Four of the past eight World Series champions have come from the teams in this 2014 National League Championship Series, which might suggest that the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals have spectacular talent. Instead, they are more great organizations that teach the game properly, that every at-bat is a fistfight and every pitch is the biggest one of the game. Each had less talent than its opponent in the division series, but the Giants were more tough-minded and October-tested than the Washington Nationals, and the Cardinals were focused on winning while the Los Angeles Dodgers were thinking too much about tipping pitches and the strike zone. Now these two will meet in the playoffs for the fourth time. The Cardinals are the first team since the 1998-2001 New York Yankees to go to four straight league championship series. And the Giants will be going for the third time in five years. It should really be great.
Here are five questions.
In what sort of shape is the Giants' rotation?
Very good. Ace Madison Bumgarner has thrown very well in this postseason -- and every postseason -- save for one wild throw to third base on a bunt in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Nationals. He has pitched much better on the road than at home this year and will start Game 1 in St. Louis. The Giants support him well, scoring 5.03 runs per start in the regular season; only Clayton Kershaw and Jorge De La Rosa received better run support among NL starters. Jake Peavy battled through 5⅔ innings to win Game 1 of the NLDS, and Tim Hudson was terrific in Game 2. Ryan Vogelsong lifted San Francisco in Game 4 with 5⅔ innings of solid work, this coming off a September in which he went 0-4 with a 5.53 ERA. What happens to him in October is amazing. He has made five straight October starts (his only five), allowing one run or no runs; only Curt Schilling, with six, has a longer streak in postseason history. Vogelsong's 1.19 ERA is the third best in postseason history among those with at least five starts, trailing only Sandy Koufax and Christy Mathewson.
In what short of shape is the Cardinals' rotation?
A little unsettled. Ace Adam Wainwright got hammered in Game 1 against the Dodgers but didn't get the loss because Kershaw got hit harder. Kershaw came back on short rest while St. Louis wasn't even committing to Wainwright for Game 5. He had some arm issues in August, pitched through them in September, but says he is ready to go in Game 1. The rest of the Cardinals' rotation -- John Lackey, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller -- did very well in the NLDS. Lackey, who has thrown more postseason innings than any other active pitcher, is past his tired-arm stage down the stretch, and his good, biting slider is back. The Giants were just 30-30 against left-handed starters this year; the Indians and A's were the only other teams to be .500 or below against lefties but above .500 against right-handers. And the only starting pitchers San Francisco is going to see in this series are righties.
How do the Giants score runs?
It's hard to tell sometimes. In the clinching Game 4 against the Nationals, they scored their three runs on a bases-loaded walk, a ground ball to the first baseman and a wild pitch. They were terrible with runners in scoring position against Washington, but somehow got enough big hits to win three times. In Game 2 of the NLDS, for instance, Brandon Belt became the first player ever to hit a game-deciding home run at a time when he was 0-for-6 in a game. The Giants beat the Nationals despite a 2-for-18, no-runs-scored performance from their leadoff man, Gregor Blanco, and while platooning in left field with Travis Ishikawa and Juan Perez. In the NLDS, when they faced a right-handed starter they had no left-handed hitter coming off the bench. Their hope is that left fielder Michael Morse, who missed most of September with an oblique strain, will be active for this series. But even if that's the case, the San Francisco lineup is not imposing. Yet the Giants seem to find a way to score just enough to win.
From where did the Cardinals' power come?
They finished last in the league (and 29th overall) in home runs with 105, then hit seven in four games against the Dodgers. St. Louis third baseman Matt Carpenter became the first player in postseason history to hit a home run and a double in three straight games. And first baseman Matt Adams became the first player since Miguel Olivo in 2012 to hit a home run with at least two men on base against Kershaw. They took Kershaw deep three times, beating him twice, and pounding the Dodgers' bullpen. The Cardinals did not enter the seventh inning with a lead in any of the four games but won three of them by outscoring Los Angeles 15-4 in the seventh through ninth innings. And they did it with power, left-handed power: Left-handed St. Louis hitters hit five homers against left-handed pitching, second most in a postseason. San Francisco's best pitcher is lefty Bumgarner.
Does either team have an edge in the bullpen?
It's close. The Giants' bullpen saved the series with 10⅔ scoreless innings in the pivotal 18-inning win in Game 2 of the NLDS. Yusmeiro Petit threw six shutout innings and 80 pitches and had more strikeouts in extra innings (seven) than any pitcher has ever had in one postseason game. Setup man Sergio Romo had his good slider back against the Nationals, and Santiago Casilla has done very well since becoming the closer in July. San Francisco has won all of the past nine one-run games it has played in the postseason, a tribute in part to the Giants' deep, versatile bullpen. The Cardinals' bullpen was very good against the Dodgers, specifically closer Trevor Rosenthal. He and the rest of that bullpen got some very big outs: They became the first team in postseason history to win each game of a series despite having the tying run on base when the last out was made in each victory.
The pick: Cardinals in seven.