It's all about Braun and Fielder
One reason I believed that the Milwaukee Brewers had a chance to advance to the World Series was that with four good starters, it wouldn't necessarily matter how the rotation lined up for the NLCS. Yovani Gallardo was superb in two starts against the Diamondbacks in the division series, but the Brewers still have Zack Greinke ready to go in Game 1, and he's the guy many consider the ace of the staff. He's also 11-0 at Miller Park this season, if you dare to care about that.
Needless to say if you watched the division series, the Brewers are a different team at home. Miller Park may have the most electric atmosphere in the majors this season, and the Brewers go into full beast mode when they're at home. Considering the Cardinals won't have Chris Carpenter available until Game 3, there's a good chance the Brewers could take a commanding series lead with two wins.
Right now, I'd take Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder over the Cardinals' duo of Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman (and Matt Holliday isn't 100 percent). Braun was on everything against Arizona, going 9-for-18 with five extra-base hits. With Fielder hitting behind him, pitchers have to challenge him, and his bat is hot right now. Fielder mashed right-handers all season (1.046 OPS), and the Cardinals' only lefty starter is Jaime Garcia. They do have two lefties in the bullpen in Arthur Rhodes and Marc Rzepczynski, but Rzepczynski in particular has looked shaky down the stretch and didn't pitch well in the division series. I'm not sure how much confidence Tony La Russa will have in him in the NLCS. Add it up, and I see Fielder doing some long-ball damage in this series.
Rickie Weeks had a bad series against Arizona, going just 1-for-18, but I expect him to snap out of that little slump. The good sign is he had just one strikeout in 21 plate appearances, so the hits should start falling. He'll have plenty of RBI opportunities hitting behind Braun and Fielder, and look for him to deliver.
You also have to give the bullpen edge to Milwaukee. John Axford's blown save in Game 5 was an aberration; he'd converted 44 straight chances going back to April 18. You saw him come right back with an easy 10th inning. Throw in Takashi Saito and Francisco Rodriguez, and the Brewers will feel confident with a late-inning lead.
And don't forget: Despite his antics, Tony Plush can play a little ball, too.
Cardinals coming together in time
In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals had the lowest win total of any playoff team. But they went on to beat two other NL division winners and triumphed in the World Series because their late-healing team eventually came together.
The 2011 edition is similar. After spending 64 games in first place, the team faded after the All-Star break, then waited until the last possible moment -- they watched the Braves lose their final game of the season -- to earn a playoff berth.
Injuries to the Cardinals' most vital players -- Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols -- and some misaligned parts accounted for the midseason irons that the team got into. Ryan Franklin never got it together and remained closer until Tony La Russa finally turned to a cadre of relievers, including youngsters Fernando Salas and Jason Motte. They responded, most recently combining for six innings of shutout relief in NLDS Game 2. Ryan Theriot wasn't the spark plug the team had hoped he would be at the top of the lineup, so general manager John Mozeliak brought in Rafael Furcal, who stabilized the lineup and allowed Theriot to platoon at second base with Skip Schumaker, a better-late-than-never idea. The club overhauled its left-handed relief, and the controversial trade of Colby Rasmus brought in key role players.
It all makes for a team that has found its stride just in time. In the NLDS, the Cardinals dispatched the majors' best regular-season team, proving they could beat elite pitching. Their own staff shows no signs of tiring and is led by Chris Carpenter, who is as imposing as he is churlish on the mound.
Milwaukee has its wall bangers in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but the Cardinals scored the most runs in the National League because their lineup is deeper. Their MV3 of Pujols, Lance Berkman and Holliday get most of the attention, but Yadier Molina (.349 wOBA), David Freese (.348) and Jon Jay combine to offer opposing pitchers little quarter.
Already, the NLCS storyline is the bad blood between the two teams. The animus goes both ways, but the presence of calmer heads like Berkman and Holliday in the Cardinals' clubhouse gives them an advantage over the more mercurial Nyjer Morgan and his mates.
Momentum may be overstated, but the Cardinals are feeling confident whether because of their "Happy Flight" theme music or wayward squirrels. They might've taken all season, but they're finally playing as a team. And with everyone clicking in his role, the Cardinals are better than the Brewers and will return to the World Series, as they did in 2006.