered an ace but has pitched like one over the second half of the year. In his last six starts Medlen boast a 5-0 record, allowing just four earned runs with no long balls over his last 43 frames. The rest of the rotation Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Paul Maholm each won at least ten games but don’t sport the gaudy numbers of the Dodgers starters. Los Angeles has the capability of landing a crippling 2-0 lead heading back to the west coast on the strength of just starting pitching which Atlanta doesn’t possess. Both bullpens have also been very strong with the Braves touted as the best in the majors. Craig Kimbrel is the game’s top closer with an ERA of 1.21, part of his 50 saves. If Atlanta gets to Kimbrel with the lead it’s basically its game over. David Carpenter and Luis Avilan are the bridges that connect Kimbrel to the game’s end for the A-T-L. The Dodgers bullpen has a consistent closer of its own in Kenley Jansen who’s compiled 28 saves in 32 chances, although one of those blown saves game against the Braves in Atlanta early in the year. The Los Angeles middle relief has been solid as well, with Ronald Belisario, Paco Rodriguez and the acquisition of Brian Wilson. The Dodgers don’t blow too many leads either but the bullpen nod still goes to Atlanta. Offensively is where you find question marks with both squads. The Dodgers will be missing Matt Kemp for the entire post-season with a sprained ankle and Andre Ethier will most likely just pinch hit in this series due to shin splints above his ankle, so the Los Angeles offense takes a hit there. They do still possess a monster combination of Carl Crawford, rookie Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez, who many consider the NL MVP of the regular season. Atlanta does have more home run power in Freddie Freeman (20 HR), Andrelton Simmons (17 HR), Brian McCann (20 HR), Evan Gattis (21 HR) and Justin Upton (27 HR) but as a team they strike out a lot. 1,384 fans account for the third most in baseball, while the Los Angeles pitching staff tossed 1,294 k’s which is the most of any NL playoff team. If the Dodgers staff can keep the Braves in the ballpark at Turner Field and Dodger Stadium, they hold a major advantage towards winning games. The bottom line on this series is the Dodgers bats won’t win this series but if their pitching holds serve like the regular season, they should move on in a 3-1 series victory. Pirates vs. Cardinals With their first post-season victory in 21 years last night, the Bucs are definitely the sentimental favorite in the National League playoffs. But warm and fuzzy feelings don’t help overcome a major experience gap which the Cardinals hold in this match-up. For the Red Birds it all starts behind the plate with Yadier Molina. Touted as the game’s all-around best catcher and a legit MVP candidate he gives the Cardinals a sizable defensive presence as well as a bat with both power and the ability to hit for average. This is all part of a St. Louis line-up that hit .330 with runners in scoring position during the regular season! That is a sick number that no other playoff team comes close to matching. Even though Pittsburgh won the season series 10-9, St. Louis still hit .313 with RISP against Bucs pitching. That would be more than enough in this series you’d think. Even without Allen Craig (out with a foot injury) the Cardinals line-up still led the league in runs scored during September. Matt Adams has filled in nicely in Craig’s clean-up spot hitting .326 with eight long balls last month. Both Matt Holiday and Matt Carpenter who lead the league in runs scored (126) and hits (199) boost the Cards attack even more, as they come into the post-season as the best offensive team in the National League. While the Bucs can land a few haymakers of their own from the box, Pedro Alvarez (36 HR) and Russell Martin, six of this 15 home runs this season came against St. Louis the offensive edge is way in favor of the Red Birds. Pittsburgh’s most important player Andrew McCutchen was held to an average of just .246 against the Cardinals staff this season. While Pittsburgh does have a slight edge on the mound in terms of the starting rotation, the Bucs lost it by having to use ace Francisco Liriano in their wild-card game victory. He owned the Cards this season going 3-0 and giving up just two runs in 24 innings. So rookie Garrett Cole becomes the Pirates number one in this series. He did not face St. Louis this season and finished the year by going 4-0 with a 1.69 ERA in September. This could be an edge for Pittsburgh as the Cards sometimes struggle against unfamiliar arms. A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton are wild-cards for Pittsburgh as the Cards know them both very well but when Burnett is on he’s like having another ace on the hill. Adam Wainwright again is the man for St. Louis but their five starters combined for a 2.36 ERA in September as they enter the post-season as the league’s hottest staff with Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly all capable of throwing eight quality innings on any night. The bullpens of both squads have new closers with Jason Grilli finishing for the Bucs and Trevor Rosenthal for the Cards. Grilli has more experience and appears to be back in his first half of the season form, when he led the league in saves. The Pittsburgh bullpen finished second in NL bullpen ERA at 2.85 so the nod goes to them. The late season additions of Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau give Pittsburgh experience and pop off the bench, not to mention they still can use Garrett Jones or Gaby Sanchez in pinch-hitting roles for Clint Hurdle. Don’t expect the Bucs to be wide-eyed and in awe of the Cards. As stated they won the season series and have that “special something” going on as a team this season. In the upset of the post-season we like Pittsburgh to outlast St. Louis in five games.

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