MLB Playoff Preview: Cardinals vs. Dodgers

St. Louis takes on Los Angeles in the NLDS.

NATIONAL LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES


St. Louis Cardinals (105-57) versus Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)

Game 1 @ STL: W. Williams (R) (11-8, 4.18 ERA, 131 K) vs. O. Perez (L) (7-6, 3.25 ERA, 128 K)
Game 2 @ STL: J. Marquis (R) (15-7, 3.71 ERA, 138 K) vs. J. Weaver (R) (13-13, 4.01 ERA, 153 K)
Game 3 @ LA: M. Morris (R) (15-10, 4.72 ERA, 131 K)) vs. J. Lima (R) (13-7, 4.07ERA, 93 K)
Game 4* @ LA: J. Suppan (R) (16-9, 4.16 ERA, 110 K) vs. O. Perez (L)
Game 5* @ STL: W. Williams (R) vs. J. Weaver (R)

OFFENSE
Cards : The National equivalent to the Yankees, St. Louis boasts a lineup without any given outs until the pitcher steps into the box. Albert Pujols is the best of the bunch but Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds aren't too far behind. Speedster Tony Womack and 1997 World Series hero Edgar Renteria set the table at the top of the order. The only hope for the Dodgers is to avoid walks and get a key defensive play or two in each game of the series. Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker compliment the big three with power and good speed and provide the proper balance for the Cardinals lineup.

Key Cards Bat : Womack- When you know that the middle of the order is going to hit, at least somewhat, the top of the lineup has to get on base in front of them to make it happen. If Womack has a big series, St. Louis is going to be partying in the streets.

Dodgers: Even with MVP candidate Adrian Beltre leading the way, LA's offense is the weakest unit of either team in this series. Having said that, Shawn Green, Steve Finley, Milton Bradley, and Heep Seop Choi could prove deadly versus the right-handed rotation that the Cardinals will send out to the hill. Without much offense from the middle infielders and the catcher, LA will have to make productive outs in every situation and hope for a key pinch-hit or two from Robin Ventura or Jayson Werth.

Key Dodgers Bat : Beltre- As the one big impact bat LA has, Beltre must have a solid series for the Dodgers to have a chance. It's not often that the anchor of a mediocre offensive lineup can disappear and that team still comes out on top.


PITCHING
Cards: Chris Carpenter will miss the first round and that hurts the Cardinals but veterans Woody Williams and Matt Morris combine with the youth of Jason Marquis to form a decent, if unspectacular, short series rotation. Jeff Suppan might be the best No. 4 starter in baseball.
The St. Louis bullpen could be one of the most underrated relief corps in baseball and led by closer Jason Isringhausen, have arms from either side to match up with the Dodgers lineup. Left-handers Steve Kline and Ray King will probably pitch in every single game to Dodger hitters Green and Finley if the late-game situations arise.

Key Cardinals Arm: Williams- Should Williams come out and get bombed in the opening game and the Dodgers gain a 1-0 series lead, the entire tone of the five-game set changes. A solid outing by Williams that ends with a Cards victory put added pressure on LA's game two starter Jeff weaver to shut down the league's best offense.

Dodgers : The season-long struggles of Kazuhisa Ishii and Hideo Nomo put more on the shoulders of the Dodger bullpen and makes every start made by Odalis Perez, the team's best starter, that much more crucial. Weaver is making his first start in the postseason, as are Perez and Jose Lima, and it might be too much to ask of him to take on an ace-like role if Perez doesn't win game one. The absence of Brad Penny will hurt LA. With Penny, LA might have the pitching advantage and ultimately be the favorite.
When you have Eric Gagne on your side you have a chance. The game's best closer over the past three years was nearly untouchable again this season and as long as LA can get the game to the eighth, they have a great chance to win. The loss of Guillermo Mota, however, greatly hinders the Dodgers' ability to bridge that gap between the starter and Gagne. Elmer Dessens, Yhency Brazoban and Giovanni Carrara will have critical roles leading the bullpen to their closer. Wilson Alvarez will likely serve as a long man but could be used as a situational left-hander when Walker is due up in the late innings.

Key Dodgers Arm : Dessens- The former Red and Diamondback can start or work effectively in any relief role and might be asked to step up in all of them. Dessens presence could save the bullpen on more than one occasion in this series.


DEFENSE
Cards Outfield : Any team with an outfield anchored offensively and defensively by Jim Edmonds is a good outfield. Add former batting champ and Gold Glover Larry Walker and slugger Reggie Sanders and you have one of the best outfields in all of baseball. No other team in baseball gets more from their starting outfielders than St. Louis.

Dodgers Outfield : The addition of Steve Finley at the trade deadline was a gutsy move by GM Paul DePodesta and it paid off in the end. Finley's defense in center I still very good and he is having one of his best seasons at the plate. Milton Bradley moved to right and has played well there and if his temper can be, well, tempered, the Dodgers outfield is pretty good. Jayson Werth was the NL's best rookie after the All-Star break and will give the Dodgers a solid bat and glove in left.

Cards Infield : With Gold Glovers Rolen and Renteria picking everything within a mile of them, the Cardinals defense can take away hits on a regular basis. Womack has good range at second and Pujols is adequate in his first year as a first baseman. Mike Matheny is solid behind the plate and has always had a reputation of calling good games and working well with pitchers.

Dodgers Infield : Defensively, LA is pretty solid here, thanks to Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora up the middle. Beltre is very good at third and Green is a decent defender over at first. Cora and Izturis are probably the best double-play combo in baseball and though they don't hit a ton, their gloves are much too valuable to replace in the lineup. Behind the plate, Brent Mayne is merely adequate with a decent arm and solid catching skills.


Manager Analysis
Tony LaRussa's advantage here is experience. LaRussa has taken three teams to the postseason and won a World Series with Oakland in 1989 and been to two others with the A's. As a tactician, LaRussa's reputation suggests that he over manages at times, though there wasn't a whole lot of that going on this season.
Jim Tracy doesn't have the weapons that LaRussa has but has worked minor miracles with a lineup that is less than stellar. Expect Tracy to use small ball to manufacture runs, and we might even see him get a little bit more aggressive on the bases.

InsidethePark.com Prediction : Cardinals in four-
I think game one is more important in this series than any other. If LA can squeak out the opener, the Dodgers have a real shot to win this in five games and plant the seed of doubt to a fading Cardinal club. A Cards victory in game one probably restores the confidence they played with through August and dooms LA in the end.



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