Just a few years ago, the NL Central was the best division in the National League. The Astros and Cardinals met in back to back League Championship Series in 2004 and 2005 and the Cardinals took home the World Series in 2006. Since the Cardinals beat the Tigers for their tenth World Series title, though, no NL Central team even won a playoff series in 2007, 2008, 2009, or 2010. The Central's back with a vengeance this year, though, with the Brewers steamrolling the entire National League after the All-Star Break and the Cardinals surging late to steal a playoff spot from the Braves, then upsetting the heavily favored Cardinals in the Division Series. So when these two division foes meet, who has the edge?
Game 1: 4:05 ET Sunday, October 9
Game 2: 8:05 ET Monday, October 10
Game 3: 8:05 ET Wednesday, October 12
Game 4: 8:05 ET Thursday, October 13
Game 5: 8:05 ET Friday October 14 (if necessary)
Game 6: 4:05 ET Sunday, October 16 (if necessary)
Game 7: 8:05 ET Monday, October 17 (if necessary)
At the plate
At a quick glance, it'd be easy to give the Brewers the edge on offense. They've got Braun, Fielder, Hart, and Weeks. Jerry Hairston swung a hot bat in the NLDS. Nyjer Morgan has come up with big hits all year. They lead the NL in homers this year and since they first surfaced as a playoff threat in 2008, they've been the team that pounds everyone into submission. So it's all Brewers on offense, right?
Believe it or not, it was the Cardinals that lead the National League in scoring this year. During the regular season, the Brewers had a big two in Braun (OPS+ 166) and Fielder (164), but the Cardinals had a big three with Albert Pujols (150), Matt Holliday (153), and Lance Berkman (166). The Brewers get support from Hart and Weeks, the Cardinals have gotten it from David Freese (.297/.350/.441), Yadier Molina (.305/.349/.465) and Jon Jay (.297/.344/.424). Holliday's back in the lineup after missing the first three games of the NLDS with a sore middle finger.
Over the course of the 2011 season, the Cardinals outscored the Brewers 762 to 721. If Holliday's healthy, the Cardinals both have a better heart of the order and more depth in their lineup than the Brewers. That's not to knock the Brewers at all because, as noted, they can mash with the best of them and over a best-of-seven series, the difference between the two teams is probably negligible. Just don't forget that the Cardinals' offense was the NL's best in 2011, and don't be surprised if they have a big game or two in this series.
On the mound
Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo were as good as anyone in the second half of 2011 (Greinke: 2.52 ERA, 102 strikeouts, 29 walks, Gallardo: 3.20 ERA, 103 strikeouts, 15 walks in 90 innings) and Gallardo turned in two dominating starts against the Diamondbacks' explosive offense in the NLDS. Greinke will likely start Games 1 and 5, with Gallardo on the block for Games 3 and 7. They'll divide the other three starts up among Shaun Marcum and Randy Wood, which is a little more problematic as both guys got rocked in Arizona to let the Diamondbacks back into the series. It's worth nothing, though, that Marcum made four starts against the Cardinals this year and was generally solid against them. With Greinke and Gallardo splitting four starts, the Brewers' are likely hoping that they only need one solid start in the three that they're going to give to Marcum and Wolf.
As it looks right now, the Cardinals will likely be sending out Jaime Garcia (Games 1 and 5), Edwin Jackson (Games 2 and 6), and Chris Carpenter (Games 3 and 7) for two starts, with Kyle Lohse making the spot start in Game 4. Garcia threw six strong innings in his Game 3 start against the Phillies but ran out of gas quickly in the seventh and ended up costing the Cardinals the game. He's gotten hit hard since August started and it's worth noting that he's just 24 and more than 40 innings past his career high. He might give Tony La Russa some solid starts, but he should be on a short leash. Edwin Jackson turned in a season-saving start for the Cards in Game 4 and he's been excellent since the trade that put him in St. Louis's rotation, but remember that he's a flyball pitcher and the Brewers are a homer-happy bunch. Carpenter is Carpenter: his complete-game shutout of the Phillies in Game 5 is the stuff legends are made of.
If you match the pitchers up by likely mound opponents, the edge here goes to the Brewers. Greinke gets the edge over Garcia because even if he can be shaky, Garcia's pretty clearly losing gas at this point in the season. Jackson is better than Marcum right now, but I think I'd take Gallardo over Carpenter right now. That might seem like heresy after Carpenter's shutout to beat the Phils, but Gallardo's numbers were just as good against a better offense in Arizona, and his peripherals were much better than Carpenters.
Both bullpens were, for the most part, excellent in their respective Division Series. Tony La Russa won't be afraid to deploy Arthur Rhodes and Mark Rzepczynski against Prince Fielder (both guys made three appearances in the NLDS against the Diamondbacks and only logged three outs, though Rzepczynski gave up his share of hits). On the whole, though, the closers (John Axeford and Jason Motte), and the setup men (Francsico Rodriguez and Takashi Saito in Milwaukee, Fernando Salas and Octavio Dotel in St. Louis) are good relievers that have had strong playoffs, though Axeford's ninth inning hiccup in Game 5 against the Diamondbacks is probably a little worrisome for Brewer fans right now.
Managers and Other Intangibles
Tony La Russa has obviously managed in the playoffs before and he's not afraid to do things his way. That means we'll probably see a strange platoon choice or two and lots of pitching changes late in the games. Ron Roenicke's only got one playoff series under his belt as a manager, but he was on Mike Scoscia's coaching staff for forever before moving to Milwaukee and this is hardly his first postseason dance.
Roenicke was far from perfect in Arizona, though, as his decision to load the bases for Paul Goldschmidt and then leave Shaun Marcum in to face him in Game 3 is partially what opened the door for the Diamondbacks' comeback. Still, I loved the way he stuck with Axeford for the tenth inning of Game 5, even after he gave up the game-tying run in the ninth. With Saito and Rodriguez already burned, he could've panicked and gone to a lesser reliever, but he stuck with the guy that got him there and Axeford rewarded him with a scoreless tenth that lead to the win.
Beyond the managers, the storylines in this series are phenomenal. Prince Fielder is playing the final games of his Milwaukee career this month and the same could be true of Albert Pujols and his St. Louis career. During Pujols' career, the Cardinals have been one of the NL's best teams and with a World Series win this year, they become the only team in either league with two World Series since 2005. During Fielder's Brewer career, they've gone from doormat to perrenial contender. A World Series win cements his legacy in Milwaukee forever, no matter where he goes this winter.
Now, add in the division rivalry and the past history between the teams (the Whiteyball Cardinals beat Harvey's Wallbangers Brewers in seven games in the 1982 World Series), and you've got a heck of a matchup, both on the field and for the fans. This is what playoff baseball is supposed to be all about.
Closing Thoughts and Prediction
I said before the playoffs even started that I thought that the Brewers were the best team in the National League, and I still think that's true. They're just a bit more rounded than the Cardinals right now, with the strong starting pitching to match an offense that can thump. That said, Greinke is a big x-factor in this series. When he's on, there aren't many pitchers in baseball that can match his incredible stuff. When he's not on, he's pretty prone to gopher balls and the Cardinals will take advantage of that. If he's at his best, I think the Cardinals will have trouble keeping up with the Brewers in this series. If he's not and either Jackson or Garcia step up for the Cardinals, things could be awfully interesting.
It's easy to dismiss the Cardinals as a fluke playoff team because of their late comeback, but remember that they went 18-8 in September to earn that playoff spot. They outscored everyone in the National League, they won 90 games, and they split 18 regular season games with the Brewers. This team is not a fluke and they're not just happy to be here. I think the Brewers are the better team, but that won't make this series a cakewalk for them. I'm taking the Brewers in six, but don't be surprised if it goes one longer, and if that happens, all bets are off.