I’ll admit that my interest in the Rangers this year was primarily due to the fact that I had CJ Wilson, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando, David Murphy, and Mitch Moreland each on a fantasy baseball team at one time or another. Following them more closely than ever, I could help but have a singular thought for most of the season. The Rangers are constructed a lot like the Brewers, only they are better than the Brewers in many ways. The Brewers have solid starting pitching, great back-end relief pitching, poor defense, and an offense that can bash with the best of them. The Rangers have slightly better starting pitching, great back-end relief pitching, sub-par defense, and an offense that can bash as well. If the Brewers can be beaten, then the Rangers can be beaten as well.
Rangers Starting Pitching: The starting 4 for the Rangers may not be quite as intimidating as Philly’s “Big 4″, but they could pose just as big of a challenge. Consider that 3 of the 4 starters are lefties, and the Cardinals went 20-20 against left-handed starters during the regular season. Playing .500 ball against the likes of CJ Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison would not necessarily be a bad thing, but the Birds would still have to beat Colby Lewis to win the race to 4. Lewis has likely been the best of the 4 starters during the playoffs, so getting to Lewis won’t be easy. If there is a reason for optimism, it is that the starters have not been quite as good in the postseason as they were in the regular season.
- CJ Wilson (16-9, 2.94 ERA, 1.187 WHIP) – 0-2 with a 8.04 ERA (1.85 WHIP) in the playoffs
- Colby Lewis (14-10, 4.40 ERA, 1.213 WHIP) – 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA (1.11 WHIP) in the playoffs
- Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95 ERA, 1.354 WHIP) – 1-0 with a 5.27 ERA (1.76 WHIP) in the playoffs
- Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39 ERA, 1.276 WHIP) – 1-0 with a 4.22 ERA (1.41 WHIP) in the playoffs
If the Cardinals continue to favor the long ball, they could certainly run into trouble with both Wilson and Harrison, because neither is prone to giving up the home run ball. The long ball may be the key to beating Lewis, though. He surrendered 35 home runs during the regular season, and he gave up 3 more in just 11 2/3 innings in the ALDS and ALCS combined.
Cardinals Starting Pitching: If there is an area of great concern for Cardinal fans, it should definitely be the starting pitching. Based on the number of innings the starters threw in the NLCS, the starters need to step it up a notch (or 3) to get past the dreaded 5th inning.
- NLCS Game 1 – Jaime Garcia made it through just 4 innings and gave up 6 runs in the process (82 pitches)
- NLCS Game 2 – Edwin Jackson goes 4 1/3 innings while giving up 2 runs (82 pitches)
- NLCS Game 3 – Chris Carpenter surrenders 3 runs in 5 innings (89 pitches)
- NLCS Game 4 – Kyle Lohse is lifted after 4 1/3 innings and 3 runs (81 pitches)
- NLCS Game 5 – Garcia almost makes it 5 innings (4 2/3) and yields only a single run (68 pitches)
- NLCS Game 6 – Edwin Jackson gets through 2 innings, gives up 4 runs, and is lifted after 48 pitches
During the 2011 regular season, Cardinal starters made it through the 6th inning 107 times. The Cardinals were 65-42 in those games.
Rangers Hitting: It’s no secret that the Rangers can put runs on the board, and they were 3rd in runs scored during the regular season with 855. They were also 1st in batting average as a team (.283), 5th in OBP (.340), and 2nd in slugging percentage (.460). The bad news for the Cardinals is that they haven’t cooled off much in the playoffs, despite facing some outstanding pitchers. During this postseason, the Rangers are collectively batting .259 with an OBP of .330 and a slugging percentage of .434. The potential good news for the Cardinals is that the Rangers will be without the use of a designated hitter when they play at Busch.
Cardinals Hitting: If there is a National League team that somewhat resembles an American League team, it is indeed the Cardinals. The Cardinals finished the regular season 5th in runs scored (762), 5th in batting average (.273), 3rd in OBP (.341), and 6th in slugging percentage (.425). If a game becomes a slugfest, the Cardinals are not completely lacking in weapons. Against the Ranger lefties, Tony LaRussa has the option of going with Ryan Theriot (.350 avg in the playoffs) at 2B, and he will have the luxury of keeping both Lance Berkman and Allen Craig in the lineup when the series shifts to Texas. If the Cardinals are facing a left-hander in Texas, then TLR can keep Schumaker, Descalso, and Punto on the bench which gives him a lot of flexibility to mix-and-match in later innings. Each member of that trio can be substituted into the game without losing defensive ability at a key position, and that may be an area in which the Cardinals have an advantage.
Rangers Bullpen: The Rangers resemble the team the Cardinals just played in several ways, and the bullpen is definitely an area of great similarity. Just like the Cardinals needed to avoid deficits late in the game that brought Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez, and John Axford, so must they avoid the same scenario against the Rangers. The back end of that Ranger bullpen contains Scott Feldman, Alexi Ogando, Mike Adams, and Neftali Feliz. With the ability of Feldman and Ogando to go multiple innings, it’s no stretch to say that the Rangers can turn some games into 6 inning affairs. If I hadn’t seen what the Cardinals bullpen has accomplished recently, I would give the Rangers a big bullpen advantage with the aforementioned foursome and guys like Darren Oliver for key matchup situations. However, it would be a mistake to ignore what the Cardinal relievers have been doing.
Cardinals Bullpen: All that the Cardinal bullpen has been doing recently is shutting people down. As a group, they pitched more innings against the Brewers than the starters did, and they did so at a very high level. Sadly, that fact has me questioning how much is left in the tank at this point. Jason Motte, Fernando Salas, and Octavio Dotel have looked really sharp all throughout the playoffs, and it seems that TLR has a lot of faith in all 3. Arthur Rhodes has been brilliant in spots, but he’s only pitched a total of 1 2/3 innings in 5 appearances. Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski are the big question marks primarily due to the amount of exposure recently. Normally, I wouldn’t be worried about 3 1/3 innings for Rzepczynski and 5 innings for Boggs, but Boggs has made a lot of appearances this year, and Rzepczysnki leads the team in appearances this postseason with 8 relief stints.
The Benches: The Rangers have had 12 different players take swings for them during the postseason. By comparison, the Cardinals have had 14 different position players go to the plate, and that doesn’t include 22 at-bats by pitchers. Defensively, the Rangers have relied heavily on their starting 8, so guys like Endy Chavez and Yorvit Torrealba haven’t seen much playing time. If a game stays close (or tied), I can’t help but think that the Cardinals have a slight advantage due to the number of reps the bench players have received.
Managers: When it comes to pushing buttons, nobody pushes more buttons than Tony LaRussa. If a game comes down to double switches, safety squeezes, and pitchers being used as pinch runners, TLR has the experience advantage. That doesn’t mean that he gives his team a managerial advantage, though. Ron Washington can do work on the other side of the field. Call this category a “push”, because it just wouldn’t do to slight either one of these guys.
Keys to the Series: Maybe there is a lot of truth to the old saying that “pitching wins championships”. Perhaps that should be amended to “relief pitching wins championships” after this postseason. Based on what I’ve seen during the playoffs, I believe that the Rangers have an advantage in the starting pitching department, but that advantage isn’t huge. The real difference-maker for the Rangers is a high scoring offense that will likely score its share of runs. If that offense can score in bunches, then the Cardinals may not be long for the series. The counter to the perceived starting pitching advantage is that the Cardinals don’t need 7 great starts – they just need 4 really good ones. If the Cardinal starters can make it 6 innings and keep it close, I think that the advantage shifts to the Cardinals.
Key Players: For the Rangers, it’s all about their starting pitching. As the Tigers and Rays can both attest, it is really difficult to pitch around Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, and Michael Young, because Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler, and David Murphy will produce. For the Cardinals, they need some quality starts and enough production throughout the lineup to keep the pressure on the Rangers. That means that Lance Berkman (.237 avg), Allen Craig (.222), Jon Jay (.216), and Rafael Furcal (.204) need to bring their “hittin’ bats” to the World Series to help David Freese, Matt Holliday, and Albert Pujols, and Yadier Molina keep the Cardinals in contention for that 11th World Series title.
Pick: Cardinals in 7 games. The Rangers are a slightly better version of the Brewers with more left-handed pitchers, and the Cardinals beat the Brewers in 6 games despite having terrible starting pitching. The pitching will improve, and the Cardinals will get just enough timely defense to take the series.
TIDBIT: The Cardinals are averaging just 3.27 pitches per plate appearance in the playoffs. The Rangers are averaging 3.71 P/PA. Watch this statistic for the Cardinals as they face big time strikeout pitchers like Wilson, Harrison, and Lewis. The Cardinals have been fairly aggressive early in the count, and it has paid off, especially for guys like Pujols and Freese. See if they continue the trend or not.
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