Jorge L. Ortiz.
SAN FRANCISCO — Baseball fans with no vested interest in the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants may groan at the notion of those clubs returning to the National League Championship Series once more. “What, meat loaf for dinner again?”.
Indeed, the Cardinals and Giants have become national TV fixtures in October, combining to reach the NLCS seven times since 2010. The series that opens Saturday at Busch Stadium pits the two clubs that have represented the National League in the World Series each of the last four years, and many of their principal characters are the same.
But there’s a number of reasons why this NLCS will be worth watching.
Buster Posey’s understated greatness.
Posey allowed himself a subdued fist pump after hitting the grand slam that catapulted the Giants past the Cincinnati Reds in Game 5 of their 2012 Division Series. That’s as much emotion as he typically shows on the field, unless he’s celebrating a World Series crown, which he’s done twice in his previous four seasons.
Posey was in the middle of San Francisco’s ninth-inning comeback in Saturday’s pivotal Game 2 win over the Washington Nationals, keeping alive the rally that forced the game into what became an 18-inning war of attrition. He also hit a clutch homer in Game 4 of the 2012 World Series, and has caught pitching staffs that become extra-stingy in October. Whenever good things happen to the Giants, Posey, the 2012 NL MVP, always seems to be involved.
The modern-day Boog Powell.
Matt Adams’ hilariously low leaps of celebration after his three-run homer in Tuesday’s Game 4 – a credit card could have barely fit under his spikes – only added to the growing legend of a player known as “Big City,” only because “Big Country” is taken.
This is a player you can envision doing light beer commercials and making light of his girth (he’s listed as 6-3, 260 pounds), yet he swings one of the most dangerous bats in the Cardinals lineup. When you’re the only left-handed hitter ever to homer off a Clayton Kershaw curveball, you earn extra street cred.
With two World Series championships and a 33-17 postseason record in his resume, the Giants’ Bruce Bochy is gaining a reputation as one of the game’s top tacticians, especially in the October cauldron. Bochy has been particularly effective at handling his bullpen so he’s got the right reliever available for the right situation.
Mike Matheny, like Bochy a former catcher, replaced Hall of Famer Tony La Russa on the Cardinals bench in 2012 and has guided the club to a pennant and three consecutive NLCS appearances. “Matheny was a winner as a player and he’s a winner as a manager,” Giants starter Tim Hudson said.
No Rally Monkey.
The Cardinals will trot out the Clydesdales and the Giants will bring out Steve Perry or some other musical has-been, but the fan bases of both clubs are knowledgeable enough not to need some contrived creature to pump them up.
The best defensive catcher of his generation.
Observers marvel at Yadier Molina’s ability to steal strikes by framing pitches, and at the way he handles a pitching staff that has relied on several youngsters in recent years. Molina led all qualifying catchers in percentage of would-be base-stealers thrown out this season at nearly 48 percent, and he has long been one of St. Louis’ top clutch hitters. It would be fascinating to watch how he performs against the Kansas City Royals’ jackrabbits, but that’s still four wins away for both clubs.
The majors’ first and only Grichuk.
Outfielder Oscar Taveras is supposed to be the Cardinals’ can’t-miss prospect, but rookie Randal Grichuk got the start in right field for all the Division Series games against the Los Angeles Dodgers and homered off Kershaw.
Grichuk, a former first-round pick who never broke through with the Los Angeles Angels – they famously took him one slot ahead of Mike Trout – was included in the trade that sent Peter Bourjos to St. Louis and David Freese to Anaheim. Grichuk’s speed and ability to play all three outfield positions have made him a good fit for the Cardinals.
Hunter Pence’s awkward athleticism.
The Giants right fielder is fast and strong, capable of impacting a game in a number of ways. His sixth-inning catch of a Jayson Werth drive to the wall Tuesday – already dubbed as “Pence at the Fence” – is a perfect such example.
And yet, Pence is the first one to acknowledge he plays with all the grace of a giraffe. Pence’s warm-up swings in the on-deck circle make people recoil, as if they had just strained an abdominal muscle. But he’s easily the club’s most inspirational player, the only major leaguer in the last two seasons to play in every single game, and delivers a pretty rousing speech to boot.
Pitchers digging the long ball.
Madison Bumgarner is a legitimate threat at the plate, leading all pitchers with four home runs and 15 RBI during the season – and two grand slams.
“He rakes,” Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams said admiringly. Wainwright, a career .202 hitter, is hardly an automatic out either..
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