Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright won't pitch until Game 3, so Wacha assumes a more critical role. He starts Game 2 with Cy Young Award favorite Clayton Kershaw pitching for the Dodgers. Wacha kept his team alive in the last round, beating the Pirates 2-1 to force Game 5. He flirted with a no-hitter and struck out nine batters in 71/3innings. That was a continuation of his brilliant second-half work: a 3-1 record with a 2.11 earned-run average in 12 appearances, including six starts. He never has faced the Dodgers, so they will see his lively fastball and devastating change-up for the first time.
He became one of the league's MVPs this season, hitting .323 as the lead-off batter with a .398 on-base percentage. He held his own against lefthanding pitchers, hitting .294 against them. But Carpenter slumped at the end of the regular season, going one for 14 in his last four games. The struggle continued into the NLDS, in which he went one for 19 with six strikeouts. He finally looked like his old self in Game 5, lining a would-be extra base hit down the left field line. But Pirates outfielder Starling Marte robbed him with a diving catch. Was that a sign that he could break out against the Dodgers?
"Kozmania" suddenly returned during the NLDS round against Pittsburgh as he went four for 10 with a double and an RBI. He regained the job he lost while hitting just .209 in June, .206 in July and .063 in August. But good fielding is paramount in postseason play and he outshines handyman Daniel Descalso at this position. Kozma ranked sixth among all MLB shortstops with eight "defensive runs saved" this season. If he can hit well enough to start, Kozma can make a big difference -- as he did with two brilliant fielding plays Wednesday night.
Allen Craig's untimely foot injury depleted the Cardinals' offense and left it even more vulnerable to lefthanding pitching. Freese could fill some of that void with more consistent hitting. In June, Freese hit just .224 with no homers, seven RBIs and an OPS of just .597. Then he drove in 26 runs through August and September while hitting safely in 11 of his last 14 games. Freese delivered a two-run double in Game 1 against Pittsburgh and a critical two-run homer in Game 5, reaffirming his value as a big-game producer. He is nine for 25 with 12 RBIs in seven games in which the Cards have faced postseason elimination.
Manager Mike Matheny could have come back to Lance Lynn to open the NLCS and match up against Zack Greinke. Lynn won 33 games the last two seasons and produced good home-field statistical splits. Or Matheny could have picked talented rookie Shelby Miller, a 15-game winner. But he went with Kelly, who allowed two earned runs in 51/3innings against the Pirates in Game 3. Kelly is more experienced than Miller and mentally tougher than Lynn, who allowed five runs in a sloppy Game 2 loss. Kelly is 1-0 with a 3.24 ERA in one start and one relief appearance against theDodgers this season.
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