NLCS Preview: San Francisco Giants vs. St. Louis Cardinals

The Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers get the hype for their big names but the reality is the elite teams of the National League are the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals have reached the postseason 12 times since 1995 and made the League Championship Series 10 times. The Giants have been in the postseason seven times in the wild card era and the teams have combined on five World Series appearances.

For the fifth straight season, one of those teams will be playing for the NL Pennant and for the second time in three years, the Giants will be facing the Cardinals when the NLCS starts on Saturday.

This will be the fourth time that the Giants and Cardinals will be playing with the NL Pennant on the line.

The Cardinals won in 1987 by getting shutouts from Danny Cox and John Tudor at home in the final two games. Fifteen years later, the Giants won the series in five games, advancing to the World Series on Kenny Lofton‘s ninth-inning single that scored David Bell.

The Giants have won 11 of their last 12 postseason games since falling behind three games to one in the 2012 NLCS. San Francisco outscored the Cardinals 20-1 over the last three games and then outscored the Detroit Tigers 16-6 in sweeping the World Series. They held a 43-7 run differential in their last eight postseason games before facing the Nationals and then won three close games.

San Francisco advanced by scoring nine runs and getting the hits and runs when it mattered. The Giants’ go-ahead run in Game 1 came in the seventh, in Game Two it was Brandon Belt‘s 18th inning home run and in the series clincher it was on a wild pitch in the seventh.

The Giants were able to win that way because their starting pitching had a 1.40 ERA and their bullpen posted a 1.86 ERA.

“It means that I really have a gritty bunch out there,” San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said to reporters after Game Four of the NLDS. “I told them earlier, there’s nobody’s will that’s stronger than theirs or desire that’s deeper than that.”

The Cardinals reached this series by beating the Dodgers in four games and knocking off Clayton Kershaw. Their trip to an NLCS for the fourth straight season was highlighted by superior performances in the late innings. During innings seven through nine, St. Louis batted .422 (19-for-45) and scored 15 runs.

Adam Wainwright will likely start the series opener although he has been pitching through some elbow tendonitis and discomfort. Wainwright faced the Giants in Game Four two years ago and allowed one run and four hits in seven innings.

Madison Bumgarner gets the start and will make his third postseason start. He won the wild card game in Pittsburgh and then lost Game Three of the Division Series. In the NLCS two years ago, Bumgarner pitched Game One and was tagged for six runs and eight hits in 3 2/3 innings.

Bumgarner is a better pitcher now evidenced by his sterling regular season and subsequent World Series victories.

Both pitchers will have their challenges even though both lineups are not dominant groups from top to bottom. They all have their key cogs who find a way to get it done.

For the Cardinals, Matt Carpenter always seems to be in the middle of things. Just ask Los Angeles pitchers, whom he batted .375 against, had 18 total bases and a 1,537 OPS.

The Giants have a deeper group with Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence, Buster Posey. They formed the core of the 2012 championship team while Pence and Posey were a combined 9-for-52 against the Cardinals two years ago, Sandoval batted .310 with two home runs and six RBI.

These are similar teams and it’s hard to argue with how they do things.

The Cardinals lose Albert Pujols and Carlos Beltran to free agency and find someone to become a productive player. The Giants develop well with a steady stream of players through the minors while supplementing things with smart trades and signings.

That’s how you explain that National League home games in the World Series will be played in San Francisco or St. Louis for the fifth straight year.

“It’s a tricky thing,” Wainwright said to reporters at his workout day press conference. “But I do really believe when you get through the postseason, you win a couple of tough series, it gives you a greater edge and confidence going into the next time you’re in the postseason.

“And the Giants have obviously, like we have, have put themselves in positions to be in the postseason over the years. They have great pitching, they have winning players over there. And when you have that confidence that you’re gonna get the job done, you a lot of times do get the job done. You have just two winning organizations that believe they’re going to win and get the job done, so you see that both teams are doing that. “

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