Keys to winning the 2013 NLCS

12:04 PM, Oct 10, 2013   |    comments
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(SportsNetwork.com) - It's a matchup of baseball royalty in this year's National League Championship Series.

The St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers have accounted for 18 World Series titles and a combined 36 appearances between the two teams. One of them will add to that resume beginning on Friday when the best-of-seven NLCS starts at Busch Stadium.

These teams are certainly no stranger to one another in the postseason, as the Cardinals beat Los Angeles in a 2004 Division Series and the 1985 NL Championship Series, both en route to World Series defeats.

The Dodgers, though, got the best of the Cardinals the last time these teams met in October, sweeping them in the 2009 NLDS.

St. Louis finds itself back in the NLCS for the third straight year after a terrific regular season campaign that saw it win an NL-best 97 games. The Cardinals, though, needed all five games to get past the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLDS.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, is back in the NLCS for the first time since 2009, as the NL West champs took care of Atlanta in four games to advance.

The Dodgers were 4-3 against the Cardinals this season, including three wins in four games in St. Louis.

Not having home-field advantage for this series may not matter, as Los Angeles was tied with Texas for the best road record in the majors in 2013, at 45-36.

As an introduction to this NLCS matchup, let's take a look at the keys to winning the series for both clubs:

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

1. THE CARLOS BELTRAN EFFECT

At this point it's still somewhat surprising that Carlos Beltran gets anything to hit in the postseason.

Despite hitting just .222 in the NLDS, Beltran made his presence felt with a pair of home runs and six RBI in the five-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His .944 OPS in that series was actually his second lowest in a playoff series.

Still, Beltran is one of the best postseason hitters of his generation and hit his 16th postseason home run in Game 3 to move past Babe Ruth for the eighth- most in baseball history.

Beltran's 1.247 OPS in the postseason is the highest in any player's career.

Pittsburgh walked Beltran twice to lead off an inning in the series and the second time the Cards made the Pirates pay, as Matt Holliday's two-run home run was the difference in St. Louis' Game 4 win and maybe the biggest hit of the season.

Another player to watch could be NLDS Game 5 hero David Freese, who now ranks third in franchise history in postseason home runs (seven), RBI (29) and multihit games (10).

2. YOUNG ARMS

The Cardinals received an MLB-best 36 victories from rookie hurlers en route to the NL Central title. With Adam Wainwright unavailable until Game 3, St. Louis is again going to have to lean on their young hurlers against the Dodgers.

The bulk of those young arms are in the bullpen, but 2012 first-round draft pick Michael Wacha will go in Game 2 of this series after his near no-hitter in Game 4 versus the Pirates.

Wacha saved the Cardinals season in Game 4 of the NLDS in Pittsburgh, as he took a no-hitter into the eighth in a stellar 7 1/3-inning, nine-strikeout performance. He had come within an out of no-hitting Washington in his final regular season start.

Trevor Rosenthal has supplanted the struggling Edward Mujica as the team's closer and is set up by neophyte right-handers Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist. Other than them all being under 24, the other thing they have in common is that they all throw in the high 90s.

Another rookie could play a prominent role as well.

Matheny has yet to name a Game 1 starter, but righty Shelby Miller may be an option after winning 15 games this season. Miller didn't get a start in the NLDS, but could be a better choice than Lance Lynn or Joe Kelly.

3. ADAM WAINWRIGHT

The only downside to the Game 5 win over the Pirates was the fact that Wainwright won't be available until the third game. But then again, you'd probably rather have a battle-tested pitcher like Wainwright going on the road in that one rather than anyone else on the staff.

And to boot the Dodgers won't be throwing either Zack Greinke or Clayton Kershaw in that one either.

But, given how good Wainwright was against the Pirates, Game 3 could be played in Don Mattingly's backyard and the Cards would still be favored.

If Beltran is the best postseason hitter of this generation, well Wainwright is starting to get into the pitching conversation. With the season on the line Wainwright went the distance to beat the Pirates in Game 5. He won both of his NLDS starts and allowed just two runs in 16 innings.

Dating back to his final postseason effort in 2012 (Game 4 of the NLCS), Wainwright has pitched at least seven innings and surrendered no more than one run in each of his past three playoff starts.

Oh and in case you were wondering Wainwright would be on full rest should he be needed for a Game 7 against the Dodgers.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

1. DYNAMIC DUO

Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly left himself open to some criticism in that final game with the Braves, as he opted to go back to left-hander Clayton Kershaw on short rest. But, Mattingly's decision wasn't as off the wall as you may think considering he had another Cy Young Award winner waiting in the wings in Zack Greinke.

While Kershaw is probably headed towards another NL Cy Young Award after a remarkable regular season that saw him go 16-9 and lead the major leagues with a minuscule 1.83 ERA and an NL-best 232 strikeouts, Greinke is certainly no slouch.

An AL Cy Young Award winner in 2009, Greinke was 15-4 this season and pitched to a 1.58 ERA over his final 12 regular season starts. He also won 12 of his final 14 decisions and was 7-0 with a 1.95 ERA over his last 10 starts on the road.

The bottom line is Greinke would be a No. 1 starter on most teams.

One thing to watch here is where Mattingly goes for Game 4. It's expected that the rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu will get the Game 3 start, but Mattingly could opt for lefty Chris Capuano in Game 4 given St. Louis' left-handed bats.

2. ANDRE ETHIER'S HEALTH

The Dodgers hit .333 as a team in the NLDS and that lineup could get a boost should outfielder Andre Ethier be ready to go. Ethier has not played the field since Sept. 13 because of a condition similar to shin splints above his left ankle and was relegated to pinch-hitting duty against the Braves.

But, if it isn't broke, then why fix it?

As well as the Dodgers hit in the first round, Ethier's replacement Skip Schumaker, managed just a .231 average, the lowest of any of the Dodgers' starting position player in the NLDS.

Plus, having Ethier's left-handed bat in the middle of the order could be critical, since St. Louis' starting pitchers all are right-handed.

3. YASIEL PUIG

We all wondered whether or not Yasiel Puig's aggressiveness would cost the Dodgers at some point in the postseason.

Well, the exact opposite happened and it took all of one game for the Cuban phenom to make his presence felt. After a second-inning single, Puig went first to third on hard hit single by Juan Uribe, flashing some of that raw talent that helped trigger the Dodgers' turnaround.

Puig had six hits, all singles, in his first 13 at-bats of the playoffs and scored four runs in Games 1 through 3.

Criticized at times for his ill-advised attempts at taking an extra base or missing the cutoff man, Puig has been more disciplined on the base paths and seems more concerned with winning than using every game as a showcase for his talents.

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