by Charlie Miller
With little hope in mid-September, the St. Louis Cardinals somehow have managed to find their way into the NLCS for the fourth time in eight years. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the Brewers will play in the NLCS for the first time in their history. Back in 1982, the Brewers played in the ALCS and defeated the California Angels to reach the World Series.
This series could not be much more evenly matched. The two teams split their 18 games this season and know each other so well. Both feature big boppers in the heart of the lineup and pretty good, but not great, starting pitching. The only real difference lies in the bullpens. The Brewers’ dependable bullpen gives Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke comfort in knowing his team is 81-1 with a lead after eight innings. Setup men Takashi Saito and Francisco Rodriguez in front of closer John Axford take the pressure off the Brewers’ starters to have to go more than six innings. The much-maligned Cardinals’ bullpen was shaky at best for much of the season. But there have been fewer better performances than the Redbirds’ relievers gave with six shutout innings in their Game 2 comeback win over Philadelphia.
Milwaukee has been the best team at home throughout the season, but rest assured, the Cardinals will not be intimidated. They just survived the Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Oswalt gauntlet and won Game 5 before a raucous crowd in Philadelphia. And since August 1, after both teams made final adjustments to their rosters, the Cardinals won seven of 12 meetings. No doubt this series will be a battle between these two familiar rivals of the National League Central.
The Cardinals’ offense, which led the NL in runs during the regular season, struggled with only 19 runs and two home runs in the five NLDS games.
Keys for St. Louis
The Cardinals must get quality innings from the bullpen. Manager Tony La Russa was able to play matchups and manage his way through some tough innings, especially in Game 2, against the Phillies. Unlike the Brewers. the Cardinals don’t have the consistent go-to guys late in the game. La Russa was a master at controlling matchups in the series with Philadelphia by mixing and matching his entire bullpen.
Keys for Milwaukee
As good as the Brewers have been at home this season, they lost both games at Arizona and didn’t look like the same team. So they must hold serve at home. It was also clear how much they rely on their stars, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. As the series with Arizona wore on, the Diamondbacks pitched around the two MVP candidates. Expect similar treatment from St. Louis, so the Brewers must have clutch performances from the supporting cast.
Cardinals to Watch
Albert Pujols is poised to break out this postseason. He hit the Phillies well enough to receive an intentional walk that loaded the bases with one out for Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday late in Game 5. Rafael Furcal will set the table and spark the offense. Look for Yadier Molina to provide a clutch bat.
Brewers to Watch
Expect Jerry Hairston, Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan to step up in support of Braun and Fielder. Hairston had a good series against St. Louis in late August and was clutch in the Arizona series. Hart drove in 15 runs in only 16 games against the Redbirds while Morgan ignited the offense with a .393 OBP. Hart, who has batted leadoff since Rickie Weeks went down with an injury, may be moved to the No. 5 spot to protect Fielder.
Milwaukee in 7