NLDS Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates & Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Atlanta Braves

Should we even mess around with the narrative? The MLB Playoffs officially began on Tuesday with the first of two single elimination Wild Card play-in games, but starting our MAMBINO previews with those contests can be an exercise in futility. We’ve waited until the Elite Eight were set in order to unleash our full swath of previews onto an unsuspecting, undemanding, unrelenting public.
 
Now that at least the National League picture is settled, let’s take a look, MAMBINO style, on the matchups at hand. If you’ve been delinquent on your baseball watching for the first 162 (or 163) of the season, you’ve come to the right place to catch up. First, the best of five games National League Division Series.
 
Pittsburgh Pirates (Wild Card) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (Central Division champion)
 
Why will the Cardinals prevail in 4?
 
Anything the Pirates do, the Cards can do better. Well, almost.
 
Starting pitching? Pittsburgh will have a fearsome trio in A.J. Burnett (3.30 ERA, 209 Ks in 191 innings), Gerrit Cole (3.22 ERA, 100 Ks in 117 innings) and Wild Card game winner Francisco Liriano (3.02 ERA, 161 Ks in 163 innings). More than fearsome, maybe. Devastating.
 
To counter, St. Louis throws out a probable top-3 Cy Young vote getter in Adam Wainwright (2.94 ERA, 219 Ks in 241 innings) and a probable top-5 Rookie of the Year vote getter in Shelby Miller (3.06 ERA, 169 Ks in 173 innings). They’ll be accompanied by Lance Lynn (3.97 ERA, 198 Ks in 201 innings) and probably rookie Michael Wacha (2.78 ERA, 65 Ks in 64 innings), who merely threw a damn near no-hitter in his last outing.

The biggest difference here is that with Wainwright and Lynn alone, the Cardinals are a much more experienced postseason crew. They’ll counter Pittsburgh’s best starter in Burnett with one of the best pitchers of his era in Wainwright. Gerrit Cole’s rookie excellence may only be superseded by Shelby Miller’s. Francisco Liriano has had a fantastic year and absolutely shut down a dynamic Reds offense on Tuesday, but he didn’t have as good of a September as Lynn (2.12 ERA, 36 Ks in 29 innings).

Offense? It’s not even a question. St. Louis led the National League in runs scored, while the Pirates are one of the worst run-scoring squads since the 1988 World Champion Dodgers. Even without All-Star Allen Craig, the Cards are a vastly superior offensive team.

The bullpen might be the only place the Pirates excel. Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson and Vin Mazzaro probably wouldn’t get recognized in a bar by PNC Park, but they merely form what’s probably the best relief corps in the National League. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have a bullpen in flux right now: closer Edward Mujica might be left off the roster entirely after allowing 9 runs and a staggering 18 hits in just over 7 innings of September pitching. Trevor Rosenthal, John Axford Kevin Seigrist and Randy Choate have done a really admirable job filling in while their closer melted down, but haven’t had much time to formulate a steady, late-game plan yet.

Then again, the last two times the Cardinals won the World Series, they’ve featured Jason Motte and Adam Wainwright as their closers. Motte registered his first career save a month before the 2012 playoffs, and saw himself on the mound during a Game 7 win in one of the greatest championship rounds ever. Wainwright had three career saves before being transformed into the closer on the eve of the playoffs in 2006, and saw himself on the mound at the end of a 5-game win over the Detroit Tigers in October. Perhaps a designated closer isn’t nearly as important as having a great bullpen.

The Cardinals will be in for a slugfest with their division rivals, but ultimately should prevail on the strength of their starting pitching and offense. I see them taking one of two games in Pittsburgh and sweeping their two home contests.

Los Angeles Dodgers (Western Division champion) vs. Atlanta Braves (Eastern Division champion)

How do the Dodgers win this series in 5 tough games?

They are going to throw the crap out of the ball, over and over and over. And the Braves will not be able to hit said ball. Pretty simple strategy, really.

If the Dodgers are going to win this series–or any series–it’s going to be because of their front seven, perhaps eight, hurlers. This group includes starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, along with relievers Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson, Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell (and if he can get his act together, Ricky Nolasco). These are eight power arms that are there to miss bats and tangle up hitters. If there is one 2013 pitching staff perfectly equipped and perfectly ready to step right into the October spotlight, it’s this Dodgers team. Especially looking at how strikeout happy their opposition is in the Braves, who tied the Mets for the National League lead in Ks, this pitching staff should grind Atlanta into a seven day juice cleanse.

So why five games? Why not a clean sweep if the Braves seem so outmatched? Because they’re not.

Atlanta throws out a hot Kris Medlen (a 1.00 ERA and 33 strikeouts in five September starts), rookies Mike Minor and Julio Teheran (3.20 and 3.21 ERAs, respectively), along with one of the best bullpens in the league fronted by Craig Kimbrel. Their offense, while strikeout prone, is also home run prone, as they led the league in jakks.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers offense and defense looks fragile. Matt Kemp is gone until 2014, while Andre Ethier looks like if he’ll play at all, it will be a hobbled version of himself. Hanley Ramirez is being handled like a balsa wood airplane with his bad back. Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford are both nursing injuries of some kind, though in Puig’s case it’s because he’s a reckless powder keg on the field–the same player that Crawford was years ago. There’s really no telling how much or how little run support the Dodgers will give this pitching staff, but as long as Ramirez is standing upright, and Adrian Gonzalez, A.J. Ellis and Juan Uribe (yes, seriously) can give them a few scant whispers of offensive support, LA should be able to squeak by an incredibly underrated Braves team.

There’s no reason to believe the Braves can’t pull this upset, especially with home field advantage. Their wild free swingers can hit the crap out of the ball, while their inexperienced starting pitchers have about as much success as the Dodgers’ staff does in the playoffs–Kershaw has a 5.87 postseason ERA in 13 innings, while Greinke has a 6.48 ERA in 16 innings. It’s not going to be easy for LA, who is hurting at the exact wrong time, but they’re lucky that their injuries are confined to their hitters and not any of the pitching staff.

 

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