NLCS Preview - San Francisco Giants vs. St. Louis Cardinals

( - Death. Taxes. And the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.

St. Louis eyes its second straight World Series appearance and its third in the last four years when it kicks off the best-of-seven NLCS versus the San Francisco Giants on Saturday at Busch Stadium.

While the Cardinals are in this round for the fourth straight year and the ninth time since 2000, the Giants are certainly no strangers either and are back in the NLCS for the third time in the last five years.

In fact, it will be the fifth straight year that one of these teams will represent the National League in the Fall Classic. The Giants won the 2010 World Series, the Cardinals won it in 2011, the Giants did it again in 2012 and the Cardinals were in the 2013 World Series.

San Francisco defeated the Cards in the NLCS in 2012 en route to its title.

Since the wild card format came into play in 1995, more NLCS have been played with either the Giants, Cardinals or both (11 times) than not (9 times).

St. Louis, which won the NL Central with a 90-72 mark, made quick work of the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, defeating all-world left- hander Clayton Kershaw twice in the series.

The Cardinals erupted for eight runs in the seventh inning of Game 1 to pull out a win over Kershaw, before outlasting him in the Game 4 clincher, as Matt Adams' three-run homer in the seventh propelled them to a 3-2 win.

Kershaw had actually held St. Louis to just one run over six scoreless innings before it unraveled in the seventh. Amazingly, the Cardinals did not have the lead entering the seventh inning in any of the four games.

"You look at what these guys have been able to do, you take a Matt Adams and see his track record, and even though he didn't throw up huge power numbers this year, he has in the past and can," said St. Louis manager Mike Matheny.

Nobody put up big power numbers for the Cardinals this season, as they ranked last in the NL with just 105 home runs. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta led the team with 21 home runs, but only three other players managed to hit more than 10.

That hasn't been the case this postseason, especially for light-hitting third baseman and leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter, who had just eight home runs in a league-high 709 plate appearances during the regular season, but homered in each of the first three games against the Dodgers.

"I wouldn't say it was a struggle, but I never really hit a stretch where I felt like I was really hot," Carpenter said. "I would rather take it now than during the regular season. This is when it matters."

Carpenter, who was 6-for-17 with seven RBI in the NLDS, powered a Cardinals' offense that has hit seven home runs in the playoffs.

"We've heard a lot about that this season, our lack of home runs," Matheny said tersely. "It's nice to see them in big situations like this. We've got guys that can do it, but we're not preaching it."

Still, the Cards are led by ace right-hander Adam Wainwright, who will likely get the call in Game 1. Wainwright had another terrific season, going 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA.

Wainwright, though, didn't pitch particularly well in his Game 1 start (6 runs, 11 hits, 6 1/3 innings) versus the Dodgers and his health has been called into question, as he has dealt with arm issues on-and-off throughout the season.

"There's no question Waino has been fighting it," Matheny said. "I've not made that a secret, and neither has he. It's all going to come down to how he feels. The likelihood of him saying he can't go is very slim, but it is a possibility that something might not feel right."

No pitcher in baseball has thrown more innings since the start of the 2013 season than Wainwright, who has logged 508 (including the postseason).

"He's just been grinding," Matheny said. "And when you've been grinding, there are just days where you can't get it right. He was having trouble that Game 1. He's thrown a lot of innings. He's had a lot of work. But that's what your ace does."

The Cardinals will have flexibility to line up their rotation as desired behind him, as Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Shelby Miller will all be throwing on regular rest.

If Wainwright runs into trouble Michael Wacha could play a prominent role in this series. Matheny has opted to use last year's postseason hero in a relief role. That only strengthens one of the strongest back ends in the majors with Carlos Martinez and first-time All-Star Pat Neshek setting the bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal.

Rosenthal has continued to be a beast in October and has allowed just one earned run in 23 1/3 innings in his two playoff runs (19 games), while recording seven saves.

San Francisco, meanwhile, is back in this round for the seventh time after beating the NL's best team, the Washington Nationals, in four games to win its seventh straight postseason series dating back to 2012.

Washington had tied Game 4 on a Bryce Harper home run in the seventh inning, but the Giants went ahead to stay on a wild pitch in their half of the frame in the 3-2 win.

"They were determined not to get back on a plane and go to Washington," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of his team. "We couldn't quite put the game away but we kept fighting and when they tied the game we put pressure right back on them."

The Giants, of course, also beat Pittsburgh in the one-game wild card showdown last week, marking their seventh straight win-or-go-home victory under Bochy.

Like St. Louis, San Francisco doesn't rely on the long ball and managed to leave the yard just once in the NLDS. The Giants still struggle to score runs and managed just nine in the four-game set with the Nationals.

However, San Francisco did score eight in its wild card win over the Pirates. But the offense has been a problem for the Giants, particularly down the stretch, as they mustered a mere 44 runs over the final 15 games of the season.

"That's our way sometimes," Bochy said. "We scratch and paw for runs."

The return of Mike Morse could help. Morse has had just two at-bats since August 31 because of a left oblique strain but is 100-percent after being left off the first two playoff rosters for the Giants.

Regardless, the Giants are in this position because of their starting staff, namely left-hander Madison Bumgarner.

If there was no Kershaw we may very well be talking about an NL Cy Young Award for Bumgarner, who set career-high marks in wins (18) and strikeouts (219) and pitched to a 2.98 ERA.

That has carried over into the postseason, as he tossed a four-hit shutout to beat the Pirates, but then absorbed the lone loss in the NLDS for the Giants, but only allowed two earned runs in seven innings.

He will be on regular rest if Bochy opts to use him in Game 1. And he should, as Bumgarner was also one of the best road pitchers in the league this season, going 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA in 18 starts away from AT&T Park. His shutout win in the wild card game also came as a visitor.

Bumgarner is followed by a pair of right-handed veterans in Jake Peavy, who was dominant in a Game 1 win over the Nats, and Tim Hudson, who shook off a disappointing second half to throw seven innings of one-run ball in Game 2.

"Guys find some way to get it done," Bumgarner said. "It's not always pretty, but regardless, we find a way to win."

The x-factor in this series, though, could be righty Ryan Vogelsong, who has become a very under-the-radar postseason stud for the Giants. With his terrific outing in Tuesday's clincher, Vogelsong became the only starting pitcher in MLB to allow one run or fewer in each of his first five career postseason starts (since 1903).

In fact, Vogelsong is just the second pitcher in postseason history to have five consecutive starts of allowing one or fewer runs (Curt Schilling: 6 starts from Oct. 21, 1993 to Oct. 31, 2001). He's also pitched to a 1.19 ERA in five postseason starts, with the Giants going 5-0 in those outings.

Giants' starters put up a 1.04 ERA against the Nationals, who hit .164 for the series.

"From starters all the way to relievers, they really executed pitches; didn't make many mistakes," said catcher Buster Posey, who was one of the few offensive stars for the Giants, hitting .398. "Thinking back to (Tim Hudson's) start specifically, I feel like a few of the hits they got were on pitches that came back to the middle. That's a good offense over there. That just tells you how dialed in our guys were."

The real MVP of the Giants NLDS win may have been reliever Yusmeiro Petit, who tossed six scoreless innings in the thrilling 18-inning Game 2 win. The Giants bullpen, spearheaded by closer Santiago Casilla, pitched to a 1.86 ERA in the NLDS and struck out 18 batters in 19 1/3 innings.

The Giants took four of their seven meetings during the season with the Cardinals, outscoring them, 30-20. The teams, though, haven't played since July 3.

San Francisco has played the Cardinals three other times in the playoffs. St. Louis edged the Giants in a thrilling seven-game series in 1987, but San Francisco has beaten the Cards both in 2002 and 2012.

PREDICITION: Could there be more of an evenly matched LCS than this one? These teams almost mirror each other and they know each over very well. Neither hits a whole lot, they are both led by tremendous starting staffs, backed by two of the best catchers in baseball, and their bullpens are almost identical. On paper, at full strength, this is a toss up. But, I don't think St. Louis is at full strength. Wainwright is hurting. Something is up with that arm. So much so that Matheny hinted that he may have turned to Lynn in a potential Game 5 in the NLDS. Maybe Lackey steps up and fills the role of stopper for the Cards, but I have more faith in the Giants staff overall. And, of course, I buy into the Giants even-year thing.