Archive for the ‘ Matchups ’ Category

Series 40 Preview: Cubs vs. Nationals

Harper

Bryce Harper has been the focal point of the Nationals offense all season long. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

After last year’s comfortable romp to the postseason, the Nationals were pegged by nearly everyone with a BWAA card and a laptop to repeat in 2013. Then came injuries to outfielders Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, the complete implosion of second baseman Danny Espinosa’s game (leading to an extended trip to the minors), and injuries to two rotation regulars. That rash of bad fortune exposed a somewhat shallow organization that should consider itself fortunate to still be distantly in contention for a Wild Card spot. And we mean distant. The Nats’ overall lack of consistent play has left them with just a 2.0 percent chance of making the postseason (according to Coolstandings.com), as they sit 15.5 games behind the NL East-leading Braves and 9.5 games back from one of the two Wild Card spots.

HITTING: 3.79 Runs Scored/Game (13th in NL)
The Nats couldn’t get Harper and Werth back from the DL fast enough. With the slugging duo out, the only National having a great season at the plate was shortstop Ian Desmond, who is proving his 25 homers in 2012 were no fluke. But Adam LaRoche has predictably reverted back to his usual form after a big year in 2012. To make matters worse, center fielder Denard Span and catcher Kurt Suzuki were supposed to provide veteran stability, but both have been among the worst regulars at their positions. Span was dropped from the leadoff slot for a few weeks, and Suzuki has cleared out of the lineup to make way for a healthy Wilson Ramos. In the Nationals’ desperation to add offense, they sacrificed some up-the-middle defense with a quick-fire conversion of third-base prospect Anthony Rendon to the keystone. Though he added offensive punch, he’ll need to improve his footwork, especially on the double play. The Nationals also added former Cubs outfielder David DeJesus to the mix on Monday. The 33-year-old signed with the North Siders as a free agent prior to the 2012 season.

PITCHING: 3.97 Runs Allowed/Game (6th in NL)
The Nationals have had their share of problems in the rotation, but they still have some tremendous weapons. Jordan Zimmermann—Monday’s starter—and Gio Gonzalez are both at the top of their game, and Stephen Strasburg remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. He’s scheduled to throw on Thursday. Even Tuesday’s starter, Dan Haren, has turned it around of late, earning four wins in his last five starts. Closer Rafael Soriano has been competent at nailing down saves, but a declining strikeout rate doesn’t inspire confidence. With top set-up man Tyler Clippard and former closer Drew Storen sharing the late-game chores, skipper Davey Johnson does have options if serious trouble crops up. But the rest of the ’pen hasn’t earned Johnson’s confidence, as the Nats have churned through 10 other relievers searching for the right combination.

Series 39 Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals

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Adam Wainwright will throw Sunday against the Cubs. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Cardinals have spent most of the season at or near the top of the standings in the tough NL Central—meaning they could be considered one of the best teams in baseball—but they do have some weaknesses. Although their league-leading offense is great at piling on runs in blowout wins, they’re 15-14 in one-run games. Add in some problems with outfield defense, and overall they’re fairly mediocre in the field. But when you have the strongest lineup in baseball and two of the league’s best starters, you have to be less than perfect somewhere else, right? The Cards’ veterans—Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday—are all having strong seasons, but it’s the rookies who have really made the difference. The youngsters are the main reason St. Louis has been able to withstand a serious rash of injuries.

HITTING: 4.88 Runs Scored/Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals offense can destroy weak starters and tear middle relievers to pieces. They may not be the sabermetric ideal, with a league-average walk rate and a lot of quick at-bats, but Yadier Molina (fresh off a DL stint), Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter are all hitting better than .314, and they put a ton of well-hit balls in play. Veteran outfielders Holliday and Beltran provide the pop, but when one of them needs a day off, the Cards can rotate Craig to the outfield and spot-start the best bench bat in baseball—sweet-swinging rookie Matt Adams, who carries an .813 OPS into the series. To make matters worse for opposing pitchers, David Freese looks like he’s finally shaking off the rust of his slow start. If there’s anything the Cardinals don’t do well, it’s run. They attempt to steal less often than any other NL team, but with their powerful offense, why risk handing the defense an out?

PITCHING: 3.73 Runs Allowed/Game (5th in NL)
The Cardinals have done well given the body blows they have taken in the rotation, first losing co-ace Chris Carpenter for four months and then Jaime Garcia for the season. But Sunday’s starter Wainwright has a great shot at winning the NL Cy Young Award, and Shelby Miller could claim Rookie of the Year honors. The question is whether they’ll find a third mate to solidify a postseason rotation. Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook (Friday’s starter) are good innings-eaters, but the Cardinals are monitoring Carpenter’s comeback in the hopes he’ll recover from his shoulder injury and round out their rotation for the stretch run. They could also use another reliever with swing-and-miss stuff beyond the hard-throwing Trevor Rosenthal. Forkballer Edward Mujica isn’t a classic closer, and while playing matchup games with righty Seth Maness’ heavy sinker and situational southpaw Randy Choate has worked well enough so far, they’ve been auditioning hard-throwing farmhands all year.

—Christina Kahrl

Series 38 Preview: Cubs vs. Reds

Latos

Mat Latos has served as the ace of the Reds staff. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The Reds pulled into the 2013 All-Star break with a better record than they had at the same point in 2012, when they finished with the second-best mark in baseball. But things are different this year in the NL Central, baseball’s toughest division, where Cincinnati is locked in a three-way race for the crown with Pittsburgh and St. Louis. With seven games left against the Cardinals following the Reds’ trip to Wrigley Field, and six of their last nine against the Pirates, Cincy and perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto will have several opportunities to make up ground in the division race. And they could be poised for a better second half, as they were two games below their expected win-loss record at the break. If the Reds can make a late-season surge to the top of the NL Central standings, it would be the first time the organization has claimed back-to-back division titles since the Big Red Machine did it in 1975-76.

4.30 Runs Scored per Game, 3rd in NL
The Reds owe much of their offensive success to generating lots of walks and stockpiling power hitters who can exploit Great American Ballpark’s comfortable dimensions. But one of those strengths is more precarious than the other. The lofty on-base percentage stems from just two regulars: leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo and Votto. Once again, Votto is leading the attack with his league-best OBP and walks total, but he and Choo are the only reliable on-base threats. The Reds lineup is stacked with multiple righties who struggle against right-handed pitching. Reds hitters from the right side combined for a .609 OPS against right-handers in the first half. With cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick out since the first game of the season, a big question has been power in the middle of the order.

3.68 Runs Allowed per Game, 3rd in NL
The silver lining to putting ace Johnny Cueto on the DL three separate times is that his absence has given the Reds the opportunity to break in top lefty prospect Tony Cingrani, who has lived up to his advance billing thus far. Monday’s starter Mat Latos is logging another fine season as the front man of a rotation that has no true weak link. The staff’s youth and relative health have allowed manager Dusty Baker to avoid getting too involved with a bullpen left short-handed by injuries to veterans Sean Marshall and Nick Masset. Only the Nationals go to the ’pen less frequently than the Reds, and Baker prefers to avoid bringing his relievers into runners-on situations or using them on consecutive days. If there’s a mystery as big as Homer Bailey’s swings between excellence and mediocrity (Tuesday’s projected starter tossed a July 2 no-hitter surrounded by three losses), it’s closer Aroldis Chapman’s struggles on the road contrasted with his absolute dominance at home.

—Christina Kahrl

Series 37 Preview: Cubs at Cardinals

Carpenter

St. Louis’ Matt Carpenter has been one of the NL’s best this year. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Holding the league’s third-best record and a 7.5-game lead on one of the Wild Card spots, the Cardinals have their sights set on making up a four-game deficit on the first-place Pirates in the NL Central. The Cardinals had a wrench thrown into their campaign when team talisman Yadier Molina went down with a sprained knee at the end of July. The team has gone 4-5 since and lost 2.5 games of ground in the process. Molina won’t be available for this series, though the team hopes to have him back in a week. St. Louis still has plenty of firepower at the plate and on the mound, and they have one of the game’s best farm systems to supplement their current roster. But with the Pirates showing no signs of letting up, the Cardinals will have to find another gear to avoid the one-game Wild Card playoff for the second straight season.

HITTING: 4.9 Runs Scored/Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals may be without their best player, but they have plenty of offense, young and old. Veteran outfielders Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday continue to provide formidable punch in the Nos. 2 and 4 spots in the lineup. The switch-hitting Beltran has hit 20 home runs this season at age 36. Holliday’s .281 AVG/.362 OBP/.446 SLG supplies plenty of all-around value, though each component has been on a gradual five-year decline. Surrounding them in the lineup are second baseman Matt Carpenter, first baseman Allen Craig and third baseman David Freese. In just his second big league season, Carpenter has become one of the game’s most valuable players, ranking 10th in NL Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. His .379 on-base percentage provides plenty of opportunities for the top of the lineup to drive in runs. Craig, meanwhile, has proved to be a steal as an eighth-round pick in the 2006 draft, with a consistently .300-plus batting average despite a loss in power this year. One thing the Cardinals probably won’t be attempting is base theft. They’re a lead-footed bunch that ranks last with 41 stolen-base attempts in 114 games.

PITCHING: 3.7 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in NL)
The Cardinals’ lack of speed would hurt them more on defense if not for the fact that the team’s pitchers resolve one-fifth of all plate appearances with strikeouts. They also are excellent at avoiding free passes. Tonight’s starter is 26-year-old righty Lance Lynn, who is having a nearly identical season to his breakout campaign last year. He employs a low-90s fastball and high-80s slider/cutter he leans on versus righties, as well as a two-seamer and change-up that he drops versus lefties. On Saturday, the Cubs will see promising 6-foot-6 right-hander Michael Wacha take the mound. Though the 2012 first-rounder has a 4.58 ERA through three starts, he has good peripheral numbers and has held his own so far. He sports a low-to-mid 90s fastball with great downhill plane, a tight curveball that he hasn’t pulled out much in big league action, and an impressive mid-80s change-up. The series wraps up against right-hander Joe Kelly, who has done Yeoman’s work as a swingman the past couple of seasons. His power sinker has acclimated well to starting, and he’s coming off four great outings in a row. Closer Edward Mujica has salvaged a ninth-inning role that could have been a disaster with Jason Motte missing the season due to Tommy John surgery—and after Mitchell Boggs’ awful audition. But it’s yet another outstanding young arm, lefty Trevor Rosenthal and his 98-100 mph fastball, that has batters shaking in their boots when it most counts.

Series 36 Preview: Cubs at Phillies

Ruf

Darin Ruf has been on a tear for Philadelphia. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

The Phillies are aging before everyone’s eyes, and so far, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has seen his team suffer the consequences of sitting idly by. The team’s big offseason acquisition was infielder Michael Young from the Rangers. Though he’s had a bit of a bounce-back season at age 36, his on-field decline over the last several years is obvious. Ryan Howard, 33, is merely an average first baseman now—and one the team is stuck with through 2016. Second baseman Chase Utley, 34, still provides a lot of value when healthy, though he too is on the natural decline player’s experience after their typical late-20s peak. They’ve also been without 36-year-old ace Roy Halladay since May, and he was a disaster before going down with a torn rotator cuff. But never have things looked as dire as they have the last couple weeks: The Phillies have lost 13 of 14 games, scoring 2.4 runs and allowing 5.8 per contest. They’re now 50-61 and 17 games back in the one-horse NL East.

HITTING: 3.8 Runs Scored/Game (14th in NL)
Out are Howard (knee), Dom Brown (concussion) and Ben Revere (foot), leaving the Phillies to throw left fielder Darin Ruf and third baseman Cody Asche into the fire. The former has been on a tear, while the latter has struggled mightily. With Michael Young, Howard and Utley—as well as catcher Carlos Ruiz and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, both 34—all on downward paths, it’s the trio of mid-20s outfielders that was hoped to round out some of the lineup’s rough edges. Only the 25-year-old Brown has fulfilled his promise, and even he has mixed a torrid few weeks in late May/early June with plenty of slower periods. The 20th-round pick in 2006 struggled with low batting averages in auditions the past three seasons, but he finally earned a starting role with a good spring and has been the team’s most valuable offensive player (.271 AVG/.316 OBP/.531 SLG) outside of Utley. Brown is far from a perfect player, however. He’s hacking away more than ever—with 76 strikeouts to 25 walks—and all 24 of his home runs have been pulled. Center fielder Ben Revere, the 25-year-old speedster acquired from the Twins, had an empty .305/.338/.352 line before going down with a fractured foot.

PITCHING: 4.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-15th in NL)
The Cubs will miss the still-excellent Cliff Lee this series, instead seeing Kyle Kendrick, Cole Hamels and young prospect Ethan Martin take the mound. Kendrick has seen his ERA spike above four for the first time in three years, as the pitch-to-contact sinkerballer has seen more ground balls squeeze through. He won’t issue many free passes or hangers over the plate, however, so Cubs batters will do well to go with pitches and piece together runs. Hamels also has seen his ERA spike, from right around three the past few years to 3.87. Like Kendrick, he’s seeing more balls in play find holes, and the results have been similar to his off-year in 2009. But still armed with one of the game’s most deceptive change-ups, Hamels is performing significantly better than his 4-13 record would suggest. Coming of an inauspicious major league debut against the Braves, Martin is a promising arm acquired in a 2012 trade deadline deal that sent Shane Victorino to the Dodgers. He has a huge fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s as well as a sharp curve and hard slider. But Martin struggles with his command and has historically gotten hit fairly hard by lefties in the minors due to a weaker change-up. Veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon closes things out, set up by a few young, promising arms in lefty Jake Diekman and Justin De Fratus.

Series 34 Preview: Cubs vs. Brewers

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All-Star shortstop Jean Segura has been one of the few bright spots for the Brew Crew in 2013. (Photo by Tom Lynn/Getty)

Not much has gone right for the Brewers this season, as Milwaukee continues its tumble from perennial contender to NL Central also-ran. The Brew Crew suffered a huge power outage in the early going thanks to a rash of injuries, starting with preseason surgeries to two first basemen—Corey Hart and Mat Gamel. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who had a terrific 2012 campaign, has played only 54 games because of knee issues. But as stagnant as the offense has been, the pitching has been even worse. Milwaukee’s pitchers own a combined 4.09 ERA, 11th in the NL, and their starters have a league worst 4.79 ERA. To add insult to injury, there’s the inescapable saga of former MVP Ryan Braun, who has drawn the ire of baseball pundits, players and teammates for his reported PED use and links to the Biogenesis Clinic in Florida. Braun’s suspension, which will keep him out of action for the remainder of the season, puts an exclamation point on an already disappointing year in Milwaukee.

HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (10th in NL)
Despite their middle-of-the-road offense, the Brew Crew have profited from one of the top one-two punches in the game, with Norichika Aoki leading off and Jean Segura having a breakout season in the second slot. Aoki’s .360 on-base percentage is one of baseball’s best from the top of the order, while Segura has been doing it all. He leads the NL in hits, and is second in the league in triples and stolen bases. And Segura is not the only hitter who has developed In Milwaukee when given a chance to play every day. Center fielder Carlos Gomez has finally become the player many expected him to be when the speedster was a top prospect in Minnesota. On a less positive note, second baseman Rickie Weeks’ game continues to be in free fall, and the Brewers have yet to find a playable bat to man first base with Hart out for the season.

PITCHING: 4.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-15th in NL)
The Brewers’ initial decision to go with a youth movement in the rotation was moderated by their late-spring signing of veteran free agent Kyle Lohse, who is having another solid season in the NL Central. But whatever Milwaukee’s master plan is—or was—none of it has worked in a rotation that ranks close to the bottom in quality starts. Expected ace Yovani Gallardo hasn’t been able to pitch reliably past the sixth inning, and not one other starter has truly been effective. Just three Milwaukee starters have made more than 20 starts on the season (Lohse, Gallardo and Wily Peralta). Other than those three, only Marco Estrada (12) has made as many as 10 starts. Matters aren’t much better in the bullpen, as John Axford pitched his way out of the closer’s role, and replacement Jim Henderson lost time due to injury. With the trade deadline nearing, the Brewers could be looking to deal experienced bullpen arms such as Mike Gonzalez.

Series 33 Preview: Cubs at Giants

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Giants catcher and reigning NL MVP Buster Posey is having another stellar season. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/GettyImages)

World Series champions two of the last three seasons, the Giants are in a tailspin this year. They’re 17-30 since June 1, when they were 29-25, and now sit seven games back of the surging, first-place Dodgers. Even worse is that they’ve been getting blown out more and more in the month of July, as their starting pitching has been an utter disaster except for Madison Bumgarner (and Chad Gaudin’s eight starts). The Giants offense has rarely been able to carry the team, but this year they are outplaying the pitching staff. Unfortunately for them, it hasn’t been enough. That said, they’ve been much better at home, where their mound mistakes can be covered by both a spacious outfield and fielders who can roam it effectively.

HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (10th in NL)
Catcher Buster Posey, the reigning NL MVP, is just a slight tick off last year’s pace, but he’s still a one-man wrecking crew. If not for Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina, Posey would easily be the best at the position. Only Posey, first baseman Brandon Belt and right fielder Hunter Pence have double-digit home runs this year. Still, when you take into account their spacious home ballpark, the Giants feature some well-rounded position players. Second baseman Marco Scutaro, 37, has extended his career since being traded to San Francisco, and he pairs an average glove with an all-fields contact bat. Shortstop Brandon Crawford, 26, looks more capable with the stick each year, though his calling card is some of the best range and glove work in the game today. And, when healthy, third baseman Pablo Sandoval still brings average-to-better work at the plate and in the field.  The Giants carry three switch-hitters (Sandoval, Tony Abreu and Andres Torres) and three left-handed hitters (Blanco, Belt and Crawford), so manager Bruce Bochy has options aplenty to load up on the platoon advantage.

PITCHING: 4.5 Runs Allowed/Game (13th in NL)
The Cubs will face what was formerly known as San Francisco’s top three—but is now a top one and two shells of greatness. After six straight seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA (and four of the last five below 3.00), Matt Cain takes the hill tonight with an ERA sitting squarely at 5.00. What was a consistent ability to use his fastball up in the zone to induce lazy pop-ups has become a concerning tendency to leave hittable pitches over the plate. Manager Bruce Bochy has limited Cain’s usage of late (2.1, 0.2 and 5.0 IP over his last three starts) and thrown out a vague sense of “precaution.” What we do know is that Cain is using his fastball less and his slider more than ever, to the diminishing effectiveness of both. Bumgarner starts Saturday’s game, and the young lefty is pitching as well as ever. He has a career-best 2.93 ERA, .193 batting average against, and 25 percent strikeout rate, easily making up for an uptick in walks (to a still below average 7.1 percent). Cubs hitters have a tough assignment against Bumgarner. Righties will have to guard against cutters and sliders inside, while protecting against soft stuff away. Lefties will see fastballs located in all quadrants but will have to stay back on breaking pitches. And Bumgarner often pitches backward. Then there’s Tim Lincecum, coming off a 148-pitch no-hitter followed by an eight-run, 3.2-inning start. After five straight stellar seasons to start his career—including two Cy Young Awards—the diminutive righty is in the midst of his second subpar season in a row. There’s a good chance the Cubs will see plenty of the eight-man bullpen, a good-but-overworked squad capped by closer Sergio Romo and his physics-defying slider.

Series 32 Preview: Cubs at Diamondbacks

Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt has been one of the few consistencies in the Diamondbacks’ order this year. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The leaders of the NL West host the Cubs for a four-game series, with Arizona’s half-game lead over the surging Dodgers potentially on the line. The D-backs team has been somewhat of a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts squad, with a few standouts making up for some major disappointments. It’s little surprise GM Kevin Towers is rumored to be looking for reinforcements by the July 31 trade deadline. There have been only two constants in the Diamondbacks’ lineup so far: first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and a terrible running game. On the latter, Arizona is 29-for-54 in steals, a 54 percent success rate that is alarmingly bad. Their steals leader is Goldschmidt, who does much more than run the bases well. He has turned out to be a superb draft pick for the Diamondbacks, selected in the eighth round in 2009 by former scouting director Tom Allison (now with the Mariners). In the rotation, 23-year-old Patrick Corbin has been the only above-average regular, and the bullpen has been a mixed bag for Towers as well.

HITTING: 4.1 Runs Scored/Game (6th in the NL)
In parts of three seasons in the majors, Goldschmidt has proved himself with an ability to improve across the board. His walks, batting average and power are up this year, and his strikeouts have diminished, adding up to a .309 AVG/.392 OBP/.550 SLG that ranks in the league’s top 10 for each category. Beyond his No. 3 hitter, manager Kirk Gibson has had little consistency in the lineup, employing 82 different batting orders in 95 games. Young shortstop Didi Gregorius, acquired via trade, has cooled off considerably (.227/.303/.277 since June 1) and is now splitting time with a can’t-get-hot Cliff Pennington. The other big trade acquisition, multiposition man Martin Prado, also has been cold all year and a major disappointment along with catcher Miguel Montero. Second baseman Aaron Hill missed two months with a broken hand, but he continues to earn his sizable contract despite now being on the wrong side of 30. There’s little help in the outfield either. Youngsters A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra haven’t done much at the plate, while veterans Jason Kubel and Cody Ross have struggled despite being part of a platoon.

PITCHING: 4.1 Runs Allowed/Game (7th in the NL)
The Cubs will face some talented young arms this series. It turns out the first two starters—lefties Tyler Skaggs and Corbin—were part of the bounty that came back from the Angels in the 2010 Dan Haren deal. Skaggs is more of a crafty type, with a low-90s, four-seam fastball that he can use on both sides of the plate and a big, knee-buckling curve. Command has been something of an issue for him in the majors, and his offerings versus righties, notably a change-up and two-seam fastball, are still developing. Selected just a few dozen picks later, Corbin has been the Diamondbacks’ top pitcher by far, with a 2.35 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP and just under seven innings per start. The tall, lanky pitcher can work his fastball up to 94-95 mph with life, before coming back with a hard slider released from a low-three-quarters arm angle. That punch-out pitch has only increased in effectiveness and has the sort of two-plane movement that makes it effective against both hands. The series closes with righty Ian Kennedy—an extreme fly-ball pitcher who has increasingly struggled since his career year in 2011—and lefty Wade Miley. In the bullpen, typically a Towers strength, new closer Heath Bell has been too homer prone to be a true anchor, but sidearmer Brad Ziegler has been Gibson’s most used, and most effective, weapon.

Series 30 Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals

Beltran

Carlos Beltran is having an MVP-caliber season. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

There may be no injury or in-season development big enough to bring down the high-flying Cardinals. No matter what fate has thrown at them, the Birds have turned to one talented rookie after another to plug the holes—all while piling up wins and establishing themselves as one of baseball’s best. Ten of St. Louis’ 13 position players are homegrown, more than one-third of their starts have been made by rookies, and the additions of freshmen Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness have helped stabilize a bullpen racked by injuries and ineffectiveness. But none of this should really come as a surprise by now. These are the benefits of having baseball’s best player development team and part of the reason why the Cardinals may rule the roost in the NL Central for years to come.

HITTING: 5.0 Runs Scored a Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals’ offense grinds pitchers down with its depth, largely because there are no easy outs in the order. The bats deliver a good amount of walks and power while leading the league in on-base percentage via a high team batting average. First baseman Allen Craig, who is in the RBI race as a function of his reliable execution, might be the best reflection of a lineup stacked with effective contact hitters who can provide line-drive power. While most of the Cards’ talent is homegrown, their two big-ticket free agents—Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday—continue to provide pop from the outfield corners. If there’s a disappointment, it’s third baseman David Freese’s power numbers. The 2011 postseason hero has seen his slugging percentage drop below .400. But if he gets hot along with the weather, the Cardinals’ league-leading offense could get even better.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed a Game (3rd in NL)
Losing Jaime Garcia for the year and Friday’s starter Jake Westbrook for more than a month would have crippled most contenders, but nothing seems to faze the powerhouse Cardinals. They simply used these setbacks as an opportunity to test out 2012 first-rounder Michael Wacha—who has had success despite bouncing between the minors and the bigs. He could join Rookie of the Year favorite Shelby Miller and sophomore workhorse Lance Lynn as the core of this young rotation’s future. The Cubs will miss Miller but are expected to see Lynn on Saturday. And it’s tough to ignore Sunday’s starter Adam Wainwright, one of the game’s elite pitchers with a 12-5 record and a 2.30 ERA. Getting quality starts almost two-thirds of the time with the league’s best offense creates a ton of winnable ballgames, but it’s the improvement in the ’pen since a disastrous first couple of weeks that has helped the Cardinals convert winnable games to actual wins. Unconventional closer Edward Mujica might owe some of his success to his forkball coming right after the blistering heat of Rosenthal and Maness.

Series 24 Preview: Cubs at Cardinals

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Matt Carpenter has been a big contributor this year for the Cardinals. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Is there any organization more indestructible than the Cardinals? In recent years, they’ve managed to replace Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal in the lineup without missing a beat. Plus, the pitching staff has weathered losing co-aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in consecutive years. But mounting injuries in the rotation could bring the Cards back to the NL Central pack this season. The man trying to hold the staff together is the rock the team has leaned on through all of the previous changes: catcher Yadier Molina, now in his ninth season as the Cardinals’ regular receiver. Yadi not only intimidates opposing running games out of existence (he sees less than one stolen base attempt every two games, and throws out more than 40 percent of runners), he’s also an irreplaceable staff manager and a critical offensive cog.

HITTING: 5.0 Runs Scored/Game (1st in the NL)
Though the Cardinals lack a single signature strength in the lineup, they more than make up for it with balance and depth. The team exploited that depth this season when they moved slugger Matt Carpenter to second base, and he’s shown a fine aptitude around the bag. They also have slugging rookie reserve Matt Adams cooling his heels on the bench. Moving Allen Craig from first to an outfield corner would create playing time, but with Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday manning those spots, there’s little room to cram everyone into the lineup. If there’s one thing the Cardinals lack, especially with Furcal out, it’s speed. They’re last in the league in steals and stolen base attempts, a far cry from the days of Whitey Herzog and Vince Coleman. Still, the Cards’ offense could be primed for a big second half once Holliday and third baseman David Freese start slugging the way they can.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in the NL)
Few clubs can contend with a healthy Cardinals starting rotation. Wainwright has undergone a remarkable transformation since completing his recovery from 2011 Tommy John surgery. This year, he’s drastically cut his walk rate while pushing his strikeout rate to an eye-popping 24 percent. And right-hander Shelby Miller, building off a strong 2012 major league debut, is one of the leading candidates to snag Rookie of the Year honors. If there’s a concern beyond the injury to rotation regular Jaime Garcia, who is out for the year after having shoulder surgery, it’s the bullpen. After losing closer Jason Motte for the season, manager Mike Matheny sifted through multiple alternatives before settling on journeyman Edward Mujica to protect ninth-inning leads. Mujica lacks the pure velocity typically associated with a shutdown closer, but he uses his splitter to good effect. If he struggles, you can bet the Cardinals will be in the market for a closer at the deadline.

—Christina Kahrl

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