Prediction: Cardinals in three games
Although the Dodgers batted a league-best .270 during the regular season, they faltered down the stretch, scoring one run or none four times in their final nine games and hitting just .257 over the last month. During than span five regulars hit below .235 -- Matt Kemp (.228), Andre Ethier (.211), Russell Martin (.213), Manny Ramirez (.234) and Orlando Hudson (.220). Still, Ramirez is baseball’s most prolific postseason power hitter with 28 home runs in the playoffs and World Series. His 12 homers in division series games are also a record. The Cardinals’ offense revolves around Albert Pujols, who almost certainly will win his third league MVP award after a season in which he led the majors in six categories, including homers (47) and runs (124). The midseason trade that brought Matt Holliday to St. Louis has given Pujols some protection. Holliday is batting .353 and slugging .604 in his 63 games. Plus Holliday rakes against the Dodgers, hitting .343 with 18 homers, 63 runs batted in and 72 runs in 84 games.
The Cardinals have a pair of Gold Glove winners in Yadier Molina, who had the fewest errors and best fielding percentage of any NL catcher, and Pujols, who displayed the best range of any NL first baseman on his way to a single-season-record 185 assists. Molina can also shut down the running game, having thrown out 41% of would-be base stealers. But St. Louis is pretty average everywhere else, while the Dodgers are solid at every position but left field. Second baseman Hudson is a former Gold Glove winner and Kemp, who led big league center fielders with 14 assists, soon could be. But while the Dodgers committed 13 fewer errors than the Cardinals, St. Louis’ staff of ground-ball pitchers helped them turn 33 more double plays.
Although the Dodgers had the lowest staff earned-run average in the majors at 3.41, the Cardinals have the best one-two punch in baseball in right-handers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. Carpenter led the league in ERA (2.24) while finishing second in wins with 17, while Wainwright led the league with 19 wins and 233 innings and was fourth in ERA (2.63) and strikeouts (212). And their third starter is no slouch either. Joel Pineiro had a career year, going 15-12 with a 3.49 ERA and a league-best two shutouts. The Dodgers’ rotation, meanwhile, has disintegrated. Hiroki Kuroda, last year’s playoff ace, is out of the division series because of a bulging disk in his neck while Randy Wolf, Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley all missed at least one September start. Wolf, the Game 1 starter, has lost once since Aug. 1, but Billingsley has won only once since Aug. 18 and Kershaw’s only win of the second half came in mid-July.
Opponents hit only .228 against Dodgers relievers, who led all big league bullpens with a 3.14 ERA and had a league-best 37 wins. Plus it’s a deep and functional bullpen with left-hander George Sherrill (one earned run in 30 NL appearances) setting up hard-throwing closer Jonathan Broxton (7-2, 36 saves and 114 strikeouts in 76 innings). The Dodgers also have right-handers Ronald Belisario (2.04 ERA in 69 games), Ramon Troncoso (2.72 ERA in 73 appearances) and left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo, who has held left-handers to a .152 average and has given up a run in only three of his last 21 outings. The Cardinals have a reliable closer in Ryan Franklin (1.92 ERA and 38 saves in 43 chances). But of the four other St. Louis relievers with at least 66 appearances, only one, left-hander Trever Miller, has an ERA better than 3.29. And now Franklin’s struggling too, with three of his blown saves having come in his last four opportunities.
The addition of Ronnie Belliard gives the Dodgers depth in the infield while fourth outfielder Juan Pierre (.308, 30 steals) would probably be starting for a lot of teams, including the Cardinals. And although Jim Thome has yet to go deep in 17 appearances as a Dodger, his 564 career homers make him a threat, giving the Dodgers the power off the bench they lacked most of the season. The Cardinals also have depth in the infield, meaning one of the trio of Skip Schumaker, Julio Lugo or Brendan Ryan will be available off the bench. But the Cardinals’ most dangerous pinch-hitter is lefty-swinging Rick Ankiel, who hit .272 with two homers in 22 tries.
The first postseason matchup of managers with at least 2,000 wins offers a contrast in styles. The Cardinals’ Tony La Russa can be unconventional, as in the 48 games when he batted his pitcher eighth in the lineup. And he’s more active once the game starts too, apt to make double switches or order squeeze plays to shake things up. Torre, while hardly hands-off, is more likely to leave the game in the hands of his players, though he has a reputation for overusing his bullpen, far from a bad thing considering the bullpen he has. Neither is a stranger to postseason pressure, with Torre having taken 14 teams to the playoffs, two more than La Russa. Torre also leads active managers with six World Series appearances, one more than La Russa, and four championships, two more than La Russa.
Cardinals -- Troy Glaus ($12.137 million), Lugo ($9 million), Kyle Lohse ($7.125 million). Dodgers -- Ramirez ($25 million, $15 million of which is deferred), Jason Schmidt ($12 million), Kuroda ($10 million), Martin ($3.9 million).
Cardinals -- Pineiro ($7.5 million), Ryan Ludwick ($3.75 million), Molina ($3.25 million), Wainwright ($2.6 million), Franklin ($2.5 million), Schumaker ($430,000), Ryan ($405,000).
Dodgers -- Wolf ($5 million), Hudson ($3.38 million), Ethier ($3.1 million), Sherrill ($2.75 million), Broxton ($1.825 million), Kemp ($467,000), Loney ($465,000), Kershaw ($404,000), Troncoso ($401,000), Belisario ($400,000).
-- Kevin Baxter