ST. LOUIS -- The National League Championship Series switches from AT&T Park to Busch Stadium on Wednesday, and this much we know about the defending World Series champion Cardinals so far: Carlos Beltran is on fire, but the middle of the lineup is not. The starters haven't pitched up to potential, and one has to wonder long the bullpen is going to be able to compensate. The Cards haven't been home since Oct. 8, an eternity in the playoffs. They closed their NL Division Series by winning two of the last three games against the Nationals in Washington, and split the first two NLCS games with the Giants in San Francisco. They were drilled, 7-1, in Game 2 on Monday night, when nothing except Beltran seemed to work. Game 3 is slated for 3 p.m. CT on Wednesday on FOX, weather permitting. Thunderstorms are in the forecast for game time, with an 80 percent chance of rain in the morning, according to weather.com.
Is there no place like home?"We love being home," manager Mike Matheny said on Tuesday. "It's a beautiful time here in St. Louis. It was a good week on the road, and the guys played very well. I know they just couldn't wait to get back here and an opportunity to play in front of our fans again." Following are three things the Redbirds need to accomplish at home if they hope to ascend again to the World Series, where they defeated the Rangers in seven tough games last autumn. 1. The starters must kick it into gear.
What's with the starters? Only one made it through the seventh inning in the first seven playoff games, and that was Kyle Lohse, in a 2-1 loss to the Nationals last Thursday. Lohse is going against Matt Cain in Game 3 on Wednesday, and the Cards need another big effort out of him. Lance Lynn didn't make it out of the fourth inning in the Game 1 win on Sunday, and Chris Carpenter was lifted after four in Monday's loss. It has put uncommon pressure on the bullpen, particularly the young middle-inning relievers. "I'd like for my starters to go nine every game. I mean, that would be great," Matheny said a little testily during his media conference on Tuesday. "But until that happens, we're going to have to use whoever we can use." Following Lohse on Wednesday, the usually reliable Adam Wainwright starts Thursday night's Game 4. This past Friday at Nationals Park, Wainwright allowed six runs on seven hits, including three homers, before he was lifted with one out in the third inning and the Cards down, 6-0. The Cards miraculously won that game, 9-7, with four runs in the ninth. Sense a trend here? Batten down the hatches if it continues. 2. The bullpen has to keep performing at a high rate.
Since Lohse's effort against the Nationals, Matheny has had to go to his bullpen 15 times in the last three games -- five times in Game 5 of the NLDS, six more in Game 1 of this series and four on Monday. There's no rest for the weary. Matheny even had to use Lynn to try to shut down the Nationals at the end of Game 4. Jayson Werth hit a walk-off homer, and that was the end of that story. Right-hander Joe Kelly and Marc Rzepczynski, the only lefty out of the 'pen, have appeared in all three games. On Monday, six relievers bailed out Lynn and allowed no runs and two hits over the last 5 1/3 innings. In Game 5 it was a run on three hits in the last 6 2/3 innings. Matheny didn't sound worried. The bullpen has bent, but it hasn't broken. "The off-day means a lot to us, and our bullpen has been really kind of coming together well," he said. "These guys have a lot of confidence right now. They bailed us out, as you saw, in Game 1. They did a phenomenal job. We need our starters to go deeper, but we're going to have to continue to watch them closely. If they need help, these guys are rested. They can help." 3. Beltran is roaring, but the Cards need more production out of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina.
Beltran is hitting .429 with a homer, two doubles and two RBIs in the series, which should come as no surprise to anyone, as he is a .387 hitter with a .489 on-base percentage, a 1.33 OPS, 14 homers and 25 RBIs in 30 postseason games. These are not just numbers. They are gaudy numbers. Beltran is the No. 2 hitter. But the three behind him -- Holliday, Craig and Molina -- are a combined 4-for-22 with no extra-base hits and no RBIs. This obviously has to change, but right now Matheny isn't planning any adjustments to the lineup. "We've got a team that's been playing pretty well," Matheny said. "And you can take stats and manipulate them however you want to. To me, for the most part, our offense has done well. And we've had some recent games here that would tell you you'd be crazy to do anything different. I have a lot of faith in our guys and the way they're going about their at-bats, and I don't see any change in the near future." It's a best-of-seven series, and a trend can become an epidemic very quickly.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.