For the eighth time since 2000 and the third consecutive season, the St. Louis Cardinals will be playing for the National League pennant, hosting the Los Angeles Dodgers for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night.
Both teams head into the NLCS on a high note, with the Dodgers having dispatched the Atlanta Braves in four games with relative ease, while the Cardinals battled their division rivals, the Pirates, over a hotly contested five-game series.
While the Dodgers won the regular-season series between the two teams 4-3, taking three of four from the Cardinals in St. Louis at the beginning of August, the right to represent the National League in the Fall Classic is very much up for grabs, something that wasn't lost on former Cardinals pitcher Mark Mulder:
Here's a look at how the Cardinals can win the NLCS.
1. Exploit Los Angeles' aggressiveness at the plate
During the regular season, only eight teams in baseball struck out less frequently than the Dodgers, who struck out only 18.6 percent of the time. That number jumped to 23.3 percent in the National League Division Series against Atlanta, and it's those free-swinging ways that the Cardinals need to take advantage of.
Take a look:
Only two Dodgers regulars, Hanley Ramirez and Skip Schumacher, saw their strikeout rates decrease during the NLDS, and with Andre Ethier inching closer to a return to everyday action in center field, Schumacher may not play as large of a role against the Cardinals.
Sending the Dodgers down on strikes as frequently as the Braves did is only going to help St. Louis' chances of success.
2. Remember how to hit with runners in scoring position
St Louis wasn't just prolific at hitting with runners in scoring position during the regular season—the Cardinals were superhuman, posting an out-of-this-world .330/.402/.463 slash line when they had a chance to put a run on the board.
That ability disappeared against Pittsburgh, with the Redbirds hitting only .185/.313/.296, a massive drop in production and a major reason why the Pirates took them to five games.
With few exceptions, namely Carlos Beltran, who historically morphs into Babe Ruth in the playoffs, everyone in the Cardinals lineup needs to pick up the pace when they step to the plate with runners on second and/or third.
Leaving runs on base is going to prove costly against a Dodgers lineup that is far more formidable than the one they faced in Pittsburgh.
3. Head to Los Angeles with at least a split in the first two games
One distinct advantage the Dodgers have at the beginning of the series is how their rotation is set up, with a pair of aces and former Cy Young Award winners, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, set to take on Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha in the first two games.
While nobody will dispute Kelly's resilience and Wacha's incredible talent, both pale in comparison to the one-two punch of Greinke and Kershaw, which very well may be the best in all of baseball.
Some will say that we can throw history out the window when it comes to playoff baseball, but it's important to note how that dynamic duo has fared against the Cardinals over the course of their careers:
While Kershaw's numbers don't look all that bad, consider this: Of the teams that he has made at least four career starts against, he has posted the highest ERA and WHIP—and averaged fewer strikeouts per nine innings of work—against the Cardinals than anyone else.
Crazy as it may sound, the Cardinals' best chance for victory in the first two games of the series may come against the best pitcher on the planet.
4. Get the ball to Trevor Rosenthal
He may have less than 110 major league innings under his belt between the regular season and postseason, but few young relievers have been as utterly dominant as 23-year-old Trevor Rosenthal has been for the Cardinals since making his MLB debut last season.
Not only are the flamethrower's regular-season numbers impressive, but he raises the level of his game in the playoffs—and against the Dodgers.
Those are some pretty impressive numbers for anyone, much less a pitcher that has yet to hit the prime years of his career.
As a matter of fact, out of the Dodgers' regular position players, only two—Hanley Ramirez (HBP) and Andre Ethier (1-for-4)—have even reached base against Rosenthal. The rest have gone a combined 0-for-8 with five strikeouts against him.
If the Cardinals can get the ball to Rosenthal with a lead, the game is as good as over.
5. Take advantage of a frenzied Busch Stadium crowd
While Los Angeles tied Texas for the best road record in baseball during the regular season (45-36) and won three of its four games in St. Louis, the Cardinals had baseball's second-best regular-season home record (54-27). Since 2011, St. Louis has gone 9-5 in playoff games at Busch Stadium.
Few would dispute that St. Louis is one of, if not the premier baseball town in the country, with Cardinals Nation among the most rabid, knowledgeable and passionate fans in any sport, not only baseball.
Just ask Pirates starter A.J. Burnett:
Burnett wasn't ready for anything. As the crowd got loud, the Cardinals got hot, and the veteran starter was gone from Game 1 of the NLDS after only two innings, having surrendered six hits and seven earned runs while issuing four walks.
That's the kind of effect that Cardinals fans can have on a pitcher.
With four of the seven possible NLCS games being played in St. Louis, in front of their fans, the Cardinals must take advantage of having home-field advantage if the team is to make their second World Series appearance in the past three years.
What do the Cardinals have to do in order to beat the Dodgers?
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