September 30th, 2014

The Lights Get Brighter-National League Postseason

I admit I was surprised when the Pirates elected to start Gerrit Cole in Sunday’s final game against the Reds. While that was a crucial game, I thought for sure he would start the Wild Card game. That won’t happen now. It is likely veteran right-hander Edinson Volquez will get the start in the game that determines the final playoff spot. That’s a great deal of pressure for the improving Volquez. While I like what he has done lately, I don’t think he can match the dominance of the Giants Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner has a way of getting in rhythm and mowing down the opposition. The key is rhythm. I have seen times when he has struggled to find that flow. taking an inning or two to find the command of all his pitches. Bumgarner will likely use his fastball/cutter combination to keep the Pirates hitters off balance. He has a complete repertoire, and those two pitches help set up the curve and change up. Volquez has relied upon his sinking two-seam fastball as well as his compete arsenal of a four-seamer, a curve and a change up to improve his overall results. He’s using the change up a bit more and changing the balance and eye levels of hitters is the focal point of his outings. I think Francisco Liriano would have been an excellent starter for the game against the Giants. If he does start, I think the game is far more even. Maybe more of a tossup. But it does look like Volquez in one of the biggest assignments of his career.

For me, the Pirates key rests in slowing the bats of Hunter Pence (rather cold lately) and Pablo Sandoval. I think it is almost a given that Buster Posey is in a groove and has the ability to inflict some damage. But managing to control Pence and Sandoval will go a long way to raising the Jolly Roger. The Giants will miss Angel Pagan, their spark. They just play so much better when Pagan is in the lineup. But he’s hurt. Guys like Brandon Belt will have to be at their best.

Facing the Pirates offense won’t be a walk in the park for Bumgarner. While he’s an elite pitcher, he still has to try to contain Andrew McCutchen, and that’s no easy task. He’s just a great, great player. The lineup is well balanced with Neil Walker being the type of hitter that can surprise with some unexpected pop. The Pirates are very dangerous and are a serious threat to play well into the postseason. Josh Harrison is an underrated player with an ability to get on base and make things happen. Starling Marte has some speed and can hit the gaps. Things may look a bit brighter If they didn’t have to face Bumgarner in a “must win” game.

The winner of the Wild Card game gets to travel to Washington to play the Nationals. For me, they have the most well-rounded, well-balanced club in the postseason. They can pitch, hit, run and play defense. For some, Jordan Zimmerman (Sunday’s no-hitter) and Stephen Strasburg are co-aces. They are both capable of being in control on the mound and taking over a game. Then, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark round out a solid rotation without any real weaknesses. Their bullpen is very solid with Drew Storen, and Rafael Soriano among many high powered arms with good control and command.

I’m a huge fan and believer in Anthony Rendon. I think he remains underrated as a complete player with a big bat and superb defensive ability. Add the likes of Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman along with the rest of the starting eight and the opposing pitcher has a tough task in navigating through such a complete and solid lineup. Catcher Wilson Ramos could surprise. He can hit.

The St. Louis Cardinals are not to be taken lightly. Ever. If it’s September/October, look in the standings and you’ll find the Cardinals involved in the postseason. That isn’t due to an accident. It comes as a result of preparation. Planning. Institutional goal setting and teaching the Cardinals way of playing baseball. They don’t make many mistakes.
Everything on the mound will begin with the poise, confidence and incredible arsenal of Adam Wainwright. Four-seam fastball, sinking two-seamer, change up, cutter, slider and an amazing curveball. It’s among the best. He’s among the best. What’s coming next? And he can throw any of those pitches at any count. For strikes. He induces ground balls with great sink on the ball and stays out of the big inning. The rest of the rotation pales in comparison to Wainwright. Where pitching was always a strength of the Cardinals, there has to be some concern about Michael Wacha following his return from injury. Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and John Lackey are solid. They’re good, but perhaps not what we have come to expect. Trevor Rosenthal has had some hiccups as the closer. The Cardinals pitching is just not as dominant as in the past.

Offensively, the team needs big efforts from Matt Holliday and Matt Adams. Last World Series against the Red Sox, the Cardinals offense was dormant. Matt Carpenter has to start things off by getting on base. Then clutch hitters like Jhonny Peralta and Yadier Molina have to come through along with Holliday and Adams. Runs will be hard to come by against the Los Angeles Dodgers pitching. I look for some small ball from the Cards in the first series. Anything to score.

Then we come to the Los Angeles Dodgers. And Clayton Kershaw. And Zack Greinke. And if healthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu. If needed, Dan Haren can pitch in big games. I think the Cardinals will have trouble with the very strong top of the Dodgers rotation. I love seeing Wainwright face Kershaw. Low scoring. Every hit will count. The game will be won on someone’s mistake or mistakes. It could be classic.

The Dodgers lineup can hurt any pitcher, even the best. If they are in sync and on their games, think of having to face Adrian Gonzalez, a hot Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig. And without a doubt, Juan Uribe can come up huge in big games. The offense would give nightmares to Cy Young himself. So, even if Wainwright can beat Kershaw, the other starters get the pleasure of facing mayhem in the other games. And it does seem like some of those Dodgers hitters are just waiting for this stage.

I’m not crazy about either the Cardinals or the Dodgers bullpens. I see some opportunity in the late innings before either Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) or Trevor Rosenthal (Cardinals) enter the game.

When it’s all said and done, even with Kershaw and Greinke, I like the Nationals to represent the National League in the World Series. I really can’t find a flaw in their roster. And that’s rare. I really admire manager Matt Williams and I think Mike Rizzo has done a masterful job putting together depth at every position. Especially on the mound, where it counts most in a short series.

Here’s my quick analysis of the playoff clubs:

Pirates-Volquez, Liriano and Cole are solid starters, mediocre offense, very good pen
Giants-mediocre rotation behind Bumgarner, mediocre offense, good bullpen
Nationals-great rotation with Strasburg, Zimmerman, Fister and more, excellent offense, excellent bullpen
Dodgers-superb rotation with Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu, superb offense, adequate bullpen
Cardinals-mediocre rotation behind Wainwright, mediocre offense, good bullpen

Tigers and Nationals in a classic World Series.

Please follow my next blogs during the postseason. And we’ll take a look at things as the games progress.

Thanks for following me @BerniePleskoff and for reading my work on MLBPipeline.com.

That’s it. I’m done.