The St Louis Cardinals were not even supposed to make the play-offs, let along the National League Championship Series. But here they are, taking on the Milwaukee Brewers for the right to go to Major League Baseball's World Series.
In St Louis, a title run is on the cards
Of all the surprises in baseball's play-offs, none is more startling than the presence of the St Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series (NLCS).
As recently as late August, the Cardinals found themselves far behind Milwaukee in the NL Central division and 10.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the wild-card chase.
But that was before the Cards went on a spectacular September run and overtook the Braves on the final night of the season to secure the wild-card berth. And, of course, before they knocked off the Philadelphia Phillies in the Division Series in a five-game nail-biter.
The absence of the Phils in the NLCS was upset enough, since the club won 101 games, more than any team in either league, and possessed the best starting pitching in the game. St Louis upending the Phils makes the entire post-season more unpredictable.
Give the Cardinals credit: they hit just enough to do some damage against the vaunted Philadelphia starters. Whether they can do that for a second straight round, against the Milwaukee Brewers, remains to be seen.
Any line-up featuring Albert Pujols is formidable, and Matt Holliday gives the Cards another weapon. Lance Berkman's monster comeback season thickens their line-up, but the Cards rely on top-of-the-order performers to execute and set the table for the duo of Pujols and Holliday.
As befitting a team managed by Tony La Russa, the Cards are solid fundamentally, and their bullpen deployment is masterful. But not having ace Chris Carpenter, who out-pitched Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the division series, until Game 3 could be tough to overcome.
The Brewers, who beat the Arizona Diamondbacks on the 10th inning of Game 5 to advance, feature the best 3-4 hitting combination of the four play-off teams in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. But the Brewers' not-so-secret offensive weapon may well be the outfielder Nyjer Morgan, whose brash personality and energetic style of play have given the team a new dynamic.
Milwaukee's strength is the depth of their rotation. The Brewers have three starters who have front-of-the-rotation stuff in Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo. Not always consistent, each takes the mound with the ability to shut down most line-ups.
The back end of the Milwaukee bullpen is shaky, despite the fact the closer John Axford failed to convert just two save opportunities all season.
Axford's blown save in Game 5 against Arizona hints at a potential vulnerability, especially since the set-up man, Francisco Rodriguez, is pitching with diminished velocity and effectiveness.
Hanging over the series will be an interesting subplot: both teams stand to lose elite first basemen to free agency when the post-season is complete.
Fielder has acknowledged it is unlikely he will return to the Brewers in 2012; the franchise locked up Braun with a multi-year deal several years back and probably cannot afford two eight-figure contracts on the roster.
Pujols, who may be the Cardinals' most revered player since Stan Musial, has accomplished historic numbers in his first 10 seasons, but a contract offer by the Cardinals last spring fell far short of his expectations.
The received wisdom is that his career in a Cardinals' uniform is winding down to its final days.
The uncertain futures for Pujols and Fielder should not detract from a series which may lack big markets but, thanks to Midwestern cities that love their baseball, no shortage of passion.
HOW THEY MATCH-UP
The St Louis Cardinals scored 41 more runs than the Milwaukee Brewers over the course of the regular season and were a slightly more patient team at the plate. Milwaukee hit for more power, and the duo of Braun, a potential NL MVP, and Prince Fielder, above, rate a slight edge over Albert Pujols, below, and Matt Holliday.
Edge: Milwaukee Brewers
Chris Carpenter was masterful in his Game 5 shutout of the Phillies, but the Cards starting rotation drops off after him. Milwaukee’s “Big Three” of Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum have unlimited potential.
Edge: Milwaukee Brewers
John Axford’s numbers for Milwaukee look tough to beat, but he looked vulnerable in the NLCS, and Francisco Rodriguez is not the late-inning force he once was. Tony La Russa, the St Louis manager, has two closing options in Fernando Salas and Jason Motte and that back-end versatility should not be overlooked.
Edge: St Louis Cardinals
Carlos Gomez offers speed and defence for Milwaukee and Craig Counsell has a wealth of play-off experience. Jon Jay and Ryan Theriot are quality role players for St Louis. Few managers get more out of a roster than La Russa.
Edge: St Louis Cardinals