ST. LOUIS -- After facing a familiar opponent in their National League Division Series, the Cardinals are now preparing to face a franchise with a similarly storied postseason history for the opportunity to move on to the World Series.
The Cardinals and Dodgers -- two organizations with a combined 39 NL pennants and 53 postseason appearances -- will be meeting in the NL Championship Series for the first time since 1985. The Cardinals took that series, 4-2. More recently, the two teams met in the '09 NLDS, a series that ended in a Dodgers sweep.
As the Cardinals seek their fourth trip to the World Series in 10 years, here is a look at three keys that could help push them past the NL West champions.
Win the rotation battle
No NL team had lower rotation ERAs than the Dodgers (3.13) and Cardinals (3.42) this season, which sets this up to be an intriguing battle between the starters. The Cardinals have announced an order of Joe Kelly, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright for the first three games; they would line up to pitch the final three games, too, if the series is played to its maximum. That trio of right-handers combined to limit the Pirates to five earned runs in 28 2/3 innings during the NLDS.
But the Dodgers' NLDS rotation -- which featured Clayton Kershaw (twice), Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu -- were nearly as stingy. They held the Braves to seven earned runs in 22 innings. With some question marks in both bullpens, whichever team can ride its starters deeper would seem to have the advantage.
In order to make a dent against the Dodgers' rotation, the Cardinals are going to have to solve their troubles against left-handed pitching, too. The club went 19-24 in games started by lefties (including a loss in the NLDS), though two of those wins did come against Kershaw, who is in line to start Games 2 and 6. Los Angeles could start lefty Ryu twice in the series, as well. The Cardinals hit .238 against southpaws this season compared to a .280 mark against right-handers.
Get back to RISP success
After hitting .330 with runners in scoring position during the regular season, the Cardinals lost that clutch-hitting touch in the NLDS, going just 5-for-27 (.185 average) in such spots against the Pirates. In their two losses, the Cardinals managed just one hit with a runner on second and/or third.
They did make up for some of those missed opportunities with six home runs, which accounted for 11 of the 23 runs the team scored during the five-game series. But this is a team that has not been able to rely upon the long ball for extended stretches this season. The Cardinals' offense was set apart this year by its success with runners in scoring position and would do well to tap back into that strength now.
Getting Matt Carpenter back on base could help augment the number of RISP opportunities, too. Carpenter, the team's leadoff hitter, followed his standout season (199 hits, 55 doubles, 126 runs scored) with a 1-for-19 NLDS. He drew just one walk. With Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday right behind him, Carpenter can create run-scoring opportunities by finding a way to get on.
Backing from the bullpen
The Cardinals will continue to ask a lot of their rookie relievers, all of whom now have at least a bit of postseason experience under their belts. The stage is only getting bigger, though, and the importance of having a shutdown bullpen in the late innings is critical.
The youngsters (Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist ) stumbled in the Cardinals' Game 3 loss to the Pirates. A day later, however, Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal secured the final five outs in a one-run, must-win game. Thanks to a complete-game gem by Wainwright on Wednesday, the bullpen will enter the series well rested.
Rosenthal will continue to serve as the team's closer, whether or not he ever gets the actual title. Manager Mike Matheny has shown an inclination to turn to Martinez and Siegrist in the eighth. Maness will be ready to inherit a jam or cover the seventh. The Cardinals' bullpen can only remain a strength as long as all four of these rookies step up.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less