NLDS Preview: Cardinals vs. Dodgers

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The Dodgers and the Cardinals have 35 National League pennants and sixteen World Championships between them. That said, there isn’t a ton of historical late season drama between these two teams. When the Gashouse Gang Cardinals were flying high, the Dodgers were bums. When those Jackie Robinson/Duke Snider Dodgers teams were manufacturing nostalgia, the Cardinals were often Stan Musial, a wish and a prayer.  Each franchise had some great 1960s teams and some great moments after that, but for most of their history they have see-sawed like birds on a bat.

Recent history has the Cardinals beating L.A. in the dramatic 1985 NLCS and once again topping the boys in blue in the 2004 division series.  Based on my uber-complicated scientific breakdown of this year’s NLDS — really, it involved beakers and a sextant and six different intellectual strains of alchemy — I have concluded that, once again, the Cardinals are going to beat the Dodgers.  Let’s see why, shall we?

2009 NLDS Probables 

Game 1: Chris Carpenter vs. Randy Wolf

Game 2: Adam Wainwright vs. Clayton Kershaw 

Game 3: Joel Piniero vs. Chad Billingsley. At least we think. UPDATE: Try Vicente Padilla!

Game 4:  Kyle Lohse or maybe a Lohse/Smoltz committee start or, if they’re in deep doo-doo, Carpenter on short rest vs. Dear God, the Dodgers have a decision to make, don’t they?

Game 5: Carpenter or Wainwright vs. Wolf or Kershaw.

As you can see, the starting pitching is where the rubber really hits the road in this series.  The Cardinals have what is almost certainly the best rotation in the playoffs, with two Cy Young candidates, a guy who never walks anybody, a totally serviceable fourth starter in Kyle Lohse, and the all-time postseason wins leader that is John Smoltz. And Tony La Russa is a total genius, so even if one of those guys lays and egg or gets slick balls or something, I’m sure he’ll be able to synthesize another starter out of some anti-matter and a few loose hairs found in an old Joaquin Andujar cap they found before demolishing the last Busch Stadium.

The Dodgers, in contrast, are kind of up the creek.  Billingsley has been erratic, having his last start skipped because of it.  He’s going to throw a simulated game today or tomorrow and unless something goes terribly wrong —  say, he gets simulatedly shelled — he should be the Game 3 guy. UPDATE: Or not.  Game 4 is going to be a toughie. Kuroda is hurt. Vicente Padilla pitched well yesterday, but the Rockies didn’t exactly throw their major league lineup out there. Jon Garland allowed five runs in 3 1/3 innings his last time out and is no one’s idea of a savior.  The Dodgers have had some decent rotation depth this year, but they are sorely lacking in high quality.  If I were Joe Torre, I’d consider a three-man rotation.

Upshot: I like Kershaw an awful lot and could totally see him shutting the Cards down, but I like the Cardinals in every other matchup. The Dodgers’ best chance to win this thing is based on the Cardinals mighty struggles vs. lefties this year, but if they can break through against either Wolf or Kershaw, L.A. is in deep trouble.

 

Offenses:  Both teams have a superstar (Pujols and Ramirez), a solid second banana (Holliday and Kemp) and a bunch of guys you can pitch to. To be fair, the Dodgers probably have a third banana in Ethier, and their offense is stronger from top to bottom, but that 1-2 punch is a doozy.  Of course, I’m reminded a bit of the Astros of the 1990s here, in that they always had a solid 1-2 in Bagwell and Biggio but would routinely get sent packing by the Braves or whoever.

Upshot: Ultimately, though, I just don’t think the Dodgers have the arms to shut both Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday down for five games, and as noted above, the runs will be hard to come by for L.A.

 

Bullpens: A lot of Dodgers fans are probably about ready to pounce on me for not noting that L.A. had the best bullpen in all of creation in 2009.  Fair point, but as Christina Kahrl points out here (sorry; subscription only), overall bullpen numbers can be misleading when the playoffs roll around.

Why? Because bullpen usage changes dramatically in the postseason. You don’t go six or seven arms deep in October, and you don’t save a guy for tomorrow when there may be no tomorrow. Indeed, if you cut things down to the top four or five relievers that a team is likely to use, the Cardinals’ Ryan Franklin, Kyle McClellan, Trever Miller and Dennys Reyes/Blake Hacksworth has actually been better than the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Ramon Troncoso/Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo.

Upshot: The Dodgers pen is great, but the Cardinals is pretty darn good in its own right, even if it doesn’t look as sexy on paper. The difference certainly isn’t enough to neutralize the rotational differences and the mighty and just fury of Albert Pujols’ bat.

 

Overrated Angle: These games will be on TBS instead of FOX, so the “we must create a compelling storyline and drive it into the ground” thing won’t be quite as obvious, but I’m sure we’ll see one of two things hit hard and hit often: (a) Torre vs. La Russa: the battle of Hall of Fame managers!; and (b) Manny vs. Pujols: the battle of evil superstar vs. good superstar!  I’ll grant that those four guys are the biggest personalities in this series and thus will create some appeal to even the more common fans, but that’s all pretty boring, ain’t it?

Underrated Angle: The surprising balance of the Cardinals. Above comments notwithstanding, it’s not all Albert and Matt.  Yadier Molina had a great offensive season — especially for a Molina — and is outstanding behind the dish. Ludwick and Ankiel aren’t fabulous or anything, but they’re capable. Joel Piniero is not as big a falloff from Carpenter and Wainwright as most people think and, like I said, the Cardinals’ bullpen is being seriously undersold.  They’ll be a lot of talk about how both the Dodgers and the Cardinals skidded into the postseason, but the Cardinals (a) weren’t really playing for anything; and (b) are a better overall team in my estimation.

 

Prediction: Kershaw beats St. Louis in Game 2, but the Cardinals win it, 3-1 as the back end of the Dodgers’ rotation is exposed.

The Chicago Cubs: Spring training games, regular season prices

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Craig Calcaterra
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MESA, AZ — I’ve been covering spring training for eight years, and in just those eight years a lot has changed in the Cactus and Grapefruit League experiences. The parks are bigger and fancier and the vibe is far more akin to a regular season major league one than the intimate and laid back atmosphere most people think of when they picture February and March baseball.

Just imagine, however, how much has changed if you’ve been coming to Florida or Arizona for a really long time.

“When we first started coming, you could bring your own beer in,” says Don Harper, a lifelong Cubs fan from Kennewick, Washington who spends his winters in Arizona. “You couldn’t bring a cooler, but you could bring a case of beer and a bag of ice and you just set it down in between you and you just put the ice on it and keep it cold.”

I asked Don if the beer vendors complained.

“They didn’t sell beer,” he said.

That was three decades and two ballparks ago. They certainly sell beer at the Cubs’ gleaming new facility, Sloan Park. Cups of the stuff cost more than a couple of cases did back when Don first started coming to spring training.

The price of beer is not the only thing that has changed, of course. The price of tickets is not what it used to be either. Don told me that when he started coming to Cubs spring training games tickets ran about seven dollars. If that. It’s a bit pricer now. Face value for a single lawn ticket, where you’ll be sitting on a blanker on the outfield berm — can be as high as $47 depending on the day of the week and the opponent. Infield box seats run as high as $85.

The thing is, though, you’re not getting face value seats for Cubs spring training games. Half of the home games sold out within a week of tickets going on sale in January. Since then just about every other game has sold out or soon will. That will force you to get tickets on the secondary market. According to TickPick, the average — average! — Cubs spring training ticket on the secondary market is $106.30. For a single ticket. It’s easily the highest price for spring training tickets in all of baseball, and is $26 higher than secondary market tickets for the next highest team, the Red Sox:

tix

 

That may be shocking or even appalling to some, but as the automatic sellouts at Sloan Park and those high secondary market prices suggest, there are at least 15,000 people or so for each Cubs home game who don’t seem to mind. Supply meet demand meet the defending World Series champions.

I spoke with two younger Cubs fans, Corey Hayden and Eleanor Meloul, who traveled here from Salt Lake City. On Sunday they lucked out and got a couple of lawn seats for $28. On Saturday, however, they paid $100 a piece on StubHub to get some seats just beyond third base. I asked them if there is some price point that would keep them from coming.

“There isn’t one,” Hayden said. “I paid $4,500 for a World Series ticket, so . . .”

Don Harper wouldn’t do that, but he doesn’t really mind the higher prices he’s paying for his spring tickets. Of course, he’s a longtime season ticket holder so he gets access to the face value seats. I asked him whether his spring training habit would end if those prices got jacked up higher, as the market would seem to bear, or if he had to resort to the secondary market.

Don paused and sighed, suggesting it was a tough question. As he considered it, I put a hard number on it, asking him if he’d still go if he had to pay $50 per ticket. “Yeah, probably,” he said. “$75?” I asked. He paused again.

“As long as I got enough money.”

Don is a diehard who, one senses, will always find a way to make it work. Corey spent a wad of cash on that once-in-a-lifetime World Series ticket, but he and Eleanor seem content to bargain hunt for the most part and splurge strategically. If you’re a Cubs fan — and if you’re not rich — that’s what you’ll have to do. The ticket it just too hot.

Mets leaning on Jay Bruce, Neil Walker as Lucas Duda insurance

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 12:  Pinch hitter Lucas Duda #21 of the New York Mets walks back to the dugout after striking out for the first out of the ninth inning against Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Dodgers won 5-0.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
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The Mets have begun working outfielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Neil Walker at first base as potential insurance in the event Lucas Duda continues to experience back discomfort, Mike Puma of the New York Post reports. Duda has been sidelined recently due to back spasms and missed all but 47 games last season as a result of a stress fracture in his lower back.

Manager Terry Collins spoke about Bruce’s work at first base on Sunday, saying, “I liked everything I saw today. “It looks like he’s got the athleticism, he’s got the hands, he’s got the arm angle. He made some throws in our drills that you wouldn’t expect an outfielder to be able to make, but yet he does. If that’s where we have to go, I think we’ll be fine.”

Bruce has only three games’ worth of experience at first base at the major league level, but still has high expectations for himself. He said, “I am going to work at it. I want to give myself a chance and the team a chance. I am not going to go over there and be a butcher. It’s just not the way I go about my business on the baseball field and it wouldn’t be fair to the team if I wasn’t capable to do it, so I am going to work at it and we’ll see what happens.”

The Mets made Bruce available via trade over the offseason but didn’t get an offer that whet their appetite. As a result, Michael Conforto appears to be the odd man out in the Mets’ crowded outfield.