Looking ahead to Game 6 of the NLCS between the Cardinals and Giants

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The Cardinals were hoping to clinch their second consecutive National League pennant last night, but vintage Barry Zito showed up to ruin the party. While they still hold a 3-2 lead in the NLCS, the series will now shift to San Francisco for Game 6 on Sunday night. Let’s take a quick look at the pitching matchup, which is a rematch from the Giants’ 7-1 win in Game 2 on Monday.

Chris Carpenter will make the start for the Cardinals after giving up five runs (two earned) over just four innings back in Game 2. The 37-year-old right-hander served up a leadoff home run to Angel Pagan in the bottom of the first inning and committed a throwing error during a four-run fourth inning. He struck out just one batter while allowing six hits and two walks. Carpenter has a 3.04 ERA and 15/7 K/BB ratio in 26 2/3 innings over five total starts (including two postseason starts) since returning from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in September. However, he has yet to throw more than six innings. This will be the fifth time in his career that he will start a game with the chance to clinch a playoff series. He is 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA and 17/5 K/BB ratio in 28 innings in his previous four assignments.

Ryan Vogelsong will get the call for the Giants after tossing seven innings of one-run ball in Game 2. He allowed just four hits on the night while the only run he surrendered was on an RBI double by opposing pitcher Chris Carpenter. Vogelsong has been on a pretty nice roll recently, posting a microscopic 0.93 ERA in his last five starts dating back to the regular season. He had a 2.86 ERA in 15 starts at home this season, which was 10th-best among qualified National League starters. By the way, the National League starter with the best ERA at home this season? Matt Cain (2.03), who lines up to pitch a potential Game 7 against Kyle Lohse on Monday.

UPDATE: Donald Trump declines Nats offer to throw out the first pitch

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UPDATE: Welp, we wont’ get to see that:

Sad!

8:53 AM: It’s just gossip now, but Politico is hearing that Donald Trump is in talks to throw out the first pitch at Nationals Park on Opening Day. The Nats are not commenting. Neither are the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League, who no doubt feel slighted given that the president effectively is a local.

With the caveat that, on Opening Day, tickets are likely to be more expensive and thus you’re likely to have a lot more rich people and friends-of-the-owners in attendance, thereby ensuring a more conservative crowd, I’m struggling to imagine a situation in which Trump strolls on to a baseball field in a large American city and isn’t booed like crazy. He’s polling as low as 36% in some places. He’s not exactly Mr. Popular.

Oh well. I look forward to him three-bouncing one to Matt Wieters and then grabbing his phone and tweeting about how it was the best, most tremendous first pitch in baseball history. Or blaming Hillary Clinton for it in the event he admits that it was a bad pitch.

2017 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Rangers somehow won the AL West last year despite not being super great at any one aspect of the game. There are stars here — Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish and Rougned Odor are all spiffy players — but the Rangers won the division by being greater than the sum of their parts. They scored a decent number of runs despite some bad collective peripheral numbers and they allowed more runs than anyone in the AL except the Twins and Athletics. Yet they had a great record in one-run games and outperformed their pythagorean record by a WHOLE lot. Luck shined brightly on the 2016 Rangers.

It’s hard to expect luck to hold in any instance, but that’s especially the case when there have been some pretty significant changes. Changes like the loss of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland. In their place: A full season, the Rangers hope, from Shin-Soo Choo, a converted-to-outfield Jurickson Profar and Mike Napoli. That may wash out OK, especially if Choo is healthy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see some regression in two of those offensive slots.

Starting pitching is also a big question mark. Cole Hamels at the top is not a problem, obviously, and if Yu Darvish is healthy and durable the Rangers have an outstanding 1-2 punch. Martin Perez in the third spot presents promise, but he’s been exactly average so far in five major league seasons. The back end of the rotation has some real problems. Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross are hurt at the moment and even if healthy, Cashner seems to be a shell of his once-promising self. A.J. Griffin is looking to pitch in his first full season since 2013. If the Rangers are strong contenders all year it’s gonna be on the “Spahn and Sain and two days of rain” model, but I have no idea what rhymes with “Darvish” and that’s sort of a problem.

The bullpen is going to look a lot like it did last year. Sam Dyson will close, but manager Jeff Banister has shown in the past that he’s not a slave to keeping guys in any one role down there. Jeremy Jeffress will likely set up but he’s closed before. Some think Matt Bush or Keone Kela could close. We’ll see Tanner Scheppers and lefty Alex Claudio. Banister has a Manager of the Year Award on his mantle and while that often doesn’t mean anything, it usually suggests that a guy knows how to deal with his pen. Banister will do OK with what he has.

Really, though, the rotation is a concern, as is hoping that a 35-year-old Mike Napoli and a soon-to-be 38-year-old Adrian Beltre can continue to be the types of players who can form the offensive core of a playoff team. There’s talent and a track record here, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. For that reason, I suspect the Rangers will fall back a smidge this year, even if they’re a playoff contender.

Prediction: Second Place, American League West.