The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers will face off in the 2011 National League Championship Series with a level of intrigue that most fans in the east may not know about yet. The key word is yet. Each team won nine of the 18 games played between the two during the regular season. The series in Milwaukee at the beginning of August was heated and full of everything a great baseball rivalry needs. All-Stars Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols both got plunked. Yadier Molina was tossed, and Tony LaRussa took verbal shots at Brewers fans. The emotional buildup continued into the teams’ next series in St. Louis, as benches cleared when Nyjer Morgan and Chris Carpenter exchanged words. There’s bad blood between these NL Central foes, and there could not be any better way to wrap up the National League playoffs than with an intra-division grudge match (Note: ALCS preview can be seen here).
Why the Brewers could win…Milwaukee has their pitching staff set up well for the beginning of this series, or at least better than St. Louis does. Zach Greinke will get the call in Game 1 in Milwaukee, where he has been dominant this season (11-0, 3.13 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 119 strike outs in 95 innings). As a team the Brewers enjoyed the comfortable confines of Miller Park, where Milwaukee had best home record in baseball (57-24). They carried this momentum into the playoffs, where they won all three of their home games against the Diamondbacks in the NLDS. The Brewers have not yet announced their Game 2 starter, but they will have co-#1 starter Yovani Gallardo pitch in Game 3 at St. Louis. Either Shaun Marcum or Randy Wolf will go in Game 2, but both must pitch better than they did against the Diamondbacks. The Brewers’ bullpen is very strong at the back end with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford. Both had their struggles in the NLDS, but there is no reason to suspect they will carry that into the NLCS. Ryan Braun is on fire (9 for 21, 1.460 OPS vs ARI in the NLDS) and Prince Fielder has seemed more focused on the playoffs than his impending free agency. Perhaps the biggest key to the Brewers’ offense is that Rickie Weeks will have to break out of his 1 for 18 funk, so that Milwaukee can keep rallies going.
Why the Cardinals could win…St. Louis is much more experienced in going this deep into the playoffs. The Cardinals should not be daunted by potentially having to go into Milwaukee for four of seven games, where they must steal at least one win. The Cardinals had the strongest lineup in the National League and will have left fielder Matt Holliday available for the start of the NLCS. Holliday’s ferocious tandem with Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman will consistently challenge Milwaukee’s pitching staff. While starting pitchers Jamie Garcia, Edwin Jackson, and the well-rested Kyle Lohse are not as dominant as Chris Carpenter, but none of them are slouches (all have ERAs below 4.00). The bottom line is that St. Louis’ experience could be a huge advantage in a series where emotions will be running high. It will be interesting to see how the Brewers recover if the Cardinals can win just one game in Milwaukee.
The Brewers will win in 7 games… Milwaukee will have an excellent opportunity to go into Game 3 with a 2-0 lead because Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter will not pitch until the series shifts to St. Louis. The Brewers’ strength at home is undeniable. Miller Park seems to have a buzz in it, where fans are always ready to explode at any moment. This energy has elevated the Brewers to a point where you almost come to expect them to have a big surge at some point every single game. They may have to win a game in St. Louis since the Cardinals are the type of team that is capable of overcoming another team’s home field advantage (they won two of three in Philadelphia). However, Carpenter will most likely only pitch twice in the NLCS and was shelled in his two starts at Milwaukee this year (0-2, 10 earned runs in just 11 innings pitched). This will be a long series, and expect for some heated moments to come between players, managers, and fans. In the end, the Brewers’ home field advantage and stronger pitching setup will propel Milwaukee to their first World Series since 1982.